Sunday, 26 July 2015

After The Sucker Punch by Lorraine Devon Wilke

After The Sucker Punch is an aptly named novel because it packs a mighty punch and raises so many questions, I was left literally reeling by the end of it. Lorraine Devon Wilke commands our attention with a splendidly dramatic opening and never lets us off the hook until the very last page.

The novel is essentially the story of Tessa Curzio, who whilst attending her father’s funeral discovers that he kept diaries for fifty years and has used them to record less than complimentary observations about his family and friends. The trauma of the death of a parent combined with the diary findings serve to cast Tessa into a spiral of self-doubt and destruction. The diaries are described as a Pandora’s Box and indeed, once they’ve been opened, the lives of Tessa and her family will never be the same again. In addition to this, the effects of the Pandora’s Box seem to extend to the reader, leaving behind some very thorny philosophical questions.

LDW shrewdly uses the third person narrative to tell her story, which invites the reader to see the bigger picture. We don’t necessarily always agree with Tessa’s version of events, especially where her siblings are concerned. Tessa has a difficult relationship with her older sister Michaela but LDW offers us a glimpse of a woman trying to juggle her life as a wife, mother and teacher, whilst stepping up to her new role as the family designated carer for her newly widowed mother. Whilst Tessa may have little sympathy for Michaela, LDW ensures that the reader does.

Tessa’s relationship with her siblings is for me the heart and soul of the novel and anybody who has siblings will recognise the petty tensions and jealousies but deep visceral love that defines the bonds they share. Tessa to a large extent has removed herself from her family in order to survive and consequently much of the to-ing and fro-ing between them is via a hilarious series of telephone conversations.

LDW offers us the Curzio family and with it the question of whether parents are responsible for their adult children’s misery. Tessa grew up with an unstable mother who is prone to extreme mood swings and a distant, aloof father, who struggled with intimacy. Despite their chaotic childhood, Tessa and all five of her siblings have grown into accomplished, successful people. Ronnie, her younger brother has lost his way but still has the potential for a good life. However, they are mired in their childhood, looking for reasons as to why their parents are like they are. Tessa’s mother bemoans the fact that she feels like a “dartboard” as her children look to blame her for their difficult childhoods.

Tessa’s family dynamics reflect a period of time that will resonate with lots of us who grew up in the 60s the 70s. Children’s needs were not particularly taken into account and as Tessa points out there was “no concept of child abuse.” Her mother freely hits her children in anger and perhaps worse, they are subjected to the fear and anxiety of her constant mood swings. In some ways the fact that her mother has the capacity for great kindness, as when she reassures Tessa she isn’t sinful, makes her relationship with her children even more complex. In her role as a writer, Tessa covers a feature about fathers and daughters and finds herself comparing her own experiences with other more tangible forms of abuse. She comes to the conclusion that pain is subjective and so can’t be comparative – “it’s as deep as you feel it.”

There’s no denying that her father’s written words have a devastating effect on Tessa and cause her much soul searching. As she rails against his words, there is clearly the kernel of fear within her that they might be true. As she is forced to confront her fears, her life implodes around her. The only constant is her friendship with Kate and Ruby even though LDW allows just enough realism to creep into their relationships. Tessa can’t help but feel reassured by Ruby’s marital problems whilst suffused with jealousy at Kate’s seemingly perfect life.

At the crux of the novel is the idea of whether we should be judged by what we write. Leo Curzio’s diary habit is made more toxic by the fact that he wanted his family to read them. The diaries serve as a metaphorical hand grenade tossed into the bosom of his family with the potential to rip lives apart. Tessa’s aunt, who acts as the conscience of the novel, asserts that maybe we should be judged on our actions rather than by what we may write. To all intents and purposes Leo Curzio was a good man, who did his best to give his children the best start in life but, for some bizarre reason felt the need to vent his bitterness and resentment on paper. Which is the more valid Leo is the puzzle that Tessa is left to figure out.

In the end there are no startling revelations or absolute answers, just a sense of peace and the idea of trying to accept people as they are, warts and all. LDW has captured the spirit of family perfectly in that there is no perfect family. Her novel is funny, warm, tense, angry and ultimately shows us that life is to be lived and there’s no point in dwelling on the past.

Monday, 20 July 2015

Jack Gets His Man by D. E. Haggerty

I have to confess that I am a bit of a novice when it comes to cosy mystery/romance but I was attracted to this novel by the idea of a gay male romance written by a woman.  Jack Gets His Man is the spin off sequel to Murder, Mystery & Dating Mayhem and, although there are lots of references to what’s gone before, it works very well as a standalone.

With Jack Gets His Man, D. E. Haggerty has indeed created a cosy world, where everything is more or less perfect. Jack is best friends with newlyweds Izzy and Noel, who are so supportive that Izzy even comes to collect him in the early hours of the morning after an illicit hook-up with an ex-lover. Jack is constantly popping around to Izzy’s house and not even the fact that he caught her and Noel in flagrante delicto can deter him.

The plot develops as Jack realises that money is being embezzled from his shop – a cross dressing/plus size ladies wear store called ‘Fabulous Darling’. Izzy, Noel and a geriatric knitting club band together in order to investigate who is siphoning off the money. They are eventually joined by Damien, Jack’s recently appointed bookkeeper and love interest.

The key to enjoying this novel is to suspend all reality and just go with the flow. The story is set in a small town in Oklahoma, where it seems anything goes. Criminals aren’t all that dangerous and drop dead gorgeous gay men abound, with barely a whiff of homophobia anywhere. That said there is something delightfully addictive once you allow yourself to get caught up in the mad-cap shenanigans of Jack’s life and, I literally couldn’t put the book down, reading it in one sitting.

Jack is the product of the constraints that the ‘cosy’ style dictates. He is stereotypically camp, playful and of course impossibly good looking. He is shallow to the point that he defines everyone he meets by how attractive they are but he is a devoted friend and takes good care of the knitting club ladies. There are hints of darker tones when Haggerty lets us know that Jack’s family disowned him for being gay and when we see him struggling to come to terms with his upcoming fortieth birthday but, in keeping with the light, frothy style, these issues are never really pursued.

I really like the fact that Haggerty uses her novel to give older people a voice. The knitting club ladies are hilarious - quick witted, saucy and not to be messed with. Despite being a great grandmother, Rose, a former accountant, is able to trace the missing money trail and is pivotal in solving the crime. Izzy is on the wrong side of forty and yet is a vital, fun loving character. Haggerty is able to effectively show how age is irrelevant when it comes to engaging with and enjoying a story.

Jack Gets His Man is the perfect antidote to the stresses of real life, offering an alternate reality in the style of a fun sit-com. It would make the ideal beach read and any reader wishing to while away a couple of hours with a funny, entertaining romp, can’t go wrong with this one. 

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Currents of War (The Rise of the Aztecs Series Book 4) by Zoe Saadia

Currents of War is the fourth book in The Rise of the Aztecs’ series and probably the most gritty read so far. All of the wonderful qualities of the other novels are still there but Zoe Saadia has injected an underlying tension into her writing that makes Currents of War a thrilling and thought provoking story.

Seven years have passed since the end of the previous tale (The Emperor’s Second Wife) and, although all of our favourite characters are still there, much has changed. Kuini and Dehe have settled into family life with their three young children and a fourth on the way, while Coyotl is readying himself to take back his beloved Texcoco. Iztac is married to the young Emperor and wielding quite a lot of influence, much to the annoyance of Izcoalt, who is now chief advisor. His previous role as warlord has been filled by Tlacealel.

There are two sides to this novel, the continuing development of the characters and their relationships with each other and the politics of the region. Obviously both these aspects are interconnected and their links affect the outcome of events greatly. More than with the other stories, Saadia creates a real sense of danger in this book, racking up the tension to a level that is at times almost unbearable. War is looming all around Tenochtitlan as the Tepanecs are poised to invade. At the same time, war is also raging within as political manoeuvrings and chicanery threaten the lives of several characters.

Saadia demonstrates clearly in her novels how colonisation works and the detrimental effect it has on the people who are stripped of their independence. The Tepanecs are ruthlessly building an empire at the expense of all the surrounding nations. The invaded areas are forced to pay tributes to their occupiers and consequently live in poverty and fear. Saadia also explores how power leads to corruption, showing the life of a leader to be cheap as those around him plot and scheme and coups are put in place.

Saadia’s knowledge and passion for the historical context of her novels is awe-inspiring and promotes a ring of authority and truth. However, for me the heart and soul of her novels are the characters and Currents of War does not disappoint. Kuini has grown up into the kind of man I hoped he would be, independent, wild but loving and loyal. His relationship with his children is very moving and Saadia makes it clear from the reactions of the other characters, that this is unusual for the time. Kuini is not a distant father; he loves his family with all he has.

Kuini’s openness and warmth is in direct contrast to the more strategically minded Tlacaelel and to some extent Coyotl. Although they care greatly for Kuini and in fact Tlecaelel does all he can to help his friend when he gets into difficulties, it is doubtful that they have the same capacity for passion. Deep down this is something that Tlecaelel acknowledges and maybe regrets. There are times that he almost covets what Kuini has whilst recognising that, as a noble man with big plans, he doesn’t have the luxury of letting his heart rule his head.

As with The Emperor’s Second wife, it is the female characters that enthralled me the most. Iztac has grown into an intelligent, perceptive woman but has been hardened by her experiences in the royal palace. She was brought there as a young girl and had to grow up quickly, as she was married off to one Emperor and then became the wife of his son. Saadia introduces the new character of Cuicalt, the third wife of the delightful old Aztec warlord. Cuicalt’s experience mirrors that of Iztac in that she was married off at fifteen to a forty year old man. Now in her forties, perhaps through necessity, she too is a shrewd, perceptive woman and one who you would want on your side.

My favourite character remains Dehe and her storyline in this novel is heartbreaking. She has settled into the role of Kuini’s wife and the mother of his children but is perpetually haunted by the knowledge that she is not his true love. She is fiercely loyal to Kuini and, ever since the first day she met him, would lay down her life for him. Both Tlacaelel and Coyotl are bewitched by her warm, devoted nature but it seems that Kuini might not appreciate what he has in this amazing woman.

Through Kuini and Dehe’s relationship, Saadia questions the very nature of love. Iztac was Kuini’s first love and she remains his ‘princess’ as they still enjoy illicit encounters. There is no doubt that they are soul mates who should be together had fate not intervened. However, in Dehe, Kuini has the steady, sure love of a woman who is devoted to him and his children and it’s clear that he loves Dehe in a quieter but no less genuine way. In Kuini’s case it would seem that it is possible to love two women differently but equally.

The ending of this novel is quite superb even though, by the time I got there I felt as if I had been through an emotional wringer. Anyone who believes in the power of sisterhood and the support that women can enjoy through their relationships with each other will no doubt be weeping with joy by the last page.

I loved this novel and The Rise of the Aztecs’ series is just going from strength to strength. If you haven’t discovered Zoe Saadia’s historical gems then you really are missing out on a treat. 

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Kill Line by Robert Leigh

Kill Line is a dark comedy that offers a perfect snapshot of modern life. Robert Leigh skilfully taps into the simmering rage that, for most of us, never seems too far away and embodies it in his likeable and, on the surface oh so reasonable, protagonist.

Due to being made redundant, Shaun is a put upon call centre operative who is forced to endure all of the abuse and boredom that goes along with the job. Despite his efficiency, Sean is often subjected to the rage of the callers who, in the safety of their own home and protected by the distance of the phone line, insult and denigrate him. Whilst visiting one such caller in the hope of getting him to see the error of his ways, Shaun accidentally kills him and thus a side career in murder is born.

All of Shaun’s intelligence and energy, which is wasted in the call centre, becomes focussed on planning the murders. Consequently, it’s through his side project that Shaun finds fulfilment and a sense of accomplishment. In fact, Shaun’s particular skill set means that he takes to serial killing like a duck to water. He is precise, well read and thorough in his research. All of the characters that get to know Sean comment on his intelligence and the fact that he’s wasted in a call centre.

Despite the fact that he’s a cold blooded killer, Shaun is a very engaging character with whom it’s easy for the reader to identify. Leigh employs the use of first person narrative and his conversational style means we soon feel as if we know Shaun. In fact, in the beginning there are two Shauns, the Shaun who makes the decision to kill and his horrified conscience. Leigh cleverly shows how the disparity between the two lessens as the novel goes on, however, and by the end the two are of the same mind.

Shaun is a complex, interesting character who has been forced to live a life not of his choosing. Due to the economic recession, he has few employment options and he lives alone in his childhood home. He is still reeling from the death of his parents and, in his low moments, is haunted by their suffering. He hasn’t changed anything in the house, except to add a large “American fridge”, that is at odds with the rest of the house. The fridge is no doubt a metaphor for Shaun’s desire to escape from the limited world he’s forced to inhabit.

What I really like about this book is the way it highlights the shabbiness of modern Britain. Shaun lives in Holtenthorpe which could represent any industrial town or city, defined by the misery of poverty and unemployment once the industry has collapsed. Where once factories might have stood, there are industrial estates with the new versions of factories – call centres. Leigh’s depiction of life inside a call centre is vivid and authentic and anyone who works in a target driven occupation, complete with robot style managers and meaningless business acronyms will identify with Shaun and his co-workers. The grey monotony of life in the call centre is almost unbearable.

Leigh’s novel is an indictment of the kind of politics that view people as a commodity. Labour Right is a government funded agency that forces unemployed people into jobs that aren’t worth having. The complete lack of humanity within these companies, that we all know exist in cities the length and breadth of the UK, see characters such as Marie, a fifty something woman made redundant after twenty three years working in a bank, tossed carelessly aside in favour of the more malleable twenty somethings. Anyone who complains about the working conditions find themselves ‘moved on’.

Although Leigh’s story is told in a way that is both thought provoking and humorous, make no mistake, it is also brutally violent. As Shaun embarks on his killing spree, all of the emasculation he has been made to feel, finds release in pure, unadulterated rage. Leigh’s talent lies in the way he allows us to identify with Shaun in such a way that we feel nothing for his victims. Shaun has devised a set of rules which he uses to decide whether an abusive caller deserves to die or not and, as we become caught up in his world, his reasoning seems quite fair. However, things change when Shaun kills someone who hasn’t broken the rules. We find ourselves pulling away from him and then when he meets suicidal Hazel Downs, we see him for the psychopath that he actually is. By the end, we have no idea what will become of him as he has passed a point of no return.

Kill Line is the perfect combination of playful and deadly serious. It’s probably not a story for anyone easily offended but, if you like a dark, clever and laugh out loud read, then you’ll love it. I know I did!