THE FIRE-RAISER

In his first children's book to be published here, a well- regarded New Zealand novelist sets a story about four children bringing a pyromaniac to justice early in WW I. From its riveting first chapter—from the point of view of the lumbering masked man who sets fire to the local livery stable because ``a time had come when his fire must consume life''—the action is compelling. Noel and Kitty Wix sound the alarm in time to save the horses; knocked down by the man as he makes a hasty exit, Kitty soon realizes that he is Edgar Marwick, a reclusive, belligerent farmer. Meanwhile, Kitty's new friend is the mayor's overprotected but spunky daughter, Irene; and Noel makes an uneasy alliance with rough but intelligent Phil. Cleverly (and with a daring lack of caution), the four unearth evidence proving Marwick's guilt; meanwhile, they are involved in a jingoistic school pageant (its destructive aftermath is exacerbated by Marwick's support of local rowdies). Other subplots—a romance between their gifted, unfashionably pacifist teacher and a German-born music teacher; Phil's chance for an education—are deftly integrated. Several adult characters are as perceptively drawn as the well-realized protagonists; Marwick's madness is revealed to be the result of his mother's response to a long-ago tragedy. A well-wrought thriller that brings an entire community vividly and believably to life. (Fiction. 10-14)

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 1992

ISBN: 0-395-62428-2

Page Count: 172

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 1992

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BORDEAUX

A complex tale of obsession is precisely distilled into a haunting character portrayal, in this second novel from the gifted British author (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, 2007).

The subtitle denotes four years (2006–02) in the life of protagonist and narrator Wilberforce (his first name initially withheld), who creates a successful computer software company, sells it in order to accept an irresistible offer and thereafter devotes himself to the cultivation and enjoyment of a prized wine collection. That collection is bequeathed, with strings attached, to Wilberforce by his older friend Francis Black, a bachelor whose inherited wealth has gone to amass a huge array of choice Bordeaux (and other wines), kept in a vast vault (“undercroft”) beneath his family’s estate Caerlyon, outside London. Caerlyon suggests “Corleone” so much so that the reader suspects there’s more to Francis Black than the benign mentor he appears to be. Torday keeps us guessing, as precise imagery suggests the younger man’s immersion in what is perhaps a religious vocation, perhaps a surrender to temptation. Or both, we surmise, as Wilberforce’s story unspools in reverse order, beginning with the upshot of his love for Catherine, a vibrant beauty betrothed to another man; offering a poignant picture of his unhappy foster childhood and all but empty young adulthood; and climaxing with a (brilliantly described) grouse hunt, during which an episode of “innocent happiness” vibrates with the strains of an ironic prophecy of his future. Eventually, we learn Wilberforce’s first name and understand his reluctance to reveal it. But the heritage of sorrow that imprisons him within limits he both has and has not set for himself makes us think of Fitzgerald’s “great” (and, ultimately, unfulfilled) Gatsby. This elegantly conceived novel also reminds us from time to time of another Great Expectations, minus that classic novel’s unconvincing happy ending.

Vintage.

Pub Date: Jan. 12, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-15-101354-8

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2009

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Parker’s not trying to be Dostoevsky here but rather wishes to create light and good-natured entertainment—and he succeeds.

THE COMMITTEE ON TOWN HAPPINESS

Parker zings—but oh so gently—small-town politics and the pretentious politicians who regulate our lives at the micro-level.

The Committee on Town Happiness is happy indeed to make our happy lives even happier, and to this end its members vote on a constant stream of issues reflecting their concerns. This slim novel contains almost 100 chapters, and in about two-thirds of them a vote is taken on something or other. For example, the committee passes by acclamation a testimonial that “trees demonstrate steadiness of purpose and evenness of demeanor.” When things start to heat up on a controversial topic, the committee votes 5-3 “to destroy the minutes upon adjourning” (though one wag of a committeeman wonders whether "the minutes say destroy the minutes"). The primary goal of the committee is right in its name, but the members run into an obvious dilemma: How does one quantify and measure happiness? They do their best by passing legislation meant to materially increase the well-being of the community as a whole. Such ordinances include the regulation of writing on biking jerseys: “No vulgarities may be printed in sans serif fonts on jerseys; no vulgarities may be written backwards, to be read in rear view mirrors.” When citizens start disappearing, there's concern (and the launching of hot air balloons to find them), and occasionally some slight chicanery interrupts the committee's good intentions, but the plot remains minimal.

Parker’s not trying to be Dostoevsky here but rather wishes to create light and good-natured entertainment—and he succeeds.

Pub Date: June 10, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-938103-80-3

Page Count: 184

Publisher: Dzanc

Review Posted Online: March 18, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2014

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