Friday, 24 April 2015

MORE GREAT READS FOR APRIL, 2015

World Gone By, by Dennis Lehane

Joe Coughlin, the wild boy of ‘The Given Day’ and the reckless, charming outlaw of ‘Live by Night’ (see November 2012 review below), has now, ten years after losing his beloved wife and most of his friends to murder by his many enemies, become a respected consigliere to the Florida Mobs.  It is 1943; Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano and Meyer Lansky control a huge moneymaking empire of vice and corruption, guaranteed to expand even further thanks to America entering the war after the bombing of Pearl harbour.  Even though Charles Luciano is currently languishing in jail, he still has an iron grip on all his various enterprises, and the shrewd and clever advice given by Joe Coughlin is an essential element of their success.
            Yes, Joe’s life has stabilised as much as his reputation as a gangster will allow:  he is rich;  he donates to many Florida charities;  he has many successful businesses;  he is having a red-hot affair with the blue-blood wife of the Mayor, and he has a young son whom he adores:  except for the loss of his wife, his one great love, life should be pretty damn good – until he learns that someone has put out a contract on him.
            Thanks to Joe’s comparatively early exit from gangster power struggles to a safer and more successful counselling role, he has gained a justified reputation within the criminal fraternity as a fair and clever mediator;  he is everyone’s ally because his advice has benefited everyone.  Who could possibly want him dead?  What could anyone gain by killing the goose that laid the Golden Egg?  And who is the young boy who appears with increasing regularity just at the corners of his vision, a young boy in clothes twenty years out of date:  is he a ghost?  Is he warning him of something?  Joe’s life has suddenly become a frightening prospect, especially when he thinks of his beloved boy.  Nothing must happen to him.  He will do his utmost to protect him from evil without – and within, for Joe has started to suspect his most trusted friends and allies of duplicity.  Something must happen soon, and it does.
            Joe’s inexorable fall from gangster grace is beautifully, chillingly rendered as always by Mr Lehane’s storytelling expertise;  he is a writer of such consistent quality that, though the reader knows that all will end in tears, they still gallop towards the last page, hearts in mouths, hoping for a different outcome – which Mr Lehane rightly refuses to provide, instead demonstrating superbly the sadness and inevitable nostalgia that Joe, that fatally charming criminal, feels for a world gone by.  Highly recommended, as always.


Live by Night, by Dennis Lehane

Dennis Lehane has written many novels, several of which have been successfully filmed.  He centres his stories mainly in Boston, Massachusetts and has always created great characters and great plots.  ‘Live by Night’ is a loose sequel to ‘The Given Day’, an epic tale of the First World War, the soldiers who returned and the police force they joined.  Racism and Baseball play a huge part in this fine book and it would be an advantage for the reader to read this first, if possible, but ‘Live by Night’ can stand alone on its own merits.
Joe Coughlin is twenty years old when this story begins.  He is the youngest son of one of the most respected and prosperous senior police officers in the city of Boston, and he hates his father. His two older brothers have long since fallen out with their martinet parent and left home;  his mother has died, and Joe has happily turned to a life of crime – partly to spite his old man, but also because he likes it.  He doesn’t class himself as a gangster;  he’s an outlaw, a euphemism which has a better ring to it;  it’s 1926, Prohibition is in full swing and there are myriad opportunities to make piles of money from this absurd law as a bootlegger for speakeasies: Joe is thrilled with his circumstances and feels even better that his father, who knows everything that transpires in Boston, is aware that he has a successful criminal – sorry, outlaw – for a son.
Yep, Joe is a is a Twelve O’Clock Fella in a Nine O’Clock Town;  he lives by night, and the night has even more appeal when he meets Flora Gould, a very shady young lady whose hunger for thrills matches his own.  Unfortunately, she is the mistress of a real gangster called Albert White.  Albert is averse to sharing his mistress with Joe and in short order Joe’s life turns sour:  through a series of  unfortunate events he endures a terrible beating, hospitalisation, the loss of his great love and an eventual stint in prison, the sentence of which is reduced thanks to his father calling in some favours.
Like it or not, Joe  should now be repenting at leisure.  His father Thomas, despite his supposed neglect of his youngest has sacrificed his promotion to help his boy survive in prison with a shorter sentence;  all that matters to him now is that his son come out of the dreaded Charlestown Penitentiary alive.  Joe, far from repenting (he’s only sorry that he got caught) devotes his energies and considerable intelligence to surviving attacks from within – and without, eventually forming a long-term alliance with a mafia man, Maso Pescatore.  Ah, the road to Hell takes many forms, and Joe’s journey covers a lot of ground before the eventual showdown and fight to the death:  this is a classic tale of winning it all but losing everything in the process, and Mr Lehane tells it beautifully.  He is a master of suspense and snappy dialogue;  his research is impeccable;  he creates atmosphere and times without any discernible effort and I defy any reader to finish any of his books, then decide not to read another one.  Highly recommended.

The Same Sky, by Amanda Eyre Ward

            Two protagonists take turns to narrate this story;  the first, Carla, is a young Honduran child of eight who lives in extreme poverty with her grandmother and her two much younger twin brothers.  Her mother, in an attempt to make a better life for her family has managed to make the hazardous journey to America, land of gold-paved dreams;  she will eventually send for them all when she saves up enough money from her job at Texas Chicken.
            Alice is a Colorado girl transplanted to Texas after she meets and marries Jake, whose family own a long-established BBQ restaurant.  Her life would be excellent except for the tragic fact that she cannot have a child, thanks to cancer and subsequent doses of chemotherapy.  Jake and Alice’s forays into surrogacy and/or adoption have also failed, and they are resigning themselves with reluctance and sorrow to the fact that their family will only ever consist of themselves.  Alice is not always a likeable character;  she is disagreeable, contrary and downright mean from time to time, especially when she sees Jake’s acceptance of their situation as capitulation:  where is his gumption, his spine, the ‘never-say-die’ attitude that she possesses in abundance?  She is contemptuous of his resignation, and embarks on several new attempts (all unrewarding) to satisfy her thwarted maternal instincts.
            Carla, meanwhile, has suffered tragedy:  firstly, her mother saved enough money for just one of her children to come to her in Texas;  the woman who is delivering the child opts for the ‘quiet one’, twin Carlos who has always been a steadying influence on Junior, his sibling.  Junior is bereft and does not take the separation well;  worst of all, Carla’s beloved grandmother, their island in a sea of poverty and desperation, dies after a short illness.  Carla and Junior are alone.
            Carla’s attempts to find a child’s solutions to her terrible adult problems are portrayed with agonising and brutal clarity by Ms Ward, who spares the reader nothing but the harsh, brutal truth of poverty and such degradation that countless migrants will do anything, including risk death, to Ride atop the Beast, the train that travels from Honduras to Mexico, there (if they are still alive – and lucky) to swim or ride with ‘coyotes’ across the Rio Grande into Texas without being caught by border guards.
            By comparison Alice’s life seems breezy and uncomplicated;  she is loved (most of the time -  she’s prickly);  she and Jake have built the BBQ restaurant into a thriving business;  her family in Colorado have produced three nephews for her to love – but it is not enough:  she will always want more.  She will always want a child.
            Ms Ward unites her two characters fleetingly at the end of this wonderful story, for Carla eventually makes the journey to Texas after suffering unspeakable torments on the way, only to realise that The American Dream is just that;  a dream that hides a reality of drudgery and second-class treatment.  Reuniting with her mother has not been the rapturous experience that she has always longed for;  instead her mother and Carlos hold her responsible for Junior’s absence.  She is now twelve years old.
            In today’s world cruelty, evil and poverty in many countries is the terrible norm, and no writer in my experience has produced work more affecting and poignant, harsh and brutal, as Carla and Alice’s story.  By the very simplicity of her prose, Ms Ward conveys life under the same sky as it is for so many, and as it could be for a very few.  Most highly recommended.

A Song of Shadows, by John Connolly

In ‘The Wolf in Winter’, John Connolly’s last opus (reviewed November, 2014 see below) an attempt was made on the life of Charlie Parker, dark hero of most of Mr Connolly’s books.  He was grievously wounded, but with a choice he made whilst hovering between life and death, and the spiritual support (literally) of his murdered daughter (it pays to have read the preceding books), Charlie decides to give life one more chance.  With the devoted assistance of Louis and Angel, hired killers par excellence he rents a house in a little village on the Maine coast, there to try to regain his former strength and dexterity.
It is a long, painful road back to recovery.  Charlie is not used to the weakness and agony his many injuries cause him but he is determined to get better:  he made the decision to live, now that is exactly what he plans to do.
He is delighted to have a visit from his daughter Samantha, his child by his ex-lover Rachel, and it gives him pleasure to have found a playmate for her;  his beach side neighbour, Ruth Winter has a little girl Amanda who, despite health problems that keep her away from school a lot, welcomes Sam’s company:  from a social perspective life is good.
Until a body is found on a nearby beach, and it is eventually established that it wasn’t a drowning or a suicide, but murder;  at the same time a family has been found murdered in their burning house and the Maine police are swamped with crimes for which they are badly under-resourced.  Tragically, these crimes pale into insignificance when Ruth Winter is cruelly murdered on the night of Sam and Amanda’s playdate, but the most uncanny event for Charlie Parker is that his daughter wakes him to tell him that a man is trying to enter Ms Winter’s home.  How could she know?
Charlie is injured trying to apprehend the murderer on the dunes and it seems that finally his own life is about to end – until Sam (who was under strict instructions to stay in her bedroom) appears at his side to confront the killer – who succumbs to burial under a massive fall of sand, an occurrence that hasn’t happened for decades at that part of the beach .To say that Sam is no ordinary little girl is an understatement.
It is time for Charlie, with the assistance of Louis and Angel, to return to what he is best at:  investigating murder and stamping out evil – if he can, and the deeper he delves into Ruth’s killing, unspeakable old crimes and pure evil finally reveal themselves, for Ruth, a Jew, was killed so that she would not disclose anything she may have inadverdently learned about old Nazis:  Nazi war criminals who entered the United States from Argentina under assumed identities, several of whom settled in Maine.  None wish to be exposed and sent back to Germany, and they will go to any lengths, including multiple murders, to stay where they are.
Charlie Parker is a different person now, after his close brush with death.  There is an implacability, a hardness and resolve about him that cause his loyal friends much disquiet but they are determined – as always – to support him to the hilt in his efforts to purge evil.  Charlie is unfazed by the fact that the battle may be uneven;  what nearly stops his heart is the knowledge that his daughter Sam is just as committed as he to stamp out the enemies of the world, and he is fully aware that she is in just as much danger.
As always, Mr Connolly leaves his readers in terrible suspense right to the last page -  which only poses more questions and enables this beautifully written series to continue.  What a master he is, and what a pleasure it is to read a Charlie Parker book.  Highly recommended.  


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.

           

               

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

GREAT READS FOR APRIL, 2015

The Good Girl, by Mary Kubica

The blurb on the cover of this book compares it glowingly to ‘Gone Girl’, and the format is similar, with the main protagonists taking turns at narrating each chapter.  There the similarity ends:  Ms Kubica’s debut novel is not as polished or well-plotted and some of the characters are overblown and unconvincing;  having said that, Ms Kubica’s story still packs a punch, especially at its conclusion.
            Mia Dennett, the daughter of a prominent and powerful Chicago judge is abducted by a petty criminal hired by Dalmar, a gangster who intends to extort a ransom from her father.  Her abductor has stalked her for weeks, learning her daily schedule and habits, and eventually paying her no-hoper boyfriend to purposely work late so that he can make a move on her in the bar where she waits in vain for her date to arrive.  What her kidnapper doesn’t bargain on is the unaccustomed fear he feels for her at the thought of surrendering his struggling and horrified victim to Dalmar and his gang – he knows from bitter personal experience that they are ruthless, cruel and will enjoy themselves hugely with their prisoner. 
            Contrary to his instructions, he flees with Mia to a remote cabin not far from the Canadian border.  He doesn’t have a plan;  he has no idea what will happen to either of them, but he cannot surrender the judge’s daughter to almost certain death.  Dalmar’s kidnapping and ransom plans have gone pear-shaped and he is on the fugitives’ trail, not least because a minion has dared to defy him. 
            The situation is little better in Chicago:  fissures have appeared in the fa├žade that the judge has carefully preserved around his family and personal life:  no-one is as happy as they publicly seem, and Mia’s kidnapping exacerbates all the old resentments, especially as the judge seems coldly unaffected by her plight: to his wife’s horror, he seems reluctant to consider paying any kind of ransom, despite his enormous wealth.  Breaking point is not far off for everyone, and the only certainty is that the situation will end in tears.
            Ms Kubica manages her plot and characters well enough to make the reader hope that that there will be an improbable happy ending;  the growing attachment between Mia and her kidnapper (commonly known as the Stockholm Syndrome) blossoms from dependence to love:  can they escape to freedom across the Canadian border, or will the law – and those wanting to kill them – catch up with them?
            ‘The Good Girl’ is no ‘Gone Girl’, but it is a good read and a very competent first novel.  Recommended.

Flight of the Sparrow, by Amy Belding Brown

           
In the 1640’s the persecuted Puritans left godless England and its sinful ruler King Charles for a new life in the wilds of America.  They founded new colonies on the east coast, renamed by them as New England, and it was their hope that their new settlements would be truly God-fearing and prosperous;  God’s blessed new outpost in a wilderness populated by savages whom they would convert to the Way of the Lord.
            Amy Belding Brown’s wonderful novel is based on the true story of Mary Rowlandson, devout wife of a minister and loving mother of her three children.  They live in a frontier village called Lancaster;  husband Joseph ministers to the needs of his flock and tills his fields, while Mary fulfils her Christian duty to her neighbours and friends as a good Christian wife should.  She seldom questions her husband’s decisions, for in Puritan society the man is head of the household and women are but lowly handmaids, there to obey his every wish and bolster his authority:  he is the master of the family, answering only to men of more authority – and to God.
            Unfortunately for the outpost families, their Indian neighbours are agitating for rebellion;  they rightly object to their hunting grounds being turned into farmland, with access refused so that they cannot feed their families;  they object to the grossly uneven terms of trade, weighted heavily in Englishmen’s favour;   and the zealous attempts at ‘conversion’ are regarded as another form of subjugation by an alien people who are bent on destroying their way of life forever.  The Indians are preparing for war.
            Regardless of Mary’s fears and objections, Joseph leaves Lancaster to journey to Boston to enlist the help of the British militia stationed there;  he is serenely confident that God will protect his frightened family – after all, he is leaving several men behind to guard their little garrison;  they are all good shots even though one is only a boy.  No:  his duty is clear.  He will be back with soldiers in a very short time. They will hold the fort until his return.
            Four days later at dawn, the feared attack begins.  The remaining men defend their families and neighbours bravely, but after their house is set on fire Mary and her children have no choice but to stagger outside, there to witness shocking brutality and the slaughter of her beloved sister and her children.  The God that Mary has worshipped so faithfully all her life is not present on this day.  Piety and goodness have not prevented her capture and subsequent slavery with her children, nor has God seen fit to spare her youngest child, six year old Sarah, who dies in her arms days later from a musket wound. 
The first great jolt to the foundations of Mary’s Puritan beliefs is a heresy she can hardly acknowledge to herself, but as the days of captivity turn into weeks, she finds that her slave status notwithstanding, life among the Indians has a freedom she has never before experienced.  People are kind – to each other, and to her – they share everything they have, even though they eventually face starvation, and they are loving and kind to their children. 
By the time Mary is ransomed back to the English three months later, she knows that her experiences have changed her permanently:  she will never again be the same goodwife, content to live within the constraints of one man’s will.
Ms Brown has written of Mary’s travails with grace and power;  she is one of those rare novelists who has the ability to capture the reader’s imagination so completely that they are by Mary’s side throughout the book (even though Yours Wussy Truly tried to skate over the massacre), sorrowing with her at the death of her loved ones, but cheering her on when bravery and defiance come to the fore.  This is a gem of a book.  Highly recommended.                  
           
           
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