Sunday, 29 September 2013

VERY LAST GREAT READS FOR SEPTEMBER, 2013
The Silver Star, by Jeannette Walls

Jeannette Walls is justly renowned for her wonderful memoir ‘The Glass Castle’, and her novelised version of her Grandmother’s life ‘Half Broke Horses’ (see February 2010 review below):  her third book is fiction, concentrating on the lives of two sisters, Liz and Jean Holladay, and their attempts to make a decent life for themselves – they are convinced that they can;  that nothing can bring them down – as long as they stay together.
They are the daughters of two different fathers.  Their mother Charlotte is a self-professed free spirit, going where the road takes her as a backup singer, songwriter and guitarist.  When the story starts 12 year old Jean, always nicknamed Bean, and 15 year old Liz are waiting patiently for their mother to return from several days away in Los Angeles looking for recording work.  They are used to her absences and can look after themselves reasonably well – for a time, until a series of adversities make Charlotte decide that she should have some  solo headspace ‘to get herself back on the right creative and spiritual track’ so that eventually they can continue being a merry ‘tribe of three’, for who needs anyone else when they have each other?  She just needs a little break. 
Except that Bean and Liz know that they don’t have their mother at all:  they can only depend on themselves, and when the authorities start taking an interest, they embark on the only plan they can think of:  a bus trip to Virginia where Charlotte’s estranged family live – the only relatives they know about for Charlotte would never discuss the girls’ fathers except to say that one was a wastrel and the other was ‘beneath her’.
Liz’s resourcefulness enables them to make the arduous journey from California to Virginia, there to arrive unannounced at the ancestral home and find that the rich family Charlotte had scorned and fled from in her efforts to find herself has entered a decline;  the big white house on the hill is decaying, the land around it run down and untended, the family cotton mill has been sold and their Uncle Tinsley Holladay has turned into a semi-recluse after the death of his wife Martha.
Such shocking realities would daunt most people and the girls are no exception, but for all his eccentricity Uncle Tinsley is a kind and decent man;  he takes his new-found and desperate nieces in, giving them some sorely-needed stability in their lives.  Bean makes contact with her father’s family  and life looks up – until they start looking for work so that they can buy themselves new clothes to start the coming school year.
And that is when this lovely story takes a nasty turn, for the only person to  employ them in such a depressed small town is a tyrant and an abuser who regards them as easy game, to be reeled in whenever he pleases.  It is only a matter of time before a chain of events is set in motion, causing the town to be divided and people’s loyalties tested along with newly-forged family bonds.  Liz’s courage and resourcefulness runs out, and Bean finds a much-needed bull-at-a-gate gumption and steadfastness that obviously comes from the other side of her family - for their mother proves yet again that when it really, really matters, she still has feet of clay.
For this reader, Ms Walls has done it again, creating in strong and lucid prose great characters and a wonderful account of the ties that bind – and those that tear us apart;  strengths and weaknesses that exist in every family, as we all know.  Highly recommended.


Half-Broke Horses, by Jeannette Walls

Jeannette Walls, long-time journalist and already well-known for her celebrated memoir ‘The Glass Castle’, wanted to write a memoir of her maternal Grandmother, Lily Casey Smith , but Lily turned out to be such a larger-than-life character, so singular and indomitable that writing of her in the third person fell flat on the page;  turning her story, all true, into a first-person narrative and therefore a novel, was the only way that Lily could leap satisfyingly off the print and into the reader’s mind and heart.  The prose is matter-of-fact, without frills, chronicling Lily’s life from the age of six in the early 1900’s when she helped her father break horses;  how her younger brother Buster got the only long-term formal education ‘because he was a boy and he would inherit the ranch’, whilst she and her sister were educated by Dad, who was well-read but had his own radical ideas about politics, government and civilization in general.  When she was thirteen she was allowed to board at a mission school for six months, but was sent home because Dad had spent her tuition money on eight Great Danes, from whom he was going to make a killing when he bred them;  sadly, his next-door neighbor shot them as soon as they ventured onto his land, thinking they would kill his stock.  Lily, naturally, was bitter that her tuition money disappeared so quickly, but was eventually dispatched at the age of fifteen to a tiny settlement in Northern Arizona as its teacher.  The First World War had started;  able-bodied men were enlisting;  women were moving into the factories, so she was offered a job as a relief schoolteacher at Red Lake, five hundred miles from her home, a journey she undertook on horseback without a backward glance.  It took her a month, and this reader is still in awe of her accomplishment, written about not as a huge, brave undertaking, but just as a statement of fact:  this was how it was ‘back in the day’.  In the course of Lily’s life she learned to drive a car, fly a plane, manage a huge ranch in Arizona with her second husband (the first was a bigamous, low-down  no-gooder), and led the kind of life that makes us city-slickers quake at the mere thought of the hard work, hardship and privation.  She was a woman of huge heart, unshakeable conviction, great humour and rigid opinions, particularly about her daughter’s choice of a husband:  ‘You need a steady man.  He ain’t steady.  What are you going to do for a honeymoon?’
‘Oh, I don’t know – we’ll go where the road takes us.’
  ‘Well honey, you’re in for a ride.’  And eventually had to wave them off as ‘they took off off up the street, heading out into open country like a couple of half-broke horses.’

Magic.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

YET MORE GREAT READS FOR SEPTEMBER, 2013

The Son, by Philipp Meyer

What a privilege it was to read this book.  It is a novel in the grand style, epic in every sense.  Chris Cleave, a writer I much admire, stated in the jacket notes that it should come with its own soundtrack, and all who read this wonderful story will know exactly what he means, for this is a great family saga couched in the birth and tumultuous history of Texas, that wild land won from Mexico in a bloody war and proclaimed a State in 1836, the year Eli McCullough is born.  He is the younger son of a settler who also doubles as a Ranger, protecting with his companions and neighbours their fledgling properties from rustlers and no-goods – mostly Mexican, or those bloodthirsty Comanche.
In 1849 when Eli is 13 and his father is away Rangering, Comanche attack the McCullough farm, raping and butchering Eli’s mother and elder sister and kidnapping Eli and his brother Martin.  White captives are as good as money in the bank to the Comanche:  when times are hard they can always ransom them back to the palefaces.  Martin, scholarly and introspective, does not survive the arduous trip back to the tribal village, but Eli is made of something stronger;  he not only survives but embraces all that is fair and good about his captors and stays with them until the smallpox kills those he most loves and starvation forces the rest of the band to ransom him back to the nearest white outpost.
Eli is the patriarch of this story.  He narrates his own sections of the book with a verve and gusto missing from his son Peter, also a narrator through his journals.  Peter sees himself as a man of lofty and noble principles when compared to his father – but he cannot help noticing that all their Mexican vaqueros would follow Eli through hellfire but never for Peter would they show the same devotion.
His principles are put to a terrible test and found wanting when his father and  friends mount a punishment for cattle-rustling that turns into a massacre of his nearest neighbours, a family descended from Spanish nobility.  This crime reverberates through succeeding generations, becoming the metaphor for the dog-eat-dog ruthlessness of the early founders of the Lone Star State, and the tipping point for Peter who is forced to realise several bitter truths about himself that he finds intolerable to live with.  He becomes the Family Disgrace and is never mentioned by future descendants, most notably J.A. McCullough – Jeannie, a determined chip off the old Eli block, driven to succeed and thus earn the respect of her male counterparts in the Oil industry.  Sadly, this seems to be an unattainable goal:  her femininity will always bar her from that exclusive club of Good Ole Boys and she is fated to end her long life contemplating her many life regrets, chief among them being that she could never be A Son.
Mr Meyer has written a great novel;  a story as austere and beautiful as the country itself, with colourful characters as flawed as the times -  especially Eli, that small brave man who becomes a titan of Texas history, a ruthless murderer to his son Peter, but a man who would speak the truth at all times – and who knew the truth about himself and was not afraid to live with it.
And Chris Cleave is SO right:  this is where great rolling, crashing musical chords by John Williams or Howard Shore should knock us off our feet:  this epic demands nothing less.  ‘The Son’ should become a contemporary American classic.  Very highly recommended.

Let Me Go, by Chelsea Cain.

They’re back again – burnt-out but brilliant Detective Archie Sheridan, his nemesis the evil (but gorgeous) serial killer Gretchen Lowell, and Susan Ward, ex-reporter (she was sacked) and surly freeloader at her Hippie Mum’s house (just for a short time.)  Ms Cain’s five previous books in the series have had all the successful ingredients for the perfect thriller:  smart plotting, lashings of suspense, credible characters, and black humour to burn:  it is a recipe that can’t fail – can it?
Well, this time I think Ms Cain has missed the bus.  It’s not that this reader grew tired of Archie and Gretchen et al;  it’s just that this time around it seems that there are no new ideas.  There is a distressing sameness, a tired, here-we-go-again familiarity with plot twists and turns that in all other books (see December 2012 review below) seemed fresh and new;  now the reader, instead of being pleasurably excited merely thinks ‘Oh, for Heaven’s sake:  get on with it!’
And that’s a shame, for Ms Cain is a clever, witty writer;  she can evoke atmosphere and dread with the best of them: sadly, in this story suspense takes a back seat.
Gretchen has escaped – again – from custody.  No-one knows where she is and Archie is being kept out of the loop on any relevant developments by his friends and colleagues, who know what a destructive hold she has on him.  It’s for his own good – at each meeting she keeps on removing important bits of his anatomy – there’s not much left!  Archie’s marriage is over (now that’s a surprise) and he has embarked on a new affair, strictly physical with his neighbour downstairs.  Who is a Gretchen lookalike.  Right.  Susan, who harbours strong feelings for Archie (and what woman does not, despite his lack of a spleen and multiple scars (one in the shape of a heart) compliments of Gretchen) has been invited to a very posh party given by her boyfriend’s hugely rich and powerful drug-dealer father, there to be kept against her will in spite of FBI surveillance.  Archie also has an invitation and who should be there but Sex Bomb serial slasher Gretchen – oh, everyone turns up;  it’s quite a party and the plot thickens at an alarming rate;  in fact the plot moves so rapidly and so many new, minor characters are introduced that the story takes on a Keystone Cops quality.  Suffice it to say that blood runs freely, bodies (mostly killed very messily by Gretchen) litter the landscape and the good guys escape by the skin of their teeth:  predictably, so does Gretchen which naturally means that there will be book number seven.  This could be a bridge too far for this reader;  much as I have loved the previous stories I think Gretchen and Archie should settle their differences – kill each other or move on!
   
Kill you Twice, by Chelsea Cain.

This is the fifth novel in Ms Cain’s series of the battle of wills between Super Detective Archie Sheridan, brilliant but damaged White Knight in the fight against evil, personified by gorgeous serial killer Gretchen Lowell.
Not much has changed in Ms Cain’s plotting armoury:  yet another crazed killer is on the loose in Portland Oregon, despatching victims in new and hideous ways, and this time leaving not a single clue for Archie and his dedicated task force.  It becomes increasingly clear (especially as Gretchen sends him tantalising messages from the mental hospital where she is now incarcerated) that he will have to consult the fiendish Ms Lowell in a bid to find out more about the killer:  it takes one to know one, as they say.
Archie survives the meeting – just;  as the awful Gretchen was heavily drugged and restrained his physical health was not endangered, but oh, what about his head:  it was nearly done in!  Talk about fatal attraction – the old, dreadful chemistry is at work as always, and Archie must contend not only with that but also the determined advances of Susan Ward, irritating girl reporter, and a new and sizzlingly sexy occupant of his apartment building.  His problems with women appear to be endless – and baffling to the reader, because Ms Cain’s description of his physical appearance is less than kind:  one can only conclude, then, that his aftershave is irresistible.
Regardless, Gretchen’s information, supported by determined sleuthing from Ms Ward, moves the action along at a hectic rate.  Although she has unkindly characterised Portland as having more than its fair share of crazies, Ms Cain knows its topography well and is masterly at evoking atmosphere and suspense.  I defy anyone not to keep reading until they reach the end of this great page-turner, especially when Gretchen breaks out of the hospital, leaving a trail of corpses behind her (oh, she’s so resourceful!) and has one last, revealing meeting with Archie.  It has to be said that Ms Cain’s plotting is getting a little wild, but roll on, Book Six - I’ll be waiting!




     

Thursday, 12 September 2013

MORE GREAT READS FOR SEPTEMBER, 2013

The Cuckoo’s Calling, by Robert Galbraith
(pseudonym for J.K. Rowling)

Ms Rowling has been a busy girl, producing a new novel within a year of her first foray into adult fiction, ‘The Casual Vacancy’.  I was disappointed in that book (see November 2012 review below) but feel that this latest story has more meat on its bones, more to offer the reader in plot and characterisation – and certainly more optimism than ‘The Casual Vacancy’s’ singularly unpleasant storyline.
This time, despite a bewilderingly complicated narrative of events and a tendency at times to lay on the drama with a trowel, Ms Rowling has produced a very respectable thriller.
Cormoran Strike is the illegitimate son of a SuperGroupie and a notoriously hedonistic Rock Star.  The groupie died of an overdose, and Rocker dad is famously disinterested in any of his progeny.  Cormoran has had a predictably chaotic childhood but distinguished himself when he entered the military police arm of the Defence forces, winning a medal for saving lives in Afghanistan – and losing a leg in the process.
Since his medical discharge from the Army, life has been unkind to Cormoran:  the business he established as a Private Investigator is failing;  he has been kicked out of the flat and the life he had with his uppercrust girlfriend Charlotte;  he owes money everywhere; he is overweight, unfit, down and out – in short, he’s a big fat mess.
Enter Robin, newly engaged and working as a temp until she gets a job befitting her formidable skills as a SuperP.A.  She is sent by her agency to Cormoran’s office for two weeks, only to wonder why she is there when it is patently clear that Cormoran doesn’t have enough work – or means – to employ her;  plus he’s camping in his office because he can’t afford to stay anywhere else. 
Until an expensive-looking lawyer visits the next day to hire Cormoran’s services.
John Bristow is the adoptive brother of very famous super model Lula Landry, whose suicide three months before caused huge amounts of publicity world-wide – but Bristow refuses to believe that she killed herself:  she was murdered.  He will pay whatever it costs to prove that Lula would never take her own life;  he loved his little sister and he wants her killer brought to justice, and here is a hefty advance to set everything in motion.
Things are looking up!  Cormoran’s spirits rise with his bank balance;  there is now money in Petty Cash for Private Eye and Temp to have Tea and bikkies whenever the mood takes them, and an amazing change in his social status as Bristow arranges for him to meet Lula’s former friends and associates.  From being on the bones of his proverbial one day, he is dining and clubbing with the Beautiful People the next.
Ms Rowling writes well about the fashion world and the seamy side of beauty.  She has a great ear for dialogue and idiom – even Orstrylian gets a mention! – and she is very careful with her plotting.  She does tend to overwrite more than a little, though, one fine example being when Cormoran finally reveals to the killer that The Game is Up:  it takes sixteen pages, with the killer snarling at strategic points ‘where is your proof?’ and ‘you’ll never prove a thing!’ before finally lunging at our amputee hero with a knife, causing this reader to shriek  ‘and about flaming time, too!’ 
Wouldn’t you know though that Cormoran has a trick or two up his sleeve – not to mention a prosthesis next to his chair -  and all works out well in the end, causing us all to think that perhaps there might be another opus featuring Cormoran and Robin, both endearing characters in their different ways.
I shall welcome it if that’s the case but have a tiny request:  Ms Rowling’s characters were ‘besuited’ and ‘bejeaned’ more than once ( I am presently betrackpanted as I type) – could one hope that she finds a less irritating way in the next book to describe what her characters are wearing?  (Just asking.)

The Casual Vacancy, by J. K. Rowling

J. K. Rowling is known the world over for her wonderful Harry Potter series, one of the great morality tales of the last hundred years and the books that brought children back to reading.  She is a fitting companion to Tolkien and Lewis.  She is the deserving recipient of numerous prestigious literary awards and charitable causes and could rest easily on her laurels:  instead, she has produced her first adult novel, eagerly awaited by us all.
And it was hugely disappointing – at least for me.
We are in the land of the Muggles now.  There is no magic to transform us and bear us away to the delights and frights of Hogwarts;  there is not a vestige of humour to leaven the bleakness of Ms. Rowling’s plot or the singular nastiness of her characters;  everyone to a man (or woman) is morally bankrupt, and proud of it, and the ending is as tragic as the beginning.
Local counsellor Barry Fairbrother dies of a brain aneurysm in the car park of the Pagford Golf Club, where he and his wife were about to have dinner to celebrate their 19th wedding anniversary.  His shocking and unexpected demise means that there will now be a vacancy on the Pagford Parish Council, run as a mini-fiefdom by Howard Rollison, the local Deli owner.  He prides himself that he is the nearest thing to a mayor that pretty, picturesque Pagford has, and as soon as he installs his son Miles as Barry’s replacement they can both carry the vote to rid the village of the financial responsibility of The Fields, a dreadful housing estate that encroaches their borders, thanks to a land deal of fifty years before.  The Fields is full of lay-abouts, losers and junkies, and the particular eyesore that Howard wants to be rid of is the Addiction clinic which, because it is within their rural boundary, is Pagford’s expense to bear.  Howard never liked Barry anyway (because Barry was a product of The Fields);  good riddance to bad rubbish.
Howard is shocked to find that several other people, all for different reasons,  are eying the vacancy as well and have put themselves up for candidacy.   The ensuing election battle is the main impetus of the story, pitting various factions against each other and revealing secrets and sorrows that should have stayed hidden. 
The late counsellor Fairbrother is revealed as being more of a positive influence on everyone than at first thought, especially when his surviving friends and neighbours prove themselves to be much the lesser when it comes to the crunch of filling his very big shoes – not just on the council, but as a mentor to the local youth, particularly those from The Fields.  This is a very negative book – not because it is poorly written, (how could it be?  Ms Rowling has proved her literary credentials time and again) but because she doesn’t give the reader any hope that the bleak literary portrait she paints will ever change. 
Hope:  that vital and most cherished human emotion – the reader needs to feel hopeful of a better outcome in this story as much as in real life;  what a shame Ms Rowling doesn’t allow us that privilege.  Maybe it’s me and my yen for happy endings, but give me Hogwarts and its denizens any old time, for  Ms Rowling’s Muggles aren’t nice to be near.       



Thursday, 5 September 2013

GREAT READS FOR SEPTEMBER, 2013

Me, best bud Maureen, her brother Robert and schoolfriend Lorraine
My apologies for the long absence of my attention to this blog, but for the past few days I have been visiting Auckland – ‘The Big Smoke’! – for the 125th Anniversary of the founding of our primary school, now known as Freemans Bay Primary.  (No:  I wasn’t one of the founding members – how rude you are!)  When I attended in prehistoric times it was called Napier Street School, and because of its seedy location no-one told anyone they went there, much less resided in Freemans Bay – my Grandmother, with whom we lived, told everyone we lived in Ponsonby, whose boundaries started about a kilometre up the nearest hill.
Now, of course, the tables are turned:  one needs Big Bucks to live in what used to be The Slums.
The inner city has become very expensive real estate.
Needless to say, all the former pupils who rolled up had shopped till they dropped at the Big Bum and Tum Shop, waistlines had gone West and hair and teeth were in short supply, but what a great time we had – what a Gabfest!  My jaw will ache for a week, but what impressed me most was the welcome we received from the current pupils, all of whom were so well-mannered and courteous that we thought we were dreaming:  I was taken on a tour of the school buildings by Sacha aged 9, who was so engaging, open and confident that I’m sure he’ll end up being Prime Minister one day.  We were treated royally by everyone, especially the teaching staff over the course of the festivities, and I have to say that now that I’m home it has been very hard to settle back into the Old Routine.  It was especially good to have a few days off from trekking out in the early morning frost to feed the chooks, but we are now back to normal, so!
Let’s get down to business.
  
Blood and Beauty, by Sarah Dunant
The Borgias:  most hated name in Renaissance Italy;  a brutal family for brutal, desperate times.  Sarah Dunant weaves literary magic in her retelling of their lives, and while she is more sympathetic to them than most historians she does not shy away from the ruthless methods they employed to achieve their domination – all for the greater glory  of God and the Mother Church, naturally.
Spanish Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia wishes to be Pope.  He is currently Vice-Chancellor, so knows well the financial structure of the Vatican.  He is also enormously rich, thanks not only to his economic brilliance but his ability to play different factions against each other – and gain fat rewards for favours granted.  The Papacy is his when the old Pope dies, despite the fact that he, supposedly celibate, has a family of grown children, all of whom he loves with undisguised passion and pride.
The oldest son, Cesare, has been roped into the priesthood and is currently Cardinal of Valencia, a title that sits awkwardly with him but for the handsome income it brings him;  second son  Juan is married off to a member of the Spanish royal family (the Spaniards despite their deep and unassailable Catholic faith are pragmatists none the less:  they will accept a bastard into their holy ranks if it will give them more sway over their Italian counterparts), and Rodrigo’s only daughter Lucrezia is wed to an ineffectual member of the powerful Sforza family of Milan in a bid by the new Pope to shore up alliances against a possible French invasion.
Ms Dunant portrays Rodrigo and his family in bold strokes:  he is larger than life in every way, especially in his appetites and his enthusiasm and delight in his good fortune – all due to his profound faith in God and the Madonna, naturally.  Cesare is the ultimate warrior; he longs to subjugate all the squabbling Italian states, bringing them all under the Vatican umbrella and thus under Borgia rule.  Lucrezia is little more than a pawn to be used in marriage with prospective allies and before long an annulment of her union with her treacherous Sforza husband is quickly arranged (his family welcomed the French into Milan with open arms) so that she can be married to the illegitimate son of the King of Milan.
Fortunately for the reader, Ms Dunant provides a family tree of all the noble families who had the misfortune to enter into liaisons with this most dreaded clan and I referred to it often;  the various changing alliances confused me greatly and I still can’t believe how everyone at some time spoke with forked tongue:  the adage ‘keep your friends close, but your enemies closer’ must have been invented especially by the Borgias – except that they had no friends nor need of any.  They had each other.
Ms Dunant’s novel covers eight years of their ascent and consolidation of power and she promises an eventual sequel.  What a pleasure it will be to read;  she writes with charm, wit and a beauty of language that make her characters leap off the page:  highly recommended.

Shadow, by Michael Morpurgo                        Junior Fiction

This is the third book I have read by Mr Morpurgo and he impresses me as much as ever:  in each book is a lesson for children,  couched lovingly in an adventure which is always based on fact -  both the lesson and fact being that war anywhere in the world is The Great Destroyer, a vain conflict that decimates populations and ruins countries, and wars fought in the name of religion are the worst of all, for religious fanatics are always absolute in their belief that their cause is just, righteous – and the only way to live.  Everyone must follow the Way, or die.
Aman and his mother are living in a cave in Afghanistan.  They have been driven from their home by the Taliban who murdered Aman’s father for not being properly respectful, and they lead a hand-to-mouth existence. When a shivering, wounded, filthy little dog arrives at the mouth of their cave one night Aman’s mother tries to drive it away – they don’t have enough food for themselves, let alone a mangy animal! 
But the dog won’t leave.  She stays just out of the range of missiles lobbed at her and gradually Aman comes to admire her determination to be friends.  He sneaks food to her, bathes her wounds and a true friendship is formed, and it is the dog  Aman names Shadow who eventually leads them away from the danger of the Taliban and after a series of frightening adventures to the safety of a British Army base, hundreds of miles from where they started – for Shadow is really Polly, a very special dog indeed, trained to sniff out IED’s – Improvised Explosive Devices – and the troops, particularly her owner Sergeant Brodie are overjoyed to see her again:  she went missing after a skirmish and they thought she had died – it is truly miraculous that she has found her way back to the base, bringing two refugees with her.

There are many facets to this lovely story, not least being the plight of refugees, not only in their own country, but the uncertainties they face of a new existence in their country of choice, in this case Britain, for Aman’s mother has a brother to sponsor them on their arrival.  Aman attends school for six years, making many friends before he and his mother are finally refused residential status, then sent to a detention camp before deportation to Afghanistan.  Mr Morpurgo pulls no punches: he writes baldly of the lack of humane treatment for refugees caught in the limbo of red tape and disinterest at immigration removal centres;  once again this fact is shamefully stranger than fiction but fortunately for young readers (and me!) Aman’s story ends happily.  Friends old and new rally to help him, including Shadow, and once again Mr Morpurgo has written a heartwarming story for us all to enjoy.  Highly recommended, as always.