Saturday, 26 October 2013

LAST GREAT READS FOR OCTOBER, 2013

Emperor of Thorns, by Mark Lawrence

Here is the final book of Mr Lawrence’s mighty trilogy chronicling the life of Honorous Jorg Ancrath, scion of one of the cruellest kings of the Broken Empire, all that is left of Europe after a terrible war wrought nuclear destruction a thousand years ago.  (See ‘Prince of Thorns’ review below).
Jorg has not improved as a person since we left him bloody but victoriously enthroned at Renar four years ago; despite gaining a wife and baby son he is still intent on furthering his ambition, be it power or revenge, by any means possible.  Honour and scruples are for weaker individuals, those who lack the heart to stand against him:  so far in his short life he has been able to out think and outwit all his adversaries, as much by his almost suicidal courage as an obstinate and unstoppable instinct always to do the opposite if someone tells him ‘no’.
In his latest epic adventure he has great enemies to conquer, and a huge prize to win – to be crowned Emperor at the Congression of Vyene, held every four years to see if there is one amongst the various kings of the continent who is worthy of such power.  Jorg also dreams of killing his father (who tried to kill him) as slowly and painfully as possible.  As the king of Ancrath, dear old dad wields a lot of power with his vote, and his influence and contacts are legion.  It will be enormously satisfying to get rid of him at Vyene – and the sooner the better.
But.  As always the best-laid plans of mice and men oft go astray:  on his way to Vyene, Jorg encounters Chella, a necromancer he thought he’d vanquished;  she is now an agent of the fearsome King of the Dead.  He is also disarmed by the unexpected love he feels for his newborn son, so much so that he will murder any and all who mean his family harm.  He is much troubled by these alien feelings, for to Jorg they are fatal signs of weakness.  He should be able to sacrifice his family to his plans for his subjects without a backward glance – ‘it’s useless to save one unless you can save them all!’
And let us not forget the Builders, those shadowy, elusive ancestors who have left their mysterious traces throughout the Broken Empire – their avatars still remain, intent on finishing what they started with their nuclear war so long ago, and to defeat them Jorg must not lose the murder, hatred and evil in his heart, his very best weapons, even though those same weapons are poisoning his soul.  ‘We’re fashioned by our sorrows – not by joy – they are the undercurrent, the refrain.  Joy is fleeting’.
Remorse is catching up with Jorg.
I was very fortunate to be able to read ‘Prince of Thorns’ and ‘King of Thorns’ consecutively, but had to wait more than a year to read ‘Emperor’ – and that is a shame, for I lost the thread of the story, forgetting quite a bit of the detail in spite of Mr Lawrence’s helpful synopsis of the first two books;  consequently I became a bit mired and confused with the flashbacks, exciting though some of them were – in fact the plot became so convoluted and weighed down by scientific and mathematical mysteries that it lost its impetus for me.  (Doubtless there will be legions of readers for whom that erudition wouldn’t be difficult, but my dad made me leave school early, education being wasted on girls.  So there!)
Having said that, the plot picks up mightily when the assembled cast arrives at the Congression:  the action is heartstopping and the twist in the tale at the very end is masterly.  Mr Lawrence’s prose is stark, powerful and superb, as befits and describes his unforgettable anti-hero:  there is a wonderful poetry to his writing and it is a shrewd move to finish Jorg’s story leaving everyone wanting more – this reader hopes and expects that Mr Lawrence’s next work will be just as gripping.  And I hope we’ll see it soon.

Prince of Thorns, by Mark Lawrence

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

Which all adds to this trilogy’s great appeal.  ‘ Prince of Thorns’ was a gripping read, but book two, ‘King of Thorns’ is even better.  Roll out book three!  Mark Lawrence isn’t just a good storyteller – he’s a great one.  Whatever I read next, this will be a hard act to follow.            

Saturday, 19 October 2013

AND SOME MORE GREAT READS FOR OCTOBER, 2013
Dexter’s Final Cut, by Jeff Lindsay
Ah, Dexter.  Dark disciple of drastic solutions to dreadful problems;   lover of alliteration;   pseudo-pillar of society, proud possessor of wife and ready-made family and respected blood-spatter expert for the Miami Dade Police Department:  could the latest book in this excellent series (see November 2012 review below)  be Dexter’s final, fatal foray into murder and mayhem?
OK, I’ll stop right there with my attempts at alliteration – they’re not a patch on Mr Lindsay’s, but I do hope that this won’t be the final Dexter adventure.  If a cold-blooded, relentlessly efficient and remorseless killer can endear himself to millions of readers, then anti-hero Dexter is a riotous success, a total knock-out - because he’s funny.  And brilliant.  And up until now, entirely unable to feel any emotional response to anyone he knows, including his family.
When this story begins Dexter is just boogying along in the same old groove, going to work, going home to the family, and sometimes departing from the norm with late night trips to find a ‘playmate’, someone who has committed a terrible crime for which he cannot be punished by the law – until Dexter decides that it is time for the miscreant to sin no more.
Life is uneventful, until a new TV crime series starts filming in Miami, and Dexter and his grumpy sister Detective sergeant Deborah Morgan are seconded as technical advisers to the production, Deborah being the ‘inspiration’ for TV star Jackie Forrest’s character, and Dexter’s expertise in forensics as a guide for Robert Chase, former megastar who is nearing his use-by date.  Needless to say, the novelty of explaining his work to his handsome but dim pupil palls very quickly for Dexter;  besides, Robert (call me Robert, not Bob) doesn’t seem to have the stomach for the latest grisly murder, that of a young woman found savaged, raped and carved up in a dumpster.  Robert’s definitely a workplace hindrance but one that Dexter has to cart around like a large colicky baby – then another young woman is found, defiled in the same heinous way and disposed of in another dumpster, and when the third blonde corpse is discovered it becomes obvious that the beautiful Jackie Forrest has a stalker, one who is killing women who resemble her, and he states that she will be next.
Dexter, much against his wishes is nominated to be her bodyguard for the duration of the shoot;  wife Rita and children are told by Deborah that he is away on highly secret business and Dexter moves into Jackie Forrest’s luxury hotel suite.  Here the reader could be forgiven for expecting the action to proceed in an orderly predictable fashion, with Dexter, happy murderous beast that he is, finding and despatching the stalker in his usual efficient and clandestine way before Ms Forrest is attacked – or at a pinch, even after a nail-biting confrontation occurs – from which she is rescued, of course. 
Sadly, no.
Mr Lindsay shocks us all with the direction of the plot, for the unthinkable happens more than once:  Dexter discovers that his raisin of a heart is not completely dry – he starts to experience feelings.  And because these alien emotions confound him he is not his usual sharp, analytical self.  He makes several crucial mistakes, errors which have the reader screeching ‘For God’s sake, Dexter – pull yourself together.  Man up!’  But he doesn’t.  When the story ends he is fathoms deep in the darkest ordure ever, with no obvious way up, facing punishment for crimes that he didn’t commit.  Is Dexter doomed?  Will he survive to kill another day?
I can’t imagine that Mr Lindsay would pay any heed to the writer of a Library blog in far-off Hobbitland and her pleas for Dexter adventure # 8,  but what about all the other millions of Dexter fans out there?  It will be all Mr Lindsay’s fault if they get in a sulk, for he has created an unforgettable character in Dexter and his Dark Passenger, so much so that his literary demise is unimaginable.  I have no realistic idea how Mr Lindsay can resurrect Dexter from his impossible predicament, but I have faith.  I hope he doesn’t leave him in the shite for too long, though;  Dexter’s fastidiousness is legendary and the suspense will kill me!  Highly recommended.

The Dexter Novels, by Jeff Lindsay

For those who haven’t yet met Dexter, you’re in for a rare treat:  Dexter had a chaotic, dreadful childhood, so horrific that it engendered within him feelings of homicidal anger that could never be sublimated into any kind of force for good.  Fortunately for him, he was adopted into a good family and his foster-father was a policeman, tired, burnt-out by his job, and disgusted that so many of the really bad guys didn’t get the punishment that they deserved.  Harry the policeman recognises Dexter’s proclivities when he discovers Dexter’s secret cemetery of missing neighbourhood pets;  he also knows that Dexter won’t ever lose the killing urge, so decides to train him to use those urges only to dispatch the killers that society would do better without. 
‘Let’s get you squared-away, Dexter’, he says, and with the benefit of his excellent police training Harry turns Dexter into the ultimate killing machine for good – and how never, ever to get caught.
Oh, these books are SO enjoyable, especially as Dexter is such a complex character:  he freely acknowledges he is a monster;  he can’t feel emotion; (which comes in handy when he removes his victims – their pleading is useless);  he is handsome, witty and clever;  (he happily admits to this) he loves alliteration;  (dashing Dexter, daring Dexter, deadly Dexter, Devil-may-care Dexter etc.) and he has the perfect disguise for all his serial-killing:  he is a blood-spatter expert for the Miami Police Department.  Life is good!
Jeff Lindsay peoples his series with excellent minor characters;  Dexter’s Bull-at-a-Gate sister Deborah, a bona fide police detective who, unsurprisingly, has problems accepting what Dexter is, and Rita, Dexter’s girlfriend – who mystifies him with her devotion, her ability to speak sentences faster than he can process, and her two children, mysteriously silent little creatures who appear to communicate with each other telepathically but depend utterly  on our hero to stay with their mother and not desert them.  Dutiful Dexter.
And then there’s Sergeant Doakes:  it takes one to know one, as they say.  He’s on Dexter’s case, recognises the Beast Within because he has one of his own, and informs Dexter – often – that ‘Ah’m gonna get you, motherf*cker’.  Fair enough.  Sergeant Doakes gives Dexter a lot to think about.  Dithering Dexter.
Ah, this is a great series:  Mr. Lindsay has given us a unique new character in thriller fiction, and I wouldn’t miss a single one of his adventures.  Daring, dauntless, dreadful:    Dexter is DELICIOUS.



Tuesday, 15 October 2013

FIRST GREAT READS FOR OCTOBER, 2013
Abide with Me, by Sabin Willett

Here’s an ambitious undertaking:  a modern retelling of ‘Wuthering Heights’, Emily Bronte’s classic Gothic novel.  Those tragic lovers Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw are transformed into small town Vermont inhabitants Roy Murphy, ‘trailer-trash’, and Emma Herrick, beautiful daughter of the town’s first family.
In their teen years they spend an idyllic summer together before Emma departs for Yale and all the privileges her background affords.  Roy has no such glittering prospects on the horizon:  he has already been in juvenile detention, and is almost illiterate thanks to long absences from school.  His appearance leaves a lot to be desired, too – menacing and/or intimidating, take your pick – in fact any reader could be forgiven for wondering why the patrician Emma would waste even a glance in his direction, but there you go;  it’s that old animal magnetism, that ‘opposites attract’ theory proven true yet again that has Emma ensnared – but only for the summer, she thinks.  Yale will be her release from this obsession that enslaves them both, and Roy has joined the Army, so the affair will die a natural death.
But it doesn’t.  Roy endures a baptism of fire in Afghanistan;  always so solitary in the past, he learns to depend on and enjoy the fellowship of his colleagues, and for the first time relies on them to have his back, as he has theirs.  He suffers pain, terror and unimaginable loss during his time at Firebase Montana, but throughout he is sustained by his memories of his beautiful summer with Emma, the best summer of his young life:  he has to survive so that he can return to his great love, for those were his last words to her:  ‘I will come back’ -   spoken to someone who was enormously relieved that he was leaving so that she could end family horror at her uncharacteristic behaviour, and pursue her own ambitions for a life that did not include Roy.
Mr Willett paces his story well.  He has an excellent ear for dialogue and idiom and has created some great minor characters among the town’s inhabitants,  enlisting them as a kind of a Greek Chorus to relate and comment upon the unfolding tragedy of Roy’s eventual homecoming.
For return he does, to find that Emma has found another and all he has left are his memories.  This time they provide no solace and single minded determination turns to vengeful obsession, wreaking predictable and terrible results.
It is no easy task (and some would consider it an affront) to transform a singular and much-loved classic into a modern story that relies heavily on 21st century events, but Mr Willett succeeds, capturing the essence of Heathcliff and Cathy and effortlessly clothing them in their new contemporary lives to thrill the reader once more.  What a fine writer he is.  Miss Bronte would be pleased.  Highly recommended.

The Heist, by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg

I have been a devoted fan of Ms Evanovich and her bungling bounty hunter Stephanie Plum (not to mention Stephanie’s sidekick ,former ‘Ho Lula, now an inept filing clerk but magnificently unaware of her shortcomings:  what a neat character!) since ‘One for the Money’.  Ms Evanovich has now reached # 20 in the series, the latest being ‘Takedown Twenty’, a treat I have yet to enjoy.  In between times, she tries her hand with other characters and now she has teamed up with Lee Goldberg (so sorry, Mr Goldberg – despite the stellar qualifications you enjoy in the book jacket notes you are a man of mystery to me) to produce a new set of ongoing characters in ‘The Heist’, the story of goodies and baddies collaborating in an uneasy partnership to catch the ultimate Ponzi schemer, an investment banker who has skipped the U.S.A. with $500 million.  His whereabouts are now unknown.
All very well and good:  the bones of the plot are sound.  the FBI figure that it takes a conman to know one and help them apprehend Mr Banker, so make a deal with Nick Fox, a crook they have just jailed, thanks to the determined -  not to say obsessive - efforts of their agent Kate O’Hare to Bring Him to Justice:  a phony escape is arranged and Mr Fox makes his getaway as part of the deal.  The only fly in the ointment is that no-one kept Agent O’Hare in the loop:  she is dancing with rage – puce with it, and decides that that S.O.B. is not going to get away from her.  He is not going to outsmart her.  Even if she has to kill him she will bring him back alive!
Fair enough.  The only problem is the writing.  The first chapters are just about the klunkiest things in print:  Agent Kate is slim, trim,  an ex-Navy seal, trained to a standstill in myriad different ways to kill.  Naturally, she is blonde and possesses sparkling blue eyes.  As an added bonus her Dad is also an ex intel operative, with favours owed to him all over the globe from his many secret missions on behalf of the U.S.  He rescues her a lot, which is good because it keeps his clandestine skills honed and besides, it gets him out of the house.
Nick Fox is charming, irrepressible and a lover of the high life.  Naturally, he has windswept brown hair, dark brown eyes and a lazy smile.  And formidable, crooked skills that enable him to pull off breathtaking crimes of absurdity.  Just like real life!
The only requirement to make all this silliness work is that the writing must be credible – and seamless, and that doesn’t happen until at least chapter six, before which it is almost possible to tell when either or is saying, ‘well, you can have a turn now’.  Because I am so familiar with Ms Evanovich’s style it was pretty easy to work out when she was at the helm, and as always, the minor characters are great fun, and fans of hers take heart:  there are twenty seven more chapters to go and it does get better.  Despite the wild plotting (including lightning fast trips to Greece, Berlin, Bali and other more remote Indonesian islands, where Agent Kate’s Dad gets to quote geographical info about each destination with Wikipedia-like ease – oh, the joys of cutting and pasting!) Nick and Kate Get Their Man, no-one gets rubbed out except the bad guys, and Kate’s dad has so much time away from home that he’s looking forward to his former life as an Old Fart.
It’s a sure thing that a sequel will be planned; I just hope that by the time it appears, all the rough edges of this new partnership will have disappeared and what was a fun concept becomes a great series.