Saturday, 26 November 2016

LAST GREAT READS FOR NOVEMBER, 2016

The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead

            Cora is a slave, a field-hand, on a rich cotton plantation in Georgia.  Her abject life is made even worse by the fact that she is a stray;  her mother Mabel escaped from bondage when Cora was ten years old and has never been seen again – all the other slaves think her run for freedom was admirable, the only problem being that she left Cora behind to fend for herself.  She is sent to the Hob, a derelict cabin housing the sick, the maimed and the demented:  her life outlook appears to be bleak – and short.
            Until Caesar, a newly arrived slave from Virginia, makes her a proposition:  he has made contact with those who run the Underground Railroad, a fabled means of escape for blacks organised by abolitionists and people horrified and opposed to the obscenity that is slavery:  the notion that one human being may be the property of another wholly in the interests of growing King Cotton and reaping its profits.
            Caesar and his parents were promised their freedom by their mistress in Virginia;  tragically for them she died without leaving a will and they were all sold down the river as part of her estate.  Caesar has been educated.  He can read and knows that he cannot live the rest of his life in bondage where animals are treated better than humans;  he sees a similar resolution and will to live life in freedom in Cora, and when the time is right they take their giant, perilous step into the unknown.
            Their first stop after a nightmare journey in a broken-down boxcar is South Carolina, where life seems unbelievably wonderful and carefree compared to what they left behind:  Cora has a new identity and works as a maid in a prosperous household.  She gets paid wages!  Caesar works in a factory;  both live in dormitories created especially for the new coloured population.  It is only after some months and the decision made to stay rather than press on, that they realise that South Carolina has other, ulterior designs for its new black population:  sterilisation is but one of the many ‘solutions’.  The theory of Eugenics could have had its origin in this very place.
            Once again, Cora is forced to flee on the Underground Railroad, pursued relentlessly by Ridgeway, a slave catcher of uncommon determination, hired by her original owners in Georgia:  he is implacable in his pursuit for her mother Mabel was the only slave he could not return to ‘its’ owners and he has no wish to be thwarted again.
            In stark, powerful language Mr Whitehead describes Cora’s many paths to freedom, from her incarceration of several months in a sympathiser’s attic and her horrendous recapture by Ridgeway, to a brief respite in Indiana on a prosperous farm owned by coloureds and visited regularly by abolitionists – until the surrounding farmers decide to mount an attack and get rid of those uppity niggers once and for all.
            Cora’s determination to live freely or die trying has many parallels with today’s America:  compared to her horrendous treatment and attempts to escape from it, today’s African Americans enjoy a freedom, education and respect unknown to their ancestors, especially after the singular achievement of the election of America’s first African American President - but bigotry and racism still prevail, albeit in a more subtle disguise.  Mr Whitehead has written a major work, excoriating the Old South for its Old ways, and gently reminding readers that not everything has changed.  FIVE STARS

The Obsidian Chamber, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child


           The highly-coloured adventures of FBI Special Agent Aloysius X. L. Pendergast are starting to mount up;  this is Messrs Preston and Child’s sixteenth action-packed novel recounting the exploits of that pale-eyed, pale-skinned, pale-haired warrior extraordinaire, he of the perpetual Old Southern Charm and bulging wardrobe of identical black designer suits, righter of wrongs (couldn’t resist that!) and killer of villains natural and otherwise. 
The last time we heard of him (see reviews below) it appeared that Aloysius had finally kicked the bucket, cruelly drowned at sea after a ferocious battle with a monster off the New England coast.  BUT!!!
We, his millions of devoted fans, know that couldn’t possibly happen, though Constance Green, his ward who wished to be his lover (what a strumpet!) truly believes that he has left this Vale of Tears, so she must too, at least by retiring to mourn alone in the depths of the basement of Pendergast’s bizarre family mansion on New York’s Riverside Drive.  There she can lead a life of the mind, studying literature, ikebana (she is so versatile!) and poetry, and let us not forget the harpsichord if she feels like bashing out a bit of Bach.  What more could she want?
Except that no-one has bargained for the return of the Devil in Designer Duds, Master of Many Disguises, Murderer of Many and (gasp!) sneering father of Constance’s little son. (who is being educated by Tibetan monks in an Indian monastery.  This is a fact!)  Diogenes, dreaded, homicidal younger brother of Aloysius, the beast that Constance had thought she had murdered by tipping him into a volcano, pulls off an ingenious plan to send Constance’s guardian and Aloysius’s General Factotum Proctor, off to Namibia on a wild goose chase, believing that Constance has been kidnapped, when all she was doing was banging away down below on the Harpsichord.  Oh, foolish Proctor!  It takes him just about the whole story to get back to New York, half-eaten by lions. That should larn him not to leave home.  With Constance in an unguarded and vulnerable state, Diogenes has the way clear to – plight his troth!  It’s true.  A more bizarre plot twist could only happen in the next Pendergast novel.
Anyway.  Surprise, surprise!  Aloysius has been plucked from a watery grave by a boat full of drug smugglers, who find out who he is and decide to ransom him, hoping the FBI will cough up;  in the meantime, they treat their prisoner badly, earning dreadful retribution when Our Hero breaks free from his bonds:  he too returns home much the worse for wear;  a new set of cuts, bumps and bruises, and yet another designer suit in tatters – there to find that Constance has flown the coop with Diogenes, of all people.
There is nothing for it but to pursue that Dastard, and by superior deduction, tracking skills and plain old Southern common sense, Aloysius and his millions of readers reach the end of the tale in one piece – but what of Diogenes and Constance?  Constance, once again, has declared her great love for prissy Aloysius, only to be rejected:  will she go over to The Dark Side?  Revenge is a dish that people of taste prefer to eat cold, as the saying goes, and we are all set up to wait for the next episode.  I have my theories as to What Will Happen Next, but really, the plot is so mad that Preston and Child, those masters of the absurd, can – and will – take us anywhere they like!  FOUR STARS
             
Crimson Shore, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

            ‘When the doorbell chimed, Constance Green stopped playing the Flemish virginal and the library fell silent and tense.’
            Well.  Who else would start off a novel with such deliciously florid and torrid prose but Messrs Preston and Child – and do it so successfully?  This is the latest in a long line of adventures starring Special FBI Agent Aloysius Pendergast and his mysterious ward, Constance, proficient virginal player.  The plots of each book have become progressively more outlandish, unbelievable – and HEAPS of fun, not to mention faster paced than a speeding bullet.  And let us not forget the addictive factor:  Agent Pendergast, with his silvery eyes, inexhaustible supply of funereal bespoke suits, seeming invincibility against everything that villains most dastardly can throw at him, and superlative deductive powers (he has more PhDs than you can shake a stick at) is a protagonist who has gathered devoted fans (including me) from all over the world – he has his own website, for goodness’ sake!
            We last met him in ‘Blue Labyrinth’ (see review below);  now, he and Constance are persuaded by a noted sculptor to do a little moonlighting:  someone has stolen the sculptor’s priceless wine collection from his home in a converted lighthouse on the wild and stormy New England coast.  Would Pendergast (whose stellar reputation at solving difficult crimes has even penetrated artistic circles) care to investigate?  There would be considerable financial reward – but our hero, after learning that a single case of wine had survived the theft, requests just one glorious item from that case:  a bottle of Chateau Haut-Braquilanges.  The Nectar of the Gods.  (Needless to say, for mere mortals such as I, its virtues would be entirely wasted.  It’s just as well Aloysius knows his stuff.  I’ll take his word for it.)
            Anyway.
Quelle horreur!  After careful examination of the wine racks, Pendergast is able to deduce – from a tiny finger bone (!) -  that behind the empty shelves is a niche which had contained a body – a man who was  bricked-up in said niche and left to starve to death:  the wine theft was a clumsy cover-up by people who wanted to remove the body and surrounding evidence.  There is a lot more villainy afoot in this storm swept little village than the theft of wine, distressing though that may be to its owner and wine connoisseur Pendergast.
            Naturally, the intrepid team of Pendergast and Green are soon following clues scattered everywhere like confetti;  Constance is dispatched to the local historical society, there to uncover evidence of the remains of a coven of Salem witches who fled from the trials and deaths of their sisters, and our Super FBI agent uncovers dreadful evidence in the wild salt marshes of a heinous 19th century crime – but wait:  there’s more!
            Constance, despite her penchant for prowling in dark basements and stubborn preference for retro garb (long cardies and longer tweed skirts), still harbours what can only be regarded as lustful thoughts towards her Guardian:   she lays her hand on his knee as they partake of the delights of Pendergast’s hard won bottle of Chateau whatsit.  A passionate embrace cannot be avoided, but Aloysius Pendergast is a man of superhuman self-control, and he thrusts her from him, crying ‘you are my ward!’
            Much to Constance’s fury.  (What a hussy!)  In fact she is so irate that she stalks out into the wild and stormy night clad only in her robe and nightie, filled with vengeful thoughts:  she will show that prissy paleface that she can solve the remaining mystery BY HERSELF.  Who needs Aloysius the Virginal (and we are not talking about the musical instrument): just you wait, she is the ultimate Weapon of Darkness – until someone even darker makes his big move. 
            Oh, oh, OH!  Constance is in the crapola, and can only be rescued by her funereal guardian, who realises too late that an arch enemy whom he thought dead (didn’t Constance push him into a bubbling volcanic crater?) has almost certainly returned.  Which just goes to show that Messrs Preston and Child can be as absurd as they like;  despite the presumed death of Aloysius, the disappearance of Constance (she has returned to the reassuring darkness of the basement) and the resurrection of Diogenes, Pendergast’s diabolical bro, we are still hanging onto every word and furious because this episode of epic silliness is finished. Well, buggeration is all I can say.  Preston and Child had  better be writing the next adventure at the speed of light.  What fun -can’t wait.  FOUR STARS

Blue Labyrinth, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Special FBI Agent extraordinaire Aloysius Pendergast returns yet again to do battle against the forces of evil – and not before time, I say!  His myriad fans have been languishing without him, and it’s all very well for Messrs Preston and Child to throw them a bone from time to time with various solo novels and the combined authorship of a series featuring a new hero, Gideon Crew, BUT.
All that secondary activity is a mere distraction until the Master resurfaces, this time to fight a mysterious new villain, one who has hidden his identity so well that more than half the book is (greedily) consumed before his identity is revealed.
In common with all the other evil ones that Pendergast has dispatched to the hereafter, Mystery Man is festering with hatred towards our pale hero -  but he is no ordinary Dastard, for he is motivated by revenge:  thanks to an awful genetic curse wrought upon his family by one of Pendergast’s ancestors, Mystery Man contrives through absolutely genius planning, to infect Pendergast with the same fatal malady - but not before leaving the dead body of Pendergast’s twin son on the Agent’s front doorstep as a calling card and to start the ball rolling.  Pendergast’s days are numbered!
Now.  Because Pendergast knows something about absolutely everything he is able to self-medicate for a while as he searches for his killer, but as the horrid disease starts to have its wicked way, raising his temperature uncomfortably in his black wool suits, he realises that the cavalry will have to be summoned – and who better to ride to his rescue than Margo Green, anthropologist and ethnopharmacologist,  doughty companion on many previous bloody adventures at the New York Museum of Natural History.  It will be her job to manufacture ASAP an antidote from rare  ingredients pinched by none other than Constance Green, Pendergast’s mysterious ward – well, she’s certainly mysterious to ME, as I haven’t yet found the book (and I thought I had read them all) where she makes her first appearance.
By any reader’s calculation she must be about 150 years old, but is as young and glowing as the dawn;  the only clue to her advanced years is her curiously formal way of speech, and her retro fashion sense, but – but the woman is an Amazon!  And she knows HEAPS about various acids, and how to administer them to nasty men who should know better than to try to stop her at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden from stealing a super-rare plant to save Pendergast’s failing life.  Constance Green is a warrior, and she accomplishes grand larceny and mass murder in minimum time and maximum efficiency (he’s definitely worth it!) clad only in a silk Teddy.  Sorry, Constance:  chemise.
Does Our Hero survive?  Well, what a silly question:  of course he does, returning to his healthy pallor in no time at all, and enjoying a fresh supply of Armani funeral garb.  And he and Constance are closer than ever, which is only right:  she rubbed out half an army of mercenaries that he might live!  Do you suppose she fancies him?  Watch this space.  FOUR STARS

             

Sunday, 13 November 2016

GREAT READS FOR NOVEMBER, 2016

The Mare, by Mary Gaitskill


           Velveteen Vargas is eleven years old and she lives in Brooklyn, New York with her mother and younger brother Dante.  The slum neighbourhood in which they live is populated with families whose parents work hard and have little;  Velvet’s Mum works hard and has even less for the children’s father left them years ago and has another family.  He doesn’t send any money, except for the occasional dollar sent to Dante for his birthdays, but Velvet is never the recipient of the occasional anything:  in his eyes she seems not to exist.
            Velvet’s mother Sylvia came from the Dominican Republic many years before but still cannot speak English;  she is also illiterate, believing that education never helps anyone;  people all have to endure a hardscrabble existence whether they can write their name or not.  Consequently, anything on paper must be translated and read out by Velvet, and instead of being praised for her responsibility she is often beaten so badly she has come to the attention of the school social workers.  Fortunately for him, Dante is treated as the Golden Child by his mother, a role he plays to the hilt.  Once again, Velvet is forced to wonder why she isn’t treated the same as Dante and concludes that she must be worthless, a loser, someone not worth worrying about.  She is too young to understand that her mother blames her very existence on their current circumstances:  if she had never gotten pregnant with Velvet, Sylvia’s life would have been entirely different – she would be happy, not living in this nightmare!  Dante’s father would have stayed with them, their lives would be perfect! 
            Velvet has been turned into a punching bag so that her mum can get rid of all her frustrations, blighted hopes and hatred at her circumstances.  Velvet’s future is bleak.
            Until Velvet is enrolled in a holiday programme for disadvantaged children (her mother explained to the social worker that the child is now too big for daycare and is so stupid that she would sit on the tenement steps while Sylvia was at work and talk to strange men.  The social worker is appalled.)  It has been arranged for Hispanic and black children to spend two weeks upstate ‘in a country setting’ with kind and loving people who wish to give them a good holiday, and that first trip becomes Velvet’s salvation.
            She is billeted with Ginger and Paul, a prosperous and well-meaning white couple who live close to a riding stable;  when Velvet is taken to see the horses an epiphany occurs:  she meets a damaged and abused rescue horse called Fugly Girl, and a long, difficult transformation begins for them both, from hurt and crippled to whole and strong, culminating in emotional and spiritual triumph .  And if that sounds corny, well we’ll have to blame it on my inferior writing powers, for Ms Gaitskill has told a superb story:  each character (with the exception of Fugly Girl) narrates different sections of the novel, sometimes giving different versions of the same event, and it works beautifully, not least because Ms Gaitskill is a writer able to speak convincingly in any voice.  She lays bare the people behind the facades that we all build to protect ourselves, and she does it brilliantly.  SIX STARS!!

The Trespasser, by Tana French

I first became one of Ms French’s devoted fans when I read her excellent ‘Faithful Place’ some years ago;  her perfect blend of the treacherous shoals of a Dublin family’s dynamics with all its horror and humour, plus an unsolved disappearance and a cruel murder made one of the most entertaining and incisive thrillers I had read for some time.  (See ecstatic reviews below!)  Needless to say I have read with great pleasure everything she has written since;  she is a writer of consistent high quality and has never short-changed the reader – until now.
In her efforts to produce a story where we cannot possibly guess WhoDunit, Ms French has disappeared more than once into her own plot labyrinth;  I found myself continually thinking ‘Stop with the navel-gazing – get on with the story!’  but Ms French’s  tale proceeds at an eyelid-drooping pace and she refuses to speed up till she’s good and ready.  Fair enough, but as I only read at night I had enormous trouble staying awake.
 Anyway.
Detective Antoinette Conway, a lead character in Ms French’s previous novel ‘The Secret Place’ has achieved her dream of working permanently for the Dublin Murder Squad after serving an apprenticeship in Missing Persons;  unfortunately she feels that she is still an apprentice as she and her partner Steve have been consigned only to Domestic Incidents and Saturday night Brawls where people have been kicked to death because they looked at someone funny.  Where’s the skill in that?  Until their Gaffer puts them both as lead detectives on something more meaty:  a young woman has been found dead in her home while she was preparing a romantic dinner for two the night before.  This is not what Antoinette and Steve usually investigate, and they would both feel grand about it if they hadn’t just finished the night shift, but never mind – show willing!  This could be their big break!
Except that they have been assigned a rock-star older Detective to ‘mentor’ them – not to interfere, mind, but just to offer shrewd advice whenever he thinks they might be heading down the wrong track:  the trouble is, the rock star seems to be throwing red herrings at them by the bucketful – and why?
            Antoinette has not made any friends on the Murder Squad;  she’s a prickly girl who tells people truths they would rather not hear, but she doesn’t care – she has had to withstand discrimination all her life because she has mixed parentage;  also because she is a woman doing a man’s job.  Well, they’ll all have to get over themselves:  she’s here;  she’s good, and she intends to stay.
            Which would be fine if there weren’t so many shadowy people working against her – even in her own squad, she discovers, and true to form she manages to alienate even those few who believe in her.  After all, attack is always the best form of defence.  Except when a brutal murder needs to be solved.
            There are still flashes of Ms French’s trademark wit and humour in the guise of Antoinette as acid-tongued narrator, but there are enough what-ifs, buts and maybes to investigate the serial-killing of a dozen young women, not just one, and that’s a shame;  one of the strengths of Tana French’s writing is her perfect pace and razor-sharp characterisations, sadly absent this time.  FOUR STARS, in the hope that the next book will be back to her usual high standard.

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 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.  FIVE STARS

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 together, 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 behaviour 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:  FIVE STARS