3 from April 2011 Set in the USA – Waite – Millar – Kwok

The Terror of Living by Urban Waite – A fine backwoods thriller…

It was the quote from Daniel Woodrell, an author of whom I’m a huge fan, on the cover that made me instantly want to read this book, a debut novel set in the backwoods border country near Seattle.  To all outward appearances it’s a crime thriller, set in the murky and violent world of drug smuggling, but it also felt very like a modern western, grounded in Cormac McCarthy territory.  At it’s heart are two men, the hunter and the hunted, and when a third enters the story, their roles will be turned around again and again.

Hunt is an ex-convict.  He lives quietly on a small ranch with his wife Nora. They struggle to make ends meet, so Hunt takes on the occasional drug-smuggling job.  When he’s asked to take a new young lad on the latest trip to help bring the drugs down from the mountain drop on horseback, the moment he sees the boy he feels something will go wrong. Drake is a deputy Sheriff.  He patrols the backwoods up from Seattle to the border with Canada.  He’s recently married to Sheri, and still trying to shake off the shadow of his father who used to be a Sheriff, but is now in prison for drug smuggling.

Drake spots a city car parked on a logging road in the middle of nowhere, and decides to investigate. This will spark off a whole chain of events that will lead to a trail of murder, mayhem and an awful lot of spilled blood as a hitman is hired to mete out punishments and allow the nasty men at the top of the tree recover the drugs when it all goes up the creek.   It’s not just Hunt and his associates that are at risk from the hitman, it soon becomes clear that Drake will be targeted too, and he teams up with Agent Driscoll from the DEA to see the case through.

This novel was a compulsive read and so bloody!  Once Grady the psychotic hitman arrives on the scene, things start to happen in true serial killer fashion.  But the story is not his, it’s of Hunt and Drake – two men who are very alike in character.  Both have done their time, Hunt in actual jail, Drake living down the shame of his father.   They’re so similar that sometimes I was confused which one I was reading about – the only criticism I really have about this rather good book.  I did rather like the dry DEA Officer, Driscoll – for some reason I kept picturing him as Dan Ackroyd; Driscoll had a feel of Elwood Blues about him!  If you can cope with all the blood, this is a fine debut thriller with a superb setting and a classic cat and mouse chase at its heart. (9/10)

Source: Review copy – thank you.   Urban Waite, The Terror of Living (2011) Simon & Schuster paperback, 320 pages.

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The Good Fairies of New York by Martin Millar – Oh, to be young and in NYC…

Dinnie, an overweight enemy of humanity, was the worst violinist in New York, but was practicing gamely when two cute little fairies stumbled through his fourth floor window and vomited on the carpet.

The opening line from this novel is a cracker. Heather and Morag are the two young fairies in question, with dyed hair and punk kilts. They are friends, but from different Scottish clans and each claim to be the best fiddler in all Scotland. Being wild young things, they’ve ended up in New York after getting into a scrape with the MacLeods.   Heather and Morag are just like many young humans, they like to drink, dance, have fun, eat magic mushrooms – it’s just they’re only eighteen inches high, have wings, and can’t be seen by most humans.

They soon fall out, and Morag goes to live with Kerry over the road. Kerry suffers from Crohn’s disease, is compiling a Celtic flower alphabet, and loves Johnny Thunders guitar solos.  Meanwhile Heather decides that Kerry is the girl for Dinnie, and in exchange for teaching him to play the violin properly, she will get Kerry to fall for the fat slob.  Bound up in this central will they, won’t they romance being engineered for Dinnie and Kerry, there is the quest for Kerry’s missing flower, the ghost of Johnny Thunders looking for his old guitar, and unrest amongst the fairies back in Cornwall, not to mention the legendary McPherson violin.  Heather and Morag also manage to upset all the other fairy tribes in the city at some stage with their high-spirited feud.

This novel is great fun, and it’s choc-a-block full of energy.  The young fairies, in their youthful acts of rebellion, bring chaos and anarchy to the Big Apple in a fast moving, raunchy and comic romp. The Neil Gaiman endorsement caught my eye, and while it’s fair to say I didn’t love it as much as he does, it was a jolly good read.  (8/10)

Source: Own copy.    Buy from Amazon UK – The Good Fairies of New York by Martin Millar

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok – From Hong Kong to Brooklyn

I was born with a talent. Not for dance, or comedy, or anything so delightful. I’ve always had a knack for school. Everything that was taught there, I could learn: quickly, and without too much effort. It was as if school were a vast machine and I a cog perfectly formed to fit it. This is not to say that education was always easy for me. When Ma and I moved to the U.S., I spoke only a few words of English, and for a very long time, I struggled.

When eleven year old Kimberley Chang and her mother arrive in New York from Hong Kong, thanks to her Aunt Paula, who has arranged everything. At first staying with Aunt Paula, Kimberley thinks it could be wonderful, but then when they are shown to the derelict building where they would be renting, and start work in the factorysweatshop that Uncle Bob manages, it becomes painfully clear that there is a huge debt to be paid for this not so sisterly act of getting them to the USA.

Their apartment hovel is roach-ridden and rodent-infested. It has broken windows and no heating apart from a cooker, there is just one nasty old mattress between them and they will suffer during the freezing New York winter. Meanwhile, Kimberley starts school.  She can barely speak a word of English, and constantly misunderstands what is said to her.  This is frustrating, as she is a very capable student, and doubly frustrating as the local children don’t have her work ethic.  Then after school she has to work at the factory until late assisting her mother in bagging up skirts for just two cents an item.  No wonder Kimberley comes to measure the cost of things in skirts.  She makes a friend at school, but of course cannot invite her home – she can’t let Annette see the squalor they live in, or know that she’s an underage factory worker either.

Written from Kimberley’s point of view, this was a fascinating tale of what it’s like to be a foreigner living and working in a strange new country.  It’s all about status for Auntie Paula, Ma’s older sister – the conditions she enforces on Kimberley and her Ma are awful – at home and work, and it’s horrid to see their blood relations take advantage of them in this way. Luckily Kimberley’s talent for school reasserts itself, and with her increasing confidence in English, you feel sure that she’ll do alright in the end.  But her later high school years are not without heartache either.

I met Jean at Penguin’s bookblogger’s event back in March, where she told us, that although this book is pure fiction, she did share similar experiences to Kimberley’s when her family first arrived in the USA when she was five.  Like Kimberley, her intellect helped to get her out of those hard times.

You couldn’t help but get involved in Kimberley’s tale; the sweatshop scenes came to life in vivid detail in particular.  Eventually Kimberley begins to assimilate into her classmate’s culture, in a way her mother cannot and there are some bittersweet moments, when she has to lie to go out with friends instead of working in the factory.  But Kimberley is a good girl, and the author never forgets to tell us about her top drawer grades – a little too often perhaps, she doesn’t always have to work very hard to get them. All in all, this was a sympathetic and fascinating tale, well told, and I enjoyed it very much. (7.5/10)

Source: Review copy – thank you.  Buy from Amazon UK:  Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok.

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