Saturday, 9 September 2017

FIRST GREAT READS FOR SEPTEMBER, 2017

Persons Unknown, by Susie Steiner


           Isn’t it great when you chance upon a book that you can’t put down – a book that has a perfect cast of characters with whom you are immediately engaged, and a plot that is sound and credible:  well, Susie Steiner has definitely ticked all the boxes for me, and will undoubtedly have gathered legions to her fan base with her second novel featuring Detective Inspector Manon Bradshaw.  I haven’t read the first, ‘Missing, Presumed’ but intend to ASAP – I have done my usual trick of reading series books out of sequence.  More fool me.
            Anyway!
            DI Bradshaw has decided that, though her police career is immensely satisfying, her personal life is rubbish;  no chance of marriage and the children she longs for when she considers all the Wayne Kerrs (one has to say that name really fast) she meets:  nope – the only thing left is the old turkey baster.  Artificial insemination.  A baby to order.  She is terrified of her looming responsibilities and the inevitable money worries even though her job is secure, but thrilled to think she will finally have part of what she wants -  except for a loving partner.  And she is also fearful of going ahead with this momentous decision without telling her adopted 12 year old son Fly, a black child already damaged by his terrible upbringing.  In this respect Manon is a coward.  She says nothing until it is obvious to the entire world that she is pregnant (especially as she develops an appetite that would put the fat lady at the circus to shame), with predictable results:  Fly, poor vulnerable Fly, thinks he’s not wanted any more.
            To complicate life still further, a murder takes place in a park just opposite Fly’s school.  The victim is a very wealthy young investment banker, just off the London train who collapses in the arms of a woman walking her dog:  he has been stabbed.  Where was he going?  Who did he intend to visit?  When the answers to these questions are found they are shocking:  he was about to visit his two year old son Solly – Manon’s nephew, who lives with his mum Ellie, Manon’s younger sister.  Manon and Fly also live in the same house (you can rent a bigger house if you share), but Manon had no idea that Solly’s father was back on the scene.  Sisters have their secrets.
            Then the unthinkable:  CCTV and circumstantial evidence place Fly at the scene of the crime, and he is detained at a juvenile holding facility on suspicion of murder.  Their world has collapsed.
            The fragile bubble of security and love that Manon has constructed for Fly is ready to pop.  Now is not the time to be heavily pregnant!  As she is his legal relative she is not allowed to investigate any part of the crime herself, and must rely on information leaked to her by her colleagues, most of whom are horrified that a child has been ‘fitted up’ for murder.
            DI Manon Bradshaw and her made-to-order family are a worthy and refreshing addition to crime fiction.  Ms Steiner’s characters are smartly drawn, her plotting is excellent and always credible and I am now off to read ‘Missing, Presumed’.  Lucky me!  FIVE STARS

Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner


           Ms Steiner’s first novel featuring Manon Bradshaw is a pleasure, pure and simple.  Even though I have done my usual trick of reading a series out of sequence it doesn’t matter:  I would have been doing myself a disservice if I had decided not to make Manon’s acquaintance in her introductory investigations into crimes seemingly unconnected, but involving characters from every level of society – who swear no knowledge of each other, until it is revealed that the opposite is true.
            The story opens with Manon enduring (barely) her umpteenth Internet Date.  It is not going well, especially when Mr Mean – supposedly a poet - suggests that she pay the lion’s share of the pub bill ‘because she had wine and he didn’t’.  Yep:  dead in the water.  But time is running out!  She is thirty-nine and her chances of marital contentment and happy, laughing children are reducing by the day.  Her neediness shames and saddens her;  if only (the saddest words in the world) she could be independent and strong-minded enough to be the Ultimate Career Copper, wedded to her job which she is very good at.  Well, onwards and upwards;  it’s a new day tomorrow;  best foot forward.  Okay then.
            And the new day brings a report of a mysterious disappearance that has the Press salivating:  Cambridge graduate student (and first-class looker) Edith Hind has been reported missing by her live-in boyfriend Will Carter, himself an absurdly handsome poster boy for the Upper Classes.  There is blood on the floor of their kitchen, coats are strewn on the floor and Edith’s wallet, keys and car are still in the house.  Will is beside himself with worry, especially when he has to report Edith’s disappearance to her patrician parents, Sir Ian and lady Miriam Hind, he the physician to Royalty and she the partner in a highly successful medical practice.  They are the perfect targets for the tabloids to tear down, and the better publications to build up – all of them trying to be FIRST with the news.
            Except that there isn’t any:  Edith has disappeared completely.  Then the body of a 17 year old black boy from a slum neighbourhood in London is found in a river near to Edith’s home, and though there appears to be no relevance between the disappearance of a privileged aristocrat and the murder of a young petty criminal, Manon’s team investigations turn up nuggets of evidence that bring them closer and closer to the story’s shocking conclusion, evidence that links irrevocably those at the very top of society with others lying broken at the bottom -  including Fly, the murdered boy’s younger brother.
            Ms Steiner has constructed a plot that fits together as neatly as Lego blocks, but her characters are hardly two-dimensional:  Manon is Everywoman;  we can recognise ourselves in her tactlessness, sibling rivalry, jealousy, cowardice – and huge kindness, humanity, and consideration for the underdog,  of which there are so many.  It has been a pleasure to meet you, Manon, and I hope we will all meet again soon.  SIX STARS!

                 

Sunday, 20 August 2017

MORE GREAT READS FOR AUGUST, 2017

Early Birds, by Laurie Graham.

 Laurie Graham is famous for writing immensely readable ‘social comedies’ as the book blurb says, and her latest novel is no exception.  It’s always a pleasure to settle down to enjoy each of her stories as they appear;  there are always great, true-blue characters that we can all recognise and identify effortlessly with what happens to them:  ill-health, tragedy, ageing and the ailments pertaining to;  precious, lifelong friendships sustained until the last gasp, and most importantly, lots of laughs. 
            Early Birds is the sequel to ‘The Future Homemakers of America’,  Ms Graham’s 2001 story of the young wives of American Airmen stationed in Norfolk, England in the 1950’s.  They weathered many an emotional and physical storm together, especially Lois, married to Herb, the best, most faithful husband anyone could wish for, but choosing instead to take an English lover who was anything but stable – the resulting child from that unhappy liaison being raised by Herb as his own. 
Now it is 2000 and the young women have become elderly;  Peggy Dewey, who narrates their latest adventures, has had a chequered career of her own:  her marriage to Airman Vern Dewey collapsed when he retired from the Air Force;  she bowed out because she objected to having the living room furniture thrown across the room – at her.  Now she and her inadvertent companion Grice, a much younger Gay man, have been asked to assist in the care of Vern, whose second wife has died:  Peggy’s daughter Crystal has been trying – and failing – to look after Vern, who now has Alzheimer’s.  Would they PLEASE get their selfish asses out of Texas and come to Maine to give her some help?  PLEASE??
So they do.  For their living circumstances in Texas are anything but ideal.  They are between the classic rock and the hard place – surely,  looking after Vern so that Crystal can work at being a taxidermist (!) and work at her shaky marriage to vegetarian Marc can’t be that difficult.  Can it?
Ms Graham writes beautifully of family relationships, fractured and otherwise:  Lois and Herb come to visit to give some respite care for those at the coalface of Vern, only for Lois to extend the visit by breaking her hip in a fall – which is common in ladies of a certain age, but she is anything but common, and certainly not a docile patient.  Then the huge, nation-wide tragedy occurs:  the attack and collapse of the Twin Towers, with its accompanying terrible loss of life shocks the world and conspiracy theories abound, even in Maine:  Vern’s stepson Eugene has constructed a bunker and fills it with canned food – all very well and good until the shelves collapse while he is underneath.  Things are only middling!  (As my dear old Granny used to say.)
Peggy begins a very cautious and tentative relationship with one of their remote ‘next-door’ neighbours;  it literally takes years to progress to the point where Grice says ‘Remember.  If you marry him you must promise to adopt me.’  Well, he is such a fabulous character that I would adopt him myself if I could!  Funny, touching and tender, this lovely story’s feel-good factor is guaranteed.  FIVE STARSü

Look Who’s Back, by Timur Vermes
         
           Berlin, 2011:  on a patch of waste ground where the Führerbunker was situated in 1945, Adolf Hitler wakes up, mightily confused.  How did he get here, and – surely more importantly – why?
            His uniform is grubby but intact;  he seems to possess all his excellent faculties;  his mind functions with its usual brilliance, and he is ready to lead the German Volk with his customary unerring genius – the only problem being that the Volk, in the shape of some kids kicking a ball around close by speak a language that is entirely unfamiliar to him: ‘ ‘Hey guys, check this out!’  ‘Whoooooa, major casualty!’ ‘  Then, ‘ ‘You alright, boss?’ ‘ All this without the Nazi salute!  It was obvious they wished to return to their game, but show him to the street when he demands directions from the tallest boy, who must have been their Hitler Youth leader.  (Hitler is gratified to see that the boy’s mother, a flower of good German Womanhood, had sewn the boy’s name to his shirt.)  ‘ ‘Hitler Youth Ronaldo!  Which way to the street?’ ‘
            So begin Hitler’s adventures in 21st century Germany, narrated by the man himself.  A kind News Vendor offers him shelter in his kiosk – even lending him a pair of ‘Genes’ so that he could get his uniform drycleaned, and introducing him to some of his customers, producers of comedy shows on local television.  Hitler is unimpressed with their attempts to find out who he really is, and finds tiresome the fact that he has to keep repeating himself all the time:  he is Der Fürhrer, for Pity’s sake!  It is not his fault if they have trouble accepting that.  What HE has trouble accepting is that it appears that he is the only one who has made this puzzling journey through time – none of his staff is here (what he wouldn’t give to have good, faithful Bormann by his side!) and he must carve out a new life for himself – and eventually, the Volk:  if he can gain exposure on this wonderful new invention of TV - even as ‘a Hitler Impersonator’ – well, that’s a start, and when his appearances go viral on YouTube ‘on the InterNetWork’, Herr Hitler is well pleased.  His powers of oratory have not left him:  thanks to the InterNetWork he now has a global audience.  World domination on behalf of the Volk will again be within his grasp!
            Until the ultimate irony occurs:  Der Führer receives the beating of his life one night by some Far Right louts, who called him ‘a dirty Jew’.  The nerve of them!  But he understands their feelings:  as he agreed with the Head of the TV company to whom he is now contracted when she said ‘The Jews are no Laughing matter”.  He succinctly replies ‘You are absolutely right!’
            Mr Vermes has written a brilliant satire which has since been made into a film.  It ruthlessly explores the hard-fought freedoms that everyone enjoys today without a thought, and exposes the shameful currents of racism and greed that underlie communities everywhere.  The old prejudices still apply.  He is a brave, honest and disturbing writer – and a very funny one.  SIX STARS!!


A Song for Drowned Souls, by Bernard Minier

          This highly-coloured page turner is a sequel to Mr Minier’s ‘The Frozen Dead’ (see 2015 review below).  Once again, sad burnt-out Commandant Martin Servaz is the main protagonist, trying to make sense of a senseless crime:  the murder of Claire Diemar, a wildly popular and beautiful young teacher at an exclusive prep school in a rich town near the Pyrenees.
            Her body has been found in her bath trussed up with metres of cord tied in complicated knots, and a small torch has been jammed down her throat:  still turned on, it gleams under the water like a tiny headlight.  And Mahler’s 4th Symphony has been set up to play on the stereo downstairs, a fact which makes Servaz’s blood run cold:  the escaped serial killer from Book One was a great Mahler aficionado – surely this can’t be his work, especially as one of the corpse’s 17 year old pupils, Hugo Bokhanowsky, is found sitting by the garden swimming pool off his head on God-knows-what.  It is up to Servaz and his team to refrain from seeing it as an open-and-shut case with Hugo as the killer as the local Gendarmerie believe, until the evidence makes it so – especially as Hugo is the son of Marianne, the great love of Martin’s youth. 
            The plot thickens!  Especially when the Commandant meets Hugo’s mother in the course of his investigations and realises that her allure is still as powerful as ever, meaning that he will move heaven and earth to prove that her son is innocent – he hopes.
            As his investigations progress and no stones are left unturned, Servaz is faced yet again with many more questions than answers. True to form he is threatened, beaten up and shot at more times than a body should rightly have to endure (partly his fault for not having his gun with him, then being a lousy shot when he does), but he stubbornly presses on, not least because of pressure from his bosses On High:  this murder at such an exclusive Prep school (teaching Tomorrow’s Leader’s, for God’s sake!) could make a big stink if the killer isn’t caught soon;  political lives and reputations depend on it, especially as one of the rising stars of the ruling party was having an affair with Claire Diemar – while his wife was at home, quietly dying of cancer.
            Mr Minier spares no-one in the police force or politics;  his characters display a scathing disrespect for their judicial and political rulers that made this reader wonder if such real-life institutions in France are really in such a weakened and corrupt state.  One certainly hopes not.
            There are many sub-plots in this book;  the prose is quite purple at times and there are a host of minor characters described with more detail than their importance requires.  Once again the plot has more twists and turns than a pretzel, BUT!  Mr Minier keeps us turning the pages at a hectic speed:  he knows how to draw the reader in – and teach us all a few unpleasant societal home-truths at the same time.  And there will be a Book Three:  the evil serial killer is still around and has not been brought to justice.  Servaz is on the hunt!  FOUR STARS.     

The Frozen Dead, by Bernard Minier

Swedish Noir has been at the forefront of thriller writing for the last decade:  now, a worthy challenge to its dominance has emerged from France.  This is the second novel (the first being Michel Bussi’s ‘After the Crash’) I have read recently that employs all the tried and true elements necessary for the success of Nordic dread;  lowering skies, brooding mountains (the Pyrenees), and a labyrinthine plot, solved brilliantly by the archetypal burnt-out detective – but in this case, Martin Servaz is more fallible than usual:  he is a lousy shot, and frequently leaves his police weapon in the glovebox of his car when he most needs it;  he is constantly on the receiving end of all sorts of criminal attempts on his life and survives only because other people fortuitously appear to rescue him;  BUT!  His saving grace is what makes every excellent investigator above the norm:  an incisive intelligence and intuition and an incomparable ability to think outside the square.
And he certainly needs to after being despatched from Toulouse to the small ski resort town of Saint-Martin in the Pyrenees, there to investigate the killing of …. a horse.  A horse??  Yes, but not just any horse – this animal was a thoroughbred belonging to one of the richest men in France, a powerful man who demands answers after his beloved animal was beheaded, then partly flayed before being strung up on a ski-lift.  It is a grisly crime, the ultimate in animal abuse, but hardly worthy of the huge numbers of police seconded to investigate – except that Servaz feels that this crime will be the start of worse things to come, especially when his enquiries lead him to a secluded psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane in the district, jam-packed with any number of likely candidates for the atrocity, if only the building and grounds weren’t as impregnable as Fort Knox.
His worst fears are confirmed when the first human victim is discovered hanging from a bridge, then another is murdered almost in front of his eyes in a carefully engineered trip on another ski lift:  his job is getting more impossible by the minute, especially when political pressure is exerted from high places.   The longer these crimes remain unsolved, the worse it looks for those in power. 
Fair enough – except that the higher-ups aren’t at the coalface, and Servaz and his offsiders are faced with many more questions than answers – until random clues start falling  into place, and the eventual shocking outcome  reveals villains that no-one could have suspected at the start of the investigation.  Which is as it should be:  the recipe for a superior thriller/crime novel is that (obviously) the reader shouldn’t figure out the solution until the end, and the pages should turn at a furious rate before one gets there.  ‘The Frozen Dead’ ticks all the boxes.  There could be a sequel , too, because the most homicidal villain escapes the long arm of the law, so I live in hopes of reading that he gets what he surely deserves in Book #2.  FIVE STARS






           

  

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