Book Review: The Last Days of Summer, by Vanessa Ronan

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_last_days_of_summerSet in a small Texan prairie town that is in the midst of a hot, dry and unforgiving summer, this tale takes a close look at society’s willingness to forgive a monster. After serving ten years for a violent assault against a woman in the town, Jasper is released from prison and, having nowhere else to go, returns to his childhood home to live with his sister, Lizzie.

A single mum due to the repercussions of Jasper’s horrific act, Lizzie takes him in, acknowledging her conflict even as she does so: ‘But Lizzie stands paralyzed, listening to her brother’s laugh that is not her brothers, spoon held before her like some useless shield against whatever unknowns may come to pass. The reverend’s words haunt her. Half a day with Jasper and her inner response is still the same: I reckon I don’t know at all.’

To her, Jasper is both the big brother who looked after and loved her, and the psychopath who cannot be fully trusted. Familial ties win out and she lets him into her home, trusting that he will not harm her or her two daughters – the teenage Katie who doesn’t trust her uncle and the younger tween Joanne, who is innocently trustful and intrigued by this uncle she does not know.

The town is not so understanding of Lizzie’s decision to help her brother, nor are they willing to move past Jasper’s history, unfortunately Jasper’s insistence that he is not looking for trouble falls on deaf ears.

Cleverly set out with no chapter breaks to keep the tension building, Vanessa Ronan’s prose is both vividly descriptive and dramatic; her short, sharp sentences paint a family and town on edge. “The shop smells mildly of cat piss and mothballs, a smell that slaps the nostrils and jerks back the head…” From the first page, you can feel major trouble looming.

The characters are in a way stereotypical: the reverend who offers no practical help, the un-supportive parole officer and his blowsy receptionist, the rich oil man and his handsome son, the gun-toting vigilante brigade; however in this story, they work. Without them you could not consider each perspective of forgiveness – the Christian act of turning the other cheek, the town’s very understandable fear of him in their midst once again, the wronged family’s desire for vengeance, the pull of kin and shared childhood. Set against these viewpoints is a perpetrator who is aware of his actions but takes no responsibility for them; if Jasper is unremorseful and does not seek forgiveness, is he entitled to it?

Edgy, shocking and intense, this is no light-hearted read but a compelling one nonetheless. Very well written and, as disturbing as some parts of it are, I couldn’t put it down.

Reviewed by Vanessa Hatley-Owen

The Last Days of Summer
by Vanessa Ronan
Published by Penguin Random House
ISBN: 9781844883660

 

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BOOK REVIEW: Something to Hide, by Deborah Moggach

cv_something_to_hide

Available now in bookstores nationwide.

Deborah Moggach is the author of the much-loved book The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which has since been made into a film.

In White Springs, Texas, Lorrie is locked into a marriage with Todd. Lorrie loves him very much; they have grown up dirt-poor, were childhood sweethearts and bound together. Todd is in the army and has served two terms in Iraq. Lorrie and Todd and their two teenage kids love to eat and so over the years they have all put on the pounds. Lorrie is very lonely with Todd away so much – she goes on-line, finds herself a job. “Earn hundreds of dollars a month in the comfort of your own home! Become a sales rep with our fast-growing company. Earn commission rates of twenty percent of retail sales prices, rising with the volume of items sold”. The whole thing sounds far too good to be true! All of Lorrie and Todd’s life savings are drained from their savings account.

In Beijng, China Li Jing is married to Wang Lei. They desperately want children, but this was not to be. Wang Lei is a businessman, but as to what he actually does, Li Jing has no idea. She came from a poor background and since their marriage her parents had been looked after by Wang Lei, providing them with a house and everything they could possibly need.

In Pimlico, London, Petra is mulling over her disastrous love life – her failed marriage to Alan and her disconnection from her two adult children.

The way in which these characters are connected becomes clear as you read. Petra has an affair with Jeremy, the husband of her best friend Bev from school days. Jeremy and Petra fall in love, continuing their relationship via email after he flies back to West Africa, ultimately deciding to make thier arrangement permanent, with Jeremy to leave Bev. How to tell Bev and how the transition will take place is something they yet have to decide.

Meanwhile, back in Texas, Lorrie decides to replenish her and Todd’s savings account, without him being aware, by becoming a surrogate for a couple who are unable to have children of their own. That couple live in Beijing. With Todd being deployed for months on end and Lorrie being overweight, deceiving those around her is not that hard.

The story weaves in and out of the three women’s lives. This intriguing story of lies and deception is rather gripping. I became wrapped up in the character’s lives, reading well into the night. The tangled web of lies, interwoven with truth make for a fascinating read.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

Something to Hide
by Deborah Moggach
Published by Chatto & Windus
ISBN 9781784740474

Book review: Con Law by Mark Gimenez

cv_con_lawThis book is in bookstores now

In this new novel from American crime-thriller writer Mark Gimenez, John Bookman, “Book”, is a constitutional law professor at the University of Texas. He’s frequently mentioned as a candidate for the Supreme Court but would rather be attempting to shape the money-obsessed young minds of the new scarily cynical generation of law students.

He’s as famous for his wars of words with politicians on TV talk shows as he is for taking on lost causes. When he receives a letter from a former student who has evidence of large-scale environmental crimes taking place in West Texas, Book is compelled to investigate.

The West Texas town of Marfa is almost another character in the story. Gimenez’s evocative descriptions of the natural beauty of the region, and Marfa in particular, are a compelling advertisement for the tourism board. It is difficult to get through some passages without at the very least developing a strong craving for Tex-Mex cuisine.

A former railroad town, Marfa reached the peak of its fame in the 1956 film Giant, starring James Dean and Rock Hudson. The town was rescued from its decline into poverty and joblessness by a burgeoning art movement, spearheaded by Donald Judd. Now a haven for rich folk from Dallas and New York, once-rural Marfa is schizophrenically torn between liberal and conservative, artists and cattle ranchers, Democrats and Republicans. (However, the obsession of one of the characters to define the sexuality of each and every person she came across got a little wearying for this reviewer. I understand that the tension between gay and straight is a big part of the us versus them standoff in rural communities, like Marfa, as the urban artist types move in, but it did feel a little unenlightened to harp on about it quite so repeatedly. We get it, move on.)

Nowhere is the tension between old Marfa and new Marfa more pronounced than in the controversy over fracking. The locals working the natural gas wells are intensely protective of the industry that provides so many of them with jobs and equally fierce in their opposition to crusading environmentalists. With fracking causing similar concerns in New Zealand, this aspect of the story certainly made for a fascinating and topical read. Interestingly, the fracking how-to YouTube video that the characters watch in the book really exists and it is worth popping in a bookmark to take a quick break to look it up and watch it alongside them.

Through the character Professor Bookman and his Con Law One class, the book delivers a reasonable volume of constitutional law lessons (Obamacare, Roe v Wade, privacy rights) but it’s delivered in a way that is both easy to digest and interesting to read, even (perhaps especially) for a non-American audience.

As a former lawyer myself, there is something comforting about reading a legal thriller written by a lawyer (Gimenez practiced with a large law firm in Dallas, Texas); you can relax and trust that the legal content is probably pretty accurate. It makes for a more realistic and less distracting reading experience.

This is the third of Gimenez’s books that I have read and I have enjoyed them all. Con Law is an easy, pacey read with a film-script-worthy “shoot ‘em up” car chase climax. It seems that Professor Bookman is going to be a regular character in his own ongoing series and I look forward to meeting him again soon.

Review by Tiffany Matsis

Con Law
by Mark Gimenez
Published by Hachette
ISBN 9781847443809

Read Tiffany’s interview with Mark Gimenez.