Sunday, 20 August 2017

MORE GREAT READS FOR AUGUST, 2017

Early Birds, by Laurie Graham.

 Laurie Graham is famous for writing immensely readable ‘social comedies’ as the book blurb says, and her latest novel is no exception.  It’s always a pleasure to settle down to enjoy each of her stories as they appear;  there are always great, true-blue characters that we can all recognise and identify effortlessly with what happens to them:  ill-health, tragedy, ageing and the ailments pertaining to;  precious, lifelong friendships sustained until the last gasp, and most importantly, lots of laughs. 
            Early Birds is the sequel to ‘The Future Homemakers of America’,  Ms Graham’s 2001 story of the young wives of American Airmen stationed in Norfolk, England in the 1950’s.  They weathered many an emotional and physical storm together, especially Lois, married to Herb, the best, most faithful husband anyone could wish for, but choosing instead to take an English lover who was anything but stable – the resulting child from that unhappy liaison being raised by Herb as his own. 
Now it is 2000 and the young women have become elderly;  Peggy Dewey, who narrates their latest adventures, has had a chequered career of her own:  her marriage to Airman Vern Dewey collapsed when he retired from the Air Force;  she bowed out because she objected to having the living room furniture thrown across the room – at her.  Now she and her inadvertent companion Grice, a much younger Gay man, have been asked to assist in the care of Vern, whose second wife has died:  Peggy’s daughter Crystal has been trying – and failing – to look after Vern, who now has Alzheimer’s.  Would they PLEASE get their selfish asses out of Texas and come to Maine to give her some help?  PLEASE??
So they do.  For their living circumstances in Texas are anything but ideal.  They are between the classic rock and the hard place – surely,  looking after Vern so that Crystal can work at being a taxidermist (!) and work at her shaky marriage to vegetarian Marc can’t be that difficult.  Can it?
Ms Graham writes beautifully of family relationships, fractured and otherwise:  Lois and Herb come to visit to give some respite care for those at the coalface of Vern, only for Lois to extend the visit by breaking her hip in a fall – which is common in ladies of a certain age, but she is anything but common, and certainly not a docile patient.  Then the huge, nation-wide tragedy occurs:  the attack and collapse of the Twin Towers, with its accompanying terrible loss of life shocks the world and conspiracy theories abound, even in Maine:  Vern’s stepson Eugene has constructed a bunker and fills it with canned food – all very well and good until the shelves collapse while he is underneath.  Things are only middling!  (As my dear old Granny used to say.)
Peggy begins a very cautious and tentative relationship with one of their remote ‘next-door’ neighbours;  it literally takes years to progress to the point where Grice says ‘Remember.  If you marry him you must promise to adopt me.’  Well, he is such a fabulous character that I would adopt him myself if I could!  Funny, touching and tender, this lovely story’s feel-good factor is guaranteed.  FIVE STARSü

Look Who’s Back, by Timur Vermes
         
           Berlin, 2011:  on a patch of waste ground where the Führerbunker was situated in 1945, Adolf Hitler wakes up, mightily confused.  How did he get here, and – surely more importantly – why?
            His uniform is grubby but intact;  he seems to possess all his excellent faculties;  his mind functions with its usual brilliance, and he is ready to lead the German Volk with his customary unerring genius – the only problem being that the Volk, in the shape of some kids kicking a ball around close by speak a language that is entirely unfamiliar to him: ‘ ‘Hey guys, check this out!’  ‘Whoooooa, major casualty!’ ‘  Then, ‘ ‘You alright, boss?’ ‘ All this without the Nazi salute!  It was obvious they wished to return to their game, but show him to the street when he demands directions from the tallest boy, who must have been their Hitler Youth leader.  (Hitler is gratified to see that the boy’s mother, a flower of good German Womanhood, had sewn the boy’s name to his shirt.)  ‘ ‘Hitler Youth Ronaldo!  Which way to the street?’ ‘
            So begin Hitler’s adventures in 21st century Germany, narrated by the man himself.  A kind News Vendor offers him shelter in his kiosk – even lending him a pair of ‘Genes’ so that he could get his uniform drycleaned, and introducing him to some of his customers, producers of comedy shows on local television.  Hitler is unimpressed with their attempts to find out who he really is, and finds tiresome the fact that he has to keep repeating himself all the time:  he is Der Fürhrer, for Pity’s sake!  It is not his fault if they have trouble accepting that.  What HE has trouble accepting is that it appears that he is the only one who has made this puzzling journey through time – none of his staff is here (what he wouldn’t give to have good, faithful Bormann by his side!) and he must carve out a new life for himself – and eventually, the Volk:  if he can gain exposure on this wonderful new invention of TV - even as ‘a Hitler Impersonator’ – well, that’s a start, and when his appearances go viral on YouTube ‘on the InterNetWork’, Herr Hitler is well pleased.  His powers of oratory have not left him:  thanks to the InterNetWork he now has a global audience.  World domination on behalf of the Volk will again be within his grasp!
            Until the ultimate irony occurs:  Der Führer receives the beating of his life one night by some Far Right louts, who called him ‘a dirty Jew’.  The nerve of them!  But he understands their feelings:  as he agreed with the Head of the TV company to whom he is now contracted when she said ‘The Jews are no Laughing matter”.  He succinctly replies ‘You are absolutely right!’
            Mr Vermes has written a brilliant satire which has since been made into a film.  It ruthlessly explores the hard-fought freedoms that everyone enjoys today without a thought, and exposes the shameful currents of racism and greed that underlie communities everywhere.  The old prejudices still apply.  He is a brave, honest and disturbing writer – and a very funny one.  SIX STARS!!


A Song for Drowned Souls, by Bernard Minier

          This highly-coloured page turner is a sequel to Mr Minier’s ‘The Frozen Dead’ (see 2015 review below).  Once again, sad burnt-out Commandant Martin Servaz is the main protagonist, trying to make sense of a senseless crime:  the murder of Claire Diemar, a wildly popular and beautiful young teacher at an exclusive prep school in a rich town near the Pyrenees.
            Her body has been found in her bath trussed up with metres of cord tied in complicated knots, and a small torch has been jammed down her throat:  still turned on, it gleams under the water like a tiny headlight.  And Mahler’s 4th Symphony has been set up to play on the stereo downstairs, a fact which makes Servaz’s blood run cold:  the escaped serial killer from Book One was a great Mahler aficionado – surely this can’t be his work, especially as one of the corpse’s 17 year old pupils, Hugo Bokhanowsky, is found sitting by the garden swimming pool off his head on God-knows-what.  It is up to Servaz and his team to refrain from seeing it as an open-and-shut case with Hugo as the killer as the local Gendarmerie believe, until the evidence makes it so – especially as Hugo is the son of Marianne, the great love of Martin’s youth. 
            The plot thickens!  Especially when the Commandant meets Hugo’s mother in the course of his investigations and realises that her allure is still as powerful as ever, meaning that he will move heaven and earth to prove that her son is innocent – he hopes.
            As his investigations progress and no stones are left unturned, Servaz is faced yet again with many more questions than answers. True to form he is threatened, beaten up and shot at more times than a body should rightly have to endure (partly his fault for not having his gun with him, then being a lousy shot when he does), but he stubbornly presses on, not least because of pressure from his bosses On High:  this murder at such an exclusive Prep school (teaching Tomorrow’s Leader’s, for God’s sake!) could make a big stink if the killer isn’t caught soon;  political lives and reputations depend on it, especially as one of the rising stars of the ruling party was having an affair with Claire Diemar – while his wife was at home, quietly dying of cancer.
            Mr Minier spares no-one in the police force or politics;  his characters display a scathing disrespect for their judicial and political rulers that made this reader wonder if such real-life institutions in France are really in such a weakened and corrupt state.  One certainly hopes not.
            There are many sub-plots in this book;  the prose is quite purple at times and there are a host of minor characters described with more detail than their importance requires.  Once again the plot has more twists and turns than a pretzel, BUT!  Mr Minier keeps us turning the pages at a hectic speed:  he knows how to draw the reader in – and teach us all a few unpleasant societal home-truths at the same time.  And there will be a Book Three:  the evil serial killer is still around and has not been brought to justice.  Servaz is on the hunt!  FOUR STARS.     

The Frozen Dead, by Bernard Minier

Swedish Noir has been at the forefront of thriller writing for the last decade:  now, a worthy challenge to its dominance has emerged from France.  This is the second novel (the first being Michel Bussi’s ‘After the Crash’) I have read recently that employs all the tried and true elements necessary for the success of Nordic dread;  lowering skies, brooding mountains (the Pyrenees), and a labyrinthine plot, solved brilliantly by the archetypal burnt-out detective – but in this case, Martin Servaz is more fallible than usual:  he is a lousy shot, and frequently leaves his police weapon in the glovebox of his car when he most needs it;  he is constantly on the receiving end of all sorts of criminal attempts on his life and survives only because other people fortuitously appear to rescue him;  BUT!  His saving grace is what makes every excellent investigator above the norm:  an incisive intelligence and intuition and an incomparable ability to think outside the square.
And he certainly needs to after being despatched from Toulouse to the small ski resort town of Saint-Martin in the Pyrenees, there to investigate the killing of …. a horse.  A horse??  Yes, but not just any horse – this animal was a thoroughbred belonging to one of the richest men in France, a powerful man who demands answers after his beloved animal was beheaded, then partly flayed before being strung up on a ski-lift.  It is a grisly crime, the ultimate in animal abuse, but hardly worthy of the huge numbers of police seconded to investigate – except that Servaz feels that this crime will be the start of worse things to come, especially when his enquiries lead him to a secluded psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane in the district, jam-packed with any number of likely candidates for the atrocity, if only the building and grounds weren’t as impregnable as Fort Knox.
His worst fears are confirmed when the first human victim is discovered hanging from a bridge, then another is murdered almost in front of his eyes in a carefully engineered trip on another ski lift:  his job is getting more impossible by the minute, especially when political pressure is exerted from high places.   The longer these crimes remain unsolved, the worse it looks for those in power. 
Fair enough – except that the higher-ups aren’t at the coalface, and Servaz and his offsiders are faced with many more questions than answers – until random clues start falling  into place, and the eventual shocking outcome  reveals villains that no-one could have suspected at the start of the investigation.  Which is as it should be:  the recipe for a superior thriller/crime novel is that (obviously) the reader shouldn’t figure out the solution until the end, and the pages should turn at a furious rate before one gets there.  ‘The Frozen Dead’ ticks all the boxes.  There could be a sequel , too, because the most homicidal villain escapes the long arm of the law, so I live in hopes of reading that he gets what he surely deserves in Book #2.  FIVE STARS






           

  

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

FIRST GREAT READS FOR AUGUST, 2017

Marlborough Man, by Alan Carter

  
          In 1991 Alan Carter emigrated from Britain to Australia.  He is the author of a series of crime novels (which our library has yet to obtain) that have brought him great success, and he divides his time, so the blurb says, between Fremantle and his property in the South Island of New Zealand – the Marlborough Sounds, to be exact.  Well.  It’s the U.K’s loss and Down Under’s gain.           
            And what a wonderful advocate he is of all things Kiwi, particularly in his neck of the woods at the top of the South Island:  there can be no keener observer of daily life, good and bad – including NZ politics and big business and its effects on the environment:  he doesn’t miss a trick, as my dear old gran used to say.  Add to that a clever plot and engaging characters, and crime writing has never been better.
            Police Sergeant Nick Chester is in a witness protection program, fleeing from the UK with his wife and Downs Syndrome child to anonymity – he thinks – 13,000 miles away Down Under.  He can’t be traced here, surely;  he and his family are set up in the back of beyond at the end of a dead end road little more than a gravel track, so.  Why does he still feel jumpy (paranoid would be closer to the truth), continually on edge, waiting for a sign that his enemies are coming for him?  To make the situation worse, the discovery of a child’s abused and tortured body, dumped by the side of a local road has galvanised and distracted all his colleagues from the usual boy racers, firewood thieves and Saturday night drunks.  He should concentrate on this shocking crime, not on vague feelings of unease, no matter how disturbing they may be.
            But his instincts are correct:  the criminals who want to kill him have the means to pay computer hackers to find him.  They are on their way;  he and his family are in mortal danger – then another little boy goes missing:  his life has become a nightmare. 
            Nick’s colleagues rally round:  another safe house is found for his wife and little boy until he can ‘dispatch’ the assassin who must inevitably show his face, or be dispatched himself, but their concerns – and his – are taken up with the discovery of the body of the second child in the same abused state as the first.  The whole of Marlborough is reeling with horror:  this bastard HAS to be caught – it can’t happen again!  Yeah, right.  That’s what everyone said the first time.  And making matters worse?  There are no clues;  no revealing evidence.  This sicko has done this before, including casting red herrings like confetti to lead everyone into dead ends which, predictably, lead to more dead bodies.
Mr Carter moves the action along at a very satisfying pace;  he is a smart, witty writer and his characters are all satisfyingly as they should be, from the villains (there are several grades of villain here, from the ‘good’ baddies who save Nick’s bacon, to the really evil paedo baddies that get caught in the end) to Nick’s colleagues, chiefly his sidekick Constable Latifa Rapata, smart-mouthed upholder of the local law and acknowledged expert in unarmed combat, when she isn’t ticketing boy racers – one of whom has fallen in love with her and wants to be engaged, even after a deadly beating she endured at the hands of the villain:  ‘Look!  Engaged, and me with a face like a kumara.  Isn’t he a sweetie?’  Nick can’t deny it, but Latifa is a sweetie, too, and from the novel’s conclusion it appears that we may not meet these great characters again, which will be our loss.  Chester and Rapata would have made a great team for a very satisfying future Kiwi crime series.  I hope Mr Carter will change his mind.  FIVE STARS    
           

Saints for All Occasions, by J. Courtney Sullivan


           It is 2009, and Nora Rafferty has just learnt of the death of her eldest (and favourite) son Patrick, dead in a car accident at the age of fifty - this best-loved boy, handsome, wild and feckless, and always protected from everything – including himself – by Nora and her late husband Charlie.  His death has blighted her old age more than Charlie’s ever did;  she needs to lash out, to hurt someone as she is hurting:  this is an agony not to be borne, so she calls a cloistered convent in Vermont and leaves a message ‘that Nora Rafferty was calling and she needed Mother Cecelia Flynn to know  that the Nun’s son Patrick had died late last night, in a car crash, alone.’
            This family saga is a book of secrets, kept not only by Nora from the rest of her family – her remaining children have no idea that she has a sister, let alone that she is a Nun – but by the Uncles and Aunties too, of the big Boston Irish family to which they belong.  The siblings are staggered to find that they are literally the last to know that when Nora and her younger sister Theresa came from their little village in Ireland to make a new life in Boston with relatives of Nora’s fiancé Charlie, everyone knew that the sisters had had a ‘falling-out’;  Theresa had obtained a teaching job in Brooklyn, then eventually entered a convent in Vermont.  Ancient history, not worth mentioning, so the family didn’t, until the Nun appears at the Wake.  Now John (always trying (and failing) to gain his mother’s approval and praise;  Bridget – gay, and hoping to have a baby with her lovely partner, if only her mother would not turn a blind eye to their relationship, introducing Natalie to everyone as Bridget’s ‘room-mate’;  and youngest son Brian, a failed Baseball player, drinking too much and living at home with his mother, need answers from the stoically silent matriarch.
            They’d better not hold their breath.  Fortunately, the reader is luckier:  in a series of flashbacks to the fifties and beyond,  Ms Sullivan,best-selling  author of ‘Maine’ (see review below) takes us back to Miltown Malbay, the village that set Nora and Theresa on their life’s path:  Nora is happy to be engaged to Charlie, the son of the neighbouring farmer;  she is not in love with him – in fact she is not sure she even likes him – but if they marry their two farms will combine, which will be a good thing.  Until another son inherits the farm, and Charlie decides to settle with his brother in Boston.  Nora’s fate is sealed;  she must go too, and decides to take flighty Theresa with her ‘to see that she doesn’t get into trouble’.  Oh dear.
            Theresa is wronged, and deserted, but Nora’s revenge on the man who shamed her sister is one of biblical proportions, aided always by loyal Charlie, who turned out to be so much more than she expected.  Wasn’t she the lucky one?
At the core of this fine book is what drives all families:  sibling rivalry (John says that when he was little, he always thought that Patrick’s name was MyPatrick, because that’s what Nora always called him), solidarity, lots of humour, family love – and secrets.  Always secrets.  Ms Sullivan writes simply and well of the old ways of conservative Irish Catholicism;  how it sustains – and constrains.    FIVE STARS  


Maine, by J. Courtney Sullivan

Three generations of women from the same family congregate at the old family beach house in Maine for the summer month of June – not because they planned to be together, but because circumstance dictates it.  Alice, the matriarch, first came to the property as a newly pregnant married woman nearly sixty years before;  her husband had won beautiful beachfront land on a bet with a friend and since then the family, now spanning four generations, have made annual pilgrimages to this lovely and cherished place.  Alice is in her 80’s, sharp as a tack, a devout Catholic with a tongue like a butcher’s knife – especially on matters of faith – and a defiantly heavy drinker.      
Alice’s granddaughter Maggie has also arrived to stay solo ‘for just a few days’;  the original plan of spending some idyllic time there with handsome but irresponsible boyfriend Gabe scuttled after a huge fight that has ended their relationship.  The problem now is that Maggie’s plan of confessing to Gabe that she is pregnant – in a setting guaranteed (she hoped) to introduce him gently and romantically to the responsibilities of impending fatherhood – has been thwarted:  she finds that at the age of thirty-two, she will have to soldier on alone.  Gabe informs her by email that he can’t deal with fatherhood ‘at this point in time’, which means it’s time to bite the bullet and inform the rest of the family, specifically her mother, Kathleen.
Kathleen is the oldest of Alice’s children, a former alcoholic and intentional rebel against everything that Alice holds dear:  thanks to several massive family confrontations, one involving the death from cancer of Kathleen’s beloved father Daniel, Alice and Kathleen are bitter foes.  Kathleen has sworn after her father’s death never to return to Maine – until she gets the news of Maggie’s pregnancy;  then she swoops in from California to take charge of her errant daughter and do battle with her detested mother.
And into this mix is added the long-suffering, martyred Ann Marie, Alice’s daughter-in-law, married to son Patrick (‘I am the ONLY one of this family who looks after YOUR mother and what thanks do I get?), who  has reluctantly arrived two weeks earlier than usual to keep an eye on Alice (and her drinking) because she couldn’t persuade Kathleen to come from California to do her family duty – until Kathleen gets the news of Maggie’s dilemma.  Ann Marie is furious.

The stage is set for family fireworks, and Ms Sullivan does not disappoint us:  she writes beautifully of fraught family dynamics, the struggles of successive generations to break iron-bound ties of faith and Irish conservatism, and the attempts by Kathleen and Maggie to be as unlike spiteful Alice as possible, without realising that they are more like her than they can possibly imagine.  No-one to their lasting regret has inherited Daniel’s sanguine and sunny nature, that calming and amiable influence that always steadied the family ship, and as Alice eventually reveals yet another bombshell guaranteed to shock her divided family to the core the reader is treated to the long-secret reasons for all the family slights and resentments.  Each woman has successive chapters to herself, a narrative device that works particularly well here, and by the end of this tender, funny and loving tribute to an American family, the reader feels as familiar with the Kelleher family as their own.  Ms Sullivan portrays beautifully ‘The importance of generations:  one person understanding life through the experiences of all the people who came before’.  FIVE STARS  .