Friday, 26 December 2014

THE DECEMBER FIRST FIFTEEN!

2014 – not long now before this year fades into history and we will be greeting a brand new year:  here at Te Takere, our beautiful library and community centre in Levin, New Zealand (check out our Facebook page), the staff and volunteers (that’s me!) wish you a most happy and healthy 2015 and, in common with all the (marginally) more well-known lists of what’s currently hot in the world of contemporary fiction, I present for your entertainment MY list of the very best books I have reviewed this year:  MY FIRST FIFTEEN.  They are not in order of preference, but in date order as I reviewed them;  the full review of each title can be accessed on that month’s posting.

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt   reviewed January

My Notorious  Life, by Kate Manning   reviewed April

The Blind Man’s Garden, by Nadeem Aslam  reviewed May

The Enchanted, by Rene Denfeld   reviewed June

Prince of Fools, by Mark Lawrence   reviewed June

He Who Kills the Dragon, by Leif G.W. Persson  reviewed July

Love and Treasure, by Ayelet Waldman   reviewed August

Remember Me Like This, by Bret Anthony Johnston   reviewed August

The Guts, by Roddy Doyle   reviewed September

The Secret Place, by Tana French   reviewed September

The Giver, by Lois Lowry    reviewed (finally!) October

The Drop, by Dennis Lehane   reviewed October

The Wolf in Winter, by John Connolly   reviewed  November

All the Light we Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, reviewed November

Revival, by Stephen King   reviewed December.  (See below)

If I had to nominate top titles, then it would be a toss-up between Donna Tartt’s ‘The Goldfinch, and ‘All the Light we Cannot See’ by Anthony Doerr, both masterworks of modern fiction, followed by ‘The Enchanted, by Rene Denfeld.  How lucky are we to enjoy such peerless writing, but the same can be said of all the titles on the list, and how lucky are we that we have such great titles in the library stock, readily available to all.

Revival, by Stephen King.

One of the secrets of Mr King’s enormous success as a writer is that his protagonists are the usual flawed, everyday people that we can all identify with -  then he unleashes his soaring imagination and has unbelievable things happen to them, and part of his huge talent is to make the reader believe utterly in the credibility of his plotting.   I am constantly amazed at the unflagging energy that he possesses to produce a new book each year;  each one completely different, and each one – if that is possible – better than the last. ‘Revival’ is the latest addition to this enormous body of work, and yet again Mr King takes us on a journey that we would rather not make, but find impossible to resist.
Jamie Morton is six years old in 1962 when he first meets young Methodist minister Charles Jacobs who has come to the Morton’s small Maine town as a replacement.  Like every other Methodist in town, Jamie and his family are charmed by Charles, and all the young boys are in love with Mrs Jacobs because Mrs Jacobs is gorgeous – ‘youth was her makeup’ and it makes her glow.  The reverend and his wife also have a sweet little five-year-old boy, Morrie, and appear to be very happy with their new placing. 
When the reverend isn’t occupied with his pastoral duties he indulges himself in an unusual hobby:  a big interest in electricity - not its obvious power to heat or to light the surroundings but most of all, a belief in its power to heal.  He is convinced that eventually electricity will be used for curing all kinds of illnesses, even the hopeless cases.  Jamie is not convinced:  he thinks the reverend has his wires crossed – God figures out who should be healed, not electricity! 
As time passes, Jamie comes to love and admire the reverend, as do most of his congregation – until a shocking tragedy occurs which transfixes the whole town:  reverend Jacobs loses his wife and son in a terrible road accident,  causing him to lose his faith and to preach one last homily ‘The Terrible Sermon’ in which he professes his rejection of God and all religion.  The townsfolk are stunned and Charles Jacobs disappears from Jamie’s life forever – he thinks.  But as the years go by and his life path takes several bad turns, it is Jamie’s fate to meet up with the reverend again – whether he wants to or not.
By the time Jamie has reached his lowest ebb, the reverend Jacobs has become Dan Jacobs, carnival trick photographer, masterly at relieving ‘rubes’ of their money;  regardless, he is still there to help and ‘heal’ Jamie when his need is most desperate:  when Jamie sees him again many years later, Dan Jacobs has become Pastor Danny, renowned faith healer, dispenser of that good old fashioned hallelujah religion he scorned and rejected after the deaths of his beloved family – but scarily, many of his professed cures appear to work.  Notwithstanding, Jamie knows from his own experience of being ‘healed’ that there are vicious and inexplicable after-effects.  If he investigates his old friend further and tries to stop more ‘cures’ and electrical experiments, will he have a tiger by the tail?
We are all propelled inexorably towards the last terrible electrical ‘cure’, the object of the reverend’s lifelong quest to speak to his dead family once more, and I have to say (cynic that I am) that I found the climax to be the weakest part of an otherwise superb story.  Various allusions to Mary Shelley and her masterwork were clumsy and the monsters who made an appearance caused me to quake with laughter rather than fear – but, hey!  After 400 pages, Stephen King only fell at the last hurdle:  most times he wins the race.  (see July 2014 review below).  STILL highly recommended.

Mr. Mercedes, by Stephen King

Former Detective K. William Hodges is nearing the end of his tether.  Since he retired from the city Police Force, life has lost its edge;  there is nothing meaningful to relieve the boredom of his days, most of which are spent watching inane TV shows, eating junk food and drinking too much. 
Some days are worse than others:  on those days he contemplates suicide and sits in front of his TV with his father’s gun by his side – until the day he gets a letter, purportedly from a man who mowed down a line of job seekers in a stolen Mercedes, a case that was still unsolved when he retired.
The letter writer seems to know a lot about Bill Hodges, including details of his first name (Kermit); information about his farewell bash (it was a drunken riot of fun!); and even more chilling:  insider knowledge of Bill’s suicidal thoughts.  Is this monster a mind-reader?  How does he know so much? 
The general tenor of the letter is designed to increase Bill’s feelings of worthlessness, to push him into that last act with his father’s gun:  ‘it would be too bad if you started thinking your whole career had been a waste of time because the fellow who killed all those Innocent People ‘slipped through your fingers’.
But you are thinking of it, aren’t you?  I would like to close with one final thought from ‘the one that got away’.  That thought is:
F--- YOU, LOSER.
Just kidding!
Very truly yours,
THE MERCEDES KILLER.’

Once again, Mr King takes the reader into the dark places of minds and hearts with his usual effortless skill.  In this latest opus there is nary a hint of the supernatural for which he is so famous; not a spectre in sight:  instead he writes of the monsters that contemporary society creates who walk among their unsuspecting victims disguised by spurious normality -  as here, where the Mercedes killer is revealed early in the plot as Brady Hartfield, dutiful son of an alcoholic mother and hard worker at two jobs, one as a computer technician, the other driving an ice cream van.  What could be more normal; (even a little sad – the sacrifices that boy makes for his mother!) he works super hard at blending in with everything and everyone – why, he’s practically invisible!
But not infallible.  Contrary to his expectations, his letter has given K. William Hodges (Det.Ret.) a huge boost;  the depressive clouds have parted – his mind, always keen, has something to grapple with again:  start playing the game, Mr Mercedes.  Let’s see who wins!
As always, Mr King provides his main protagonists with great supporting characters, in this case Jerome, Bill’s 17 year old lawn and odd job boy – who just happens to be black, highly intelligent and a computer whizz – but not half as whizzy as Holly, a true PC Maestro who unfortunately is plagued with ‘issues’.  They are Bill’s doughty assistants.  Their dialogue is perfect, crackling and comic (how I wish I could remember some of those one liners!) but it never distracts us from the horror and creeping suspense of a great story.  Mr Mercedes is going to strike again.  But where?  When?  And can they stop him?
Stephen King has once again held a mirror up to contemporary society, and it shows a chilling image, one that is very hard to look at.  Highly recommended. 

                 





Thursday, 4 December 2014

LAST GREAT READS FOR NOVEMBER,2014

The Wolf in Winter, by John Connolly

The town of Prosperous, Maine lives up to its name.  Founded in the eighteenth century by persecuted religious fugitives from England, the settlement grew and gradually flourished, whilst still retaining quaint old buildings (why, they even brought their own church with them to assemble, brick by brick!) and  customs.  The town is still governed by a hereditary council of Selectmen, all descendants of the original inhabitants and, while displaying courtesy to all who come to visit such a picturesque place, it will be eventually noticed that Prosperous does not welcome new people to live within its limits:  Prosperous keeps to itself.
            Until the apparent suicide of Jude, a homeless man who visited the town searching for his daughter, brings private detective Charlie Parker looking for answers:  while it is hardly unusual that a man of the streets would want to end his life, the method of death feels wrong, especially when Charlie checks into Jude’s movements in the days before his death.  Jude had helped Charlie in the past;  it is now up to Charlie to do the right thing.  If Jude’s death was indeed suicide, was it because of his daughter?  Is she dead, too?  And if so, why?  How?
Yet again, Mr Connolly draws the reader into the web of Charlie’s latest dark adventure.  In modern Man of Sorrows Charlie Parker and his two murderous sidekicks Louis and Angel, Mr Connolly has created three unforgettable protagonists – and their enemies are legion, especially The Collector, a self-appointed avenging angel of righteousness, dedicated to ridding the world of those so evil that no lawful punishment is fitting enough. 
Charlie, Angel and Louis have undergone more than one baptism of fire in preceding books to seal their bonds of friendship and loyalty, but when they face the chilling mystery that is Prosperous, one of their number is so grievously wounded that, even as this great book comes to a close it is impossible to guess if he will survive, let alone appear in a sequel.
I take my hat off to Mr Connolly, first of all in praise of his wonderful literary skills:  there are many writers who tell great stories but there are few who write with such clarity and elegance.  And it takes a rare talent to make the supernatural element of every Charlie Parker story so credible, and all the supporting characters so real that they are itching to step off the page and do us harm.
That said, how long will it take Mr Connolly to produce his next book – will there be a next book, with the life of one of the Three Dark Musketeers hanging in the balance?  It’s a big worry, one that I hope will be removed soon.
In his acknowledgements at the conclusion of ‘The Wolf in Winter’, Mr Connolly thanks his readers for continuing to read ‘these odd little books’.
As if we could stop.  AS IF!!  Highly recommended.

All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr.

Werner and Jutta Pfennig are orphaned when they are very small;  they live a precarious existence in 1930’s Germany at Children’s house, an orphanage in a mining town outside Essen in the Ruhrgebiet.  Despite their deprivation they are happy in each other’s company and secure in the love of Frau Elena, who keeps home and hearth together, caring selflessly for each child left with her.
            Both children show an aptitude and intellectual curiosity beyond their years, Werner for Radio Mechanics (he builds a radio out of next-to-nothing at age eight) and Jutta for Art.  As she grows, Jutta is increasingly disturbed by what she sees happening in her country and is inclined to voice her relentlessly logical opinions of the new order at all the wrong times.  Werner is more cautious, especially when he earns the opportunity to attend a school for gifted boys:  he hopes Jutta will keep her mouth shut so that his prospects of bettering himself won’t be ruined.
            Marie-Laure lives in Paris with her father, Daniel.  She became blind at the age of six and relies completely on him to show her ways through her sightless world.  He is a locksmith and safebuilder and has charge of all the locked, precious places of the Museum of Natural History;  six days a week they rise early to go to his job, and while he works, Marie-Laure gets an education from various Professors, all eager to impart their specialised knowledge to a child whose attention is absolute, enhanced by sound and touch, undistracted by extraneous images.
            In 1940 the prospect of the German invasion of France becomes a terrible reality:  the Museum sets about hiding its most priceless possessions elsewhere, for it is well-known that the Nazis wish to plunder the museums of Europe to fill their own galleries with ‘appropriated’ treasures – those that Göring does not want, of course.  Marie-Laure’s father is given the task of smuggling the Museum’s most prized gem, ‘The Sea of Flames’ out of Paris to a safe location at Evreux:  tragically, everyone else is fleeing Paris ahead of the Germans at the same time – what should have taken hours takes days, and when Daniel and his exhausted, sightless child arrive at the Chateau where he thinks he can at last leave the huge responsiblility the Museum has given him to someone else, they find everything looted, ransacked and ruined.  The owners have fled.
            Instead of returning, minus the precious gem, to their apartment in Paris, they are forced to seek shelter at St. Malo on the Breton Coast.  Daniel’s great-uncle lives there in seclusion;  his experiences in the Great War have made him a recluse but he provides shelter and stability for the fugitives at a time when they need it most – until August, 1944 when war and death come to St. Malo , as it did everywhere in France.
            Werner, meantime, has found that the school in which he centred all his hopes for the advancement of a scientific career is more interested in producing the perfect Aryan soldier, and despite excelling in his chosen subjects – and witnessing acts of brutality and sadism against his gentle, principled best friend – he is not sent to Berlin for further education as he had hoped, but sent to the front instead.  Germany is losing the war and they need every able-bodied man or boy that they can find.  Werner’s disillusionment is complete:  he now sees what his sister Jutta saw with such clarity nearly a decade ago.  As he and his radio unit limp into St. Malo in August, 1944 he despairs for his dashed hopes, his foolish dreams of a distinguished life of science:  eighteen years old and his life looks like it will soon be over before it has even begun.
            Mr Doerr writes of the parallel lives of Marie-Laure and Werner with dazzling skill;  such are his talents that each time we leave one character we are regretful – until we are swiftly bound up in the life of the other.  At no time does his story descend into sentimentality, nor is one country condemned more than another;  instead he writes of human nature:  kindness, greed, nobility, brutality, and the familial love that binds most things together:  the very glue of humanity – until war rips everything apart.
            This book is very special.  Mr Doerr makes his words sing.  Highly recommended.