Friday, 28 August 2015

  LAST GREAT READS FOR AUGUST, 2015

Starlight Peninsula, by Charlotte Grimshaw

This story is the latest in Charlotte Grimshaw’s collection of connected short stories and two novels, ‘The Night Book’ and ‘Soon’ featuring some of the same characters.  I haven’t been able to track down ‘The Night Book’ in our library system but read ‘Soon’ (see January 2013 review below) and was mightily impressed;  few other New Zealand authors can emulate her shrewd observance of the strata of Auckland society;  of those who live on the hallowed slopes of the Eastern Suburbs, and those who aspire to – and the various attempts they make to get there.
            Ms Grimshaw has  plenty of fun with New Zealand politics both national and local, and ruthlessly satirizes the back-room deals, the Old-Boy networks and the donorships, both corporate and private that keep the conservative government afloat, and for most kiwis, some of her characters in ‘Starlight Peninsula’ are easily recognisable;  the fat German internet mogul wanted for internet piracy by the United States;  the TV current affairs host, ablaze with sincerity and expensive suits;  a gaggle of cabinet ministers involved in suspicious activities, not to mention the Prime Minister, forced to state repeatedly that he knew nothing about illegal spying on said German internet pirate. 
Ms Grimshaw’s wit and talent to expose hypocrisy is as sharp as ever;  sadly, her story loses merit because her key character, Eloise Hay, is a dingbat of the first order.  Sorry, Eloise, but it’s true:  you are too unfocussed and wimpy to give credibility to the plot, so there.
Eloise is a research assistant for the aforementioned TV current affairs host.  She is also awash with grief and Chardonnay because her husband has just left her for ‘a bullshit New Age actress’.  She sits alone in the marital home on the Starlight Peninsula which will be sold from under her soon:  ex-hubby is a big-time lawyer, immensely rich thanks to his parents, Sir Jarrod and Lady Cheryl Rodd (what fun Ms Grimshaw has with names!) and they all want the property gone – along with her – so that they can make a killing.  Because that’s what they always do.
Eloise loves Starlight Peninsula.  She doesn’t want to live anywhere else, but instead of reaching for solutions she just reaches for the bottle;  even an interesting new neighbour can’t keep her away from the demon drink and her family are even less effective – which is not surprising.  Eloise’s loving sister Carina and her daughter are towers of strength, but their mother Demelza (!) is poisonous enough to have frolicked with Gorgons as a child:  she offers Eloise ‘another brandy for the road’ when her drunken daughter comes to visit.  Ee, Chuck, she’s a right one, her! (Demelza is from Manchester).
Eloise consults Klaudia, a formidably logical German Psychotherapist in an effort to sort out her troubled thoughts and realises after much analysis that ‘a layer of the world has been hidden from me’ – which causes her to delve past her broken marriage into the grief she suffered from the mysterious death of her boyfriend Arthur many years ago, a death that she has refused to acknowledge had many suspicious elements to it.  ‘He was the love of my life!’ she declares to various people, but seems to have no trouble feeling emotional attachments to those very people.  (It’s the booze talking, love.)
In her bumbling, stumbling winey way, Eloise is starting to unravel the secrets surrounding Arthur’s death:  her seemingly random, haphazard lurching from one potential guilty party to the next uncovers some surprising and shocking truths:  she attributes her acumen to ESP; the fat internet pirate calls it ‘collective consciousness’ –  call good luck whatever you like, but by the end of the novel, Eloise has ferreted out enough secrets and lies to achieve her dream:  to remain in the house on the Starlight Peninsula.  As she states to Klaudia (don’t look at your watch, Klaudia!) ‘The house is a mind.  If I lose my house I will lose my mind.’
Well done.  I applaud the fact that she grew enough cojones to blackmail the big baddies to hang on to her beloved house;  it was a mighty achievement, but please, Ms Grimshaw, could she NOT be a continuing character in your next novel?
 Ms Grimshaw’s other characterisations are, as always, beautifully and finely drawn, and her depiction of Auckland, that chaotic, teeming, vital city is as superb and truthful as ever.  Highly recommended, except for You-Know-Who.       

Soon, by Charlotte Grimshaw

Simon Lampton and his family enjoy a privileged and enviable position:  a close friendship with the current Prime Minister of New Zealand, David Hallwright, enabling them to be honoured houseguests at his palatial holiday home north of Auckland for the summer.  For Simon and Karen his wife, it is a very satisfying time;  they have reached social heights envied by their contemporaries and never dreamed of by themselves.  Simon is a wealthy and successful obstetrician and gynaecologist but came from the very lowest of backgrounds;  Karen is his trophy wife, another goal to be ticked off his list of  life aspirations, along with the respect of his medical peers, beautiful home, BMW and children – whom he loves utterly:  they are his reward, his bonus for the hard years of his childhood with an alcoholic father and the hard work of studying and establishing himself in a demanding medical field.
Life can’t get any better – can it?
Unfortunately, all that glitters is not gold:  the longer the Lamptons stay with the Hallrights, the more hidden agendas reveal themselves:  the friendship with David on which Simon prides himself – ‘I never kowtow to him;  I’m apolitical and always give him my honest opinion.  That’s why we get on so well together’ – goes through subtle changes, partly caused by David’s glamorous second wife Roza, who holds all the males of the holiday household in thrall, including Simon.  As the holiday progresses it becomes increasingly obvious that Roza doesn’t regard Simon and Karen as bosom buddies;  she tolerates them charmingly for one reason:  she wants their adopted daughter, Elke – because Roza is Elke’s natural mother:  she couldn’t look after her when she was born, but she can now and begins an insidious campaign to win over the affections of the beautiful 18 year old.
Ms Grimshaw describes this tug of love so articulately that the reader feels palpably the steely determination of one character to possess, and the heartbreak and anguish of others finally aware of what they stand to lose.  As they find themselves trapped in the cleverly-woven web of privilege and ambition, all masked by the paper-thin veneer of best-mateship, Simon and Karen have to decide which hard decisions to make, and how to keep that which they love most – as well as retaining their self-respect.
And this is not Simon’s only crisis:  a shameful memory from the past rears its ugly head, threatening not just him and his cushy life but scandalous enough to cause big problems for his ‘best friend’ the Prime Minister.  Simon Lampton’s envied existence is fast becoming intolerable.
Ms Grimshaw has given us a wonderful story, written with great pace and clarity.  Her characters are a delight, each captured with elegant and astute observation – David Hallwright bears a striking resemblance to our own Dear Leader, John Key, and his party and policies are mercilessly dissected.
In my reading experience, no author can evoke mood, atmosphere and landscape more strongly than she, and it is a pleasure to read such a fine book.  Highly recommended.

The Slaughter Man, by Tony Parsons.

Detective Constable Max Wolfe is sent to the scene of a gruesome murder in one of the most affluent gated communities in London – so exclusive there are only six houses in the enclave.  An entire family, the parents and two teenagers, have been dispatched execution-style by a cattle bolt, a weapon used to stun cattle before they are slaughtered at the freezing works:  the only other family member, a four year old boy, is missing.  As they begin their investigation, the police can only hope that he will be found in the first twenty four hours:  chances of survival traditionally fade from then on.
            Max and his superiors are reminded of another similar crime committed more than thirty years ago:  a farmer and his three sons were killed by the same means by one of the Travellers (they aren’t called Gypsies any more) – but the Traveller has done his time;  he is old and dying and his family are fiercely protective of him.  He can’t have done it – can he?
            As the investigators wade through mountains of evidence, the façade presenting the dead family as idyllically happy and functional starts to crumble:  Mum and Dad, former Olympic athletes, were having marital problems that resulted in Dad keeping an apartment solely for the use of meetings with prostitutes;  it is unclear if Mum was aware of his infidelity, or if she cared:  the question is academic, but Max still requires answers of his own and as always he’s very good at playing hunches, and turning over stones to see what’s underneath.  And as always, it is nothing good.
            Mr Parsons has once again written a very efficient thriller.  Characters from the first book return as strong as ever, and he writes with great warmth and humour of Max’s relationship with his little daughter, and the pitfalls of sole parenthood – and the great rewards.  His careful attention to detail again lifts his story above the hackneyed, and while I had to suspend disbelief when the bastardly baddies bury Max alive (in a coffin already occupied by a mouldering pile of bones and other nasty bits and pieces), his escape was still just this side of credulity.  Well, he had to get out, didn’t he?  He has to be in the next book!
            This is a bone-rattlingly good sequel to ‘The Murder Bag’.  Highly recommended.
 
             
The Murder Bag, by Tony Parsons.

This is the first thriller that Tony Parsons has written, and what a good time he has had with the genre:  all the boxes are ticked;  there are plenty of corpses;  the suspense builds with each murder;  there are heaps of suspects, and it is almost guaranteed that no-one, and I mean no-one will know whodunit until the very last pages.  What more could a dedicated thriller reader ask for?  Mr Parsons fills every requirement.
            Detective Constable Max Wolfe has just received a promotion and a pay rise, thanks to his disobedience – not because he meant to be insubordinate, but he acted spontaneously on a hunch that proved to be right, saving a lot of lives after he was ordered to cease and desist.
            Now he has been seconded to the investigation into the murder of a prosperous London banker who has been dispatched in a very novel fashion:  his throat was not merely slit, but excavated – gouged out with a weapon that was usually used by wartime commando troops.  To complicate matters further, no fingerprints or indeed any trace of the killer is found at the murder scene, and were it not for a school photo of seven teenage boys found in his office, the police would not even have a starting point.  Until Max, with the enthusiasm of the new recruit pursues the old school connection between the boys, most of whom attend their banker friend’s funeral.  Several of them have become very successful, including an aspiring politician and a prosperous lawyer;  one has become a warrior captain serving in Afghanistan – but one has committed suicide, and another is a heroin addict.
            Despite the horrible loss of one of their little band, the remaining friends are reluctant to speak of their school days with any clarity and remain committed to the same story:  they could not understand how anyone could do such a thing – the banker was a fine fellow, beloved by all – until Max uncovers evidence of cruelty and sadism, particularly towards the banker’s wife.  Things, as usual, are never what they seem and the situation only gets worse when the heroin addict is found dead, also with his throat gouged out.  As more of the original seven are picked off by the same method the remaining potential victims are eventually only too happy to unburden themselves of their dark teenage secrets, but to no avail:  they still continue to die, and the police always seem to be just a day late and a dollar short.
            Mr Parson has constructed a very busy, convoluted plot;  there are a lot of subsidiary characters and subplots that require the reader’s concentration, but the pace rattles along at a very satisfying speed, as do the pages.  In fact, this is a page-turner so good that Detective Constable Max Wolfe (who manages to get himself suspended twice for not following orders) should not be confined to one book only:  I hope this will be the start of a series.   


Monday, 17 August 2015

MORE GREAT READS FOR AUGUST, 2015

After the Crash, by Michel Bussi

On December 23rd, 1980, an Airbus 5403 flying from Istanbul to Paris crashes during a terrible storm in the Jura mountains bordering Switzerland and France.  All are killed, except for a three-month-old girl, found half-frozen in the snow but otherwise unharmed – a miracle baby, a child who survived impossible odds, and the precious darling of her surviving family in France.
            But which family?
            According to the passenger list, two baby girls were travelling with their parents;  Lyse-Rose, 3 month old daughter of the son of a fabulously rich family, the de Carvilles, returning from running subsidiaries of the family business in Turkey, and Emilie, a baby of the same age whose parents, Pascal and Stephanie Vitral had been given a trip to Turkey by Pascal’s parents who had won it themselves but couldn’t make the trip;  instead they looked after Marc, Emilie’s elder brother aged two, so that his parents could have a lovely holiday.
            The Vitral grandparents are unashamedly working class people who make ends meet by running a food van in Dieppe and the surrounding area.  They are salt-of-the-earth good citizens with sound principles – and a strong conviction that the surviving miracle baby is their granddaughter, and they are willing to fight to the end of their slim resources to prove it.  Léonce de Carville, grandfather of Lyse-Rose, is also as convinced that the little girl belongs to his family, the difference being that he has enormous wealth and power at his disposal, not to mention the services of Crédule Grand-Duc, a private detective in his employ charged with investigating fully the origins of the surviving child, and establishing beyond doubt that she is a de Carville –  for Léonce is so used to controlling the lives and fates of others that he cannot bear to have uncertainties in his own life, let alone lose a fight.
            So begins one of the most compulsive page-turners I have read this year.  French author Mr Bussi gathers up readers and flings them forward on a truly thrilling, mysterious ride spanning eighteen years, and not once (and I’m usually very good at figuring out whodunit well before the book’s end) was I able to see who resorted to murder, and why:  each chapter was never what it seemed!
            Mr Bussi’s style is competent and workmanlike;  no pretty word pictures here except for the character of Lyse-Rose’s emotionally damaged elder sister Malvina:  his prose turns purple and melodramatic to the point of turning her into a Witchy-poo from a fairy tale, but this does little to detract from the overall impact of this high-octane thriller.  I hope he is hard at work on another one.  Most highly recommended.
              

Balm, by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

Ms Perkins-Valdez’s debut novel, ‘Wench’ established her credentials as an important new writer of contemporary American fiction (see 2010 review below);  now she cements her reputation with ‘Balm’, her exploration of America after the Civil War;  of the effects of emancipation and the efforts of former slaves to make a new life for themselves in a world as frightening for its new experiences as the old order they have just survived.
Madge has never been a slave;  she is known as a ‘Root woman’, a woman who heals illnesses – and heartaches – with her hands and the herbal balms and potions she has learnt to make from her aunts, hard and taciturn women whose mother gained their freedom by curing their master from a grievous illness.  In return, he gave them a little house to live in as well as their papers:  their reputation ensured their continued free status in Tennessee, and Madge should be more than satisfied with her lot.  But she is not.  She journeys to Chicago, a huge adventure for someone such as she, and eventually finds work as a maid – for which she is paid! – with Mrs Sadie Walker, a well-to-do white widow.
Sadie has her own cross to bear:  she has come to Chicago to claim the house and income of her late husband Samuel, a man she knows next-to-nothing about, for Sadie’s father arranged her marriage to the strapping soldier, so much older than she, for a cash payment to save his dying business.  After less than two months of marriage, most of it spent apart, Samuel is killed in battle – and Sadie is free.  Free to eventually follow her real calling, which is to be a medium, to commune with the spirits, and there are as many of them as there are people crushed by grief, longing for a message or any kind of contact with their dead loved ones.
Sadie is not a charlatan;  she genuinely hears the calls of those who have passed over, and gains a reputation for her sincerity and the accuracy of her information – sadly, she finds that her father who sold her to save his business is horrified by her ‘godless’ milking of peoples’ suffering, and the advantage she takes of their grief – even though she communes with his wife, her dead mother, who sends him a message.  He is unmoved and considers Sadie evil, an opinion causing her enormous heartache, for she longs for his approval – but not enough to turn her from her chosen path.
Sadie has a sometime carriage driver, a freed slave called Hemp Harrison;  ‘Hemp’ for the crop that he harvested on his master’s farm, and Harrison for his master’s name.  Hemp has come to Chicago in a vain search for his wife, sold with her daughter elsewhere two years before.  He is desperate to find her, but literally does not know where to look after all his enquiries draw a blank:  his heart is heavy, for he loves his wife dearly but his peace of mind becomes non-existent when he and Madge start to form a growing attachment, a fact that horrifies them both for vastly different reasons.
Ms Perkins-Valdez weaves the lives and fortunes of this unlikely trio irrevocably together with her beautiful language and imagery.  My only criticism (and it is a small one) is that the conclusion is a little rushed.  It poses more questions than answers, but the overall message is clear:  ‘In a land so devastated by death, the best healing balm was hope.’  Highly recommended.   

WENCH, by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

Despite its Bodice-Ripper title, Ms Perkins-Valdez’s debut novel is anything but – rather, it is the second damning account of slavery that I have read this year;  more subtle, perhaps, than Andrea Levy’s ‘The Long Song’ (recently shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize) but having the same horrific impact:  how can people who purport to be civilized visit so much inhumanity on their fellow men?
‘Wench’ is first set in 1852 at Tawawa House, a fashionable resort in Ohio, popular with Southern gentlemen who take the waters every year, go hunting and fishing – but leave their wives behind, bringing instead female slaves who service their every need.  Four of these women become friends and look forward to the annual renewal of contact;  their individual histories  graphically demonstrate blatant cruelty or the same evil disguised as kind and loving treatment:  Lizzie’s master professes to love her;  she is his ‘true wife’ and has given him two children of whom he is particularly proud, especially as his white wife is barren, but he refuses her only wish that he give the children their freedom:  they are his lawful property, and as such he is entitled to sell them if he wishes.  Mawu belongs to Mr. Tip, whom she hates and bravely stands up to at every opportunity – she even makes an escape attempt, only to be brought back by the slavecatchers, stripped naked and whipped by Mr. Tip while the other slaves are forced to watch ‘as a warning’.  He then sodomises her and her humiliation is complete.  Reenie is owned by ‘Sir’, her late father - and Master’s son:  he uses her whenever he pleases, then ‘loans’ her to the resort manager.  Each woman must deal with her own tragedies as best they can;  sometimes they make the right choices but for all but one of these good women, slavery is the only option:  they dare not leave their children.  Their only hope that life may someday be different is that the first rumours of Abolition have started to surface;  indeed, Ohio, where they ‘vacation’ every year with their masters is a Free State – could this mean that more and more people are willing to protest against the appalling outrage of slavery?  Emancipation does not come until the South has fought a bloody and unsuccessful Civil War in defense of its slave-based economy;  meantime, the ‘wenches’ must remain strong in the face of their thralldom, and resolute in the hope that the next generation will know a better life.  Ms. Perkins-Valdez has produced a superb story, moving and beautifully written.  


Thursday, 6 August 2015

GREAT READS FOR AUGUST, 2015

The Dust That Falls From Dreams, by Louis de Bernières

            It is August, 1902, and loyal Britons are holding Coronation parties throughout the land, for the dear old Queen has died after ruling for 63 years and her elderly and high-living son Edward the Seventh has ascended the throne.  The Victorian era has ended and the Edwardian age has begun, those sunlit years that reinforced – for the last time – the rigidity of class and certainty of one’s station in life:  everyone knows where they stand, and all is right with the world.
            Three prosperous neighbouring families meet on this beautiful summer day to celebrate the King’s ascension;  Mr and Mrs Pendennis, lately come from Baltimore, U.S.A. with their three fine sons;  Mr and Mrs Hamilton McCosh and their four vivacious daughters, and Mr and Mrs Pitt, parents of four strapping sons, two of whom are already fighting in the Boer War.  They are all fast friends and the children call themselves The Pals, certain that they will be friends always – in fact Rosie, the oldest McCosh girl has already accepted an offer of marriage (when they are old enough) from Ashbridge Pendennis, formalised by the gift of a brass curtain ring.  She will be his forever.
            It transpires that several of the other boys have crushes on Rosie, for she is the prettiest, and because she has eyes for no-one but Ash, the most unattainable, despite great feats of courage and daring performed by the Pitt boys, Archie and Daniel in an effort to impress.  And Rosie IS impressed, but not long enough to alter her unswerving devotion to her beloved.
Mr de Berniéres, author of the wonderful ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’ is a master at setting the scene for this lovely story of the War to End all Wars and the  death of an Empire;  his characters beautifully personify the times, especially when ‘that dreadful Kaiser’ starts the war and the flower of England’s youth rush to enlist – after all, ‘it will be all over by Christmas’ and no young man wants to miss out on the excitement and the opportunity to ‘do his bit’, including Ashbridge Pendennis and Daniel Pitt, leaving their loved ones at home to fret and marvel at their bravery.
And the worst happens:  Ash dies of his wounds in France, leaving Rosie with a yawning hole in her life which she tries to fill with religion.  She and her sisters attempt to give meaning to their lives by volunteering at the hospitals to look after the wounded and are horrified and chastened by the suffering they see and try to alleviate.  Daniel Pitt’s two brothers did not return from South Africa and his widowed mother fears for her remaining two sons, for Daniel has become an Air Ace, and Archie is fighting on the NorthWest Frontier.  Life will never be the same again.  They will never return to the halcyon days of Coronation parties and certainty of place and Empire, and Mrs. McCosh, a gentlewoman who corresponds upon occasion with the King – and his secretary always replies – is horrified at the breakdown of manners and mores which now allow common people to Actually Come to the Front Door.  It’s entirely too awful to think about!
This is a story that is not finished in this book;  there are many characters (some extremely irritating, Rosie’s twitty sister Sophie being a prime example) that still have parts to play and the pace is so leisurely (except for the superb, brutal battle scenes) and the ending so inconclusive that Mr de Bernières MUST be planning a sequel.  I live in hope!

Red Sparrow, by Jason Matthews

Red Sparrow is not new;  it was published in 2013, but what impresses me about it enough to write a review is that a sequel has been written, ‘Palace of Treason’, and if it is anything like Red Sparrow’ then we are all in for a fabulous treat.
            Russian Dominika Egarova is a privileged, ambitious and enormously talented young woman who adores her country and believes unquestioningly in its leadership under Mr Putin.  Her parents, a respected university professor and a prodigiously talented concert violinist are more circumspect, having felt and suffered enormous discrimination from lesser talents, purely because the lesser talents had ‘connections’ which would always put them in front.
            Dominika aspires to be a ballerina but eventually is sabotaged, just like her parents by a staged accident that ends her career permanently;  enter her influential uncle, who decides that she could be useful as an intelligence officer/honey trap;  a ‘sparrow’ to lure with her great beauty various victims into impossible and irreversible situations.  Dominika gradually realises that she herself has been coerced and blackmailed into an irreversible situation, but because she is a person of intelligence with an exceptional gift – not to mention a huge thirst for revenge,  she decides to play the long game:  after all, ‘Revenge is a Dish that People of Taste Prefer to Eat Cold’.  Yes indeed.
            Dominika’s masters have no idea what hit them when their instructions for her to lure an American CIA agent into her embrace go horribly awry – for them, and  hapless CIA agent Nathaniel Nash:  he has found that his life has changed forever, whether he wanted it to or not!
            Mr Matthews is well qualified to write a spy novel;  he was a CIA officer for more than 30 years and knows the Spook business from every angle, and what a bonus it is for the reader that he is a smart, witty writer who can generate huge suspense, then relieve the tension with much-needed humour.  His characters are (in the main) very believable – except that the villains are more evil than usual, and definitely uglier (!) and I have to say that there were so many abbreviations, acronyms and cryptonyms that I felt battered about the head – oh, and at the end of every chapter was the recipe for a meal that the characters consumed as part of the action:  nothing wrong with that, except that each recipe had enough cream, butter, oil etc to send us all to an early grave.  Did I mind, though?  Of course not.  I am impatiently awaiting ‘Palace of Treason’ which I trust will be full to bursting with more vengeance, corpses and lethal recipes.  Highly recommended.