Saturday, 22 July 2017

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 
           
   









           
   

  
           
    






Saturday, 8 July 2017

FIRST GREAT READS FOR JULY, 2017

A Game of Ghosts, by John Connolly


         Charlie Parker’s back!  But I have to say that his battles against evil with his redoubtable friends Louis and Angel are proceeding at a very pedestrian pace in this particular episode:  Charlie is still pursuing his usual ghostly enemies, but for this story at least, they are a pretty tame lot, murderous though they may be. They are descendants of the Capstead Martyrs, an 1850’s sect who made a pact with the terrible Angel Belial that, if they kept on killing (i.e. blood sacrifices) they would never have to answer for their crimes in the next world - which is so terrifying that if we mere mortals had any inkling of its existence we would try to stay alive forever!
            Be that as it may.  Charlie is instructed by laconic FBI Agent Edgar Ross, his sometime employer, to search for private investigator Jaykob Eklund who has not contacted Ross for two weeks.  Eklund was on the trail of the Capstead descendants;  he also had evidence of ghostly presences connected to them, a theory the hard-bitten Ross dismisses:  from previous experience however, Charlie knows differently.
            As is the norm in a Charlie Parker book (see reviews below), there are a treasure trove of minor characters, all beautifully drawn and some completely unforgettable, like The Collector, a murderous avenger who collects a souvenir from each of his victims;  (we say farewell to him in this volume, and I stress again:  you really need to read the previous stories) and Mother, widow of a shadowy super gangster, who is determined to wind up all his criminal enterprises – to the dismay and fury of her son Philip, who has the ambition but not the skill to continue operations.  Compared to them, not to mention that mismatched pair of killers, Angel and Louis, the Capstead descendants are third rate, and their eventual come-uppance hardly raised an eyebrow, let alone my heart-rate.
            Fortunately, Charlie Parker’s daughters alive and dead, provided more goose pimples:  Sam the living daughter, has daily conversations with her dead sister Jennifer;  they have appointed themselves guardians of Charlie and Co. and have developed formidable powers between them in an effort to keep their father safe, as Sam’s mother Rachel discovers when she decides to place restrictions on Sam’s access to Charlie:  everything hits the fan, and Rachel is persuaded to change her mind by the reactions of her living daughter – and the dead one.
            So.  Still plenty of reasons to look forward to the next book, but I hope that Mr Connolly, that master of supernatural suspense, is back on song next time – in this book, all the I’s are dotted and T’s crossed;  answers are given to outstanding plot questions, but in such a perfunctory manner that the reader could be forgiven for thinking that Mr Connolly rushed to finish everything off so that he could indulge himself in something more interesting.  FOUR STARS      

A Time of Torment, by John Connolly

The State of West Virginia hides a reclusive sect within one of the smallest counties within its bounds, Plassey County.  Everyone in the adjoining villages surrounding The Cut, as it is known, are careful not to recognise – or God forbid – antagonise the Cut dwellers;  it is common knowledge that bad things happen to them if they do.  People disappear, and if they don’t, their bodies are found burnt and desecrated.  The people of the Cut keep to themselves, and their neighbours are happy to leave them alone.  It is rumoured that their small sect worships an alien God, a God of blood and retribution, a God that no normal Christian could countenance:  the Dead King.
Enter private investigator Charlie Parker, no stranger to battling the forces of evil, and recently terribly injured in his efforts to vanquish his enemies.  He comes to Plassey County to find his client, a man just released from prison after serving a trumped-up sentence for child molestation.  His only request of Charlie is to look into the disappearance of two women who were dear to him while he was inside;  women who didn’t believe that he was guilty of the heinous crimes of which he was accused.  He also tells Charlie that if he disappears, then he has been kidnapped, probably by The Cut, and his life will be over.  Charlie and his two murderous sidekicks Louis and Angel, are ready as always to ferret out the truth and find out where the bodies are hidden, not to mention adding a few corpses of their own to the growing pile.
Last, but certainly never least, Charlie’s two daughters, one living and one dead watch over him with varying degrees of anxiety – at least on the part of Jennifer, the little daughter murdered many years before.  (You really DO have to read these books from the beginning!)  Samantha, daughter # 2, seems to have more confidence in her father’s ability to successfully fight the Dead King;  she has quite exceptional powers of her own, which have yet to be tested.
John Connolly has always described his Charlie Parker tales as ‘odd little books’:  maybe they are for some but for legions of his fans around the world, odd is good!  (see 2014 review below)  His characters are always, without exception, well-drawn and credible and each story is wonderfully plotted with just the right mix of horror and humour – and always, ALWAYS beautifully written.  It won’t be a spoiler to say that the people of The Cut are eventually defeated, but horror and dread is still just around the next corner for Charlie and his mighty friends.  FIVE STARS.


A Song of Shadows, by John Connolly

In ‘The Wolf in Winter’, John Connolly’s last opus an attempt was made on the life of Charlie Parker, dark hero of most of Mr Connolly’s books.  He was grievously wounded, but with a choice he made whilst hovering between life and death, and the spiritual support (literally) of his murdered daughter (it pays to have read the preceding books), Charlie decides to give life one more chance.  With the devoted assistance of Louis and Angel, hired killers par excellence he rents a house in a little village on the Maine coast, there to try to regain his former strength and dexterity.
It is a long, painful road back to recovery.  Charlie is not used to the weakness and agony his many injuries cause him but he is determined to get better:  he made the decision to live, now that is exactly what he plans to do.
He is delighted to have a visit from his daughter Samantha, his child by his ex-lover Rachel, and it gives him pleasure to have found a playmate for her;  his beach side neighbour, Ruth Winter has a little girl Amanda who, despite health problems that keep her away from school a lot, welcomes Sam’s company:  from a social perspective life is good.
Until a body is found on a nearby beach, and it is eventually established that it wasn’t a drowning or a suicide, but murder;  at the same time a family has been found murdered in their burning house and the Maine police are swamped with crimes for which they are badly under-resourced.  Tragically, these crimes pale into insignificance when Ruth Winter is cruelly murdered on the night of Sam and Amanda’s playdate, but the most uncanny event for Charlie Parker is that his daughter wakes him to tell him that a man is trying to enter Ms Winter’s home.  How could she know?
Charlie is injured trying to apprehend the murderer on the dunes and it seems that finally his own life is about to end – until Sam (who was under strict instructions to stay in her bedroom) appears at his side to confront the killer – who succumbs to burial under a massive fall of sand, an occurrence that hasn’t happened for decades at that part of the beach .To say that Sam is no ordinary little girl is an understatement.
It is time for Charlie, with the assistance of Louis and Angel, to return to what he is best at:  investigating murder and stamping out evil – if he can, and the deeper he delves into Ruth’s killing, unspeakable old crimes and pure evil finally reveal themselves, for Ruth, a Jew, was killed so that she would not disclose anything she may have inadverdently learned about old Nazis:  Nazi war criminals who entered the United States from Argentina under assumed identities, several of whom settled in Maine.  None wish to be exposed and sent back to Germany, and they will go to any lengths, including multiple murders, to stay where they are.
Charlie Parker is a different person now, after his close brush with death.  There is an implacability, a hardness and resolve about him that cause his loyal friends much disquiet but they are determined – as always – to support him to the hilt in his efforts to purge evil.  Charlie is unfazed by the fact that the battle may be uneven;  what nearly stops his heart is the knowledge that his daughter Sam is just as committed as he to stamp out the enemies of the world, and he is fully aware that she is in just as much danger.
As always, Mr Connolly leaves his readers in terrible suspense right to the last page -  which only poses more questions and enables this beautifully written series to continue.  What a master he is, and what a pleasure it is to read a Charlie Parker book.  FIVE STARS

Don’t Let Go, by Michel Bussi

          French Author Michel Bussi (according to the book blurbs) is the second highest-selling author in France, but it is only recently that his novels been translated into English starting with the superb thriller ‘After the Crash’ (see ecstatic 2015 review below), and followed by ‘Black Water Lilies’ – such a disappointment to me that I did not waste my time writing a review for such a mediocre offering;  after limping to the end of it I decided reluctantly that Mr Bussi was a One Hit Wonder -   until now.
            When ‘Don’t Let Go’ became available, the memory of ‘After the Crash’ convinced me to give Mr Bussi another try, and while his latest work is still below the very high bar he set for himself originally, it’s still a classy, highly readable thriller, proving that when he’s not distracted from his day job (a Professor of Geography:  where does he find the time!) he can write suspense novels par excellence.
            The Mascarene Island of Réunion is a French possession in the Indian Ocean and prides itself on being the perfect tourist destination;  it has everything required for R & R – perfect weather and beaches, palm trees, five-star accommodation, an oversupply of bars and night clubs – and a wondrous, frightening number of active volcanoes.  No matter if the local population lives in varying degrees of minimum-wage poverty and squalor;  tourism is the premier industry  and those with Euros to spend must be kept ignorant of poverty, squalor – and the crime that accompanies it - at all costs.
            Therefore, it comes as an enormous shock to the local police force when the beautiful wife of a tourist couple goes missing from the top-class hotel in which they were staying.  She left behind her husband and six year old daughter, saying she was going to change after her swim;  then she was not seen again.  She was reported missing by her distraught husband, but subsequent enquiries reveal that he had also gone back to their room, and was eventually seen by several hotel employees wheeling a laundry cart downstairs and outside to his rental car:  rumours rebound from one end of the island to the other:  tourist Martial Bellion has killed his wife Liane after a domestic (lots of locals could identify with that) and tried to shield himself by reporting her missing, BUT.  Now he has disappeared, too, along with his little daughter Josapha.  A manhunt is launched – this man is dangerous, a killer, for two more murders are discovered in the course of the police search.  All the evidence, circumstantial though it may be, fits:  Martial is a crazed murderer and his little daughter will probably be next, if she hasn’t been despatched already.
            Mr Bussi writes very convincingly and well of island life and politics;  he is a good researcher and brings to life in his no-nonsense prose the various levels of strata in the lives of the haves and have-nots.  And it eventually comes as no surprise to find that handsome tourist Martial has several shameful secrets, secrets that don’t show up well in the light of day:  is he as guilty as the police think?  And if not, then who is?
            I am happy to say that I didn’t know Whodunit until Mr Bussi chose to let me.  He is definitely back on song with ‘Don’t Let Go’;  his characters are always engaging, especially the local police chief and her Second-in-Command and, apart from an unnecessary touch of melodrama when the real killer is revealed, he has done much to restore the respect I lost for him after staggering through ‘Black Water Lilies.’  FOUR STARS 
              
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.  SIX STARS!!