Sunday, 29 November 2015

Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd

Now this was a difficult book to put down, as right from the beginning it gets is main character, climatologist Adam Kindred, into a growing tangle of murder, conspiracy and the dark undercurrents of London society. Adam is one of those characters that can be tossed about by adverse events because he has just come back from years in America, a broken marriage behind him and the sniff of a new job, a research fellowship at Imperial College, so he has no ties and no one knows he is home.
    Eating alone at an Italian restaurant he meets another scientist, an immunologist, also eating alone, who happens to leave behind a folder. Dr Philip Wang's address and phone number are on the documents, so Adam decides to return the file in person, but discovers Wang's dying body and a lurking murderer at his flat. Adam manages to dodge the attacker, but his name has been left with the concierge and his fingerprints are on the murder weapon. He soon realises he has no choice but to go on the run, and hides out, living rough among the undergrowth at Chelsea Embankment.
    Adam's a resourceful young man, and sets out to clear his name, and that will mean finding out what it was that Dr Wang had discovered during his trials of a ground-breaking new asthma drug that has someone at the pharmaceutical company Calenture-Deutz determined to suppress.
    So begins a convoluted storyline full of odd connections that all tie up cleverly and an assortment of widely varying characters. There's Calenture-Deutz head Ingram Fryzer, full of self-doubt yet determined to maintain control of the company while needing buy-in from another major drug company. He's not a particularly pleasant character, but Boyd somehow makes him to some degree sympathetic to the reader. Not so top nasty Jonjo, the ex-squaddie thug hired to do in Dr Wang who is desperate to track down Adam in order to get his final payout.
    Then there is Mhouse, the prostitute that rips Adam off and then later helps him, suggesting he visit the Church of John Christ, if he ever needs a hot meal. Which he does. The Church of John Christ is a marvellous creation, a testament to the novel ways that a new religion can be invented and in spite of its doubtful theological basis, manages to do a lot of good, one way and another.
    The story bounces from character to character, and Adam's plight is both nail-biting and enthralling - he's a modern day Richard Hannay - and the chapters just fly by. Boyd manages to come up with a thriller that is also immensely well-written and intelligent. The book's title is a reference to the type of storms that have 'the capacity to transform themselves into multi-cell storms of ever growing complexity', like this rich and complex plot. It is lucky that this particular thunderstorm has storm expert, Adam Kindred, on the case to see a way through the layers of conspiracy, with an ending that is both original and immensely satisfying.

Friday, 20 November 2015

The Drowning Lesson by Jane Shemilt

I had my doubts about this book in the opening pages as I couldn't quite warm to the main character and narrator. Emma Jordan is an obstetrician and mother of two young girls, Alice and Zoe. Husband, Adam, is also a doctor and their relationship is strained by the urge Emma feels to constantly compete with Adam career-wise. There is no doubt she is very good at what she does and there is little wonder she is driven when the story flips back to show glimpses of her relationship with her father. The drowning lesson of the title gives you a clue.
    Emma is one of those brilliant doctors who works with machine like accuracy but has something missing when it comes to relating to people: not remembering the name of the woman whose baby she has just delivered or noticing that Alice is suffering stress. When Adam plans a sabbatical year in Botswana, Emma is reluctant to take the time away from work to join him, but her falling unexpectedly pregnant and a problem with Alice at school help to change her mind.
   This back story is woven in with the terrible event at the start of the book when Emma arrives at their Botswana house to find her baby boy, Sam, has been abducted. A window has been smashed so it looks like strangers have taken the child who has a distinctive strawberry birthmark on his cheek.
    While the police are soon on the spot, there are hardly any leads and Emma's mind ranges over a variety of suspects: the nanny Teko, who turned up out of the blue and whom the girls took an instant liking to; Simon, the girls' tutor who has suddenly left the area; Adam's secretary, Megan, who had been overwhelmingly kind in arranging things from London, doesn't escape scrutiny either. Meanwhile the police question the elderly gardener and Alice becomes even more withdrawn and blames her mother for everything.
    The novel takes every woman's worst nightmare as the basis for a tense and gripping read. And while I found Emma a difficult character at first, that changed as the book progressed because she is really interesting. Adam and girls are also well rounded, coping or not coping in various ways.  The eventual solution to the mystery is only half the book as Emma learning that there is more to life than winning is a core part of the story. This could have been all rather obvious and clumsy, but Shemilt avoids these pitfalls - perhaps due to the spare, straightforward narration that suits Emma's developing character so well.
    While this might not have been my first choice of reading matter, once I'd picked it up it was hard to put down and I rattled through the final chapters. It would be a terrific TV drama series over several Sunday nights, too.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra by Vaseem Khan

This is the first of what would seem to be a new series of mysteries featuring recently retired Mumbai policeman, Ashwin Chopra and, quite possibly, his pet elephant. The book begins on Inspector Chopra's last day in the force - he has had to retire early for health reasons - and he is daunted by the fact. He will have his policeman's pension, and his wife, Poppy, is looking forward to having him at home to make a fuss over. But he is not ready to retire.
    A final case - the drowning of a young man from a poor part of town - looks to Chopra to be more than meets the eye and in spite of orders to sign it off as a drunken accident, Chopra resists. He can hear the words of the boy's distraught mother ringing in his ears, that there is no justice for a poor woman and her poor son. Surely he can ask a friend to perform a post mortem and visit the family to see what he can find out.
    At the end of the day he arrives home to find there is a baby elephant outside his home. It has been left to him by a favourite uncle and an argument is in full flow between Poppy and Mrs Subramanium, the self-appointed arbiter of what is permitted in their apartment block. No pets is one of the rules, while Poppy exclaims that the elephant isn't a pet, but one of the family. The elephant is tethered in the compound and left with the caretaker, while Chopra figures out what to do with it.
    The elephant is so tiny and, separated from its herd, utterly miserable, neither eating or drinking. You can't help but fear for its survival while curiosity about its role in the plot draws you into the story. Chopra, now with time on his hands, begins his investigation into the drowning. He finds the victim's diary which sends him on a trail into the slums of Mumbai. What can be the connection between a leather shop, an orphanage and an abandoned warehouse?
    While Chopra is involved in his secret undercover work, Poppy suspects he has another woman and hatches a scheme of her own to save her marriage. There are plenty more mad cap scenes involving the elephant at the apartment, also home of Chopra's difficult mother-in-law, while Chopra closes in on a network of criminals, leading up to a showdown with an old enemy.
    The plot just bubbles along and the colourful sights of Mumbai in its infinite variety adds a ton of interest while the monsoon brings new challenges. Chopra is a big-hearted investigator and his elephant surprisingly helpful - is is just as well they are not ready to settle into retirement together. I for one will be looking out for the next Baby Ganesh Agency investigation.

Monday, 9 November 2015

The Reader on the 6.27 by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent

The reader at the centre of this novel is Guylain Vignolles, just an ordinary man whose life has been made difficult by the name his parents gave him at birth - a spoonerism away from Villain Guignol which translates as 'ugly puppet'. He suffered the kind of teasing at school that robbed him of his confidence, and now in his thirties Guylain works in a book recycling plant, managing the Zerstor, a monstrosity of a machine that noisily gobbles and pulps the books no one wants to read anymore.
    The work is bad enough for anyone, his boss is abusive, his co-worker sneering and uncouth. And on top of that, Guylain loves books. To make up for what he has to do to them each day, he salvages odd pages and reads from his collection on his daily commute by train, out loud.
    Most of the time it seems Guilain's readings go unnoticed by his fellow travellers, until one day two old ladies collar him and ask him to read at their home. He imagines another Paris apartment, probably a bit more commodious than his own tiny garret, and is surprised to find himself in at a retirement home.
    His readings are very popular and the audience ask questions and take an interest in him. What's more they mispronounce and mishear his name so that it becomes nothing that conjures up the 'ugly puppet' of before. Things are looking up. But when Guylain discovers a lost USB drive on his train, his life takes another course altogether. In order to return the drive to its owner, Guylain downloads its content and suddenly we are in the journal of Julie, who is just as disillusioned with her lot as Guylain. Julie is looking for a white knight to rescue her from her dismal job as a toilet cleaner in a shopping mall.
    The book is a charming fable about the power of literature to uplift and transform people's lives. But it is full of humour too - that particular French style of humour which sees the funny side of the potentially miserable. Take Guylain's former co-worker, Giuseppe, who's legs were lost in an unfortunate accident when he was unblocking the Zerstor. His apartment is lined with shelves of books: identical copies of the same book that was made from the pulp which was the bi-product of his accident.
    Or the security guard, Yvon, who has a passion for reciting French classical literature and speaks in Alexandrine verse. (I imagine in an Englsh story, the character would choose iambic pentameter.) Guylain is a good friend to both which is just as well or the reader could never forgive his inability to find himself a girlfriend or a decent job.
    The Reader on the 6.27 takes an afternoon to read, and once begun I found it difficult to put down. I'm not sure quite what it was that drew me in, possibly it was the 'Amelie'-like quirky Frenchness, or the desire you feel for Guylain's life to turn around. You know there is a happy ending coming up, but there is enough wit to keep your brain happy as well. And the writing is stylish and clever. What more could you want?