Monday, 25 May 2015

LAST GREAT READS FOR MAY, 2015.

Blood on Snow, by Jo Nesbo

Olav Johansen is dyslexic.  He has had trouble reading all his life, but it hasn’t stopped him trying.  His memory for what he so painstakingly absorbs is razor-sharp, as he reveals in his first-person narrative – except that he is self-deprecating whenever he shares with the reader a little morsel of his vast knowledge on myriad subjects – ‘but what do I know?’  He is also a romantic, and inclined to donate money anonymously to down-and-outers;  he falls in love with fallen women – and he is also a hit man, a ‘fixer’ for one of Oslo’s bigtime gangsters.
 He sees nothing incongruous in his coldblooded dispatching of whoever his boss tells him to remove, and the soft side of his nature which exhorts him to care for the exploited prostitutes his boss employs, particularly Maria, a deaf-mute with a limp:  he still can’t understand why Maria works as a prostitute, until he finds out that she is paying off her junkie boyfriend’s drug debt.
Olav’s life is fairly predictable, and he doesn’t expect it to change in any dramatic way – until his boss tells him that his next ‘assignment’ is to remove the boss’s faithless wife.  Olav feels a sense of awful forboding with regard to this new task, especially when he stakes out the rich apartment in which Mrs Boss spends her ineffectual days and learns that she has a young man who visits her every day at the same time to beat and rape her.  True to form, Olav’s warped sense of chivalry rears its mutant head and he decides to rescue Mrs Boss – and ‘fix’ her tormentor.
And that is just the start of Olav’s life-threatening problems.  Life goes pear-shaped and remains so, despite his best attempts to resolve his situation so that he may be the White Knight for Mrs Boss.  Maria has been entirely forgotten and while many people will die because of his actions,  he will learn yet again that the people he most trusts are capable of the worst betrayal.
Once again, Jo Nesbo has created an anti-hero that no-one wants to fail.  As always Mr Nesbo makes each sentence do the work of ten, giving this story  a huge impact in relation to its size, and the bloody imagery of the title is never more appropriate than in the final pages.  Highly recommended.
           
The Murder Man, by Tony Parsons.

This is the first thriller that Tony Parsons has written, and what a good time he has had with the genre:  all the boxes are ticked;  there are plenty of corpses;  the suspense builds with each murder;  there are heaps of suspects, and it is almost guaranteed that no-one, and I mean no-one will know whodunit until the very last pages.  What more could a dedicated thriller reader ask for?  Mr Parsons fills every requirement.
            Detective Constable Max Wolfe has just received a promotion and a pay rise, thanks to his disobedience – not because he meant to be insubordinate, but he acted spontaneously, on a hunch that proved to be right, that saved a lot of lives after he was ordered to cease and desist.
            Now he has been seconded to the investigation into the murder of a prosperous London banker who has been dispatched in a very novel fashion:  his throat was not merely slit, but excavated – gouged out with a weapon that was usually used by wartime commando troops.  To complicate matters further, no fingerprints or indeed any trace of the killer is found at the murder scene, and were it not for a school photo of seven teenage boys found in his office, the police would not even have a starting point.  Until Max, with the enthusiasm of the new recruit pursues the old school connection between the boys, most of whom attend their banker friend’s funeral.  Several of them have become very successful, including an aspiring politician and a prosperous lawyer;  one has become a warrior captain serving in Afghanistan – but one has committed suicide, and another is a heroin addict.
            Despite the horrible loss of one of their little band, the remaining friends are reluctant to speak of their schooldays with any clarity and remain committed to the same story:  they could not understand how anyone could do such a thing – the banker was a fine fellow, beloved by all – until Max uncovers evidence of cruelty and sadism, particularly towards the banker’s wife.  Things, as usual, are never what they seem and the situation only gets worse when the heroin addict is found dead, also with his throat gouged out.  As more of the original seven are picked off by the same method the remaining potential victims are eventually only too happy to unburden themselves of their dark teenage secrets, but to no avail:  they still continue to die, and the police always seem to be just a day late and a dollar short.

            Mr Parson has constructed a very busy, convoluted plot;  there are a lot of subsidiary characters and subplots that require the reader’s concentration, but the pace rattles along at a very satisfying speed, as do the pages.  In fact, this is a page-turner so good that Detective Constable Max Wolfe (who manages to get himself suspended twice for not following orders) should not be confined to one book only:  I hope this will be the start of a series.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

MORE GREAT READS FOR MAY, 2015

The High Divide, by Lin Enger

In 1886 Ulysses Pope, a carpenter in a small Minnesota settlement leaves his wife and two sons to do a job for a farmer up the road, saying he will return by nightfall.  When he doesn’t come home, his disappearance unleashes a shocking train of events upon his unfortunate family, starting with the pursuit by his two boys of their father, and the foreclosure of their property by an odious boarding-house owner who lusts after Gretta, the carpenter’s wife – who can only outwit him for a time while she mounts her own search for her husband and sons.
            To Gretta’s consternation she finds that Ulysses has been a man of great secrets, none of which he revealed to her even though he needed to unburden himself of them;  she now realises with shame that she never encouraged him to do so, believing as her mother did that men should be responsible for their own actions – whatever bothered them should stay with them.  Tragically, Ulysses bears a secret so huge and terrible that he has to leave his wife and family so that ‘he can come back a better man’.  Or die trying.
            As Ulysses journeys north to meet his fate, his wife and boys follow behind on separate paths, paths that reveal Ulysses to be a complete stranger to them:  they never knew he fought with the Seventh Cavalry, the infamous regiment commanded by George Custer and wiped out at Little Big Horn;  they never knew that he took part in the shameful massacre of the Indian settlement at Washita on Custer’s orders – and received a commendation for bravery for the slaughter;  there is so much of his life that was closed to them:  now they are finding out more than they can stomach.
            There are Homeric undertones to Mr Inger’s fine story;  his 19th century Ulysses is a worthy substitute for his ancient counterpart – imperfect, riven by his ideals and the choices he must make in the face of what life throws in his path; and finding, once the choice is made that it was wrong and atonement must follow. 
Mr Inger is a writer of great power;  his fine language describes superbly the plains and Badlands of a great, empty country, but one whose first peoples have already been subdued and corralled into reservations, their food sources exhausted – the herds of buffalo rolling like a great black sea from horizon to horizon all gone, victims as much as they of ‘civilisation’.  Homer’s Odyssey is brought to life again, his great cast of characters reborn but still familiar in a new setting.  Highly recommended. 
           
The Bridge, and Havoc by Jane Higgins Teen fiction 

Now that vampire stories have lost their novelty with teens and what they are reading and viewing, dystopian fiction is filling the gap – as it has for years, reliable as ever and just as successful, particularly as one thinks of ‘The Hunger Games’, ‘Divergent’ et al.  Aspiring Young Adult writers can’t go wrong if they can think up a plot involving feisty adolescents, a crumbling, downtrodden society ruled by cruel, sadistic overlords, and the means for said adolescents to help good triumph over evil.  It’s impossible to go wrong, especially if the author can actually write, and tells a credible tale.
Just such a novelist is Jane Higgins, a New Zealand academic who has decided to try her hand at dystopian fantasy writing – and has done so well that everyone (including me!) will be hanging out for her third novel.
‘The Bridge,’ called the Mol, is one of many that span the river dividing an unnamed city in the future.  Cityside is prosperous and powerful and the victor and aggressor in many conflicts against Southside across the river, the poor part of the city who are traditionally viewed as the servant class – except when they have had enough and rise up in outrage.  Cityside folk call them Hostiles and regard all on the other side of the river as the enemy.
When the story opens the senior students of Cityside’s elite Tornmoor Academy are waiting to see who will be chosen to go on for further training with the ISIS security organisation, protectors of Cityside against all its foes.  A group of four top students are on tenterhooks:  today is the day when their hard work will pay off;  they feel supremely confident – they KNOW they’ve got what it takes and are proud of their abilities and their place in society.
Until three of their number are called out, but not the fourth, a huge shock because Nik Tais is the most talented of the quartet.  He has what ISIS requires and more, but to add insult to injury, no-one will tell him why he hasn’t been selected;  in fact, ISIS seems to regard him with deep suspicion.  Even his name seems to count against him and the fact that he was brought to Tornmoor when he was four years old as an orphan seems to make little difference.  He is not to be trusted – so much so that Nik is forced to flee Tornmoor after he is placed under arrest by ISIS, but the only place he can successfully hide is Southside, home of all those he has been conditioned to regard as The Enemy.
Predictably, he finds that the Hostiles he has been taught to despise have their own stories of abuse by Cityside and he eventually comes to believe that he and his schoolmates have been the victims of propaganda from a higher source;  a mysterious group who refuse to negotiate with Southsiders but seek their annihilation instead.
Ms Higgins provides the reader with mile-a-minute action and pace for the whole of Book One, and continues the breakneck tempo into Book Two, ‘Havoc’, where Nik, now a committed fighter for the Hostiles discovers that there is a mysterious new weapon under development in Pitkerrin Marsh, Cityside’s most feared prison hospital.  Those who are ‘lucky’ enough to come out of the Marsh alive are mere shells, shadows of themselves:  now a truly evil weapon of subjugation will be loosed on Southside – unless Nik and his allies can find out what it is and disable it in time.
Cynics may say that Ms Higgins follows all the formulaic rules of dystopian fiction;  well, naturally,  but I have to say that she couches all the usual requirements in great plotting, great characters and a story that, for all its ‘end-is-nigh’ subtext, ends on a very credible note of hope.  And hope, after all, is what sustains us all, in every situation.  And to prove that Nik is a little less than the perfect hero, he is involved in several nasty fist fights – none of which he wins;  in fact, he can’t fight his way out of a paper bag!  Nope:  hand-to-hand combat is not one of his strengths, which makes him more human – and endearing.  Highly recommended.
  


Saturday, 2 May 2015

GREAT READS FOR MAY, 2015

The Rosie Project, and The Rosie Effect, by Graeme Simsion

True to form, I read these books long after everyone else did;  once again I ask myself:  ‘where have I been all my life?!’
Anyway. I finally obeyed the exhortations of everyone at our library – and word-of-mouth recommendations are the very best kind – to catch up with the millions who made both books runaway bestsellers, and I am so pleased to say that all the praise was neither extravagant nor misguided:  Don Tillman, professor of Genetics at a prestigious Melbourne university is an unforgettable protagonist, an unlikely hero who applies relentless, scientific logic to every situation – until he meets Rosie Jarman, a woman who is his exact opposite.
            Don’s life is entirely under control.  He has worked very hard at making it so, because that is the only way that he can function efficiently:  his day is ruthlessly compartmentalised to the extent of allowing an exact amount of time for sleeping, (7hours, 13 seconds for optimum function during daytime hours) exercising (jogging, biking, taekwondo and karate) a standardised meal routine for every day of the week (thus eliminating indecision when grocery shopping – also on a particular day), and the pleasurable consumption of alcohol – which seems to be the one thing he feels free to indulge in without  regimentation.
            Don accepts that his behaviour is regarded as ‘not average’;  he knows he is ‘wired differently’ as are so many brilliant people who hover somewhere on the autism spectrum, but he has made a life for himself, of a sort, and takes comfort and solace from his little rituals – but … but he is lonely.  He needs a woman’s passion, companionship and love but has no idea how to achieve what even the meanest person enjoys without any apparent effort.  Human relationships are a mystery to him.  Until his colleague and very best friend (his only friend) Gene introduces him to Rosie, a free spirit par excellence who, predictably, is singularly unimpressed with him as a person:  she just wants his help to find her biological father – he is a geneticist after all, so he should have a few ideas how to get her mum’s lover’s DNA.
            Despite the apparent futility of the task, this is the kind of problem that Don’s single-minded logic delights in, and Mr Simsion ensures that Don charms his way into readers’ hearts (and Rosie’s) with a perfect mix of humour, wisdom and great characterisations which continue in the sequel with no loss of pace, comic situations and the myriad ways ordinary people react to Don’s otherness.  
            Don and Rosie marry at the end of Book One and embark on their married life in New York, where Don has accepted a visiting professorship at prestigious Columbia School of Medicine;  Rosie is in the throes of finishing her studies for her medical degree AND Phd (she’s pretty smart, this girl):  life is good, even though Don’s rituals have been either disrupted or dispensed with entirely by the fact of having to live with and defer to another person.  His life is a daily hair-raising adventure of hours without comforting routine;  knife-edge suspense as plans are changed on a whim by the mercurial Rosie – but he loves her:  he is tremulously happy with his new existence, ‘and now has six friends’, more than he has ever had in his whole life.
            Until Rosie announces one day: ‘we’re pregnant.’
            Don’s efforts to make sense of his new role as father of Bud (baby under development) and thoughtful, considerate and caring partner to the expectant mother whose hormones are in an uproar are beautifully recounted by Mr Simsion, who writes so convincingly that even Don’s most outrageous mistakes clearly illustrate his ‘not average’ state of mind.  Don’s six new friends are people we’d love to have as friends ourselves, and I have to say – as I am sure everyone else did who has read these fine books – I’m sorry to have finished them:  it is not every day that one finds the perfect combination of laugh-out-loud humour and wonderfully endearing characters who solve big, life-changing problems by unusual means.  Highly recommended.

Swimming in the Dark, by Paddy Richardson.

The South Island town of Alexandra is a prosperous gateway to some of New Zealand’s most majestic scenery;  it has plenty of tourist traffic to afford its shops lots of sales;  its fruit orchards are famous countrywide, and it is home to flourishing vineyards.  But, like its climate (baking hot in summer and fearfully cold in winter) there are extremes in economic circumstances for its inhabitants, especially for 15 year old Serena Freeman, youngest child of the local ‘good sort’, a woman known for her lack of taste – and sense – when it comes to choosing lovers, especially as many of them are married.  She has made a mess of her life and her five children have suffered for it;  nonetheless Mum does not see that their circumstances are her fault:  life has just been against her, that’s all.
Serena is a bright child, eager to get a good education so that she can leave Alexandra and her failing family – after all, that’s what her elder sister Lynnie did:  she now has a good job in Wellington and an apartment and a boyfriend and, and everything!  Surely these good things could happen to her too? 
She works hard at her education to this end, and is fortunate to have a wonderful teacher who sees her potential and gives her every encouragement – until someone she thought was a pillar of society, a person everyone could go to in times of trouble – proves that there is no-one, no-one she can trust to provide the friendship, let alone honourable behaviour that she needs:  Serena, still a child, is confronted with insoluble adult problems.
Until she is given temporary shelter by her teacher, Ilse Klein, a German woman who emigrated with her parents from East Germany twenty years before.  Ilse’s father has died and she and her mother Gerda live quietly, unobtrusively – not exactly recluses, but not encouraging of the usual backslapping kiwi mateship.  Her father managed that better than she;  notwithstanding, Ilse and her mother are happy to have the peace of ‘one day exactly like the one before it’, for they have known the terrible attention of the State Police, the Stasi, and the evil that was perpetrated upon them and so many others in the name of ‘safeguarding the welfare and interests of all citizens of the GDR.’
Ms Richardson has constructed a nail-biting thriller on many levels:  Serena, who has temporary safety with Ilse and Gerda is still not out of the woods;  more danger lurks, and Linnie has arrived in Alexandra to search for her sister (after a reluctant summons from mum, who is not as worried by Serena’s absence as she should be), complicating the Klein’s efforts to keep Serena hidden.  It would be a shame to reveal more of the plot (no spoilers here!), suffice it to say that Ms Richardson’s writing is so fine that she can convince her readers utterly of the justice of the homicidal intent of a woman who will kill – and enjoy it – to protect her loved ones.

My only criticism of this mighty little story is that, just when Serena is at her most vulnerable (my nails were in a state!) Ms Richardson suddenly switches the action to a flashback to Gerda’s life of twenty years before in Leipzig – beautifully, evocatively told and vital for the reader to understand her as a character – but did it have to be right then?  It seemed like ages before we returned to Serena and current danger.  Important as it was, Gerda’s story felt out of sequence.  Having said that, I don’t know where else Ms Richardson could have inserted it, so I should just zip the lip and recommend ‘Swimming in the Dark’ as a top-notch New Zealand thriller.  Woo hoo!  Kiwis rule!