Friday, 26 December 2014

THE DECEMBER FIRST FIFTEEN!

2014 – not long now before this year fades into history and we will be greeting a brand new year:  here at Te Takere, our beautiful library and community centre in Levin, New Zealand (check out our Facebook page), the staff and volunteers (that’s me!) wish you a most happy and healthy 2015 and, in common with all the (marginally) more well-known lists of what’s currently hot in the world of contemporary fiction, I present for your entertainment MY list of the very best books I have reviewed this year:  MY FIRST FIFTEEN.  They are not in order of preference, but in date order as I reviewed them;  the full review of each title can be accessed on that month’s posting.

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt   reviewed January

My Notorious  Life, by Kate Manning   reviewed April

The Blind Man’s Garden, by Nadeem Aslam  reviewed May

The Enchanted, by Rene Denfeld   reviewed June

Prince of Fools, by Mark Lawrence   reviewed June

He Who Kills the Dragon, by Leif G.W. Persson  reviewed July

Love and Treasure, by Ayelet Waldman   reviewed August

Remember Me Like This, by Bret Anthony Johnston   reviewed August

The Guts, by Roddy Doyle   reviewed September

The Secret Place, by Tana French   reviewed September

The Giver, by Lois Lowry    reviewed (finally!) October

The Drop, by Dennis Lehane   reviewed October

The Wolf in Winter, by John Connolly   reviewed  November

All the Light we Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, reviewed November

Revival, by Stephen King   reviewed December.  (See below)

If I had to nominate top titles, then it would be a toss-up between Donna Tartt’s ‘The Goldfinch, and ‘All the Light we Cannot See’ by Anthony Doerr, both masterworks of modern fiction, followed by ‘The Enchanted, by Rene Denfeld.  How lucky are we to enjoy such peerless writing, but the same can be said of all the titles on the list, and how lucky are we that we have such great titles in the library stock, readily available to all.

Revival, by Stephen King.

One of the secrets of Mr King’s enormous success as a writer is that his protagonists are the usual flawed, everyday people that we can all identify with -  then he unleashes his soaring imagination and has unbelievable things happen to them, and part of his huge talent is to make the reader believe utterly in the credibility of his plotting.   I am constantly amazed at the unflagging energy that he possesses to produce a new book each year;  each one completely different, and each one – if that is possible – better than the last. ‘Revival’ is the latest addition to this enormous body of work, and yet again Mr King takes us on a journey that we would rather not make, but find impossible to resist.
Jamie Morton is six years old in 1962 when he first meets young Methodist minister Charles Jacobs who has come to the Morton’s small Maine town as a replacement.  Like every other Methodist in town, Jamie and his family are charmed by Charles, and all the young boys are in love with Mrs Jacobs because Mrs Jacobs is gorgeous – ‘youth was her makeup’ and it makes her glow.  The reverend and his wife also have a sweet little five-year-old boy, Morrie, and appear to be very happy with their new placing. 
When the reverend isn’t occupied with his pastoral duties he indulges himself in an unusual hobby:  a big interest in electricity - not its obvious power to heat or to light the surroundings but most of all, a belief in its power to heal.  He is convinced that eventually electricity will be used for curing all kinds of illnesses, even the hopeless cases.  Jamie is not convinced:  he thinks the reverend has his wires crossed – God figures out who should be healed, not electricity! 
As time passes, Jamie comes to love and admire the reverend, as do most of his congregation – until a shocking tragedy occurs which transfixes the whole town:  reverend Jacobs loses his wife and son in a terrible road accident,  causing him to lose his faith and to preach one last homily ‘The Terrible Sermon’ in which he professes his rejection of God and all religion.  The townsfolk are stunned and Charles Jacobs disappears from Jamie’s life forever – he thinks.  But as the years go by and his life path takes several bad turns, it is Jamie’s fate to meet up with the reverend again – whether he wants to or not.
By the time Jamie has reached his lowest ebb, the reverend Jacobs has become Dan Jacobs, carnival trick photographer, masterly at relieving ‘rubes’ of their money;  regardless, he is still there to help and ‘heal’ Jamie when his need is most desperate:  when Jamie sees him again many years later, Dan Jacobs has become Pastor Danny, renowned faith healer, dispenser of that good old fashioned hallelujah religion he scorned and rejected after the deaths of his beloved family – but scarily, many of his professed cures appear to work.  Notwithstanding, Jamie knows from his own experience of being ‘healed’ that there are vicious and inexplicable after-effects.  If he investigates his old friend further and tries to stop more ‘cures’ and electrical experiments, will he have a tiger by the tail?
We are all propelled inexorably towards the last terrible electrical ‘cure’, the object of the reverend’s lifelong quest to speak to his dead family once more, and I have to say (cynic that I am) that I found the climax to be the weakest part of an otherwise superb story.  Various allusions to Mary Shelley and her masterwork were clumsy and the monsters who made an appearance caused me to quake with laughter rather than fear – but, hey!  After 400 pages, Stephen King only fell at the last hurdle:  most times he wins the race.  (see July 2014 review below).  STILL highly recommended.

Mr. Mercedes, by Stephen King

Former Detective K. William Hodges is nearing the end of his tether.  Since he retired from the city Police Force, life has lost its edge;  there is nothing meaningful to relieve the boredom of his days, most of which are spent watching inane TV shows, eating junk food and drinking too much. 
Some days are worse than others:  on those days he contemplates suicide and sits in front of his TV with his father’s gun by his side – until the day he gets a letter, purportedly from a man who mowed down a line of job seekers in a stolen Mercedes, a case that was still unsolved when he retired.
The letter writer seems to know a lot about Bill Hodges, including details of his first name (Kermit); information about his farewell bash (it was a drunken riot of fun!); and even more chilling:  insider knowledge of Bill’s suicidal thoughts.  Is this monster a mind-reader?  How does he know so much? 
The general tenor of the letter is designed to increase Bill’s feelings of worthlessness, to push him into that last act with his father’s gun:  ‘it would be too bad if you started thinking your whole career had been a waste of time because the fellow who killed all those Innocent People ‘slipped through your fingers’.
But you are thinking of it, aren’t you?  I would like to close with one final thought from ‘the one that got away’.  That thought is:
F--- YOU, LOSER.
Just kidding!
Very truly yours,
THE MERCEDES KILLER.’

Once again, Mr King takes the reader into the dark places of minds and hearts with his usual effortless skill.  In this latest opus there is nary a hint of the supernatural for which he is so famous; not a spectre in sight:  instead he writes of the monsters that contemporary society creates who walk among their unsuspecting victims disguised by spurious normality -  as here, where the Mercedes killer is revealed early in the plot as Brady Hartfield, dutiful son of an alcoholic mother and hard worker at two jobs, one as a computer technician, the other driving an ice cream van.  What could be more normal; (even a little sad – the sacrifices that boy makes for his mother!) he works super hard at blending in with everything and everyone – why, he’s practically invisible!
But not infallible.  Contrary to his expectations, his letter has given K. William Hodges (Det.Ret.) a huge boost;  the depressive clouds have parted – his mind, always keen, has something to grapple with again:  start playing the game, Mr Mercedes.  Let’s see who wins!
As always, Mr King provides his main protagonists with great supporting characters, in this case Jerome, Bill’s 17 year old lawn and odd job boy – who just happens to be black, highly intelligent and a computer whizz – but not half as whizzy as Holly, a true PC Maestro who unfortunately is plagued with ‘issues’.  They are Bill’s doughty assistants.  Their dialogue is perfect, crackling and comic (how I wish I could remember some of those one liners!) but it never distracts us from the horror and creeping suspense of a great story.  Mr Mercedes is going to strike again.  But where?  When?  And can they stop him?
Stephen King has once again held a mirror up to contemporary society, and it shows a chilling image, one that is very hard to look at.  Highly recommended. 

                 





Thursday, 4 December 2014

LAST GREAT READS FOR NOVEMBER,2014

The Wolf in Winter, by John Connolly

The town of Prosperous, Maine lives up to its name.  Founded in the eighteenth century by persecuted religious fugitives from England, the settlement grew and gradually flourished, whilst still retaining quaint old buildings (why, they even brought their own church with them to assemble, brick by brick!) and  customs.  The town is still governed by a hereditary council of Selectmen, all descendants of the original inhabitants and, while displaying courtesy to all who come to visit such a picturesque place, it will be eventually noticed that Prosperous does not welcome new people to live within its limits:  Prosperous keeps to itself.
            Until the apparent suicide of Jude, a homeless man who visited the town searching for his daughter, brings private detective Charlie Parker looking for answers:  while it is hardly unusual that a man of the streets would want to end his life, the method of death feels wrong, especially when Charlie checks into Jude’s movements in the days before his death.  Jude had helped Charlie in the past;  it is now up to Charlie to do the right thing.  If Jude’s death was indeed suicide, was it because of his daughter?  Is she dead, too?  And if so, why?  How?
Yet again, Mr Connolly draws the reader into the web of Charlie’s latest dark adventure.  In modern Man of Sorrows Charlie Parker and his two murderous sidekicks Louis and Angel, Mr Connolly has created three unforgettable protagonists – and their enemies are legion, especially The Collector, a self-appointed avenging angel of righteousness, dedicated to ridding the world of those so evil that no lawful punishment is fitting enough. 
Charlie, Angel and Louis have undergone more than one baptism of fire in preceding books to seal their bonds of friendship and loyalty, but when they face the chilling mystery that is Prosperous, one of their number is so grievously wounded that, even as this great book comes to a close it is impossible to guess if he will survive, let alone appear in a sequel.
I take my hat off to Mr Connolly, first of all in praise of his wonderful literary skills:  there are many writers who tell great stories but there are few who write with such clarity and elegance.  And it takes a rare talent to make the supernatural element of every Charlie Parker story so credible, and all the supporting characters so real that they are itching to step off the page and do us harm.
That said, how long will it take Mr Connolly to produce his next book – will there be a next book, with the life of one of the Three Dark Musketeers hanging in the balance?  It’s a big worry, one that I hope will be removed soon.
In his acknowledgements at the conclusion of ‘The Wolf in Winter’, Mr Connolly thanks his readers for continuing to read ‘these odd little books’.
As if we could stop.  AS IF!!  Highly recommended.

All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr.

Werner and Jutta Pfennig are orphaned when they are very small;  they live a precarious existence in 1930’s Germany at Children’s house, an orphanage in a mining town outside Essen in the Ruhrgebiet.  Despite their deprivation they are happy in each other’s company and secure in the love of Frau Elena, who keeps home and hearth together, caring selflessly for each child left with her.
            Both children show an aptitude and intellectual curiosity beyond their years, Werner for Radio Mechanics (he builds a radio out of next-to-nothing at age eight) and Jutta for Art.  As she grows, Jutta is increasingly disturbed by what she sees happening in her country and is inclined to voice her relentlessly logical opinions of the new order at all the wrong times.  Werner is more cautious, especially when he earns the opportunity to attend a school for gifted boys:  he hopes Jutta will keep her mouth shut so that his prospects of bettering himself won’t be ruined.
            Marie-Laure lives in Paris with her father, Daniel.  She became blind at the age of six and relies completely on him to show her ways through her sightless world.  He is a locksmith and safebuilder and has charge of all the locked, precious places of the Museum of Natural History;  six days a week they rise early to go to his job, and while he works, Marie-Laure gets an education from various Professors, all eager to impart their specialised knowledge to a child whose attention is absolute, enhanced by sound and touch, undistracted by extraneous images.
            In 1940 the prospect of the German invasion of France becomes a terrible reality:  the Museum sets about hiding its most priceless possessions elsewhere, for it is well-known that the Nazis wish to plunder the museums of Europe to fill their own galleries with ‘appropriated’ treasures – those that Göring does not want, of course.  Marie-Laure’s father is given the task of smuggling the Museum’s most prized gem, ‘The Sea of Flames’ out of Paris to a safe location at Evreux:  tragically, everyone else is fleeing Paris ahead of the Germans at the same time – what should have taken hours takes days, and when Daniel and his exhausted, sightless child arrive at the Chateau where he thinks he can at last leave the huge responsiblility the Museum has given him to someone else, they find everything looted, ransacked and ruined.  The owners have fled.
            Instead of returning, minus the precious gem, to their apartment in Paris, they are forced to seek shelter at St. Malo on the Breton Coast.  Daniel’s great-uncle lives there in seclusion;  his experiences in the Great War have made him a recluse but he provides shelter and stability for the fugitives at a time when they need it most – until August, 1944 when war and death come to St. Malo , as it did everywhere in France.
            Werner, meantime, has found that the school in which he centred all his hopes for the advancement of a scientific career is more interested in producing the perfect Aryan soldier, and despite excelling in his chosen subjects – and witnessing acts of brutality and sadism against his gentle, principled best friend – he is not sent to Berlin for further education as he had hoped, but sent to the front instead.  Germany is losing the war and they need every able-bodied man or boy that they can find.  Werner’s disillusionment is complete:  he now sees what his sister Jutta saw with such clarity nearly a decade ago.  As he and his radio unit limp into St. Malo in August, 1944 he despairs for his dashed hopes, his foolish dreams of a distinguished life of science:  eighteen years old and his life looks like it will soon be over before it has even begun.
            Mr Doerr writes of the parallel lives of Marie-Laure and Werner with dazzling skill;  such are his talents that each time we leave one character we are regretful – until we are swiftly bound up in the life of the other.  At no time does his story descend into sentimentality, nor is one country condemned more than another;  instead he writes of human nature:  kindness, greed, nobility, brutality, and the familial love that binds most things together:  the very glue of humanity – until war rips everything apart.
            This book is very special.  Mr Doerr makes his words sing.  Highly recommended.    








                

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

MORE GREAT READS FOR NOVEMBER, 2014

One Kick, by Chelsea Cain

For the myriad fans who have read every book in the Archie Sheridan/Gretchen Lowell series, Chelsie Cain needs no introduction:  she is an acknowledged master of the suspense genre, expertly following each rule of the formula:  a courageous, damaged protagonist;  a possible romantic interest surrounded in mystery – but with exceptional qualities;  some really sick but diabolically clever villains;  and a strong cast of credible supporting players.  After six successful books in the ‘Heartsick’ series, Gretchen and Archie should really disappear into the sunset:   for this reader their love/hate affair has lost its oomph, and it is time for a change.  Ms Cain does not disappoint.
In ‘One Kick’, Ms Cain’s protagonist is Kit Lannigan – who prefers to be called Kick, needing a point of difference however small, from her given name, famous as it is, for Kick was abducted by a child pornographer when she was six years old.  She was missing for five years until the FBI raided her ‘father’s’ farmhouse hide-out, unaware that a child would be secreted with him:  her miraculous survival and subsequent return shocks and thrills the nation.
It also brings its own set of problems:  the break-up of her parents’ marriage and the transformation of her mother into ‘the Kidnap Mom’, a cosmetically enhanced, frequent guest on daytime TV and author of a best-seller on the whole dreadful experience;  years of counselling and treatment for Kick from various therapists, many trying to give her the strength to appear on the witness stand to testify against her abductor;  and acknowledgement of the sad, brutal fact that she has no-one to rely on in this world but herself.
To that end, Kick tries to arm herself in every way she knows how:  over ten years she has become a crack shot;  she can pick locks with ease;  she is a diligent and successful martial arts student and a knife thrower supreme.  She has transformed herself into a killing machine – with an obsession:  to find other children who have been kidnapped, the children that still disappear with distressing regularity from playgrounds and their own back yards;  to restore them to their agonised parents, and to provide some ease to her aching heart by doing so.  Her life has little pleasure in it, except for the love she has for her old dog, and another wounded and damaged soul whom she rightly regards as her brother – after all, he has suffered the same abuse as she.
Then the proverbial Mysterious Stranger appears in her apartment (he’s a good lock-picker, too).  In an effort to find the latest missing children, he wants to pressure her to remember everything she most wants to forget:  the horrendous methods paedophiles use to abduct and imprison the most vulnerable;  the typical remote locations in which they are hidden, and the ways of making the children docile through terror.
Mysterious Stranger Bishop is one big question mark:  he has great wealth at his disposal;  he has solid contacts in the Police and FBI (not that they like him particularly) and he certainly has a personal agenda.  As his and Kick’s investigation progresses it is clear that he really enjoys being alone in a room with a trussed-up paedophile – and who would blame him?  Certainly not Kick, and one of the pleasures of this otherwise deeply disturbing story is the reluctant rapport that grows between them.  Ms Cain can effortlessly create very realistic chemistry between her characters, and despite the great tragedy of their backgrounds they are immensely likeable.  Because Ms Cain is such a fine storyteller the reader finishes the book with great regret, even though its theme was so distressing – as is reading of any cruelty towards children, but we are consoled by the news that Book Two will appear in August, 2015.  Fine by me!  Highly recommended.

This is Where I Leave You, by Jonathan Tropper

Mort Foxman has died a lingering, painful death from stomach cancer, diagnosed two years before after he finally visited the doctor because the Tums didn’t work.  His wife of forty years, a child psychologist and author of a bestseller on How to Successfully Rear Your Child, informs her four dysfunctional children that their father – an atheist – expected them to return to the family home to sit Shiva, a Jewish custom that entails staying in the house for seven days and mourning the loved one with family and friends.
            The siblings are horrified:  they haven’t spent time in each other’s company for years, and are quite comfortable with the fact that they are never ‘there for each other’, for each of them have fostered and petted various resentments and jealousies over the years, and whatever crap life dishes out to one is greeted by a certain amount of schadenfreude by the others – not that they are actively spiteful – except when they are in a group, forced to sit Shiva together for SEVEN WHOLE DAYS.
            This wonderful little story is narrated by Judd, third child and second brother:  his world has recently collapsed after witnessing his beloved wife in bed and clearly having a great time (what kind of position is that?  We never tried that!) with Judd’s boss, a very controversial Radio Jock.  Judd is in the deepest, darkest depths of despair when he is summoned home.
            Wendy is the oldest child.  She has brought her financier husband and three uncontrollable children to mourn, taking over two bedrooms, one of which was Judd’s.  He is relegated to the basement, there to suffer the gurgling of plumbing, the hordes of stampeding elephants charging back and forth overhead, and unwelcome visits from Alice, wife of his oldest brother Paul:  Paul runs the family sports goods business and according to Alice is not focussing diligently enough on trying to start a family, something Alice longs for.
            Enter Phillip, (late, as usual) youngest and most irresponsible child, bailed out so many times for youthful ‘indiscretions’ (weed-farming was never really a goer) that it’s hard for his siblings not to make the sign of the evil eye when he appears.  He also brings with him a svelte, athletic, stable, grounded (all of those things and more!) clinical therapist and life coach Tracy whose only fault is that she is nearly twenty years older than he:  what could be more normal?
            Add Mum to the uneasily bubbling mix:  she has acquired breast implants and stiletto heels, hardly the basis for widow’s weeds:  the coming week in the Foxman household will be interesting indeed.
            And it is.  Mr Tropper has written a gem, a smart, funny and wise mini-saga  of family dynamics, and a laugh-out-loud account of what is also a heartbreaking week in the life of a family who, despite all their petty hatreds, will always love each other.  His great writing is proof (if we ever needed it) that laughter is indeed the best medicine – after we have swallowed the bitter pill.  ‘This is Where I Leave You’ has now been made into a movie with a stellar cast – Jane Fonda is mum! – I look forward to seeing it.  Highly recommended.           


            

Monday, 10 November 2014

GREAT READS FOR NOVEMBER, 2014
Summer House with Swimming Pool, by Herman Koch

This is not a great read, which is a shame, for Dutch author Herman Koch is a powerful writer, eminently capable at exposing his characters’ weaknesses and neuroses, as in his excellent ‘The Dinner’ (reviewed January, 2013 below).  He misses the mark badly this time, though he employs the same formula which was so successful with ‘The Dinner’.
            Once again, the story is narrated by a damaged individual who, on the surface is an eminently successful General Practitioner to the film and arts community of Amsterdam;  he has a loving wife and two young girls and an enviable social life, recipient of so many invitations to exhibitions and opening nights that the occasions have lost their pulling power and have become a chore.  He is the envy of many – until his narration of his private thoughts (particularly concerning his patients) reveal what a remorselessly uncompassionate  being he is.  Marc Schlosser is so contemptuous of his patients that he can hardly bear to touch some of them ‘and their damp, dark places’:  he has so little empathy for their various ‘self-induced’ illnesses that it is a perpetual mystery (to the reader, anyway,) as to why he ever decided to practice medicine in the first place.  Nevertheless, he has built up a wildly successful practice mainly through word-of-mouth advertising, for Marc allows twenty minutes (twenty minutes!  Anywhere else people are shown the door after five!) for each consultation, and is not above prescribing certain meds to ‘lift one’s mood’ before a big performance, or something to quieten one after the event.
            As his reflections progress further, we find that he loves his two girls – but would rather have had boys;  he is pleased that his wife Caroline is beautiful – but conducts affairs with those women ‘who have a certain look’;  he freely acknowledges that he is charming, but a narcissist would be a better description.  Marc Schlosser must surely be one of the most unpleasant characters in modern fiction.
            And because of his spurious charm, Marc is persuaded to spend time at the rented summer house of his patient Ralph Meier, an internationally famous Dutch actor and his family.  Ralph has also cast a lascivious eye on Marc’s wife who finds him ‘loathsome’.  To Marc’s horror, Ralph obviously wants opportunities to be ‘closer’ to her, but Marc and Caroline have been railroaded into accepting because Meier has two sons, perfect companions for his daughters:  the scene is set for trickery and deceit.
            Trickery and deceit duly occur – but so does a crime against Julia, Marc’s eldest daughter, that shocks everyone to the core, and Marc is sure he knows the perpetrator:  he will have his revenge, by a method that will be unique to a person of his knowledge and talents.  He succeeds in a way that is not entirely successful, but guaranteed to give him enormous satisfaction:  he is a happy man.
            But did he make the right person pay for this heinous crime – or the wrong one?
            There are no happy endings in this nasty little story, beautifully written though it is:  I found myself hoping with increasing wistfulness for Marc to show some humanity, empathy, any positive emotion but was doomed to disappointment. Sadly, Marc remains unredeemable, with his loathsome victim coming in a close second.     

The Dinner, by Herman Koch

On the front cover of this explosive little book a question is asked:  ‘How far would you go to protect the ones you love?’  The reader finds out soon enough as Paul Lohman and his wife Claire prepare to meet his detested older brother Serge and his wife Babette for dinner at a restaurant that has a three month waiting list:  naturally, Serge didn’t have to book three months in advance;  he is such a popular politician that the way is cleared for him wherever he wishes to go, for it is a foregone conclusion that he will win the next Dutch election.
Paul would be quite happy not to have contact with his brother at all;  he considers him a hypocrite and a boor, coarse and unmannerly, and it mystifies him that Serge is so popular -  ‘a man of the people’ –  worse still, he can’t bear to be witness to the wide-eyed admiration and fawning of staff and patrons in the restaurant.
Serge has arranged the dinner for a particular reason:  they must discuss their sons, 15 and 16 year old cousins who spend a lot of time together.  Recently, a  dreadful crime has been committed:  a homeless woman was burnt to death as she sheltered in an ATM cubicle, and the Netherlands is up in arms at the sheer ruthless brutality of the act.  The entire population is screaming for justice – a perfect opportunity for an astute politician to cement his already secure position as front-runner, turning  to his advantage the public’s horror at the barbarity of the crime.  Instead, Serge wishes to discuss with his family his retirement – for clips have surfaced on YouTube of the ATM cubicle;  though the authorities are as yet unaware, the boys are implicated in the country’s most heinous murder.  Serge’s son has confessed.
To read this beautifully constructed little horror story is to peel off layer after careful layer the veneers that people wrap around themselves in order to be respectable, happy, successful – normal?  And the criminal lengths they will employ to preserve the façade, and the survival of those they love.
Mr. Koch is adept at leaving the reader with more questions than answers;   what an excellent writer he is, helped most ably by his translator, Sam Garrett.
Canadian writer Anne Michaels once said that to read a novel in translation is like kissing a woman through a veil:  that may be true, but this reader (who must always depend on translators!) marvels at the ease and facility that  Mr. Garrett employs to make the words flow.  There wasn’t a veil in sight.  Highly recommended.

Fallout, by Paul Thomas

Detective Tito Ihaka returns (and not before time, too) in Paul Thomas’s latest great Kiwi crime novel.  Life has not improved greatly for Tito since ‘Death on Demand’ (April, 2012 review below):  he still has more enemies than friends at Auckland Central Police Station;  his romance is teetering on the edge of destruction;  his prospective new boss would love to get rid of him;  and he has just found out that his beloved dad (a maverick just like him, but a thorn in the side of the Union movement, as opposed to the police) may have been murdered instead of dying of a heart attack, as Tito and his mother always believed.
He has also been handed a 27 year-old cold case:  in 1987 a decent seventeen year-old girl was murdered at VERY posh party held at an exclusive Remuera address.  Ranks closed around the big names attending the party;  a wall of silence was so successfully erected that the police finally gave up bashing their heads against it – until Superintendent Finbar McGrail sics Ihaka onto the case;  McGrail has never been able to forget that he couldn’t make headway in finding the girl’s killer, and feels he owes it to her memory to solve the crime before he is forced into early retirement:  by his reckoning, Tito Ihaka is the man for the job.
Once again, Mr Thomas does an excellent job of  dotting i’s and crossing t’s – there are no loose ends in his convoluted but logical plot:  all is satisfactorily explained by the finishing page, and there are some interesting – and unlikely new allegiances forged in time for the next episode, which won’t be too long in coming, one hopes.
I know Mr Thomas is a busy boy;  he has a lot more strings to his bow than dashing off Tito Ihaka novels, but still!  That huge, Tell-that-to-someone-who-gives-a-f--- upholder of justice and the law is irresistible:  we need more anti-heroes like him.  He’s a babe!  Highly recommended.

Death on Demand, by Paul Harris

A prominent businesswoman is killed in a hit and run accident in posh St. Heliers;  a wealthy old Remuera matron dies in a mysterious fall at her home;  a partner in a publishing firm about to be sold is clubbed to death in Ponsonby, and a police informer is found dead at his  villa – also in Ponsonby.  Oh, the corpses are turning up in every Auckland suburb in Paul Thomas’s latest book, the first of his crime novels to feature detective Tito Ihaka in a starring role, and a lot of readers would say ‘and about time, too!’ 
Detective Ihaka is not known for toeing the line and keeping a low profile – well, he couldn’t because of hi s enormous  size -  but he managed to rub so many people the wrong way at Auckland Central, particularly because of his conviction that the St. Heliers hit-and-run investigation should be classed as murder, that he was exiled to the Wairarapa for five years.  Now, at the request of the dying widower of the late businesswoman, he has been brought back to hear What Really Happened.  The widower wants to confess.  It is as Ihaka always suspected:  Hubby hired a hitman, identity unknown, who carried out his orders most efficiently.  Oh, Ihaka could wallow  like a hippo in all the ‘I told you so’s’ but is content to let his superiors at Central try to clean the egg off their faces :  he wants to track down the hitman before any more contracts are undertaken, particularly as he has a nasty suspicion that he might be the next victim.
Paul Harris has constructed a very  competent and well plotted story;  all the loose ends are satisfactorily tidied away by the end of the novel, but the big attraction here is Mr. Ihaka, a singular character in his own right. The snappy, riotously funny dialogue is always a delight, and the sprawling, messy city of Auckland is portrayed so well that it made this reader (an old ex-Jafa) quite nostalgic.  This is the ideal airport or beach read;  I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying it.


Wednesday, 29 October 2014

MORE GREAT READS FOR OCTOBER, 2014

Dear Daughter, by Elizabeth Little

Janey Jenkins has been imprisoned for ten years.  She is serving a life sentence for the murder of her mother, a socialite famous for her wealth and many marriages.  Prior to her conviction, Janey was famous for being famous, a la Paris Hilton and whichever Kardashian one fancied;  now, she has lost ten years of her life and celebrity is the farthest thing from her mind – she is tortured by her memories of the last hours of her mother’s life;  the snarling, spitting fight they had (nothing new) and the fact that she can’t remember the act of killing her mother (even though she wished her dead many times), only the discovery of her body, and the blood, lots of blood, especially on herself.
            ‘An open and shut case’, the Police said, and so it was:  at the age of seventeen Janey was incarcerated.  Until now.  Her zealous lawyer Noah Washington has proved doctoring of evidence by the Police Department and Janey’s conviction has been overturned:  after ten years she is free!  Free to face the Press and Social Media in all its forms, including a particularly vicious blogger who wishes her dead – and soon.  Hiding out until the furore dies down (if it ever does) is the only solution;  at least the solitude in new surroundings, and internet access at last, will help her perhaps, to remember something – anything – significant of that last night of her mother’s life and the last night of Janey’s freedom, for there are tantalising wisps of recall that she clutches at, hoping to find more pieces of the puzzle.
            And she does, including discovery of the stunning fact that her mother was not Swiss as had always been believed, had not been born into fabulous wealth as the world thought, but had come from a dying mining town in South Dakota:  the time for Janey to travel to her mother’s birthplace has arrived.  It is time to solve the mystery of her mother’s early years and in so doing expose the reason for her murder, for much as Janey loathed her mother, killing her was not a solution. 
Oh, the plot thickens so well you could stand a spoon in it!  Ms Little’s debut novel is indeed a great read;  Janey, who narrates a story that rushes at breakneck speed, is a character that will stay with me for a long time – she’s sassy, loud, brave, hilarious – and recklessly stupid:  the reader spends a lot of the book admonishing Janey not to be just that, for Janey has endeared herself to all by the novel’s twist-in-the-tail ending;  we are all cheering her on, only to find that Janey’s celebrity has outrun her and will eventually be her downfall.
            Much as I would love to meet Janey again in print, the prospects look dim, but who knows?  ‘Stranger things have happened at sea’ as my old Granny would say, and a writer of Ms Little’s talent could surely conjure up a reason for Janey to grace us with her notorious presence again.  Here’s hoping.  Highly recommended.

The Giver, by Lois Lowry.              Teen fiction

This wonderful teen novel was first published in 1993 and it has now been made into a major film, starring Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep – there couldn’t be a more stellar endorsement.  Therefore it is presumptuous of me to add my little two-cent review to the screeds of praise, all fully justified, from august literary sources but I say with utmost respect (in the words of Lewis Carroll) ‘A Cat May Look at a King.’  So there, and here goes.
            Jonas is approaching his 12th year of life.  He lives with his father, a nurturer, his mother, a Justice department employee, and his sister Lily, who is approaching her 8th year of life.  They live in a Community, its rules and regulations rigidly followed, and everyone is fully cognisant of their position in life, and their life’s work – which begins after the Year 12 naming ceremony - their eventual selection of a spouse (by the Council of Elders);  their allocation of children (one of each gender);  their eventual relegation to Childless Adults when the children leave the family dwelling;  then the last stage:  the House of the Old, and eventual Release.  All decided by the Council of Elders.  All freedom of choice has been removed, but no-one cares, as this happened long, long ago – back and back and back:  no-one remembers any more what life was like when people decided their lives for themselves;  all they are aware of is that their lives are peaceful, benevolent and free from worry.  Life is also without colour, and most vitally, without familial love.  No-one has ever experienced it, so no-one knows what they are missing.
            Until Jonas finds out what his life’s work will be at his naming ceremony.  He will be the Receiver of Memories, from the Giver, the current holder of all the world’s memories, good and bad. 
            Initially, Jonas is enormously privileged by his new duties – until the Giver educates him in the pain of memory as well as its joys, and it gradually dawns on him that the eradication of remembrance of sunshine, warmth, colours, blue skies and most of all, the closeness of family, is even more heartbreaking than the memory of  pain, sorrow, heartache and sadness:  the more Jonas learns from the Giver, the more he longs to go somewhere where these emotions still rule – where people still have freedom of choice.
            Eventually, Jonas does make a choice – it is forced upon him by circumstances he never dreamt he would have to face, and his escape from the Community is the climax of this wonderful story, for he escapes not only from the security of a tranquil and ordered society, but the absence of choice, hope and love.
‘The Giver’ is the first book of a quartet – I can’t wait to read the next three books.  Lois Lowry has examined with lucid and beautiful prose the effects of a Dystopian society that are just as relevant today as in 1993.  How blessed we are to have such a writer in our midst.  I loved this book.  Highly recommended.

The Drop, by Dennis Lehane

Dedicated readers will whiz through this little gem, as I did, in no time flat.  Mr Lehane, as always, serves his readers well, this time with a novella that is bristling with hard men and dirty deeds, simultaneously leavening the cruelty with passages of such lyricism ‘that he could make a glass eye cry’ – oh, isn’t that a great old Irish saying?  But Irishmen are not the main players in this drama:  instead the action takes place in a run-down bar in Boston, managed for the Chechen Mafia by two Polish cousins.
            Cousin Marv used to own the bar (named for him) but he made some bad decisions and ended up selling out to the Chechens.  Story of his life.  Now he is the manager.  His cousin Bob Saginowski is the bartender and they rub along well enough – but only because they are family.
            Bob is a devout Catholic.  He goes to mass daily at the church that he has attended since he was a child, joining a few other faithful souls who realise  with the priest that the dwindling congregation cannot sustain the church for much longer.  The other members ( including a local detective ) wonder why Bob never goes to confession, and NEVER takes communion.  Bob is a mystery to everyone – not least himself, but he knows what his main problem is:  he is lonely;  hugely, heartbreakingly lonely.  If life doesn't look up soon, he’ll die.
            As though God has perceived his sadness, Bob hears a whimper as he passes a trashcan on the way home one night.  On further exploration he finds a beaten and wounded puppy scrabbling about in the bottom of the can, and as further evidence of a miracle, a girl who lives in the house (belonging to the trashcan – still with me?) makes herself known without taking any ownership or responsibility for the little dog.  Bob is so happy to suddenly have two friends in his life (two more than usual), that he doesn’t dare question the mystery of Nadia’s association with the beaten dog in her trashcan:  God, in his usual mysterious way, has answered his prayers at last.  It is now worth waking up in the morning.
            As Bob’s friendships progress to daily walks in the park with Rocco (he named the dog after the patron saint of dogs!) and Nadia – damaged in her own way as much as Rocco – Cousin Marv is ruminating on the myriad failures of his life:  he now lives with his spinster sister;  he has to pay for sex once a week at the local whorehouse;  and he has NO MONEY.  Something has to be done to alter the course of his miserable life for the better, so Marv decides on the ultimate act of betrayal:  to plan a heist of the Chechens’ bar on the night of The Drop, when all their criminal associates drop off their ‘takings’ from all over the city for the Chechens to collect at the end of the night.  Needless to say, he does not inform his cousin (Marv doesn’t like to share), but Bob suddenly has problems of his own:  Rocco’s original owner, the sadist who nearly killed that defenceless little animal, has materialised seemingly from nowhere – and wants his dog back.
Mr Lehane doesn’t spare the reader’s delicate sensibilities – every sentence packs a heavy punch, and every sentence does the work of ten.  What a great storyteller he is, as evidenced by the many successful movies made from his novels, including this one,  starring the late James Gandolfini – can’t you just see him as Cousin Marv?  ‘The Drop’ was a pleasure to read.  Highly recommended.
             

         

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

FIRST GREAT READS FOR OCTOBER, 2014

Passing Through, by Coral Watson
 
Christchurch, New Zealand, 1923:  the Great War, followed closely by the influenza pandemic has been over for five years.  Everyone has lost someone;  everyone is grieving, if not for brave husbands, sons or brothers lost at the front, then for family members taken by the ‘flu, especially the little children.
The whole world is suffering:  it has undergone savage, cataclysmic change and Christchurch and its citizens do not have the monopoly on sorrow, but they are as ripe for exploitation as anywhere else on the planet.  Spiritualism has come to town.
British ex-Army Captain Jethro (‘Ro’) Miller has decided to turn his talents to fleecing grieving widows of their savings.  He has hired a dilapidated hall (behind which he lives), and regularly attends unveilings of memorials to honour The Glorious Dead – there to introduce himself to likely targets by intimating that he may have known their husbands/brothers – ‘we were in the same regiment, don’t you know.’  The next step is to invite his target to a séance at the hall where his assistant, Miss Nan MacDonald, celebrated medium, will commune with the beyond through her spirit guides:  ‘You never know – this could be the day your Loved One makes contact!’
Naturally this is an offer that is impossible to refuse, and it is not long before one such widow, Louisa Craddock, has been lured to the séance and stunned by Nan’s revelations – for Nan really does possess The Sight.  She has never been more than a skivvy for most of her young life, but she can see the future – she even knew she would end up in con man Ro’s bed, as well as cooking, cleaning and foretelling the future, but she draws the line at using ‘aids’ to ‘enhance the atmosphere’ and keep the punters coming back week after week.  She is as honourable as Ro is not.
Which means that a parting of the ways is inevitable, and What Happens Next to these great characters is the meat and potatoes of this lovely book.  Ms Atkinson recreates New Zealand in the 1920’s with meticulous accuracy, right down to favourite foods, fashions and the wonderful slang that has long fallen into disuse – who calls anyone a drongo these days?  Or uses ‘grouse’ as a term of admiration?  Reading this great dialogue was like listening to my grandparents talk again, and just in case you think I am overcome with nostalgia (which is true!) Ms Atkinson has crafted a compelling story that is well plotted and beautifully written, with endearing characters who try to survive and make sense of their existence after world events have destroyed everything they held dear.
Last but not least:  if ever a cover could sell a book, it is this one.  A design project by students of Whitireia Institute, they have produced a cover and format that is quite simply stunning – which begs the question:  if this is what they can rustle up as students, what wonders will they achieve when they are employed in Publishing houses?  Highly recommended.

Edge of Eternity, by Ken Follett.

You need strong wrists to read this book.  I read the hard copy and it weighs 1.2 kg.  Never would a Kindle have been more appreciated, for that reason alone!  This is the third book in Mr Follett’s trilogy, following ‘Fall of Giants’ and ‘Winter of the World’ (see reviews below) – and the most unsatisfying.
            Despite the world-changing events his narrative covers, Mr Follett has pumped out 1098 pages ( surely he could have managed two more!) of mostly sterile prose that does little for the heart-stopping events he describes:  the long fight for civil rights in the United States during the 60’s, when the Kennedy brothers championed in ringing tones (Ich bin ein Berliner!) their opposition to the building of the Berlin wall and the imprisonment of one half of Germany at the whim of the Soviet Union, but could not manage domestic policy so that African Americans would at last have the  equality that Abraham Lincoln envisaged a century before;  the birth of Rock and Roll and feminism, not to mention Free Love and the violent opposition to the Vietnam War – yes, there is a rich vein of twentieth century contemporary history to mine and as before, Mr Follett has researched events exhaustively;  unfortunately, the formula he used so successfully for the first two books has failed him this time, mainly because his characters are lamentably two-dimensional;  they don’t have the gumption of their forebears:  where’s the fire in the belly?  Most of all, where is the credibility that transforms ciphers into people who live and breathe on the page?  Not happening here.  I was hugely disappointed.
            The story starts in 1961, and Mr Follett concentrates now on the grandchildren of the original families:  the infamous Lev Peshkov’s son Greg has fathered an illegitimate black son George;  throughout the story George gives the Negro perspective on Civil Rights and their lack;  Daisy, Lev’s legitimate daughter is now married to Labour MP Lloyd Williams, Ethel’s bastard son to Earl Fitzherbert (still with me?).  They have two children, Dave and Evie, who conquer the world, Evie as an acclaimed actress and Dave as a pop star.  They cover the sex and drugs and rock and roll years.  And Dave also has dyslexia, though in the 60’s it wasn’t recognised as a condition.  Mr. Follett is covering all the bases.  Trapped in East Germany are the grandchildren of Earl Fitzherbert’s sister Maud:  one escapes, also to become a pop star and drug Addict in San Francisco.  Those Flower Children had a lot to answer for!
Unscrupulous Lev’s big, responsible brother Grigori stayed in the Soviet Union, rising through the communist ranks and enjoying great prestige;  his grandchildren Dimka and Tanya are the vehicles by which Mr Follett charts the rise and terrible repression of the people under a dictatorial regime, and its eventual fall.  They both have at different times one or two pallid romances, neither of which bring their characters to life – and that is the glaring fault with this book:  how can such a tumultuous, rebellious time in our history be portrayed in such lacklustre fashion, especially when the first two books were the opposite.  Mr Follett has run out of steam.
            I admire Mr Follett’s diligence in chronicling world events of the last fifty years with accuracy and intelligence:  on that level he succeeds, but oh, for a bit of flair – a heartbeat.  That would be good.

Winter of the World, by Ken Follett
Reviewed January, 2013

Once again, the reader joins the five families introduced in the gripping first volume of Ken Follett’s trilogy.  The characters we met in ‘Fall of Giants’ (see 2011 review below) have all had children and it is they who take centre stage in this second book.  Once again the reader needs strong wrists and a firm grip – this is a whopper novel, in scope and sheer size, but as before, weight is unimportant as the reader is swept up on the tide of world affairs, the evil events that led up to World War Two, and the unimaginable suffering and privation of ordinary people as they endured the destruction of democracy and the end of the civilised and ordered  life they had always taken for granted.
It is 1933.  Walter von Ulrich and Lady Maud Fitzherbert are married and live with their two children, Carla and Erik, in Berlin.  They are horrified at the relentless rise of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party, and like many other concerned Germans, do their best to oppose his growing power, but to no avail.  Hitler is seen by richer citizens as being ‘good for business’ and by poorer folk as a saviour because he is creating jobs.  Fascism is gaining ground and they can do nothing to stop it.
Ethel Williams, the young housekeeper of Earl Fitzherbert’s Welsh mansion has produced a bastard son to him, and has made a new life for herself in London with her Jewish husband, Bernie.  Ethel has long held political ambitions and is now the Labour MP for her district in the East End.  Lloyd, her adored son, has no idea who his real father is and the Earl, a Tory MP, does nothing to acknowledge him, for he has a legitimate son, Boy, of whom he is most proud.  Who needs the bastard when you’ve got the Real Thing?
Lev Peshkov, the charming Russian petty criminal and escapee from St. Petersburg, has also made a new life for himself in Buffalo, New York – he is now an owner of Movie theatres, a film producer – and a regular user of the Casting Couch, in spite of having a long-suffering wife, Olga (mother of Daisy) and a mistress, Marga (mother of his son Greg):  He hasn’t let any grass grow under his feet!  And there are disturbing rumours that he has gangster connections and a gang of heavies to carry out his threats, rumours with enough substance to stymie the social asperations of Daisy, who has to flee to England where her substantial wealth will buy her admittance to the circles in which she wishes to move.
Grigori, Lev’s responsible older brother, has married Katerina, Lev’s pregnant girlfriend, and has raised Volodya, her son, as his own.  He is a leading light in the Communist party, though his ideals have become stunted as he watches worrying mistakes and shortcomings exposed in the day-to-day implementation of the dream that so many fought and died for.  But he is an optimist – Rome wasn’t built in a day!  Comrade Stalin will keep the ship on a steady course – won’t he?
Gus Dewar is now a Democratic senator in President Roosevelt’s government, and has two sons of his own.  His great dream is to reprise the idea of the League of Nations, rejected by the Wilson government in 1918;  he sees it as a way to stop the spread of fascism and to unite all nations in a bid to keep world peace.  Roosevelt is not receptive, however:  his New Deal is of paramount importance;  united nations will have to take a back seat for the time being.
Once again, Mr Follett sets the scene superbly for his cast to play their parts;  his calm and reasoned analysis of events leading up to the war and the reactions of his characters to the situations in which they find themselves is a high point of storytelling.  His accounts of the major battles fought on sea and land are superlative – and gripping:  this reader is usually prone to eye-glazing at the mere mention of strategy and tactics, but Mr Follett winds up the tension – and the heart rate effortlessly.  This is a page-turner on the grand scale – which is just as well, considering its length.  The only time that the story loses a little credibility is when Mr Follett writes romantically;  then his characters become two-dimensional and unconvincing – in other words, he can’t write love scenes:  he’s an action man, not a lover!  Regardless, I’m hanging out for the third book.  We went from 1933 to 1949 here;  as the second generation have all produced children I expect the last in the trilogy will feature the third generation.  I shall be waiting.  Highly recommended.



Fall of Giants, by Ken Follett
Reviewed 2011

I waited seven months to read Ken Follett’s latest Best Seller, such is his popularity with library members, and I’m happy to say that it was well worth the wait.  He may never scale lofty literary heights but what a good storyteller he is, and how credible are his characters.  He has produced (yet again) the consummate read – a rattling pace, Love (True and not so!), the horrors of war and revolution, and a meticulously researched account of the seeds that were sown to germinate  the War to End All Wars, World War 1.
The story starts in 1911 and ends in 1924.  This is the first novel of a trilogy and deals with five families:  The Williams family, Welsh miners and unionists;  The Fitzherberts, English Aristrocrats absolutely certain of their ancient, inalienable rights as the ruling class;  two impoverished Russian brothers, Grigori and Lev Peshkov, eager to escape the crushing burden of serfdom under the hated Czar;  the von Ulrichs, German Junkers and diplomats – Otto the father, implacable in his dream of the domination of Europe for his Kaiser, and Walter the son, doing his utmost to avoid war at all costs;  and American Presidential Aide Gus Dewar, for a large part of the war a worried spectator of events until early 1918 when the United States finally entered the conflict.
Mr. Follett is a master at keeping the reader turning the pages at a furious rate as he moves effortlessly from continent to continent, marshalling his characters with the precision of a chess player.  He sets the scene beautifully for future events:  Ethel Williams, young housekeeper to Earl Fitzherbert takes fatal steps above her station;  her young brother Billy, ‘down t’ pit’ at thirteen and in the army to become cannon fodder at 16,  becomes implacably hardened in his support of socialism after surviving the Somme under the inept leadership of aristocratic superiors;    brothers Grigori and Lev choose very different ways to escape starvation and the Czar’s corrupt police -  Lev, irresponsible and charming, skips Russia to end up eventually in Buffalo, New York, whilst Grigori is conscripted into the Army to fight the Germans;  and Walter von Ulrich enters into a secret marriage just before war is declared that will have consequences for all.
‘Fall of Giants’ could essentially be seen as a family saga and a love story but all is framed by the huge and momentous events of the early twentieth century:  no-one emerges unscathed from the cataclysm of war and revolution and there is a sad inevitability that the second book in the trilogy will pose yet more trials for characters who have become unforgettable.   Regardless, Mr. Follett’s storytelling expertise is such that, potential tragedies notwithstanding, the reader will again be swept up in the lives of these five families – and soon, one hopes.  Highly recommended.

          

             

Friday, 26 September 2014

LAST GREAT READS FOR SEPTEMBER, 2014

The Secret Place, by Tana French

I am a committed fan of Tana French.  The Crime and suspense genre has many good authors, but few great ones:  Ms French deservedly belongs in the latter category and it is satisfying to know that each time we read one of her books we are enjoying a story of the highest quality. 
Yet again, she doesn’t disappoint:  ‘The Secret Place’ is a masterly analysis and dissection of friendships and those connections that pass for the word;  the lengths that people will go to preserve the relationships that are important to them;  and the tipping point between friendship and obsession.
The unthinkable has happened at one of Dublin’s most exclusive private girls’ schools:  The body of a young man, a pupil at a nearby equally expensive boys’ school has been discovered with severe head injuries in the grounds of St. Kilda’s.  The shock amongst the elite is absolute:  this sort of crime happens in lesser, meaner suburbs;  parents pay good money to St Kilda’s to protect their darlings from such horror – surely the murder was random, committed by some low-class weasel who climbed over the wall!  The fact that the boy should have been in his own school, tucked up in bed instead of being AWOL in a place where he had no business to be – in short, HE had climbed over the wall to meet his fate – well, that seems irrelevant.  The police will sort it all out.
But they don’t.  There were precious few clues to start with, and despite extensive interviews with every pupil of both schools little has occurred to advance the case or produce a list of suspects.  After a year the case has gone cold, and everyone is supposed to be moving on with their lives – until Holly Mackey, a St Kilda’s pupil and acquaintance of the dead boy visits Detective Stephen Moran with a notice she found at ‘The Secret Place’, a school noticeboard that pupils can use to leave anonymous messages, supposedly to let off steam by disclosing secrets they would rather not keep.
The message that Holly shows Moran is simple:  it has a photo of Chris Harper, the murdered boy, with words beneath cut from a book or magazine:  ‘I know who killed him’.
Holly and Stephen have met before.  When she was nine, she had to testify in a murder case (see ‘Faithful Place’ review below) and Stephen prepared and supported her to do so;  trust was forged between them during that terrible time and she feels now that he will know what to do about this mystery message.  Stephen is an ambitious man.  He is currently working on Cold Cases but has been lusting to join the Murder Squad for years – he even enjoys a relationship of sorts with Holly’s father Frank, a high-ranking detective and local legend;  Frank has said good things about Stephen whenever the occasion warranted.  Could this anonymous message be the opportunity he has been waiting for?
Perhaps.  Unfortunately, he has to provide the Lead Detective on the case, Antoinette Conway with his new information, and it is up to her whether he rises or falls.  She makes it patently and quickly clear that she doesn’t suffer fools gladly: she is a lone wolf.  Her colleagues in Murder don’t want to work with her;  they think she’s an uppity bitch, and the fact that she hasn’t solved the case is enormously satisfying to them.  Stephen soon realises that there will be many bridges to cross before he reaches his goal.
Meantime, the investigation is resumed and fresh eyes see things that were not obvious a year before. It becomes plain eventually that what was originally a harmless vow of loyalty by four good friends has turned into something darker when one of the girls is emotionally harmed:  it’s time for payback.
Ms French is acutely observant of human behaviour, whether it be giggly, impressionable teenagers or the adults in their lives.  She has produced a beautifully written, compelling exploration of friendship in all its guises, and how far some will go to preserve it.  Highly recommended. 

Faithful Place, by Tana French

Undercover Detective Frank Mackey works for the Dublin Police;  he’s very good at his job – and an absolute disaster at personal relationships:  so far, so predictable for readers of suspense novels, but Tana French invests Frank with so much more than the usual Brilliant but Burnt-Out persona -   all too readily adopted by other writers -  that he is like a chilling but welcome blast of fresh and frosty air, holding the reader in his ruthless grip from the start of this story to the finish.
His life so far has had some huge disappointments:  his first love Rosie stood him up on the night they were planning to run away from their gothically awful families to start a new life in England, and was never seen again;  his marriage has ended in divorce and the associated recriminations; and apart from his job, his life doesn’t have much focus – except for the precious gift of his daughter, 9 year old Holly .  Frank’s love for her is profound and complete and he constantly blesses the fact that she will never know the horrors of living with an alcoholic Da who terrorized not just Ma, but all five children of that blighted union, and that she has never met his terrible relatives – and nor will she – he thinks.  He hasn’t seen any of his family except his sister Jackie for 22 years,  until a derelict house undergoing demolition in Faithful Place, their street, reveals some secrets that require his professional attention and to his horror, he finds that Rosie didn’t stand him up after all:  she was murdered.
This book is more than just a who-done-it;  it’s more than the usual tragic family saga of violence and dashed hopes:  it has more layers than an onion, and as each layer is peeled away more insights are given into each character and the terrible reasons for their behavior towards each other.  And before the reader decides that they wouldn’t touch all this tragedy with a barge pole, I’d like to lure them back in with the solemn (!) promise of a laugh on every page:  the uniquely Irish humour which has helped the entire race survive war through the centuries, famine and The Troubles  is here in abundance:  who else but an Irish author could write such great drama, and leaven it with such comedy.  This is a wonderful story:  highly recommended.