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 fa├žade, 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.