Friday, 29 January 2016

LAST GREAT READS FOR JANUARY, 2016

House of the Rising Sun, by James Lee Burke

I first doffed my hat to Mr Burke’s literary excellence when I read ‘Feast Day of Fools’ (see 2012 review below); now he delights us yet again with another rip-roaring tale of Hackberry Holland, Texas Lawman and singular hero of impossible situations, but this story travels back in time to the early years of the 20th century and the War to End All Wars:  Mr Burke writes of Hackberry Holland’s grandfather of the same name, a man with more demons than a fellow rightly needs, but (when he’s not killing no-good varmints and giving lesser baddies a good whuppin’) he is a man of honour, according to his own reasoning;  a champion of the weaker sex and those of colour – until he goes on a bender:  Marshal Holland and booze should never mix, for when they do all principles are forgotten and he becomes no better than those he despises.
The action begins in 1916 when Hackberry travels to Mexico in search of
His son Ishmael, an Army officer who leads a troop of coloured soldiers.  Hackberry has let down his son and the boy’s mother, Ruby Dansen in such a way that he feels he will never be able to make amends, but he has to make the attempt even if he is shunned for his efforts.  He doesn’t find his son, but finds trouble, lots of it;  in fact so much that he has to kill a Mexican General, plus several soldiers who are visiting a brothel run by a mysterious and beautiful (naturally) woman called Beatrice DeMolay.  The Madam has helped his son escape;  now Hackberry is happily indebted to her, but makes a formidable enemy when he blows up a hearse (yes, truly) packed with weaponry owned by an Austrian gunrunner called Arnold Beckman – but not before he searches the hearse and finds a mysterious artefact hidden within it.
            Arnold wants his artefact back and is seriously ticked off about the loss of the weaponry;  he is also a sadist and murderer who, if he ever got his homicidal hands on any member of the Holland family would subject them to a long and torturous death.  In the hands of any other writer, Arnold would be an arch villain from a fruity Victorian melodrama, but Mr Burke invests him with a chilling liveliness that makes the hairs rise on the back of the neck, and dialogue so scintillating that it is a pleasure to read what Arnold is going to say next.
            And Arnold Beckman is not the only smiling monster in Mr Burke’s arsenal of Hackberry’s enemies:  Maggie Bassett, prostitute and sometime lover of Butch Cassidy, famed gunslinger of the Hole-in-the-Wall gang has a very big bone to pick with Marshal Holland.  On one occasion when Hackberry was Under the Influence, she swears they married – which may have happened, but Maggie was an inconstant wife and left him pretty quickly – until he wanted a divorce so that he could marry Ruby Dansen, the mother of his child.  (Are you still with me?  There’s no such thing as a simple plot here.)
            In short, Hackberry’s problems are legion.  Absolutely EVERYONE wants him dead, except the reader, and what a pleasure it is to see how Mr Burke manages to extricate Our Hero time and time again from nostril-deep ordure, each close call accompanied by unique humour provided by colourful minor characters, all of whom save Hackberry’s bacon more than once.
            And once again, Mr Burke writes achingly beautiful prose to describe the country he loves;  he evokes superbly a time long gone but his peerless imagery enables the reader to be there, amongst the poverty and beauty and cruelty of a lawless land.  This is the thinking man’s Western.  FIVE STARS
           
Feast Day of Fools, by James Lee Burke

So.  I have to ask myself the question:  what rock have I been hiding under all these years that I could remain uninterested in a superlative writer who has now completed thirty thrillers?  Because I thought he was probably the same as all the other formulaic writers, that’s why.  Well, shame on me.
James Lee Burke’s literary reputation is so secure that he hardly needs an endorsement from a Library blog in New Zealand, but that won’t stop me from singing his praises all the same.  I’m just vexed at myself for not reading his books sooner.  Fortunately, ‘Feast Day of Fools’ despite being the latest in a series of stories about Texas sheriff Hackberry Holland  (yep, that’s truly his name),  is easily read as a stand-alone novel, for Mr Burke’s skill is such that he can bring the first-time reader (me!) up to speed with action from previous books,  introducing it so seamlessly that I never felt mad as I usually do, for approaching the series from the wrong end.
Sheriff Holland is an old man now, nursing much sorrow and many regrets, but still functioning superbly as the guardian of the law in a small West Texas town close to the Mexican border.  He has a loyal staff consisting of  deputies Pam Tibbs, whose devotion is a thin disguise for the great love she feels for him; and  R.C. Givens, whose frail-looking physique belies his resourcefulness and intelligence -  and let us not forget switchboard operator Maydeen Stolz, whose vulgarity offends the Sheriff daily.
Crime in the area is usually connected with the Wetbacks, those hapless Mexicans who cross the Rio Grande, then pay ‘Coyotes’, unscrupulous guides, to help them find menial work in Texas.  They are illegal aliens, willing to do anything to make a living, for compared to their miserable lives in Mexico the United States is still the Promised Land.  However, when the remains of a tortured man are found by a local alcoholic and reported to the sheriff, a chain of events is started that leads not just to wets and coyotes, but to defence contractors and organised crime, an ex-C.I.A operative and the shadowy pursuers of them all, the F.B.I.
Oh, everyone gets a mention in Mr Burke’s complicated plot and there are baddies of truly Olympian proportions, but Hackberry’s true nemesis from previous encounters is Preacher Jack Collins, a messianic, scripture-quoting killer whose favourite weapon is a machine gun.  Preacher Jack is a one-stop-shop of high intelligence, hatred, malice and forward planning, and he and the sheriff have unfinished business to conduct:  every now and then Jack rings Hackberry to remind him, to keep him on the back foot – and these little exchanges are gems.  Mr Burke writes scintillating, witty dialogue, so good that despite the fact that some of the characters reach caricature proportions, they are continually redeemed by their folksy, down to earth humour and logic. 
Sadly, logic is jettisoned in the last chapter of this otherwise fine story:  after a gun battle that should have left no-one alive, Hackberry and his allies march off into the desert and imminent rescue, even though they are all leaking gallons of blood and shouldn’t be able to walk a single step.  That’s stretching the reader’s credulity to snapping point!

But let us not forget Mr Burke’s wonderful descriptions of the natural world around him:  he populates his stark and beautiful landscapes with roiling purple clouds, fiery sunsets and the vastness of desert spaces.  Until I read this book I didn’t know a butte from a banana or a mesa from my elbow but I’m happy to say that I NOW HAVE THE PICTURE, thanks to Mr. Burke’s marvellous imagery.  He has the singular ability to make the reader examine crime in all its guises, too -  not just the who-done-it variety, but the greater crimes that start wars, the terrible crimes that wars unleash, and the criminals who set it all in motion.  Highly recommended.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

MORE GREAT READS FOR JANUARY, 2016

Midnight Sun, by Jo Nesbo

Jon Hansen is on the run.  He is a fixer, a reluctant hitman for The Fisherman, premier Norwegian drug dealer;  (see May review below)  sadly, for someone who is supposed to be a ruthless assassin, Jon doesn’t have the killer instinct, still less the complete lack of remorse associated with ending the lives of those who don’t pay their debts.
            His problem is hesitation:  once he looks at the intended victim all his murderous resolve flies out the window, particularly when he is offered a split of the money rightly owed to The Fisherman, and a cast-iron alibi for disposal of the ‘corpse’.  And he needs the money, for he has a young daughter who needs urgent medical treatment.  Despite his dissolute lifestyle (he sells hash by the tonne) he loves his little girl and would do anything to help her get well;  unfortunately The Fisherman is not interested in giving him a loan;  instead Jon must earn money as a hitman, whether he wants to or not. 
            The inevitable happens:  Jon’s precious daughter dies;  he betrays The Fisherman and escapes Oslo with a horde of drugs and wads of cash, this time pursued by real, more reliable hitmen dispatched by his vengeful boss.  He has no clear destination except to go as far north as possible – into the Land of the Midnight Sun.  Perpetual sunlight, guaranteed to drive a callow Southener like himself totally mad, especially one who depends heavily on Valium and alcohol.
            And the local inhabitants of K√•sund, the village he fetches up in, are a pretty rum lot:  either deeply religious or wildly pagan – and the local plonk could strip paint off the wall, not to mention what it could do to his digestive system.  Still, he is alive, and until his murderers find out where he is he intends to make the best of an impossible situation, and the very finite time left to him on earth.
            With an ease born of great skill, Jo Nesbo recounts Jon Hansen’s misadventures, miss-steps and mistakes as he attempts to make sense of and eventually alter the course of his sorry destiny, especially when he makes contact with a good Christian woman and her enormously engaging son:  there may be a future worth striving for after all, if only he can thwart those who want him dead.
            Mr Nesbo is a consistently reliable author:  the reader knows that a high standard of plot and characterisation will always be maintained, and the action will never flag.  He justifiably deserves to be called ‘A writer at the top of his game’ (what an awful expression, but it is true!);  what a pleasure it is to welcome each new title from this great storyteller.  FIVE STARS
           


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 every reader backs to the hilt.  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.  FIVE STARS




Something to Hide, by Deborah Moggach

It is said that there are only six degrees of separation between each of us in life, and Ms Moggach’s latest book amply demonstrates this theory as she tells the story of a group of seemingly disparate characters on opposite sides of the world who, through circumstance and machination find themselves very closely connected indeed.
            Petra is sixtyish: she has a posh background, posh job and posh house in Pimlico; she is the envy of many when in reality she is long-divorced, has no success at relationships, is achingly lonely (even her two children when they left the nest, established nests in other countries) and detests with a purple passion the round-robin computer letter she receives each year from West Africa, written by her best friend -
            Bev, who has known Petra since their school days.  She has come from an ‘unfortunate’ background, but tenacity and a very thick skin has enabled her to gain reluctant acceptance into the higher levels of society – and win Jeremy, her husband, subject of the ecstatic letters she dispatches to all and sundry from West Africa, where Jeremy works for a big chemical company.  Oh, what a life they both have!  They are still after all those years, lovers and very best friends – and they laugh, oh, how they laugh together!  According to Bev, life with Jem is just one long perfect funny idyll.  And Petra hates her for it.  Bev has the kind of life that Petra thinks she will never have, and she wishes Bev and her deliriously happy, detestable bulletins would disappear from the face of the earth – until Jeremy makes a business trip to London and looks her up.  And guess what happens??
            The inevitable hot and entirely spontaneous affair, that’s what, catapulting them both into plans for a future together that obviously does not include Bev.
            Meanwhile, Lorrie, a Texan housewife, is in a state of abject despair:  she has just lost her family’s entire savings to a computer phishing scam, the savings that would have seen her and her army husband able to move out of their cheap and nasty rental into a much better new housing estate on the good side of town.  She has no idea how to break the news to her husband, who fortunately will be deployed overseas soon, and thank God he doesn’t check their finances, preferring her to handle all of that.  She is in an absolute turmoil until her friend across the street presents her with a solution:  become a surrogate mother!  Carry someone else’s baby for nine months and be paid for it!  Oh, could this happen?  Can Lorrie achieve this deception while her husband is away?  She’s overweight anyway, so no-one will notice more poundage for a while.  Heart in mouth, she agrees to be impregnated with the semen of Mr Wang, an enormously wealthy businessman from Beijing, whose wife is unable to have children, and he himself has a perilously low sperm count, thanks to Beijing’s high levels of pollution. 
            Li Jing, Mr Wang’s wife, is kept in the dark about most of his plans, including the source of his wealth, but this time he has appraised her of her impending motherhood.  She is ecstatic, but still would like to know more about the mysterious life he leads on his frequent trips out of China – to West Africa, to the little country where Bev and Jeremy live ‘as lovers and best friends’.
            Ms Moggach skilfully weaves the many colourful strands of her story into a shocking tapestry of deceit (and I’m not talking about Lorrie here -  she’s small potatoes compared to the rest of them!) and murder, where seemingly ordinary people will go to any lengths to keep what they regard as theirs, and where anyone will do anything for the right reward.  This was a great read.  FIVE STARS.    

    













Friday, 1 January 2016

FIRST GREAT READS FOR JANUARY, 2016

Crimson Shore, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

  
          ‘When the doorbell chimed, Constance Green stopped playing the Flemish virginal and the library fell silent and tense.’
            Well.  Who else would start off a novel with such deliciously florid and torrid prose but Messrs Preston and Child – and do it so successfully?  This is the latest in a long line of adventures starring Special FBI Agent Aloysius Pendergast and his mysterious ward, Constance, proficient virginal player.  The plots of each book have become progressively more outlandish, unbelievable – and HEAPS of fun, not to mention faster paced than a speeding bullet.  And let us not forget the addictive factor:  Agent Pendergast, with his silvery eyes, inexhaustible supply of funereal bespoke suits, seeming invincibility against everything that villains most dastardly can throw at him, and superlative deductive powers (he has more PhDs than you can shake a stick at) is a protagonist who has gathered devoted fans (including me) from all over the world – he has his own website, for goodness’ sake!
            We last met him in ‘Blue Labyrinth’ (see review below);  now, he and Constance are persuaded by a noted sculptor to do a little moonlighting:  someone has stolen the sculptor’s priceless wine collection from his home in a converted lighthouse on the wild and stormy New England coast.  Would Pendergast (whose stellar reputation at solving difficult crimes has even penetrated artistic circles) care to investigate?  There would be considerable financial reward – but our hero, after learning that a single case of wine had survived the theft, requests just one glorious item from that case:  a bottle of Chateau Haut-Braquilanges.  The Nectar of the Gods.  (Needless to say, for mere mortals such as I, its virtues would be entirely wasted.  It’s just as well Aloysius knows his stuff.  I’ll take his word for it.)
            Anyway.
Quelle horreur!  After careful examination of the wine racks, Pendergast is able to deduce – from a tiny finger bone (!) -  that behind the empty shelves is a niche which had contained a body – a man who was  bricked-up in said niche and left to starve to death:  the wine theft was a clumsy cover-up by people who wanted to remove the body and surrounding evidence.  There is a lot more villainy afoot in this storm swept little village than the theft of wine, distressing though that may be to its owner and wine connoisseur Pendergast.
            Naturally, the intrepid team of Pendergast and Green are soon following clues scattered everywhere like confetti;  Constance is dispatched to the local historical society, there to uncover evidence of the remains of a coven of Salem witches who fled from the trials and deaths of their sisters, and our Super FBI agent uncovers dreadful evidence in the wild salt marshes of a heinous 19th century crime – but wait:  there’s more!
            Constance, despite her penchant for prowling in dark basements and stubborn preference for retro garb (long cardies and longer tweed skirts), still harbours what can only be regarded as lustful thoughts towards her Guardian:   she lays her hand on his knee as they partake of the delights of Pendergast’s hard won bottle of Chateau whatsit.  A passionate embrace cannot be avoided, but Aloysius Pendergast is a man of superhuman self-control, and he thrusts her from him, crying ‘you are my ward!’
            Much to Constance’s fury.  (What a hussy!)  In fact she is so irate that she stalks out into the wild and stormy night clad only in her robe and nightie, filled with vengeful thoughts:  she will show that prissy paleface that she can solve the remaining mystery BY HERSELF.  Who needs Aloysius the Virginal (and we are not talking about the musical instrument): just you wait, she is the ultimate Weapon of Darkness – until someone even darker makes his big move. 
            Oh, oh, OH!  Constance is in the crapola, and can only be rescued by her funereal guardian, who realises too late that an arch enemy whom he thought dead (didn’t Constance push him into a bubbling volcanic crater?) has almost certainly returned.  Which just goes to show that Messrs Preston and Child can be as absurd as they like;  despite the presumed death of Aloysius, the disappearance of Constance (she has returned to the reassuring darkness of the basement) and the resurrection of Diogenes, Pendergast’s diabolical bro, we are still hanging onto every word and furious because this episode of epic silliness is finished. Well, buggeration is all I can say.  Preston and Child had  better be writing the next adventure at the speed of light.  What fun -can’t wait.  FOUR STARS

Blue Labyrinth, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Special FBI Agent extraordinaire Aloysius Pendergast returns yet again to do battle against the forces of evil – and not before time, I say!  His myriad fans have been languishing without him, and it’s all very well for Messrs Preston and Child to throw them a bone from time to time with various solo novels and the combined authorship of a series featuring a new hero, Gideon Crew, BUT.
All that secondary activity is a mere distraction until the Master resurfaces, this time to fight a mysterious new villain, one who has hidden his identity so well that more than half the book is (greedily) consumed before his identity is revealed.
In common with all the other evil ones that Pendergast has dispatched to the hereafter, Mystery Man is festering with hatred towards our pale hero -  but he is no ordinary Dastard, for he is motivated by revenge:  thanks to an awful genetic curse wrought upon his family by one of Pendergast’s ancestors, Mystery Man contrives through absolutely genius planning, to infect Pendergast with the same fatal malady - but not before leaving the dead body of Pendergast’s twin son on the Agent’s front doorstep as a calling card and to start the ball rolling.  Pendergast’s days are numbered!
Now.  Because Pendergast knows something about absolutely everything he is able to self-medicate for a while as he searches for his killer, but as the horrid disease starts to have its wicked way, raising his temperature uncomfortably in his black wool suits, he realises that the cavalry will have to be summoned – and who better to ride to his rescue than Margo Green, anthropologist and ethnopharmacologist,  doughty companion on many previous bloody adventures at the New York Museum of Natural History.  It will be her job to manufacture ASAP an antidote from rare  ingredients pinched by none other than Constance Green, Pendergast’s mysterious ward – well, she’s certainly mysterious to ME, as I haven’t yet found the book (and I thought I had read them all) where she makes her first appearance.
By any reader’s calculation she must be about 150 years old, but is as young and glowing as the dawn;  the only clue to her advanced years is her curiously formal way of speech, and her retro fashion sense, but – but the woman is an Amazon!  And she knows HEAPS about various acids, and how to administer them to nasty men who should know better than to try to stop her at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden from stealing a super-rare plant to save Pendergast’s failing life.  Constance Green is a warrior, and she accomplishes grand larceny and mass murder in minimum time and maximum efficiency (he’s definitely worth it!) clad only in a silk Teddy.  Sorry, Constance:  chemise.
Does Our Hero survive?  Well, what a silly question:  of course he does, returning to his healthy pallor in no time at all, and enjoying a fresh supply of Armani funeral garb.  And he and Constance are closer than ever, which is only right:  she rubbed out half an army of mercenaries that he might live!  Do you suppose she fancies him?  Watch this space.  FOUR STARS

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, by Stephen King

Stephen King’s latest collection of twenty short stories contains some that have never before been published, plus oldies but goodies that have been revised.  Preceding each is a little intro from King, explaining to his Constant Readers his thoughts and motivation for writing the story, and for me this was almost as entertaining as having an actual conversation with this great storyteller.
Big themes permeate many of the tales:  morality, guilt, greed – and fear, for what would a Stephen King book be without that most disabling of emotions?  With accomplished ease he makes the hair on the back of one’s neck stand and the goose bumps rise, especially in Mile 81, the tale of a car supposedly broken down and needing assistance at a deserted rest stop on one of Maine’s highways:  those good Samaritans who stop to help meet an awful fate, until the line of deserted cars with doors hanging open eventually attracts attention of a more positive kind.  This is vintage King at his creepy-crawliest.
‘Batman and Robin have an Altercation’ doesn’t involve the supernatural;  instead the author examines senility, its ravages and the resentment of a loving son who dutifully takes his elderly dad to the same restaurant every Sunday for lunch, watches him eat the same thing, and say the same things EVERY SUNDAY – until one Sunday, when dear old dad is being driven back to the nursing home a road-rage attack of horrific intensity changes their lives forever:  a frail, handicapped old man still has it in him to become Batman, the Caped Crusader.
One enormous pleasure for me when reading Mr King’s fiction is his command of the various speech idioms throughout his vast country – and his great sense of fun.  It may seem incongruous to people who see him solely as a writer of supernatural fiction that he has such a rich vein of humour running throughout his work;  in fact some of it is laugh-out-loud funny, and that’s as it should be, for humour is one of the most vital weapons in our armoury with which to battle life’s pitfalls.  In short (and I could have said this first)  You need the laughs to balance the scary bits!
And the laughs come in abundance with ‘Drunken Fireworks’, a tale of neighbourly rivalry, initially good-natured, between a mother and son living in a little summer shack on the poor side of the lake, versus a prosperous Italian family living on the rich side of the lake.  Every 4th of July it is the custom for people to let off fireworks, and what began as ‘who has the biggest sparklers’ turns into a take-no-prisoners battle to the bitter end, the whole fiasco narrated by the shame-faced son from ‘the poor side’.  What a gem.
To be followed by ‘Summer Thunder’, the last story of the collection.  Such was its impact that I am still thinking about it – because it could happen so EASILY.
Nuclear bombs have been detonated.  (Mr King does not say how many, or who did the deed, but think how many countries have them!)  The world is dying and he introduces us to a landscape with few people left to enjoy the last sunlight.  The Southern Hemisphere is buried under a poison cloud and it is something of a miracle that Robinson and his dog Gandalf (a stray he found after the Event) are still alive and can enjoy the sun’s rays.  Robinson is almost  paralysed with grief;  his wife and daughter are dead, as is most of the population, and there is evidence everywhere in the country area in which he lives that the wildlife is dying in droves – but he still feels that he can carry on as long as Gandalf is OK.
There is no happy ending to this powerful little story.  With consummate skill Mr King demonstrates why man is the most ferocious animal on the planet, destroying his beautiful home and every life form in it to achieve dominance – over who, when there is nothing left alive?  FIVE STARS