Wednesday, 16 December 2015

GREAT READS FOR DECEMBER, 2015

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

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

The Serpentine Road, by Paul Mendleson

Sequels don’t always fulfil the promise of the debut novel.  Sometimes the author is unable to generate the same rapport with the reader, the suspense and excitement -  particularly with thriller-writing – that is necessary to keep us all coming back for more:  happily, Paul Mendleson’s sequel to his great ‘The First Rule of Survival’ (see review below) more than meets all requirements and once again the reader is caught up in a plot so fast-paced that it is almost a relief to reach the end so that blood-pressure can return to normal levels.
            In 1994 Colonel Vaughn De Vries is a Captain in the South African Police Department.  The infamous Apartheid system is over;  Nelson Mandela is set to win the first democratic election for the Presidency of South Africa, yet dissident acts of violence have not abated, the latest being a bomb attack on a Capetown drinking hall resulting in carnage and destruction – and pursuit of the suspects by white police officers bent on bloody retribution.
            De Vries is ordered to bring up the rear on their search of a slum settlement, to ‘get the officers’ backs’, but witnesses such a terrible act of atrocity by his commanding officer Kobus Nel that it still haunts him in 2015,  especially as his young family was threatened by Nel if he didn’t make the same report as everyone else.  This ‘masking’ the facts has never sat well with him, for De Vries, despite his myriad faults still believes in justice and fair play for everyone.  
The many rotten apples in the Apartheid era P.D. are now thankfully gone – only to be replaced by the same fruit, but of a different colour, as De Vries finds when he is designated Lead Officer in the murder of Taryn Holt, an enormously wealthy socialite and art patron.
His interviews with various witnesses and ‘persons of interest’ do not at first reveal anything of note despite her high profile and controversial lifestyle – until it is discovered that Ms Holt was having an intimate relationship with the son of one of the original founding fathers and leading lights of the ANC, and she was prepared to finance the birth of a new political party with her lover at the head:  suddenly, a senseless killing takes on a political hue, especially when orders start arriving from Pretoria to wrap the case up, and especially as a corpse conveniently turns up with the murder weapon in his hand and the victim’s blood on his teeshirt.  De Vries is furious but forced to conclude (rightly) that the Opressed have now become the Opressors.
Add to that the fact that every officer from the atrocious murders they took part in twenty-one years ago has started to die, all stabbed multiple times:  Once he makes the connection De Vries knows it is only a matter of time before it is his turn.  What to do?  Where to turn?
The only way to find out is to read this excellent story:  in spare, powerful prose, Mr Mendleson writes of a land where ‘the fight will never end’ and of many peoples who do their best to survive in hugely disparate circumstances, all told against a backdrop of great and savage beauty.  FIVE STARS     

The First Rule of Survival, by Paul Mendelson

Colonel of the South African Police Service Vaughn de Vries is a typical protagonist of classic crime fiction.  Suffering Burn-out?  Of course.  Marriage down the tubes?  Naturally.  Finding solace in Alcohol?  Goes without saying.  Appearance less than inviting?  Women ‘avert their eyes when they see him sitting at the bar’. 
            In short, Colonel de Vries’s life is rather less than satisfactory – except when he is working:  his job is ‘what gets him up in the morning’, and his passion for justice is legendary;  it is what elevates him above the norm, especially in respect of his colleagues, new examples of the integrated police force of Mandela’s Rainbow Nation, all vying for power and prestige in a department formerly run by white men like de Vries, whose time must surely soon be up.  They hope.  Yes, give him a bit more time and he will be the author of his own misfortune …… until the naked bodies of two malnourished teenaged boys are found in a skip at the back of a farm café miles from Capetown, de Vries’s base.  They have been murdered, and Vaughn, the token white officer is sent to investigate – and finds to his horror that they are the victims of a terrible abduction seven years before, when three young white boys, one the son of a serving police officer, were kidnapped on three consecutive days, never to be seen again.
            It is a case that has haunted Vaughn’s dreams, turned them into nightmares and destroyed his peace of mind forever, especially when the case becomes cold after months of searching fruitlessly for clues – any clue – as to their fate.  Now, two of the three kidnap victims have been found, obviously transported to the skip after death – from where?  And where is the third boy?  de Vries and his immediate superior Hendrik du Toit faced unprecedented contempt from the media and eminent child psychologists alike for their inability to provide answers seven years ago:  now, their new bosses are demanding bold actions and quick solutions to the murders;  any delay will reflect badly on the new Rainbow police hierarchy.  Those dinosaur Boers Messrs du Toit and de Vries better shape up or ship out.
            British writer Paul Mendelson has constructed an impressive debut thriller for his first foray into crime writing.  He has created credible, excellent characters – especially Vaughn’s black second-in-command Warrant Officer Don February, so called because his real name would be impossible for most people to pronounce – and his descriptions of the wild and splendid coastline and croplands around Capetown make one feel that they are riding shotgun with Vaughn de Vries and Don February, hanging over their shoulders, exhorting them to find the killers before more children are abused and killed.
            This is a page-turner par excellence, made the more readable by its magnificent setting.  FIVE STARS!!


It’s that time of year again –the time for all the LISTS -  you know:  the best ofs.  Well, I have compiled a list of MY best ofs, the very best books I have read this year, all reviewed on this blog.   So:  here’s my Top Twenty-Two for 2015 – I did try to limit myself to twenty but couldn’t do it.  They’re not in any order, for every one is a worthy addition to the list.  They are all different -  and all uniform in their excellence.

The Bright Side of My Condition, by Charlotte Randall       January blog

The Mountain School for Dogs, by Ellen Cooney      February blog

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan          February

Amnesia, by Peter Carey                                                 March blog

The Same Sky, by Amanda Eyre Ward                         April blog

Swimming in the Dark, by Paddy Richardson                        April blog

The Bridge, by Jane Higgins    Young Adult                 May blog

Havoc, by Jane Higgins             Young Adult                May blog

The Whites, Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt  June blog

The Legend of Winstone BlackHat, by Tanya Moir   June blog

Chappy, by Patricia Grace                                               June blog

The Liar’s Key, by Mark Lawrence                                July blog

After the Crash, by Michel Bussi                                   August blog

Saving Midnight, by Suzy Zail       Young Adult           September blog

Orhan’s Inheritance, by Aline Ohanesian                   September blog

The First Rule of Survival, by Paul Mendelson          October blog

The Antipodeans, by Greg McGee                                October blog

Nora Webster, by Colm Toibin                                       October blog

The Party Line, by Sue Orr                                              November blog

Europa Blues, by Arne Dahl                                            November blog

A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler                                    November blog

The Girl in the Spider’s Web, by David Lagerkrantz December blog

            It has been a great pleasure reviewing all these wonderful books this year and on behalf of the staff and the many volunteers of Te Takere, our beautiful library and community centre, I wish all Great Readers a very happy Christmas and a safe and healthy New Year.  See you in 2016!
   
           
             


             

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

LAST GREAT READS FOR NOVEMBER, 2015

Europa Blues, by Arne Dahl

I’ve done it again:  unwittingly read the latest book of a series, BUT!  Swedish author Arne Dahl has provided so much information from earlier stories that I don’t feel that I should go right back to Episode One – and bless him for that because there are only 24 hours in a day, and I have to have SOME sleep.
            Mr Dahl sets his thrillers in Stockholm but his protagonists, members of an elite section of the Swedish CID travel far and wide through Europe to unravel his latest mystery.  Paul Hjelm is one of the stars of the team, and (miraculously) he hasn’t reached burn-out level yet – he has had an intense affair with a colleague, but (again miraculously) his marriage is still intact;  in fact life is as good as one could expect, given the job he has and the hours he spends away from home.  Hjelm has an antidote for the horrors he must face every day (this is Swedish Noir, remember);  he is something of a philosopher, a clever abstract thinker;  and he firmly believes the world is still redeemable whenever he listens to jazz trumpeter Miles Davis’s magical playing on ‘Kind of Blue’.  There is still plenty of beauty in the world to match the ugliness. 
            Until his colleague Jorge Chavez calls him to come and examine the remains of someone who has fallen into the Wolverine enclosure at Skansen Zoo.  There is precious little left to see:  those furry wee critters with the pretty faces attacked the mystery man in a fury and the police have found just a pink- trousered leg so far – but that leg had a rope tied round its ankle.  The man was hung by his legs in the pit, and his death must have been excruciating:  who was he and why was he murdered so horribly?
            As their investigation progresses, Hjelm and his team (and what a singular lot they are!) discover the man’s identity:  he was a Greek gangster, suspected of murder and drug trafficking and currently pimping and terrorising a group of East European prostitutes.  What a nice guy!  Then other ‘nice guys’ are discovered to have met a similar fate in various European cities – not being dispatched by Wolverines, but by being hung upside down, then having a sharp metal rod inserted into their temples, guaranteeing maximum pain before they died.  When the Greek pimp’s skull is eventually found in the zoo enclosure, he too has been murdered with the metal rod.
            Mr Dahl is a very clever writer, certainly more literary than most, and his translator, Alice Menzies, deserves huge and hefty pats on the back for presenting his story so beautifully.  Each character is scrupulously credible and there is a wonderful vein of very necessary humour threaded like gold throughout a convoluted and horrific plot.  Hjelm’s colleagues, far from being burn-outs themselves, have lives which, if not the norm, are at least as ordinary as they can make them;  in fact they ring so true that maybe I will have to visit the earlier books, whether I want to or not!  FIVE STARS

A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler

Family dynamics:  that weary, well-worn euphemism for the myriad ways that people hurt those whom they should love most. 
            The clarion cry of ‘It’s not FAIR!’ engendered by sibling rivalry which, as siblings reach adulthood becomes ‘Why did they love you more than me?’ has never been portrayed with more skill, perception and humour than in Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anne Tyler’s peerless chronicle of a family’s life through three generations – not very long as a family ancestral record, but of sufficient length to draw the reader into this graceful story, because we recognise so much of it as our own.
            In 1994 Red and Abby Whitshank have four grown children.  They live in Baltimore, Maryland in a house that Red’s father built, and Red has taken over his father’s construction company after both his parents were killed in an accident.  Abby is a social worker, a woman who welcomes the waifs and strays, especially at Thanksgiving, a holiday her family secretly dreads for they never know which awful waifs will be present at the carving of the turkey – but Abby doesn’t care:  her heart is big and There But For the Grace of God etc etc.  More turkey, anyone?
            In the main, Red and Abby are content with their life and their family, whom they love dearly.  Amanda, the oldest girl is a lawyer;  Jeannie followed her father into the construction business, a bold step;  Douglas (called Stem for a very poignant reason) has also gone into the family company;  but Denny, the third child – well, Denny appears to have taken on the role of family failure;  family flitter-away-from-responsibility candidate;  family jack-of-all-trades – and master of none, despite much encouragement and many new starts,  assisted emotionally and financially each time by his parents.
Time passes inexorably;  Red and Abby age;  their family start families of their own – all except Denny.  His life is a mystery to them:  they have no idea where he lives, or what he does for a living – does he even work?  Then they receive an invitation to his wedding.  He is marrying the bride because she’s pregnant.  Oh.  Okay then.  They’ll have a grandchild to love and spoil!  Sadly, no.  Denny disappears for years, until family concern about Red and Abby’s vulnerability as they age brings him home, and what has been simmering beneath the family surface since childhood erupts in an ugly geyser of hatred and resentment:  Denny’s anger is never directed at himself;  he could never hold a mirror up to reveal his many faults:  instead, he lashes out at those who are the last to deserve his ire, causing ructions that are shocking but come as no surprise to anyone.
I can’t remember reading at any time a more perfect evocation of family life;  the petty jealousies, the perceptions real or imagined, of who loves who best, and the immense loyalty and unity only a family can draw on when tragedies occur.  And the great, beating heart of this family is contained in the house, built by their grandfather for someone else, but eventually becoming his, as told in beautiful flashbacks.
Roddy Doyle and Nick Hornby, both writers who ‘know their onions’ (my old gran used to say that often!) maintain that Anne Tyler is ‘the greatest novelist writing in English’ and it is easy to see why.  SIX STARS!!!

The American Lady, and Paradise of Glass, by Petra Durst-Benning


These two novels complete the Glassblower trilogy.  I reviewed the first book in September (see review below), but have to say that the sequels do not live up to the promise of Book One.  That is not to say that they are not readable but quality of writing has taken a dive in Ms Durst-Benning’s attempts to cover   the huge societal changes in turn- of-the-century New York, the setting for ‘The American Lady’. 
            Marie, the true artist and youngest of the  Steinmann girls is persuaded to visit her sister Ruth, now happily and respectably married to her lover, Stephen Miles, and grandly ensconced in New York.  Initially, Marie cannot believe the enormous change in Ruth’s personality – she seems to have forgotten completely their humble origins in the German village of Lauscha and has thrown herself with singular verve into conquering high society, a mission Ruth has successfully accomplished with the aim of cushioning her rebellious daughter Wanda from all of the sadness and poverty that marked her own early years.
            Marie finds Ruth’s new life enormously constricting, and after various excursions with Wanda makes new, exciting friends in the Art scene of New York, including a daring, wanton Isadora Duncan copycat called Pandora:  she meets all the darlings of the Modern movement, and Ms Durst-Benning name-drops with abandon everyone who was artistically anyone at that time;  she also decides it is time for Marie to meet her Great Love, a handsome Italian Count whom she eventually marries – much to the icy disapproval of his family in Genoa – only to find that ‘her handsome Italian’ harbours a terrible secret, a secret that appals Marie to the extent that she knows that she and her unborn child would be better off with her own family in Lauscha, permanently away from him and his medievally awful family.  BUT!!!  (There’s always a But.)
            Marie’s plans to escape her situation are thwarted in melodramatic, Mills and Boon fashion:  there is no escape from her awful life – until …..  until Rebellious Wanda manages to engineer a visit to Genoa to find out why none of Marie’s family has heard from her for so long.
            Rebellious Wanda has taken up residence in Lauscha to research her origins, after finding out a secret that Ruth had thought well- hidden, and being the impetuous Wilful Wanda that she is, she decides it is time to lay all the family skeletons out in the harsh light of day:  she has a family she never knew existed, and perhaps in Lauscha she can make a good and meaningful life for herself.  Fair enough, especially when Ms Durst-Benning gives Wanda the role of rescuer extraordinaire – but Wanda’s adventures should at least have the ring of truth, not to mention Marie’s:  the credibility of Book One has been entirely lost with the switch to Torrid Romance in Book Two.
            There is improvement of a sort in Book Three, ‘The Paradise of Glass’:  Ms Durst-Benning writes very well of the glass industry in 1911; the plot is well-researched and believable.  The everyday lives of Lauscha’s inhabitants are well-portrayed and the older characters endear themselves to the reader, BUT! (Sorry about the buts, but  I believe absolutely in buts)  In Ms Durst-Benning’s efforts to present Wilful Wanda as a young woman defying the constrictions of her time – especially in  her heroic attempts to organise the glassblowers of Lauscha into a united group of investors so that they can buy their own foundry – the storytelling expertise of Book One has deserted her, and Wanda, Wilful, Winsome, Worldly though she may be, is not drawn with the skill required to carry a trilogy.  THREE STARS   
                

The Glassblower, by Petra Durst-Benning

Ms Durst-Benning completed this first novel in her trilogy in 2003;  unfortunately for English readers, it was not translated from the German until 2014 – but better late than never.  Now we can all enjoy her lovely story of the Steinmann sisters, daughters of proud and protective widower Joost Steinmann, a respected glassblower in the small Thuringian village of Lauscha.  In 1890,  Lauscha is renowned throughout Germany as the international destination for exquisite glassware, and Lauscha is proud of its reputation for craftsmanship, and the artisans who reinforce the village’s good name.
            Joost shelters his three daughters.  Every young man who comes calling in the hope of getting to know his pretty girls better is shown the door:  men are all up to no good – only after one thing!  The girls despair of ever meeting suitors, but they are too busy to reflect on their lack of experience, for there is much work to be done in their father’s business – until one morning he fails to rise from his bed.  Joost has closed his eyes for the last time, and to their horror, his sheltered, cosseted daughters are on their own.  Who will look after them now?  How will they earn any kind of living in a patriarchal society where a woman’s duty is clear:  ‘kirche, küche, kinder’.  The choices are few, but if a woman does have to earn her living she does so for slave wages in one of the few glassworks in the village.  Those uppity Steinmann girls are no different from anyone else – they’ll have to lose their airs and graces and subsist, just as other widows and single women do!
            Ms Durst-Benning easily captures the reader in the first chapters.  Each daughter is different:  haughty, beautiful eldest daughter Johanna, unaware of her business acumen until she is forced to employ all her intelligence to prevent the family from starving;  middle daughter Ruth, equally pretty but convinced that the only way out of poverty is to make a good marriage – and then does the opposite;  and Marie, the dreamy youngest girl, nascent artist and eventual self-taught glassblower, using her late father’s equipment so that she can realise in glass the beautiful baubles she creates on paper – all in secret, for a female working as a glassblower is unthinkable.
            Late 19th century Europe is captured unforgettably in all its beauty, poverty, double standards and hypocrisy;  Lauscha, that tiny village with the enormous reputation is riddled with hierarchies that refuse to accept change, and the Steinmann girls find that the way ahead is strewn with pitfalls – and I won’t find out what happens until Book Two ‘The American Lady,’ comes into the library.  Ms Durst-Benning has given us a real page-turner, even though Samuel Willcocks’ translation favours the modern idiom perhaps more than it should.  That minor quibble aside, I can’t fail to give this lovely, unashamedly romantic story FIVE STARS.
             

                 

Saturday, 14 November 2015

GREAT READS FOR NOVEMBER, 2015

The Party Line, by Sue Orr

Nicola Walker has never married, for a variety of reasons.  She is now in her mid-fifties and is travelling back to Paeroa, a small town in the central North Island of New Zealand, to attend the funeral of one of the figures of her childhood, Josephine Janssen, who with her taciturn husband Hans were sharemilkers on her parents’ farm in the little farming settlement of Fenward.  When Nicky’s parents died, the hardworking Dutch couple stayed on at the farm and eventually bought it, before moving to a retirement village;  now, there is only Hans left to start within Nicky a rush of childhood memories from 1972:  the year Ian Baxter, a widower, and his daughter Gabrielle came to fill the sharemilker position on neighbour Jack Gilbert’s farm;  the year the tight-knit community rose up to protect its own – for better or worse.
            Gabrielle Baxter is thirteen going on thirty, precocious and forceful in expressing her opinions about everything.  Her mother has just died of brain cancer and Dad’s not managing very well, so she has to be assertive and confident in her decisions:  to that end she wears make-up and nail polish, perfume and clothes never before seen in 70’s Fenward – all belonging to her late mother Bridie.  Nicky aged twelve has never met such a glamorous creature in her life:  it’s as though Gabrielle has suddenly descended from another planet – and she has chosen Nicky for her best friend! - much to the consternation of Nicky’s parents, good upright Catholic members of the small community.  They also worship rugby, smokes, a beer or three – and they believe in keeping Fenward’s business in Fenward, even if Jack Gilbert beats and rapes his wife regularly:  that’s his business.  Everyone turns away from Audrey Gilbert’s bruises, because it is none of theirs.
            Ms Orr delights the reader with beautiful little character drawings that personify exactly the traditions and the solidarity of a small farming community bound together by the steel bonds of ‘mateship’ - helping each other out through every season, good or bad – and the prejudice and suspicion engendered by those who don’t fit the mould, like Ian and Gabrielle Baxter, especially when they see injustice and try stop it.
            Clearly, Gabrielle’s loud questioning (with Nicky as her reluctant henchman) of the status quo (don’t look, don’t tell) is not something that goes down well with the locals:  they do not like a mirror being held up to them, a mirror that shows them to be kind and helpful, but cowardly, small-minded and insular and dominated by the greedy attention paid by everyone to the party line, which everyone in Fenward shares.  They love gossip and scandal, but only amongst themselves.  Anyway, everyone knows that Audrey Gilbert ‘isn’t the full quid’;  can’t be easy being married to someone like her.  No, those Baxters are troublemakers:  they’ll have to go.
            My only criticism of this fine story is that I never did find out what happened to the Baxters or where they went.  Nicky’s return to the troubling memories of her girlhood doesn’t tie up the loose ends for every character – nevertheless, Ms Orr has created a superb portrait of a time and a place where ‘two girls tried to do the right thing but nobody else thought the right thing was the right thing to do’.  Magic.  FIVE 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

Career of Evil, by J. K. Rowling, writing as Robert Galbraith

This is Ms Rowling’s third novel involving Private Detective Cormoran Strike, a military investigator until an incident in Afghanistan deprived him of his leg and his chosen career.  Now he makes his living investigating civilians, with the able assistance of his P. A. Robin Endacott, and since he had considerable success solving two high-profile murders in his first two adventures (see review below) – much to the anger of the police, who were NOT amused at him stealing their thunder – he and Robin are feeling that their combined talents have made a successful business team. 
            Until a parcel sent to Robin by courier reveals that instead of pre-ordered wedding bits and bobs (yes, the nuptials with handsome but jerky boyfriend are still planned) a young woman’s leg is in the package, amputated just below the knee, like Strike’s.
            Their shock is absolute.  Strike is convinced that despite the gruesome parcel being addressed to Robin, it was really meant as a warning for him:  at some stage in his military past he has made an enemy, but which one?  He can think of at least three men who would hate him enough to destroy him:  he has never hid his contempt and outrage at the evil visited on others by the scum of the earth and was delighted to put some of them behind bars;  he is convinced that one of the trio is responsible, but which one, and where is the rest of the body?
            True to form, once the media have gotten hold of the story Strike’s business takes a nosedive – notoriety has replaced celebrity;  all except two of the bread-and-butter clients have headed for the hills, and Strike has no idea how he will continue, much less keep Robin employed, minuscule though her salary is.  Robin doesn’t care:  she wants to keep working with Strike – this is the best job, the most energising and intriguing work she’s ever done, and despite jerky boyfriend’s thunderous objections, she would do it for nothing, so there!
All they have to do (SO easy-peasy!) is find the killer, now known as the Shacklewell Ripper- there have been more crimes - before he ruins the business and their lives, for a huge professional and personal affection has built up between them:  neither wish to lose that – and neither wants to see it for what it really could be.
            Ms Rowling takes us through Strike’s and Robin’s tribulations at the perfect pace;  the energy never flags and each newly introduced character is true blue, from the auld Scottish biddies in the picturesque North to the dirty crackheads in London squats:  she has really hit her straps with ‘Career of Evil’;  it is the perfect combination of horror, humour and suspense, leaving us all clamouring for the next episode.  FIVE STARS

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,  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 even afford a tiny flat above his office, and Robin 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 trashed his great writing, pandering instead to other writers, his contemporaries who have been unfairly advantaged over him:  he’ll show them!
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 found, disembowelled and ringed by dinner plates as if he were the main course in a grisly meal.
The plot moves 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 acutely 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.        

        

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

MORE GREAT READS FOR OCTOBER, 2015

The First Rule of Survival, by Paul Mendelson

Colonel of the South African Police Service Vaughn de Vries is a typical protagonist of classic crime fiction.  Suffering Burn-out?  Of course.  Marriage down the tubes?  Naturally.  Finding solace in Alcohol?  Goes without saying.  Appearance less than inviting?  Women ‘avert their eyes when they see him sitting at the bar’. 
            In short, Colonel de Vries’s life is rather less than satisfactory – except when he is working:  his job is ‘what gets him up in the morning’, and his passion for justice is legendary;  it is what elevates him above the norm, especially in respect of his colleagues, new examples of the integrated police force of Mandela’s Rainbow Nation, all vying for power and prestige in a department formerly run by white men like de Vries, whose time must surely soon be up.  They hope.  Yes, give him a bit more time and he will be the author of his own misfortune …… until the naked bodies of two malnourished teenaged boys are found in a skip at the back of a farm café miles from Capetown, de Vries’s base.  They have been murdered, and Vaughn, the token white officer is sent to investigate – and finds to his horror that they are the victims of a terrible abduction seven years before, when three young white boys, one the son of a serving police officer, were kidnapped on three consecutive days, never to be seen again.
            It is a case that has haunted Vaughn’s dreams, turned them into nightmares and destroyed his peace of mind forever, especially when the case becomes cold after months of searching fruitlessly for clues – any clue – as to their fate.  Now, two of the three kidnap victims have been found, obviously transported to the skip after death – from where?  And where is the third boy?  de Vries and his immediate superior Hendrik du Toit faced unprecedented contempt from the media and eminent child psychologists alike for their inability to provide answers seven years ago:  now, their new bosses are demanding bold actions and quick solutions to the murders;  any delay will reflect badly on the new Rainbow police hierarchy.  Those dinosaur Boers Messrs du Toit and de Vries better shape up or ship out.
            British writer Paul Mendelson has constructed an impressive debut thriller for his first foray into crime writing.  He has created credible, excellent characters – especially Vaughn’s black second-in-command Warrant Officer Don February, so called because his real name would be impossible for most people to pronounce – and his descriptions of the wild and splendid coastline and croplands around Capetown make one feel that they are riding shotgun with Vaughn de Vries and Don February, hanging over their shoulders, exhorting them to find the killers before more children are abused and killed.
            This is a page-turner par excellence, made the more readable by its magnificent setting.  FIVE STARS!!

The Antipodeans, by Greg McGee.
           
            Bruce Spence, an elderly, terminally ill New Zealand lawyer makes a final sentimental visit to Italy accompanied by his only child Clare:  he wishes to see Venice one last time;  to meet with old friends of his youth from the surrounding towns, particularly a little inland village called San Pietro, where he used to (of all things) coach and play rugby back in the 70’s.  Clare is happy to go with him;  apart from her worry about his frailty, she also needs the distraction:  life back in Auckland has dealt her some harsh blows of late, starting with the classic husband-sleeping-with-best-friend-right punch, then the left uppercut of hubby and besty defrauding her business, something her father discovered by accident.
            To say that Clare feels bitter and betrayed is a massive understatement.  Her wanderings through Venice, that magical place of gorgeous light and stunning architecture, fail to move her:  she is impatient with her father’s clumsy and shuffling attempts to find his way to obscure little piazzi;  cafes that used to be in a certain place but aren’t any longer;  his searching scans of any elderly female that crosses his path, and his insistence in lugging around his old briefcase containing several musty folders, all of which he tells her she must read when he dies.
            His reunion with the friends of his youth produces much laughter but many tears, for it is clear to his old companions that he will die soon, but to Clare, there seems to be an undercurrent, a trove of secrets from the past that everyone knows something  of – everyone except herself.  And their common knowledge seems to centre on events of the Second World War, when Italy became the meat in the sandwich, occupied by the Germans until they were driven back and defeated (not without huge casualties) by the Allied troops.
            The more light Clare tries to shed on the mystery, the more impenetrable it seems, until the inevitable occurs:  Bruce finally succumbs to his illness;  his strength has run out, and to occupy herself as she grieves by her beloved Dad’s hospital bed, Clare finally begins to read the contents of those yellowing folders.
            Greg McGee has given us a story of astonishing depth and power.  He covers three generations, starting with the friendship between two young men from Oamaru in the South Island of New Zealand, recounting their experiences as enlisted men during World War Two, and their eventual capture and internment in an Italian Prison camp.  Harry Spence is the leader of the two, a lightning-quick thinker and planner, and absolutely ruthless in achieving any objectives he sets himself, be it getting extra food, or escaping from the camp.  Joe Lamont is a follower;  he has been badly wounded and is troubled by nightmares;  he has also been brought up Catholic by a fearsome bully of a father, has a huge work ethic and a conscience to match.  He is an intelligent young man, appalled at Harry’s amorality, but smart enough to know that if they stick together they will survive.  The phrase ‘turn a blind eye’ has never been more apt.    
            Survive they do, but at a cost that Joe is horrified to pay:  good Italian families who helped them are punished fatally for their generosity and Harry, who has earned  a well-deserved reputation as a fearless partisan, killing Germans and blowing up bridges and railway lines (with Joe’s expert assistance) reveals shameful feet of clay. 
            The acts of both men have consequences that echo through the generations, and Mr McGee never lets the pace falter for a second;  he switches timelines with such skill that the reader always regrets leaving one set of protagonists whilst welcoming another.  I was sorry to leave these wonderful characters.  This is great New Zealand fiction.  SIX STARS!!

Nora Webster, by Colm Tóibin.

1969:  Man has travelled to the moon and the world is rejoicing – but the everyday tragedies of life still occur.  In Ireland, the Webster family have just  lost their beloved father Maurice too soon to a long illness which has had a lasting and terrible effect on the younger children Donal and Conor. Their mother Nora is at a loss as to how to manage her own grief, let alone find sufficient comfort for her two boys.  Her teenage girls are more self-sufficient, less dependent on her which she feels is a good thing;  her childhood and youth have made Nora very self-contained, teaching her to keep her many disappointments to herself, like having to leave school early because her mother needed the money that she would bring home as an office worker at Gibney’s, the major employer in the area.  When she and Maurice married, she saw their union as her release from bondage to a job she hated.  Marriage stood for freedom for Nora:  now she finds she will have to return to work (back to Gibney’s!!) just to make ends meet.  Her freedom is over.
            In spare and beautiful prose, Mr Tóibin tells Nora’s story;  her attempts to make sense of her new circumstances, and how she must find the means to change them, for no-one else can live her life, and no-one else (she thinks) should be ‘poking their nose’ into how the family is managing – but they do:  from the unsolicited advice provided by her sisters, to the officious help given to the boys, particularly by Maurice’s brother and sister (‘we can afford it – we’ve a bit put by!), down to her bossy Aunt Josie, who induces her to have a fortnight in Spain because it will do her good.  Unfortunately, Josie snores like a bull elephant and Nora is forced to occupy a cubby-hole in the hotel basement in an attempt to get any sleep at all. 
            No – her family will just have to realise that she and her children will manage, and should just scale down their interference.  Until Nora realises that her boys – and indeed, the girls when they are home, get along with her family a whole lot better than she does.  Donal, her eldest son, he of the recent terrible stutter, goes to sister-in-law Margaret’s house daily, for she has converted a space into a little darkroom for him to develop his photos;  they share easy conversation and a camaraderie that Nora has never experienced with him.  Major decisions concerning her family are being taken by other people, including sending Donal to boarding school, something he swears he wants, not that he had ever told her. 
            Nora’s unwanted new life seems to be lurching out of her control – until she finds unexpected comfort in music, particularly singing, for she had ‘a voice’ when she was young:  can she find that voice again?  She meets new friends without even trying when she joins the Gramophone Society (without possessing such a thing) and listens to members talking about their favourite composers.  Very gradually, Nora returns to life again, a different life without her beloved Maurice, but one with new passions, and a new confidence born of having the courage to make decisions she would never have thought of if he were still there.
            And her pesky family – that family who won’t leave her and the children alone for more than five minutes:  far from being a hindrance to her bold new existence, they prove time and again that they are the mesh, the safety-net that keeps her upright, stops her from falling – every time.  This is a lovely story, beautifully written.  FIVE STARS.        

   

Thursday, 15 October 2015

GREAT READS FOR OCTOBER, 2015

Bull Mountain, by Brian Panowich

‘Brother-versus-Brother in the dope-damned South.  This first novel has it all:  Moonshine, Maryjane and Mayhem!’.  So says James Ellroy on the front cover of this debut novel from Brian Panowich, and I have to say that yep, that blurb just about sums it up:  Mr Panowich packs more action, brutality, horror, and down-home humour into his relatively slim volume than most thrillers twice the size.  (But I'm still waiting to meet Maryjane!)
            All the sins get an airing here – moonshine;  weed-growing;  meth manufacture;  weapons trafficking;  all perpetrated by the Burroughs family, owners of land on Bull Mountain, a wild region in North Georgia.  Succeeding generations of sons have guarded the land and their various ‘industries’ and, though they have never made any of their vast fortune legally, the money is secondary to the love they feel for their ancestral home:  they are all prepared to fight and die protecting their rights to Bull Mountain, and anyone who thinks to oust them from there (particularly the law) had better be prepared to die, too.
            Clayton Burroughs is one family member who has gone against type – he is the local sheriff, enjoying an uneasy truce with his outlaw brothers up on the mountain, who hate him for what they see as his betrayal for joining ‘the other side’.  Their contempt grieves Clayton sorely, for every Burroughs feels a kinship to each other just as strong as their atavistic love of place;  but he is sick of all the killing;  he wants a good, peaceful life with his wife, not a short, bloody one.  He hopes this will happen.
            Until an FBI agent visits him with a proposition:  if Clayton can persuade his lawless family to give up a Florida criminal kingpin who is a weapons manufacturer and their main supplier, the FBI will give them amnesty from prosecution – providing they give up their various criminal means of income.
            As if!  Clayton knows his family well enough to realise their reaction to that proposition:  they would never betray a trusted business partner, and their contemptuous reaction to the sight of him journeying up that familiar mountain in his sheriff’s uniform, bearing the FBI’s offer like a dog hopeful of a pat instead of a kick – nope, this is never going to fly.  But …….
            He is a hopeful man.  He will grasp at any straw as a means to stopping the bloodshed and tragedy that have dogged his family for four generations:  he is willing to try it the FBI’s way, and hope the mess won’t be too impossible to clean up when that fails. 
            And fail it does, spectacularly.  Mr Panowich spares the reader none of the blood and gore;  nor does he let the action flag for a single minute:  his characters are all larger than life and for the most part twice as ugly;   they ride each page like marauding Vikings and they make the Hatfields and McCoys look like sulking parishioners at a Church picnic.  Every chapter has a twist and a hook, and no-one is what they seem – including FBI agent Holly, who has a secret agenda of his own.
            Mr Panowich’s rip-roaring debut novel lives up spectacularly to all the  flattering blurbs on its front cover:  FIVE STARS

Life after life, by Kate Atkinson

Once again it seems I have dragged the chain here;  I should have read and reviewed this gem many moons ago.  Instead I procrastinated, read heaps of other stuff (some of it not half as good) and now have caught up with it so that I can read its sequel, ‘ A God in Ruins. ‘
            I have to admit to confusion as to this unique writer’s motives regarding her plot,  the premise being ‘what if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?’  This is exactly what the heroine, Ursula Todd appears to do, from the moment of her birth in 1910 until her last breath is definitely drawn fifty-seven years later:  in between-times she ‘dies’ many times, from strangulation at birth by her umbilical cord;  drowning at the seaside aged five;  falling from a top floor window whilst trying to rescue a beloved toy and so on into adulthood, when the Second World War presents many more ways of dying, from the horrors of the London Blitz to the ruins of Berlin and suicide for herself and her young daughter, rather than endure the bestiality of the conquering Russian troops.
            Miraculously for Ursula, death is averted each time by little twists of fate or the quick actions of others;  her young life is bolstered and protected by rock-solid supporting players, from her sound-as-a-bell middle-class parents Sylvie and Hugh, beloved sister Pamela and favourite brother Teddy. (Older brother Maurice is hateful, arrogant and only happy if he can make his siblings cry).  Stability is further provided by Bridget the scullery maid, arriving from Ireland at the age of fourteen;  and Mrs Gardner, dour-faced cook for the family, and no respecter of the class system.  These characters are the gold standard in this wonderful story;  they have their own dramas and tragedies to contend with and such is Ms Atkinson’s skill that the reader is just as involved with them as with Ursula and her stuttering, stop-and-start journey through her life.
            I cannot remember reading anywhere a more electrifying account of London during the Blitz:   in 1940, Ursula has volunteered as an ARP warden, and the terrible destruction and horrific sights she sees are experienced in all their stark terror by the reader, too:  Ms Atkinson’s prose is almost painterly in its harsh imagery, thankfully to be softened later by much-appreciated humour.
            It was unclear to me whether Ursula finally ‘got it right’ at the end of her many attempts to start her life anew, but it doesn’t matter:  it was great to make the journey with her.  FIVE CONFUSED STARS!  
             

            

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

LAST GREAT READS FOR SEPTEMBER, 2015

Orhan’s Inheritance, by Aline Ohanisian

The Armenian Diaspora in 1915 is still unacknowledged as genocide by Turkey a century after 1.5 million Armenians were deported and driven into the Syrian Desert to die because Muslim Turkey, at war with Christian Britain, France and Russia, believed that all Christian Armenian residents were traitors in their midst and must be expelled from the country.
            Aline Ohanisian, whose great-grandmother survived to imprint upon the family forever the horror and sorrow of that time, gives us a story that deserves to be unforgettable – as a family chronicle;  a love story;  and a heart piercing record of a nation thrusting off the yoke of the Sultans, embracing democracy and the parliamentary system for the first time, yet still turning against its own because they worship a different God.
`It is 1990.  OrhanTürkoğlu’s beloved grandfather Kemal has died in his nineties in the remote village of Karod, where he established the successful family rug-weaving business a lifetime before.  Orhan manages the family business interests in Istanbul, and loves his work designing the beautiful patterns of the kilims that are woven and dyed in Karod.  He cannot imagine his life without his Dede, this infinitely kind man who shaped his childhood and youth, nurtured his artistic talent (for Dede had a talent of his own:  he never stopped drawing), and protected him along with his Aunty Fatma from the bitterness and aggression of Orhan’s father Mustafa, not received into the family business because he had no aptitude for it.
As Orhan journeys to Karod for his Dede’s funeral and the reading of the will, it is plain ‘that time and progress are two long-lost relatives who send an occasional letter’; Istanbul and remote Anatolia are night and day, and always will be.  And so is Dede’s will.  The predictable:  Orhan inherits the family business, to his relief and his father’s rage – and the shock of a past time of which everyone has been ignorant:  the house and grounds are bequeathed to a Ms Seda Melkonian, an aged Armenian resident of a rest home in California.
Who is this woman?  What was she to Kemal?  Orhan journeys to California for answers, and her signature on documents releasing the house to his father and Aunty Fatma – it is unthinkable that they be made homeless by a stranger living on the other side of the world.  But the story his visit uncovers is so shocking and heartbreaking that it can’t be true – can it?
For Seda, who has resolutely refused to remember or acknowledge the past for most of her life, finds in Orhan’s visit the catharsis she needs to unburden herself of all her secrets, including those of which she is most ashamed.  The world will never be the same again for either of them.
In beautiful prose, Ms Ohanisian recounts Seda’s life in a series of flashbacks, from her privileged girlhood in the very same house left to her by Kemal, to the beginnings of the horror;  the ‘Knock on the Door’, and the forced march of the multitudes into the Syrian Desert -  and eventually the place where her days will end:  the Californian rest home.  It is now Orhan’s choice to hide or expose what he has learnt, and this won’t be easy. He understand secrets, for he has many of his own. 
Ms Ohanisian’s stunning imagery and beautiful word-pictures show us how privileged are we to experience this journey with her.  FIVE STARS.

The Glassblower, by Petra Durst-Benning

Ms Durst-Benning completed this first novel in her trilogy in 2003;  unfortunately for English readers, it was not translated from the German until 2014 – but better late than never.  Now we can all enjoy her lovely story of the Steinmann sisters, daughters of proud and protective widower Joost Steinmann, a respected glassblower in the small Thuringian village of Lauscha.  In 1890,  Lauscha is renowned throughout Germany as the international destination for exquisite glassware, and Lauscha is proud of its reputation for craftsmanship, and the artisans who reinforce the village’s good name.
            Joost shelters his three daughters.  Every young man who comes calling in the hope of getting to know his pretty girls better is shown the door:  men are all up to no good – only after one thing!  The girls despair of ever meeting suitors, but they are too busy to reflect on their lack of experience, for there is much work to be done in their father’s business – until one morning he fails to rise from his bed.  Joost has closed his eyes for the last time, and to their horror, his sheltered, cosseted daughters are on their own.  Who will look after them now?  How will they earn any kind of living in a patriarchal society where a woman’s duty is clear:  ‘kirche, küche, kinder’.  The choices are few, but if a woman does have to earn her living she does so for slave wages in one of the few glassworks in the village.  Those uppity Steinmann girls are no different from anyone else – they’ll have to lose their airs and graces and subsist, just as other widows and single women do!
            Ms Durst-Benning easily captures the reader in the first chapters.  Each daughter is different:  haughty, beautiful eldest daughter Johanna, unaware of her business acumen until she is forced to employ all her intelligence to prevent the family from starving;  middle daughter Ruth, equally pretty but convinced that the only way out of poverty is to make a good marriage – and then does the opposite;  and Marie, the dreamy youngest girl, nascent artist and eventual self-taught glassblower, using her late father’s equipment so that she can realise in glass the beautiful baubles she creates on paper – all in secret, for a female working as a glassblower is unthinkable.
            Late 19th century Europe is captured unforgettably in all its beauty, poverty, double standards and hypocrisy;  Lauscha, that tiny village with the enormous reputation is riddled with hierarchies that refuse to accept change, and the Steinmann girls find that the way ahead is strewn with pitfalls – and I won’t find out what happens until Book Two ‘The American Lady,’ comes into the library.  Ms Durst-Benning has given us a real page-turner, even though Samuel Willcocks’ translation favours the modern idiom perhaps more than it should.  That minor quibble aside, I can’t fail to give this lovely, unashamedly romantic story FIVE STARS.