SEE YOU IN SEPTEMBER by Charity Norman

This terrific novel has been shortlisted for the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel of 2018 and it is a cracker. Just imagine sending your child off to the other side of the world for a 3 month backpacking trip, and five long years pass before you see her again. We don't hear much about cults nowadays, although anyone over the age of 45 will know about the Moonies, the mass suicide of the Jonestown cult, Waco, Charles Manson. They all lured people, mostly young, alone, down on their luck, by well proven mind control methods, into their closed and oppressive worlds.

And this is what happens to young Cassy Howells, travelling for three months around New Zealand with her boyfriend Hamish. See you in September is the last thing she calls out to her parents and sister as she farewells them at Heathrow Airport in June. She and Hamish break up suddenly and dramatically while trying to hitch hike to Taupo. Cassy spontaneously gets into a van full of friendly and welcoming young people and she is gone. Just like that. The community she finds herself in is called Gethsemane, established on an island in Lake Tarawera. Spooky setting, spooky place. What is so clever and very scary  about this novel is how quickly and easily Cassy is manipulated into being a fully immersed and functioning member of Gethsemane, under the control of the charismatic Justin Calvin.

Meanwhile back in England, her parents, sister and friends are becoming increasingly alarmed about the lack of contact and news from Cassy. September comes and goes, no Cassy... months and years pass... the impact of her absence takes a horrible toll on the family. Cassy herself knows there are things wrong with how she is living her life, but is unable to find a clear space in her head to deal with it. Time however is beginning to run out for both Cassy, her Gethsemane family and her England family.

I couldn't put this down, read the whole thing in about two days. It is excellent. With a child living on the other side of the world, I constantly worry and wonder how she is, who her friends are, the influences surrounding her. I can't even begin to imagine the terror, fear and heartbreak I would experience as a parent going through what Cassy's parents went through. 

THE LOST FLOWERS OF ALICE HART by Holly Ringland

The age old conundrum - can you really judge a book by its cover? Can such a divine cover reveal a story to match the colour, the ornateness and even the magic of the title? In this case it sure can! Before getting onto the story, this is a lovely book to simply hold and flip through as it is generously sprinkled with drawings of flowers, every chapter and there are thirty of them, headed with a different, a little about it, a drawing, and it's meaning. I am not entirely sure if all the plants are strictly native to Australia, where the novel is set, but such a lovely device contributes to this being very much a novel of Australia, its landscape and people. So much to say even before starting on the story!

When we begin, Alice is nine years old, living with her parents on what I am guessing is a rural property. Her father is an extremely violent man, of whom she is terrified. Her mother is a gentle loving woman, who adores her garden, teaching Alice about the plants, and where she first learns the language of flowers. A terrible tragedy results in her moving to live with her grandmother Agnes whom she has never met before. Agnes lives on a flower farm, started by her grandmother, and of which she is now the owner and custodian. Over the years she has taken in many women escaping from their violent and tragic lives, who live and work on the farm. They are called the Flowers. It takes some time for Alice to find her feet and herself in this environment, but over the years she does, immersed in the beauty of flowers, the cycle of the seasons, the love and good will surrounding her. But always at the root of her soul is the horrific loss of her parents, and her previous life.

A betrayal when she is in her early 20s sends her a long way away from this life, until she ends up in the Australian desert at a National Park, picking up the pieces of her life and starting again. Nothing ever goes smoothly for poor Alice Hart however....., although there are always flowers and plants to ground her.

It seems to me there are two types of people - victims and survivors. Alice is definitely a victim due to her childhood traumas, and she spends her whole life trying to get to grips with it, move on, and survive. We know that people keep deep traumas to themselves, and often we know nothing about what has gone on in the lives of people we meet, like, but have difficulty understanding how they are wired. This story, I would like to think, encourages us all to be more tolerant and accepting of those who may deal with life differently from how we may do it. This story is full of damaged souls, and yet, mostly, they are all trying to live the best life they can, getting through the daily problems. Be kind people, to one another, give flowers and appreciate the beauty around us.





MADRID IN DECEMBER by CJ Sansom

After reading this excellent novel, I think the Spanish Civil War must be one of the most pointless wars in recent history. There were no winners at all, neither the extreme left nor the extreme right contributed anything to the future prosperity or political stability of this country and its people. I know nothing about the civil war really - thinking that Franco was the ultimate evil which he was, but also growing up believing that the Republicans/Communists were the good guys. People like Hemmingway both reporting and fictionalising his experience of the war. And yet despite their noble motivations they really were no better than the fascists, the two extremes in ideology both losers.

This novel is about that - the extremes in ideology, how there are no winners and those who lose the most are the civilians, the average worker, small business owner, the families, the middle and working classes, the old people, the young. Always the tragedy of any war. Into this appalling mess come four  young English people. Harry, Sandy and Bernie first meet at school, an English public school. On leaving school their paths diverge. Harry becomes an academic, interrupted by his army stint resulting in evacuation from Dunkirk; Bernie is a communist and goes to Spain to fight for freedom; Sandy is out for himself, always looking for best way to make a quick buck, completely unethical. Then there is Barbara, a Red Cross nurse who is linked to all three. Her lover Bernie goes missing, she grieves for years until she sees a chance to find out what really happened to him. Harry is recruited to be a spy and is sent to Madrid to find out what his old school friend Sandy is up to. Sandy happens to be living with Barbara. Nothing is what it seems, and no one is who they seem. Classic spy stuff, with Harry the mild mannered slightly out of his depth sleuth attempting to make sense of all that is going on around him.

I loved this. It is an excellent story, with great characters facing many challenges. The history is fantastic, I learnt so much about a terrible time in our recent history, I admire the spirit and courage of the Spanish and this novel certainly shows this. It has been marketed as a thriller, but it moves too slowly to be a thriller. Don't let this stop you from reading it. If you have been to Spain, spent any time there, you will love this. 

THE GODFATHER by Mario Puzo

How I love revisiting old favourites. And when the film of the book is also in your top 10 - even better. The story is so well known there is no point in detailing that. But one can't help compare the film with the book, the book with the film, how some parts of the book are better than the film, and vice versa. The beheaded horse in the bed is one of those images that is forever associated with the movie, so visual, so graphic, so horrific. And yet I found the way this whole scenario was written about -  the lead up to it, the personalities involved, the slow applying of the screws, the inevitability of what was going to happen - far more frightening and evocative on the page than it is on the screen. I also loved how Vito Corleone's early life in Sicily, his escape to New York and the beginnings of the family powerhouse are narrated and developed. How Vito and then in turn Michael put the Family before everything else, how they come to this realisation and then act on it. The movies and the book are absolutely interchangeable with each other. Perfection. 

THE PRISONER OF GUANTANAMO by Dan Fesperman

This is a tightly held, yet also a slow burner of a thriller starring a manly hero called Rever Fatk. Falk has had a chequered work history as have most of these thriller type heroes, so full of cliched personality faults, troubled relationships, mysterious friends and ex partners. But still a riveting read, our hero trying to uncover corruption, save lives, including his own, dealing with betrayal, turn coats and turn abouts. Top reading in other words.

The setting is new! Guantanamo Bay detention camp at the US Guantanamo Navel Base on the coast of Cuba. An overload of plot devices before the story has even started! Falk is an interrogator for the FBI, interrogating prisoners taken in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen in the US's relentless pursuit of terrorists and undesirables. The base is  an island hot bed of gossip, paranoia, the Cubans just around the corner. The discovery of the body of a US Marine on the Cuban side of things throws the army base into complete turmoil, reaching far up into the echelons of the FBI, CIA and the Pentagon. Flak is unwittingly drawn into the mess when he is put in charge of investigating the death of the soldier. He himself becomes a target, and he has to reach deep into himself to save himself and somehow still expose the secrets and coverups.Such vivid and descriptive writing of the geography of the island, the access, the turbulent seas around it, how such an environment affects the people on the base.  I have no desire to go to Guantanamo - bleak, uninviting where many horrible things happen in secret. Scary. 

BELONG TO ME by Marisa de los Santos

Interesting take on familiar themes of dislocated families, children seeking absent/unknown parent. The child is boy genius 13 year old Dev. His solo mum Lake moves the two of them to a town a long way from San Francisco. Also recently moved to the town are Cornelia and Teo, escaping the stress and pressure of New York City. The third narrator is Piper, who is a bit like a Queen Bee and take an instant dislike to Cornelia. She is also very involved in the care of her best friend Elizabeth who is dying. So interesting plot, some characters more believable than others, but overall it was too long and I don"t rate it highly.