Thursday, 19 May 2016

MORE GREAT READS FOR MAY, 2016

Blood, Salt, Water by Denise Mina

Detective Inspector Alex Morrow returns after too long an absence (see 2013 review below), dealing still with the myriad problems thrown up by having a brother who is THE kingpin of the Glasgow criminal world, and still operating from prison, where she sent him in one of the hardest life-choices she had to make:  family loyalty or loyalty to justice?
Regardless, she is happy he is off the streets (for a change) even though she has to endure thoughtless remarks from her superiors to the effect that ‘at least he kept all the other crims in order’.  Teeth-grinding and fist-curling stuff but she can concentrate her considerable talents instead on a huge seven million pound scam that is being perpetrated by a Spanish quartet who are clever, but not clever enough to disguise their actions completely: the London Metropolitan Police want Police Scotland’s surveillance assistance as the scammers have transferred themselves to Glasgow;  if they are caught in that city, then Police Scotland can expect a fair dollop of the confiscated seven million pounds for themselves – and the police certainly need cash:  police resources are at their lowest ebb ever;  stations are being closed everywhere and morale is sinking rapidly.  A healthy injection from the Proceeds of Crime would cheer everyone up considerably.
Alex finds surveilling the couple despatched to Glasgow quite relaxing;  she even starts to develop a rapport with Roxanna, gorgeous and fiery girlfriend of the much younger Robin;  whilst not liking their life choices, Alex sees in Roxanna certain good qualities, especially maternal love towards her children that obviously comes before anything else.  She would never desert them, ever, therefore it is extremely worrying when one of her children reports her missing:  this is completely out of character, and Alex starts to fear for her entertaining Spanish con artist.
And rightly so.  Alex’s search for Roxanna takes her away from grim and grubby Glasgow to the beautiful areas of Helensburgh and Loch Lomond, only to find that murder has been committed, and quite professionally, too.
Ms Mina weaves a very tangled tale here:  there are more than the usual amount of sub plots and minor characters and one definitely has to pay as much attention as Alex does to every potentially guilty party – this could be to the story’s detriment in the hands of a lesser writer, but Ms Mina is so adept at mood and characterisation, particularly of local factions in small towns that it is once again a tremendous pleasure to involve oneself with each of her inventions:  shonky lawyers (more than one!);  snobby locals and their polar opposites;  small-time criminals – and their bosses;  and Alex’s various colleagues, those she likes and those she definitely doesn’t:  all as real and recognisable as thee and me, and let us not forget her wastrel brother, who has been attacked in prison (shucks, that’s a surprise!) and is doing the life-and-death hover in hospital.  Denise Mina is still the best, still a babe, still a top chick crime writer:  FIVE STARS!    
      

The Red Road, by Denise Mina

Ms Mina is justly renowned for her gritty and disturbing thrillers set in the stark confines of the city of Glasgow, and ‘The Red Road’ continues in the same vein:  Detective inspector Alex Morrow is Ms Mina’s White Knight in an unremittingly grey world, and once again she is battling – vainly, it seems, to make a significant wound to the belly of the criminal world of which her brother Danny is a kingpin.  Danny who tricked her, exploiting her yearning for family into ignoring her intuition sufficiently enough to nominate him as her twins’ godfather, yet another layer of respectability he constructs in his attempts to hide his activities from law enforcers: who better to have on your side than a high-ranking policewoman who is also your sister?
DI Morrow’s lot is not a happy one and is further complicated by the puzzling death of a respected lawyer who seemingly collapsed both lungs in a fall;  the resurrection of a 15 year-old murder for which a 14 year-old girl served a prison sentence – defended by the late lawyer;  and yet another murder committed on the same night (the night Princess Diana died) of a teenage boy.  His young brother was found guilty, but information has just surfaced that shows that the evidence and his ‘confession’ were manufactured – by the police.
Yet more killings are uncovered, and with them corruption so deep that Alex feels as if she is drowning in it:  whichever decision she makes will deeply affect innocent people.  If she says nothing and preserves the status quo the villains will continue on their merry way, reaping the rich rewards of their sins, and if she speaks out and exposes Glasgow’s festering underbelly yet again, more baddies are lined up to fill the shoes of those she sends away.
She speaks out.
And reaches her glass ceiling.  Her brother is caught in the net of her investigation, but because of their kinship she is not allowed to claim credit for her skill at catching him along with so many other big fish:  the praise and promotions go elsewhere.  She is forced to conclude – rightly – that she is too good at her job;  too principled, and too na├»ve in believing that there are others of her acquaintance who are of a similar mindset.
And we shall have to wait until the next gripping instalment to find out if Alex’s morals and self-respect remain untarnished, and if she can survive the horrors of her job without being permanently brutalised by it.
As always, Ms Mina poses many more questions in her stories than simply ‘who done what’:  she examines with great skill and insight the human frailties that assail so many of us, and the tipping points reached that turn ordinary folk into sinners.  FIVE STARS

Winter, by Marissa Meyer                      Young Adult reading

            Marissa Meyer’s retelling of  Snow White, the final fairy tale of her marvellous quartet of books starting with ‘Cinder’ (see ecstatic 2012 review below) brings to a close one of the best fantasy series I have ever read:  while keeping to the famous, tried-and-true details of the wonderful stories of the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault, she introduces completely new, futuristic settings and characters that compliment and comment on the age in which we live in such a way that I will never gaze upon the moon again without wondering what is REALLY Up There.
            Snow White has been transformed into Princess Winter, hated stepdaughter of Lunar Queen Levana – hated for her peerless beauty, her loving kindness, and her effortless ability to melt the hearts of everyone around her, qualities that are entirely lacking in Levana, despite her own gift of presenting herself as drop-dead gorgeous, not to mention a just and merciful ruler.  The truth, naturally, is exactly the opposite:  Levana’s subjects, especially in the outer regions, live in slavery and poverty, barely existing in the mines and forests created to bring wealth into Artemisia, the capital.   She and her allies, a band of wizards called thaumaturges, control everything and she will tolerate no-one who would undermine her power.  Winter’s days are numbered.  Except for her one ally, her childhood friend Jacin who is now a senior palace guard, and charged with ‘keeping her safe’ – which he does, for he loves her and would protect her with his life if need be, and that time comes sooner than expected, when Levana gives him the fatal order to dispose of his beloved Winter.
            Enter Cinder, now an Outlaw and ready to start a revolution, Red Riding Hood (Red for short) formerly an imprisoned pet in Winter’s menagerie, and Cress (alias Rapunzel), all intent on rescuing the enslaved subjects of Luna from Levana’s madness and cruelty.  They are assisted by various stout-hearted, personable allies;  Carswell Thorne, criminal but charming Ace spaceship pilot, enamoured of Cress but silent on the subject;  Emperor Kaito, Cinder’s own Prince Charming, and Wolf – the Big Bad one, madly in love with Red.  Yep, the gang's all here, and I’m sure you’ll all agree that reading every book of the series is a must, so that all the backstories are properly explained.  Will the Lunar uprising started by Cinder be successful?  Will all these wonderful recreated characters live happily ever after, in the best tradition of all beloved fairy tales?  Read the books, see the movies.  FIVE STARS    


Cinder, by Marissa Meyer (Young adult reading)

How lucky am I that one of our clever librarians recommended that I read this book:  what a favour she did me, what a break, WHAT A STORY!    
The tale of Cinderella – yep, Cinderella, her nasty stepmum and the two stepsisters – is transferred hundreds of years into the future.  Cinderella is now Cinder, living in New Beijing with a family who are, to say the least, most reluctant guardians.  She is a mechanic (truly!) and a Cyborg, to her shame, having been fitted out with a steel hand, leg and inbuilt computer screen after a terrible childhood accident.  Cyborgs are the future’s Untouchables, considered fit only to perform the most menial and degrading of tasks, but Cinder is such a good mechanic that a Royal prince visits her to have his tutor android repaired, and after that visit she and the reader are lost:  she to alien romantic impulses (she is not programmed for this!) and a reluctant involvement in a life and death experiment -  and the reader to being nailed to one spot until they have reached the last page.

To add insult to injury, the hapless reader finds that after a thrilling journey at a breakneck pace through more clever plot twists than a pretzel, (we all go to the ball, but Cinder loses her cyborg foot, not her slipper!)  there are three more books to come – and they haven’t been written yet!  To say I feel cheated is an understatement and the withdrawal symptoms are dire, but I also say with complete confidence that ‘Cinder’ will be the next big Blockbuster book/movie series:  you read it here first.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

GREAT READS FOR MAY, 2016

The Soldier’s Curse, by Meg and Tom Keneally

In June 1825 convict Hugh Llewellyn Monsarrat is serving a second sentence in Port Macquarie, New South Wales after being transported from England for fraud and forgery.  He knows he should feel grateful that he wasn’t hanged, for the fraud for which he was convicted was impersonating a solicitor, thereby bringing the whole profession into disrepute – despite the irrefutable fact that he represented his clients more conscientiously than a lot of his colleagues.
A combination of unfortunate circumstances and the malice of a particular ‘godly’ personage has seen him lose his rights, hard-won in the growing settlement of Parramatta, for a second time;  now he is employed as a clerk for the new Commandant of Port Macquarie, who has been instructed to found a penal outpost in a place considered ideal for convicts to extract timber from the surrounding highlands and an excellent source of lime for the manufacture of bricks.
Monsarrat is a bitter man:  his original crime of impersonating a solicitor was brought about as much by knowing that his poor origins prevented his advanced education as much as his conceit at doing the job better than those both educated and lazy – for him the words ‘if only’ are the saddest words in the world.  But he takes huge pride in knowing that his peerless copperplate and superb efficiency will always stand him in good stead, especially at present with his new Gaoler, Major Shelborne and his charming young wife Honora.  His undoubted talent for his labours earns him small privileges;  a separate hut to sleep in and the enjoyment of the inestimable company in the Government House kitchen of housekeeper Mrs Hannah Mulrooney, herself a freed convict (transported to Australia from Ireland originally for stealing butter for her infant child).
Mrs Mulrooney is illiterate, like all poor Irish of her time but her intelligence and shrewdness are without question – and she makes a cup of tea beyond compare;  a drink not just hot and satisfying, but a balm for bad and sad moods and the blessed metaphor for the comfort of hearth and home.  Mrs Mulrooney’s kitchen is a vital haven for Monsarrat and various others who strive to be in her good books, and the kettle whistling on the hob is music to their ears.
Eventually all is changed by the departure of the Major on an exploratory mission, and the sudden mysterious illness of his young wife who, despite Mrs Mulrooney’s loving care sickens a little more each day, literally wasting before the housekeeper’s horrified eyes.  Monsarrat, who has access to the various books and newspapers sent to the Major is shocked to read that a spate of arsenic poisonings in England and Ireland connected with a green-dyed wallpaper seem to have distressing similarities to Mrs Sherborne’s symptoms and while it is true that green wallpaper is being fitted in the Drawing Room surely that is coincidental.  Isn’t it?
Until Honora Sherborne dies and Mrs Mulrooney is arrested for her murder:  Monsarrat knows with utter certainty that she is innocent, and it is up to him to find out the truth.  Who did murder Mrs Shelborne, and why?
The Keneallys have produced a beautifully written account of the early life in a new convict settlement which is now a lovely and bustling tourist destination in Australia.  Their protagonists ring true on every page and their research is impressively detailed, but the story’s leisurely pace does not match the action demanded by its plot:  having made that dire criticism, this  story was still a pleasure to read, and we can look forward to meeting Monsarrat and Mrs Mulrooney again, for ‘The Soldier’s Curse’ is Book One of a series.  FOUR STARS

Dexter is Dead, by Jeff Lindsay

Dexter Morgan, Monster Extraordinaire (and immortalised in an award-winning hit TV series) is in the worst trouble of his twisted life:  he is imprisoned – so far without trial, thanks to the machinations of a Detective who regards him as Dog faeces on his shoe – for several murders that he did not commit, including that of his dear, silly wife Rita.  (See October 2013 review of ‘Dexter’s Final Cut’ below).  He is understandably outraged at this frightful miscarriage of justice:  he has committed so many perfect crimes that it is deeply insulting to be charged with killings for which he is (just this once) completely innocent.  What is the world coming to??
His situation cannot get any worse, surely – until he receives after an alarmingly long interval a visit from his adoptive sister Detective Sergeant Deborah Morgan who, contrary to his expectations, has not arrived to use her influence to free him – quite the contrary:  she doesn’t care if he ROTS in prison!  He is vile, unspeakable and only cares for himself (all true;  he cannot deny that is a fair assessment of his character, but …. This time he’s innocent!), but what about HIS KIDS!!!  Has he forgotten about Rita’s two children and his own little daughter with her?  Has he given any thought to them at all??
Of course not.  Dexter’s priorities are centred entirely on getting out of the pokey.  He has not spared a single thought for their health or welfare:  his own is much more important.  Fortunately, Deborah is more family-minded, as she scathingly reminds him:  she wants him to sign custody papers, then never, EVER contact her or the children again:  he is unfit to be in their lives.
Dexter is reeling from this shocking (and cruelly unjustified) attack.  How can he possibly think of the children until he is released from these trumped-up charges?  At the very least Deborah’s logic is fatally flawed, but if she won’t help him – as she has made painfully clear – then he seems destined to spend a long time in his mini-cell, arranging his toothbrush.
Until ….. until he receives a visit from a lawyer for the rich and infamous, someone he couldn’t possibly afford, who promises to ensure his rapid release from prison:  evidence has suddenly come to light (how?) that the arresting paperwork has been tampered with.  Dexter is a free man.  Oh, joy – there must be a God of some kind after all!  But no.  Especially when Dexter is collected from the prison gates by his brother Brian, instrumental in gaining Dexter’s release, but also requiring his very urgent help.  Dexter has always known that there is no such thing as a free lunch, but anything to do with Brian (a person of equally monstrous urges) usually poses a risk to Dexter’s well-being, not to mention life and limb. 
Dexter, as always is right:  Brian, hired assassin – ‘best job I ever had!’ – for a notorious Mexican Drug Lord, has offended his employer and is now on the run;  he needs Dexter’s undoubted expertise at enemy removal to help rub them all out.  What’s not to like about that job description for dark, daring, deadly Dexter (who loves alliteration) and badass brother Brian.  They are going to have SUCH fun!
And they do, until Dexter’s children are kidnapped by the Drug Lord and Deborah demands that he resume his fatherly duties and ‘do what he does best’:  rescue the kids and finish every one of the f*ckers off.  As painfully as possible.
So he does;  he, Brian and Deborah, that unholy trio of vigilantes go to the children’s rescue knowing that survival for all of them is slim or non-existent, and I have to say that Dexter’s demise is a sad day for crime fiction.  I still can’t believe that this excellent series is finally at an end, for Jeff Lindsay has created the perfect anti-hero in Dexter Morgan;  brilliant, witty, wise (let us not forget handsome!) and monstrously homicidal.  Dexter’s millions of fans are going to miss him – me too:  I can’t believe he’s gone.  FIVE STARS


Dexter’s Final Cut, by Jeff Lindsay

Ah, Dexter.  Dark disciple of drastic solutions to dreadful problems;   lover of alliteration;   pseudo-pillar of society, proud possessor of wife and ready-made family and respected blood-spatter expert for the Miami Dade Police Department:  could the latest book in this excellent series  be Dexter’s final, fatal foray into murder and mayhem?
OK, I’ll stop right there with my attempts at alliteration – they’re not a patch on Mr Lindsay’s, but I do hope that this won’t be the final Dexter adventure.  If a cold-blooded, relentlessly efficient and remorseless killer can endear himself to millions of readers, then anti-hero Dexter is a riotous success, a total knock-out - because he’s funny.  And brilliant.  And up until now, entirely unable to feel any emotional response to anyone he knows, including his family.
When this story begins Dexter is just boogying along in the same old groove, going to work, going home to the family, and sometimes departing from the norm with late night trips to find a ‘playmate’, someone who has committed a terrible crime for which he cannot be punished by the law – until Dexter decides that it is time for the miscreant to sin no more.
Life is uneventful, until a new TV crime series starts filming in Miami, and Dexter and his grumpy sister Detective sergeant Deborah Morgan are seconded as technical advisers to the production, Deborah being the ‘inspiration’ for TV star Jackie Forrest’s character, and Dexter’s expertise in forensics as a guide for Robert Chase, former megastar who is nearing his use-by date.  Needless to say, the novelty of explaining his work to his handsome but dim pupil palls very quickly for Dexter;  besides, Robert (call me Robert, not Bob) doesn’t seem to have the stomach for the latest grisly murder, that of a young woman found savaged, raped and carved up in a dumpster.  Robert’s definitely a workplace hindrance but one that Dexter has to cart around like a large colicky baby – then another young woman is found, defiled in the same heinous way and disposed of in another dumpster, and when the third blonde corpse is discovered it becomes obvious that the beautiful Jackie Forrest has a stalker, one who is killing women who resemble her, and he states that she will be next.
Dexter, much against his wishes is nominated to be her bodyguard for the duration of the shoot;  wife Rita and children are told by Deborah that he is away on highly secret business and Dexter moves into Jackie Forrest’s luxury hotel suite.  Here the reader could be forgiven for expecting the action to proceed in an orderly predictable fashion, with Dexter, happy murderous beast that he is, finding and despatching the stalker in his usual efficient and clandestine way before Ms Forrest is attacked – or at a pinch, even after a nail-biting confrontation occurs – from which she is rescued, of course. 
Sadly, no.
Mr Lindsay shocks us all with the direction of the plot, for the unthinkable happens more than once:  Dexter discovers that his raisin of a heart is not completely dry – he starts to experience feelings.  And because these alien emotions confound him he is not his usual sharp, analytical self.  He makes several crucial mistakes, errors which have the reader screeching ‘For God’s sake, Dexter – pull yourself together.  Man up!’  But he doesn’t.  When the story ends he is fathoms deep in the darkest ordure ever, with no obvious way up, facing punishment for crimes that he didn’t commit.  Is Dexter doomed?  Will he survive to kill another day?
I can’t imagine that Mr Lindsay would pay any heed to the writer of a Library blog in far-off Hobbitland and her pleas for Dexter adventure # 8,  but what about all the other millions of Dexter fans out there?  It will be all Mr Lindsay’s fault if they get in a sulk, for he has created an unforgettable character in Dexter and his Dark Passenger, so much so that his literary demise is unimaginable.  I have no realistic idea how Mr Lindsay can resurrect Dexter from his impossible predicament, but I have faith.  I hope he doesn’t leave him in the shite for too long, though;  Dexter’s fastidiousness is legendary and the suspense will kill me!  FIVE STARS

Girl waits with Gun, by Amy Stewart

            This action-packed account of the Misses Kopp’s attempts in 1914 to rid themselves of the fatal attentions of the Black Hand gang in New Jersey is all based on real events – even the newspaper accounts in the book are reproduced as printed at the time, but Amy Stewart has given us living, breathing embodiments of Constance, Norma and Fleurette Kopp, three unmarried sisters who live on their late mother’s remote farm outside Paterson.  Constance, the eldest is six feet tall and strapping with it;  she is thirty-five and is not interested in the domestic life expected of women of the day;  nor is her sister Norma, several years younger but happiest in the country away from city noise and bustle;  only the youngest sister Fleurette who, at seventeen wishes to experience all the joys cities promise is a girl of her time, despite being tutored at home by her mother and sisters, and sheltered as much as possible.
            Fleurette is pretty, vivacious, winsome and as tiny as her sisters are the opposite;  they know that eventually she will fly the coop but until then they hope to keep her protected from a hurtful world for as long as they can – until that world intrudes one day on their trip to Paterson for supplies:  one of those new-fangled automobiles drives into their buggy, destroying it and frightening the sisters (not to mention their horse!) to bits, then adding insult to injury the portly drunken driver and his friends have the nerve to tell them to get out of the way – the collision was THEIR fault because their horse spooked!
The patent unfairness riles Constance and the crowd of onlookers:  in the interests of fair play she requests that the person pay for the cost of destroying their buggy, and when he smirks at his mates and attempts to get back in his car, she sets in train the nightmare events to follow by herself acting the heavy:  wrenching the door out of his hands, towering over him (not hard, he’s pretty short) and threatening him with the law if he does not reveal his identity so that she can furnish him with an invoice.
Sadly for the Kopp sisters, they have made an enemy of a ‘Silk man’, Henry Kaufman, whose family owns silk mills that employ a lot of people.  Constance’s humiliating stand-over tactics witnessed by his disreputable mates and a huge crowd of bystanders are too much for Kaufman to forget:  a bloody revenge against all three sisters is the only solution that will satisfy him, and he has the money and connections to achieve it.
Ms Stewart has reconstructed historical events superbly;  her prose is as plain and no-nonsense as Constance herself, and the Kopp sisters’ origins while exotic to the point of fiction, are well-documented as fact, including a huge secret that drove the family from Brooklyn in the first place.  It is one thing to write convincingly of events that occurred a century ago;  it is quite another to bring the era and its characters so thrillingly to life.  FIVE STARS