Wednesday, 2 August 2017

FIRST GREAT READS FOR AUGUST, 2017

Marlborough Man, by Alan Carter

  
          In 1991 Alan Carter emigrated from Britain to Australia.  He is the author of a series of crime novels (which our library has yet to obtain) that have brought him great success, and he divides his time, so the blurb says, between Fremantle and his property in the South Island of New Zealand – the Marlborough Sounds, to be exact.  Well.  It’s the U.K’s loss and Down Under’s gain.           
            And what a wonderful advocate he is of all things Kiwi, particularly in his neck of the woods at the top of the South Island:  there can be no keener observer of daily life, good and bad – including NZ politics and big business and its effects on the environment:  he doesn’t miss a trick, as my dear old gran used to say.  Add to that a clever plot and engaging characters, and crime writing has never been better.
            Police Sergeant Nick Chester is in a witness protection program, fleeing from the UK with his wife and Downs Syndrome child to anonymity – he thinks – 13,000 miles away Down Under.  He can’t be traced here, surely;  he and his family are set up in the back of beyond at the end of a dead end road little more than a gravel track, so.  Why does he still feel jumpy (paranoid would be closer to the truth), continually on edge, waiting for a sign that his enemies are coming for him?  To make the situation worse, the discovery of a child’s abused and tortured body, dumped by the side of a local road has galvanised and distracted all his colleagues from the usual boy racers, firewood thieves and Saturday night drunks.  He should concentrate on this shocking crime, not on vague feelings of unease, no matter how disturbing they may be.
            But his instincts are correct:  the criminals who want to kill him have the means to pay computer hackers to find him.  They are on their way;  he and his family are in mortal danger – then another little boy goes missing:  his life has become a nightmare. 
            Nick’s colleagues rally round:  another safe house is found for his wife and little boy until he can ‘dispatch’ the assassin who must inevitably show his face, or be dispatched himself, but their concerns – and his – are taken up with the discovery of the body of the second child in the same abused state as the first.  The whole of Marlborough is reeling with horror:  this bastard HAS to be caught – it can’t happen again!  Yeah, right.  That’s what everyone said the first time.  And making matters worse?  There are no clues;  no revealing evidence.  This sicko has done this before, including casting red herrings like confetti to lead everyone into dead ends which, predictably, lead to more dead bodies.
Mr Carter moves the action along at a very satisfying pace;  he is a smart, witty writer and his characters are all satisfyingly as they should be, from the villains (there are several grades of villain here, from the ‘good’ baddies who save Nick’s bacon, to the really evil paedo baddies that get caught in the end) to Nick’s colleagues, chiefly his sidekick Constable Latifa Rapata, smart-mouthed upholder of the local law and acknowledged expert in unarmed combat, when she isn’t ticketing boy racers – one of whom has fallen in love with her and wants to be engaged, even after a deadly beating she endured at the hands of the villain:  ‘Look!  Engaged, and me with a face like a kumara.  Isn’t he a sweetie?’  Nick can’t deny it, but Latifa is a sweetie, too, and from the novel’s conclusion it appears that we may not meet these great characters again, which will be our loss.  Chester and Rapata would have made a great team for a very satisfying future Kiwi crime series.  I hope Mr Carter will change his mind.  FIVE STARS    
           

Saints for All Occasions, by J. Courtney Sullivan


           It is 2009, and Nora Rafferty has just learnt of the death of her eldest (and favourite) son Patrick, dead in a car accident at the age of fifty - this best-loved boy, handsome, wild and feckless, and always protected from everything – including himself – by Nora and her late husband Charlie.  His death has blighted her old age more than Charlie’s ever did;  she needs to lash out, to hurt someone as she is hurting:  this is an agony not to be borne, so she calls a cloistered convent in Vermont and leaves a message ‘that Nora Rafferty was calling and she needed Mother Cecelia Flynn to know  that the Nun’s son Patrick had died late last night, in a car crash, alone.’
            This family saga is a book of secrets, kept not only by Nora from the rest of her family – her remaining children have no idea that she has a sister, let alone that she is a Nun – but by the Uncles and Aunties too, of the big Boston Irish family to which they belong.  The siblings are staggered to find that they are literally the last to know that when Nora and her younger sister Theresa came from their little village in Ireland to make a new life in Boston with relatives of Nora’s fiancé Charlie, everyone knew that the sisters had had a ‘falling-out’;  Theresa had obtained a teaching job in Brooklyn, then eventually entered a convent in Vermont.  Ancient history, not worth mentioning, so the family didn’t, until the Nun appears at the Wake.  Now John (always trying (and failing) to gain his mother’s approval and praise;  Bridget – gay, and hoping to have a baby with her lovely partner, if only her mother would not turn a blind eye to their relationship, introducing Natalie to everyone as Bridget’s ‘room-mate’;  and youngest son Brian, a failed Baseball player, drinking too much and living at home with his mother, need answers from the stoically silent matriarch.
            They’d better not hold their breath.  Fortunately, the reader is luckier:  in a series of flashbacks to the fifties and beyond,  Ms Sullivan,best-selling  author of ‘Maine’ (see review below) takes us back to Miltown Malbay, the village that set Nora and Theresa on their life’s path:  Nora is happy to be engaged to Charlie, the son of the neighbouring farmer;  she is not in love with him – in fact she is not sure she even likes him – but if they marry their two farms will combine, which will be a good thing.  Until another son inherits the farm, and Charlie decides to settle with his brother in Boston.  Nora’s fate is sealed;  she must go too, and decides to take flighty Theresa with her ‘to see that she doesn’t get into trouble’.  Oh dear.
            Theresa is wronged, and deserted, but Nora’s revenge on the man who shamed her sister is one of biblical proportions, aided always by loyal Charlie, who turned out to be so much more than she expected.  Wasn’t she the lucky one?
At the core of this fine book is what drives all families:  sibling rivalry (John says that when he was little, he always thought that Patrick’s name was MyPatrick, because that’s what Nora always called him), solidarity, lots of humour, family love – and secrets.  Always secrets.  Ms Sullivan writes simply and well of the old ways of conservative Irish Catholicism;  how it sustains – and constrains.    FIVE STARS  


Maine, by J. Courtney Sullivan

Three generations of women from the same family congregate at the old family beach house in Maine for the summer month of June – not because they planned to be together, but because circumstance dictates it.  Alice, the matriarch, first came to the property as a newly pregnant married woman nearly sixty years before;  her husband had won beautiful beachfront land on a bet with a friend and since then the family, now spanning four generations, have made annual pilgrimages to this lovely and cherished place.  Alice is in her 80’s, sharp as a tack, a devout Catholic with a tongue like a butcher’s knife – especially on matters of faith – and a defiantly heavy drinker.      
Alice’s granddaughter Maggie has also arrived to stay solo ‘for just a few days’;  the original plan of spending some idyllic time there with handsome but irresponsible boyfriend Gabe scuttled after a huge fight that has ended their relationship.  The problem now is that Maggie’s plan of confessing to Gabe that she is pregnant – in a setting guaranteed (she hoped) to introduce him gently and romantically to the responsibilities of impending fatherhood – has been thwarted:  she finds that at the age of thirty-two, she will have to soldier on alone.  Gabe informs her by email that he can’t deal with fatherhood ‘at this point in time’, which means it’s time to bite the bullet and inform the rest of the family, specifically her mother, Kathleen.
Kathleen is the oldest of Alice’s children, a former alcoholic and intentional rebel against everything that Alice holds dear:  thanks to several massive family confrontations, one involving the death from cancer of Kathleen’s beloved father Daniel, Alice and Kathleen are bitter foes.  Kathleen has sworn after her father’s death never to return to Maine – until she gets the news of Maggie’s pregnancy;  then she swoops in from California to take charge of her errant daughter and do battle with her detested mother.
And into this mix is added the long-suffering, martyred Ann Marie, Alice’s daughter-in-law, married to son Patrick (‘I am the ONLY one of this family who looks after YOUR mother and what thanks do I get?), who  has reluctantly arrived two weeks earlier than usual to keep an eye on Alice (and her drinking) because she couldn’t persuade Kathleen to come from California to do her family duty – until Kathleen gets the news of Maggie’s dilemma.  Ann Marie is furious.

The stage is set for family fireworks, and Ms Sullivan does not disappoint us:  she writes beautifully of fraught family dynamics, the struggles of successive generations to break iron-bound ties of faith and Irish conservatism, and the attempts by Kathleen and Maggie to be as unlike spiteful Alice as possible, without realising that they are more like her than they can possibly imagine.  No-one to their lasting regret has inherited Daniel’s sanguine and sunny nature, that calming and amiable influence that always steadied the family ship, and as Alice eventually reveals yet another bombshell guaranteed to shock her divided family to the core the reader is treated to the long-secret reasons for all the family slights and resentments.  Each woman has successive chapters to herself, a narrative device that works particularly well here, and by the end of this tender, funny and loving tribute to an American family, the reader feels as familiar with the Kelleher family as their own.  Ms Sullivan portrays beautifully ‘The importance of generations:  one person understanding life through the experiences of all the people who came before’.  FIVE STARS  .

Saturday, 22 July 2017

MORE GREAT READS FOR JULY, 2017

Himself, by Jess Kidd

                Mahony sees ghosts.  Not because he wants to, but because they want to reveal themselves.  To him.  Whether he likes it or not.  Mahony is an orphan, having been left as a baby on the steps of a Dublin Orphanage run by the Nuns.  His Catholic education was strict;  In the 1950’s Irish Catholic institutions were long on God’s punishment and short on His Grace, and His mercy was in equally short supply:  Mahony was a child deemed to have the devil in him and regular beatings were required to remove Satan from his wicked little soul – not that the holy chastisement worked, for Mahony has an incorrigible lightness of spirit;  a joie de vivre about him that is unquenchable – and fatally attractive to women (with the exception of those in holy orders), as he discovers when he reaches eighteen and can finally leave his childhood prison.
            He also discovers, through a letter left with him when he was a foundling and given to him as he departed that his given name is Francis Sweeney, and his late mother, Orla Sweeney, came from Mulderrig, a small village in Ireland’s West.  In the first heady rush of freedom from his captors, it was not a top priority of Mahony’s to check his family’s origins, and it is not until 1976 when he is twenty-four and going nowhere (except to prison if he is not careful) that he decides it’s time to go somewhere, specifically Mulderrig, to start asking questions about his ancestry, to find out if there are any family members left who could answer the Million Dollar question:  who is his Daddy?     
            And he soon finds that Mulderrig is the most secretive place of all:  the locals will reveal nothing to him, except to say that Orla left the village with her baby when she was sixteen, and good riddance!  She was a wild one who deserved everything that happened to her.  But what happened to her?  The more Mahony investigates, the less is revealed, especially in the forest on the outskirts of Mulderrig, where he meets the ghost of a little six-year old girl, whom everyone believes was killed in a car accident, but was murdered because she saw something she shouldn’t.  The dead are the only ones who want to communicate with him, but the living are the ones in the know.
            This is Ms Kidd’s debut novel, and it succeeds brilliantly on multiple levels:  it’s a thriller, a mystery, a mini family saga – and it contains some of the best comic writing I’ve read in ages;  all the characters are larger than life, and so they should be, from the ancient and brilliant retired actress who once trod the boards at the famed Abbey Theatre; the unscrupulous village priest – forced into the vocation because his father thought he would be no good at anything else;  and the flint-hearted wealthy widow with the cast-iron perm who, in her former life as a nurse in a rest-home, euthanised her patients because she didn’t like the elderly.  There is Irish humour at its most beguiling, boisterous and rollicking – but Ms Kidd can also ‘make a glass eye cry’:  animal lovers be warned.  You’ll need the tissues.  She can be beautifully lyrical and darkly tragic in a heartbeat, but always captivating.  Fair play to you Ms Kidd, fair play.  FIVE STARS.

The Supremes Sing the Happy Heartache Blues,
By Edward Kelsey Moore
           
            Odette, Barbara Jean and Clarice have been friends since childhood, and are known as the Supremes for their steadfast loyalty to each other.  They are now grandmothers (with the exception of Barbara Jean) but still all meet after Sunday Church at Earl’s All-You-can-Eat Diner with their respective spouses to swap gossip and watch the more outrageous customers in the sure knowledge that they will live up (or down) to their notoriety and cause a stir better than any TV Soap.
            The Supremes’ lives are going well:  Odette has reached her five-year clearance after her bout of cancer;  Barbara Jean has married her teenage love Ray Carlson, ‘ the King of the Pretty White Boys’ (see review below) and Clarice has just embarked on her rejuvenated musical career after abandoning her early promise as a prodigiously talented pianist for marriage and motherhood.  Their friendship is as strong and important to them as ever – in fact, none of them can see a single cloud on their collective horizon – until they attend a wedding where part of the floor show is an old Blues man, playing his guitar and wailing his songs of love and tragedy with such glorious feeling that his audience is transfixed – that is everyone except State Trooper James, Odette’s cherished husband.
            Odette has always known of James’s impoverished upbringing, how he and his mother were deserted by their feckless junkie father, but not before James was slashed with a knife across his face by his dad – it was a terrible mistake, but James’s father was aiming the knife at his mum, because she had hidden his stash.  Someone was destined to be hurt, but the world of pain, physical, mental and spiritual caused by the act had just worsened for them all. 
            When it is revealed that the great wedding entertainer is James’s father, Odette does her very best to act as an agent of reconciliation, not because she has any feeling, let alone admiration for her father-in-law, but because she feels that her beloved husband will be better off eventually if he can divest himself of all that heart breaking baggage and gain peace of mind through forgiveness.  Yeah, right.  James has always been a ‘Still Waters Run Deep’ kind of guy, and that which is swimming in his depths is terrible indeed.  It is up to the Supremes in their individual ways to try to offer support and change the situation, but how?  And when?
            Mr Moore writes of his characters with grace and unflagging humour (tall thin James and short fat Odette are told they look like a perfect 1o.  Fair enough!), but he tells a serious story, a story of tragedy, its sister dire poverty, cruelty, and souls lost and redeemed – a classic Blues story that belts out its music on every page:  this little book is a gem.  FIVE STARS

The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat, by Edward Kelsey Moore

          This is not a recent novel;  it was published in 2013, but it is new to our library – and all I can say is:  BETTER LATE THAN NEVER!
            This little story could be called a heart-warmer, but that hoary old cliche doesn’t do it sufficient justice, for the characters and events are portrayed so lovingly and well that they don’t deserve to be consigned to a genre, for the Supremes and their friends and family are a force of nature, bowling over the unsuspecting reader with their sheer zest for life.
            First, we have Big Earl, owner of the All-You-Can-Eat Diner and his wife Miss Thelma, two mighty pillars of black society in the small Indiana town of Plainsview.  Their rock-solid and silent support has helped many a needy person on the path to future stability:  those that can’t or won’t be helped still know that Big Earl and Miss Thelma will never give up on them regardless, which in itself is an source of enormous comfort.
            The Supremes are next, called that because the trio have been together since Grade School;  now they are in their fifties and two of them are grandmothers.  They have endured heartbreak, infidelity and despair but their friendship, their sisterhood is as strong as ever.  Odette, the most fearless of the three (and the fattest;  she loves the All-You-Can-Eat for obvious reasons) has had reason lately to worry:  she has not been feeling great and puts it down to The Change, but more concerning are the conversations she has been having with her sassy and irreverent old mama lately, who has taken to visiting any old time of the day and offering up her five cents worth whether Odette wants it or not.  The big problem with these visitations is that that’s what they are:  visitations.  Odette’s mama has been dead for six years.
            Supreme # Two Clarice showed great promise as a classical pianist when she was a girl, but love in the form of the local football hero got in the way;  marriage and children followed – not that Clarice minded exchanging her musical dreams for family and becoming the local piano teacher instead,  but she minds very much being wed to a serial cheater.  Something will have to give, and it won’t be her!
            Barbara Jean is the beauty of the three, also the most disadvantaged by having an alcoholic mother who died at a very young age.  Fortunately, after a series of horrible experiences, Barbara Jean is taken in by Big Earl and Miss Thelma:  stability at last!  Until she meets another of Big Earl’s waifs and strays, Ray Carlson, a young white boy who has been beaten and brutalised by his racist brother, his only relative.  He works as a busboy for Earl and lives in the storage shed. Everyone is intrigued (but not surprised) that Earl has given him shelter, for that is what Big Earl does.  The Supremes – like all his customers – are fascinated by Ray, not least because he is so handsome and it doesn’t take them long to come up with the right name for him:  The King of the Pretty White Boys.  And Barbara Jean and The King of the Pretty White Boys eventually fall in love, setting the scene for heartbreak, for Indiana in the 60’s is not the place for interracial love. 
            How the Supremes and  their friends and family (not to mention the ghosts!) deal with the thunderbolts that God, ‘that Great Comedian’ sends them during their lives is beautifully recounted by Mr Moore;  throughout his lovely story the twisted thread of racism, subtle or overt is always present but never triumphs - and the very best thing?  Mr Moore has written a sequel, ‘The Supremes Sing the Happy Heartache Blues’.  Lead me to it!  FIVE STARS.


Summary Justice, by John Fairfax

            John Fairfax is the pen name for William Brodrick, a British barrister who gave up the law to become a full-time novelist.  And what a successful transition he has made, especially as knows what he’s talking about!
            In this story he has constructed the classic courtroom drama, not usually expected to engender suspense in the heart of the reader, but the defence of a young woman ‘guilty as sin’ in a seemingly open and shut case of murder becomes the classic WhoDunnit when her lawyer, himself tried successfully for murder sixteen years before, exposes great holes in the prosecution’s case against her. 
            Will Benson has come a long way since finishing his eleven year sentence – and against daunting odds.  Very few people with the exception of his family believe in his innocence, and his wish to study law is roundly derided – except for an anonymous donor who pays for his tuition, and his original defence lawyer who believes in him and helps him through the labyrinthine paths of qualifying as a barrister (against huge legal opposition) so that he can eventually set up shop on his own – with the help of another ex-guest of HM Prison system as his law clerk, and Tess de Vere, a young woman whose idea it was originally for him to study law, as his solicitor.  It is a bold and headstrong move, with no guarantee of success – or any income at all – until Sarah Collingstone, accused of the murder of her employer James Bealing sacks her legal team and hires Benson -  because she’s innocent, as he was.
            Benson is a very damaged man.  His years in prison have not been kind to him, and his release has thrown up new problems:  physical and mental harassment from the family of his ‘victim’.  They never relent and he can never retaliate;  the terms of his release mean that anything physical visited upon anybody  by him result in a quick trip back to prison.  He is powerless – until he returns to the very same courtroom where he was sentenced, to defend to his utmost, steadfast ability a woman whose innocence he believes in utterly.
            Mr Fairfax paints a clever picture of the various class structures in Britain, particularly in its ancient and venerable legal system, a system as exclusive and secret ‘as a Masonic handshake’, and impregnable against those who have admitted guilt for a major crime, as Benson was forced to do so that he could at least begin his law studies in prison.  And, as this tightly controlled and complex plot advances, it is very satisfying to know that the young woman is indeed innocent – but if she didn’t do it, THEN WHO DID?!
            I certainly had no idea, and I pride myself on figuring out who the evil ones are, but not this time.  This is a very competently-written introduction to what I hope will be a series;  the protagonists have left a number of questions unanswered, so fingers crossed.  FOUR STARS 
           
   









           
   

  
           
    






Saturday, 8 July 2017

FIRST GREAT READS FOR JULY, 2017

A Game of Ghosts, by John Connolly


         Charlie Parker’s back!  But I have to say that his battles against evil with his redoubtable friends Louis and Angel are proceeding at a very pedestrian pace in this particular episode:  Charlie is still pursuing his usual ghostly enemies, but for this story at least, they are a pretty tame lot, murderous though they may be. They are descendants of the Capstead Martyrs, an 1850’s sect who made a pact with the terrible Angel Belial that, if they kept on killing (i.e. blood sacrifices) they would never have to answer for their crimes in the next world - which is so terrifying that if we mere mortals had any inkling of its existence we would try to stay alive forever!
            Be that as it may.  Charlie is instructed by laconic FBI Agent Edgar Ross, his sometime employer, to search for private investigator Jaykob Eklund who has not contacted Ross for two weeks.  Eklund was on the trail of the Capstead descendants;  he also had evidence of ghostly presences connected to them, a theory the hard-bitten Ross dismisses:  from previous experience however, Charlie knows differently.
            As is the norm in a Charlie Parker book (see reviews below), there are a treasure trove of minor characters, all beautifully drawn and some completely unforgettable, like The Collector, a murderous avenger who collects a souvenir from each of his victims;  (we say farewell to him in this volume, and I stress again:  you really need to read the previous stories) and Mother, widow of a shadowy super gangster, who is determined to wind up all his criminal enterprises – to the dismay and fury of her son Philip, who has the ambition but not the skill to continue operations.  Compared to them, not to mention that mismatched pair of killers, Angel and Louis, the Capstead descendants are third rate, and their eventual come-uppance hardly raised an eyebrow, let alone my heart-rate.
            Fortunately, Charlie Parker’s daughters alive and dead, provided more goose pimples:  Sam the living daughter, has daily conversations with her dead sister Jennifer;  they have appointed themselves guardians of Charlie and Co. and have developed formidable powers between them in an effort to keep their father safe, as Sam’s mother Rachel discovers when she decides to place restrictions on Sam’s access to Charlie:  everything hits the fan, and Rachel is persuaded to change her mind by the reactions of her living daughter – and the dead one.
            So.  Still plenty of reasons to look forward to the next book, but I hope that Mr Connolly, that master of supernatural suspense, is back on song next time – in this book, all the I’s are dotted and T’s crossed;  answers are given to outstanding plot questions, but in such a perfunctory manner that the reader could be forgiven for thinking that Mr Connolly rushed to finish everything off so that he could indulge himself in something more interesting.  FOUR STARS      

A Time of Torment, by John Connolly

The State of West Virginia hides a reclusive sect within one of the smallest counties within its bounds, Plassey County.  Everyone in the adjoining villages surrounding The Cut, as it is known, are careful not to recognise – or God forbid – antagonise the Cut dwellers;  it is common knowledge that bad things happen to them if they do.  People disappear, and if they don’t, their bodies are found burnt and desecrated.  The people of the Cut keep to themselves, and their neighbours are happy to leave them alone.  It is rumoured that their small sect worships an alien God, a God of blood and retribution, a God that no normal Christian could countenance:  the Dead King.
Enter private investigator Charlie Parker, no stranger to battling the forces of evil, and recently terribly injured in his efforts to vanquish his enemies.  He comes to Plassey County to find his client, a man just released from prison after serving a trumped-up sentence for child molestation.  His only request of Charlie is to look into the disappearance of two women who were dear to him while he was inside;  women who didn’t believe that he was guilty of the heinous crimes of which he was accused.  He also tells Charlie that if he disappears, then he has been kidnapped, probably by The Cut, and his life will be over.  Charlie and his two murderous sidekicks Louis and Angel, are ready as always to ferret out the truth and find out where the bodies are hidden, not to mention adding a few corpses of their own to the growing pile.
Last, but certainly never least, Charlie’s two daughters, one living and one dead watch over him with varying degrees of anxiety – at least on the part of Jennifer, the little daughter murdered many years before.  (You really DO have to read these books from the beginning!)  Samantha, daughter # 2, seems to have more confidence in her father’s ability to successfully fight the Dead King;  she has quite exceptional powers of her own, which have yet to be tested.
John Connolly has always described his Charlie Parker tales as ‘odd little books’:  maybe they are for some but for legions of his fans around the world, odd is good!  (see 2014 review below)  His characters are always, without exception, well-drawn and credible and each story is wonderfully plotted with just the right mix of horror and humour – and always, ALWAYS beautifully written.  It won’t be a spoiler to say that the people of The Cut are eventually defeated, but horror and dread is still just around the next corner for Charlie and his mighty friends.  FIVE STARS.


A Song of Shadows, by John Connolly

In ‘The Wolf in Winter’, John Connolly’s last opus an attempt was made on the life of Charlie Parker, dark hero of most of Mr Connolly’s books.  He was grievously wounded, but with a choice he made whilst hovering between life and death, and the spiritual support (literally) of his murdered daughter (it pays to have read the preceding books), Charlie decides to give life one more chance.  With the devoted assistance of Louis and Angel, hired killers par excellence he rents a house in a little village on the Maine coast, there to try to regain his former strength and dexterity.
It is a long, painful road back to recovery.  Charlie is not used to the weakness and agony his many injuries cause him but he is determined to get better:  he made the decision to live, now that is exactly what he plans to do.
He is delighted to have a visit from his daughter Samantha, his child by his ex-lover Rachel, and it gives him pleasure to have found a playmate for her;  his beach side neighbour, Ruth Winter has a little girl Amanda who, despite health problems that keep her away from school a lot, welcomes Sam’s company:  from a social perspective life is good.
Until a body is found on a nearby beach, and it is eventually established that it wasn’t a drowning or a suicide, but murder;  at the same time a family has been found murdered in their burning house and the Maine police are swamped with crimes for which they are badly under-resourced.  Tragically, these crimes pale into insignificance when Ruth Winter is cruelly murdered on the night of Sam and Amanda’s playdate, but the most uncanny event for Charlie Parker is that his daughter wakes him to tell him that a man is trying to enter Ms Winter’s home.  How could she know?
Charlie is injured trying to apprehend the murderer on the dunes and it seems that finally his own life is about to end – until Sam (who was under strict instructions to stay in her bedroom) appears at his side to confront the killer – who succumbs to burial under a massive fall of sand, an occurrence that hasn’t happened for decades at that part of the beach .To say that Sam is no ordinary little girl is an understatement.
It is time for Charlie, with the assistance of Louis and Angel, to return to what he is best at:  investigating murder and stamping out evil – if he can, and the deeper he delves into Ruth’s killing, unspeakable old crimes and pure evil finally reveal themselves, for Ruth, a Jew, was killed so that she would not disclose anything she may have inadverdently learned about old Nazis:  Nazi war criminals who entered the United States from Argentina under assumed identities, several of whom settled in Maine.  None wish to be exposed and sent back to Germany, and they will go to any lengths, including multiple murders, to stay where they are.
Charlie Parker is a different person now, after his close brush with death.  There is an implacability, a hardness and resolve about him that cause his loyal friends much disquiet but they are determined – as always – to support him to the hilt in his efforts to purge evil.  Charlie is unfazed by the fact that the battle may be uneven;  what nearly stops his heart is the knowledge that his daughter Sam is just as committed as he to stamp out the enemies of the world, and he is fully aware that she is in just as much danger.
As always, Mr Connolly leaves his readers in terrible suspense right to the last page -  which only poses more questions and enables this beautifully written series to continue.  What a master he is, and what a pleasure it is to read a Charlie Parker book.  FIVE STARS

Don’t Let Go, by Michel Bussi

          French Author Michel Bussi (according to the book blurbs) is the second highest-selling author in France, but it is only recently that his novels been translated into English starting with the superb thriller ‘After the Crash’ (see ecstatic 2015 review below), and followed by ‘Black Water Lilies’ – such a disappointment to me that I did not waste my time writing a review for such a mediocre offering;  after limping to the end of it I decided reluctantly that Mr Bussi was a One Hit Wonder -   until now.
            When ‘Don’t Let Go’ became available, the memory of ‘After the Crash’ convinced me to give Mr Bussi another try, and while his latest work is still below the very high bar he set for himself originally, it’s still a classy, highly readable thriller, proving that when he’s not distracted from his day job (a Professor of Geography:  where does he find the time!) he can write suspense novels par excellence.
            The Mascarene Island of Réunion is a French possession in the Indian Ocean and prides itself on being the perfect tourist destination;  it has everything required for R & R – perfect weather and beaches, palm trees, five-star accommodation, an oversupply of bars and night clubs – and a wondrous, frightening number of active volcanoes.  No matter if the local population lives in varying degrees of minimum-wage poverty and squalor;  tourism is the premier industry  and those with Euros to spend must be kept ignorant of poverty, squalor – and the crime that accompanies it - at all costs.
            Therefore, it comes as an enormous shock to the local police force when the beautiful wife of a tourist couple goes missing from the top-class hotel in which they were staying.  She left behind her husband and six year old daughter, saying she was going to change after her swim;  then she was not seen again.  She was reported missing by her distraught husband, but subsequent enquiries reveal that he had also gone back to their room, and was eventually seen by several hotel employees wheeling a laundry cart downstairs and outside to his rental car:  rumours rebound from one end of the island to the other:  tourist Martial Bellion has killed his wife Liane after a domestic (lots of locals could identify with that) and tried to shield himself by reporting her missing, BUT.  Now he has disappeared, too, along with his little daughter Josapha.  A manhunt is launched – this man is dangerous, a killer, for two more murders are discovered in the course of the police search.  All the evidence, circumstantial though it may be, fits:  Martial is a crazed murderer and his little daughter will probably be next, if she hasn’t been despatched already.
            Mr Bussi writes very convincingly and well of island life and politics;  he is a good researcher and brings to life in his no-nonsense prose the various levels of strata in the lives of the haves and have-nots.  And it eventually comes as no surprise to find that handsome tourist Martial has several shameful secrets, secrets that don’t show up well in the light of day:  is he as guilty as the police think?  And if not, then who is?
            I am happy to say that I didn’t know Whodunit until Mr Bussi chose to let me.  He is definitely back on song with ‘Don’t Let Go’;  his characters are always engaging, especially the local police chief and her Second-in-Command and, apart from an unnecessary touch of melodrama when the real killer is revealed, he has done much to restore the respect I lost for him after staggering through ‘Black Water Lilies.’  FOUR STARS 
              
After the Crash, by Michel Bussi

On December 23rd, 1980, an Airbus 5403 flying from Istanbul to Paris crashes during a terrible storm in the Jura mountains bordering Switzerland and France.  All are killed, except for a three-month-old girl, found half-frozen in the snow but otherwise unharmed – a miracle baby, a child who survived impossible odds, and the precious darling of her surviving family in France.
            But which family?
            According to the passenger list, two baby girls were travelling with their parents;  Lyse-Rose, 3 month old daughter of the son of a fabulously rich family, the de Carvilles, returning from running subsidiaries of the family business in Turkey, and Emilie, a baby of the same age whose parents, Pascal and Stephanie Vitral had been given a trip to Turkey by Pascal’s parents who had won it themselves but couldn’t make the trip;  instead they looked after Marc, Emilie’s elder brother aged two, so that his parents could have a lovely holiday.
            The Vitral grandparents are unashamedly working class people who make ends meet by running a food van in Dieppe and the surrounding area.  They are salt-of-the-earth good citizens with sound principles – and a strong conviction that the surviving miracle baby is their granddaughter, and they are willing to fight to the end of their slim resources to prove it.  Léonce de Carville, grandfather of Lyse-Rose, is also as convinced that the little girl belongs to his family, the difference being that he has enormous wealth and power at his disposal, not to mention the services of Crédule Grand-Duc, a private detective in his employ charged with investigating fully the origins of the surviving child, and establishing beyond doubt that she is a de Carville –  for Léonce is so used to controlling the lives and fates of others that he cannot bear to have uncertainties in his own life, let alone lose a fight.
            So begins one of the most compulsive page-turners I have read this year.  French author Mr Bussi gathers up readers and flings them forward on a truly thrilling, mysterious ride spanning eighteen years, and not once (and I’m usually very good at figuring out whodunit well before the book’s end) was I able to see who resorted to murder, and why:  each chapter was never what it seemed.

            Mr Bussi’s style is competent and workmanlike;  no pretty word pictures here except for the character of Lyse-Rose’s emotionally damaged elder sister Malvina:  his prose turns purple and melodramatic to the point of turning her into a Witchy-poo from a fairy tale, but this does little to detract from the overall impact of this high-octane thriller.  I hope he is hard at work on another one.  SIX STARS!!

Sunday, 25 June 2017

LAST GREAT READS FOR JUNE, 2017

The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas                 Young Adults


Starr Carter is at a party in the ‘Hood.  She is not supposed to be there ;  her brother Seven would get her into serious trouble with their parents if he knew, but she’s there to be cool (she hopes) with his sister Kenya (no relation to Starr – it’s complicated!), the daughter of the Hood’s Supremo Drug Dealer and local gang leader.  She used to go to Grade School with all the kids at this party, but her parents, store-owner Big Mav and community nurse Lisa have decided that their children will no longer attend any schools in the ghetto;  instead Seven and Starr attend a white high school interested in expanding its ethnic diversity – which is fine, except that it’s a long drive every day, and when she arrives, she’s never comfortable about which Starr she should  be:  the token, sassy black girl who speaks properly – and has a cool white boyfriend in the same class (yep, it’s true!), or the Girlfriend who think her ass too good to come to a party with her sistahs.
              
            So.  Here she is, minus the white boyfriend, naturally.  Everyone ignores her, until she sees her childhood friend, Khalil, seventeen now and wearing some VERY expensive gear.  Diamond studs in the ears, too.  Starr’s happiness at seeing him after several months is spoiled by worrying where he got the money for these things.  It’s a well-known fact that his mother is a crackhead and his grandmother with whom he lives has cancer and has been sacked from her job – at a hospital! – because she is too ill to work.  There can be only one answer:  Khalil is selling drugs for King, Kenya’s father.  But when fronted about it Khalil tells Starr to butt out – he OK!  The situation is not improved when the party turns into the exact reason why her family would never knowingly allow her to go there:  shots are fired and everyone hits the floor – it’s time to go!
          Khalil offers Starr a ride home, which is great;  she might even get in the door without anyone knowing where she went!  Instead, the worst happens, and her life is changed forever.
            A white police officer stops them as they drive through one of the worst parts of the Hood;  Khalil supposedly has a broken tail-light.  Starr is terrified.  She remembers the instructions her Daddy has given them all:  show your hands at all times;  don’t make any sudden moves;  be polite – directions that Khalil should know but is not following.  Ordered out of the car, he attempts to lean back in to ask Starr if she is OK – and is shot to death by Officer 115.
            That number will be engraved on Starr’s consciousness for a lifetime.  This is the second time she has lost a loving childhood friend to murder;  her friend Natasha was killed in a drive-by shooting when they were 10.  Now Khalil has met the same fate.  Black Jesus, where are You?
            This wonderful book should be read by ALL adults, not only the young.  This is Angie Thomas’s first novel, a fact I find hard to believe, for it is written with a maturity and assurance that more experienced writers can only dream of.  She explores through Starr’s narration of events the endless connotations of a single cowardly act and the repercussions that ripple outwards from the decisions, right or wrong, that people make to stand against abuse, racism and tyranny of every stripe. 
            The novel’s title is taken from a Tupac Shakur Album that Khalil loved:  T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E.  The Hate U Give Little Infants F---s Everybody.  And that’s the truth.  This book is totally badass, cool and dope.  SIX STARS!!! 

  
The Thirst, by Jo Nesbo
           

           It shames me to admit that I have never read one of Mr Nesbo’s thrillers featuring flawed but brilliant detective Harry Hole – there are so many of them that I thought I would concentrate instead on his stand-alone novels.  Which exceeded expectations brilliantly (see 2014 review below), however ‘The Thirst’ provided me with so much information about established characters and their backstories that I felt quite up with the play.
            Harry Hole suffers from all the fictional detective’s usual demons:  alcoholism, nightmares, ghosts of murder victims from previous cases who visit to torment him – but he is currently ‘dry’ and a loving husband to Rakel and thrilled that his stepson Oleg is a student at Police College where Harry now lectures.  Life is as good as it is going to get.  Until two grisly murders take place within days, shattering the calm, not just of Harry’s world, but of the entire city of Oslo, for both women had met their assailant through the Tinder website, and both women had been drained of blood through terrible wounds to their throats – caused by a set of iron teeth.  And there are no clues.
            Police Chief Mikael Bellman wants this monster caught as quickly as possible;  he has political ambitions and a speedy resolution will cement his reputation as a fearless and effective future Minister of Justice, not to mention silencing the yammer of the tabloid press: yes,  even though Bellman hates Harry Hole, Hole and his rat trap memory and vastly analytical mind is the best man for the job – but has to be blackmailed to do it.  Harry doesn’t want to be plunged into the maelstrom again, but when his family is threatened he has no choice.
            Back in the saddle once more:  back to sleepless nights for everyone, consultations with behavioural psychologists and various other experts and all that is initially learned is that the killer is a ‘Vampirist’, a murderer who loves drinking blood.  And the Vampirist keeps on killing.  Oslo is in an uproar and Harry’s life plunges further into chaos when his beloved Rakel is struck down by a mystery illness which puts her into a coma. 
            Jo Nesbo drags the reader kicking and screaming through every blood-drenched chapter;  he is merciless in his portrayal of human depravity and because he is such an excellent writer we are must tolerate all the gory details, BUT!  To dilute all the violence, there is a fine vein of comedy introduced whenever Mr Nesbo judges that the reader needs some light relief.  And about time, too, I say!  My nerves were in shreds.  I have to say that I never guessed the identity of the killer, for Mr Nesbo is adept in casting Red Herrings throughout his plot;  I headed off entirely in the wrong direction – as I was meant to do.
            Sadly, the only criticism I have is quite a big one:  when the killer is finally revealed he is (naturally) the last person anyone (except Harry Hole) would suspect – BUT!  (Yet another one) – said killer takes Harry hostage, forcing him on a long car trip across the city, all the while revealing  his reasons for his almost-perfect crime rampage with such hysterical glee that I expected him at any moment to start twirling his moustaches or, when justice finally triumphed,  shout ‘curses, foiled again!’ 
            Still, Harry survives – just – to battle his own demons and everyone else’s in the next book, for this particular episode is not over:  not every villain has been caught.  I just hope that the plotting will be more plausible and less farcical next time.  FOUR STARS

Blood on Snow, by Jo Nesbo

Olav Johansen is dyslexic.  He has had trouble reading all his life, but it hasn’t stopped him trying.  His memory for what he so painstakingly absorbs is razor-sharp, as he reveals in his first-person narrative – except that he is self-deprecating whenever he shares with the reader a little morsel of his vast knowledge on myriad subjects – ‘but what do I know?’  He is also a romantic, and inclined to donate money anonymously to down-and-outers;  he falls in love with fallen women – and he is also a hit man, a ‘fixer’ for one of Oslo’s bigtime gangsters.
 He sees nothing incongruous in his coldblooded dispatching of whoever his boss tells him to remove, and the soft side of his nature which exhorts him to care for the exploited prostitutes his boss employs, particularly Maria, a deaf-mute with a limp:  he still can’t understand why Maria works as a prostitute, until he finds out that she is paying off her junkie boyfriend’s drug debt.
Olav’s life is fairly predictable, and he doesn’t expect it to change in any dramatic way – until his boss tells him that his next ‘assignment’ is to remove the boss’s faithless wife.  Olav feels a sense of awful forboding with regard to this new task, especially when he stakes out the rich apartment in which Mrs Boss spends her ineffectual days and learns that she has a young man who visits her every day at the same time to beat and rape her.  True to form, Olav’s warped sense of chivalry rears its mutant head and he decides to rescue Mrs Boss – and ‘fix’ her tormentor.
And that is just the start of Olav’s life-threatening problems.  Life goes pear-shaped and remains so, despite his best attempts to resolve his situation so that he may be the White Knight for Mrs Boss.  Maria has been entirely forgotten and while many people will die because of his actions,  he will learn yet again that the people he most trusts are capable of the worst betrayal.
Once again, Jo Nesbo has created an anti-hero that every reader backs to the hilt.  As always Mr Nesbo makes each sentence do the work of ten, giving this story a huge impact in relation to its size, and the bloody imagery of the title is never more appropriate than in the final pages.  FIVE STARS     
           
             
             


Wednesday, 14 June 2017

MORE GREAT READS FOR JUNE, 2017

Moonglow, by Michael Chabon


           Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon has written what he officially describes as a memoir of his childhood and youth with the three most important people in it:  his mother and her parents, each vastly different in outlook and personality, but each equally beloved despite the life-changing mistakes and missteps made throughout their lives together and the misfortune that strikes when they are not looking (and even when they are!).  In fact, there is so much travail in their lives that they wonder why God can’t leave these particular Jews alone for a change and go off to bother someone else?  As if.
              Mr Chabon mysteriously never names his mother and her family, but does mention his grandfather’s brother by name – uncle Reynard, a character who could carry the story by himself, initially the darling of his family and showing brilliant religious promise by becoming a dashing and eligible young Rabbi at the local Synagogue – until he experiences a huge crisis of faith (he says) and pursues the alternate life of a pool shark and all-round shady character.  What a transformation!  But he is instrumental in arranging the meeting at a social night in the Synagogue between his reluctant brother, just back from the war traumatised and unemployed, and a beautiful and exotic refugee with a French accent, a little daughter (Mr Chabon’s future mother),  yet to be revealed mental problems, and a set of numbers tattooed on her left arm.
            Married life is difficult from the start:  the new bride is constantly beset by terrible war-induced fears and hallucinations requiring costly hospital treatment and necessitating in the author’s mother living a gypsy existence among relatives (she even stays with Uncle Ray!) as her stepfather tries to keep working and provide a home for her;  those days are grim indeed, but recounted with wondrous skill, humour and verve.  There are random flashbacks to the Grandfather’s war in Germany ‘cleaning up’ with the Army Engineers and experiencing the true horrors of Nazi brutality as the American troops reach Nordhausen and its huge slave factories, birthplace of the V2 rockets, those exquisitely designed missiles which should have been aiming at the stars, instead turned into weapons of death by their inventor, Wernher von Braun.
            It is of lasting shame to the grandfather that he could not pursue and ‘remove’ Von Braun before the scientist decided which of his enemies to surrender to, eventually giving himself up to the USA, a much better choice than Russia: it is an enemy that allowed him to exercise his genius on the American Space Program, creating the Saturn V rocket and the means by which Old Glory was proudly raised on the moon – propelled there by ‘a ladder of bones’, for Von Braun’s Nazi past is mysteriously forgotten, expunged completely from the record as America celebrated Neil Armstrong’s first footsteps on Earth’s nearest neighbour.  And, when the world was watching the TV coverage with bated breath, Michael Chabon’s grandfather left the room:  he could not watch this unbelievable milestone in human achievement knowing that it was engineered by an unrepentant Nazi who climbed ‘the ladder of bones’.
            Mr Chabon states that memories, places, names, motivations, interrelationships of family members and dates have all been ‘taken with due abandon’, which throws the reader:  are we reading a wonderful collection of memories or a novel, or both?  Who cares?  This is a loving family tribute, a grand homage paid to a patriarch worthy of the name, and Mr Chabon’s hero, as he should be to all who read this beautiful book.  SIX STARS!!!

The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat, by Edward Kelsey Moore

          This is not a recent novel;  it was published in 2013, but it is new to our library – and all I can say is:  BETTER LATE THAN NEVER!
            This little story could be called a heart-warmer, but that hoary old cliche doesn’t do it sufficient justice, for the characters and events are portrayed so lovingly and well that they don’t deserve to be consigned to a genre, for the Supremes and their friends and family are a force of nature, bowling over the unsuspecting reader with the sheer gusto of their zest for life.
            First, we have Big Earl, owner of the All-You-Can-Eat Diner and his wife Miss Thelma, two mighty pillars of black society in the small Indiana town of Plainsview.  Their rock-solid and silent support has helped many a needy person on the path to future stability:  those that can’t or won’t be helped still know that Big Earl and Miss Thelma will never give up on them regardless, which in itself is an enormous source of comfort.
            The Supremes are next, called that because the trio have been together since Grade School;  now they are in their fifties and two of them are grandmothers.  They have endured heartbreak, infidelity and despair but their friendship, their sisterhood is as strong as ever.  Odette, the most fearless of the three (and the fattest;  she loves the All-You-Can-Eat for obvious reasons) has had reason lately to worry:  she has not been feeling great and puts it down to The Change, but more concerning are the conversations she has been having with her sassy and irreverent old mama lately, who has taken to visiting any old time of the day and offering up her five cents worth whether Odette wants it or not.  The big problem with these visitations is that that’s what they are:  visitations.  Odette’s mama has been dead for six years.
            Supreme # Two Clarice showed great promise as a classical pianist when she was a girl, but love in the form of the local football hero got in the way;  marriage and children followed – not that Clarice minded exchanging her musical dreams for family and becoming the local piano teacher instead,  but she minds very much being wed to a serial cheater.  Something will have to give, and it won’t be her!
            Barbara Jean is the beauty of the three, also the most disadvantaged by having an alcoholic mother who died at a very young age.  Fortunately, after a series of horrible experiences, Barbara Jean is taken in by Big Earl and Miss Thelma:  stability at last!  Until she meets another of Big Earl’s waifs and strays, Ray Carlson, a young white boy who has been beaten and brutalised by his racist brother, his only relative.  He works as a busboy for Earl and lives in the storage shed. Everyone is intrigued (but not surprised) that Earl has given him shelter, for that is what Big Earl does.  The Supremes – like all his customers – are fascinated by Ray, not least because he is so handsome and it doesn’t take them long to come up with the right name for him:  The King of the Pretty White Boys.  And Barbara Jean and The King of the Pretty White Boys eventually fall in love, setting the scene for heartbreak, for Indiana in the 60’s is not the place for interracial love.  
            How the Supremes and  their friends and family (not to mention the ghosts!) deal with the thunderbolts that God, ‘that Great Comedian’ sends them during their lives is beautifully recounted by Mr Morgan;  throughout his lovely story the twisted thread of racism, subtle or overt is always present but never triumphs - and the very best thing?  Mr Morgan has written a sequel, ‘The Supremes Sing the Happy Heartache Blues’.  Lead me to it!  FIVE STARS.
           
    
           
             
                
             

  

Sunday, 28 May 2017

LAST GREAT READS FOR MAY, 2017

Red Sister, by Mark Lawrence

          
Well.  Mark Lawrence has done it again:  sucked me into his latest fantasy adventure from the first page – effortlessly, his story-telling skills buffed and polished from his first two trilogies, ‘The Broken Empire’ and ‘The Red Queen’s War’.  And so he should!  I would expect nothing less from the creator of murderous anti-hero Prince of Thorns Honorous Jorg Ancrath, (see 2012 review below) or his opposite number Prince of Fools Jalan Kendeth, (see 2014 review below) known chiefly for his good looks, shameless behaviour, and ability to hide or run like the wind at the first sign of danger.
            Now, Mr Lawrence introduces us to the Red Sister, the first book in The Ancestor trilogy.  Once again he has created a character as huge in spirit and soul as she is small and malnourished, for Nona, called Grey for the part of the narrow land from which she was sold to a Child-Taker, has unique powers, powers she is too young to understand or harness. All she knows is a world that is gradually being consumed by mile-high walls of encroaching ice, for the sun has died and all humankind has now to nurture life on the planet is an artificially developed Focus Moon.  Every night it casts its square (yes, square!) red warmth over the landscape and melts what the ice has claimed.
            There are still towns and cities, rich and poor, and Nona is dirt-scrabble poor.  She cannot understand why her mother and the head man of the village sold her – no, GAVE HER AWAY, so that she eventually ends up being sold to a Fight Master, who fattens her up with a view to training her to fight for money.  Her life is tolerable – the food is more than she has ever seen in her life! – and Nona actually makes a friend, a little girl called Saida:  perhaps she will survive after all.  Until an act of sadism towards her only friend causes Nona to wreak a terrible vengeance against the guilty one, the eldest son of one of the richest aristocratic families:  she and Saida are thrown into prison, ready to be hanged.
            It goes without saying that poor little Saida is sacrificed to the rope (and the plot);  Nona’s rescuer in the nick of time is Abbess Glass of Sweet Mercy convent:  by fair means (and foul) she manages to bring Nona within the shelter of her convent’s fortress walls, there to harness and train for good the propensity to violence and murder that rage can provoke within Nona’s skinny frame – and to discover eventually that Nona has no need of weapons with which to kill:  her hands and her anger are the only weapons she needs to vanquish whole armies, if need be.  WOW!!
            And again, Mr Lawrence teases us with his rocket science theories (well, he knows what he’s talking about) by intimating, despite the settings of medieval pomp and pageantry - not to mention squalor – that the world being overtaken by an inexorable Ice Age is not the original planet that existed;  rather, it was the destination of everyone’s forebears who travelled through the heavens in great ships, looking for a world that still had a bright sun.
            As always, Mr Lawrence leaves us all shouting for more – he simply cannot produce the sequel fast enough:  I want to start it NOW!  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.  FIVE STARS

Prince of Fools, by Mark Lawrence

Jalan Kendeth is a prince of Red March, a southern kingdom blessed with bountiful harvests and buxom wenches.  He is young, handsome and filled with boundless energy – but not for anything constructive.  He freely admits to being irresponsible, (he is hugely in debt to a sadistic moneylender) feckless, (no woman is safe from his doubtful charms) and famously disinterested in the affairs and business of ruling his country – which is fortunate;  he is tenth in line to his grandmother the Red Queen’s throne and as such would never be considered for the crown.  Also, he is considered the runt of the litter of his family of older brothers, for despite his fine height and good build he is ‘The Little One’.  They dwarf him, every one.
Well, who cares?  Not him:  he’s quite happy to remain one step ahead of the moneylender (and he’s a damn fine runner!), and to worry about consequences for any of his actions after he has acted – until he becomes involved with a huge Norseman, a captive of his grandmother who has been freed because he gave her vital information about a huge and frightening army preparing to attack from the frozen Northern wastes of the Bitter Ice.  Through a dreadful twist of fate – and a ghastly spell concocted by a witch (truly!) – they are bound together by the good and bad strands of the spell and compelled to journey North to try to stop the advance of the Dead King and his ghastly army of corpses.  Snorri ver Snagason, the Norseman, is happy to begin the journey:  his wife and children are captives in the North and he means to rescue them.  Jalan, needless to say, feels exactly the opposite.  Heading purposely towards certain death is not on his agenda, but such is the power of the spell that he has no choice and begins the journey with a quaking heart and loud protestations.
And, regardless of his fears, he and Snorri travel inexorably northwards, most of the time with little food and no money, and depending more than once on ‘the kindness of strangers’, until they reach Ancrath, home of Jorg, Prince of Thorns, who is back in favour – however temporarily -  with his father, King Olidan.  Jalan makes much of his princely status while he can, until Olidan’s Queen tries to bribe him to kill Jorg, but Jalan has no stomach for such a task, especially when he sees the Prince of Thorns and is victim of his thousand yard stare.  No:  it’s time he and the Norseman resumed their journey – fast!
Once again, we are off on a marvellous adventure through Mark Lawrence’s great fantasy of Europe after The Big Bang, the Explosion of a Thousand Suns,  the setting of  his superb ‘Prince of Thorns’ trilogy.

Jalan Kendeth’s story runs parallel to the action in the first trilogy so he is bound to cross paths again with the deadly Honorous Jorg Ancrath;  it will be fascinating to see if his and Norri’s travails have given him an injection of the courage he honestly acknowledges he lacks, but by the end of Book One our expectations are not high – instead, what is certain is that Mark Lawrence has produced once again a fantasy of the highest order, with characters that readers truly care about, and more action than you can shake a stick at.  There are Unborn, Undead and Unnaturals littering every chapter, not to mention witches, bitches and seers by the score:  what more could a dedicated fantasy reader ask for, except top quality writing and plotting.  Mark Lawrence does it all.  FIVE STARS