City of Strangers: Louise Millar

In Louise Millar’s thriller, City of Strangers, newlywed Grace Scott returns from a two week honeymoon in Thailand to her new flat in Edinburgh only to find a dead man in her kitchen. The man’s shoes are poorly fitting, he has no socks, and later, according to the autopsy, it’s revealed that the man, who had no ID was starving. The police chalk up the body to a burglar who died accidentally in the process of a break-in, but Grace has a vague dissatisfaction with the verdict which becomes amplified when she finds a scribbled note amongst her wedding presents.

With the signed note as a clue, and propelled by the uncomfortable knowledge that her own father died alone, Grace decides to pursue the man’s identity and find his family. What begins as a fairly simple connect-the-dots mission soon spirals out of control as Grace begins to learn two very different versions of the dead man’s life. She travels to London, Amsterdam and Paris with questions that lead her into the violent underbelly of the criminal world.

city-of-strangers

There’s a second story strand back in Edinburgh involving Ewan, Louise’s former journalism classmate and his boss, Sula, at Scots Today. Sula is chasing a story which concerns two bodies found in a pit cave: one man was an Australian hiker, and the other was a drug dealer, and Sula asks : “why would an Australian tourist be buried on top of one of Edinburgh’s finest drug dealers?” Of course these two story strands eventually connect.

Ewan and Sula are wonderful characters, and yet they are secondary figures in this tale. Their dynamic and dialogue sizzles and altogether seems much more real than that of Grace and Nicu the hunky prize-winning photographer she meets in Amsterdam. There’s one point when Sula pumps an unwitting PC  for information. He’s been guarding a crime scene in the cold, and she wanders up to him with a spare bacon roll. At another time, she borrows a greyhound as a prop to join other dogwalkers. The touches of humour which underscore how far some reporters will go to get a story help balance the darker, sadder aspects of this tale.

City of Strangers begins as a crime story but then morphs into a more complex, fleshy thriller. While I chewed up the story involving Ewan and Sula, my two favourite characters in the book, I had a much harder time with Grace, who dumps Mac, her newlywed husband without a word to pursue the photojournalist career she knows she wants. I found myself mulling over other plot scenarios: would it have been better if Grace’s husband Mac didn’t exist at all (but then he becomes integral to the plot later,) or what if Grace and Mac had already had longstanding marriage problems when the novel begins? I’ll land on the latter as Grace as a newlywed just didn’t work for this reader. She was too happy to sail off and ‘find herself’ which smacked much more of an unhappily woman than a newlywed–even one with a long-standing relationship such as Grace had with Mac. Grace is essentially drawn as a woman in the midst of a personal crisis having to choose career over domesticity, but the newlywed tag doesn’t mesh, and every time she ignores Mac’s texts or drops his calls, her actions push that post-honeymoon credibility.

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Till Death Do Us Part: John Dickson Carr (1944)

I’d never read John Dickson Carr before but took up a challenge from The Invisible Event to read one of this author’s books and post a review on November 30, 2016, to commemorate Carr’s 110th birthday. My pick: Till Death Do Us Part–selected on the merits of its title alone. John Dickson Carr (1906-1977) was an American author who lived in England for several decades of his life, and this novel, set in an English village, features Gideon Fell, arguably (according to everything I read) the author’s most famous character. This is a story of blackmail, murder, and deceit which takes place over the course of just a few days.

till-death-do-us-part

The novel opens at a charity fête on the grounds of Ashe Hall, home of the local gentry. We’re thrown right into the action as playwright Dick Markham, a creator of  “psychological thrillers,” and his fiancée Lesley Grant arrive on the grounds. There’s a storm brewing (literally and figuratively), and after an unfortunate moment at the rifle range, Lesley slides off to visit the fortune-teller, who just happens to be “one of the greatest living authorities on crime” Sir Harvey Gilman, the Home Office Pathologist. Something strange occurs between the fortune-teller and Lesley; she leaves the tent hurriedly and upset. A few moments later she accidentally shoots the fortune-teller, who is subsequently hustled off for medical attention.

That evening, Sir Harvey Gilman, wounded and resting, insists that Dick Markham visit, and Dick is told that Lesley is actually a three-time murderess, a poisoner who has killed two husbands, polished off another lover and very possibly intends Dick to be her next victim. Sir Harvey insists that Lesley, so far, has been too slippery to be caught and punished for her crimes and so he enlists a reluctant Dick to help him.

The next morning, however, Sir Harvey is found dead with a hypodermic needle containing prussic acid–and this is exactly the MO that Sir Harvey, now the victim, attributed to Lesley….

Before too long Dr Fell arrives on the scene and takes over the case aided and abetted by Inspector Hadley. Dr Fell is a large man (think Sidney Greenstreet), given to eccentricities. Till Death Do Us Part is the 15th Carr novel to feature Fell. There’s nothing here about a personal life; he appears around the halfway mark of the book, and mostly grunts, sending significant glances towards Inspector Hadley. I was a bit disappointed in the great detective.

I enjoyed the subtext involving Dick Markham’s behaviour with Cynthia Drew. Everyone in the village predicted a match but when Lesley arrived six months earlier, Markham had eyes for no one else. There’s an undercurrent of disapproval in the village against Markham for disappointing Cynthia. The obvious sexual attraction between Markham and Lesley does not exist with Cynthia–nonetheless Markham, a character I rather liked, gets himself in quite a bit of trouble with his gallantry.

Poisoner’s Mistake was proclaimed from one wall, Panic in the Family from another. Each an attempt to get inside the criminal’s mind: to see life through his eyes, to feel his feelings. They occupied such wall space as was not taken up by stuffed shelves of books dealing with morbid and criminal psychology.

There was the desk with its typewriter, cover now on. There was the revolving bookcase of reference works. There were the overstuffed chairs, and the standing ash trays. There were the bright chintz curtains, and the bright rag rugs underfoot. It was Dick Markham’s ivory tower, as remote from the great world as this village of Six Ashes.

The solution to the crime is wrapped by Fell who hugs all of the information to himself and then does a Grand Reveal at the end–this happens to be something I dislike in my crime books, and since I’ve never read this author before, I can’t say if this is usual or not. The set-up, the writing, the atmosphere were all great fun. I tried finding John Dickson Carr at the library, but the cupboard was bare. Have other readers out there found this author at the library?

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Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions: Mario Giordano

“Fragrantly, in a white caftan and gold gladiator sandals plus dramatic eyeliner and plenty of rouge, she used to sail into the bar like a cruise liner visiting a provincial marina.”

german-literature-month-2016Yes it’s German Literature Month 2016 and what would this event be without a crime novel? Last year for GLM, I reviewed Thumbprint a 1936 novel from Friedrich Glauser; this year it’s Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions by Mario Giordano. The author, a child of Italian immigrants was born in Munich, and this first crime novel was originally published in German. Interestingly, the novel’s protagonist, Auntie Poldi is a German woman who decides to move to Italy. …

auntie-poldi

The novel’s narrator is Auntie Poldi’s nephew, a would-be writer who plans to write a “big, epic family saga spanning three German-Sicilian generations” but, so far, has made little progress. He relates how Auntie Poldi, at age 60, decided to move to Sicily “intending to drink herself comfortably to death with a sea view.” The nephew comes to visit once a month, living in his aunt’s attic ostensibly to work on that great novel, but also to keep an eye on his aunt. Auntie Poldi, a “pig-headed Bavarian,” is a sort of larger-than-life Auntie Mame figure; her hobby is to collect photographs of “good looking traffic cops from all over the world.”

My Auntie Poldi: a glamorous figure, always ready to make a dramatic entrance. She had put on a bit of weight in recent years, admittedly, and booze and depression had ploughed a few furrows in her outward appearance, but she was still an attractive woman and mentally tip-top-most of the time, at least. Stylish, anyway. 

Auntie Poldi (Isolde) had a career as a costume designer, and married a tailor, Peppe (Giuseppe).

Poldi and my Uncle Peppe had shared a grand passion, but alas, a few things went badly wrong. Two miscarriages, booze, my uncle’s womanizing, divorce from my uncle, my uncle’s illness, my uncle’s death, the whole issue of the plot of land in Tanzania and sundry other unpleasant twists and turns, setbacks and upheavals of life had stricken my aunt with depression.

Poldi’s retirement to Sicily has her relatives concerned, but she refuses to move closer to them in Catania, and instead moves to Torre Archirafi (found photos of the place online, and it is spectacular). The novel goes on to include some unpleasant realities about living there along with details that bring the location to life.

Poldi, in common with those who have strong personalities, has theories on just about everything, and while she may think she wants a quiet retirement, it’s clear that that will never happen. This indomitable woman turns into an amateur sleuth after the disappearance of a young handyman she employs, and she rapidly gets in much deeper than she expected.  Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions would be easy to classify as a cozy mystery, but I wouldn’t place the book fully in that subgenre: it’s too tangy a book for that classification. It’s definitely an amateur sleuth book, on the light side of crime, with an emphasis on humour and irrepressible figure of Auntie Poldi, but the book is also a statement about being comfortable in one’s own skin.  The appeal of the promised series will depend very much on how the reader connects to the character of Auntie Poldi. If you are looking for light, amusing crime set in an exotic location with a confident, older protagonist, then this book is a pleasant way to spend a few hours.

Review copy

Translated by John Brownjohn

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Black Widow: Christopher Brookmyre

“Just because you’re a psychopath doesn’t mean you can’t have emotional intelligence.”

Black Widow is the page-turning story of a talented, female surgeon who falls into disgrace through social media, only to recoup her life with a whirlwind romance with the seemingly perfect man. But six months later, he’s dead and she’s accused of his murder. …

black-widow

Diane Jager once had a job as a surgeon in a prestigious hospital, but she led another life, online, as Scapelgirl, running a blog in which she revealed the sexism she endured as a female surgeon and the difficulty of balancing personal and work lives. The problem is, when anonymity is used to push a personal agenda, well sometimes people go overboard, and that is certainly the case with Diane. Her blog became a cause celebre amongst other female doctors, for Scalpelgirl as an anonymous agent tackled issues (and people) she would not have wrestled in person. The rage of the blog took over, and Scapelgirl becomes known as Bladebitch by her detractors, her identity was revealed (along with some of her sleazier moves) and she was forced to resign. She takes a job at Inverness, her “penitential northern gulag.”

Despite the baggage she brought, she was too valuable a prospect for them to pass up, like a provincial football team happy to take on a flawed talent who had fallen from grace at one of the major clubs.

At her new place of employment, Diane meets IT tech, Peter, and against all the odds, they hit it off, rapidly becoming absorbed in each other. With Diane’s biological clock ticking away,  there seems no need to slow down.

Six months later, Peter’s car is pulled out of a freezing river. Peter’s sister Lucy contacts investigate reporter, Jack Parlabane, and tells him that she thinks her brother may have been murdered.

Black Widow is a very cleverly structured tale which begins in a courtroom and then goes back over time through several points-of-view. We see events through the eyes of two constables: Ali Kazmi and Ruben Rodriguez who are the first on the scene of Peter’s accident–the ones who break the news to Peter’s not-so-grieving widow. Then there’s Parlabane’s view. He’s still bruised from his divorce and a catastrophic dip in his career, so the Bladebitch case offers not only distraction but also possible career redemption. The third viewpoint comes from Diane aka Bladebitch herself; there’s a lot to like there (she’s driven, talented, extremely intelligent) but there’s also a lot to dislike: she’s cold, unapproachable and prickly.

This is someone you do not want to fuck with. This is a woman who will make it her purpose in life to settle the score. They say payback’s a bitch? Then believe me: you don’t want payback from the Bladebitch.

The novel’s clever structure (which is just a teensy bit manipulative but forgivable and within the realms of acceptability–unlike Gone Girl which crossed the line IMO) is bolstered by a certain synchronicity, so we see PC Ali Kazam concerned about a possible pregnancy while Diane longs for a child. We see PC Rodriguez leaving London for exile in Inverness (echoing Diane’s trajectory), and one chapter in which Diane comes to an important revelation is immediately followed by Parlabane experiencing a realization of sorts. The portions narrated by Diane are the strongest and the most compelling in the book; she’s a terrific character, and over the course of her narration, we begin to see exactly how her character became crafted by experience.

I guessed the book’s solution and that’s probably due to all my crime reading, but I still enjoyed the book very much indeed. Work-life balance, sexism in medicine, the mirages often encountered in relationships, all these issues are tackled rather well here, so combine that with a page-turning crime novel, and you have an excellent read.

Black Widow is the seventh in the Jack Parlabane series, and in spite of the fact that this is the first one (so far) that I’ve read, I had no problem reading this as a stand-alone.

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Mr Bone’s Retreat: Margaret Forster

“A large, creased, gray American, he began the minute he eventually arrived to describe to the assembled throng the state of his bowels, with which he had been having some trouble.”

Bachelor William Bone, a retired civil servant, has lived happily in the same Regency house opposite Richmond Park  for 40 years. William, after purchasing the house finally a few years ago, has spent a lot of energy carefully renovating it, and now it’s perfect.  The house is divided into three flats with William living on the top floor flat, while Agnes Joliffe, a widow and an acquaintance for over 50 years lives, as his tenant, in the ground floor flat. The middle flat is finished but empty.

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William and Agnes get along well, but some tension exists between them. This is mostly manifested in the way Agnes teases William about his cleaner, his routines and his belief system. Autocratic and critical, Agnes is the sort of woman who “had been born to have servants,” and she terrifies everyone–including her lumpish, unattractive daughter, Germaine.

Germaine was one of life’s visitors–as far as her mother was concerned there was no permanent place for her anywhere. She flitted. The jobs she had had were endless and not a decent one among them. She had not had the brains to go to university, easy though it now was compared to Mrs. Joliffe’s day, but she could at least have trained herself for some worthwhile auxiliary profession. Nor had her personal life been any more commendable. Unmarried till the age of thirty-two, she had then married a Hungarian refugee who upped and went back to Hungary three weeks later. Farcical. Quickly she had taken up with an elderly insurance clerk, who had in due course married her, then stepped in front of a tube train at Mornington Crescent. Apparently he had been wearing bifocal spectacles for the first time or something ridiculous. Then there had been Homer. 

Agnes, a widow after just two years of marriage, loved William and at one time expected to marry him, but William, who has a terrible fear of love, sex, and commitment, has always managed to keep Agnes (and the world) at arm’s length. William is a creature of habit, and his solitary life is one of ordered routine with “normal activities which he loved so much that even a day away grieved him.” People tend to bully William, and that includes his housekeeper, so perhaps it’s just as well that he has no intimate relationships. He’s long since made peace with his choices.

Other people oppressed him if he had to put up with them more than half an hour-a discovery that had made him sad when he was young but was now his strength.

William only has one friend, Pullen, William’s architect, a dreadful bully who terrorises his secretaries. Every time William goes to Pullen’s office, there’s a new secretary, usually in tears. When it comes to employees, Pullen’s  “turnover was impressive.” Not only does he shout, bully and deride, he also dangles one leg over his chair in a way that “called attention to his bulging crotch.” Pullen is rather cruel to William, but William never seems to get it, or perhaps Pullen’s barbs don’t trouble William–a man who seems very comfortable with his life.

The sport lay in the vicious teasing Pullen gave William. He teased him, nastily, about everything. He teased about sex, pretending William was a well-known poof, or about Mrs. Joliffe, pretending she was his mistress. He teased him about his running, pretending he ran in the park only to rape young girls and not to keep fit.

So here is William in his late 60s, a fussy man whose spartan routine means everything, a slippery man who has avoided commitment and messy emotional entanglements. One Christmas Eve, a young couple, Alex and the very pregnant Sophie, show up on William’s doorstep, attracted by the glimpse of an empty flat. William, driven by manners and politeness, allows the couple to stay the night, and then gradually, Sophie, talks William into allowing them to rent the flat…

A gentle comedy ensues from William’s fateful decision. He loathes noise and mess, has very strict rules for cleaning common areas and using the bathroom (no using the toilet after ten at night,) and communicates through letters and notes in order to avoid confrontation. Meanwhile Alex, Sophie’s unemployed artist boyfriend who has no understanding of responsibility or manners, tramples all over William’s ‘rules.’  This situation rapidly becomes untenable for William, but he’s torn between avoidance and good, responsible behaviour–two dominant aspects of his character.

When I first came across Mr Bone’s Retreat, I was concerned that I wouldn’t enjoy the book as I tend to become annoyed with passive or door-mat characters. But William is anything but passive. Alex’s bad behaviour spurs a frenzy of letter writing as William tries to reel in his tenants. Mrs. Joliffe, of course, becomes involved. On one hand she befriends Sophie, and on the other, she pushes William to do something about the situation before a baby breaks the formerly peaceful routine at the house. And of course, before too long, William, who has a lifelong avoidance of relationships finds that he has two women dependent on him.

This is my second Margaret Forster novel. The first was The Unknown Bridesmaid which I loved. Both novels are intense character studies–although Mr Bone’s Retreat is rather comic as we see William struggle with conflicting values. There’s a sadness to the unrequited love affair between Agnes Joliffe and William–although by the end of the book it seems as though William probably did the right thing in avoiding marriage to the domineering Agnes. Sophie acts as a catalyst in the novel, shaking up Agnes and William’s lives, telling Agnes some painful truths, and illuminating William’s generosity long hidden under his fussy, obsessive routines.

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Loving: Henry Green (1945)

Henry Green’s novel Back  is the story of a soldier, now an amputee who returns home to England while WWII rages on. The title, obviously, refers to the man’s return; he’s changed, his world has changed. Loving, published a year before Back, must then refer to the relationship between the newly appointed butler, Raunce and the maid, Elsie. There’s a secondary romance but more of that later.  The story is set in a grand house owned by an upper class Anglo-Irish family with the servants, in theory, making sure that everything runs smoothly. These two groups of people–the masters and the servants–move in different worlds, but when things go wrong, as they do several times in the novel, there are comic results which reveal the inherent paradoxes within the upstairs-downstairs relationships.

loving

The grand country house is owned by the Tennants, but the son (and heir) of the house, Jack, is off at war, and most of the servants are British (the one irish servant isn’t allowed in the house). There are rumours that the Germans may invade, rumours that the IRA may attack, and the servants, isolated from events in Britain, except for the occasional letters, are cocooned from the deprivations of rationing, and spared the German bombing raids. The male staff members know that if they step foot back on British soil, they’ll be conscripted. So here they are, sitting out the war, hearing its distant rumblings, isolated from their home land.

The novel opens with the death of the elderly butler, Eldon, who unbeknownst to the lady of the house, Mrs Tennant, has been steadily ripping her off over the years. Charley Raunce, formerly the head footman and now butler by default (where else would Mrs Tennant get a replacement in wartime?) ‘inherits’ Eldon’s notebooks. One shows how much he’s been siphoning off the estate, and the other is a sort of reference guide of visitors–its information directed towards getting tips.

The death of Eldon heralds a mini-crisis within the household as head housemaid, Mrs Burch can’t accept Raunce’s promotion. Raunce’s promotion is a shake-up of the established power structure, the unspoken element the entire house runs on.

Not a great deal happens in this story: the cook’s disruptive nephew arrives, scrawny and ill-fed from England, a peacock is murdered, the peacocks are locked up, a valuable ring goes missing, and Mrs Jack (whose husband is away fighting) is caught in bed with a naked man. Through all of these incidents, just what should be aired and what should be kept secret (away from Mrs Tennant) become the points of action. These incidents serve to underscore the separate worlds of the two classes, and the problems that ensue when those world collide.

Loving is a sort of upstairs-downstairs book with an emphasis on the latter. Dozens of peacocks roam the estate–beautiful and yet rather useless, and somehow they seem emblematic of the Tennant family who are largely clueless about what is going on under their noses. The war rages on outside this country, but the Tennants, who care nothing for Ireland, are mostly concerned with the cold dinners delivered to the nursery and the dearth of coloured blotting paper:

“You write to London for the blotting paper of course?”

“Yes Madam but this is all Mr. Eldon could get. I believe he was going to speak about it.”

“No, he never did,” she said, “and naturally it would be hopeless trying to buy anything in this wretched country. But tell me why if there are several pastel blues can they do only one shade of pink?” 

“I believe it’s the war Madam.”

She laughed and faced him. “Oh yes the shops will be using that as an excuse for everything soon.”

If Raunce’s promotion leads to a mini-crisis in the house, the disappearance of a ring is near catastrophic. The servants, and not Mrs. Tennant’s well-known carelessness, are immediately blamed, and this leads to a very funny scene with the insurance investigator and even accusations that the cook is a drunk:

“I think everything’s partly to do with the servants,” Mrs. Tennant announced as if drawing to a logical conclusion.

“The servants?” Mrs. Jack echoed, it might have been from a great distance.

“Well one gets no rest. It’s always on one’s mind, Violet.”

There’s very much the bitter-sweet sense that we are privileged to see a vanishing world. Violet, Mrs Jack, is in love with another man, in a relationship that will not survive if her husband returns from war. If Jack dies in war, what will happen to the house? The Raunces of this world are not the Eldons. The servants are restless and consider other lives; there are no ties to Ireland, no sense of permanence:

“No, what’s going’ on over in Britain is what bothers me. The ways things are shapin’ it wouldn’t come as a surprise if places such as this weren’t doomed to a natural death so to say.”

Another wonderful revival from New York Review Books

Lisa’s review is here.

Review copy

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A Harmless Affair: Christina Stead

Lisa at ANZ Litlovers announced Christina Stead Week Nov 14-20, and I selected a short story at random from Ocean of Story.  A Harmless Affair takes a look at the ambiguous relationship between the happily married Lydia and a journalist/author/soldier, Paul Charteris. Lydia, married to Tom, is in a strange mood, aware of spring, aware of love, when she is invited to a party full of “distinguished people who had all arrived at their destinations.” Lydia meets Charteris, she owns all of his books, and invites him to meet her husband sometime.  He makes a comment that he didn’t know that she was married and that he has ‘no luck.’

ocean-of-story

A week later, Charteris phones and asks if he can visit sometime. He’s given an open invitation, and a month later, he rings again and says he’s coming over. Tom and Charteris appear to like each other, and gradually a relationship forms–mainly between the two men–although there’s something in the air between Charteris and Lydia. Charteris says things to Lydia that he doesn’t say to Tom, he sends Lydia these “rare golden smiles.”  How is Lydia to interpret the things Charteris says, the looks he sends her?

Lydia and Tom move to another state for two years, but they return to New York and run into Charteris again. There’s something doomed about this man. He seems in a downward spiral, tired, and unkempt. The absence and the reunion forces Lydia to consider that “this is the man I nearly lost my head over,” but the inexplicable enchantment Charteris weaved over Lydia before, begins again.

This twenty-five page story is disturbing, and yet there’s nothing ostensibly that should disturb any reader. Perhaps it’s the way that Stead conveys how Charteris, obviously a damaged soul, burrows under Lydia’s skin. She thinks she’s in love, but is she really? The title “A Harmless Affair” is, like the story, somewhat ambiguous. We are left with the idea that Charteris irrevocably alters Lydia’s life, but is this for the better or for the worst? How much of all this germinates in Lydia or her projection? Stead argues that just a few looks, a few words casually thrown out, can lead to unsettling consequences that have no closure. Anyway, a strangely unsettling story. …

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The Mysteries of Paris: Eugène Sue (Part II)

Earlier this year, I took a look at (and started) Eugène Sue’s mammoth novel, The Mysteries of Paris. The Mysteries of Paris ran, as a series, in the Journal des Débats from June 1842-October 1843. I’m still chugging my way through it, and it’s hard to review as there are spoilers galore in every chapter. Each main character has at least one other identity, and their convoluted histories cross back and forth. Every time you think you have a handle on the plot, Sue throws in more to confound us.

the mysteries of Paris

As a writer, Sue is shameless. He’ll throw mention of a character into the narrative in a seemingly minor way, but you can almost hear the thunderclaps of suspense overhead. One of the characters mentions a lost son who is wearing a Lapis Lazuli cross; we don’t have to wait long; it appears in the next chapter. One character seems vile, but he flips into a decent sort within the space of a few chapters. People pop up and disappear. Conversations are conveniently overheard. Coincidence occurs so often, you’d think there were only a few dozen people living in Paris. It’s clear that Sue is thinking on the fly. This isn’t plotted out in minute detail in advance.

This is not great literature–it’s too melodramatic for that, but it’s still great fun. Sue is one hell of a plotter. If he were alive today, I could see him writing for one of those really tacky, addictive thrilling TV series: say The Affair, or Dallas back in the day.

The book’s main character and hero is Rodolphe; he’s actually a Grand Duke of some German principality whose agenda is to travel through the gutters of Paris in disguise and  save people from poverty and a life of crime. Rodolphe knows that many of the Parisians whose paths he crosses are mired in lives of poverty and crime for no fault of their own, and he also understands the difference between true evil and those who have to do what they do in order to survive. Hence he has no problem, for example, with Songbird, a young girl who’s enslaved in a life of prostitution, whereas he loathes the woman who abused Songbird: The Owl, a one-eyed hag whose secret weapon is a bottle of acid which she is prepared to throw on anyone who gets in her way.

Rodolphe even tolerates The Ogre: an innkeeper who whores out Songbird, and the message is that Rodolphe’s intolerance is for those who abuse and corrupt. This supposition comes true as we learn more of Rodolphe’s past.

I liked Rodolphe until he went all Old Testament on me. He’s a god-like figure dispensing bounty for those who deserve it and punishment for those who don’t. I’m still working on the book, so who knows what else Sue has in store.

Review copy

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Christine Stead Week: November 14-20, 2016

Lisa at ANZLITLOVERS organised a week honouring Christina Stead. I’m swamped at the moment, but I ordered Ocean of Story: the Uncollected Stories of Christina Stead. Since it’s OOP, there wasn’t much information out there, but my copy arrived and here’s the contents of this 552 page book:

ocean-of-story

1: The Early Years: Australia

The Old School

The Milk Run

A Little Demon

2: Apprentice Writer

A Night in the Indian Ocean

La Toussaint

O, If I Could But Shiver!

About the House

Uncle Morgan at the Nats

3: Pre-War Europe

The Azhdanov Sailors

Private Matters

Lost American

4: New York

Life is Difficult

A Harmless Affair

I Live in You

My Friend, Lafe Tilly

An Iced Cake with Cherries

UNO

The Fathers

5: Post War Europe

The Captains’ House

Yac, Yac

The Hotel-Keeper’s Story

A Household

The Woman in the Bed

The Boy

Trains

6: England

Street Idyll

1954: Days of the Roomers

A Routine

Accents

7: Biographical and Autobiographical

A Waker and a Dreamer

A Writer’s Friends

Les Amoureux

Another View of the Homestead

Did it Sell?

The Magic Woman and Other Stories

Afterword from R. G. Geering, literary executor and life-long friend.

This post is created for anyone else out there interested in the contents of this book. My review of The Little Hotel is here.

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Fractured: Catherine McKenzie

“Rearranging the deck chairs of the Titanic, I’d taken to calling what I was doing on a daily basis.”

Imagine that you are a wildly successful author whose first novel, The Murder Game, sold over a million copies (and counting). The royalties are pouring in, plus there’s a film version in the works. You’re young, attractive, and you have a wonderful, patient, supportive and dependable husband who shoulders a great deal of the care for your six-year-old twins. Who wouldn’t trade places with Linda Apple, lawyer turned best-selling author? Well hold, on. Before you get too envious of Linda’s life, there’s a lot of trouble simmering under the surface.

Linda Apple, her husband and twins move from Tacoma for a fresh start in Ohio. They move into an affluent neighbourhood hoping to put Linda’s problems with a stalker far behind them. This isn’t some random stalker, this is Heather Stanhope, a former law classmate of Linda’s who’s stoked the rumour that The Murder Game is based on the mysterious death of Linda’s friend and roommate, Kathryn. Given Heather’s computer skills and her ability to hide behind various internet identities, it was a miracle that Linda was finally able to prove that Heather was the stalker who caused so many of the bad things that happened. But still there’s just a shadow of a lingering doubt that perhaps Linda created some of the press herself….

fractured

The fresh start in the Eden Park neighbourhood turns sour quickly. There’s a neighbourhood association run by the perfect wife and mother, Cindy. It all started out with seemingly good intentions: neighbourhood watch and block parties, but with Cindy in charge and making all the rules, soon Linda finds herself unwelcome in the neighbourhood. And then bad things begin to happen again.

The novel is told in two voices: Linda and her neighbour, and running partner, John Dunbar, who lives across the street. The novel begins in the present, then shifts back to a year ago when Linda first moved into the neighbourhood. Through the chapters, the story then moves forward to the present.

Fractured is a page-turner. No arguing that one. We know that something bad happened in the neighbourhood, and exactly what that is, is gradually revealed through the unfolding story. Author Catherine McKenzie gives us someone to loathe: Cindy, the seemingly perfect wife and mother who single handedly runs the neighbourhood association. Some people see her as a little over-zealous, but she’s a truly horrible person, encouraging everyone to use an app to monitor the comings-and-goings of their neighbours, all in the name of safety.

But what of Linda? I found her a somewhat unreliable narrator (not sure if I was supposed to), but this gray area made the book more interesting for this reader. There are several times in the book where Linda’s actions are called into question by her neighbours: hint: when you take your dog for a walk, remember the poop bag. Linda has a German Shepherd trained to attack. (At one point she says that next year, it’s going to be her 6 year old twins job to walk the dog. Is she NUTS???) Controlled, directed aggression is one of the most difficult behaviours to inculcate in a dog (note the number of times police dogs go off the rails once their ‘killmode’ is switched on). Linda uses her dog in a morally reprehensible fashion, and then fails to acknowledge her own responsibility. But this is not a lone incident that highlights Linda’s moral flaws. There are several times throughout the novel when she does stuff and pretends (or acts like) it was all an accident. Unfortunately, these incidents were too frequent and establish a pattern of behaviour of failing to take responsibility, so instead of Linda being a heroine, she was a shady figure, and that worked well too.

The ending didn’t quite work for me, and I kept wondering why Linda, who was loaded, didn’t move to a gated community for security or leave Eden Park when things went South. With these sort of domestic-threat novels, readers know that characters will make mistakes. After all, that’s often how they get into trouble in the first place. The imperative, however, is that the mistakes still be plausible even if the decisions are stupid or ill-advised. There were a couple of places where Linda, who’d been terrorised by her stalker, doesn’t act sensibly at all, but the author plays with the theory that Linda may have helped create her own publicity and then there are those meds Linda is taking. Still, I found some of the aspects of the story stretched credibility. in Linda’s shoes, you’d have to be a complete moron not to have a secured network. But in spite of its flaws, this highly readable, well-paced novel explores the issue of maintaining privacy in today’s world, and exactly how an author who needs a public presence on social media can battle against stalkers.

I will be reading The Murder Game to get to the bottom of what really happened to Kathryn. Yes Linda, you can run but you can’t hide…..

review copy

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Filed under Fiction, McKenzie Catherine