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.


             

Friday, 19 September 2014

MORE GREAT READS FOR SEPTEMBER, 2014

What Dies in Summer, by Tom Wright

Jim and Lee Ann are cousins, cared for by their redoubtable Grandmother in Dallas, Texas.  Jim arrived at his Gram’s place first after his mother neglected to protect him from her brutal lover Jack.  Lee Ann arrived a short time later, traumatised and silent, her only comfort her little dog Jazzy.  Lee Ann’s mum was also less than protective of her daughter;  her new husband showed more than the usual affection for her little girl, and it is to her lasting shame that she refuses to acknowledge his guilt, happy to pretend that her daughter is living with Gram on ‘a little visit’ rather than admitting that the child is too terrified to stay with her and her pervert husband any longer.
Tom Wright, a practising psychotherapist, has chosen in his debut novel to write of the myriad abuses that people perpetrate against the most vulnerable, and those they should love most.  The sin of intentional ignorance is just as heinous as that of the physical act of cruelty.  “I didn’t know it was happening!’ is no excuse when society – in this case, Gram - is left to clean up the mess.
Gram does a good job.  She offers security, affection and routine for two damaged little souls and Jim and Lee Ann (she prefers to be called LA) respond to unaccustomed normality in their lives;  they make friends, do well academically and Jim even starts to take an interest in girls, most particularly Diana, LA’s best friend.  Worryingly, LA doesn’t improve at the same rate:  she has problems controlling her anger and has been threatened with suspension from school more than once for attacking boys who approached her too quickly. 
Jim knows better than to come up on her from behind;  he knows all her phobias and fears, or at least as many as she will reveal outside her visits to the psychologist;  therefore they are good companions for each other, their shared experiences creating a bond that proves to be unbreakable.
Especially when they find the mutilated body of a young girl in the long grass not far from the railway lines.
It is not long before more bodies are found, and previous unsolved murders show distressing similarities to the latest atrocities:  Jim and LA feel they are living a terrible waking dream, especially when LA hears of unpublished information about one of the murders, information that bears an awful resemblance to what has happened to her in the past.  In a very short time they realise that up until now, the killer has just been practising:  LA will be his Star victim.
Mr. Wright has written a tightly plotted, suspenseful and ruthlessly honest novel of the frailties and failings of human nature.  No-one with such a day job would know better than he the cause and effect of the terrible damage visited upon the most innocent:  nevertheless, despite its harrowing themes this is a tender and uplifting story of (dare I say it!) triumph over adversity and the power of family love – even though the family in this case is guilty of big sins.  Highly recommended.

Blackbird, by Tom Wright

Jim and LA return as the main protagonists in Mr Wright’s second novel, set in Texarkana;  Jim is a respected police lieutenant whose job has consumed him to the point of failing an ultimatum from his wife and daughters:  ‘continue endangering your life and we’ll leave you’.  He is now living alone, and hating every minute of his solitude – but what can he do?  His department needs his skills now more than ever, for a woman has been found nailed to a tree just out of town:  she has been crucified in the ancient biblical manner, and when she is identified as Jewish Psychologist Debra Gold, racism and hate crimes rear their ugly heads.
It is not long before Jim and his team is pretty much bushed by leads that go nowhere, despite eventual revelations that Ms Gold was heartily disliked by colleagues and ‘friends’ alike – in short, there are few who mourn her passing. Which logically means that there is a wealth of suspects;  instead, two more murders occur of the very suspects Jim is investigating.
Enter LA, now a respected Psychologist who has come to Texarkana to check up on Jim’s stress levels;  she has arranged to have time off from her practice to assist with the case – and with his personal problems:  Jim and his family are the people she most loves in the world and she hopes that she can help him to heal the rift in his life.
And that is where I started to be disappointed in this book:  the time frame  is too long between the end of Book One when Jim and LA were teenagers and the action of Book Two, where they have both now reached their fortieth decade:  Mr Wright glosses over or omits entirely characters who played a very big role in their development to adults – instead he brings in new characters as strong influences in Jim’s past which cause the reader to spend too much time trying to work out what happened when, and with whom – i.e  when, precisely, does Jim decide to join the police force?
LA fares no better:  after her horrific childhood she descends into alcoholism, but eventually cleans up her act to have a successful career.  She drinks lots of sodas and iced tea.  No boyfriend, though.  As far as one can tell.  In other words, ‘Blackbird’ should be Book Three in Jim and LA’s story, not Book Two. 
And I have to say that Jim and LA also disappoint me as characters.  They are no longer likeable.  LA and her psychological evaluations (she’s ALWAYS right!) seem to be the perfect alter ego for Mr Wright to display his own huge psychological expertise, and Jim, despite his marvellously deductive mind comes across as a self-pitying ditherer.
And I figured out a major clue several chapters before HE did, so what does that tell you about him.  A?  A?  He can always consult me – for a fee.   




          

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

FIRST GREAT READS FOR SEPTEMBER, 2014
Remember me like this, by Bret Anthony Johnston

Justin Campbell has been missing from his home in Southern Texas for four years.  He was twelve years old when he disappeared, and as time passes and public interest has waned along with police involvement, his family still  continue the search;  to hope for sightings, clues – anything to prove that he is still alive:  they resolutely carry the flickering torch of belief that one day he will return, for the alternative is too awful to face.
In the meantime everyone survives as best they can.  Justin’s father Eric is a history teacher at the local high school.  He is having an affair that does little to make him feel like a man. 
Justin’s mother Laura works at a Drycleaner’s but also volunteers for extra shifts at a Marine Lab that cares for a sick dolphin.  The hours she spends observing the mammal afford her some solitary peace of a sort – she can’t sleep anyway, so it gives her a fleeting satisfaction to feel necessary to the survival of a beautiful animal:  how she wishes her family could count on her in the same way.
Griff, Justin’s younger brother is fourteen now and has never really reconciled himself to being the Only Child.  He is a good, loving boy with typical teenage hopes and dreams, not least being an ace skateboarder (he’s getting there fast!) and the prospect of romance with Fiona, she who dresses only in black and has dyed her hair green.  Life looks good – if only Griff could forget that he had a massive fight with Justin on the day he disappeared, causing Griff to think that if Justin hadn’t left the house in a huff, their loving and secure family life wouldn’t have disappeared with him.  Everything is Griff’s fault!
In short (Mein Gott, when have I ever been short!!) the Campbells are broken by the tragedy of Justin’s disappearance.  They may never recover.  Until……  until ….. Justin is found.
Recognised by a lady at a fleamarket from whom he bought mice to feed his pet snake.  The police are called, his ‘companion’ is taken into custody and the Campbells are given the news, news they hardly dare to hope is true – but it is.  Their wildest dreams and prayers have been answered.  Justin has come home.
And therein lies a whole new set of problems:  how can they help him?  What can they ask him? What must they remain silent about?  And what will happen to Dwight Buford, his kidnapper? 
Bret Anthony Johnston has written a family saga which is Shakespearean in its breadth.  In shimmering, beautiful prose he recounts the cruelty and ugliness of human behaviour by characters that are all too credible, and oh, how effortlessly he ensnares the reader into the sadness and frustrations suffered by every member of an innocent family.  This book is a heartbreaker, but a masterly tribute to the endurance of familial love in the face of impossible adversity.  Most highly recommended.

The Guts, by Roddy Doyle
So who hasn’t read Roddy Doyle’s marvellous ‘Barrytown’ trilogy?  I have to say that if you haven’t read it, do so now:  if you don’t you are missing a singular experience – ‘The Commitments’ was the first of three by this wonderful Irish author, and it was made into a smash hit film in the 90s – and the continuing story hasn’t dated a second:  great humour never goes out of style, even in this instance when bowel cancer rears its evil head.
Jimmy Rabbite, manager of ‘the Commitments’, has grown up.  He has reached his late 40s and has a wife and four children whom he adores;  he has a great job researching contemporary music;  he gets on well with his parents and all should be well – ‘everything’s grand’ - until he receives a diagnosis of bowel cancer. 
How could this happen?  How can this be?  Cancer attacks other people, not Jimmy Rabbite, and Mr Doyle takes some time to describe the effect of Jimmy’s killer disease on his wife and family – and himself, in empathetic terms so intuitive that this reader wondered if he had experienced just such a crisis. 
On his journey through surgery, chemotherapy and self-examination, Jimmy encounters two ex-band members from The Commitments: the beautiful Imelda Quirke whom everyone hoped (and still does) to seduce;  and Outspan, alias Liam, rhythm guitarist and now terminally ill with lung cancer.  It’s amazing who you meet these days while you’re getting the chemo!  (Could I have that with ice and a slice of lemon please?  The nurse, jaded and past humour says ‘We’ve a character here!’).
Yes, Roddy Doyle can make even imminent death seem funny, which proves my long-held belief that humour is an absolutely vital weapon with which to fight all the shite that life dishes up to even the most virtuous:  Outspan refuses to die, especially when Jimmy asks him to come with him to a huge rock festival – he’s going to be there and listen to all those shite bands, even if he breathes his last (with the aid of his oxy bottle).  Ah, I tell you, he’s having a grand time and so is Jimmy:  cancer isn’t going to rock their world, only the music.
Mr Doyle has created a bravura blend of tragedy and comedy;  his characters are wonderful, not least Jimmy’s parents, who eventually drove Jimmy out of home at the age of twenty-two by playing Richard Clayderman incessantly until he left – Jimmy’s Da disclosed this disgraceful behaviour twenty five years later, revealing also that he was ready to leave home himself if he had to listen to ‘Ballade Pour Adeline’ once more, (the traitor – he used to hum along to it!) and when an outraged Jimmy demanded to know why they wanted him to leave, Da said it was because ‘yez was an insufferable little prick’ at the time.  Fair enough.  This from a man who had a picture of the Pope on his wall, and another of Elvis just below it.  Your man had his priorities right!
This is a grand book, so.  Don’t miss it.