Tuesday, 20 March 2018


Now We Are Dead, by Stuart MacBride

            Mr MacBride’s archetypical burnt-out but brilliant copper Logan Macrae features only peripherally here;  instead the floor is given to Detective Chief Inspector Roberta Steel, proudly gay and relentless enemy of Aberdeen’s bad guys – until her illegal efforts to put rapist Jack Wallace behind bars result in exposure, a court case, and demotion to Detective Sergeant.  And an insatiable desire for revenge against the Motherfunker who dobbed her in – Logan Macrae.  (See review below).
            To add awful insult to terrible injury, the brutal rapes are still happening, and with each new crime, the ‘raping wee shite’ she put away (now released from prison and trumpeting his innocence all over the media) cannot resist sending a video of himself and ‘friends’ going to the movies, having dinner, clubbing – all at the exact times that the rapes occurred:  Roberta knows Wallace is behind each crime, but proof is impossible to come by and it is not long before she is in trouble with her superiors – again! – for surveilling the Wee Shite’s house, much to his delight;  he has a video of her doing just that and he has made an official complaint of harassment to her boss.  Just what she needs.  To make matters even worse, she is told that if she keeps up with the harassment, she won’t just be losing her job, but her behaviour will be terminating the job of her long-suffering but protective assistant Detective Constable Tufty, in her opinion a ‘useless wee spud’ – but her useless wee spud.  She’s on a final warning.
            There is an element of Keystone Cops to the opening chapters of ‘Now We Are Dead’;  there is lots of comedy, clever repartee, not to mention cheeky young kids training to be tomorrow’s crims, but Mr MacBride brings us all back to cruel, stark reality with Steel and Tufty’s efforts to prosecute a debt collector for ruthlessly beating an old lady and cooking her little dog in her microwave, and the discovery by them of an eight month old baby left in his cot with a tin of dog food while his mother died from an overdose on the filthy mattress in front of him.  In both cases, the neighbours refuse to give evidence:  in the baby’s case the neighbours got out the air freshener when the smells got worse.  Which proves that such is Mr MacBride’s storytelling skill he can take readers anywhere he likes on the emotional spectrum that he chooses, and it is not always a comfortable journey.
            It is clear too, that Steel and Tufty are in line for a very messy showdown with Raping Wee Shite Jack Wallace;  once again it isn’t pretty, but again Mr MacBride demonstrates his effortless mastery of the Crime genre.  My only criticism is that he doesn’t write his stories quickly enough:  there should be one every six months, not a measly one per year!  FIVE STARS.     

In the Cold Dark Ground, by Stuart MacBride

Logan Balmoral MacRae is back, and about time, too, I say!  In the tried and true genre of Crime fiction – you know;  burnt-out detectives with shattered private lives but an uncanny knack for solving the most difficult crimes – well, Burn-Out Logan makes his recent experience of demotion to Police Sergeant in a small but dreary town in North East Scotland entirely credible.  Yes, he – and his team of fellow reprobate law-enforcers - all suffer from varying degrees of exhaustion and burn-out, but policing anywhere is a tough job: someone has to do it and they’ve put their hands up.  More fools them.
            Not much has changed since Logan’s last appearance in ‘The Missing and the Dead’  except to worsen:  his beloved girlfriend Samantha has been in a coma for five years (truly!).  She will never wake and he has been told by hospital staff that it is time to say goodbye, a situation he has been dreading and shying away from even though his rational mind knows it is inevitable.  Another death is imminent:  wee Hamish Mowat, crime boss supreme of Aberdeen is in the terminal stages of cancer.  In a last conversation with Logan, wee Hamish informs him that he wishes Logan to take control of his empire for he knows that upon his death all the other crime lords from near and far will be circling like vultures, ready to break up his ‘life’s work’:  he is convinced that Logan (despite the fact that he is a Police Officer – how I wish I’d read all those earlier books!) will be the only one strong enough to hold it all together.  All this under the homicidally jealous eye of Reuben, the Reubenator, wee Hamish’s wing man who has the intimidatory strength to keep things going – but not the brains.  Reuben hates Logan, and Logan knows it is only a matter of time before the Reubenator mounts an attack.
            He is almost relieved when a conventional murder rears its ugly head:  a man’s naked body is found in the woods, hands bound behind his back and a rubbish bag taped over his head.  Despite the classic imitation of a local gangland-style killing, Logan is not convinced that the Bad Guys actually did this – for once, they are innocent – of this crime, anyway, and when the Major Investigation Team from Aberdeen (still run by his old boss and friend – and proud lesbian – DCI Steel) mounts an investigation, his suspicions prove to be correct.
            Sadly, Logan’s week from Hell doesn’t end there:  he is also asked by the Police Internal Professional Standards division to covertly investigate DCI Steel:  there is suspicion that she manufactured evidence to send a sexual predator and rapist to jail.  As much as everyone abhors his crimes (for which he was never convicted) Scottish justice has to be SEEN to be done:  who better to investigate Roberta Steel, than her trusted friend and confidante, the turkey-baster father of her children, Logan Balmoral MacRae.  Yes, let’s add betrayal to the list of Logan’s Lousy Week.
            Last but not least, a new Superintendent from the Serious Organised Crime Task Force is visiting and seems have taken an inexplicable and irrational dislike to him, thus making his life doubly miserable.  Could anything else go wrong?  Well, of course it can and it does, at a breakneck pace that this reader could barely stand – I wanted to yell ‘Slow down, slow down!!’ – and all because I didn’t want this mighty episode in the hapless (but not entirely hopeless) life and times of Logan to end.  Stuart MacBride is a storyteller Extraordinaire, a superb wordsmith who is in the enviable position of being unable to write fast enough to supply his readers’ demands.  FIVE STARS

Anything is Possible, by Elizabeth Strout 

            This is the second volume of stories concerning Lucy Barton, that damaged little girl who managed to escape her horrific upbringing in a small Midwestern town to make a name for herself in New York as a writer – not without more damage on the way;  her first marriage is over;  her girls are grown and have their own lives (in fact they barely get a mention in this volume), and she has married again:  now, because she is on a national tour to promote her latest book and has reached Chicago, not far from her birthplace, she feels it is time to be brave, bite the bullet and make contact again with the surviving members of her family, her sister Vicky and brother Pete.
            As in ‘Olive Kitteridge’, (my Fave! see review below)Lucy’s tale is continued in a short story format, introducing characters who knew her family and her as a child, like Tommy Guptill who originally employed Lucy’s father on his dairy farm until the night the barns burned down and he and his family were left with nothing:  he got a job as janitor for the local high school and was sad to see that Lucy Barton was always the last to leave the classroom;  in fact he came upon her there one night as she slept:  she was there because it was warm.  Now he is trying to coax her brother Pete out into the world again, for Pete has become a recluse and needs to see that the world is not as frightening as Pete believes.  Unfortunately for Tommy’s hard-won peace of mind, his overtures of friendship reveal a secret that should have stayed buried.
            And the Nicely family – the Pretty Nicely girls, the town called the daughters:  they looked down on Lucy’s family and rightly so, them being so dirt-poor, but the girls’ Mama used Mrs Barton from time to time for sewing and alterations:  it was the least she could do – until it was eventually revealed that Mrs Nicely lived in a Glass House, and her days of throwing stones were over.  Her behaviour and subsequent divorce for adultery had such an impact on the Pretty Nicely girls that their small town lives were changed forever, especially Patty Nicely, who has taken refuge in food and is known at the high school where she works as a Guidance councillor as Fatty Patty.  Unfortunately too for Fatty Patty, she has to advise Lucy’s niece Lila, daughter of Vicky, on future career options:  Lila is feeling rebellious and insulting, especially about Patty’s weight and the meeting degenerates into a horrible slanging match – which doesn’t surprise Patty;  it’s typical of that family!  Until she decides to buy a copy of Lucy’s latest book, prominently displayed in the local bookshop – and unexpectedly finds optimism and positive truths that she can apply to her own circumstances.
            Lucy’s meeting with Vicky and Pete takes place, but produces such a flood of awful reminiscences (like the time their mother came home to find that Vicky was crying over something that had happened at school;  she couldn’t stand the children to cry, so when Vicky couldn’t stop she got her shears and cut up every piece of Vicky’s clothing – then sewed it all back together like horrible patchwork so that Vicky had something to wear the next day) that she has a panic attack and is forced flee back to Chicago and the safe anonymity of her other life.  Her brother and sister have to stay where they are:  they have nowhere to flee to.
            Ms Strout has produced another small masterpiece of connections near and far, with characters as finely wrought as a Vermeer painting and prose as lucid and clear as the light he painted so beautifully:  how fortunate are we to enjoy such literary wealth.  SIX STARS!

My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout.

            Lucy Barton is languishing in hospital in New York, the victim of an infection that has turned a short stay for an appendix operation into a hugely expensive nine-week-long endurance test for her, especially when the family friend entrusted to look after her two daughters brings them to visit her with grubby faces and dirty hair.  Even worse, her husband hates hospitals and each visit by him is an obvious feat of will:  the situation is not conducive to promoting rest and the return of strength necessary for Lucy’s discharge.
            Until she wakes one day to find an unfamiliar figure seated at the foot of her bed.   At Lucy’s husband’s request and subsequent expense, her mother has flown from her small town in Illinois to spend time with Lucy – which she literally does, not leaving her bedside for the five-day duration of her visit.  The nurses offered to provide a cot for her, but Lucy’s mum preferred the chair, she said. 
            Mum’s visit would be the norm, indeed expected in any extended family, except that Lucy’s family were not given to normal displays of emotion;  indeed it was imperative for the survival of Lucy, her sister and brother that they ask for nothing, expect nothing – and when they got nothing, not to be surprised.  The family’s poverty was abject, even though her parents worked every daylight hour to keep the family fed, and because they all lived in a garage, the family was also known as dirty as well as poor, labels that, had Lucy stayed in that town, would have branded her for life.
            Fortunately for Lucy, she had secret dreams, dreams of being a writer which were nurtured by a sympathetic teacher who was instrumental in helping her get a scholarship to a college in Chicago:  Lucy is on her way, ready to leave her brutal past behind.  She gradually transforms her life, falling in love with William, her husband, and giving birth to her beloved daughters.  She has success as a writer, too, which she hopes will make her parents proud, but who would know?  Their reactions to her academic success and marital stability are decidedly low-key;  she has not seen them for years and they have never seen their grandchildren.  Therefore, her mother’s presence at her sickbed, welcome as it is, is a surreal experience for Lucy.  Why is she here?
Ms Strout has constructed, as always, a story of great power encapsulated within the pages of a very slim volume.  She describes the rocks and shoals of familial love – and conflict – painfully and honestly.  We readers cannot turn away from the many truths revealed, nor should we want to. 
Initially, I was confused by Lucy’s revelations, some of them huge, that were dropped like bombshells casually into the narrative;  it was only at the end that it was announced that this is the first book of a series called ‘Anything is Possible’.  Presumably, more will be revealed of the bombshells (and their craters) in subsequent volumes, for Elizabeth Strout is a writer sublime.  My introduction to her was ‘Olive Kitteridge’ (see review below) – I became her Biggest Fan (along with the many millions of others) after reading that gem, and I haven’t changed my opinion.  FOUR STARS.


Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout.

Ms Strout’s eponymous protagonist is an exceptional woman.  She has been a high school mathematics teacher in the small town of Crosby, Maine for many years and has a wonderful empathy for her students, helping many of them with advice that in several cases is crucial:  she makes a positive difference to many  lives, including those she chooses as her friends – and they are few, for Olive Kitteridge does not suffer fools gladly.
Sadly, she regards her own husband and son as wanting:  her frustration with their good natured compliance with her whims, their longing for her approval and more importantly, a peaceful, loving atmosphere, turns her into a bully, ashamed of her actions but unable to stop her tyranny.
Ms Strout tells Olive’s story in a series of beautifully constructed short stories;  each one features her either as a major influence on the main character in the chapter or as a remote adjunct, a mere mention, as in the story devoted to the talented pianist at the local restaurant, who drinks to disguise her perpetual stage fright, and has more than her share of secrets and regrets.
 Olive attends the funeral of one of her former pupils, happily married to his high school sweetheart until his untimely death from cancer but once again, secrets are revealed at the wake;  the wife’s cousin had a fling with the dear departed, mentioned it to the grieving widow after a few drinks too many – ‘because I thought you knew!’  Needless to say, the poor widow knew nothing until that moment, and it falls to Olive to try to save the situation, saving with her innate, intuitive diplomacy the poor widow’s face and self-respect.
Which begs the question:  why is she unable to apply these essential, enviable gifts to her personal life, which as she gets older polarise her more from her loved ones?
Ms Strout provides the answers effortlessly in this wonderful little book, which deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2008.  She has just released another novel ‘The Burgess Boys’ to glowing reviews, and as I hadn’t read anything of hers before, I thought I would make Olive’s acquaintance before going on to meet the Burgess brothers.  And how glad I am that I did, for ‘Olive Kitteridge’ is an unforgettable character;  outstanding, outrageous, a person of lion-hearted courage and lily-livered cowardice;  an Everywoman who has had to endure great grief and pain, but is still able to transcend her sorrow to make sense of her existence.  Olive is simply superb, and I hope you will meet her soon.  SIX STARS!

Tuesday, 13 March 2018


Sing, unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward
                What a pure pleasure it is to read another book by Jesmyn Ward, author of ‘Salvage the Bones’, a story I reviewed in 2012 and have never forgotten,  (See review below), simply because her stories are unforgettable.
            It is JoJo’s thirteenth birthday.  He will be a man soon, though he tries to be one now, so that he can help his grandfather with all the hard work on his little property, and care for his three year old sister Kayla, the centre of their love and protection, for she is the one who needs them most.  The children’s beloved grandmother is bedridden with terminal cancer but their mother Leonie comes and goes as she pleases, giving the bird to every establishment rule in the Southern Mississippi Book of Black and White Behaviour.      
            For Leonie is Black, but Michael, the father of her children is White, the son of the local Sheriff who, despite having two grandchildren from his only son, still calls Leonie The Nigger and won’t let her on his property.  Southern racism is bred in the bone – but that is not the worst thing, unbelievably.  No, the worst thing is that Leonie is a drug addict and Michael has been imprisoned for three years for cooking meth.
            Yes, JoJo needs to become a man soon so that he can protect the family he has left;  Leonie is not up for the job – ‘she kill things’, purely from neglect thinks JoJo, but she horrifies him anew with a mad idea for herself and the two children ‘as a family’ to take a two-day car trip to collect Michael on the day he is released from prison.  Her father is unable to prevent her because of his sick wife, so the odyssey begins, and such is Ms Ward’s complete mastery of readers’ minds and hearts, that we endure every awful mile with Kayla sick and crying in her car seat, JoJo emanating dislike and disapproval in frosty waves towards his mother (whom he calls Leonie;  she doesn’t deserve to be called Mama), and Leonie refusing to give her children any refreshments out of sheer jealously at their closeness.  Ms Ward displays all the mean human traits here but understanding of each character comes as Leonie, JoJo and an unquiet Spirit called Richie, a boy from Grandfather’s bleak past narrate each chapter.  Secrets are exposed, a terrible event in the family history is retold and, while justice will never be theirs, JoJo, Kayla and their loving grandfather share a peace, contentment and hope previously denied.
            This is a wonderful book.  Ms Ward’s prose sings us an aria, plaintive, harmonious and perfect:  how blessed we are to have writers of this calibre among us.  SIX STARS!!      

Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn West.

This story is narrated by Esch Batiste, aged 15 and the second youngest child of a black scrap-dealer in a small Louisiana town near the Mississippi River delta.  She has two older brothers, Randall aged 17, and Skeetah, aged 16.  Junior, the youngest at 8, survived childbirth, but their mother didn’t, and the family has not managed well without her:  each carry their own memories of her loving ways and try to exist on them like a precious food that will soon run out, and they each have their defences against the harshness of their existence, Randall in his athleticism and the hope that he will eventually be eligible for a free school basketball training camp which could lead to a college scholarship, and Skeetah to make money for the family by breeding pups from his beloved pitbull, China.  Esch loves to learn and reads prodigiously, particularly the Myths of Greece, and one story, that of Jason and Medea, strikes her as having a similar parallel to her own hopeless yearnings for Randall’s best friend Manny.  The person most adrift is their Daddy, unmanned and helpless without his life’s partner.  He turns inward and away from his children, giving the new baby entirely into their inexperienced care;  for the next eight years he puts food on the table but very little else.  His heart has turned to stone.
Despite their poverty, the Batiste children still have their goals and aspirations - until  terrible unplanned events wreck their hopes:  they are floored by fate’s cruelty and don’t believe that things could get any worse – until they do, with their father bedridden by an awful, fluky accident, and Hurricane Katrina about to hit the Louisiana coast.
Ms. West’s account of the Hurricane alone is stark and terrible:  we are there trying to shield ourselves in our pathetic little shelter from the howling, roaring wind and waterfalls of rain;  we are completely given over to our gutclenching fear in the face of such a huge, elemental power, and watch in terrified disbelief as the water floods our mean little dwelling and threatens to drown us all.
I cannot remember when I last read such splendid prose.  Ms. West is a true wordsmith;  she paints compelling, unforgettable pictures with her beautiful language and her characters are so strong and true that I didn’t want her lovely book to end, for despite the parallels to Greek tragedy, the story ends on a triumphantly hopeful note:  the Batistes and their friends survive, and they survive because they love each other enough to make all the right sacrifices.  They now have even less than before, but what they have gained is immeasurable.  FIVE STARS

Road Brothers, by Mark Lawrence.

            For lovers of the Fantasy genre (and there are SO many!) it has been too long since Mark Lawrence has fed our addiction – well, not really;  it just seems that way, and I am really envious of a friend to whom I recommended the Broken Empire trilogy:  he gets to binge-read all three books in one hit!  If he likes them, and I can’t imagine him NOT finding those page-turners irresistible.
            As a sop to his fans, Mr Lawrence has produced a book of short stories dealing with the origins of some of the characters who support Honorous Jorg Ancrath, Prince of Orlanth, as he rampages his way across the remains of nuclear-wasted Europe, initially meeting derision and disbelief because of his youth, then horror and loathing at his ruthless disregard for the rules of war, his complete lack of honour in battle, and his brilliant strategies.  Jorg fights to win, and he fights dirty.
            He sweeps like a plague across the land, and those who follow him don’t always agree with his methods but are powerless to stop him.  They just obey without question, including brother Sim, who in the guise of a story-teller has been ordered to charm and bewitch a pretty and frivolous princess, tricking her into smuggling him into her heavily-guarded chamber so that she may listen to his seductive tale – until she finds that it has a fatal ending for herself, and death and defeat for her people as brother Sim kills her guards and finds an entrance for Jorg’s troops to storm the castle.
            The Nuban:  that towering black man whose origins are as mysterious as his devotion to Jorg.  He is indeed a mighty warrior, but where did he learn his skills, and how has he ended up so far from his homeland in Afrique, and why was he aimlessly wandering with the band of outlaws and mercenaries that Jorg decided to join?  
            Makin, a member of Jorg’s father King Olidan’s guard, whose devotion becomes absolute when he rescues Jorg from the castle’s burning infirmary – and realised that no-one seemed to care whether 9 year old prince Jorg lived or died, least of all his father.
            Mr Lawrence has done it again – produced yet another page-turner which has us all reading feverishly, then grinding our teeth because his great stories have come to an end.  I’m not usually a fan of short stories – I don’t like to have to switch subjects and actions after short intervals, but ‘Road Brothers’ is like meeting great old friends (and enemies!) after too long an absence.  It was a pleasure to greet them again.  FIVE STARS     

Prince of Thorns, by Mark Lawrence

You read it here first:  What an adventure!  Mark Lawrence’s debut novel has all the requisite ingredients for the ideal fantasy – a wronged and vengeful hero, warring kingdoms, ghosts, necromancers, murders most foul, and a complete lack of honour, except amongst thieves.
At the tender age of nine, Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath was forced to witness the slaughter of his mother and younger brother William by Count Renar of the Highlands and his troops.  If he expected his father the king to avenge their dreadful murders, he is sorely disappointed;  instead, the king negotiates compensation in the shape of land and horses for his loss.  Seeds of hatred and revenge are sown in the fertile ground of Jorg’s grief and heartbreak:  he takes to the road and joins a band of mercenaries and outlaws, and because he no longer cares if he lives or dies, he becomes their leader through sheer recklessness and a bravado that is fearless and suicidal – oh, Jorg has problems, alright – he has already lived five lifetimes and he’s only fourteen!
Mark Lawrence has created a rip-roaring, no-holds-barred, heart-in-the-mouth pageturner in this first book, and in spite of the reader knowing they shouldn’t believe a word of it, they are totally sucked in, swept along with the clever plot and more action than a body should rightly have to endure – oh, it’s great stuff, and this is just the first book of a Trilogy.  ‘King of Thorns’ is next, and a fascinating question for the reader is to figure out exactly the timeline in which Mr Lawrence has set his stories:  a vastly altered central Europe might  be the setting, but who can be sure?  Everyone fights in armour with medieval weapons, but Jorg wears a wrist-watch!  (which doesn’t make an appearance till book two) – and he lets loose what seems suspiciously like a nuclear explosion halfway through book one.  I have come to the conclusion (I’m ashamed to say it took me a while) that Jorg’s story is set far into the future:  it’s possible that the world we knew has been destroyed for whatever terrible reason, and the regenerating human race hasn’t progressed beyond another Medieval Age in its attempts to survive.
Which all adds to this trilogy’s great appeal.  ‘ Prince of Thorns’ was a gripping read, but book two, ‘King of Thorns’ is even better.  Roll out book three!  Mark Lawrence isn’t just a good storyteller – he’s a great one.  Whatever I read next, this will be a hard act to follow.

Sunday, 4 March 2018


The Break, by Marion Keyes

It has been too long since Marion Keyes’s last novel (see January 2015 review below) – too long between laughs and Ms Keyes inimitable chronicles of dysfunctional Irish family life.  Well, family life in general, really, for her characters are instantly recognisable to us all;  they are our neighbours, friends, workmates – they are us, whether we acknowledge it or not.
            The O’Connell family meet every Friday at Mum and Pop’s for a meal provided by one of the five siblings – It’s Amy’s turn tonight and take away Pizzas will have to do;  she is perennially short of time  - and money;  she has two teenagers to care for and a twenty-two year old daughter from a disastrous first marriage who lives at home, but only because she has to.   Amy has recently started a new PR business with two colleagues which has yet to make a profit, but the paramount worry is her husband 
Hugh, devastated by the recent loss of his beloved father and brother.  He is a different person, remote and unreachable, a stranger to them all, and his solution to the way he feels is to Take a Break. To back-pack solo round Thailand.  For six months.  By himself.  Without Amy or any of his family.  WTF????
            And how will she break it to the family?  Pop, who has Alzheimer’s and addresses everybody as ‘WHO THE FECK ARE YOU??!!  Mum, who wants to break out from under the Selfless Carer’s yoke by sneaking off to the Pub with other Selfless Carers for a bit of fun – ‘I got drunk and won a Pub Prize.  Turkish Delight, the Mint kind! - bossy eldest sister Maura who understandably has issues, having to be surrogate mum while her own mother was in hospital with TB for months on end.  Her husband is called the Poor Bastard because he never gets a word in edgeways, especially on a Friday night when everyone and their kids make an appearance – no, it is not a suitable forum to discuss Hugh’s grief and his insane solution to make himself feel normal again.
            Ms Keyes effortlessly navigates the shoals and currents of family life, especially as she tackles through the experiences of one of her teenage protagonists the archaic and rigid Abortion laws of Ireland;  nor does she shy away from the all-powerful and pervasive effect of Social Media on the life of everyone – even Mum, who becomes the face of EverDry, an Incontinence product marketed by Amy’s firm:  Mum is heartbroken when the campaign ends – that was her Moment in the Sun, even if it was to promote Wee Pads!
            Amy’s huge problems are not solved overnight – or in Hugh’s six-month escape, but her big, messy family moves on, bearers of unwanted advice, takeaway dinners (Derry’s are the best;  no-one stays away on a Friday night when it’s her turn) and unity.  Always unity, because that’s what families do best, isn’t it?
            Fair play to you, Ms Keyes, you’ve written a grand story again, so.  FIVE STARS.

The Woman who Stole my Life, by Marian Keyes

Stella Sweeney is a beautician in Dublin.  Her husband Ryan is a thwarted artist (his talent was never recognised or appreciated but he has channelled his gift into making posh bathrooms for posh people); they are parents to  a teenaged boy and girl who require a lot of supervision and organising, and it is a source of great pride for her to know that despite she and Ryan’s working-class origins, they can afford (just) to send their children to an exclusive private school.  Nothing but the best for Jeffrey and Betsy.  They are Stella’s main focus in life;  her reason for getting up in the morning.  Ryan is another matter – his main focus seems to be on his business, then Ryan:  the grand passion that controlled their young lives has now disappeared, lost in the stresses and strains of everyday living – so what else is new?  This is what happens to us all, and that is the secret of Marian Keyes’s success:  her great ability to recount stories of people just like us, her readers;  people we can identify with so easily.
Where Ms Keyes starts to leave reality behind is the unbelievable misfortune Stella suffers when she contracts Guillain-BarrĂ© Syndrome, ‘an  auto-immune disorder which attacks the peripheral nervous system, stripping the myelin sheaths from the nerves’.  Got that?  The body can recover eventually, but until that happy day, Stella spends a huge amount of time in hospital, paralysed and unable to communicate at all – except after a time to establish a winking, blinking code with a hunky neurologist who – quelle horreur! – eventually becomes her (gasp) lover!  How could this happen to someone who couldn’t move a muscle for more than a year?  And what about hubby and the kids?  A?  A?  More importantly, how does a writer convince her readers that this is just an everyday occurrence?  Well, I have to say with some regret, that she didn’t convince ME – which is a shame, because I was entirely willing to suspend belief – up to a point.
Never mind, though:  for the most part, Ms Keyes writes beautifully of what she knows i.e. the publishing world, this time exposed in all its two-dimensional ugliness, and her supporting characters are as strongly drawn as ever.  Lastly, let us not forget her biggest virtue as a writer:  humour.  That wonderful Irish variety of humour, so inimitable and so vital;  such an arsenal against all the troubles that beset us ordinary folk and without which we would be defenceless indeed.  Ms Keyes may have missed the bus with ‘The Woman who Stole my Life’, but I’ll be waiting for her at the next stop.  FOUR STARS   

Vindolanda, by Adrian Goldsworthy 

           British historian Adrian Goldsworthy’s debut novel is a labour of love,  for the history of Iron Age Britain under Roman occupation, Rome’s military power abroad, and the Pax Romana – a high level of peace which as he states, was maintained by force.
            It is A.D 98;  Centurion  Titus Flavius Ferox is drowning his considerable sorrows in a mouldering far-flung garrison in Britannia’s North.  He has been banished for being too close to a conspiracy which deposed Emperor Domitian;  now Trajan is in power, but for how long?  He doesn’t know and cares even less:  he has lost his true love and life holds no pleasures except the booze – until his scouting party, led by his reluctant friend Vindex arrives back with some tortured corpses in tow and the news that the locals are being exhorted by shadowy figures of the Druid priesthood to rise up against the Roman Oppressors – and they seem to be having some success.
Ferox is not a Roman by birth;  he is a Silurean, born in what is now South Wales, but his tribe was eventually defeated after a long siege by the Roman Army and as was the custom, he was given as a hostage, trained in the military and eventually given Roman Citizenship in exchange for his Sacred Oath of Allegiance.  His loyalties lie with the Empire now, and to that end he must carry news of the impending unrest to the nearest seat of Roman government, the huge fort of Vindolanda near the River Tyne.
Vindolanda’s modern excavation has revealed many fascinating details of the everyday life of a Roman military outpost, and Mr Goldsworthy has cleverly included real life figures mentioned in wax tablets painstakingly translated from the Latin. Commander of Vindolanda, Prefect Cerialis and his wife Sulpicia Lepidina actually existed in the correspondence;  now they live again as Ferox saves Sulpicia and her maid from ambush on his way to the fort – while her husband is off hunting with guests.
Which sets the scene (naturally!) for a budding romance between the rescuer and the rescuee.  Rescuee?  Anyway.  I have to say that Mr Goldsworthy’s characters, while as historically accurate as he can draw them, are pretty predictable:  Vindex, Ferox’s friend and Scout Supreme uses a lot of very modern swear-words;  he’s a likeable rogue and the perfect brave sidekick;  Sulpicia is noble, beautiful, posh, Patrician and so far out of Ferox’s league that he can hardly believe that they do have a stolen night of lurve together while Cerialis is off having his wicked way with a slave girl.  The local tribes as they mass together for the great rebellion are well characterised and the battle scenes are detailed and suitably bloody, with Ferox learning to his great discomfort that the tribes know so much about Roman battle plans that a traitor must be supplying them with information.  Who and why are the mysteries that must be solved before the suppression of the rebellion turns into a massive defeat from which Roman military might may never recover.
For the layperson Mr Goldsworthy has produced a detailed Glossary and a helpful section of Historical Notes to illustrate the authenticity of his story, and Ferox and Vindex will ride the Iron Age  Range again in a promised sequel.  Good stuff!    FOUR STARS


Wednesday, 14 February 2018


The Last Hours, by Minette Walters

            Ms Walters is more noted for her popular crime novels than historical stories, but with ‘The Last Hours’ she proves that she is comfortable in either genre, bringing to awful  life Fourteenth-Century England and the horrors of the Black Death as it swept like God’s punishment through the country, killing entire villages within days.
Her story begins with the departure of Sir Richard of Develish, a dissolute Norman knight, from his Demesne to arrange a marriage between his 14 year-old daughter Eleanor to the son of a neighbouring Lord:  both families depend on the match to increase their faltering fortunes;  the marriage will be an alliance to strengthen their hold over the hundreds of serfs who work the land for them under the feudal system, increasing the taxes and tithes they must pay.
Lady Anne, Sir Richard’s long-suffering convent-educated wife remains behind with her daughter Eleanor.  She is the real strength of the Demesne, making all the decisions pertaining to the efficient running of the estate, for Sir Richard cannot read, nor does he care to:  he has stewards and his mousy wife to do that for him.  He would rather drink and hunt and rape his female serfs and servants – the younger the better, even children;  after all, they all belong to him.  They are his property, bound to him:  slaves.
Eleanor feels the same way;  she is her father’s daughter regardless of Lady Anne’s counselling and she is looking forward to her marriage so that she will be elevated in station;  then she can treat serfs any way she wants, without the curbing influence of her impossibly pious mother, who is beloved by all who are bonded to her.  And she will show that Thaddeus Therkell, bastard son of one of the servants that she knows how to use a whip to wipe that smirk off his face;  he is far too attached to her mother.  She will show him who has the real authority.
But her plans come to nothing, for Sir Richard returns from his journey with a terrible plague, caught from his hosts at the castle – there will be no marriage for her prospective groom has died, as did everyone else who came in contact with those who were struck down;  now her own father is suffering – and her mother will not let him cross the moat into his own manor for fear that everyone will be infected.  How dare she refuse him entry?
But the Lady Anne can and  does, and is secretly delighted that the husband she loathed has died the death he deserved, as she sets about trying to ensure that her people remain healthy – and have sufficient food to weather an unknown future.
Ms Walters does a fine job of recreating the life and spirit of the times, even if the characters are very black-and-white – Lady Anne is a saint, Sir Richard and his odious daughter are definitely sinners, and Thaddeus is heroic, the saviour of the noble serfs -  but nitpicking aside, this is still an absorbing, credible story of one of the most frightening times in history – and it ends on a cliffhanger, for there is a second volume to come.  I’m looking forward to it.  FOUR STARS

Manhattan Beach, by Jennifer Egan.

           It is 1934 and eleven year old Anna Kerrigan is accompanying her father Eddie to Manhattan Beach in Brooklyn to see Mr Dexter Styles, a rich nightclub owner who might have some work for Eddie.  Anna is not to know that the work is illegal, for Eddie is a bagman, delivering and collecting pay-offs to various criminals and mob figures.  Times are hard:  the Great Depression has changed peoples’ lives forever, and what was formerly unthinkable and to be avoided at all costs, has become the norm.  Eddie’s family must be fed, and he will do what he must to keep them all together.
            The meeting is successful, and until 1940 Eddie’s family live comfortably until Eddie suddenly disappears – but not without leaving a wad of cash and a separate bank account for his wife.  Anna is stunned, miserable and furious at her father;  she always thought she was his confidante – he could tell her anything, but obviously didn’t.  He has betrayed her.
            Now it is 1942:  America is preparing for war after the horror attack on Pearl Harbor;  all the men are joining up and women are recruited to do their jobs for the ‘duration of hostilities’.  Anna, now nineteen and breathing the heady air of enormous change gets a job at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, manufacturing small parts for machinery for the engine rooms of battle ships.  It is intoxicating to think that her efforts, small as they are, will have a part in winning the war – because America WILL win the war:  of this there is no doubt.  And when she sees commercial divers descending the depths to weld repairs on the huge ships in port, she is more excited than ever:  that is a REAL job, embodying skill, risk, dexterity – and strength.  Not a job for a woman, but Anna has already suffered enough adversity and disappointment in her short life to fight to the last breath for this, and her eventual success opens up a new world only made possible by the terrible fact of war.
            A chance meeting at one of his nightclubs reintroduces Anna to Dexter Styles, still as rich and mysterious as ever.  Dexter works for the Mob, but he has also married into Old Money to the extent that he feels secure and untouchable;  no Mob figure would dare to harm the son-in-law of a retired Admiral, a New York Brahmin of such repute that his advice is sought by Presidents.  Dexter is The Man:  he revels being the bridge between two worlds.  He also knows what happened to Anna’s father, and it is her mission to make him reveal his secrets.
            Ms Egan won the Pulitzer Prize for her wonderful book ‘Welcome to the Goon Squad’ (see 2011 review below).  The quality of her writing is as high as ever – the sinking of a merchant ship by U-boats and the consequent scramble for survival on rafts and lifeboats was a literary milestone for me;  I have never felt so present, so involved in that hapless voyage, and so glad when some of the wonderful characters survived. 
            Once again, huge talent, impeccable research and a trio of unforgettable protagonists ensures that Ms Egan will remain at the forefront of contemporary literary fiction.  This is another great book.  SIX STARS.

A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan

Since its publication last year this novel has generated extraordinary praise, not least being included in Time magazine’s top 10 books for 2010 and this year winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.  Even Oprah endorsed it.  (Is that good or bad?) I approached it with trepidation:  was it too great for mere mortals to read?   ( I have been caught before).  Oh me of little faith:  All the reviews are true.  This story fully deserves every accolade lavished by the literary pundits – and anyone else  who wants to have a wild ride through time with Ms Egan as she explores through her characters the various selves we  become at different times of our lives.  Through a dizzying series of flashbacks and leaps forward, the reader follows Bennie Salazar, failed music producer and his personal assistant Sasha, ‘capable in every way but for her kleptomania’ as they are moulded and buffeted by the forces of time, and the influence and effect they have on their world through the connections they make, both intimate and tenuous, with the people they meet. 
There is a host of different characters here, and sometimes it takes the reader a little while to connect the dots, but when that happens, a wonderful pointillist portrait emerges of our flawed and ailing contemporary society, and an irrevocable truth that time rules us all:  the onrush of it;  its implacability;  and how peoples’ lives are helpless before it and the inexorable changes it brings.  In Ms. Egan’s novel time is a Goon, and no-one escapes a visit from the Goon Squad, but Bennie, after a lifetime’s vicissitudes is no fool:  he knows the score – ‘ Time’s a goon – are you going to let time push you around?’  No, sir!  This is a great book!  SIX STARS.    


Wednesday, 24 January 2018


Renegades, by Marissa Meyer                         Young Adults
     Ms Meyer is the author of the very successful Lunar Chronicles series, her marvellous ‘adaptation’ of our most beloved fairy tales (see review below);  this time she tackles SuperHeroes with the same  gusto and flair – reading this was like racing through an exciting, fabulous comic without the illustrations – and with Ms Meyer’s writing talent, who needs pictures?
In a future riven by war and anarchy, a group of Super Prodigies restores order where there was chaos, justice and laws to combat criminality,  and peace to a fractured world society.  They call themselves the Renegades;  each have a particular power of their own and they have used these gifts to triumph over the Anarchists, groups of criminal gangs who reduced the country’s population to poverty and starvation.  As the Renegades’ power and success grew, so did a mantra:  ‘If you need them, call the Renegades:  they will come’.
            But that is not always true, as six year-old Nova Artino discovers when hitmen from the Roaches gang murder her parents and baby sister because her father refuses to make weapons for them anymore.  She has called for the Renegades but no-one came except her Uncle Alec – too late to save her family but in time to save her and kill the assassin.  Nova’s childhood ends that night, but her Uncle keeps her safe;  he is her island in a sea of sadness, her protector even though he is known as Ace Anarchy, leader of the Anarchists and sworn enemy of the Renegades.  (Still with me?  Pay attention, it’s worth it!)
            During the decade that follows, Nova meets other Anarchists, all prodigies as she is, all with a particular super talent:  the Detonator can make bombs from blue light issuing from her fingertips;  Queen Bee has complete control of bees, hornets and wasps, guaranteeing some very nasty stings, and no-one would ever want to meet Phobia, ghostly instigator of your worst nightmares.  They have all sworn to destroy the Renegades, especially since the defeat and loss of their leader, Ace in the last great battle that the Renegades won.  But how?
            Until the plan to infiltrate the Renegades’ echelons takes shape:  Nova can enter the Renegade Trials which are held every year for Prodigies;  if she is successful she can undermine the organisation from within, become a Super Spy for the Anarchists and provide enough information to mount successful assassination attacks on Captain Chromium and the Dread Warden, the Renegade leaders:  ah, revenge will be SO sweet – until her successful integration into the Renegades reveals that not all of them are villains.  She finds the double game she is playing dangerous indeed, especially when team leader Adrian starts to show his feelings.
              The action is non-stop and there are even some curly moral questions concerning the nature of good and evil, and what really makes someone heroic.  Like all Ms Meyer’s stories, ‘Renegades’ is a page-turner extraordinaire;  the story ends on a cliffhanger, and the concluding volume will be published at the end of this year.  Can’t come soon enough!  FIVE STARS

Cinder, by Marissa Meyer (Young adult reading)

Our Children’s librarian recommended this book to me and as she’s seldom wrong in her reading choices, I’m happy to give this the ravingest (ravingest??) endorsement possible:  WHAT A STORY! 
The tale of Cinderella – yep, Cinderella, her nasty stepmum and the two stepsisters – is transferred hundreds of years into the future.  Cinderella is now Cinder, living in New Beijing with a family who are, to say the least, most reluctant guardians.  She is a mechanic (truly!) and a Cyborg, to her shame, having been fitted out with a steel hand, leg and inbuilt computer screen after a terrible childhood accident.  Cyborgs are the future’s Untouchables, considered fit only to perform the most menial and degrading of tasks, but Cinder is such a good mechanic that a Royal prince visits her to have his tutor android repaired, and after that visit she and the reader are lost:  she to alien romantic impulses (she is not programmed for this!) and a reluctant involvement in a life and death experiment -  and the reader to being nailed to one spot until they have reached the last page.
To add insult to injury, the hapless reader finds that after a thrilling journey at a breakneck pace through more clever plot twists than a pretzel, there are three more books to come – and they haven’t been written yet!  To say I feel cheated is an understatement and the withdrawal symptoms are dire, but I also say with complete confidence that ‘Cinder’ will be the next big Blockbuster book/movie series:  you read it here first.  FIVE STARS

Scarlet, by Marissa Meyer.

FINALLY!  The sequel to Cinder - this time a completely different take on Little Red Riding Hood, and not before time, I say.
Ms Meyer’s sequel to ‘Cinder’, her fabulous, futuristic version of ‘Cinderella’  was so good that this reader found it a real chore to have to wait for Book two – and I’m grinding my teeth to think that Book three won’t be released until next year:  couldn’t Ms Meyer speed things up a bit?
Cinder is in prison, having been captured at the the Prince’s ball – instead of leaving a slipper behind, she leaves her Cyborg foot!  How’s that for a variation on the old tale?  A?  A?  Sadly, the loss of her foot means that she was an easy catch and is now disabled in her cell – until a secret visit from professor Erland, a research scientist:  he provides her with a new state-of-the-art hand and a top-of-the-range foot, enabling her to engineer (she’s a mechanic, remember) a daring escape from jail.  And guess who he is?  Yep, Ms Meyer’s version of Cinderella’s fairy Godmother. 
She also takes with her another prisoner, Thorne, because he has a stolen spaceship hidden in a warehouse, and on their travels they link up with Scarlet Benoit, who has been looking for her beloved grandmother, kidnapped by a gang of wolves.  Scarlet wears a red hoody, has a nasty temper and a reluctant attraction to a street fighter called – Wolf.  Now.  Who do you think she could be?  And guess what happens to poor old Grandma imprisoned by the wolf gang in the bowels of the Paris Opera House, derelict and in ruins since the Fourth World War? (the Opera House, not Grandma!)  Nothing good, that’s for sure.

As before, Ms Meyer has her readers in an iron grip and doesn’t relinquish them until the very last page:  once again, the reader is screaming ‘but what happens NEXT!  And once again, we’ll just have to wait and see.  I’m sure all this suspense is hell on the digestion, but I’ll just have to tough it out.  This is a great series.  FIVE STARS