Sunday, 28 February 2016

MORE GREAT READS FOR FEBRUARY, 2016

In the Cold Dark Ground, by Stuart MacBride

Logan Balmoral MacRae is back, and about time, too, I say!  In the tried and true genre of Crime fiction – you know;  burnt-out detectives with shattered private lives but an uncanny knack for solving the most difficult crimes – well, Burn-Out Logan makes his recent experience of demotion to Police Sergeant in a small but dreary town in North East Scotland entirely credible.  Yes, he – and his team of fellow reprobate law-enforcers - all suffer from varying degrees of exhaustion and burn-out, but policing anywhere is a tough job: someone has to do it and they’ve put their hands up.  More fools them.
            Not much has changed since Logan’s last appearance in ‘The Missing and the Dead’ (see review below), except to worsen:  his beloved girlfriend Samantha has been in a coma for five years (truly!).  She will never wake and he has been told by hospital staff that it is time to say goodbye, a situation he has been dreading and shying away from even though his rational mind knows it is inevitable.  Another death is imminent:  wee Hamish Mowat, crime boss supreme of Aberdeen is in the terminal stages of cancer.  In a last conversation with Logan, wee Hamish informs him that he wishes Logan to take control of his empire for he knows that upon his death all the other crime lords from near and far will be circling like vultures, ready to break up his ‘life’s work’:  he is convinced that Logan (despite the fact that he is a Police Officer – how I wish I’d read all those earlier books!) will be the only one strong enough to hold it all together.  All this under the homicidally jealous eye of Reuben, the Reubenator, wee Hamish’s wing man who has the intimidatory strength to keep things going – but not the brains.  Reuben hates Logan, and Logan knows it is only a matter of time before the Reubenator mounts an attack.
            He is almost relieved when a conventional murder rears its ugly head:  a man’s naked body is found in the woods, hands bound behind his back and a rubbish bag taped over his head.  Despite the classic imitation of a local gangland-style killing, Logan is not convinced that the Bad Guys actually did this – for once, they are innocent – of this crime, anyway, and when the Major Investigation Team from Aberdeen (still run by his old boss and friend – and proud lesbian – DCI Steel) mounts an investigation, his suspicions prove to be correct.
            Sadly, Logan’s week from Hell doesn’t end there:  he is also asked by the Police Internal Professional Standards division to covertly investigate DCI Steel:  there is suspicion that she manufactured evidence to send a sexual predator and rapist to jail.  As much as everyone abhors his crimes (for which he was never convicted) Scottish justice has to be SEEN to be done:  who better to investigate Roberta Steel, than her trusted friend and confidante, the turkey-baster father of her children, Logan Balmoral MacRae.  Yes, let’s add betrayal to the list of Logan’s Lousy Week.
            Last but not least, a new Superintendent from the Serious Organised Crime Task Force is visiting and seems have taken an inexplicable and irrational dislike to him, thus making his life doubly miserable.  Could anything else go wrong?  Well, of course it can and it does, at a breakneck pace that this reader could barely stand – I wanted to yell ‘Slow down, slow down!!’ – and all because I didn’t want this mighty episode in the hapless (but not entirely hopeless) life and times of Logan to end.  Stuart MacBride is a storyteller Extraordinaire, a superb wordsmith who is in the enviable position of being unable to write fast enough to supply his readers’ demands.  FIVE STARS    

The Missing and the Dead, by Stuart MacBride

True to form, I have made the acquaintance of hapless detective Logan MacRae in the ninth book of his adventures – to my disadvantage, for Logan is a thriller reader’s treasure:  canny;  brave (well, of course!);   not averse to using unconventional methods to catch the crims – to the despair of his superiors;  messy private life (I’ll say:  his girlfriend’s been in a coma for FOUR YEARS.  Whaaaat???);  and the absolute loyalty and devotion of his team in rural Aberdeenshire, where he has been posted (a demotion?  Of course not, merely a ‘development opportunity’.  For whom?  Certainly not Logan). 
            Yep, Logan must have trodden on a lot of Brassy toes in the previous books to have been consigned to what is essentially scraping up drunks and druggies off the pavement on Saturday nights, and rounding up stray livestock (any old night).  A change of uniform from Detective Inspector to the bullet-proof vest and black T shirt of Police Scotland is a far cry from what he is used to, but he tries to be philosophical about his new circumstances and rounds up drunks, druggies and cows diligently – until the body of a little girl is found in an abandoned swimming pool just outside one of the small towns he polices.
            Despite the arrival of a Major Investigation Team, there are no leads as to the identity of the little girl,  in fact their enquiries seem to reach a dead end on every front – and the last thing they need is a maverick consigned to the sticks trying to stick his oar in.
                Enter Detective Chief Inspector Roberta Steel, Logan’s former partner, proud wife of Susan and mother of two daughters for whom Logan donated the sperm (yes, truly!  I wish I’d gotten onto these books sooner, then all these revelations would seem quite normal).  Regardless of her various little quirks (she is serially unfaithful) DCI Steel also thinks outside the square, and she needs Logan’s help.  Which is not forthcoming, for he has been ordered to stay away from all pending investigations, on pain of dismissal.  He has been accused – not entirely without foundation – of wrecking months of other peoples’ investigative work with his under-the-radar methods, so Steel will have to soldier on alone.
            This is a great read.  Mr MacBride has another more recent anti-hero, detective Ash Henderson in operation , which is how I was introduced to this latest opus.  What makes Mr MacBride’s stories so credible is his skill at writing of the foibles and vagaries of characters so real we can recognise in them people we know – and ourselves.  He is a superb storyteller, and lifts crime-writing up several notches with each book.  Highly recommended.

Napoleon’s Last Island, by Tom Keneally

In 2012 Australian author Thomas Keneally attended an exhibition in Melbourne of artifacts and mementos of Napoleon Bonaparte;  his ‘garments, uniforms, furniture, china, paintings, snuffboxes, military decorations and memorabilia’.  The origins of this collection intrigued him, for a large part of the trove was supplied by the Australian descendant of the Balcombe family, whose head was the providor and agent for the British East India Company on St. Helena, when Napoleon was exiled permanently to this island in the Atlantic after the Congress of Vienna decided his and Europe’s future in 1815.
            William Balcombe, his wife and family of five children had already been residents of St Helena for several years before Napoleon made his impressive arrival.  St Helena was an important trading stop for His British Majesty’s ships as they travelled east to Africa or west to the Americas.  Various regiments were garrisoned on the island and its benign Governor was provided by the British East India Company:  for the Balcombes the organisation and provision of stores for the troops as well as the locals gave them status and security that they would not enjoy back ‘home’ in England.  Life was good, and the arrival of Napoleon, ‘The Great Ogre’ and his colourful entourage, all of whom brought unaccustomed French Style and more than a whiff of celebrity notoriety, was  more excitement than the gossip-starved inhabitants had enjoyed in many a year.
            Betsy Balcombe, a name that leapt out at Mr Keneally at the exhibition was barely a teenager at this time, but he decided that he would tell of Napoleon’s last exile in her voice.  She kept a journal which he read, and this superb novel is narrated by her – that wilful, blunt and witty girl, ‘the Emperor’s chief friend and annoyer’.  She speaks to us eloquently of events and characters that are undimmed after two centuries, and the injustices, penury and exile her family endured (to the penal colony of Australia) thanks to their friendship and support for OGF – Our Great Friend, Napoleon Bonaparte.
            Betsy recounts that at first, the Ogre’s exile was comfortable;  he was billeted in a charming little pavilion on the Balcombe’s estate ‘The Briars’, and such was his charm and magnetism that many of the military who were ostensibly his guards availed themselves often of his august company, excellent wines and the exotic foods prepared by his personal chef.  William Balcombe in particular profited handsomely from all the entertaining, as it was his duty to provide all the ingredients for the Emperor’s table – a satisfying situation for everyone, until the Crown decided to relieve the British East India Company of its administrative power on St Helena.  Mild-mannered and tolerant Governor Wilkes was replaced by Sir Hudson Lowe (‘Lowe by name and Lowe by nature’ according to Betsy, coiner of many apt phrases), Napoleon’s new jailer, and one who took his position seriously.
            Governor Lowe has many questions, such as:  ‘This prisoner is living in great comfort.  In no other prison are prisoners afforded such conditions:  why is this?  Why is the prisoner allowed entertainments and exotic food?  Why does he have a retinue of servants?’  It is Lowe’s task – which becomes an obsession – to bring Napoleon to heel:  under Lowe’s watch, the self-styled Emperor will eat crow instead of chicken for the remainder of his miserable life.  Luxury is now a thing of the past.
            Mr Keneally has reconstructed  history in thrilling fashion;  what a master he is at breathing wonderful life into his characters great and small, especially Betsy, who misses nothing, speaks her mind – and even uses her fists when she must.  If she were alive today she would be Australian Prime Minister!  FIVE STARS     







Monday, 8 February 2016

GREAT READS FOR FEBRUARY, 2016

A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara
This story is a heart-breaker.  And it could break wrists,too, from its size
 and weight if the reader is tackling a hard copy, for Ms Yanagihara has constructed a giant of a novel in all respects.  There are no happy endings here:  its themes are horrifying and indescribably sad, but there is also much to celebrate in this huge opus;  spare, beautiful prose, wonderful characters and an epic story that never flags:  what more could a reader want?
            Four young men, fast friends and Ivy League graduates, are establishing themselves in New York, city of ambition and mecca for all those aspiring to carve out a reputation in the arts and commerce.  Malcom Irvine, lucky scion of a rich family, has trained to be an architect and thanks to his parents’ wealth, fully expects to achieve eventual success.  Jean-Baptiste Marion, (JB) of Haitian origin, is the group’s aspiring artist;  he makes up for his lack of money by having a larger-than-life personality which endears him to his friends but his mouth sometimes gets him into trouble.  Willem Ragnarsson, Wyoming import and like all handsome waiters, an aspiring actor – ‘a kind boy who grew into a kind man’, is flatmate of Jude St. Francis, law graduate, and the star of the group – because he is so gifted he could have chosen a career as a mathematician, a classical pianist, or an opera singer:  instead he has decided on the law. 
            Everybody loves Jude;  he is kind and loyal, generous to a fault – but he has huge secrets.  He wears long-sleeved shirts, always, even when it is high summer.  No-one has ever seen him without clothes;  he walks with a pronounced limp and at times appears to be in severe pain.  He refuses to discuss his origins and expertly fobs off those who enquire.  Jude is a mystery to all and his friends in particular, but for the most part (JB being the noisy exception) they respect his privacy and feel that eventually he will reveal more about himself.
            But he never does.  As the years pass, the friends establish themselves in their various careers, becoming exactly what they want to be, achieving success beyond all expectations, and Willem has found fame as a movie star -  which is thrilling, but he can’t help thinking that his very self is disappearing, overwhelmed by the many different ‘selves’ he is hired to play.  His most concrete reality is his friendship with Jude, most treasured companion and the person who needs him most, for Jude, whose success in law is awe inspiring, has many demons that seem intent on consuming him -  but he still won’t seek help or talk about his past, or why his body is covered with scars.
            Jude’s life, which he considers worthless and little is a mighty achievement against terrible odds.  This is a story about love;  the many permutations of it and the enormous cruelties and injustices committed in its name.  Ms Yanigahara’s characters personify every variation and do her justice on every page.  What a tour de force she has created:  anyone who reads this will not forget it easily.  With this massive master work she has created a major place for herself in contemporary American literature.   SIX STARS!!

The Secret Chord, by Geraldine Brooks

Biblical King David, mighty warrior of Judah and bringer of lasting unity to the tribes of Israel;  founder of The City of David called Jerusalem, yet still a man of the people, able to commune intimately with the most lowly and gain their permanent loyalty;  David, kingly in every way, blessed with strength and beauty and possessed of a divine gift to compose and perform celestial music with voice and harp;  David, anointed by The Name as the ruler to establish and lead a powerful empire.
            David, ruthless strategist and schemer for his own ends, a killing machine in battle when the bloodlust is upon him, and able to perform the most bloodthirsty and terrible crimes ‘because it was necessary’;  David, lover of Jonathan but married to Jonathan's sister, the first of a long line of wives, all necessary to make sons.  Pulitzer Prizewinning author Geraldine Brooks brings David’s life and times to stark reality, capturing the reader from the first page to the last as she writes with elegance and grace of a man who was touched by The Divine, a man whose name has reverberated throughout history;  whose legend is as strong as ever.
            The device of having someone humble narrate a history of his master is not new, but Ms Brooks uses it to great effect when she introduces Natan, David’s Prophet to tell their story.  Natan is ten years old and tending his father’s sheep when he meets David, outlawed by King Saul, who is in the depths of madness.  David politely requests that Natan’s father give them supplies, a request that is furiously refused, to the eternal consternation of Natan’s village, for it is soon laid waste by David’s killers.  As Natan stands in his father’s blood he is seized by a voice not his own, a voice that promises David ‘a throne, an empire and a line that would never fail throughout the generations.’  And Natan’s path is also clear:  he must make his life for better or worse,  with David, as a receptacle for the mighty voice which speaks through him whenever The Name wishes pronounce judgement.
            Through the years Natan observes David’s triumphs – and his sins;  the lust David could not control for Bathsheba, wife of Uriah, one of his most loyal and principled commanders:  to have her David engineers Uriah’s murder, arranged as a convenient death on the battlefield.  Natan watches with growing horror as David’s indulgence and spoiling of his beloved sons  culminates in incest, rape and fratricide – all seen in awful visions by David’s prophet, who is unable to prevent any of it happening.
            The Name is exacting retribution for David’s hubris.  It is time to make him repent.
            And so he does, but there are more hard lessons to learn, especially involving the treachery of his sons, each vying for the kingship:  Natan records it all;  his master’s history, every last act, good and bad.  Ms Brook has done marvellous justice to a towering historical figure, taking the reader to The Land of the Bible, Land of Milk and Honey, Land of the Fathers, and Land of David, Father of a Line that never failed, throughout the Generations.  This is a great book.  SIX STARS!!!