Sunday, 24 August 2014

LAST GREAT READS FOR AUGUST, 2014

The Silkworm, by J. K. Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith

Ms Rowling is getting much better at writing about Muggles.  In the second book featuring her private Detective Cormoran Strike and his winsome assistant Robin Ellacott, (see review of ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’ below) Rowling/Galbraith hooks the reader in from the very first pages, and despite prose that from time to time is better suited to fruity melodrama and a very convoluted plot, she manages to sweep us all along into the bowels of her story – and bowels play a big part, for a hapless character is deprived of his – to very few people’s dismay.
Cormoran is still untidy, overweight and often sleep-deprived, but since he solved the Landry murder, business is booming to the extent that he can  afford a minuscule flat above his office, and Robyn at last has enough work to see her through the day – much to her jealous boyfriend’s annoyance;  he knows her talents are wasted with Strike and he is furious because she won’t seek a position more commensurate (read higher paying) with her efficiency.  There is trouble in paradise!  Made all the more difficult because wedding invitations have been posted:  they will be man and wife in a matter of weeks, but Robin wants to do the unforgiveable and invite Strike – how COULD she??
Effortlessly, that’s how.  Robin admires her boss more than she can say,( or is willing to admit) and she wants him at Her Big Day.
Enter Leonora Quine:  she has read of Cormoran’s feats and has decided that he will be the ideal person to find out the whereabouts of her husband Owen, a writer who has managed with no problem at all to alienate everyone, from his publisher to the local grocer with his boorish behaviour:  he owes money everywhere, sleeps around and has produced next-to-nothing since his first book.  He is a One Hit Wonder but has been trumpeting lately about his latest opus, guaranteed to shut up all the doubters – yes, he’ll show ‘em, those bloody critics who panned his great writing, pandering instead to other writers, his contemporaries who have been unfairly advantaged over him:  favouritism, that’s all it is, favouritism!
Unfortunately, he has neglected to inform Leonora of his plans or his whereabouts and she is frantic;  apart from the fact that he left her without money (as usual), they have a handicapped daughter who misses her daddy very much.  Strike MUST help – even though she has no money to pay him. 
Eventually, her husband is discovered in an eviscerated state, ringed by dinner plates as if he were the main course in a grisly meal.
The plot thickens thereafter at a headlong pace; Owen Quine had so many enemies in the literary world that Strike doesn’t know who to investigate first – much to the displeasure of the police, who warn him to stay away:  they know who the killer is so sod off, Strike!
Once again Ms Rowling has constructed a labyrinthine plot:  the reader has to pay attention at all times, but the rewards are great;  her characters, from Strike and Robyn to lesser players are enormously engaging;  no writer is more astutely observant of the publishing world’s foibles than she, and how well she writes of London, that great, dirty city and its diverse social strata.  She has revealed more of Strike’s past, and introduced new family members whom I hope will play a part in the next book.  And surely, surely, the tremulous admiration that Robin and Strike feel for each other might grow into something more by Book Three?  The boyfriend really is a jerk!  Highly recommended. 

The Cuckoo’s Calling, by Robert Galbraith
(pseudonym for J.K. Rowling)

Ms Rowling has been a busy girl, producing a new novel within a year of her first foray into adult fiction, ‘The Casual Vacancy’.  I was disappointed in that book but feel that this latest story has more meat on its bones, more to offer the reader in plot and characterisation – and certainly more optimism than ‘The Casual Vacancy’s’ singularly unpleasant storyline.
This time, despite a bewilderingly complicated narrative of events and a tendency at times to lay on the drama with a trowel, Ms Rowling has produced a very respectable thriller.
Cormoran Strike is the illegitimate son of a SuperGroupie and a notoriously hedonistic Rock Star.  The groupie died of an overdose, and Rocker dad is famously disinterested in any of his progeny.  Cormoran has had a predictably chaotic childhood but distinguished himself when he entered the military police arm of the Defence forces, winning a medal for saving lives in Afghanistan – and losing a leg in the process.
Since his medical discharge from the Army, life has been unkind to Cormoran:  the business he established as a Private Investigator is failing;  he has been kicked out of the flat and the life he had with his uppercrust girlfriend Charlotte;  he owes money everywhere; he is overweight, unfit, down and out – in short, he’s a big fat mess.
Enter Robin, newly engaged and working as a temp until she gets a job befitting her formidable skills as a SuperP.A.  She is sent by her agency to Cormoran’s office for two weeks, only to wonder why she is there when it is patently clear that Cormoran doesn’t have enough work – or means – to employ her;  plus he’s camping in his office because he can’t afford to stay anywhere else. 
Until an expensive-looking lawyer visits the next day to hire Cormoran’s services.
John Bristow is the adoptive brother of very famous super model Lula Landry, whose suicide three months before caused huge amounts of publicity world-wide – but Bristow refuses to believe that she killed herself:  she was murdered.  He will pay whatever it costs to prove that Lula would never take her own life;  he loved his little sister and he wants her killer brought to justice, and here is a hefty advance to set everything in motion.
Things are looking up!  Cormoran’s spirits rise with his bank balance;  there is now money in Petty Cash for Private Eye and Temp to have Tea and bikkies whenever the mood takes them, and an amazing change in his social status as Bristow arranges for him to meet Lula’s former friends and associates.  From being on the bones of his proverbial one day, he is dining and clubbing with the Beautiful People the next.
Ms Rowling writes well about the fashion world and the seamy side of beauty.  She has a great ear for dialogue and idiom – even Orstrylian gets a mention! – and she is very careful with her plotting.  She does tend to overwrite more than a little, though, one fine example being when Cormoran finally reveals to the killer that The Game is Up:  it takes sixteen pages, with the killer snarling at strategic points ‘where is your proof?’ and ‘you’ll never prove a thing!’ before finally lunging at our amputee hero with a knife, causing this reader to shriek  ‘and about flaming time, too!’ 
Wouldn’t you know though that Cormoran has a trick or two up his sleeve – not to mention a prosthesis next to his chair -  and all works out well in the end, causing us all to think that perhaps there might be another opus featuring Cormoran and Robin, both endearing characters in their different ways.
I shall welcome it if that’s the case but have a tiny request:  Ms Rowling’s characters were ‘besuited’ and ‘bejeaned’ more than once ( I am presently betrackpanted as I type) – could one hope that she finds a less irritating way in the next book to describe what her characters are wearing?  (Just asking.)

Mistress, by James Patterson and David Ellis.

This is a quickie review.  I have never read anything by James Patterson before, but he appears to be one of the most prolific writers in print, in conjunction with various well known thriller writers.  He (doubtless along with his colleagues) has won more awards than one could shake a stick at and is so famous I feel ashamed for owning that I haven’t gotten round to any of his books – until now.  Sad to say, despite Mr Patterson’s stellar reputation I don’t feel that I have deprived myself of anything of vital literary importance:  sorry, Mr Patterson, but this stand-alone novel has not convinced me to pursue any previous titles.  Sad but true, the reason being that you can only stretch the reader’s credulity so far:  the plot MUST have some semblance of veracity, particularly over the most basic facts:  protagonist Benjamin Casper is anything but convincing as he metamorphoses from neurosis-ridden victim and fugitive to superhuman exemplar of right over might – what a guy!
And how indestructible.  In very short order, Ben is pursued and caught by a dizzying array of baddies, sustaining injuries that would have felled many a lesser mortal – but hey;  whatever doesn’t kill you makes you strong, and by the end of this tale Ben has turned into SuperDuperMan:  he also has developed supernatural powers of deduction, and thank goodness for that, I say, because thick old me didn’t know what was going on until he gave me a heads-up at various points along the way. 
Even the good guys seem to be bad in this story, though Russia is the main big BoogyMan, followed by China as a close second – BUT.
In all fairness, the reason I continued with this book is because of its badass wit (oh, how I love smart mouths!) and the wonderful vein of trivia running like a gold seam through the story:  Ben has many issues stemming from his chaotic childhood, and the way he deals with his heartache is to think of various facts triggered by a single word, i.e. did you know that President Roosevelt wrote to Winston Churchill during the Second World War:  ‘It is fun to be in the same decade with you’.
Well, did you know that?  A?  A?  Didja?  The single word to start that train of thought was ‘mystery’, (believe it or not) and that is apt, because at the end of the book I am still mystified.  Ben escapes a sticky end (no-one else does) but doesn’t get the girl – another girl does:  this is the 21st century, after all.    So much for my ‘quickie’ review, but you get the idea.


Saturday, 16 August 2014

MORE GREAT READS FOR AUGUST, 2014
Love and Treasure, by Ayelet Waldman

The page-turner:  the Unputdownable Book.  Every dedicated reader hugs themselves whenever they are fortunate enough to savour such a treat, the only disadvantage being that these literary fixes are over far too soon.
But who cares?  I would rather burn the midnight oil to finish a great story than yawn for a few minutes a night over a bad one.
And ‘Love and Treasure’ fits the bill admirably.  Ms Waldman has something for everyone in her lovely story (despite initial prose that if not purple is deepest mauve);  history buffs will be impressed with her meticulous research;  those who require strong characters and strong plots will heave sighs of satisfaction;  and thriller readers will rejoice at the novel’s fast pace.
At the end of World War Two, Europe is a broken continent full of refugees trying to find a home – any home, and ghostly survivors released from the concentration camps, trying to find their loved ones:  the Allied victors have a massive, daunting task to provide food, shelter and vital information for the shattered remnants of Jewish Europe. 
To complicate the situation further a train arrives in Salzburg, Austria from Hungary, containing a huge cargo of watches, jewellery, furs, bullion, china  dinner services and antique furniture.  The pompous little official accompanying the treasure demands a receipt from the American forces who stop the train, and a promise that the train’s contents be eventually returned to the Hungarian government, ‘its rightful owners’.
Lieutenant Jack Wiseman is given the unenviable task of trying to create an inventory of everything on the train and it eventually becomes clear to him that the ‘treasure’ has been looted from the Jews of Hungary, forced to relinquish to Hungarian officials the entire contents of their homes in a vain attempt to avoid the inevitable:  the camps.
Wiseman, himself a Jew, is further horrified to discover that his own forces are prepared to ‘second’ on behalf of certain American Generals obliged to entertain, beautiful crystal stemware, dinner services and napery, a fact that he finds abhorrent:  this huge cargo has owners.  It should be kept in trust until they or their heirs can reclaim it.
Wiseman is an honourable man and protects as well as he can the cargo entrusted to him – until he meets Hungarian Ilona, a survivor of Auschwitz who refuses to go back to her country until she can reunite with her beloved sister, whom she is sure is still alive – ‘she couldn’t be dead;  she was an athlete.  She was so strong.  She is not dead!'  Ilona, the ultimate survivor, tolerates him for the food he brings her.  He has his uses, as he demonstrates with touching reliability, but he is not part of her overall plan;  he can be discarded without a backward glance, which is exactly what occurs.
So Wiseman, that paragon of virtue, steals from the treasure one item:  a gold and enamel pendant of a peacock, exotic and strange, but a perfect symbol of Ilona and his dashed hopes for a future with her.
And the mystery of the ownership of the peacock pendant becomes the core of the plot, from its origin to its eventual fate.  At the same time Ms Waldman takes the reader on  an exploration of what it means to be a Jew:  from those who survived the Death camps;  to Israelis who despised those who still lived, convinced that they would rather have died fighting than walk meekly to the ovens;  to 21st century Jewry, itself rife with bias.
Ms Waldman’s story reminds me of another marvellous novel (see August, 2010 review below), ‘The Invisible Bridge’  by Julie Orringer – an oldie but a goodie in our library –also dealing with the wartime plight of the Jews of Hungary:  these books are very different in prose style and characterisation but have the same message of  tenacity and resolve innate in a people who refuse to yield.  Highly recommended. 

THE INVISIBLE BRIDGE, by Julie Orringer 

This is a wonderful story.  It has been a rare privilege to read such rich and beautiful prose, to be swept up and carried along by the relentless tide of history -  even though we know the terrible outcome, for Ms. Orringer has written a novel of the Holocaust.  This is a risky subject on which to write as everyone knows  of the heinous crimes of the second world war, the extermination of millions of Jews, and the sheer tragedy visited upon families and generations yet to come, but the author succeeds admirably because of the strength and believability of her characters. 
The novel starts in 1937, when Hungarian student Andras Levi wins a scholarship to attend the Ecole Speciale, a venerable school of Architecture in Paris.  His life and that of his brothers Tibor and Matyas are chronicled;  their hopes, dreams and ambitions;  their love affairs and eventual marriages;  then the agonizing privations they suffer as part of Hungary’s Jewish ‘Labour Force’, cannon fodder as the expendable front line of Hungary’s Army fighting for Germany against the Allies. 
The war years are predictably horrendous, not only for the unimaginable loss of beloved family, but the destruction of entire cities and lifestyles, bombed out of existence.  How could anything ever be resurrected from such annihilation?   Despite the seriousness of the subject, Ms. Orringer has not written a tragedy;  rather it is a compelling story of Life in all its guises; heart-wrenching, comic, dramatic, powerful, triumphant and moving – which is what life can be for all of us . This is a great read.

            

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

FIRST GREAT READS FOR AUGUST, 2014

Those Who Wish Me Dead, by Michael Koryta

Michael Koryta never disappoints.  (See April 2013 review below)  Each of his novels is different;  there is no adherence to a formula which can spoil the work of the very best thriller writers;  his characters are ordinary people who must face extraordinary situations, situations which, despite their awfulness do not strain the credulity of the reader or the credibility of the plot.  And such a plot this is!
Jace Wilson is thirteen years old and he is afraid of heights – but he is more afraid of the ridicule he faces from his schoolmates who dare him to jump into the quarry pool at the back of his father’s property, a jump that is fraught with danger for its height and the shallow depth of the pool.  He decides to have a little practice session (for girls will be there, witnesses to the Actual Jump), and launches himself into the water after many prayers – only to discover a weighted body at the bottom of the pool.  And as if that weren’t horrifying enough, the killers have not finished their work:  before Jace can leave the pool they return with another victim, despatching him the same way.
Jace is still praying, well hidden in a fold of rock and thinks God has heard him until the killers notice his sneakers beside his neatly folded clothes.
They know he’s there.  Somewhere.
God cuts Jace a deal:  the killers, professional assassins who are brothers, are on the run;  they don’t have the time at this juncture to search for him but they are so confident of their skills as hunters and trackers that they will return to him as ‘unfinished business’.
It is untidy and unprofessional to have such loose ends lying around.  They’ll get Jace squared away very soon.
Meanwhile Jace has been enrolled in the Witness Protection Program by his frantic family and it is generally agreed that the safest place for him to hide is in the remote mountains of Montana, part of a wilderness survival  summer course for ‘troubled’ boys run by Ethan and Allison Serbin.  The couple know that he is part of the group, but not which boy he is – and that is the way they prefer it:  the less they know, the better.  All should be well:  the killers will never find Jace, who is finally breathing easy again in his new guise as Troubled Teen – why, he is even learning great survival skills;  he can make a fire out of next to nothing!  He hangs on to Ethan’s every word with an almost religious fervour, growing in confidence daily, but can’t quite shake the idea that his assassins are not going to give up on him just yet:  He has seen what they do, remorselessly and efficiently and entirely without emotion.  Yes, he has seen that and even though he feels safer, he still has to be on his guard.
And he’s right.  The murderous brothers return, killing and maiming in their efforts to follow his trail so that Jace and the good people who have befriended him are plunged into a heart-stopping struggle for survival against two of the nastiest most believable villains in print:  will good triumph over evil as it should, or will the bad guys carry the day?
Such are Mr Koryta’s literary skills that the reader has no idea who will be last person standing at the novel’s end:  this story has it all:  pulse-racing suspense;  masterly characterisation – even the villains are admirable for their sheer cold-blooded planning and logic – and a deep knowledge and abiding love for the region of which he writes.  This is the consummate thriller.  Highly recommended.

The Prophet, by Michael Koryta

High school football Coach Kent Austin has nothing to do with his big brother Adam, though they both live in the same small town of Chambers, Ohio.  Chambers has little to recommend it;  its once-prosperous steel mills have closed, people have left, and those who have stayed are there mainly because they can’t afford to live anywhere else.  Adam makes a living as a Bail Bondsman, not his first choice of occupation but it pays the bills and he’s good at it.  Having a steady income also allows him to indulge in his alcoholism, the perfect medication for the huge guilt that plagues him, for nearly twenty years before Adam and Kent’s younger sister was cruelly raped and murdered and he holds himself responsible.
In the meantime, Kent has found the Lord, inherited the football Coach’s job, and married his daughter:  he has successfully ‘moved on’, so much so that he feels it in his heart that it’s time to visit the prison and bestow his forgiveness on his sister’s killer (who laughed in his face), thereby earning Adam’s undying hatred.  Far from ‘forgiving’ the murderer, Adam wants to kill him himself.  As slowly and painfully as possible. 
In Adam’s eyes, Kent has committed the ultimate betrayal, a desecration of their sister’s memory and one awful, drunken night he uses his fists on his brother to emphasise his point.
There things stand until another brutal murder takes place.  This time the victim is the seventeen-year-old girlfriend of the high School’s star quarterback and her death occurs during a make-or-break game for the Cardinals, Kent’s highly successful team;  they are on the way to the State Championship for the first time in twenty years and they have the support of the entire town, not least because it’s great to have something to be proud of again in Chambers.
The girl’s murder casts a pall over everything, but it forces the brothers into the same orbit once more:  the parallels between the latest murder and their sister’s 20 years ago have a familiarity that they can hardly bear to endure – but they must, for the latest killer has intimated that he can murder with impunity – and he is coming for Kent, and Kent’s family.
This is the first time I have read any of Michael Koryta’s books but it won’t be the last:  here is the white-knuckle ride I was promised in ‘The Boyfriend’. After reading that plodder of a book, it was pure pleasure to read a thriller worthy of the name.   That’s not to say that it doesn’t have flaws – I was genuinely surprised when Mr WhoDunIt was revealed, but the reasons for his actions I felt were less than convincing.  That said, Mr Koryta portrays familial love and sibling rivalry in pure, real terms, and it was satisfying to know that Kent, that staunch, respected, holier-than-everyone high school and town leader finally faced the consequences of actions to which he gave no thought many years before.

One last comment:  (I know I should stop here, but I can’t.  It’s the reviewer’s version of verbal diarrhoea.)  For those familiar with gridiron football, this book will be a football fan’s delight.  For those who aren’t, like myself, its rules and plays etc. shall ever remain a mystery.  I watched all the seasons of ‘Friday Night Lights’ and loved it to bits, but was no closer to understanding gridiron at the end of the series than I was at the beginning.  In my defence I have to say that in this part of the world Rugby in its various forms is King, and the All Blacks are its princely warriors.  I have tried to look for similarities between the two games but there are none that I can see, so I’ll just have to sit on my fist and lean back on my thumb, and hope that American readers will forgive my ignorance.