Wednesday, 24 June 2015

MORE GREAT READS FOR JUNE, 2015

The Legend of Winstone Blackhat, by Tanya Moir

What a privilege it has been to read this wonderful story.  Though its content will horrify any reader with a tender heart, it is a magnificently written chronicle of the abuse and neglect that one child suffers, and his attempts to keep his humanity;  his efforts to fit in and stay sane in the face of impossible odds. 
            Winstone Haskett’s mother is in jail, and his father moves himself and his three children from rental to run-down rental in his search for work throughout small South Island towns.  Winstone’s dad is not interested in providing a conventional home, or even conventional food for his kids;  they can look after themselves, and seem to be making a reasonable fist of it – except that the youngest, 6 year-old Marlene, keeps wetting the bed, and she and Winstone stink, because she crawls in with him, then pees over them both when she’s asleep.  They are both too young to successfully keep up any standards of personal hygiene and neither can work the rental washing machine;  consequently no-one wants to sit near them on the school bus, let alone play with them at school. 
Food is a problem too.  Sometimes Dad will bring home takeaways or do a supermarket shop for very basic items, but mostly he leads his own life in the pubs and clubs and the kids don’t see much of him at night unless he brings ‘company’ back to consort with in his dirty bedroom. 
            Winstone’s life has reached a low ebb – until he is rescued by a passer-by just as he was about to get bullied and beaten by bigger boys from school;  this saviour turns out to be his first real friend, even though he is an adult, and Winstone is thrilled when he is invited into Zane’s clean home for something to eat (on clean plates);  he is told to take a shower (in a wonderfully clean bathroom with fluffy white towels);  then he is treated to a great cowboy movie on Zane’s 52” plasma TV:  is God smiling on him at last?  Sadly, no.
            Zane requires payment for his constant friendship, kindness and western movies, the kind of payment that Winstone eventually knows is not what adult males should be doing to 9 year-old boys, but what can he do?  His friendship is the only good thing that Winstone has ever known, and when Winstone’s Dad commits an unspeakable act of cruelty one night, Zane is the only person he can turn to for help.
            And Zane does help, making an anonymous 111 call for police and ambulance, thus setting in train the final breakup of the Haskett family, and disappearing himself in the process:  Winstone is dealt with by the courts and social workers, and eventually put into a foster home – where the family are kind to him, but yet another crisis occurs, so awful that Winstone runs away, literally taking to the hills, ‘hiding out’ in the best tradition of all the cowboy movies he so loved. Here, to pass the time in the sweeping, majestic, wildly beautiful landscape that he long yearned and fantasised about, Winstone becomes in his imagination Winstone Blackhat, relentlessly pursued by Cooper and The Kid;  The Kid, wearer of a white hat and protector of women and children and the vulnerable in the best cowboy tradition.  Coop is his mentor and together they track Blackhat until the inevitable showdown, not letting up until THE END   comes up on the screen of young Winstone’s life.
            Ms Moir won me as a dedicated fan with her first novel ‘La Rochelle’s Road’ (see July, 2011 review below).  She excels herself with Winstone Blackhat, thrilling the reader with the lush, gorgeous imagery of his imagination, then horrifying us with prose of stark and terrible clarity as she writes of the reality of his tragic situation and agony of heart.  Long may Winstone and his Black hat live on in the minds of all readers.  Most highly recommended.

La Rochelle’s Road, by Tanya Moir

       Ms Moir’s first novel takes the old and well-tried pioneer theme and creates an entirely new perspective upon it, not only because of her beautiful prose and command of atmosphere and time, but also the authenticity and strength of her characterizations.
The Peterson family leave England at the end of 1866 to begin a brave new life in New Zealand;  Daniel the father has bought acreage sight unseen on the Banks Peninsula;  he is a clerk but means to become a gentleman farmer, producing grass-seed;  his wife Letitia is adoring, soft, gentle and genteel, the mother of Hester, aged 18, and Robbie, 15, and frighteningly ignorant of the realities and harsh trials of their new existence:  their land, for which they paid an exorbitant price is unproductive and must be cleared by them all of scrub and rubbish before they can even begin to think of a crop;  Daniel finds that, when his money runs out his services are not required by the contemptuous new settlers, hard men all, when he attempts to find supplementary work as a clerk or a teacher, and his humiliation is complete when he has to offer himself as a labourer – for less money than the going rate – in order to put food on the table. 
The family’s plight is recorded firstly in optimistic letters Home by Hester to her friend Lucy, then by more realistic entries in her Journal.  She also finds the Journal of the house’s previous occupant, Etienne de la Rochelle, gentleman, artist and would-be explorer, the original owner of the land;  his story offers a fascinating subplot as he relates his adventures in an attempt to find a way across the Alps from West to East – and his guilty love for a Maori woman, the concubine of his guide, Teone.  Ms Moir chronicles this love story with great skill, using the language of the time with absolute assurance. 
Her account of farmer- turned -labourer Daniel’s descent into bitterness, disillusionment and despair is masterly:  Daniel does not eventually conquer his land:  it conquers him, and he is forced by tragic circumstance into the realization that the contempt shown to him for his British airs and graces is perhaps justified -  there is no room here yet in this young, harsh, unrelenting land for those with pretensions towards education and airy-fairy ideas on politics and philosophy:  the class system has been turned on its head, and he with it.
This book is completely absorbing from start to finish;  Ms Moir’s prose is lyrical , brilliantly evoking people, times and places long gone, and her chief narrators, Hester and La Rochelle, carry the story onward with strength, optimism and purity of heart.  Highly recommended.

A Quiet End, by Nelson de Mille

Could there be a more entertaining character than Detective John Corey, the hero of seven novels by Mr De Mille, and the lucky owner of more than nine lives – or his legion of fans will certainly hope so, so that the adventures will just keep coming.  He survives each new nail-biting situation by the skin of his teeth, and has managed to eliminate more baddies than anyone can shake a stick (or a gun) at.  What a man!  What a hero!  What a babe!
‘A Quiet End’ opens with a stake-out by Mr Corey and his enthusiastic, irritating new side-kick, Tess Faraday, of an FDR assassin, colonel Vasily Petrov, masquerading as a  Diplomat attached to the Russian Federation Mission.
Corey is now employed as a team leader for the Diplomatic Surveillance Group, a very sedentary job compared to previous death-defying occupations, some of which being with his wife Kate, who recently earned a promotion to FBI Supervisor while he has been moved sideways to ‘The Quiet End’ of investigative work.
Corey’s surveillance of Petrov becomes more than routine when Petrov makes a trip outside diplomatic limits to rendezvous with a luxury super-yacht anchored of Long Island Sound:  the vessel is owned by a fabulously rich Saudi Prince, and to Corey’s experienced nose, he smells a rat;  something stinks in the state of Denmark;  and lastly, something doesn’t smell right!  Needless to say, he’s 100% correct, as usual:  the date is September Eleven, and it is a perfect anniversary for a terrible deed to be perpetrated by fanatical followers of Islam;  instead, Corey uncovers a plan that is totally gob-smacking:  a suitcase nuclear bomb hidden in the super yacht by Petrov and his henchmen, to be detonated by remote control in the harbour of Lower Manhattan.  The destruction would be absolute;  millions would die;  the United States would never recover economically or financially;  and no-one would know that the Russians were responsible when all evidence would point towards a Saudi Prince and his luxury yacht.  Is that a fiendish superplan or what!
Petrov thinks so, and is hell bent on carrying it through to the bitter end, despite unforeseen setbacks that have his loyal henchmen questioning his better judgement.  Besides, Petrov’s nasty dad, a Hero of the Soviet Union (in the old days) told him not to come home if he can’t deliver, so he doesn’t have a choice.  Fair enough.
BUT!!  He has bargained without John Corey and annoying rookie Tess Faraday:  through conventional and entirely unbelievable means, our Dynamic Duo manage to foil the plot - literally at the last minute;  rub out all the bad guys – and succumb to the fatal attraction that has been dogging them throughout this hugely entertaining page-turner.  And, just in case you think that Corey has been lower than a snake’s belly in his treatment of his wife, well, think again:  all those trips to Washington with her boss since her promotion equate to marital infidelity.  Yes, folks, true-blue Kate is loyal no longer, which leaves the Corey field clear for annoying but smart-with-mouth-and-weapon Tess – and she comes from old money, too:  could Corey start climbing the social ladder – whether he wants to or not?
As Corey has a great one-liner for every occasion, I can’t wait for Book 8, where he will presumably meet Tess’s parents:  watch this space.  Highly recommended.      

             


Wednesday, 17 June 2015


GREAT READS FOR JUNE, 2015

The Whites, by Richard Price, writing as Harry Brandt.

It is my misfortune that I have not read any of Richard Price’s previous novels.  After reading ‘The Whites’ I now want to devour all earlier work, regardless of whether he uses a pseudonym or not!  According to the cover notes, ‘The Whites’ is his first thriller – well, I certainly hope it won’t be his last:  Mr Price is a master of suspense and knows better than most writers of the genre exactly how to keep the reader turning the pages at a furious rate.  His characters are larger than life but live and breathe as we do, trying to make the most of their existence on this earth for themselves and their loved ones – which is the sole aim of Billy Graves.
            Billy Graves is an NYPD detective permanently working on the night shift, not by choice but as punishment for a long ago mistake he made, aiming to shoot a criminal but bringing down a 10 year-old boy as well.  His atonement will last for the rest of his life but he is supported by his wife Carmen, a registered nurse, his family and a group of staunch friends, ex-cops who are now all retired but have one thing in common:  they call themselves the Wild Geese, and are completely loyal to each other.  Their aim is to eventually bring to justice criminals who quite literally have gotten away with murder, and every member of the Wild Geese has a ‘pet’ crim, one that they wish the most painful death imaginable on.  These monsters are known as ‘the Whites’. 
            Billy’s own particular monster is Curtis Taft, killer of his ex-girlfriend, her 14 year-old niece and her 4 year old daughter, afterwards going home to sleep with his new girlfriend.  Billy wants him dead, but not before he suffers first.
            The other WGs feel exactly the same way but are seemingly astonished when the Whites, one by one, start to die or disappear presumed dead, and it is Billy’s job as the only unretired member of the band to investigate the homicides.  What he discovers fills him with dread, but worse things are to follow:  someone is stalking his family.
            His son comes home from school having been patted on the back by a stranger who left a red handprint on his jacket – red paint, but looking like the real thing;  Billy’s father, an ex-policeman in the early stages of dementia is collected from home and  taken to his old beat miles away, causing the family terrible consternation until he is found;  and a bag of red-stained children’s clothing is thrown on Billy’s lawn – paint again, but the inference is clear.
            Suspense mounts with every page, despite the reader being informed in the first few chapters of the stalker’s identity for Mr Price (Brandt?) has created a character with which the reader has a real love/hate relationship.  He is a master observer of the myriad faults of human nature, and just how far a man can go to protect those dear to him before he finds it impossible to live with himself.  This is a great story from a very fine writer.  Highly recommended.

The Dog Who Saved Me, by Susan Wilson.

Susan Wilson’s ‘One Good Dog’ was the first of her books that I lucked onto in our library;  how fortunate was I to discover her, for to any  animal-lover she is the author of choice.  So far in my experience, no-one is better than she at writing of the great bond between man and dog;  the power of such a friendship to redeem a damaged human – and the terrible cruelty that man can inflict on a creature who is prepared to trust him completely.
Cooper Harrison is just such a damaged human.  He was formerly a member of Boston’s K-9 unit, happy in his work, his marriage, and with Argos, his beloved Alsatian partner:  what a team they were!  Until Argos is killed in action and Cooper is badly wounded, and try as he might, he can’t manage his life after such a tragedy.  His wounds are severe but are nothing compared to the grief he feels at the loss of his devoted canine friend.  Gradually his formerly ordered life starts to unravel:  his marriage fails;  he resigns from the force, and if it weren’t for an offer of a job as Animal Control Officer from the Chief of Police of his former home town, Harmony Farms, his future would be unthinkable.
As it is, Cooper knows he must ‘man up’;  ‘get over it’(!) and ‘stop feeling sorry for himself’, but Harmony Farms is not the place where he wants to rehabilitate himself, for he left a father who was the town drunk, and an older brother, a vicious bully who decided that selling drugs would be his occupation of choice – until he was caught and got a twelve-year sentence for drug-trafficking.  He will have finished his sentence soon.  They are the last people that Cooper wants to make contact with;  that was why he left Harmony Farms the day after he graduated high school;  to get away from his pathetically dysfunctional home life and turn himself into the opposite of what his father and brother were.  He intends to avoid them as much as he can – if possible.
And he does, for the most part.  And he is surprised to find that the work of being a glorified dog-catcher is not as onerous as he first thought.  In his wrangling of and search for missing pets he reacquaints himself with good people from his youth, people who don’t regard him as a laughing-stock because of his family.  Even though he swears he won’t do the job for more than a year, he finds a certain satisfaction in caring for animals and rehoming strays during the day – but the nights are hard to bear:  that is when the nightmares take over.  Since he lost Argos, dreamless sleep has become a rarity, and continues as he hears reports of a skinny yellow dog, a stray that favours its hind leg but is still agile enough to raid trash cans and slink around chicken coops.  Yep, all part of the day’s work:  Cooper will trap the dog, find out who owns it (or not) and proceed to the next case.  In a perfect world – for what he discovers when the dog is eventually found is a case of such blatant cruelty that his old policing instincts come to the fore.  Whoever did this must be found and punished.  If the same terrible abuse were done to a human being the guilty one would be imprisoned for years:  it should not be any different for a helpless animal.
Once again, Susan Wilson tugs at the heart-strings, but she is such a quality writer that the reader feels privileged to enter Cooper’s story, harrowing as it is.  All her characters are true-blue, even Cooper’s sorry father and brother, the lesson being that not everyone is beyond redemption, as long as the will to change is still alive.  Highly recommended.

The Good Luck of Right Now, by Matthew Quick

Bartholomew Neil has lived with his staunchly Catholic mother in the same house in Philadelphia for all of his thirty-eight years.  He never knew his father, believing his mum when she said that his father was slain by the Ku Klux Klan when Bartholomew was a baby, ‘because the KKK hates Catholics as well as Negroes and Jews’.  Fair enough;  his mum is all he needs in his life;  she is his guardian, his friend, and his haven from the cruelty and bullying he experienced all through school because of his size and inability to express himself.  Though lonely for the feminine companionship that ‘normal’ men seem to come by so easily, Bartholomew is reasonably content with his life – indeed he expects nothing will ever change:  escorting his mum to mass;  the frequent visits of one of the parish priests, Father MacNamee, to their home for meals and religious advice;  his daily visits to the local library, there to pretend to read the newspapers so that he can admire a shy volunteer librarian - until his mother dies of brain cancer.
            Bartholomew is completely unmanned, and more shocks are in store: found in his mother’s underwear drawer while he is packing up her clothes is a letter – well, a ‘Free Tibet’ circular really, from Richard Gere.  RICHARD GERE, THE MOVIE STAR!  Why was Mum corresponding with Richard Gere in the last stages of her life?  What can this mean?  Could there be … A Cosmic Connection?  (Bartholomew is a great believer in the Jungian theory of Synchronicity).  To add to his grief and confusion, his trusted mentor Father MacNamee suddenly and publicly unfrocks himself in front of a gaping congregation – then moves in with Bartholomew, complete with a vast supply of whisky.
            The only way that Bartholomew can cope with all these massive changes is to write to Richard Gere, believing that letters to someone his mother  admired will help him make sense of his awkward, ignorant life:  ‘People often find it hard to converse with me, which is why I don’t talk much to strangers and prefer writing letters in which there is room to record everything, unlike real life conversations where you have to fight and fight to fit in your words, and almost always lose.’
            Matthew Quick leads the willing reader beautifully through Bartholomew’s subsequent adventures, recounted in meticulous detail by Bartholomew to Dear Mr Richard Gere as he meets various grief counsellors, tries to keep Father Bartholomew away from the bottle, (for the good ex-priest seems determined to drink himself to death), meets a foul-mouthed movie usher at grief counselling who is mourning the death of his cat – but turns out to be the brother of his heart’s delight, the shy volunteer librarian – and he finally, FINALLY  gets to meet her, to have an actual conversation with her! 
            Bartholomew’s heart is full, and so is the reader’s as Mr Quick takes all his misfit characters on an unexpected trip to Canada, where much will be revealed, including the identity of Bartholomew’s long-lost father;  where he will gain comfort in his sorrow from new friends and new unlikely situations;  and an entirely new feeling of strength as he discovers how dependable he really is.
            Mr Quick’s story has it all:  laugh-out-loud humour;  enormous empathy for people (and there are so many) who can’t conform to what we consider normal behaviour;  brilliantly observed characters imbued with a zest for life that permeates every page, and that rare thing:  the talent to make the reader wish the story would not end.  Highly recommended.