MORE GREAT READS FOR JULY, 2017
Himself, by Jess Kidd
Mahony sees ghosts. Not because he wants to, but because they want to reveal themselves. To him. Whether he likes it or not. Mahony is an orphan, having been left as a baby on the steps of a Dublin Orphanage run by the Nuns. His Catholic education was strict; In the 1950’s Irish Catholic institutions were long on God’s punishment and short on His Grace, and His mercy was in equally short supply: Mahony was a child deemed to have the devil in him and regular beatings were required to remove Satan from his wicked little soul – not that the holy chastisement worked, for Mahony has an incorrigible lightness of spirit; a joie de vivre about him that is unquenchable – and fatally attractive to women (with the exception of those in holy orders), as he discovers when he reaches eighteen and can finally leave his childhood prison.
He also discovers, through a letter left with him when he was a foundling and given to him as he departed that his given name is Francis Sweeney, and his late mother, Orla Sweeney, came from Mulderrig, a small village in Ireland’s West. In the first heady rush of freedom from his captors, it was not a top priority of Mahony’s to check his family’s origins, and it is not until 1976 when he is twenty-four and going nowhere (except to prison if he is not careful) that he decides it’s time to go somewhere, specifically Mulderrig, to start asking questions about his ancestry, to find out if there are any family members left who could answer the Million Dollar question: who is his Daddy?
And he soon finds that Mulderrig is the most secretive place of all: the locals will reveal nothing to him, except to say that Orla left the village with her baby when she was sixteen, and good riddance! She was a wild one who deserved everything that happened to her. But what happened to her? The more Mahony investigates, the less is revealed, especially in the forest on the outskirts of Mulderrig, where he meets the ghost of a little six-year old girl, whom everyone believes was killed in a car accident, but was murdered because she saw something she shouldn’t. The dead are the only ones who want to communicate with him, but the living are the ones in the know.
This is Ms Kidd’s debut novel, and it succeeds brilliantly on multiple levels: it’s a thriller, a mystery, a mini family saga – and it contains some of the best comic writing I’ve read in ages; all the characters are larger than life, and so they should be, from the ancient and brilliant retired actress who once trod the boards at the famed Abbey Theatre; the unscrupulous village priest – forced into the vocation because his father thought he would be no good at anything else; and the flint-hearted wealthy widow with the cast-iron perm who, in her former life as a nurse in a rest-home, euthanised her patients because she didn’t like the elderly. There is Irish humour at its most beguiling, boisterous and rollicking – but Ms Kidd can also ‘make a glass eye cry’: animal lovers be warned. You’ll need the tissues. She can be beautifully lyrical and darkly tragic in a heartbeat, but always captivating. Fair play to you Ms Kidd, fair play. FIVE STARS.
The Supremes Sing the Happy Heartache Blues,
By Edward Kelsey Moore
Odette, Barbara Jean and Clarice have been friends since childhood, and are known as the Supremes for their steadfast loyalty to each other. They are now grandmothers (with the exception of Barbara Jean) but still all meet after Sunday Church at Earl’s All-You-can-Eat Diner with their respective spouses to swap gossip and watch the more outrageous customers in the sure knowledge that they will live up (or down) to their notoriety and cause a stir better than any TV Soap.
The Supremes’ lives are going well: Odette has reached her five-year clearance after her bout of cancer; Barbara Jean has married her teenage love Ray Carlson, ‘ the King of the Pretty White Boys’ (see review below) and Clarice has just embarked on her rejuvenated musical career after abandoning her early promise as a prodigiously talented pianist for marriage and motherhood. Their friendship is as strong and important to them as ever – in fact, none of them can see a single cloud on their collective horizon – until they attend a wedding where part of the floor show is an old Blues man, playing his guitar and wailing his songs of love and tragedy with such glorious feeling that his audience is transfixed – that is everyone except State Trooper James, Odette’s cherished husband.
Odette has always known of James’s impoverished upbringing, how he and his mother were deserted by their feckless junkie father, but not before James was slashed with a knife across his face by his dad – it was a terrible mistake, but James’s father was aiming the knife at his mum, because she had hidden his stash. Someone was destined to be hurt, but the world of pain, physical, mental and spiritual caused by the act had just worsened for them all.
When it is revealed that the great wedding entertainer is James’s father, Odette does her very best to act as an agent of reconciliation, not because she has any feeling, let alone admiration for her father-in-law, but because she feels that her beloved husband will be better off eventually if he can divest himself of all that heart breaking baggage and gain peace of mind through forgiveness. Yeah, right. James has always been a ‘Still Waters Run Deep’ kind of guy, and that which is swimming in his depths is terrible indeed. It is up to the Supremes in their individual ways to try to offer support and change the situation, but how? And when?
Mr Moore writes of his characters with grace and unflagging humour (tall thin James and short fat Odette are told they look like a perfect 1o. Fair enough!), but he tells a serious story, a story of tragedy, its sister dire poverty, cruelty, and souls lost and redeemed – a classic Blues story that belts out its music on every page: this little book is a gem. FIVE STARS
The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat, by Edward Kelsey Moore
This is not a recent novel; it was published in 2013, but it is new to our library – and all I can say is: BETTER LATE THAN NEVER!
This little story could be called a heart-warmer, but that hoary old cliche doesn’t do it sufficient justice, for the characters and events are portrayed so lovingly and well that they don’t deserve to be consigned to a genre, for the Supremes and their friends and family are a force of nature, bowling over the unsuspecting reader with their sheer zest for life.
First, we have Big Earl, owner of the All-You-Can-Eat Diner and his wife Miss Thelma, two mighty pillars of black society in the small Indiana town of Plainsview. Their rock-solid and silent support has helped many a needy person on the path to future stability: those that can’t or won’t be helped still know that Big Earl and Miss Thelma will never give up on them regardless, which in itself is an source of enormous comfort.
The Supremes are next, called that because the trio have been together since Grade School; now they are in their fifties and two of them are grandmothers. They have endured heartbreak, infidelity and despair but their friendship, their sisterhood is as strong as ever. Odette, the most fearless of the three (and the fattest; she loves the All-You-Can-Eat for obvious reasons) has had reason lately to worry: she has not been feeling great and puts it down to The Change, but more concerning are the conversations she has been having with her sassy and irreverent old mama lately, who has taken to visiting any old time of the day and offering up her five cents worth whether Odette wants it or not. The big problem with these visitations is that that’s what they are: visitations. Odette’s mama has been dead for six years.
Supreme # Two Clarice showed great promise as a classical pianist when she was a girl, but love in the form of the local football hero got in the way; marriage and children followed – not that Clarice minded exchanging her musical dreams for family and becoming the local piano teacher instead, but she minds very much being wed to a serial cheater. Something will have to give, and it won’t be her!
Barbara Jean is the beauty of the three, also the most disadvantaged by having an alcoholic mother who died at a very young age. Fortunately, after a series of horrible experiences, Barbara Jean is taken in by Big Earl and Miss Thelma: stability at last! Until she meets another of Big Earl’s waifs and strays, Ray Carlson, a young white boy who has been beaten and brutalised by his racist brother, his only relative. He works as a busboy for Earl and lives in the storage shed. Everyone is intrigued (but not surprised) that Earl has given him shelter, for that is what Big Earl does. The Supremes – like all his customers – are fascinated by Ray, not least because he is so handsome and it doesn’t take them long to come up with the right name for him: The King of the Pretty White Boys. And Barbara Jean and The King of the Pretty White Boys eventually fall in love, setting the scene for heartbreak, for Indiana in the 60’s is not the place for interracial love.
How the Supremes and their friends and family (not to mention the ghosts!) deal with the thunderbolts that God, ‘that Great Comedian’ sends them during their lives is beautifully recounted by Mr Moore; throughout his lovely story the twisted thread of racism, subtle or overt is always present but never triumphs - and the very best thing? Mr Moore has written a sequel, ‘The Supremes Sing the Happy Heartache Blues’. Lead me to it! FIVE STARS.
Summary Justice, by John Fairfax
John Fairfax is the pen name for William Brodrick, a British barrister who gave up the law to become a full-time novelist. And what a successful transition he has made, especially as knows what he’s talking about!
In this story he has constructed the classic courtroom drama, not usually expected to engender suspense in the heart of the reader, but the defence of a young woman ‘guilty as sin’ in a seemingly open and shut case of murder becomes the classic WhoDunnit when her lawyer, himself tried successfully for murder sixteen years before, exposes great holes in the prosecution’s case against her.
Will Benson has come a long way since finishing his eleven year sentence – and against daunting odds. Very few people with the exception of his family believe in his innocence, and his wish to study law is roundly derided – except for an anonymous donor who pays for his tuition, and his original defence lawyer who believes in him and helps him through the labyrinthine paths of qualifying as a barrister (against huge legal opposition) so that he can eventually set up shop on his own – with the help of another ex-guest of HM Prison system as his law clerk, and Tess de Vere, a young woman whose idea it was originally for him to study law, as his solicitor. It is a bold and headstrong move, with no guarantee of success – or any income at all – until Sarah Collingstone, accused of the murder of her employer James Bealing sacks her legal team and hires Benson - because she’s innocent, as he was.
Benson is a very damaged man. His years in prison have not been kind to him, and his release has thrown up new problems: physical and mental harassment from the family of his ‘victim’. They never relent and he can never retaliate; the terms of his release mean that anything physical visited upon anybody by him result in a quick trip back to prison. He is powerless – until he returns to the very same courtroom where he was sentenced, to defend to his utmost, steadfast ability a woman whose innocence he believes in utterly.
Mr Fairfax paints a clever picture of the various class structures in Britain, particularly in its ancient and venerable legal system, a system as exclusive and secret ‘as a Masonic handshake’, and impregnable against those who have admitted guilt for a major crime, as Benson was forced to do so that he could at least begin his law studies in prison. And, as this tightly controlled and complex plot advances, it is very satisfying to know that the young woman is indeed innocent – but if she didn’t do it, THEN WHO DID?!
I certainly had no idea, and I pride myself on figuring out who the evil ones are, but not this time. This is a very competently-written introduction to what I hope will be a series; the protagonists have left a number of questions unanswered, so fingers crossed. FOUR STARS