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.
                  

       

Saturday, 12 September 2015

MORE GREAT READS FOR SEPTEMBER, 2015

Saving Midnight, by Suzy Zail                 Young Adult fiction

 Alexander Altmann is fourteen.  He hasn’t been known by his name for a long time, ever since he was transported from Hungary by cattle train with his mother and sister to Poland’s  Birkenau/Auschwitz concentration camps.  He is A10567 now, regarded by his Nazi captors as Jewish vermin, subhuman, and there to work until he dies or is shot for not moving quickly enough.  He knows his ten year-old sister Lili has already been gassed, but a miraculous meeting with his mother who was herded into a different line causes him to promise her that he will do his utmost to live so that they can come home to each other - if she can survive, so will he!
            As each nightmare day passes, however, he finds it harder and harder to bear the terrible, gnawing hunger every inmate feels, and to subject his wasting body to backbreaking work for all the hours of daylight for food that an animal would reject – and for what?  Because he is a Jew?  His family were farmers first, Jews second.  His religious teachings were practically non-existent.  In any case, it is painfully obvious that God is not present in the Hellhole of Birkenau;  he has discarded His Chosen People in quite spectacular fashion, and Alexander has nothing but contempt for Him, and those who still chant all their silly, futile prayers.
            Until a tiny glimmer, a pinprick of hope presents itself:  those of the inmates who have experience tending to horses are told to put up their hands:  they are to look after the German Officers’ mounts for the immediate future, but like all work they must do they are always subject to the caprices of those who hold the guns.  The whippings and killings will continue for the slightest infraction, or for no reason at all.
            Alexander doesn’t care – he was raised on the family farm to look after all the animals, particularly horses, for which he has a deep affinity:  to be working in stables again, to be tending the animals he loves most is an opportunity he would gladly risk his life for – and if he is sneaky smart, he can help his charges to eat their food!  Life suddenly seems survivable after all.
            So begins Alexander’s time at Auschwitz, and his eventual meeting with a spooked, damaged horse he calls Midnight.  Midnight a, purebred Arabian stallion, so badly treated on his journey that no-one can approach him.  To his horror, Alexander is informed by Commander Ziegler, the flint-eyed officer who acquired him, that the horse must be ready for riding in two weeks – otherwise both Alexander and the horse will be shot.
            Suzy Zail has given young readers a story that sends shivers up the spine;  that breaks hearts with the sheer cruelty and brutality inflicted on hapless millions;  and the ongoing nightmares experienced by those who managed to survive the unspeakable.  As shocking and terrible as Alexander’s story is, it is still a story that must be told – ‘so that it doesn’t happen again.’
            And it is also a story of love, the emotion that Alexander succumbs to and revels in when he and Midnight bond;  and hope, even more essential than love.  Where would we be without either? This is a wonderful story.  FIVE STARS.

Palace of Treason, by Jason Matthews

30-year CIA veteran Jason Matthews has followed up his international best-seller ‘Red Sparrow ’ (see review below) with a sequel that is hugely disappointing.  We still have the same fascinating protagonists;  Dominika Egorova, fearless and resourceful Russian ‘diplomat’, now a mole for the CIA;  Nathaniel Nash, her case officer and reluctant lover;  lesser characters who are absolute delights, i.e. Simon Benford, CIA boss with the best turn of phrase ever, referring to a couple of ineffectual Heads of Station as future nautch dancers in Bollywood movies;  Marty Gable, Deputy Chief of Station who keeps Nate on the straight and narrow and grounded by such common-sense observations as ‘Make up your mind whether you’re gonna be the insightful case officer handling his agent with perceptivity and skill or the spoony little choirboy chewing his quivering lower lip’.
            And what could Nate say but ‘Golly Marty, the way you put it, it’s a tough choice’.
 Yep, nothing wrong with the repartee, but what has happened to the plot??  Mr Matthews has reduced the action to fits and starts – he combines furiously paced suspense with bewilderingly slow and tiresome details of the inner workings of the CIA and its Russian counterpart the SVR, complete with acronyms, cryptonyms and every other ‘nym’ that ever was – and the recipes are there, too, as in ‘Red Sparrow’, at the end of every chapter.  They are still as lethal as ever, which makes one wonder why the spies don’t try to kill each other at the dinner table, but what do I know:  suffice it to say that Domenika’s foes are more dangerous than ever as she moves up the Kremlin ladder and into the rarefied orbit of President Putin.  (I wonder if he has read this book?  If so, he won’t be pleased!)
Nate has been seconded to the Athens Station, and both he and Marty are shocked when a high-ranking  military officer from the Russian Consulate makes contact, offering to pass on sensitive information about the latest Russian weaponry.  He is not interested in financial gain or to bring ruin on a colleague or a department;  instead he is disgusted and appalled at the direction his beloved Motherland is taking in the world:  this is his idea of payback – a poke in the eye of Putin’s Russia.  Codenamed Lyric, he passes on first class intelligence – until a disgruntled CIA officer in Washington who has just missed out on a promotion he feels should be his by right, learns of his existence, and sells the information to the Russian Washington representative for money.
Add to the mix Domenika Egorova’s homicidal boss who hates her to the extent that he tries to have her killed more than once, (the man should take a pill!) and the reader should have more than enough action to contend with – until the pace is inevitably slackened by the minutiae of everyday ‘spycraft’, not to mention exhaustive explanations of uranium extraction and even a seismic floor, which could glaze the eyes of even the most devoted Jason Matthews fan.
That said, I would still read a third book in the series:  Domenika is fearless;  Nate is hapless;  Marty Gable is shameless, and Simon Benford is peerless.  So there .  FOUR STARS.


Red Sparrow, by Jason Matthews

Red Sparrow is not new;  it was published in 2013, but what impresses me about it enough to write a review is that a sequel has been written, ‘Palace of Treason’, and if it is anything like Red Sparrow’ then we are all in for a fabulous treat.
            Russian Dominika Egarova is a privileged, ambitious and enormously talented young woman who adores her country and believes unquestioningly in its leadership under Mr Putin.  Her parents, a respected university professor and a prodigiously talented concert violinist are more circumspect, having felt and suffered enormous discrimination from lesser talents, purely because the lesser talents had ‘connections’ which would always put them in front.
            Dominika aspires to be a ballerina but eventually is sabotaged, just like her parents by a staged accident that ends her career permanently;  enter her influential uncle, who decides that she could be useful as an intelligence officer/honey trap;  a ‘sparrow’ to lure with her great beauty various victims into impossible and irreversible situations.  Dominika gradually realises that she has been coerced and blackmailed herself into an irreversible situation, but because she is a person of intelligence with an exceptional gift – not to mention a huge thirst for revenge,  she decides to play the long game:  after all, ‘Revenge is a Dish that People of Taste Prefer to Eat Cold’.  Yes indeed.
            Dominika’s masters have no idea what hit them when their instructions for her to lure an American CIA agent into her embrace go horribly awry – for them, and  hapless CIA agent Nathaniel Nash:  he has found that his life has changed forever, whether he wanted it to or not!

            Mr Matthews is well qualified to write a spy novel;  he was a CIA officer for more than 30 years and knows the Spook business from every angle, and what a bonus it is for the reader that he is a smart, witty writer who can generate huge suspense, then relieve the tension with much-needed humour.  His characters are (in the main) very believable – except that the villains are more evil than usual, and definitely uglier (!) and I have to say that there were so many abbreviations, acronyms and cryptonyms that I felt battered about the head – oh, and at the end of every chapter was the recipe for a meal that the characters consumed as part of the action:  nothing wrong with that, except that each recipe had enough cream, butter, oil etc to send us all to an early grave.  Did I mind, though?  Of course not.  I am impatiently awaiting ‘Palace of Treason’ which I trust will be full to bursting with more vengeance, corpses and lethal recipes.  FIVE STARS.     

Saturday, 5 September 2015

GREAT READS FOR SEPTEMBER, 2015

Disclaimer, by Renee Knight

Catherine and her husband Robert have just downsized to a smaller house;  the move has been fraught with the usual chaos – things lost, misplaced, and things mysteriously appearing without any logic at all, like the book on her bedside table, ‘The Perfect Stranger’.  How did it get there?  She doesn’t remember buying it or receiving it as a gift, but it is late and she is tired;  she’ll read a few pages to relax.
            Until she realises that the usual disclaimer ‘any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead etc, has a neat red line through it, and as Cath reads on it is clear that what she is reading is account of the disastrous (for her) holiday that she, Robert and their 5 year-old son Nick had in Spain twenty years before:  the horrendous secret that she thought would never be revealed is now the plot of this mysterious book, and she is its main character – and the villain of the piece.
            Ms Knight’s debut novel is a  finely constructed story which expertly manipulates the reader’s sensibilities;  for most of the novel we are suitably outraged at Catherine’s duplicity;  we feel her husband’s shock and grief at her presumed betrayal – all orchestrated expertly by a man who has lost everything, and has laid the blame for his family’s ruin squarely on her shoulders.  His revenge is intended to be all-encompassing and absolute:  everything he loved is dead – by her actions.  He will make her suffer as he does.  Then he will drive her to her (self-inflicted) death:  it is only what she deserves, but not until her husband, son, and reputation are lost to her, then there will be no way back.  There will be no recovery from the grievous consequences of her selfishness, and it gives him enormous satisfaction to see every part of his vengeful plan unfolding without a hitch:  finally, in its last stages, his life has some meaning.
            Ms Knight’s characters are uniformly credible and well realised, from Cath herself who degenerates from a strong-minded 21st century woman used to calling the shots at work and in her family life to a floundering, near hysterical shadow of herself;  Robert, the honourable lawyer and supportive husband, unmanned completely by his wife’s betrayal, then hating her for it;  and Nick, their only child, an aimless drop-out with a drug problem:  he reacts to his mother’s supposed sins by going on an enormous binge, ending up in hospital with a life-threatening stroke - and finally, that last terrible event gives Cath the impetus she needs:  it is time to fight back.
            There is a satisfying resolution, if not an entirely happy ending, to the story:  Ms Knight prefers reality to hearts and flowers, and that’s as it should be, for her characters all live in the real world, with varying degrees of success. As do we.  FIVE STARS.


Time and Time Again, by Ben Elton

Ben Elton has written many books on subjects we would all rather not think about, climate change and the end of the world being cases in point.  He is not afraid to question and explore the consequences of man’s actions on earth, that beautiful planet that is his home, and expose through clever fiction mankind’s sorry blunders.
            This time, he poses the question put to Hugh Stanton, a man who has lost everything worthwhile in his life:  ‘if you had one chance to change history, where would you go?  What would you do?  WHO would you kill to make the world a better place?’
            The year is 2025.  Stanton is a retired SAS officer, an historian, and a shattered man, having lost his wife and two children to a hit-and-run driver six months previously.  There is nothing left for him in life, and he doesn’t know why he accepted the invitation to spend Christmas with Professor Sally McCluskey, his old Cambridge history teacher at Trinity college in Cambridge.  His enthusiasm for doing anything at all is so low that he hopes he will have a fatal accident on his motor bike on the way – he could never kill himself, but if there was an accident, he would welcome it.  Sadly, he survives the journey.  And finds that Christmas without his beloved family, whilst full of grief, is survivable, because Professor McCluskey has a mission for him, asking the big question:  ‘If you had one chance to change history ….?’
The Companions of Chronos (the God of Time), a closed society of retired university Dons wish him to journey back to 1914 to alter history, thus preventing the Great War.  They have a set of equations from the great Physicist Sir Isaac Newton proving that time alters its axis by a fraction every 111 years, making it possible for a person to travel back in time, enabling him to alter whatever major world event had influenced the world for the bad:  the Companions have decided in advance that ‘The Shots Heard Around the World’, fired by Serbian Gavrilo Princip, killing ArchDuke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Grand Duchess Sophie, must be prevented.  If Princip were killed instead, there would be no excuse for war to be declared.
BUT.
As insurance, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany should be dispatched, too, simply because he wanted war.  He had been building up his army and navy for years, and would eventually find a reason to start the conflict.  So Stanton is tasked with a double murder to change the course of 20th century history, to save the lives of millions of young men in the flower of their youth, and to bring peace and plenty to those countries who would have been ruined and obliterated by war.
What an enterprise!  What a task!  Stanton is thrilled with his world-altering mission – until he finds that the New World springing from his actions is even worse than the Old:  can he change destiny again so that the old order prevails?

As always, Mr Elton rockets the reader through the pages of his alternative history at a frantic pace.  His prose, whilst not exactly purple, is very often highly coloured, but did I care?  Of course not.  No-one (with the exception of Stephen King and his ‘11.22.63’) could make time travel through turbulent historic events more gripping than Ben Elton;  and no-one can make the reader agonise more about what we are doing to our planet than he.  FOUR STARS.