Keywords: Thriller, Vatican, Relics!

The Fifth Gospel by Ian Caldwell

fifth gospel

No! This isn’t a lost thriller by Dan Brown! Far from it (although at times I wish it had had a bit of Brown’s rip-roaring pace). The Fifth Gospel comes from the co-author of a best-selling religious thriller of ten years ago – The Rule of Four, and has taken author Ian Caldwell that ten years in the writing.

The Fifth Gospel is set in the Vatican City during the twilight of the pontificate of John Paul II, who has a starring cameo to play in the closing stages of the novel. An historical note, without which I’d have been completely lost, sets the scene for the relationship between the original Green and Roman branches of Christianity who split around 1000 yrs ago (the Great Schism of 1054 I learned later) becoming Orthodox and Catholic churches. This division was further reinforced by the Crusades in 1204.  Importantly though, one group, known as Eastern Catholics decided to sit in the middle following Eastern traditions but obeying the Pope. John Paul II wished to reunite the two churches.

So we have a pair of brothers, both priests – Simon and Andreou, who come from an Eastern Catholic family, but Simon had converted to become a full Catholic and has risen up the Vatican ladder. Andrew has remained a ‘Greek’ and thus was married, and has a young son, Peter. I didn’t know that there are types of Catholicism where celibacy is not compulsory. Ironically, Andreou’s wife Mona has left him!

To cut a long story short, the Vatican Museum is to mount an exhibit which is being curated by Ugolino Nogara. Its absolutely top secret and there is not long to go before the exhibit’s opening. When Andrew gets a call from his brother who is in trouble, he leaps in the car to Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s summer residence half an hour’s drive from Rome, to rescue him. Upon arrival he finds Simon and the body of Ugo.

Both brothers had been working, unknown to each other, on different aspects of Ugo’s project. Simon travelling in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, Andreou helping Ugo to understand the differences between the New Testament Gospels – how the Synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke are more factual and sometimes copy each other, while John is more theological and philosophical in its intent – changing some of the details to fit. Before this novel is over, we will become quite familiar with many of the differences and similarities in the four gospels – particularly in relation to the crucifixion – because… you’d guessed it – that old fake relic the Turin Shroud is to be one of the key features in this exhibit.

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The Turin Shroud (detail, plus negative image) Wikimedia Commons

As Ugo said:

“Yet even now,” Nogara continued, “when we exhibit the Shroud, it attracts millions of pilgrims. At a recent exhibition it drew two millions people in eight weeks. Eight weeks. All to see a relic that has allegedly been disproved. Put that in perspective: the Shroud draws five times as many visitors as the most popular museum exhibit in the world. So imagine how many will come once I prove that the radiocarbon dating of the Turin Shroud was wrong.”

Did Ugo find new evidence about the shroud? Was he killed for it?

Simon is arrested for his murder, and refuses to say anything. Andreou is thrown into turmoil – he suspects that Ugo had discovered something in the Diatesseron, the ‘Fifth Gospel’ their copy of which has gone missing. The Diatesseron was (really) created by an Assyrian Christian called Tatian around 160AD – in it, he attempted to pull together all the four gospels into one single narrative, reordering, getting rid of duplication, adding bridging passages etc.

The next bombshell to hit Father Andreou is that his home is broken into, he gets sent ‘we know who you are’ type threats etc – and from that point on, he moves himself and his son around a variety of ‘safe’ locations within the Vatican’s walls. Cue next bombshell: Simon is to be tried, starting tomorrow, under Canonical Law. The ultimate punishment being to be stripped of his priesthood and have his Vatican passport taken away. We are thrown into an extremely complicated trial, full of twists and turns, discoveries, betrayals, and more before it is time for the exhibit to open, and we discover the full extent of what happened!

Somewhere inside this sprawling novel which runs to 427 pages, was a good thriller trying to get out. However, due to it being based upon real artefacts and the intricacies of Canonical Law in the Vatican, both of which need a lot of explanation, the thiller had to play second-fiddle to the artefacts and theological discussion. Indeed, by the end I was more interested in whether this book considered the Turin Shroud to be real or fake than in Ugo’s murder (something they are still disagreeing about!). I also got rather fed up with Andreou the devoted father, passing his son around all his friends while he wrestled with the trial and the facts – this aspect of emphasising the differences between the Eastern and Western Catholics was quite heavy-handed (although I agree that relaxing the celibacy restrictions would be a good thing).

So as a murder mystery, this book doesn’t quite pass muster; as a theological mystery it was rather more exciting. I learned masses (pun!), and cross-checking some of the facts against Wikipedia for this review, could appreciate the amount of research that went into this book. As a non-believer, for a book to get me reading up about the last days of Jesus and his crucifixion, at Easter-time, must mean something.  (6.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK, (affiliate link), please click below:

The Fifth Gospel by Ian Caldwell. Published March 2015 by Simon & Schuster. Hardback 448 pages.

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The first in a long line of crime novels

Naked in Death by J.D.Robb

naked in deathLast week, Victoria over at Tales from the Reading Room wrote a post about Obsession in Death, the latest in J.D.Robb’s long-running crime series featuring detective Eve Dallas. In fact, it turns out that Obsession in Death is the fiftieth in the series! I knew that I had the first novel in the sequence somewhere on my shelves, and felt compelled to dig it out and see how Dallas began…

As Victoria said, Robb/Roberts is known for her philanthropy which is lovely. She is also known for being a writing machine, producing countless novels each year, romances as Roberts, crime as Robb. Naked in Death was published in 1995 – the first of fifty, so that’s two or three per year of this series alone.

Eve Dallas is thirty. She’s a Lieutenant in the NYPSD (the ‘S’ is for Security). At the start of the novel she is called out to a murder – it turns out to be the grand-daughter of a senator who is running for his party nomination on a ‘moral’ ticket. His grand-daughter in one of those f***-you type career choices has been working as a ‘licenced companion’ – a prostitute. The scene is grisly – she was killed with 3 bullets from a hand-gun. There’s a note under the body saying 1 of 6.

Naturally, the senator is all over the department wanting to keep things closed down, but Dallas knows there may be more deaths – and there will be.  The killer seems to be expert at bypassing security systems and leaving no trace, but in true psychopath style he sends Dallas videos.

One of the immediate suspects is Roarke, an Irishman. He’s a tycoon, he owns the building she was killed in, he collects guns – which are now antiques. He has to be a suspect – if only he wasn’t so sexy – because you just know that Dallas and him will end up in the sack for some truly purple prose – lancing spears and all that!

Enough of the plot, for it was entirely predictable, I guessed whodunnit halfway in, but the pieces didn’t fall into place until later.

You don’t really read series like this for the crimes. They’re incidental, you read them for the characters. You hope for some development – and reading between the lines in Victoria’s review I can surmise that apart from Dallas and Roarke ending up married, that little has changed in fifty books. However: Naked is set in 2058; Obsession is set in 2060. So these fifty books move forward just two years.  My – that’s a full case-book of murders for anyone!

Note that near-future timeline. In 2058, guns have been outlawed, become collectors items only. Prostitutes have become legal, licenced. Various gadgets make modern life easier, but as far as I could see offer no improvements in quality of life. None but the rich can afford real coffee. Roarke is planning a space resort – so Richard Branson may continue to dream on. Yet, it’s all too familiar – in a way it’s not futuristic enough in its detail. Apart from the guns, there seemed no need to set it in the future, and even now there are collectors of old firearms – the perp could have used contemporary collectibles.

What of Dallas and Roarke? Well she is of course a feisty superwoman, and Roarke may as well be a superman, not so much Clarke Kent, but Bruce Wayne – his money can buy him anything.  Dallas is damaged goods, abused as a child – holding it all in ever since. Roarke is a chancer who hit lucky and made enough money to go legit.  She is a good policewoman with the appropriate contempt for authority and is not afraid to bend the rules. He is just sickening – too handsome, too rich, too lovey, too much!

So there we have it. Naked in Death combines crime with a steamy romance.  I liked the crime part, and squirmed a bit with the romance. As a whole, I enjoyed reading Naked in Death in exactly the same way as I enjoyed reading The Da Vinci Code. With no expectations, it was very easy to read throwaway grisly fun. (5.5/10)

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Source: Own copy.
To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link – thank you):
Naked In Death: 1Glory In Death: 2 etc by J.D. Robb. Piatkus paperbacks, around 400 pages.

 

 

What is an accident anyway?

Accidents Happen by Louise Millar

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I used to work for one of the world’s major chemical companies whose mantra was that there is no such thing as an accident. After too many ‘accidents’ making explosives in the 1800s, the company became intensely safety focused, and remains so today. They believe, and naturally it rubbed off on me (I ended up as a H&S manager for them) that all incidents have a root cause, and that finding and engineering or training it out etc. if possible is the way to go.

Thus I was naturally intrigued by the title of this novel. Having recently seen Louise speak, I knew I was expecting a tightly plotted psychothriller with some issues of trust and family values at its core, and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s one of those stories that crescendos gradually, dropping in little details and clues that will become clear later on in the final climaxes.

Kate and her young son Jack have arrived back from school. Kate is suspicious of everything and everyone – the tailgating driver on the way home, surely there was more in the casserole in the fridge?  She is constantly on edge, and Jack doesn’t know how to handle his mother. She’s in danger of losing it – and we soon find out that they have suffered a double dose of grief from which they’ve not yet recovered. First Kate’s parents died in a tragic car accident, then her husband Hugo was murdered, stabbed in a mugging gone wrong.  She’s all alone, and she feels that Hugo’s parents Helen and Richard think she’s incapable of looking after Jack properly, maybe Hugo’s sister Saskia who was always her ally feels that way too. For it all happened five years ago …

One of the things that Kate has started doing is to do sums… she researches the odds of things happening and calculates the statistics, so she can stop more bad things happening to her and Jack. Nagged by her in-laws, she finally goes to see a therapist and tells her about this:

‘OK, there was a lot of traffic tonight so I decided to cycle. But before I cycled, I did a sum. I worked out that because it’s May, my chances of having a bike accident are higher because it’s summer, and about 80% of accidents take place during daylight hours, but more than half of cycling fatalities happen at road junctions, so if I went off-road I could lower it drastically. So I did. And because I am thirty-five, I have more chance of having an accident than another woman in Oxfordshire in her twenties, but because I was wearing my helmet, I have – according to one American report I read, anyway – about an 85% chance of reducing my risk of head injury. Then when I was cycling I balanced my chances of having an accident with the fact that by doing half an hour of sustained cardio cycling, I can lower my risk of getting cancer. Of course, that meant I increased my chances of being sexually attacked by being alone on a quiet canal path, but as I have roughly a one in a thousand chance in Oxfordshire, I think it’s worth taking.’
She thought she saw Sylvia flinch.

She can’t bear it, so escapes from the therapist’s house and ends up in a cafe where she encounters Jago Martin, a visiting Oxford Professor. He just happens to have written a book about beating the odds. After meeting again, Kate is a bit besotted by Jago, and when he agrees to help her in her predicament she acquiesces with little thought. His methods are not conventional though, he wants to teach her to become a natural risk-taker…

There are many different facets to the drama of this novel – Kate’s relationship with her in-laws, with Saskia, and Saskia’s own relationship with her parents, poor Jack and his over-protective mother, the introduction of Jago, and not forgetting the weirdo student next door who always seems to be haning around.  Over all of them is the aura of Hugo, gone but never forgotten. Kate had always been prone to worrying, but Hugo with his big-hearted happy soul had made things all right, given her life the balance it now lacks.

Millar cleverly misdirects us; everyone has issues, no-one is straight-forward – it’s hard to get to grips with what is bound to happen – or is it more ‘accidents’? The suspense builds.

Imagine a Sophie Hannah novel without the police involved, and slightly more family oriented and you should get the measure of this book. I enjoyed it a lot. (8.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Accidents Happen by Louise Millar, 2013, Pan paperback 426 pages.

 

Taking the plunge into the waters of popular thriller-dom…

The Nemesis Program by Scott Mariani

nemesis

Occasionally I read a mindless thriller, something a bit Dan Brown, just to remind myself that I’m not really the target audience for such stuff, although secretly I do enjoy them – a little!  My teenage reading diet was absolutely full of thrillers – Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley, Hammond Innes and later Colin Forbes, Frederick Forsyth et al – I loved them all, and many of these were well written taut books that got on with things with little padding. I was offered a copy of The Nemesis Program – the latest in a long series by British thriller writer Scott Mariani, and based upon one word in the blurb, thought ‘Why not.’

220px-TeslaOscillatorThat word was ‘Tesla‘. The Szerbian scientist Nikola Tesla was a genius – he pioneered AC electricity, but Edison pushed him out of the way with his inferior DC current. He let go of his ideas for radio telephony and Marconi leapt at it. No wonder he got disillusioned and turned his mind to more controversial ideas – like the Tesla Oscillator a steam-powered electricity generator which could be tuned to resonate and with which he allegedly caused earth tremors in his building in New York, having to smash the device to stop a potential disaster. The Mythbusters TV team have determined that although you can set up a decent amount of resonance with such a device, you can’t amplify it to make an earthquake. But hey! – it’s perfect for a schlocky thriller as the weapon of choice for a mad scientist.

Ben Hope is ex-SAS, now a theologian, and about to get married to his girlfriend Brooke, when an old flame, Roberta Ryder turns up at his door in a Cotswold village in a mad panic – someone is after her. Roberta, an American in Ottawa, had received a coded letter from a friend in Paris, but by the time she reached Claudine – she had been murdered. The police think it was the work of a serial killer they’re tabbing Le Bricoleur because he used DIY implements to murder his victims. Roberta, however, knows a little of what Claudine was working on – a modern version of Tesla’s Oscillator, and sure enough she thinks she was followed in Paris, but she managed to evade them (she thinks) and headed for Ben – he’d know what to do.

Ben, three days away from his wedding thinks it is all a bit mad, but takes Roberta off to have a talk much to Brooke’s disgust, and then guys with guns arrive and he realises it’s real. He is duty-bound to help a damsel in distress, so after seeing off the would-be attackers, he postpones the marriage – Brooke tells him it’s over, and he and Roberta return to Paris thanks to Hope’s sister’s airplane that just happens to have landed at a nearby airfield bringing her to the wedding.

Already that’s one convenience too far isn’t it? The action continues from Paris to Lapland to Indonesia using the plane, always with the baddies following behind. The body count is high – there’s more excess than in any James Bond novel, and without the humour – it’s non-stop action.  Hope, of course, always manages to escape by the skin of his teeth, as in the quote below, a high-speed car chase in which he’s just driven over the edge of a raised section of the Périphérique …

For just a second or two, it was like floating. Ben experienced a strange sensation of weightlessness that was somehow liberating and not unpleasant. […] Then reality cut back in with terrifying speed as the Mercedes dropped like a missile towards the road below and the traffic lumbering in and out of the Port de Sèvres. Ben caught a glimpse of a huge articulated truck coming the other way and he was utterly convinced they were going to plummet right into its path and be smashed and rolled and twisted into tiny pieces all across the tarmac. But then the bone-jolting impact as the taxi’s spinning wheels touched down on the truck’s roof told him that death wasn’t going to be quite so instant. […] An inch difference in its trajectory and the car and its occupants would have been mangled against a steel rubbish skip.

It’s always an inch that saves Ben Hope every time.

Some of the dialogue is so cheesy too. When Hope finally encounters the criminal mastermind behind the Nemesis Program, it’s shortly after he’s dispatched another of his men…

‘…You’ve cost the project a great deal of resources and robbed me of several of my most capable agents. Men not easily killed. Yet you dealt with them with almost embarrassing ease.’ His lips wrinkled into a smile.
‘You mean McGrath?’ Ben said. ‘I’m afraid he went all to pieces.’
‘So it would seem. And now it appears you’ve disposed of Mr Lund just as efficiently, albeit without as much mess.’ The old man shook his head. ‘I don’t know how I’ll replace him. It’s so hard to find personnel of calibre these days.’
‘Have you tried Scumbags R Us?’ Ben said. ‘I’m sure you’ll find what you’re looking for.’

It was going so well in a sub-Bond way until Ben’s last reply…

Roberta as his girl-Friday is tough but subservient as all Bond girls are, but Hope is made of strong stuff and doesn’t bed her (she’d have been willing though).  So this is a sexless thriller – rather an oddity in this day and age – even Jack Reacher finds a girl in every town.  Also, Hope comes across as a soldier through and through – he knows what to do in an emergency – he’s rarely a fish out of water which makes him predictable and more than a bit boring.

At 431 pages, it took too long to read – under 300 would have improved it and sustained the tension better – it felt too episodic in the transitions. The bits of explanatory techno-babble are obvious and jar too, for babble they are. The thing about Bond villains and their weapons of mass destruction is that they’re pure fantasy, and the story is told with wit which makes it fun.  Here we had a fantasy weapon, a villain who wasn’t involved enough until the later stages, and very little humour to leaven the gore.

These books are extremely popular though – this was actually Ben Hope’s tenth outing.  Would I read another?  Well – if I was on holiday and the airline had lost the bag with my books in and one of these was on the shelf – of course I would.  But that’s an unlikely scenario. Fans will devour this instalment, I’ll go and read something else. (5/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Nemesis Program (Ben Hope)by Scott Mariani – pub Avon, June 2014, paperback original, 431 pages.

Jumping into a new to me crime series…

Murder in Pigalle by Cara Black

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I usually like to read a series of crime novels from the beginning, to get any back-story in the right order and to see how the recurring characters develop. Sometimes, however, it’s good to jump into a series knowing that if you enjoy a later volume, that you may have the pleasure of reading all the earlier ones to come. This is what I did with Cara Black’s latest crime novel – her fourteenth featuring chic Parisian P.I. Aimée Leduc.

Leduc runs her own detective agency, aided by best friend René and computer hacker Saj. They appear to specialise in cyber-crime, but there’s not much going on at the moment for Aimée is five months pregnant.  Her lover, Melac, doesn’t know – he’s in Brittany near his ex-wife, and where his daughter lies in a coma. Aimée, who has obviously had parent issues of her own, is confused by her own impending motherhood – the baby is beginning to really kick.

A quiet life is not going to be for her though.  In Pigalle, the night-life heart of Paris, a serial rapist is following young girls home from school and raping them, and one has died.  Aimée has been helping Zazie, the young teenaged daughter of her favourite café owner with a school project, and one day she disappears.  Zazie’s mother enlists Aimée’s help as the les flics won’t respond until she’s been missing for 24hrs and awash with hormones Leduc flings herself into the case with a passion and zeal that will land her in big trouble.  It appears that Zazie has been shadowing a man whom she thought was the rapist…

With a sub-plot involving a robbery gone wrong by one of the girls in danger’s fathers, things get quite complicated quite quickly. Leduc finds that none of the parents of the raped girls are telling the full story – whether from guilt, shame or ignorance, and her blundering in puts her in danger too.

It’s hard not to like Aimée.  Think of a pregnant and French V.I.Warshawski and you’re getting there with regard to her character, however she’s not as good a detective as Sara Paretsky’s V.I.  Like most Parisian women, she’s typically BCBG (Bon chic, bon genre) – well as a P.I. maybe less of the BG – but still wouldn’t dream of going anywhere under-dressed, (nearly) every item of clothing has its labels.

The Dior shirt stuck to her back. She had to change. In the back armoire she picked one of Saj’s gifts, a loose, Indian white-cotton shirt – the soft fabric breathed, thank God. She pulled her short jean jacket over it, stepped into an agnès b. cotton-flounced skirt with a drawstring waistband and slipped into a low-heeled pair of sandals.

Black clearly does her homework in Paris for these novels. The detail feels authentic, but using the odd French words and phrases scattered throughout feels a bit unnecessary – the police are nearly always les flics, a bloke is un mec, no-one ever says sorry – it’s always désolé and so on.  If it were a French novel translated into English a translator wouldn’t do this.

Thirteen year old Zazie, although better behaved in general and certainly less potty mouthed, has echoes of Raymond Queneau’s independent spirit of Zazie in the Metro from 1960 (my review here) – I don’t know if that was deliberate or a happy coincidence.

Of course, I missed some of the back-story in her friendship with the dwarf René, her love Melac and her Godfather Morbier a Commissaire in the police, but even without that, this mystery stood pretty well on its own. I don’t know whether I’ll read the whole of the rest of the series, but I will look out for some of the previous titles as it would be fun to get to know Aimée Leduc a little better. (7/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
Murder in Pigalle: (Aimee Leduc Investigations) by Cara Black, pub Mar 2014 by Soho Press. Hardback, 310 pages.

No frog in my throat, ‘min P’tit’

Frog Music by Emma Donoghue

frog music
I haven’t read Donoghue’s famous, or even infamous novel Room. I own a copy, but its dark subject matter requires a certain frame of mind to read and we haven’t coincided yet.

I was very keen to read her latest novel Frog Music though, as it’s set in San Francisco in the late 1800s. An exciting city in which to make a living, given that it is the port of entry to the US for many nations and is quite cosmopolitan. However, in 1876 it is in the midst of a stifling heat-wave and a smallpox epidemic too.

So it’s a tough time for three Parisians now living in Chinatown. Former stars of the French circus, Blanche works as an exotic dancer at the House of Mirrors and as a high-class whore on the side; Arthur is her lover, and there’s his friend Ernest. Ernest is supposedly engaged to Madeleine, but spends most of his time at Blanche’s house, which she has bought with her earnings, when he’s not out gambling with Arthur. Arthur used to ‘fly through the air with the greatest of ease’, but he missed Ernest the catcher and fell injuring his back.

One day Blanche is out shopping, when she gets knocked over by a bicycle…

Machine explodes one way and rider another, smashing Blanche to the ground.
She tries to spring up but her right leg won’t bear her. Mouth too dry to spit.
The lanky daredevil jumps up, rubbing one elbow, as lively as a clown. ‘Ça va, Mademoiselle?’ French much the same as Blanche’s own; the voice not a man’s, not a boy’s even. A girl, for all the gray jacket, vest, pants, the jet hair hacked above the sunburned jawline. One of these eccentrics on which the City prides itself – which only aggravates Blanche’s irritation, as if the whole collision was nothing but a gag, and never mind who’s left with merde on her hem.

Blanche’s first meeting with the notorious Jenny Bonnet, a cross-dresser (illegal at that time) didn’t go well, but as Jenny walks the hobbling Blanche home, the girls really hit it off and fast become close friends. Jenny is even more Bohemian than Blanche. She has no fixed abode, and alternates between spending time catching frogs to sell to the restaurants for cuisses de grenouilles, drinking, and riding her penny farthing which it appears she has nicked.

It is clear from the start that Arthur doesn’t like her. Jenny has a habit of speaking her mind, and she wonders why Blanche is happy to work so hard, whoring for all those michetons (clients), and what about Blanche’s baby? It’s the baby, P’tit Arthur, as he is known, that sets it all off. Arthur had farmed out the caterwauling baby so Blanche could go back to work, and when Blanche finds he has been kept in a house that reminds one of those scenes in Romanian orphanages where the toddlers were kept in bed all day, ignored, she liberates him. P’tit Arthur is now nearly a year old and has rickets, and is in a bad way. Blanche has to dig deep to find any maternal instincts. The arrival of Jenny and the baby totally upsets the triangle of Blanche, Arthur and Ernest. There are too many secrets that begin to come out, and one of them will end up dead.

Donoghue has based her story upon real events. Most of the characters including Blanche and Jenny existed, and smallpox was rife that hot summer. There was also an unsolved murder in San Francisco, and although it’s clear from the first page of the novel who lives and who dies, as the book starts in the plot’s present before flashing back, I’m not going to tell you who it was.

What I can tell you is that after 416 pages (including appendices) I was mighty fed up of Blanche though. She may be a lusty sex-machine, but the rest of the time she is such a fusspot. Always cross about something, she fair wore me out, and as she features on every page of the novel I did nearly give up reading it, but I kept on because of Jenny who is a wonderful character and we had far too much Blanche and not enough Jenny for my liking.

As I’ve already said, the novel starts near the end of the story with a murder, and thereafter it flashes backwards and forwards constantly as more of what happened gradually gets revealed. It was confusing at times though whether we were in the past, the time around the murder, or the time after the murder for the entire novel is written in the present tense. Combine that with Blanche’s fussing, and you have tangled layers just like her petticoats, and I found it all just too messy.

Scattered throughout the text are snatches from many popular songs of the period, Blanche in particular is always singing to herself and always shares her tunes with us, many of which are in French of course. In the afterword, after an article by the author on her sources for the characters and the murder is a comprehensive listing of all the songs with their individual histories and translations where necessary – I skipped this bit. After that though is a glossary of the French terms used and I did refer to it occasionally. If you want to learn some French swear words here’s where to go! When you’re British, swearing in French seems exotic, even romantic – but bar one scene, there is little true romance in this novel, it’s mostly bump and grind among the petticoats. (6.5/10)

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Source: Review copy from Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Frog Music by Emma Donoghue. Pub March 2014 by Picador, hardback 416 pages.

 

True Grit’s inheritor…

The Road to Reckoning by Robert Lautner

Robert Lautner Road to Reckoning UK coverI’ve turned out to be a big fan of good westerns – this debut novel is one such book.

Young Tom Walker is twelve when this novel begins in 1837. His mother is lost to the pock, his father is a ‘quiet man in a noisy world‘ – a spectacles salesman, when he hears of an irresistible opportunity that could bring in enough money for a comfortable living. Escaping the depression and the disease-ridden boroughs of New York can only be a good thing.

His father agrees to become a salesman for Samuel Colt’s new handgun with a revolving chamber. They set off westwards from Colt’s factory in New Jersey a wooden model gun and twelve of the real thing, which can be sold to clinch an order, or for expenses on the road.

I, to this day, hold to only one truth: if a man chooses to carry a gun he will get shot. My father agreed to carry twelve.

It’s in a small town in Pennsylvania that Tom’s life changes forever, when they encounter Thomas Heywood in the back of the hardware store where Tom’s father was about to clinch a good order. Heywood, drunk, won’t take no for an answer when he confronts them. Tom and his father change hotels, and then leave town – but Heywood and his pals jump them, robbing them of the remaining pistols. Tom’s father is shot in the back in front of him, leaving Tom an orphan – but with a full order book.

Tom resolves to return to NJ to collect their commission, and it is on his way back that he meets Henry Stands, a retired US marshall. Stands is large, gruff, and although he is heading east, he has no wish to be saddled with an orphan, he’ll only take him so far. Tom persists, and eventually earns Stands’ grudging respect as they make their way east – a journey not without adventure.

There are many parallels between The Road to Reckoning and True Grit by Charles Portis (reviewed here), the former could be viewed as an east coast version of the latter. Although both Tom and Mattie are orphans, Mattie is single-mindedly hunting the murderer of her father; Tom just wants to go home to his aunt with his father’s last pay packet. Both eventually manage to awaken paternal instincts in their chosen protectors, but whereas Mattie sees Marshall Rooster Cogburn as the best man for the job, Stands is the only man around who can help Tom. Both books also have their narrators recounting their childhood from old age, adding the veneer of wisdom that comes with the years to the story.

The Road to Reckoning may owe a debt to Charles Portis, however it did feel very real – you don’t need to be in Texas or the canyons of the West to achieve that  – just leave the city and you’re a pioneer. This book is an assured debut, well-written and emotionally involving and I really enjoyed it. (9/10)

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Source: Amazon Vine ARC. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Road to Reckoning by Robert Lautner, pub 30 Jan 2014 by The Borough Press (HarperCollins), 240 pages.
True Grit by Charles Portis

Here, meat IS murder …

Season to Taste or How to Eat Your Husband by Natalie Young

season to tasteThis is the strangest premise for a novel that I’ve read in a while, and I do enjoy a high quirk factor in a book. Season to Taste is the tale of a marriage gone wrong, and it starts off with a murder…

One day Lizzie Prain snaps and murders her husband of thirty years with a spade. She then dismembers the body and freezes it. Her plan is to eat the evidence and then disappear off to a new life in Scotland.

Lizzie takes the project of eating Jacob terribly seriously.  She prepares each joint in as gourmet a fashion as she can manage, with plenty of herbs and spices to make it all seem more palatable.  Preparation of the meat is difficult though …

It wasn’t helpful to look at the severed end where the bone emerged with flesh attached and shiny bits of cartilage. So she covered it up with the tea towel and focused on the knuckle area and fingers. She cleaned the nails with a nailbrush, rinsing in the sink; and then she brushed the skin with an oil brush to give it a good crisp. She rubbed all over the hand with olive oil and salt and then twisted the pepper grinder; and she laid his hand on a non-stick roasting tray, carefully straightening the fingers out.

Yes, I’ll say it so you don’t have to – did she serve it ‘with fava beans and a nice chianti‘?  There is no need for the author to refer to Hannibal Lecter, I’m sure she is happy for us to have a little joke with ourselves though.

Yesterday I was discussing this book in my favourite local bookshop, when my friend Julia who works there produced menu cards for some of the recipes, which the publisher had sent out. They had a spare set to give me – so here is that hand recipe …

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In the beginning, we are fascinated in a truly macabre way by Lizzie’s gourmet recipes to make her husband’s remains palatable, and the care with which she treats it.  A couple of weeks later, Lizzie’s protein-rich diet is beginning to wear on her, and what was almost a last act of love is becoming a little more desperate. The recipes are mouthwatering in their awfulness though!

In between the recipes come Lizzie’s lists to help keep herself strong and get through the project. After those we get to hear about her and Jacob. It wasn’t exactly a love match, but they did seem to sort of care for each other in a claustrophobic, self-centred way.  Frankly, I found them both totally unlikeable, like the two main characters in Gone Girl, review here; I had to read on to find out whether she gets away with it.

This novel is destined to become a talking point with all who encounter it – talking with horror, with disbelief, even at times with sympathy, (well just a bit) – the author cleverly plays with all our emotions.  When it does start to go a bit wrong as Lizzie’s overconfidence leads to too much fraternisation with the neighbours, I initially rubbed my hands with glee.  My only criticism of this book is that I would have liked a stronger ending, but that would risk being rather formulaic, and that is something this quirky novel definitely is not!  (8/10)

Can you stomach this kind of novel?
Or does the very idea of it just make you squirm?

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Source: Review copy from Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Season to Taste or How to Eat Your Husband by Natalie Young, published 16th Jan 2014 by Tinder Press. Hardback, 288 pages.

A novel of ‘The Troubles’

Harry’s Game by Gerald Seymour

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I was amazed to find that this thriller from 1975 was Gerald Seymour’s début novel. Because of its setting, it is the kind of book that my late mother would never have read, and we read a lot of thrillers betweeen us in our household back then. She was born and bred in Protestant Belfast, and left to work and live in England in the early 1950s before ‘The Troubles’ really flared up. She always distanced herself from it while I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s. She was also estranged from her father, we only ever went to visit once when I was little – they argued on the doorstep and that was that.

She would never talk about any of this then, and as a consequence I’ve ended up confused about Belfast and rather ignorant about this whole era of Irish history. Remembering very vaguely the TV serialisation from the 1980s when I picked a copy of this novel up at a book sale, I read it initially as a high-class thriller with two sides – Them and Us.

Harry's Game Derek Thompson

The novel starts with a murder. A British Cabinet Minister, a former Minister for Northern Ireland, is shot in broad daylight outside his home in an affluent part of London, by an IRA killer. (In the TV series, the murderer Billy Downs was played by none other than Casualty stalwart Derek Thompson, right.)

The Prime Minister personally orders the secret services to send in an undercover agent to infiltrate the IRA and take out the Minister’s killer. They choose Captain Harry Brown, a lapsed Catholic from Portadown and family man, but who had acquitted himself well undercover in Aden.  Brown knows what may happen if his cover is blown, but still accepts the job. He’s given three weeks intensive submersion training, a new surname McEvoy, and heads off to Belfast posing as a merchant-seaman returning home. He finds a room in a guest house run by Mrs Duncan…

Mrs Duncan had noticed he’d been away. And a long time at that, she was certain. Something grated on her ear, tuned to three decades of welcoming visitors and apportioning to them their birthplace to within a few miles. She was curious, now, because she couldn’t place what had happened to his accent. Like the sea he talked of, she was aware it came in waves – ebbed in its pitch. Pure Belfast for a few words, or a phrase, then falling off into something that was close to Ulster but softer, without the harshness. It was this that nagged as she dusted round the house and cleaned the downstairs hall, while above her Harry moved about in his own room. She thought about it a lot during the morning, and decided that what she couldn’t quite understand was the way he seemed to change his accent so slightly mid-sentence. If he was away on a boat so long then of course we would have lost the Belfast in his voice – that must have happened. But then in contradiction there were the times when he was pure Belfast. She soundlessly uttered the different words that emphasized her puzzlement to herself, uncomprehending.

Harry’s card is marked in one way or another right from the start. Later as the pressure mounts to find Billy Downs (whose name is unknown to the British), he finally gets a job; there’s also a girl, a dance and a gun. But I won’t spoil what happens.

What Seymour does is bring the Belfast back-streets to life, but more than that he shows the intelligence systems that both sides have for collating information on everyone. No-one enters this area without being noted and their movements logged by IRA spotters, and the Army alike. It all seemed completely real.

Seymour studied Modern History at university, becoming a journalist and then working for ITN where he covered many major politcal and military events, and I must assume, as I’ve been unable to confirm, that his experience reporting on The Troubles formed the basis of his research for this novel.

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The success of this novel though is driven by the characterisation of Harry. Already a hero, he is put into a near impossible situation, and Seymour makes you like him from the start. Added to that, my only clear memory of the TV series was the lovely Ray Lonnen (left) who played Harry, and he was Harry for me too whilst I read the book. Although he seemed perfect casting at the time, I note that Lonnen comes from Eastbourne, and I hope Mrs Duncan didn’t pick that up in his accent!

As Robert Harris acknowledges in his introduction to the latest edition of this novel, “… every so often the genre {thriller} throws up a novel of such remarkable quality, that the cycle is broken. Having finished it you don’t want to throw it out …”  I agree wholeheartedly with him, and the enduring popularity of this book has ensured that it has remained in print ever since.

Given its subject, this wasn’t an easy thriller to read, but it was a really great one. (9/10)

I shall leave you with Clannad singing The Theme from Harry’s Game onTop of the Pops back in the mid 1980s – this was their breakthrough into the international mainstream.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Harry’s Game by Gerald Seymour (1975), Hodder paperback.
Harry’s Game The Complete Series [1983] [DVD]

Be of good cheer! (No, not that type of cheer)…

Dare Me by Megan Abbott

DARE-ME-PBBAn image of pony-tailed cheerleaders is arguably the ultimate cliché when we think of the most popular girls at High School in the USA.  Most teen films portray them as bitchy, and not big on brains. They are there to look like clean-living girls next door, to strike poses, but act like teen temptresses and get first pick of the jocks on the soccer team.

The Cheerleading squad in Megan Abbott’s novel Dare Me are not like that at all. They are fit and lean athletes who train hard every day. They live for cheer, boys are mostly an encumbrance.

Ages fourteen to eighteen, a girl needs something to kill all that time, that endless itchy waiting, every hour, every day for something – anything – to begin.
“There’s something dangerous about the boredom of teenage girls.”
Coach said that once, one fall afternoon long ago, sharp leaves whorling at our feet.
But she said it not like someone’s mom or a teacher or the principal or worst of all like a guidance counselor. She said it like she knew, and understood.

Beth Cassidy is the captain of the squad and her best friend Addy Hanlon is her lieutenant. Everyone wants to be like them, they are admired and feared in equal measure. When a new coach arrives – everything changes.

Coach French wants to take the team to the next level, to raise their game so they can compete in cheerleading competitions.  At first she appears to be the Mary Poppins of coaches ‘practically perfect in every way‘. She’s inspirational, she changes the way the squad works – without a captain. She invites the girls to her house to hang out – they all love her (except Beth).  Coach French really seems to take to Addy, effectively estranging her from Beth – and this, of course, will have consequences, for Beth wants the old order back.

Then someone dies. There is a connection to the coach, and thus the squad, the police begin an investigation. This happens as the girls are making the final push, training for the season’s finale and a performance in front of a talent spotter. The stakes grow ever higher and loyalties are tested to the limits…

The most striking aspect of this novel, apart from the psychothrilling triangle of Addy, Beth and Coach at its heart, is the sheer physicality of it. These girls are serious about cheer. They’re not conventional friends outside of the squad, they’re work colleagues – or soldiers even, assembled into a formidable team whose goal is to support and catch the ‘flyer’ at the top of the pyramid at the climax of their routine. This is something that most people don’t see. As Addy says:

That’s what people never understand: They see us hard little pretty things, brightly lacquered and sequin-studded, and they laugh, they mock, they arouse themselves. They miss everything.
You see, these glitters and sparkle dusts and magicks? It’s warpaint, it’s hair tooth, it’s blood sacrifice.

But it’s more than just training, the higher up the pyramid you are, the lighter you have to be. There are many scenes involving girls throwing up what they’ve just eaten, surviving on just protein shakes and grass juice shots, varying shades of bulimia and anorexia. One scene that stayed with me is not so horrific (perhaps), but very visual:

We get a fat-slicked chocolate-chip muffin, which we heat up in the rotating toaster machine. Standing next to it, the hear radiating off its coils, I imagine myself suffering eternal damnation for sins not yet clear.
But then the muffin pops out, tumbling into my hands. Together, we eat it in long, sticky bites that we do not swallow. No one else is there, so we can do it, and Beth fills tall cups with warm water to make it easier then spit it out after, into our napkins.
When we finish, I feel much better.

NOOOOOO!

Coming back to that central triangle briefly… The novel is narrated by Addy – the sensible one, and it is Addy that is stuck in the middle of a tug-of-war between Beth and Coach. Beth and Coach compete for Addy’s attention, each confiding in her, yet never telling her the whole story to keep her wanting more. It’s psychological warfare – very creepy.

Dare Me is Abbott’s sixth novel. Her first four are all slices of classically styled 1950s noir with strong female leads – I would love to read these, and have heard good things about them. With her fifth novel The End of Everything, she moved into new territory – that of teenage sexual awakening – apparently Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides is a big influence (I really must read that too, the film was fab). I gather that Dare Me is going to be filmed, Natalie Portman has been linked for Coach.

The author has obviously done a lot of research into cheerleading, (you can read about that here). Although it was fascinating (in a horrible way) to read about how a normal cheerleading team become a great one, there was a bit much of the cheer which didn’t allow the psychodrama enough space to breathe. This also meant that the only two male characters of any note in the book were too mysterious, even by the end – and they are crucial to the plot. Abbott is clearly an author to watch, and although this book wasn’t quite a hit for me, it was well worth reading. (7.5/10)

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Source: Review copy from Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Dare Meby Megan Abbott, pub Picador (2012), paperback, 320 pages.
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides