Thursday, 28 April 2016

LAST GREAT READS FOR APRIL, 2016

The Sword of Justice, by Leif G. W. Persson

The absolute antithesis to the usual burnt-out but noble detective in thriller fiction returns, much to every Swedish Noir readers’ delight:  Detective Superintendent Evert Bäckström rears his head again, corpulent, crafty and amoral as ever – and just as successful, mainly because he is so expert at ‘making a bit on the side’ (what else is a man to do to supplement the basic wage?), and manipulating every system to his advantage.
He is still not popular (see 2014 review below) with those lesser beings, his colleagues;  they know that every time he says – nearly every day – that he has to attend an important meeting at Headquarters in Stockholm he is really skyving off;  filling his fat little frame with expensive food and drink, then going home to sleep the sleep of the just and/or avail himself of obliging female company, thanks to his growing reputation as Sweden’s premier crime fighter.  His colleagues will never take kindly to all the orders and legwork he dispenses, particularly when his own dubious habits and chronic laziness are well known:  yep, they’d love to see him fall flat on his smug face, preferably in something nasty and foul-smelling, but will it ever happen?
Not immediately, for Our Hero has received wonderful news:  Thomas Eriksson, Sweden’s most crooked defence lawyer has been found murdered at his home, along with his huge Rotweiler.  The police are hardly at a loss to name suspects;  there are so many who want Eriksson dead that it will take considerable time to cross them off their list of ‘people of interest to the investigation’ – which (naturally) Bäckström is heading:  as far as he is concerned, someone has done Sweden an enormous favour ridding it of such vermin – he is glad Eriksson is dead;  still, it is up to him (and his grumbling, mumbling team) to wield The Sword of Justice and apprehend the killer.
Mr Persson is a master of characterisation – he has created an anti-hero absolutely unforgettable;  portly, gluttonous, an unashamed leaker of info to the newspapers (for a hefty consideration) as the investigation continues, but a sharp little man intelligent and shrewd enough to figure out every angle of what is fast becoming a crime involving art fraud, the Swedish Mafia and – last but not least – a trail that could lead to (surely not!) – the Swedish monarchy.
And let us not forget Bäckström’s regrettable impulse buy:  Isak the parrot, on his best behaviour in the Pet Shop, only to turn into the Parrot from Hell when his new owner brought him home.  Isak plays a minor but important role in proceedings, becoming in his own little way as memorable as his owner, who trusts and prays that he will not meet the same fate. 
Leif Persson has produced yet another winner:  he effortlessly patrols Jo Nesbo country – with dark satire and delicious humour.  SIX STARS!

He Who Kills the Dragon, by Leif G. W. Persson

Detective Superintendent Evert Bäckström, surely the most outrageous policeman in Swedish thriller fiction, returns to shock and infuriate his long-suffering colleagues – not to mention the reader – in Mr Persson’s latest offering.
Bäckström has had some narrow escapes since ‘Linda – As in the Linda Murder’ which have nothing to do with apprehending murderers;  rather, the long arm of the law has reached out to grab him (him, shining example of all that is noble and honourable in the Force.  The nerve of them!) and it has taken all his resourcefulness to fend off charges of bribery, corruption – you name it – thrown at him, the result being not dismissal, as so many of his colleagues hoped, but exile for a year or two following up traffic violations - for Bäckström has an influential relative in the Police Association, so there!  He is not incorruptible (as everyone already knows), just immovable.
When the story opens, Our Hero through various circumstances has been recalled to his usual duties, investigating the murder of an elderly pensioner in a block of flats in suburban Stockholm.  He should be delighted to be back on the job, delegating with his usual superb flair all the work so that he ends up doing very little;  instead, he is in the depths of despair after a compulsory visit to the Police Doctor who prescribes immediate weight-loss,  lots of daily exercise and NO ALCOHOL – or else. 
Bäckström is inconsolable.  Life is shit.  Eating lettuce leaves and drinking water is no way to live for a man of his appetites;  he’s a gourmet, a connoisseur of strong drink and a fearless wielder of his Super Salami with various lucky partners in the comfort of his Hästens bed:  if this is his future, he might as well resign from life right now. 
Until God conveniently appears in a dream to Bäckström as he tossed and turned (on his Hästens bed) on the third day of his travail and Lo!  God tells him to forget about pursuing the new path;  the old path is his true path, so get back on it.  What else can Bäckström do but obey?  One doesn’t argue with God!
After a very satisfying meal of every food he loves and thought he’d never eat again, followed by a couple of very good beers, Our Hero is ready to concentrate again on his current murder investigation, and because he has a very good staff and a truly excellent Russian civilian investigator, it isn’t long before what everyone thought was the murder of an old pisshead by another old pisshead and all done and dusted by the weekend, turns out to be something much more challenging and complicated.
As before, Mr Persson gives us a wealth of detail, including mini-biographies of all the minor characters, but there is less sermonising than in ‘The Linda Murder.’  In this story that is not so important, for the dreadful Bäckström is such a force of nature and so outrageously entertaining that there is little room this time round for polemics - and it is an added pleasure to discover that (when he does it) he is actually very good at his job.  Much to the frustration of his superiors, most of whom detest him to a greater or lesser degree, the ‘fat little bastard’ CAN solve serious crimes and get results – whether they like it or not.  And Bäckström finds out that he who kills the dragon gets the princess – and what a princess!  He’s scared stiff.  FIVE STARS.

Riders, by Veronica Rossi                        Young Adult

18-year-old Army recruit Gideon Blake dies whilst training to be a part of the elite Ranger Regiment;  on a training jump his main parachute fails to open and he plunges thousands of feet to his death.  He knows he died;  no-one could survive such a fall, but here he is in hospital, nursing terrible injuries that will take months of rehab – but as if that weren’t miraculous enough, his broken bones seem to be healing at a crazily rapid rate, so quickly that he is discharged early into his mother’s care.  And that’s when life gets really weird, for he now wears a bracelet that seems moulded to his wrist, a bracelet made of an unknown red metal.  He can’t remove it.
And Gideon seems to inspire aggression in people who had hitherto regarded him with kindness and friendship;  as he heals (ever more rapidly) he decides to seek some kind of peace with his twin sister Anna, a college student in San Francisco, only to find himself mentally influencing her to drop her waste-of-space boyfriend (no loss there, he’s doing her a favour) and changing the mood of a student party, especially as it seems to be infiltrated by a gang of people so evil he is filled with a raging need to destroy them utterly:  he will make WAR on them all!
Until Daryn, a mysterious girl appears at the same time, dragging him away from doing just that, and appraising him of his new role in life:  he HAS died, but has been reborn as one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, called up again to fight the terrible scourge of evil that manifests itself now as The Kindred.  Gideon is War, and he and Daryn must find Conquest, Famine and Death as quickly as possible so that they can prevent the Kindred from world domination. 
Ms Rossi has written some breathtaking fantasy here with nail-biting action on every page.  Her characterisations of the other Horsemen are as spectacular as they should be, and their weapons and steeds deserve special mention, particularly Gideon’s Red Horse, flames pulsing from mane to tail and the most terrifying thing he has ever seen:  how will he ever learn to ride it when it wants to kill him if he even moves his eyeballs? 
There is no shortage of smart, funny dialogue – Gideon is a motor mouth supremo, especially in his exchanges with Death, who loathes him sufficiently enough to try to cut him down with his scythe – often, but eventually the Horsemen unite as they must to join the great battle of Good versus Evil:  may they triumph, but we will have to wait for the sequel to find out.  FIVE STARS



Saturday, 16 April 2016

MORE GREAT READS FOR APRIL, 2016

The Unfortunate Englishman, by John Lawton

Mr Lawton first introduced Joe Wilderness to us in 2013 with ‘Then We Take Berlin’, (see review below) a furiously-paced thriller set in Post War Germany:  at that time Joe was a young Cockney chancer – with special abilities, sent to Hamburg as a very junior intelligence officer.  Now, twenty years later, he is once again with British Intelligence – but only because it’s the only way he can get out of a German prison for a botched job involving a CIA ‘buddy’ who has proved to be anything but.  His former boss, ex Lt. Colonel Burne-Jones is happy to have him ‘back on board’ at MI6;  as before he has a particular job in mind well-suited to Joe’s great spying and language talents (not to mention burglary skills) – but should Joe refuse this kind offer to return to the fold, then there is nothing else for it but to leave him languishing in a West German prison for a very long time.
Once again Joe is a Spook, but with age comes experience and he really is exceptional at what he is so reluctant to do – which is to train a British Metallurgist to ferret out information about Soviet Atomic Weapons Complexes on the pretext of purchasing zinc and indium from them.  Geoffrey Masefield has plenty of bona fide credentials but Joe senses that Our Geoffrey is more seduced by the romantic fictional dream of being a spy, than the actual nuts and bolts of being one:  shouldn’t he have one of those tiny cameras?  No?  Well, what about a gun at the very least?  Spymaster and pupil are at loggerheads and despite all of Joe’s reservations, Our Geoffrey, Secret Agent, is sent off to the Soviet Union to do his worst.  Which he does, eventually ending up in Moscow’s notorious Lubyanka prison.
It gives Joe no pleasure to have to say ‘I told you so’ to Burne-Jones – who is also his father-in-law (yes, twenty years can produce some surprises:  Joe is married to the Boss's daughter Judy and has twin daughters, Molly and Joan, whom he thought he would never take to but loves to bits) and now he is faced with a return to Berlin, that city of wrecked opportunities, dreams and promises, there to find the best, safest and easiest way out of the fiasco Our Geoffrey has created – and no-one is more surprised than he to be approached by the Russians themselves:  what about a spy swap?  With conditions, of course.  Aren’t there always?  And when Joe hears what those conditions are, the honourable intelligence officer becomes the Artful Dodger once again, with reluctant help from his former henchmen.  He has been made an offer he can’t refuse.
Mr Lawton has produced a sequel to ‘Then We Take Berlin’ which (dare I say it?) is even better:  most of the characters which delighted the reader in the first book return to entertain again;  his plotting is just as fast paced and action-packed and the dialogue is again smart, funny and entirely credible.  Mr Lawton has yet to drink from the same flask as John Le Carre, but he is sitting at the same table!  FIVE STARS


Then We Take Berlin, by John Lawton

John (known as Joe) is a Cockney wide boy, a thief trained to the nth degree by his grandfather Abner, who adopts him when his alcoholic mother is killed by a German bomb whilst enjoying a lunchtime G and T at the local pub.  Joe has many things stacked against him, not least his East End origins and the bestiality of his father, a soldier who returns infrequently from battle to take out the horrors and evil of war on his 13 year old son.  Life, especially during the London blitz would be unendurable were it not for the home of sorts provided by his grandfather, and Joe’s love of reading – the best form of escapism ever.  (And I’m sure every dedicated reader knows that.)  He is a ‘word child’:  he has a gift for languages ; he can imitate successfully any accent;  he is  a boy of ferocious intelligence but devoid of scruples – in short,  he is the perfect apprentice thief.  And he is an apt pupil.
All continues as normal in Joe’s world until Abner has a fatal accident, and necessity dictates a change of address;  the war has come to an end but Joe’s draft papers arrive, and he is sent to the Royal Air Force, there to stir up so much trouble that he is constantly in ‘the glasshouse’ for insubordination – until his many and doubtful talents come to the attention of Lt. Col. Burne-Jones, an intelligence officer who sees in Joe his true calling:  cat burglar and spy for the British Secret Service.  After a crash course in German and Russian, he is despatched to Hamburg, ostensibly as a clerk, but also to check on various citizens who swear they endured six years of the Nazis without becoming one of them.
Germany:  broken country of ruined cities and a vanquished and traumatised population – the perfect breeding ground for rackets and the black market.  Joe the Chancer is in his element.  There is money to be made, quite apart from his clandestine activities on behalf of His Majesty.  He’s happy as the proverbial pig in shite – and then he meets Nell.
Nell, short for Christina Helene von Raeder Burkhardt, patriotic Berliner and aristocratic German , and at twenty already a victim of tragedy at the hands of the Nazis is trying to atone for the terrible sins of her countrymen, witnessed first hand at Belsen.  She occupies a high moral ground, ultimately inaccessible to Joe the Rogue;  he finds her principled view of the world amusing, strange and naïve:  his experience of life has taught him that principles mean nothing – there is only money, and everyone has his price, including himself.
Mr Lawton has given us a gripping read, a searing account of man’s inhumanity to man, and characters that live and breathe on the page.
Joe is the Artful Dodger of the Second World War, endearing, charming, amoral, and bent as a corkscrew.  No good can come of his liaison with Nell, his polar opposite, but the reader hopes until the bitter end that the impossible will happen – this is a novel, after all!  Regardless of the outcome, John Lawton has written a page-turner par excellence:  highly recommended 


               

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

GREAT READS FOR APRIL, 2016

The Ibis Trilogy, by Amitav Ghosh

Flood Of Fire, Book Three

Amitav Ghosh concludes his great sprawling saga of the 1840’s opium Wars with the Flood of Fire unleashed upon the Chinese by the British for daring to oppose their ‘lawful, honest and just’ attempts to trade in opium in China.  Such was the economic sway of the East India Company and its various powerful representatives that the British Government consented to send troops to China to bring that unruly nation to heel;  it was unthinkable that pig-tailed heathen should refuse God-fearing and righteous attempts by virtuous opium merchants to educate and guide them in matters of commerce and trade:  they would have to be taught a lesson.
It has taken Mr Ghosh more than five years to produce this last great story, and I have to admit that I had forgotten some of the characters and a lot of the detail of the first two volumes ( see below ) but his account of Britain’s shameful part in subjugating and humiliating a teeming, populous nation in the name of the twin Gods Money and Profit is first rate, written in a style both lucid and exciting.
The fates of several of the characters are resolved for good or ill here;  the corruption of Zachary Reid, an honourable young second mate on the Ibis is gradual and inexorable, but one still reaches the end of the trilogy hoping that he will redeem himself, even though he sells his soul to not one devil but two when Hong Kong is ceded to the British.
Throughout this story is demonstrated the casual superiority and careless racism directed by British Officers to the men who laid down their lives for them in China:  the Indian Sepoys who fought like tigers for their commanders but were regarded as completely expendable;  one such career man being Kesri Singh, whose Army career evolves into different duties, the keeper of terrible secrets being one.
What an epic adventure this trilogy is, but what leaps out more than all the vividly drawn characters – and there are so many! – is the beautiful Ibis, used for slave-trading and opium transport, but untouched by the evil that men used her for:  she is the great beating heart of this trilogy, the vital life-saving connection for all who need to escape.  SIX STARS!   



Sea of Poppies, Book One

This novel is the first book of a trilogy, and an exhaustive account of Britain’s infamous Opium trade, poppies grown and manufactured into the drug  in India and sold to China in a bid to unman and enslave both populations – until the Chinese Mandarins decide to block further imports of the poppy to their country, thus starting the Opium Wars in the late 1830s, a conflict championed by all ‘right-thinking’ British importers and supporters of Free Trade everywhere – or more correctly, a fight by them to retain the huge profits and enormous riches gained in living off the misery of others.  This story is an ambitious undertaking;  a great sprawling mess of a tale centred around the 1838 voyage of the Ibis, a two-masted schooner fitted out originally as a slaver, then altered minimally after the abolition of slavery to transport indentured Indian labourers to the Mauritius Islands.  The Ibis’s next port of call is  Canton, there to deliver its supplementary cargo of Opium, but such is the detail, the scene-setting, the sheer sweep of the story that at the end of Book One the Ibis is nowhere near Mauritius, but instead fighting a mighty storm, with an officer murdered and several escapees deciding to take their chances in a stolen longboat – Mein Gott!  What an ending:  I am nearly as much up in the air as the crashing waves and screeching winds so thrillingly described by Mr. Ghosh, and am still marveling at the ease with which he has brought an initially bewildering and polyglot array of characters (almost a cast of thousands, and every one has a backstory) into being, then pared them down convincingly until the remainder through many a different circumstance end up as voyagers on the Ibis.  This novel is also notable for the almost unintelligible mixture of Hindusthani, Urdu, Lascar and old British slang used as dialogue, and I had great fun reading the origins of many of our English words still in use today. Mr. Ghosh has crafted an adventure story in the fine tradition of the great 19th century classics;  he’s a worthy successor to Conrad, Defoe and Melville and I am looking forward with great anticipation to Volume 2, ‘River of Smoke’.  A treat is surely in store, and I hope Mr. Ghosh is hard at work on volume 3.  Highly recommended.

River of Smoke, Book Two

This is the second book of Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy.  At the end of  ‘Sea of Poppies’( Book one)  the Ibis, a converted slave ship carrying indentured Indian labourers to Mauritius, is caught in a huge storm.  Two condemned prisoners and three Lascars murder an officer, escape the ship and are thought drowned :   the ship’s first mate is held responsible, not for the loss of life of those worthless monkeys, but for the danger that was caused to the main shipment, a huge cargo of opium on its way to the Chinese port of Canton. 
It was cruel of Mr. Ghosh to leave the reader in such suspense, but ‘River of Smoke’ answers all the questions raised in the first novel, and presents us with a host of fascinating new characters to enjoy.  There is a welcome reintroduction to some of the main protagonists of Book One, but some take a back seat as the action shifts from Calcutta to Canton.  Mr. Ghosh writes of his characters with gusto and verve and it is nothing less than a delight to follow their adventures, framed against the background of Britain’s iniquitous embrace of the Opium Trade, all in the name of ‘free’ enterprise.  Exhaustive research has been undertaken to present an authentic account of the everyday life and business in ‘Fanqui-town’ enclave of the  fabulously rich British Traders:  not permitted to reside in Canton itself, they nevertheless carve for themselves fiefdoms that ignore Chinese laws completely, believing themselves in their monumental arrogance to be above and beyond the control of the heathen devils.   Chinese objections to the enslavement of their population to the poppy go unheeded until a powerful new High Commissioner is appointed by the Emperor – a scholar, an intellectual, a poet -  and worst of all incorruptible,  he  takes up the cudgels on behalf of his people and engages the traders in the first battle of what is to become known as the British Opium Wars. 

Mr. Ghosh’s meticulous attention to fact and his great gifts for imagery and characterization make this story a winner;  my opinion after reading ‘Sea of Poppies’ was that he is a worthy successor to the great 19th century adventure novelists, and this still holds true with ‘River of Smoke’:  when Book Three is read, I know that I will regret this great trilogy coming to an end.  Highly recommended.