Friday, 12 January 2018

FIRST GREAT READS FOR JANUARY, 2018

The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye, by David Lagercrantz


         What a pleasure it is to meet Lisbeth Salander again!  Her creator Stieg Larsson’s untimely death sent thriller readers into mourning;  surely no other writer could hope to reproduce Lisbeth’s brilliance, foresight and verve, not to mention the satisfying levels of clever plotting, action and suspense – until David Lagercrantz presented us with ‘The Girl in the Spider’s Web’ (see 2015 review below) and proved that the impossible can be done, and done well.
            This episode of Lisbeth’s story starts with a two-month prison sentence:   despite her heroic rescue of a little boy whose life was under threat, she is imprisoned for a minor infringement connected to his case, a classic example of being damned for doing something, or damned for doing nothing.  In true Salander fashion, she hunkers down to silently serve the time – until the terrible plight of a young Bangla Deshi prisoner being abused and bullied by the terrifying prison Top Dog offends her sense of fairness:  in due course the Top Dog is sent to hospital with shocking facial injuries – and Lisbeth’s sentence ends early for ‘good behaviour’. 
            She is free again, free to investigate more aspects of her horrendous childhood in orphanages and psychiatric hospitals and, with the usual expert help from Millenium Magazine editor extraordinaire Mikael Lindkvist, try to expose the perpetrators behind early psychological experiments on twins that all went shockingly, fatally wrong.  For Salander has a twin, Camilla – as evil as she is good, and they were both subjected to the same psychiatric ‘evaluations’.  Thanks to her guile and beauty, Camilla escaped and fled to Russia and a life of crime with their gangster father.  Now Salander feels that it is time to find out how many other cases of ‘separated’ twins are out there, and who authorised it – and most importantly:  why are people starting to die so that these ‘experiments’ may remain secret?
            As with the previous book, there is plenty of action;  Lisbeth is still a champion karate expert, not to mention the Queen of Hackers and a superior mathematician ( is there nothing this girl cannot do?  Yep!  She can’t cook – not that she cares – she adores junk food.) but this story has a couple of subplots that require a lot of characters;  it is as though Mr Lagercrantz had several causes he wanted to promote and tried to fit them all into one story.  That is a shame, for the plot slows, moving along by fits and starts:  the ghost of Stieg Larsson must be tsk-tsking and wagging his finger.
            Nevertheless, Mr Lagercrantz’s mastery of the complex character that is Lisbeth Salander is absolute;  he’s still a worthy successor to Stieg Larsson and if there are a few less subplots in the next novel that’s all to the good.  FOUR STARS

The Girl in the Spider’s Web, by David Lagercrantz,
Continuing Stieg Larsson’s Millenium series.

Swedish author David Lagercrantz has been given the daunting task of continuing Stieg Larsson’s blockbuster series of novels about Lisbeth Salander, ace computer hacker, mathematical genius and all-round general recluse and misfit, and Mikael Blomkvist, crusading investigative journalist, founder with his some-time lover Erika Berger of the high-end Millennium Magazine, their weapon against graft and corruption in high places.  They have many enemies;  those who don’t want their dirty secrets exposed, and colleagues from other publications who envy their stellar reputation.  Millennium is constantly under siege from those whose causes would be furthered if it became defunct, and when this story opens, Blomkvist and Berger are facing a takeover that has definitely turned hostile.
            Mr Lagerkrantz has done a formidable job of filling in the backstory from Stieg Larsson’s three wonderful books;  he is meticulous in the origins of Salander’s and Blomkvist’s relationship and has fashioned a credible, clever plot that every reader will find compelling, especially as Lisbeth’s long lost sister Camilla – as beautiful as Lisbeth is not – makes an appearance to equal that of her half-brother Ronald Niedermann, a monster impervious to pain.  It is very clear that the siblings’ awful father, Alexander Zalachenko has bequeathed some horrific genes to his unfortunate progeny, but Lisbeth is the only one with a conscience and a sense of what is right – which makes her a formidable opponent of her sister, whose hatred of Lisbeth is as deep as it is irrational.
            The reader has to concentrate;  Mr Lagerkrantz’s plot is not simple.  Professor Frans Balder, a technological genius and front-runner in the race to produce superior artificial intelligence is murdered by intruders but all they take are his computer and cell phone.  Unfortunately for the assailant, Balder’s 8 year-old son, August, witnesses the murder.  He is severely handicapped by autism – but he draws beautifully and it is absurdly easy for him to produce with photographic realism his impression of the death scene and the killer.  Which means that he has to die, too. 
            Enter Lisbeth Salander:  she literally comes to the rescue of August with a flying rugby tackle and the hijacking of an innocent motorist (who will never be the same again!) – she knew Professor Balder and has uncovered from her various hacking exercises (the National Security Agency has received special attention) that his worries about keeping his studies and conclusions secret were anything but unfounded.  She takes it upon herself (with the help of Blomkvist and Berger) to go into hiding with August, whose traumatic experiences Lisbeth identifies with completely. She is a formidable protector and once again the reader is swept up and borne inexorably on the waves of suspense to the end of a great story.
Mr Lagerkrantz is a highly efficient and meticulous writer;  he has covered every base, recreated Mr Larsson’s characters superbly and generated enough suspense for more than one novel – which I hope means that another won’t be far off for the beautiful, evil Camilla is still at large, and the NSA is still highly suspect despite being on the side of right. This is a very competent sequel and I look forward to reading the next one.  FIVE STARS


A Column of Fire, by Ken Follett


           This is the third volume in Ken Follett’s action-packed history of his fictional town of Kingsbridge, founded in the middle ages by the monks who lived there to service the mighty cathedral they constructed.  Now it is 1558 and Kingsbridge is prospering and largely Catholic under Queen Mary Tudor, who abolished Protestantism when she ascended the throne, in fact she was so zealous in her revenge against Protestants she has earned the unfortunate sobriquet of ‘Bloody Mary’.  She doesn’t care:  she has restored England to the True Religion.
            The Willards and Fitzgeralds are the leading citizens of Kingsbridge:  young Ned Willard hopes to make 16 year-old Margery Fitzgerald his bride, but her father and brother have more grandiose plans – if they marry her to the local Earl’s son, they will become related to the aristocracy.  Marrying for love is laughable; everyone knows that marriages are alliances, meant to strengthen families religiously and politically.  Ned doesn’t stand a chance, and removes himself from the cause of his sorrow by taking up a position as assistant to Sir Robert Cecil, the Protestant Princess Elizabeth’s adviser.  He finds the intelligence work he is required to do an intriguing distraction to his personal troubles and in time comes to enjoy his employment – especially when Elizabeth becomes queen upon Mary’s premature death, and to every loyal Catholic’s horror, restores Protestantism as the rightful religion of England.  For this great sin she is declared illegitimate and excommunicated by the Pope, and plans are immediately in train to put Mary Queen of Scots on the throne.
            This tumultuous time of history in Mr Follett’s hands is like reading a superior thriller, especially when the machinations of the French court are revealed;  Catholic Mary of Scotland must take the throne of England from the bastard Elizabeth (even though Mary has lived most of her life in France with her relatives, the powerful Dukes of Guise), thus consolidating the power of catholic Europe:  Italy, France and Spain are rich and powerful enemies and little Protestant England is woefully outnumbered in every way.  And it does no-one good to advertise their Protestant faith in those countries, as the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of thousands in Paris proves.
            Mr Follett’s minor characters are well-realised and cover the bases for the action he imagines in Spain, France and the Netherlands:  Ned’s brother Barney is a sea captain and gives a blow-by-blow account of the huge defeat of the Spanish Armada – and I have to say that normally, my eyes glaze after a while at detailed descriptions of antique weaponry and battle tactics, but Follett is such a great story teller that my eyes were glued, unglazed, to every page, which is no mean feat!
            The story ends with the Gunpowder Plot by Guy Fawkes in 1606.  Again, the event is written with heart-stopping suspense, not easy to sustain because everyone knows the outcome and this is a 900 page doorstop of a book – at the very least you have to have strong wrists! – but, apart from some truly sloppy editing (Ned is a ‘dreamboat’ and Margery is ‘small and sexy’.  Characters say OK every now and then, too.  For Heaven’s sake, I don’t expect the prose to be heavily Shakespearean, chockful of Prithees and How Nows, but GIVE ME A BREAK!!) 
 I am now wondering if Mr Follett will set his next story in the New World, for one of Ned’s grandsons is a Puritan and about to set sail on the Mayflower.  Regardless of editing shortcomings, I am still enormously impressed by ‘A Column of Fire’.  In Mr Follett’s capable hands, history is more than well served.  It is the great adventure that it should be.  FIVE STARS   

               

Thursday, 28 December 2017

LAST GREAT READS FOR DECEMBER, 2017

Hi everyone.  I trust you have all survived Christmas and are busy making those frail little New Year’s Resolutions to reduce the waistlines – and the carousing that enlarged them, so that you may face 2018 with strength and confidence.  Really?  Who am I kidding?  What we all really want to do is blob out on the beach in this amazing summer weather, and to that end I have compiled a little list of mighty reading culled from the year’s blog and guaranteed to satisfy all Great Readers. 
            So:  in chronological order only (very loud fanfare of trumpets)

JULIA’S TOP TWENTY!

Blue Dog, by Louis de Bernieres, reviewed January

I am Pilgrim, by Terry Hayes, ditto

A man Called Ove, by Frederick Backman reviewed February

The Pigeon Tunnel, a memoir by John le Carré, ditto

The Rules of Backyard Cricket, by Jock Serong, reviewed March

Hagseed, by Margaret Atwood, ditto

Carry Me, by Peter Behrens ditto

Leap of Faith, by Jenny Pattrick, reviewed May

Moonglow, a memoir by Michael Chabon, reviewed June

The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas, ditto       Young Adults

Saints for All Occasions, by J. Courtney Sullivan, reviewed July

Look Who’s Back, by Timur Vermes, reviewed August

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders, ditto

Among the Living, by Jonathan Rabb, reviewed October

The Blood Miracles, by Lisa McInerney, ditto

The Force, by Don Winslow, ditto

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towle, ditto

The Cartel, by Don Winslow, reviewed November

Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah, ditto

The Trials of Morrigan Crow, by Jessica Townsend     Junior fiction

            I’m sorry I can’t provide a link to each review;  my little blog was supposed to receive an overhaul by clever techno library staff but they have had to attend to more important library chores this year.  However -  in 2018 anything could happen!  ( I hope.)

            In the meantime, I wish you all a most happy, prosperous and HEALTHY New Year, and many hours of pleasure reading great books, and continuing, as always,  to be Great Readers.  

Friday, 22 December 2017

MORE GREAT READS FOR DECEMBER, 2017

Hi everyone – I thought it would be a nice idea at this time of the year to suggest some Christmas reading for children as well as my usual recommendations for parents.  Our beautiful library has an excellent selection of famous and favourite authors guaranteed to absorb all enthusiastic young readers, from those just starting chapter books to the devoted followers of Heroes such as Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson, the Harry Potter series (of course!), and Tom Gates, cool artist dude and aspiring member of a band with his mate – as soon as they learn to play.
            As we know, it usually rains on Christmas Day – hard to believe after eight weeks of relentless sunshine, but any of the titles below will certainly make the time fly by for kids whether the rain falls or stays away.
            Have a most happy Christmas everyone, and a safe and healthy New Year.  My Top Twenty list will be in the next post.  CHEERS!  

BRILLIANT BOOKS FOR BRILLIANT KIDS.

The Brilliant World of Tom Gates, by Liz Pichon

This is the first book in this great series written by Liz Pichon disguised as twelve year-old Tom Gates .  He’s really good at some things, like Art and English (sometimes) – and thinking up very clever excuses to give to his teacher as to why he hasn’t done his homework.  He can’t say the dog ate it because they haven’t got a dog, so he blames his older sister Delia (‘she spilt her coffee on it!);  in fact he blames Delia for a lot of things (I’m late because Delia hogged the bathroom!’ when in fact it’s Tom who locked himself in there to spite her), and does his level best to get her into trouble with his parents – ‘Mum, Delia’s got a boyfriend.  She had him here in the house!’ –He also hides Delia’s sunglasses regularly.  Yep, Tom is a bit of a stirrer, but he is not all bad.
            He’s best mates with his neighbour Derek;  they are both practising to be in a band when they grow up – they’re a bit rubbish yet but hey, they’re only twelve.  When they get more ‘professional’ they will call themselves the DogZombies.  Is that a cool name or what?  And he has a Megacrush on Amy Porter, who now sits next to him at the start of the new term (WOW!  Could he be any luckier??)  Yes, because Mr Fullerman has put him in the front row ‘to keep an eye on him’ (NO, NO, send me to the back again where you can’t see me!) and on the other side is none other than Measly Marcus  Meldrew, the most irritating kid in the school.  He’s totally sneaky and uncool and should be sitting somewhere far, far away.  Like Australia.
            Tom and Derek are huge fans of DUDE3, the best band on the planet, and they can hardly believe that these mighty stars will be performing in their town soon. Book One deals with their attempts to get to the concert – that turn out to be touch and go, because Derek’s new dog (called Rooster) eats the tickets!  (Truly.)
  Coupled with her great illustrations and Tom’s truly imaginative solutions to all of his everyday problems, Liz Pichon has created a great character that all kids can identify with – and all parents, too!  FIVE STARS

Brilliant, by Roddy Doyle

  
 
        When the great Roddy Doyle wrote this story for children poor old Ireland was in the middle of a very low time in its economy – and its spirits;  so many people were losing their jobs – and their houses – because they had no money to pay off their bank loans;  thousands of people were in such a bad way financially that they started to lose hope:  the old Black Dog of Depression descended on Ireland, and Dublin in particular where the story opens, like an angry, evil cloud.
            Raymond and Gloria’s Uncle Ben has had to shut his business down;  at one stage he was so busy he didn’t have time to answer his phone.  Now the phone doesn’t ring at all, and he has had to surrender his house to the bank because he can no longer pay the mortgage.  He is living with Raymond  and Gloria’s Mam and Dad and is very sad indeed.  Their Granny (who has her own little flat by the side of their house but never seems to stay there) says the Black Dog has him;  in fact the Black Dog has Dublin’s funny bone, she says, and no-one will be feeling better until Dublin’s funny bone is given back.
            Raymond and Gloria hear about this because they are hiding under the kitchen table listening to the adults talk about these adult things because they think the kids are in bed;  it has been a game they both enjoy, sneaking under the table without being seen.  They are horrified to learn of the Black Dog of Depression but because they love their Uncle Ben and want him to be happy again, they decide to search for the Black Dog and wrench back the funny bone – by force if need be!
            And what adventures they have while they pursue that evil animal, and what a surprise to find that other children, hundreds of them, are searching for him too, because they want their Mams and Dads, sisters and brothers to smile again.    Animals they meet on the search suddenly start talking, directing them where to go, until finally after a frightening showdown the horrid Black Dog is vanquished and forced to give up Dublin’s funny bone, for children are immune to his power, especially if they chant one word – ‘BRILLIANT’, and believe in it every time they say it.  ‘BRILLIANT’.
            This is a lovely story and sure proof that Ireland’s funny bone is working perfectly.  Roddy Doyle is just BRILLIANT.  FIVE STARS

PERCY JACKSON ROCKS!

The Lightning Thief, and Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan
Junior Fiction                                   ages 10 upwards


                Twelve year-old Percy (short for Perseus) Jackson attends a private school in New York.  He has almost lost count of the schools from which he has been expelled or ‘asked to leave’;  he has ADHD and Dyslexia and the private academy in which he is now enrolled feels as temporary as all the rest for, sure enough, on a field trip to an exhibition of Greco-Roman art at a big museum, he pushes the class bully into a fountain for picking on his only friend Grover.
            Grover himself is a square peg in a round hole;  his legs are strangely curved and he walks with difficulty – he’s EASY to pick on, until Percy defends him, only to be taken away by teacher Mrs Dodds to be punished, which is pretty much what Percy expects – until he realises that all is not well with Mrs Dodds:  she has transformed into one of the Three Furies of Greek myth and is there to kill him!  At the last moment, wheelchair-bound Mr Brunner, the other teacher with the party, throws him a ballpoint pen which miraculously transforms into a lethal sword, and the wild blows Percy swings at Mrs ‘Fury’ Dodds send her into a pile of dust.
            It goes without saying that it’s hard for Percy to get his head round all this life and death stuff, especially as the others in the class seem unaware of what is going on;  in fact none of them remember a teacher called Mrs Dodds.  There also seems to be a strange complicity between Mr Brunner and Grover;  for someone in a wheelchair, and another who doesn’t walk very well and ALWAYS wears a cap even though he has plenty of tight curly hair, they seem to always have his back – a fact that Percy finds comforting but mystifying.
            Needless to say, all is eventually revealed in Rick Riordan’s fabulous series, this book being the first, and published in 2005 – which means that I must be the last one on the planet to become acquainted with Percy Jackson – but better late than never, I say!
            It transpires that Percy is a ‘Half-Blood’, a demi-god, the child of a Greek god and a human, the human being his mother Sally, who has spent her life trying to keep him safe, to the extent that she has made a marriage with a cruel, crude and barbaric man who doesn’t care for either of them, but she feels that it is protection – of a kind, against the forces sent to kill Percy, for he is the child of Poseidon, the God of the Sea, one of the Big Three, Zeus, Poseidon and Hades, who all swore an oath never to have any more children with mortals after the end of World War Two, for they felt that the conflict that nearly destroyed Western civilisation was their fault for consorting with humans. 
            Mr Riordan has created a winning formula with Percy and his adventures:  Grover turns out to be a young satyr;  his funny walk is because he has goat’s legs – those sneakers with the false feet just about kill him!  And he wears a hat all the time because of the tiny goat horns protruding from his forehead.
            Mr Brunner who travels everywhere in his wheelchair, does so because it is his disguise;  he is Chiron the centaur – he could hardly tool through the streets of New York with the torso of a man and the body of a horse.  Oh, this is a great series – especially when Percy discovers that he has been accused by Zeus and Hades of stealing Zeus’s Lightning Bolt, and The Helm of Invisibility, precious to Hades:  it is not easy to accept the fact of being the son of a god, then to find that he is on a hit list is just plain insulting.  He will have to fight back!
            So begins Percy’s  quests and death-defying adventures with other half-bloods who become his friends – and one who betrays them all.  And an extra pleasure for me was to find that the ancient myths that fascinated me as a child are alive and well and accurately portrayed in a modern setting.  Mr Riordan is scrupulously correct – and very funny - in his portrayal of all the gods and monsters he introduces to his stories – you should see what Medusa does to Percy’s stepfather!  Great stuff, especially when he introduces a young Cyclops and Jason’s Golden Fleece in ‘The Sea of Monsters’.    SIX STARS


Monday, 11 December 2017

GREAT READS FOR DECEMBER, 2017

Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah

  
          In the United States, Trevor Noah enjoys a stellar career as a Comedian and TV Host;  his life is enviable in its success and he is a shining example of ‘anyone can BE anything’ if they have the will to do it.
            Well, Trevor has certainly been gifted with the will, but reaching the top has been a scrambling, rocky ascent – for half-white half-black Trevor shouldn’t have been born at all:  in 80’s Apartheid South Africa it was legally a crime for the two races to cohabit.  Naturally, this didn’t prevent the mingling of the races, but the punishments were severe:  jail terms of five years or four years (depending on who was doing the mingling – a black man or woman doing the deed with a European got five years, but a white European of either sex cohabiting with a native of either sex was sentenced to four years).
            Babies, the consequences of all this sin, were taken away from their mothers to subsist in orphanages, kept there until they were teenagers, then released into an uncaring world where they would always be outsiders because of their indeterminate colour – at least if you were black or white, you knew WHAT you were in Apartheid South Africa.  You knew your place.  Being pale enough to be not-quite-white just didn’t cut it.
            Trevor’s mum Patricia, a member of the Xhosa tribe, was well aware of the pitfalls and trials of bringing a baby into the world, but being of a fiercely independent and rebellious nature, she decided to have a child anyway, because she wanted a child to love her and depend on her, somebody of her own – the only problem being her choice of father:  a Swiss German who was not interested in parenthood, and had to be persuaded over time to see that it was a good idea.  Really?  For when Trevor was born the can of worms truly opened:  Trevor’s mum had to find a coloured friend to go walking with them , the friend masquerading as The Mum;  Trevor was never allowed to call his father ‘Daddy’ in public, he had to address him as ‘Robert’, and when Patricia decided to introduce her beloved child to her estranged Xhosa family in Soweto, she endangered them all in her subterfuge, for they could not publicly acknowledge Trevor as their new grandson:  he was the wrong COLOUR, for Heaven’s sake, so he was never allowed out of the back yard – from which he frequently escaped.
            For Trevor was just as rebellious as his beloved mum, and this hugely entertaining autobiography chronicles his childhood and youth living on the outside even within his own family, but it demonstrates too, his resilience, resourcefulness and the enormous optimism and humour required to survive in such adversity.
            And don’t forget prayer!  For rebellious Patricia was so deeply religious that she dragged Trevor off to pray at three different churches every Sunday, whether he wanted to go or not:  the Spiritual, speaking-in-tongues church, the European church, and the native church.  There:  all holy again till next Sunday.  Magic!  SIX STARS

The Last Tudor, by Philippa Gregory

            Ms Gregory is justly famous for her fine and meticulously researched historical novels concerning the power struggles of the Plantagenets and Tudors, those medieval rulers of England who transformed their little country into a force to be feared throughout Europe, culminating with Henry VIII, who broke away from the Catholic Church so that he could marry ‘for love’ and get himself a son – which he did, (after two daughters to two queens) but his beloved Edward did not live beyond fifteen.  To maintain the strong and legitimate succession of an heir to the throne in the new and true faith the Privy Council decides on Lady Jane Grey, great-niece of Henry and eldest of three sisters who are royal princesses in their own right.
            Jane is deeply religious but also conscious of the responsibilities of her great new office;  she is reluctant to be queen but the only other alternative is Princess Mary, daughter of Katharine of Aragon – also deeply religious but of the Old Faith:  the people will never accept her!
            But they do.  Princess Mary brings an army to London to reinforce her claim as legitimate heir and Jane, ‘Nine Days a Queen’ is imprisoned in the Tower, where so many other luckless prisoners have languished.  Mary then goes on a royal rampage to avenge all the members of her faith who have been persecuted by the Protestants.  ‘Bloody Mary’ is feared and hated in due course but no-one escapes her wrath, including Lady Jane the Usurper:  she is beheaded, her body quartered and buried without ceremony in the Tower crypt.  The first Protestant Martyr is in Heaven.
            Lady Jane’s two younger sisters, Katherine and Mary, do not fare well either in their dealings with Queen Mary’s successor Elizabeth, Henry’s daughter by Anne Boleyn;  Elizabeth has been declared a bastard, hidden from sight and maligned for most of her young life:  now she has the ultimate power, and she and her powerful council will wield it to England’s best advantage.  Her autocracy extends to her Ladies-in-waiting:  none of them may marry without her permission –which she seldom gives, and when Katherine enters into a secret marriage with Ned Seymour, handsome son of an ancient and noble house, Elizabeth’s rage is such that they are both imprisoned in the Tower.  ‘For as long as it may please Her Majesty.’
            For they have produced a child, a healthy boy – an heir to the Throne -  which Elizabeth cannot achieve, especially as she has no husband.  Her jealousy is absolute and the Grey family endure persecution on the grand scale, even the youngest sister Mary.
            Crouchback Mary, stunted Mary, deformed of stature but not of heart, ordered to be Elizabeth’s Lady-in-waiting, but still able to enjoy her life despite the Queen’s best efforts to make her miserable – until her unpermitted marriage also has her imprisoned.  Elizabeth will not be defied, even by a Little Person.

            Each of the Grey sisters narrates their own part in this hugely entertaining chronicle of a savage and turbulent era:  Ms Gregory’s great characterisations and fine prose enable these giants of history to live again – as well they should.   FIVE STARS     

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

FIRST GREAT READS FOR NOVEMBER, 2017

The Cartel, by Don Winsow

            I am still thanking my lucky stars for introducing me to Don Winslow’s latest novel, The Force (see review below), so checked out our library’s stocks of his books – only to find that of the sixteen he has written, The Force and The Cartel are the sole examples of this master’s work on the shelves.  Which is a great shame, for he is one of the truly great 21st century crime writers and should be represented accordingly in our library.
            Mr Winslow turns his sights in this story on the Mexican drug wars with the U.S.A., the conflict that neither country can win as long as there are producers and consumers.  Supply and demand.  But Cocaine is not the God – money is:  the top ‘Narcos’ don’t mess with their own product;  they are in the business to get rich, for wealth can buy power – and governments.  At the top of the Narco pecking order sits El Senor, Adan Barrera, the best and most ruthless ‘businessman’ of them all.  Elite and untouchable, he and his soldiers have absolute power over large parts of Mexico – including the Mexican equivalent of the White House;  in fact his empire is unassailable except for an irritation from his past (this book is a sequel to The Power of the Dog but stands well on its own;  still, I would have loved to read that first!), an American D.E.A. Agent who is committed to bring him to justice for his many and brutal crimes. 
            Art Keller is a lone wolf, an honourable man who has lost a lot in his life but still believes in ‘doing the right thing’, and the right thing this time is capturing Barrera by any means possible – even if Barrera should have an ‘accident’ as he is being brought in, well that’s O.K. too.  It will be payback for the thousands who have died, not just the drug users, but the righteous folk - police, journalists, innocent townspeople who protested against his power:  yep, an accident would be fine.
            ‘The Cartel’ teems with characters that delight and horrify the reader.  The violence is gut-churningly graphic – there is no escape for us as the gory, bloody war that will never be won proceeds to the next stage;  instead we can only marvel at Don Winslow’s genius at bringing this monumental tragedy to life with such cruel realism:  although this is a work of fiction, it was all based on factual events.  SIX STARS!


The Force, by Don Winslow

            Steven King has written an endorsement for the cover of Mr Winslow’s book, saying:  ‘Mesmerising, a triumph.  Think THE GODFATHER, only with cops.  It’s that good’.  And he is not wrong.
            ‘The Force’ is a huge story of corruption, the rot that creeps into the hearts and souls of men who start life with the very best of intentions, and the consequences that follow, planned for or not.  It’s a story of justifications, rationalisations and excuses, with a plot so chillingly topical that it is almost impossible for the reader to separate fact from fiction.  ‘It’s that good’.
            NYPD Detective Sergeant Denny Malone is at the very top of his game:  he heads an elite Drug Squad known as the Manhattan Task Force and his crime busts are legendary in the Manhattan North area they patrol, which includes the Black Projects in Harlem.  He is justly feared by dealers and addicts alike and he and his team Hold the Line against the various ethnic gangs hoping to gain a foothold in his domain:  he’s the King, and his team are his knights.  Mess with them at your peril. 
            He is also very wealthy, thanks to kickbacks, bribes and other easy money that various people pay him for protection:  he reasons that he deserves some perks for keeping good people safe, and if he and his squad didn’t line their pockets occasionally, the crims would spend it and that would be a waste.  He and his team have also risked their lives numerous times taking down gangsters, in fact they have just lost one of their own at a bust who left a pregnant girlfriend – because they weren’t married she can’t claim his pension.  But Denny and his men will make sure she gets a package every month.  They look after their own;  they are The Force – May Dah Force Be With You!
            Until the consequences from that particular raid turn up to haunt Denny in the shape of the FBI:  they have evidence on him that they have been collecting for months – they know he’s crooked and they can prove it (they say), but if he becomes their snitch they’ll ‘go easy’ on him (they say).  Graft, corruption among the legal fraternity – Denny knows things that would blow them all away:  they want names?  He’ll give them names, but he won’t rat on his workmates.  Never.  Never, until his family is threatened;  then he becomes that despicable low-life, a Snitch Cop. 
            The desperate measures that Denny takes to protect his loved ones and repair the irreparable damage he has done is the action that drives this breathtaking novel.  It is impossible not to side with Denny – crooked as a dog’s hind leg, but willing to murder a drug dealer who ordered the ‘execution’ of an entire family;  who used his crooked money to do numerous good things for his area; then did his best to bring down the worst culprits – the rich and powerful, the old money – and the old money-launderers.  The city of New York has never been portrayed so starkly and so well.  This is Mr Winslow’s mighty tribute to The Force.  His prose is as harsh and tough and funny as his characters, and unrelenting in its drive to depict one man’s loss of his soul, and his efforts to regain it.  SEVEN STARS!!!  (And every exclamation mark is deserved, so there!)
  
The Shadow Land, by Elizabeth Kostova

            Twelve years ago Elizabeth Kostova’s first novel ‘The Historian’ became a runaway Best-Seller, thrilling readers (especially me!) with a tale that had everything:  secrets and ancient documents, a monumentally evil and authentic character in Vlad the Impaler, the barbarous medieval ruler who was the source of the Dracula myth, horror and suspense by the bucket load, and an intrepid heroine willing to risk her life to find the answers to the mysteries that confront her.
            With ‘The Shadow Land’ Ms Kostova creates a similar story set in modern-day Bulgaria.  Once again there is a powerful man whose cruelty is absolute, and a small group of people determined to undermine him – if they can.  This time there is no element of the supernatural, but plenty of very satisfying mystery and suspense, and the reader is happily hooked into the story in the very first chapter – as in ‘The Historian’. 
Ms Kostova’s protagonist, Alexandra Boyd, is a young American on her first trip to Eastern Europe.  She has accepted a job as an English tutor in a language Institute in Sofia, and is near tears as she realises that after seemingly endless travelling and crossing of time zones - what time is it now? – what day is it! – she finds that her taxi driver has delivered her to the wrong hotel:  instead of the student hostel that she can afford, she has been taken to a much grander establishment which is laughably out of her price range.  As she sits dejectedly on the sweeping steps leading up to the hotel entrance contemplating her luggage and her dwindling finances, a chance encounter with an elderly couple and their son and her efforts to assist them and their bags to a taxi changes her plans, and her life.  Alexandra discovers that in the profusion of luggage an extra bag has been mixed up with hers, a small valise containing a beautifully carved wooden box, and in the box, human ashes.
Alexandra is appalled to think that she has the last precious remains belonging to the family whom she assisted so briefly – she heard them mention a monastery to the taxi driver who took them away:  well, the only honourable solution is to follow them in another taxi so that she can return their precious cargo.  The day is not progressing well!  Especially when she finds that the beautiful little casket with its sad contents is really a Pandora’s Box of trouble unleashed:  the more she investigates in her efforts to find the owners, the more sinister attention is directed to her and the kind taxi driver who offers to help her (and he seems to have plenty of secrets of his own).  Alexandra ends up seeing much more of wild and beautiful Bulgaria than she ever expected to as they pursue their quest, and it soon becomes apparent that the owners of the box are in great danger from a very powerful enemy, a man who feared and hated the courageous and honourable musician whose ashes are in the box.

The parallel story of Bulgarian violinist Stoyan Lazarov is told in alternate chapters, of his fall from grace during the communist regime and the terrible punishments he endured in so-called ‘work’ camps after the war and Russian ‘Liberation’, but Ms Kostova’s characters and their travails are so compelling that it was hard for me to switch from Alexandra’s contemporary adventures to Stoyan’s historic troubles without feeling a reluctance to leave each unforgettable character -  surely the hallmark of great storytelling.  FIVE STARS    

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

MORE GREAT READS FOR OCTOBER, 2017

The Survivor’s Guide to Family Happiness, by Maddie Dawson

            Where would the dedicated reader be without Chick Lit?  If nothing else, the genre helps us to distinguish between ‘Light Reading’ – encompassing at one end the Bodice-Rippers which all seem to involve Dukes wearing tartan who fall for spirited (and beautiful) wenches from humble backgrounds, to the Feel-Good Heart-Warmers that make us go ‘Aaaaaaah’, only to forget them when something more substantial from the higher end presents itself – as indeed it should.
            Maddie Dawson’s higher end charming story ticks all the boxes:  it’s a heart-warmer;  the reader feels good at the end and no-one has to wear tartan.  Instead, real-life problems that we can all identify with are faced by ordinary, typical, disfunctional  characters  that we easily recognise as ourselves or our neighbours.  Ms Dawson casts a loving and astute eye here on families, especially of the adoptive kind, particularly that of Nina Popkin who is now mid-30s, divorced by her husband after six months of marriage – he fell in love with his bank teller and moved out on the day he confessed – and completely on her own after nursing her beloved adoptive mother through her last illness.  It’s time, thinks Nina, to start a search for her real  family, her birth family, kin who will fill the awful, yawning gap in her solitary life.  No-one should have to go through life alone.
            Which she doesn’t, because Nina has true friends and a new romance on the horizon – one that fills her with dismay, because Carter, though divorced, continues to live in the family home with his ex-wife and his two teenage children because he can’t bear to be away from them – the kids, that is, not the wife.  When the living arrangements eventually get sorted, Carter’s daughter, a terrifying fifteen-year old who dyes her hair with purple markers because she wants to be different and has a to-do list that includes having sex as soon as possible to ‘get it out of the way’ is instrumental in helping Nina search for her birth mother who (thanks to Google) is eventually revealed as a Pop Star of the Eighties. 
            In due course a younger sister is found, the biggest shock to that being that they both went to the same school, and Nina is ashamed to think that in those days she thought Lindy Walsh was a snivelly little thing.  Now Lindy Walsh is not interested in any kind of sister relationship with Nina, much less making contact with their birth mother.  Finding a replacement family is proving to be much harder than Nina thought, particularly when it is obvious that all concerned consider her to be ‘needy’.  Which she is, but surely in a good way?
            This is a charming story, and what elevates it into the higher ranks of Chick-Litdom is Nina’s floundering approach to the perils and joys of a ready-made family, and her inept but persistent attempts to bond with her true sister and birth mother:  the laughs come thick and fast, as do the tears, as in all families.  FOUR STARS.

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, by Lisa See
           
           Li-yan is a child of a remote hill tribe in China, the Akha.  It is an animistic, patriarchal society governed by traditional and ancient rituals designed to propitiate the many spirits that rule their lives;  life is hard and there never seems to be enough to eat, for Li-yan’s family, like the rest of the tribe, grows tea on the steep slopes of one of the six Tea Mountains in Yunnan.  They all work from dawn to dusk to tend the trees, harvest the leaves, then take them to the collection centre – and hope they will get a fair price for their labours.  If they don’t, everyone goes hungry.
            Fortunately, Li-yan’s mother enjoys a special status in the village.  She is a respected midwife and wishes to pass on her skills to Li-yan, the lowly daughter who is addressed as ‘Girl’ by all the male members of her family, but if Li-yan learns well, she too will have a status denied other women.  Also, Li-yan’s mother reveals a special secret known only to the female members of her family:  she is the custodian of a special grove of tea-trees which she lovingly tends.  Li-yan will be the next guardian of this secret, and no man must ever know where these trees are.
            Li-yan is not happy.  She does not want to be a midwife, especially after her first ‘birthing’ where newborn twins were killed because they would bring misfortune to the village – just because there were two of them;  she is interested in learning about teas and their myriad varieties and production, but the secret grove can remain so, as far as she’s concerned – she wants an education!  And the effort she employs to achieve her goals is mighty – until she falls in love, as all young people do, but with a young man who is not welcomed by her family.  The resulting baby from their union should be killed according to tribal tradition, but Li-yan’s mother, that superb midwife, helps her to give birth in the secret grove;  then it is up to Li-yan to take the baby to an orphanage in the nearest big town ,for abandoning her will give her a chance at life not possible in the Tea Mountains.
Ms See writes so well of the crippling traditions and superstitions of a remote people that the reader’s heart aches along with Li-yan’s as she eventually gains everything she dreams of:  an education;  a business;  an enviable reputation as a Tea Master;  a strong and loving husband;  a prosperous life in America, and a son, the greatest gift of all – except for the yawning hole in her heart where her daughter should rest.  Will she ever find her?
The reader certainly hopes so, especially as Li-yan’s child is adopted by Americans and we are treated to a parallel story of Haley’s childhood, youth and experiences both positive and negative of being a Chinese American Adoptee.  Ms See’s impeccable research delves into every aspect of brown skin in a white family and the contradictory emotions such a state evokes, and this great story is played out against a backdrop of the huge changes made in Chinese contemporary history over the last forty years – all melded together by the timeless allure and mystique of an ancient and beloved beverage.  FIVE STARS.

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towle

          Moscow, 1922.  Thirty year-old Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, scion of a formerly illustrious family of the Russian aristocracy faces a Bolshevik committee dedicated to investigating his reasons for returning to Russia on pain of execution by firing squad, rather than staying in exile in Paris with so many other cowardly White Russians.  His reply that he ‘missed the climate’ was greeted with the disdain it deserved, and if he hadn’t displayed pre-revolutionary valour during the First World War he would have been executed forthwith:  instead, his punishment is to remain under house arrest as a ‘Former Person’ in the Metropol Hotel, directly opposite the Kremlin.  If he should leave in the future for any reason at all, then he will be shot.
Alexander is a cultured bon vivant, educated to his very fingertips, an aristocrat to the bone.  He is also an optimist, determined not to be daunted by his new situation – even when his sumptuous apartment at the Metropol as part of his new circumstances is substituted for a poky attic room in the servants’ quarters, but he is still able to move precious items of furniture and possessions he holds dear into his new ‘accommodation’.  Things could be worse – he could be dead!  As it is, he is still able to indulge himself in his daily epicurean routines in the hotel’s various restaurants, forming firm friendships with the staff, all of whom accept him for the good man that he is, especially bored nine year-old Nina, whose father is an important cog in Stalin’s new government.  Their friendship is so strong that many years later, she entrusts her own precious child Sofia to his care (to his utter bewilderment!) while she searches for her husband, sent in disgrace to a Siberian Gulag.
Yes, life is tolerable at the Metropol, thanks to the staff loyalty and friendship – why, it is even possible to have a romantic liaison with ‘a willowy young beauty’ who is a rising film star:  she is attracted to his wit and urbanity, not to mention more intimate skills.  For the fact that he must never venture past the front door, his life contains everything he enjoys or desires.  Until a new waiter is employed in one of the hotel restaurants:  his waiting skills are negligible;  he is rude and inept – but he has contacts in high places, and he loathes Alexander, viewing him as a prime example of an effete and evil class system, the remains of which Comrade Stalin is purging assiduously.  Alexander has an enemy without making the slightest effort to gain one, and his life is more dangerous as a result.
Alexander’s story is recounted in prose as elegant and witty as its protagonist.  Amor Towle has created a singular and unforgettable man who makes the very best of his circumstances despite fate’s attempts to defeat his perpetual optimism - he is eventually employed as the hotel’s top restaurant’s head waiter, a position designed to humiliate, instead producing the opposite effect:  he excels at his new job, for no-one knows wonderful food and wine better than he.  But when a threat to Sofia rears its head, he must risk his own life to save hers.
This is a beautiful story of friendship and loyalty set against a background of some of the most turbulent times of Russia’s history – across the road from the Kremlin in fact, for the Metropol Hotel is as much a character as its occupants in this fine novel.  SIX STARS

             

Sunday, 15 October 2017

GREAT READS FOR OCTOBER, 2017

Among the Living, by Jonathan Rabb.

  
          Holocaust survivor Yitzhak Goldah has just arrived in Savannah, Georgia in the summer of 1947.  He is to live with his only surviving relatives, cousin Abe Jesler and Abe’s wife Pearl.
            He stands on the railway platform, feeling ghostly and entirely detached as his new-found family fuss around him;  they are all painfully polite to each other, as strangers invariably are – but Abe and Pearl have no conception of the impact their security and prosperity has on Goldah:  after years of unimaginable hell in the camps everything that is happening to him now is like a dream that is happening to someone else.  He is a ghost among the living.
            Savannah has a thriving Jewish community and Abe has done well in the shoe trade, rising from very humble beginnings to live in the best neighbourhood when he prospered.  He is proud to show his thin and exhausted cousin what he owns, especially his late-model car – ‘Brand new, Forty-Seven Ambassador with the unitized body.  You know your cars, Yitzhak?’
            No.  Pearl drops some clangers, too, about closing the drapes to his room as the sun could bake him ‘like an oven’, then weeps at her thoughtlessness:  it will take time before everyone relaxes enough to feel ‘normal’ again.
            As time passes Goldah endeavours to make his hosts know how grateful he is, what life savers they are, and how their generosity has given him another chance at life.  He has started work at Abe’s shoe store – a far cry from his job in Prague as a former overseas journalist for the prestigious Herald Tribune – but it occupies his time in a therapeutic way, and it doesn’t take him long to notice that Abe’s negro assistants, while not treated badly by him are regarded in the South as worthless.  Like the Jews of Europe.
            There is much for Goldah to absorb in his new life in America, not least the tremulous hope of a romance with one of Abe’s customers, a young war widow, the daughter of the local newspaper editor – a liaison frowned on by Pearl because the young woman’s family are ‘reformed Jews’ who go to a Temple, not to Shul, but this is not even worth thinking about for Goldah:  his life is starting again.  Hope, that vital emotion, has returned!
            As does another survivor:  The woman Goldah had pledged to marry, long thought to have perished in the camps.  She arrives in Savannah, irreparably damaged and holding Goldah to his promise:  she is now his responsibility – and his burden.  What this woman has endured was unspeakable, but Hope, for her, has died;  instead she despises the well-meaning people who want to help and comfort her, those fat smug Jews in Georgia who never knew what the war was really like – they never suffered a day in their lives!
            This is a very fine book.  Jonathan Rabb has told a story that aches with sadness at the same time as its lyrical prose fills the reader with hope:  what a literary accomplishment, a powerful chronicle of those who have the capacity to heal, and those who cannot.  His parallel story of Abe’s negro workers – unwittingly embroiled by him in shady dealings to their detriment – starkly underscores the age-old racism that blights even the very best of intentions.  Rabb’s characters are unforgettable and will remain with me for a long time, especially Goldah, who eventually becomes a Man Among the Living.  SIX STARS!

The Blood Miracles, by Lisa McInerney

            Ms McInerney is a writer of astonishing talent, smart enough to leave the reader gawping at her superlative imagery and language that swings a punch on every second page – that is, once one can figure out the local idiom for, as this novel is set in the city of Cork in Southern Ireland, English is not immediately recognisable as the main language.
            Fair enough.  This is not so much a warning as a respectful caution NOT TO GIVE UP EARLY!  I nearly did until I got hooked eventually by the plight of hapless Ryan Cusack, drug dealer and sad sack extraordinaire, a young man whose life is unravelling, thanks to an overindulgence in what he is dealing, a depressive episode (coming down off whatever he is sniffing/smoking only makes things worse), the imminent break-up of his long-term relationship with his True Love Karine, and a very risky deal to import ‘New Product’ from Italy by his Boss, Dan Kane.
            Ryan is essential to the success of the Italian venture, for he is bi-lingual.  His late mother was Italian and he still has relatives in Italy who dote on him, little realising what he is using his language skills for:  to his Nonna he and his siblings are perfect in every way:  the fact that he is facilitating drug deals between his boss and the Camorra would probably send her off to Heaven early.  She cannot know what he is really doing.
            No:  life is not good, and one night Ryan decides in a drugged-up haze to resign from the Human Race:  there are just too many insoluble problems all requiring his immediate attention;  it will be much easier to leave them all behind for someone else to deal with.  BUT!! 
            His cowardly exit is thwarted by an Ould Biddy, miraculously out for a walk on the very footbridge Ryan is contemplating The Dive.  She achieves the near superhuman feat of hustling him off the bridge and home to her place to come back to the land of the living, no easy task for Ryan is a snivelling quivering mess, in his own words ‘not worth saving’.
            Fortunately for him the Ould Biddy doesn’t believe him, and his eventual resurrection with her assistance (no:  it’s not a Damascus Moment – that would be too corny and corn doesn’t feature here) is one of the highlights of this great story, as is the revelation of her identity:  she has known him all his life, for she and his ill-fated mother were friends.
            And that is not the only revelation in store for Ryan.  I am not going to reveal any more plot shocks, (no spoiler alerts from me!), suffice it to say that Ms McInerney’s tale has more twists than a pretzel, with lies, betrayal and murder most foul playing a starring role – and humour, that wonderful Irish craíc that we have come to expect from even the least-talented of Irish writers – and Ms McInerney could never be on the lower rungs of contemporary Irish literature.  What a talent she is.  WHAT A BABE!  SIX STARS!!  (And I’ll really have to go easy on the exclamation marks.)

The Force, by Don Winslow

            Steven King has written an endorsement for the cover of Mr Winslow’s book, saying:  ‘Mesmerising, a triumph.  Think THE GODFATHER, only with cops.  It’s that good’.  And he is not wrong.
            ‘The Force’ is a huge story of corruption, the rot that creeps into the hearts and souls of men who start life with the very best of intentions, and the consequences that follow, planned for or not.  It’s a story of justifications, rationalisations and excuses, with a plot so chillingly topical that it is almost impossible for the reader to separate fact from fiction.  ‘It’s that good’.
            NYPD Detective Sergeant Denny Malone is at the very top of his game:  he heads an elite Drug Squad known as the Manhattan Task Force and his crime busts are legendary in the Manhattan North area they patrol, which includes the Black Projects in Harlem.  He is justly feared by dealers and addicts alike and he and his team Hold the Line against the various ethnic gangs hoping to gain a foothold in his domain:  he’s the King, and his team are his knights.  Mess with them at your peril. 
            He is also very wealthy, thanks to kickbacks, bribes and other easy money that various people pay him for protection:  he reasons that he deserves some perks for keeping good people safe, and if he and his squad didn’t line their pockets occasionally, the crims would spend it and that would be a waste.  He and his team have also risked their lives numerous times taking down gangsters, in fact they have just lost one of their own at a bust who left a pregnant girlfriend – because they weren’t married she can’t claim his pension.  But Denny and his men will make sure she gets a package every month.  They look after their own;  they are The Force – May Dah Force Be With You!
            Until the consequences from that particular raid turn up to haunt Denny in the shape of the FBI:  they have evidence on him that they have been collecting for months – they know he’s crooked and they can prove it (they say), but if he becomes their snitch they’ll ‘go easy’ on him (they say).  Graft, corruption among the legal fraternity – Denny knows things that would blow them all away:  they want names?  He’ll give them names, but he won’t rat on his workmates.  Never.  Never, until his family is threatened;  then he becomes that despicable low-life, a Snitch Cop. 

            The desperate measures that Denny takes to protect his loved ones and repair the irreparable damage he has done is the action that drives this breathtaking novel.  It is impossible not to side with Denny – crooked as a dog’s hind leg, but willing to murder a drug dealer who ordered the ‘execution’ of an entire family;  who used his crooked money to do numerous good things for his area; then did his best to bring down the worst culprits – the rich and powerful, the old money – and the old money-launderers.  The city of New York has never been portrayed so starkly and so well.  This is Mr Winslow’s mighty tribute to The Force.  His prose is as harsh and tough and funny as his characters, and unrelenting in its drive to depict one man’s loss of his soul, and his efforts to regain it.  SEVEN STARS!!!  (And every exclamation mark is deserved, so there!)