Sunday, 15 October 2017

GREAT READS FOR OCTOBER, 2017

Among the Living, by Jonathan Rabb.

  
          Holocaust survivor Yitzhak Goldah has just arrived in Savannah, Georgia in the summer of 1947.  He is to live with his only surviving relatives, cousin Abe Jesler and Abe’s wife Pearl.
            He stands on the railway platform, feeling ghostly and entirely detached as his new-found family fuss around him;  they are all painfully polite to each other, as strangers invariably are – but Abe and Pearl have no conception of the impact their security and prosperity has on Goldah:  after years of unimaginable hell in the camps everything that is happening to him now is like a dream that is happening to someone else.  He is a ghost among the living.
            Savannah has a thriving Jewish community and Abe has done well in the shoe trade, rising from very humble beginnings to live in the best neighbourhood when he prospered.  He is proud to show his thin and exhausted cousin what he owns, especially his late-model car – ‘Brand new, Forty-Seven Ambassador with the unitized body.  You know your cars, Yitzhak?’
            No.  Pearl drops some clangers, too, about closing the drapes to his room as the sun could bake him ‘like an oven’, then weeps at her thoughtlessness:  it will take time before everyone relaxes enough to feel ‘normal’ again.
            As time passes Goldah endeavours to make his hosts know how grateful he is, what life savers they are, and how their generosity has given him another chance at life.  He has started work at Abe’s shoe store – a far cry from his job in Prague as a former overseas journalist for the prestigious Herald Tribune – but it occupies his time in a therapeutic way, and it doesn’t take him long to notice that Abe’s negro assistants, while not treated badly by him are regarded in the South as worthless.  Like the Jews of Europe.
            There is much for Goldah to absorb in his new life in America, not least the tremulous hope of a romance with one of Abe’s customers, a young war widow, the daughter of the local newspaper editor – a liaison frowned on by Pearl because the young woman’s family are ‘reformed Jews’ who go to a Temple, not to Shul, but this is not even worth thinking about for Goldah:  his life is starting again.  Hope, that vital emotion, has returned!
            As does another survivor:  The woman Goldah had pledged to marry, long thought to have perished in the camps.  She arrives in Savannah, irreparably damaged and holding Goldah to his promise:  she is now his responsibility – and his burden.  What this woman has endured was unspeakable, but Hope, for her, has died;  instead she despises the well-meaning people who want to help and comfort her, those fat smug Jews in Georgia who never knew what the war was really like – they never suffered a day in their lives!
            This is a very fine book.  Jonathan Rabb has told a story that aches with sadness at the same time as its lyrical prose fills the reader with hope:  what a literary accomplishment, a powerful chronicle of those who have the capacity to heal, and those who cannot.  His parallel story of Abe’s negro workers – unwittingly embroiled by him in shady dealings to their detriment – starkly underscores the age-old racism that blights even the very best of intentions.  Rabb’s characters are unforgettable and will remain with me for a long time, especially Goldah, who eventually becomes a Man Among the Living.  SIX STARS!

The Blood Miracles, by Lisa McInerney

            Ms McInerney is a writer of astonishing talent, smart enough to leave the reader gawping at her superlative imagery and language that swings a punch on every second page – that is, once one can figure out the local idiom for, as this novel is set in the city of Cork in Southern Ireland, English is not immediately recognisable as the main language.
            Fair enough.  This is not so much a warning as a respectful caution NOT TO GIVE UP EARLY!  I nearly did until I got hooked eventually by the plight of hapless Ryan Cusack, drug dealer and sad sack extraordinaire, a young man whose life is unravelling, thanks to an overindulgence in what he is dealing, a depressive episode (coming down off whatever he is sniffing/smoking only makes things worse), the imminent break-up of his long-term relationship with his True Love Karine, and a very risky deal to import ‘New Product’ from Italy by his Boss, Dan Kane.
            Ryan is essential to the success of the Italian venture, for he is bi-lingual.  His late mother was Italian and he still has relatives in Italy who dote on him, little realising what he is using his language skills for:  to his Nonna he and his siblings are perfect in every way:  the fact that he is facilitating drug deals between his boss and the Camorra would probably send her off to Heaven early.  She cannot know what he is really doing.
            No:  life is not good, and one night Ryan decides in a drugged-up haze to resign from the Human Race:  there are just too many insoluble problems all requiring his immediate attention;  it will be much easier to leave them all behind for someone else to deal with.  BUT!! 
            His cowardly exit is thwarted by an Ould Biddy, miraculously out for a walk on the very footbridge Ryan is contemplating The Dive.  She achieves the near superhuman feat of hustling him off the bridge and home to her place to come back to the land of the living, no easy task for Ryan is a snivelling quivering mess, in his own words ‘not worth saving’.
            Fortunately for him the Ould Biddy doesn’t believe him, and his eventual resurrection with her assistance (no:  it’s not a Damascus Moment – that would be too corny and corn doesn’t feature here) is one of the highlights of this great story, as is the revelation of her identity:  she has known him all his life, for she and his ill-fated mother were friends.
            And that is not the only revelation in store for Ryan.  I am not going to reveal any more plot shocks, (no spoiler alerts from me!), suffice it to say that Ms McInerney’s tale has more twists than a pretzel, with lies, betrayal and murder most foul playing a starring role – and humour, that wonderful Irish craíc that we have come to expect from even the least-talented of Irish writers – and Ms McInerney could never be on the lower rungs of contemporary Irish literature.  What a talent she is.  WHAT A BABE!  SIX STARS!!  (And I’ll really have to go easy on the exclamation marks.)

The Force, by Don Winslow

            Steven King has written an endorsement for the cover of Mr Winslow’s book, saying:  ‘Mesmerising, a triumph.  Think THE GODFATHER, only with cops.  It’s that good’.  And he is not wrong.
            ‘The Force’ is a huge story of corruption, the rot that creeps into the hearts and souls of men who start life with the very best of intentions, and the consequences that follow, planned for or not.  It’s a story of justifications, rationalisations and excuses, with a plot so chillingly topical that it is almost impossible for the reader to separate fact from fiction.  ‘It’s that good’.
            NYPD Detective Sergeant Denny Malone is at the very top of his game:  he heads an elite Drug Squad known as the Manhattan Task Force and his crime busts are legendary in the Manhattan North area they patrol, which includes the Black Projects in Harlem.  He is justly feared by dealers and addicts alike and he and his team Hold the Line against the various ethnic gangs hoping to gain a foothold in his domain:  he’s the King, and his team are his knights.  Mess with them at your peril. 
            He is also very wealthy, thanks to kickbacks, bribes and other easy money that various people pay him for protection:  he reasons that he deserves some perks for keeping good people safe, and if he and his squad didn’t line their pockets occasionally, the crims would spend it and that would be a waste.  He and his team have also risked their lives numerous times taking down gangsters, in fact they have just lost one of their own at a bust who left a pregnant girlfriend – because they weren’t married she can’t claim his pension.  But Denny and his men will make sure she gets a package every month.  They look after their own;  they are The Force – May Dah Force Be With You!
            Until the consequences from that particular raid turn up to haunt Denny in the shape of the FBI:  they have evidence on him that they have been collecting for months – they know he’s crooked and they can prove it (they say), but if he becomes their snitch they’ll ‘go easy’ on him (they say).  Graft, corruption among the legal fraternity – Denny knows things that would blow them all away:  they want names?  He’ll give them names, but he won’t rat on his workmates.  Never.  Never, until his family is threatened;  then he becomes that despicable low-life, a Snitch Cop. 

            The desperate measures that Denny takes to protect his loved ones and repair the irreparable damage he has done is the action that drives this breathtaking novel.  It is impossible not to side with Denny – crooked as a dog’s hind leg, but willing to murder a drug dealer who ordered the ‘execution’ of an entire family;  who used his crooked money to do numerous good things for his area; then did his best to bring down the worst culprits – the rich and powerful, the old money – and the old money-launderers.  The city of New York has never been portrayed so starkly and so well.  This is Mr Winslow’s mighty tribute to The Force.  His prose is as harsh and tough and funny as his characters, and unrelenting in its drive to depict one man’s loss of his soul, and his efforts to regain it.  SEVEN STARS!!!  (And every exclamation mark is deserved, so there!)   

Saturday, 23 September 2017

MORE GREAT READS FOR SEPTEMBER, 2017

A Dark so Deadly, by Stuart MacBride

  
          Detective Constable Callum MacGregor’s police career has reached a distressing Low:  he has been transferred to the ‘Misfit Mob’, so called because it is full of miscreants and has beens that Police Scotland don’t know what to do with.  They are charged only with cleaning up drunks, druggies and petty crime, the rationale being that everyone in the squad will eventually resign or die of boredom.
Callum is being investigated by a disciplinary committee on a fictional bribery charge;  his live-in girlfriend is due to have their baby in two weeks;  his precious privates have been squeezed to a pulp by a fleeing criminal, and two feral children from a particularly noxious part of the city have stolen his wallet, dropped in his pursuit of the aforementioned fleeing criminal.  His day surely couldn’t get worse – could it?
            Never think such thoughts while God’s listening:  when Callum eventually drags his wounded pride and body back to GHQ, it is to find that he has a new partner whether he wants one or not, DC Franklin, a beautiful black woman transferred from the South because she assaulted her boss.  And she assaulted her boss because he grabbed her backside;  he was just a sexist pig, and she’ll do the same again to the next grabber if she has to.  Get the picture?
            Yep, loud and clear.  All Callum wants to do is go home to be tenderly looked after by his beloved, but before he leaves he must endure various remarks about his ineptitude – delivered haiku-style – by his boss DI MacAdams, himself in the Misfit Mob because he is dying of bowel cancer, and MacAdams’s offsider DI Malcolmson, currently recovering from a heart attack.  Yes, everyone in their sorry little band has a story to tell, but it doesn’t stop them from longing to be back in the action again, doing REAL police work.  If only…….
            A capricious God decides to grant their collective wish:  mummified remains are found in a landfill, followed by the discovery of two more ‘mummies’, one in the boot of an abandoned car, the other on the coffee table in the flat of an ex-felon who drowned in the river in his attempts to flee from police:  the Misfit Mob is a-tremble with delight and anticipation – until they find that the clues they so eagerly pursue lead to the cleverest dead ends ever.  The more they investigate, the less they find.
            This is a mighty book, in weight, size (596 pages) and scope:  there are plenty more shocks ahead for Callum, especially on a personal level and none of them are good, for Callum was deserted by his family as a child and bought up ‘in care’;  he unearths clues from his past that he would rather not know, and evildoers that he thought he had forgotten forever.  Meantime, the Mummies lie in the morgue, silently waiting for their murderer to be revealed, and I defy ANYONE to figure out Who Done It.  Mr MacBride’s plotting is intricate and masterful and his characters are, as always, honest and entirely credible.  I am unsure if this latest book is stand-alone or the introduction to a new series, as in the Logan Macrae novels (see review below);   either way it was unputdownable, despite its weight.  FIVE STARS

In the Cold Dark Ground, by Stuart MacBride

Logan Balmoral MacRae is back, and about time, too, I say!  In the tried and true genre of Crime fiction – you know;  burnt-out detectives with shattered private lives but an uncanny knack for solving the most difficult crimes – well, Burn-Out Logan makes his recent experience of demotion to Police Sergeant in a small but dreary town in North East Scotland entirely credible.  Yes, he – and his team of fellow reprobate law-enforcers - all suffer from varying degrees of exhaustion and burn-out, but policing anywhere is a tough job: someone has to do it and they’ve put their hands up.  More fools them.
            Not much has changed since Logan’s last appearance in ‘The Missing and the Dead’, except to worsen:  his beloved girlfriend Samantha has been in a coma for five years (truly!).  She will never wake and he has been told by hospital staff that it is time to say goodbye, a situation he has been dreading and shying away from even though his rational mind knows it is inevitable.  Another death is imminent:  wee Hamish Mowat, crime boss supreme of Aberdeen is in the terminal stages of cancer.  In a last conversation with Logan, wee Hamish informs him that he wishes Logan to take control of his empire for he knows that upon his death all the other crime lords from near and far will be circling like vultures, ready to break up his ‘life’s work’:  he is convinced that Logan (despite the fact that he is a Police Officer – how I wish I’d read all those earlier books!) will be the only one strong enough to hold it all together.  All this under the homicidally jealous eye of Reuben, the Reubenator, wee Hamish’s wing man who has the intimidatory strength to keep things going – but not the brains.  Reuben hates Logan, and Logan knows it is only a matter of time before the Reubenator mounts an attack.
            He is almost relieved when a conventional murder rears its ugly head:  a man’s naked body is found in the woods, hands bound behind his back and a rubbish bag taped over his head.  Despite the classic imitation of a local gangland-style killing, Logan is not convinced that the Bad Guys actually did this – for once, they are innocent – of this crime, anyway, and when the Major Investigation Team from Aberdeen (still run by his old boss and friend – and proud lesbian – DCI Steel) mounts an investigation, his suspicions prove to be correct.
            Sadly, Logan’s week from Hell doesn’t end there:  he is also asked by the Police Internal Professional Standards division to covertly investigate DCI Steel:  there is suspicion that she manufactured evidence to send a sexual predator and rapist to jail.  As much as everyone abhors his crimes (for which he was never convicted) Scottish justice has to be SEEN to be done:  who better to investigate Roberta Steel, than her trusted friend and confidante, the turkey-baster father of her children, Logan Balmoral MacRae.  Yes, let’s add betrayal to the list of Logan’s Lousy Week.
            Last but not least, a new Superintendent from the Serious Organised Crime Task Force is visiting and seems have taken an inexplicable and irrational dislike to him, thus making his life doubly miserable.  Could anything else go wrong?  Well, of course it can and it does, at a breakneck pace that this reader could barely stand – I wanted to yell ‘Slow down, slow down!!’ – and all because I didn’t want this mighty episode in the hapless (but not entirely hopeless) life and times of Logan to end.  Stuart MacBride is a storyteller Extraordinaire, a superb wordsmith who is in the enviable position of being unable to write fast enough to supply his readers’ demands.  FIVE STARS


A Necessary Evil, by Abir Mukherjee

                Book Two of Abir Mukherjee’s series recounting the adventures of Captain Sam Wyndham of the Calcutta branch of the British Imperial Police Force and his trusty ‘native’ sidekick Surendranath Banerjee (called Surrender-not because his name is far too difficult for a chap to pronounce) is off to a flying start when the two men are asked to attend in their official capacity a vitally important meeting of the most rich and powerful state rulers and the top administrators of the British Raj.  Surrender-not’s invitation to attend is on the strength of his boyhood acquaintance with Crown Prince Adhir Singh Sai of Sambalpore – they both attended Harrow – and it is felt by the Viceroy that a familiar native face may soften the initial stance the Prince has taken, which is a reluctance to follow the Raj line of economic thinking.
            Prince Adhir recognises his old school friend immediately, calling Surrender-not ‘my dear Bunty!’ to ‘Bunty’s’ huge embarrassment and Wyndham’s glee, and proposes that they leave the boring ceremonies and drive to his hotel:  there is a troubling matter he wishes to discuss and as they are renowned police officers, he feels that his meeting with them today is indeed a sign from God.
            But as all will know, God moves in mysterious ways: on a very circuitous drive back to the hotel to avoid a huge religious procession, the Prince is assassinated by a Hindu Holy man who eventually makes his escape in the crowds of devotees.  Wyndham and Surrender-not are horrified and appalled to think that such a crime could happen RIGHT UNDER THEIR NOSES, and both are determined to bring the killer to justice.  Easier said than done.
            Their trip to Sambalpore for the Prince’s funeral reveals secrets and biases that should never have seen the light of day:  it is a well-known fact that the British would never approve a liaison between a white man and a ‘native’ woman (thus producing despised Anglo-Indian children), but congress between a white woman and an Indian, particularly a PRINCE, cannot be countenanced.  The threat of such a union must be removed by the most permanent means possible:  a trip to the funeral pyre.  But WHO has given the order to kill?  As more is revealed, the path to the truth becomes murkier.
            Surrender-not is a Brahmin, a member of the priestly caste;  he has always been familiar with the extremes of Hindu society, its savagery and beauty:  consequently he is more sanguine than Wyndham who is predictably appalled by what he discovers – possibly because he lusts after a beautiful Anglo-Indian woman called Annie Grant, and knows that he shouldn’t because he’s British.
            Mr Mukherjee does an excellent line in witty dialogue and smart characterisation, through which he paints a colourful and three-dimensional portrait:  that of a colonial power nearing the end of its ability to subdue an ancient people who are starting to believe in themselves again.  Despite perfunctory treatment of some initially intriguing characters, I still look forward with pleasure to Book Three:  I feel sure that by then Sam Wyndham  will have discarded enough of his prejudices to see Surrender-not as his friend – not just his trusted ‘native’ sergeant.  FOUR STARS.      


A Rising Man, by Abir Mukherjee

            Now.  Here’s a Whodunit with a difference – the setting, for a start:  the great British-established capital of Bengal, Calcutta, in 1919;  a time when the sun had not yet set on the great British Empire, but the twilight is lowering as  objections and unrest fomented by that seemingly innocuous little lawyer Mohandas Ghandi are starting to be felt.
            Into this gathering disquiet arrives First World War veteran Captain Samuel Wyndham, recruited from Scotland Yard by Commissioner Lord Taggart, head of the Imperial Police Force in Bengal.  Taggart hopes that Wyndham’s superior Detective skills will expose those shadowy beings who are bent on sabotage, sedition and terrorist acts in a bid to drive the British from India, and the situation is worsened by the discovery of the body of a burra sahib, a British civil servant of high standing lying in the gutter outside a Calcutta brothel with his throat cut.
            A speedy solving of the crime is required ASAP, especially to demonstrate to ‘those natives’ that British Law and Order reigns supreme, and is executed with accurate and unswerving efficiency:  Wyndham is expected to find the perpetrator post-haste, despite less than stellar backup from his new colleagues, a white sub-inspector called Digby, already sulking because he feels Wyndham’s job should be his;  and a ‘native’ Sergeant, Surendranath Banerjee, called ‘Surrender-not’ because it is easier to say.  Digby is also scathing of the reason Banerjee has a position in the police force, stating contemptuously in the Sergeant’s presence:  ‘Sergeant Banerjee, is, apparently, one of the finest new additions to His Majesty’s Imperial Police Force and the first Indian to post in the top three in the entrance examinations.  He and his ilk’, continues Digby, ‘are the fruits of this government’s policy of increasing the number of natives in every branch of the administration, God help us.’
            Which Wyndham finds is a telling example of the Raj’s opinion of the people it rules.  After having survived the cauldron of trench warfare, his feelings towards the ‘natives’ are ambivalent;  besides, he has secret shortcomings of his own to conquer and sorrows that refuse to stay buried.  He hopes he can survive his past experiences and present alien surroundings, not least because the deeper he probes into the burra sahib’s murder, the more obstacles are thrown in his way, as in a spectacular lack of co-operation from his supposed colleagues in British Military intelligence, a severe beating administered by thugs employed by same, and an almost successful attempt on his own life – by whom?
            Mr Mukherjee writes with great verve and humour.  His characters for the most part ring true, but he can’t resist going for the florid and torrid approach when he reveals the identity of The Murderer:  the Villain has centre stage for more time than is strictly necessary to explain How, Why and Where hedunit;  in fact I think the only reason he didn’t twirl his moustaches at the end was an oversight by the author.  But!

This is Mr Mukherjee’s debut novel, and the first of a series.  I am sure it will succeed because of the time in which it is set, and Mr Mukherjee’s intelligent and reasoned analysis of events exposing the jingoistic approach of the Raj, perpetuated in literature and deed by all those burra sahibs, those ‘Rising Men’ whose rule created the reason for their expulsion.  FOUR STARS.   

Saturday, 9 September 2017

FIRST GREAT READS FOR SEPTEMBER, 2017

Persons Unknown, by Susie Steiner


           Isn’t it great when you chance upon a book that you can’t put down – a book that has a perfect cast of characters with whom you are immediately engaged, and a plot that is sound and credible:  well, Susie Steiner has definitely ticked all the boxes for me, and will undoubtedly have gathered legions to her fan base with her second novel featuring Detective Inspector Manon Bradshaw.  I haven’t read the first, ‘Missing, Presumed’ but intend to ASAP – I have done my usual trick of reading series books out of sequence.  More fool me.
            Anyway!
            DI Bradshaw has decided that, though her police career is immensely satisfying, her personal life is rubbish;  no chance of marriage and the children she longs for when she considers all the Wayne Kerrs (one has to say that name really fast) she meets:  nope – the only thing left is the old turkey baster.  Artificial insemination.  A baby to order.  She is terrified of her looming responsibilities and the inevitable money worries even though her job is secure, but thrilled to think she will finally have part of what she wants -  except for a loving partner.  And she is also fearful of going ahead with this momentous decision without telling her adopted 12 year old son Fly, a black child already damaged by his terrible upbringing.  In this respect Manon is a coward.  She says nothing until it is obvious to the entire world that she is pregnant (especially as she develops an appetite that would put the fat lady at the circus to shame), with predictable results:  Fly, poor vulnerable Fly, thinks he’s not wanted any more.
            To complicate life still further, a murder takes place in a park just opposite Fly’s school.  The victim is a very wealthy young investment banker, just off the London train who collapses in the arms of a woman walking her dog:  he has been stabbed.  Where was he going?  Who did he intend to visit?  When the answers to these questions are found they are shocking:  he was about to visit his two year old son Solly – Manon’s nephew, who lives with his mum Ellie, Manon’s younger sister.  Manon and Fly also live in the same house (you can rent a bigger house if you share), but Manon had no idea that Solly’s father was back on the scene.  Sisters have their secrets.
            Then the unthinkable:  CCTV and circumstantial evidence place Fly at the scene of the crime, and he is detained at a juvenile holding facility on suspicion of murder.  Their world has collapsed.
            The fragile bubble of security and love that Manon has constructed for Fly is ready to pop.  Now is not the time to be heavily pregnant!  As she is his legal relative she is not allowed to investigate any part of the crime herself, and must rely on information leaked to her by her colleagues, most of whom are horrified that a child has been ‘fitted up’ for murder.
            DI Manon Bradshaw and her made-to-order family are a worthy and refreshing addition to crime fiction.  Ms Steiner’s characters are smartly drawn, her plotting is excellent and always credible and I am now off to read ‘Missing, Presumed’.  Lucky me!  FIVE STARS

Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner


           Ms Steiner’s first novel featuring Manon Bradshaw is a pleasure, pure and simple.  Even though I have done my usual trick of reading a series out of sequence it doesn’t matter:  I would have been doing myself a disservice if I had decided not to make Manon’s acquaintance in her introductory investigations into crimes seemingly unconnected, but involving characters from every level of society – who swear no knowledge of each other, until it is revealed that the opposite is true.
            The story opens with Manon enduring (barely) her umpteenth Internet Date.  It is not going well, especially when Mr Mean – supposedly a poet - suggests that she pay the lion’s share of the pub bill ‘because she had wine and he didn’t’.  Yep:  dead in the water.  But time is running out!  She is thirty-nine and her chances of marital contentment and happy, laughing children are reducing by the day.  Her neediness shames and saddens her;  if only (the saddest words in the world) she could be independent and strong-minded enough to be the Ultimate Career Copper, wedded to her job which she is very good at.  Well, onwards and upwards;  it’s a new day tomorrow;  best foot forward.  Okay then.
            And the new day brings a report of a mysterious disappearance that has the Press salivating:  Cambridge graduate student (and first-class looker) Edith Hind has been reported missing by her live-in boyfriend Will Carter, himself an absurdly handsome poster boy for the Upper Classes.  There is blood on the floor of their kitchen, coats are strewn on the floor and Edith’s wallet, keys and car are still in the house.  Will is beside himself with worry, especially when he has to report Edith’s disappearance to her patrician parents, Sir Ian and lady Miriam Hind, he the physician to Royalty and she the partner in a highly successful medical practice.  They are the perfect targets for the tabloids to tear down, and the better publications to build up – all of them trying to be FIRST with the news.
            Except that there isn’t any:  Edith has disappeared completely.  Then the body of a 17 year old black boy from a slum neighbourhood in London is found in a river near to Edith’s home, and though there appears to be no relevance between the disappearance of a privileged aristocrat and the murder of a young petty criminal, Manon’s team investigations turn up nuggets of evidence that bring them closer and closer to the story’s shocking conclusion, evidence that links irrevocably those at the very top of society with others lying broken at the bottom -  including Fly, the murdered boy’s younger brother.
            Ms Steiner has constructed a plot that fits together as neatly as Lego blocks, but her characters are hardly two-dimensional:  Manon is Everywoman;  we can recognise ourselves in her tactlessness, sibling rivalry, jealousy, cowardice – and huge kindness, humanity, and consideration for the underdog,  of which there are so many.  It has been a pleasure to meet you, Manon, and I hope we will all meet again soon.  SIX STARS!

                 

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  .

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