Friday, 24 June 2016

MORE GREAT READS FOR JUNE, 2016

The City of Mirrors, by Justin Cronin

            I am SO delighted to have finished this book – not because it wasn’t  a superb story, wonderfully told, but because it is the last title in Mr Cronin’s trilogy that started with ‘The Passage’ six years ago,(see reviews below) and the details of the first books have faded with time.  Given the huge complexities of the plot – not to mention a cast of thousands – Mr Cronin has written in record time his sprawling, monumental account of the world before and after a deadly virus strikes it, but those (like me) who read each book as it was published will have problems remembering who was who, who died, and what the present characters did in the previous books.  On the other hand, those who can read all three books in sequence now will be suitably awed by the mighty sweep of the story, and Mr Cronin’s all-too-real vision of our world in ruins.
            A century after the lethal virus as part of a failed military and scientific experiment was loosed upon the world, survivors on the American continent have gained huge victories:  the twelve monsters created to spread the disease to the population, turning them all into killing machines have been destroyed, in fact no-one has seen a viral for more than twenty years.  Rudimentary settlements have appeared in various places, making use of the detritus left behind to reconstruct as best they can the comforts and necessities they took for granted in that life B.V.  (Before Virus/Virals).  Could it be possible that the danger has passed?  Is it safe now to leave the walled cities and towns, and branch out into the countryside to live, as their ancestors did centuries ago – should they take the risk? 
            Of course.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained!  Besides, though secure against viral attacks the settlements are becoming crowded;  the population has expanded even though local governments have tried to limit it to two children per family;  it makes sense to establish new outposts elsewhere, especially if the virals are all dead.
            But they’re not.  (Didn’t you see that coming!)
            All Twelve leading virals were destroyed in Book Two – but the First, the first to be infected, Zero the most powerful, still exists and bides his time;  eventually he will mount a mega-attack of his own to finish off those scrabbling absurdities who feel superior because they have survived – so far.
            Mr Cronin’s masterly handling of the classic struggle between Good and Evil has as much tragedy as triumph;  Zero’s human story elicits sympathy at his luckless circumstances as well as horror, and the main protagonists, despite performing feats that would make Superman jealous never lose their credibility.  That is a mighty achievement in itself, but Mr Cronin also gives us a chilling glimpse into a time that we would rather know nothing of, a time where the human race oversteps the boundaries of its tenure on this planet – and nature strikes back.  SIX STARS
           
The Passage, by Justin Cronin

Now:  Your first requisite for reading this book is strong wrists – it’s a doorstopper.  Your second is a complete suspension of ‘yeah, right!’ comments as I recount my heavily-abridged version of the plot, for this is a novel on the grand scale as well as huge physical size;  it’s a tale of a scientific experiment gone dreadfully, fatally wrong, conducted by the U.S. Army in a remote location in the mountains of Colorado, the scientific objective being to create a race of ‘Super Soldiers’, impervious to heat, cold, disease and virtually indestructible, thereby conquering America’s terrorist enemies in Afghanistan and the Indian subcontinent. 
There would be no more wounded and dying to be returned home  ‘eating up the defense budget in the veterans’ hospitals’;  in short, it would be the answer to the Pentagon’s prayers – all that had to be done was to inject a new-found virus into chosen candidates, and after a short period of illness, a new, invincible warrior would be born. 
But here’s the rub:  the men initially chosen as guinea-pigs for the experiment were all convicts on Death Row, criminals of the worst kind.  When injected with the serum they were turned into killing machines, entirely devoid  of morals, compassion and conscience – and highly infectious.  The major part of the plot deals with their escape, the destruction they wreak on the world, and What Happens Next, for naturally there are some doughty survivors left to battle these thousands of dreadful beings. 
Mr. Cronin is a superb story-teller;  his masterly plotting and wonderful imagery create suspense of the most heart-stopping kind;   at no time does the story sag or lose impetus -  no mean feat when you consider the size of this book (760 pages).  I read that ‘The Passage’ is the first book of a trilogy:  well, my heart and my wrists quail at the thought of the sheer physical weight of words in the next two volumes, but I can honestly say that I can’t wait to continue this epic adventure,  at the very least  to find out WHAT HAPPENS, but also to know how Mr. Cronin’s characters eventually vanquish the mutants – or will they?  There’s only one way to find out:  keep reading.   Book #2 is called ‘The Twelve’.  êêêêê


The Twelve, by Justin Cronin

The Apocalypse is here.  The sequel to Justin Cronin’s epic novel ‘The Passage’ has arrived and once again the reader is swept into the bleak and terrifying new world that is the U.S.A., after a failed scientific experiment backed by the military in Colorado loosed twelve fatally infectious mutants onto an unsuspecting population.
The action switches back and forth from the weeks and months after the catastrophe to 100 years in the future, when America stands alone – all other countries of the world have forsaken it in their attempts to keep the virus and its dreadful carriers away from their shores and Mr Cronin paints, as always, superb pictures of the destruction and decay of once mighty cities;  the terrible despair and hopelessness of the population; the establishment by brave men and women still fuelled by hope of fortresses in which to build safe settlements, and the efforts of a few who have not lost their nerve to find and annihilate The Twelve so that Americans may once again live as they did in The Time Before.
As in the first book, there are many unforgettable characters, ancestors of those who take the fight in book two to its ultimate destination;  they are so beautifully realised that it is a regret to the reader when their role in the story ends.  As before, the action and suspense is palpably real – but intermittently:  Mr Cronin does not generate in this book the same breakneck pace so necessary to move along a story of this size and scope, and parts of the novel, particularly in the Homeland sections, are less than credible.  Which is a shame, for Mr Cronin met effortlessly all the requirements that any reader could desire in book one:  perhaps book three will find that exceptional rhythm once again, when good will triumph over evil – or Armageddon will destroy all.
Either way, the reader can count on Justin Cronin to keep them turning the pages until the very end –providing he doesn’t slow down in the middle.  FOUR STARS

            

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

GREAT READS FOR JUNE, 2016

The Summer Before the War, by Helen Simonson

                In mid-1914, School teacher Beatrice Nash arrives in Rye, a pretty coastal Sussex town to teach Latin to the local children.  She is under no illusions that they will share the same love for the great language as she, but she means to make her very best attempt to instil within young minds the epic poems taught to her by her father, an internationally recognised and revered classical scholar, from whose death she is still recovering. 
            Beatrice is determined to make her own way in the world, to support herself by her own efforts, rather than to depend on her father’s aristocratic but socially isolated (by their own rigid ideas of self-worth) relatives – who are not so eager to see her depart their care, for the sole reason that she may embarrass them by being ‘employed’ – which only makes Beatrice more determined to succeed.  She also vows never to marry, to yield all the decisions of her life to a man perhaps not smart enough to make them, especially not financially.  Beatrice admires Women’s Suffrage too, which makes her a square peg in a round hole, particularly in Rye, whose traditions and customs have been set in stone for centuries. 
Until the Great War changes everything.  In Ms Simonson’s lovely story the social strata of Britain is revealed in all its degrees of ugliness:  Dickie Sidley nicknamed Snout, Beatrice’s top Latin scholar (there aren’t many of them, but he is sharply intelligent and reads Virgil for the huge enjoyment it gives him) is denied the school Latin scholarship because his father is a Gypsy – and even if Snout didn’t have the Romany taint he still wouldn’t be eligible because his family is poor. 
Hugh Grange, an aspiring young doctor under the tutelage of an eminent Harley Street surgeon (and in love – he thinks – with the Great Man’s charming daughter) is railroaded into enlisting in the Army Medical Corps, not because lives must and will be saved by their expertise, but just imagine the scientific glory to be heaped upon those who can be at the forefront of new treatments for wounds great and small!  Hugh is privately uneasy that ‘men’ are not mentioned – just wounds.  The surgeon’s daughter, too, announces that any admirer in her circle who doesn’t enlist will be presented with a White Feather, the symbol of cowardice, by her and her equally patriotic friends.
Snout is so crushed by the school’s decision to award the Latin scholarship to a rugby player that he persuades his father to give him permission to enlist – a 15 year-old child, off to fight the Hun just as his favourite Trojan heroes did thousands of years ago.  His fate towards the end of the book is horrifying and undeserved, a searing and terrible example of inept and privileged leadership by those ill-equipped to have power over men, at the front because they had a title, and had inherited or bought their commissions.
Ms Simonson has marshalled a great cast of characters, too many to name here but all equally important for the many secrets they hide and hypocrisies they represent.  She has a lovely gift for writing humour in every form through all the social strata, and while I warn that this book is a real door-stopper (580 pages – yep, you’ll need strong wrists!) it is beautifully written and completely absorbing to the last page.  FIVE STARS

Coming Rain, by Stephen Daisley
         
            ‘Traitor’,Stephen Daisley’s debut novel six years ago (see review below) earned him several distinguished Australian literary awards, and ‘Coming Rain’, his second novel, has recently gained him New Zealand’s top literary prize.  And rightly so.
            Set in the Western Australia of the 1950’s, Mr Daisley paints an enormous canvas of harsh, bright horizons, red dust and flies ( I swear I can still hear them buzzing and feel the dust clog my nostrils), myriad wild creatures trying to survive and mean little settlements peopled by men and women as tough and unforgiving as the landscape.  Mr Daisley’s word pictures are breathtaking and brutal as he introduces us to his protagonists, Painter Hayes and Lewis McCleod, itinerant shearers-cum-charcoal burners on their way to shear sheep for Mr Drysdale, a landowner in decline;  his wife has recently died and the land is starting to get away from him.  Even though his lovely daughter Clara has returned from that posh finishing school to help him out, he can’t seem to find the old motivation, the old drive to farm the way he used to.  He is wallowing in his grief.
            Painter and Lew are an unlikely pair:  Lew has been with Painter for ten years, since he was eleven when his mother sent him off with a shearer’s agent after she was given a carton of Lucky Strikes;  fortunately for Lew he was taught the job by Painter, a Gun shearer – and a brawling, boxing drunk on his days off.  Painter lacks a lot as a father figure, but Lew is not complaining, for they look out for each other;  they work hard and travel from job to job in an old truck that becomes more scarred with each journey – but it still gets them there, as reliable an old horse.  He can’t imagine a different life for himself – until he meets Clara Drysdale, gloriously fit, charmingly pretty, a great horsewoman and dog-lover (she has a whole pack of adoring canines) – and the boss’s daughter.
            Painter tries to warn Lew away from certain disaster, but Clara is just as smitten and persuades her ardent admirer to ask her father for permission to ‘see’ her – and the consequences of such a respectful and timid request are  more brutal and tragic than anyone could imagine:  this reader didn’t see the figurative sledgehammer coming, and I am still shivering with horror, but again full of admiration for the sheer power, the absolute mastery of narrative that Mr Daisley displays, especially in his parallel story of a female dingo who keeps on crossing Lew’s path, both of them ultimate survivors  in a brutal world.
            What an honour it was to read this book.  I wish my review could do it justice, but I don’t have Mr Daisley’s wonderful word-power.   SIX STARS   
  

Traitor, by Stephen Daisley

This is a novel about friendship, sure and true and everlasting, born in the carnage of battle and strengthened by terrible subsequent adversity.  There are no happy endings in ‘Traitor’ for its theme is an exploration of what is traitorous:  the betrayal of friendship or of one’s country? 
David Monroe is a New Zealand soldier at Gallipoli;  he has already been mentioned in dispatches for his bravery at Chunuk Bair, but his life is changed forever by his meeting in the heat of bombardment with a Turkish Officer, a Doctor who is frantically trying to save the life of an Australian Digger – his enemy.  They are all victims of the next explosion;  the Australian dies and David, badly wounded by shrapnel, ends up being guard to the Turk Mahmoud, who has lost his foot and most of the fingers of one hand.  They bond with each other to the extent that David tries to help Mahmoud to escape, with disastrous results, especially for himself:  he is now regarded as a deserter and a traitor and undergoes terrible punishment, especially from men he formerly regarded as friends – they have no time for ‘conchies’. 
He demonstrates his courage again and again as a stretcher bearer on the battlefields of France and Belgium, where he has been sent after his prison sentence, but he is never forgiven, then or after the war;  people don’t care to associate with him for consorting with the enemy, a murderer of ‘our boys at the front’. 
This is Mr. Daisley’s debut novel and it is a searing, powerful evocation of a time when ‘King and Country’ meant everything to those at home and to those young men who went to fight – until they encountered the dreadful theatre of war, experiencing first-hand the great divide between patriotism and the bloody reality of destruction.  It is a story of love in many forms, parental love – in David’s case, the lack of it – the love of mateship, romantic love and the love of the land.  Mr. Daisley has crafted a superb and poignant story with unforgettable characters, and a wonderfully accurate portrayal of a life and times now barely remembered in this new century.   His prose is beautiful and elegiac – and utterly compelling.  SIX STARS   


            

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

LAST GREAT READS FOR MAY, 2016

Everyone Brave is Forgiven, by Chris Cleave

The first of British writer Chris Cleave’s novels that I read was ‘The Other Hand’, so singular that it was imperative for me to read whatever else followed, and that was ‘Gold’ (see review below), a superb story of the lengths to which certain athletes would go to attain glory. 
            Now Mr Cleave astonishes the reader yet again with ‘Everyone Brave is Forgiven’, his searing, terrifying account of London during the German bombing in the  first years of the Second World War, and how his main protagonists faced up to Hell on Earth.
Mary North races back to Britain from her Swiss Finishing School in 1939, intent on serving the war effort with the boundless enthusiasm of youth and the formidable talents born of privilege (Mary’s father is a conservative MP), not to mention age-old connections:  imagine her chagrin at being relegated to school-teaching, now that so many of the REAL schoolteachers (i.e.men) are off soldiering.  To add insult to injury, the headmistress of the school to which she is seconded thinks she is an ornament, not serious in her vocation because she favours the lesser lights in her class;  a young black child from America, son of an entertainer at the Lyceum theatre, and various children who are not doing well because they can’t grasp the basics.
Mary is outraged that she is sacked in the first week of her employment because her superior feels that her discipline is too lax, and anyway, all of the children are being evacuated to the country.  No-one requires her inexperienced services.   She is superfluous, and fuming – until the children no-one in the country wants return to London, including Zachary, the black child, the picaninny, the NIGGER, ignored and starved by his host family and stoned by his country ‘schoolmates’.    Mr Cleave doesn’t spare us from English hypocrisy of the time:  evacuating precious white children was paramount;  those of a different hue or intellectual capacity were returned to the bombing after being refused sanctuary in the country,  As Mary says:  ‘I see negro children cowering in basements while white children sojourn in the country, and yet both camps beg me not to rock the boat.  Look at us, won’t you?  We are a nation of glorious cowards, ready to battle any evil but our own.’
Needless to say, Mary has few friends who share her opinions but because she is young and VERY pretty she has many admirers, two of whom become entangled, to their detriment.  I have to say that Mary and her friend Hilda and their male admirers seem more than a little contrived, despite two of the characters being based on Mr Cleave’s grandparents:  Mary and Hilda’s cut-glass accents lacerate us every time they open their mouths and everyone is more witty than a bag full of George Bernard Shaws and Oscar Wildes.  While I delighted in Mr Cleave’s brilliant dialogue it doesn’t always ring true, especially when his male protagonists suffer starvation and the death of comrades whilst trying to defend Malta during its terrible Blockade. 
Having said that, Mr Cleave still manages to communicate with horrifying and superb imagery the terrible privation and losses suffered by London’s population during the Blitz, the desperation and sheer exhaustion of those called on to perform impossible rescue feats, and the fabled stiff-upper-lip so prized by all Britons – for those of their own colour.  How the world has changed in seventy years, and how glad we are that it has.  FOUR STARS   



 Gold, by Chris Cleave.

A few years ago I read a book by Chris Cleave called ‘The Other Hand’ (‘Little Bee’ in the U.S.A.), a story that has stayed with me because of its unforgettable characters (especially little Bee);  the horror and brutality of the circumstances that turn people, particularly children, into refugees; and how they fare afterwards in a supposedly caring world. 
I have been waiting patiently for Mr Cleave to produce his next opus, and here it is:  he pursues a completely different path this time, but as before commands the reader’s full attention and doesn’t relinquish it until the last page.
The London Olympics of 2012 are fast approaching, and three of Britain’s top cyclists are training hard for what will be their last big competition;  they are into their 30’s now, and despite huge former success and gold medals in previous Olympic competition, they know that this meeting will be their Swansong.
Zoë Castle is Miss Photo Op, the rock star of the trio, the athlete everyone wants to be – but no man wants to really know, unless it is to boast on FaceBook that they have worn her medals while they serviced her.  She is obsessively, destructively competitive and has no friends except her long-suffering rival Kate Argall, who through a superhuman feat of selflessness – or martyrdom, remains her steadfast ally, in spite of Zoë’s constant insults, backstabbing and, at one earlier point, her attempt to steal Kate’s man – just because he was Kate’s.
And that man, Jack Argall, is the third cyclist, brilliant, committed to his sport, to Kate, who is now his wife, and utterly committed and devoted to their daughter Sophie, 8 years old and battling leukaemia.
They all want to win gold for the last time, though in Kate’s case, it would be the only time;  she was looking after baby Sophie for the Athens Olympics, then opted out of Beijing when Sophie was diagnosed with her terrible disease.  She is now in the form of her life and knows full well this will be her last chance.
Zoë wants to win, yearns to win, needs to win again, because without victory she has nothing;  her life is meaningless without competition and victory by fair means or intimidation.  She cannot contemplate a future without being a winner:  a future down amongst the earthlings instead of soaring among the stars is unthinkable.
Mr Cleave handles his trio’s relationships, secrets and dilemmas with skill and insight;  he avoids the obvious tear-jerker element when writing of Sophie’s illness and her parents’ suffering;  instead he produces that welcome and increasingly rare phenomenon:  a novel that makes us think, a story that reflects momentous decisions that we all must make at various times in our lives, and the consequences of those choices. And when all’s said and done, that should be the objective of any writer worth his salt:  to engage his audience completely – not by literary artifice, but with a credible story, beautifully told.  Mr Cleave does so effortlessly.  FIVE STARS

A Time of Torment, by John Connolly

The State of West Virginia hides a reclusive sect within one of the smallest counties within its bounds, Plassey County.  Everyone in the adjoining villages surrounding The Cut, as it is known, are careful not to recognise – or God forbid – antagonise the Cut dwellers;  it is common knowledge that bad things happen to them if they do.  People disappear, and if they don’t, their bodies are found burnt and desecrated.  The people of the Cut keep to themselves, and their neighbours are happy to leave them alone.  It is rumoured that their small sect worships an alien God, a God of blood and retribution, a God that no normal Christian could countenance:  the Dead King.
Enter private investigator Charlie Parker, no stranger to battling the forces of evil, and recently terribly injured in his efforts to vanquish his enemies.  He comes to Plassey County to find his client, a man just released from prison after serving a trumped-up sentence for child molestation.  His only request of Charlie is to look into the disappearance of two women who were dear to him while he was inside;  women who didn’t believe that he was guilty of the heinous crimes of which he was accused.  He also tells Charlie that if he disappears, then he has been kidnapped, probably by The Cut, and his life will be over.  Charlie and his two murderous sidekicks Louis and Angel, are ready as always to ferret out the truth and find out where the bodies are hidden, not to mention adding a few corpses of their own to the growing pile.
Last, but certainly never least, Charlie’s two daughters, one living and one dead watch over him with varying degrees of anxiety – at least on the part of Jennifer, the little daughter murdered many years before.  (You really DO have to read these books from the beginning!)  Samantha, daughter # 2, seems to have more confidence in her father’s ability to successfully fight the Dead King;  she has quite exceptional powers of her own, which have yet to be tested.
John Connolly has always described his Charlie Parker tales as ‘odd little books’:  maybe they are for some but for legions of his fans around the world, odd is good!  (see 2014 review below)  His characters are always, without exception, well-drawn and credible and each story is wonderfully plotted with just the right mix of horror and humour – and always, ALWAYS beautifully written.  It won’t be a spoiler to say that the people of The Cut are eventually defeated, but horror and dread is still just around the next corner for Charlie and his mighty friends.  FIVE STARS.


A Song of Shadows, by John Connolly

In ‘The Wolf in Winter’, John Connolly’s last opus an attempt was made on the life of Charlie Parker, dark hero of most of Mr Connolly’s books.  He was grievously wounded, but with a choice he made whilst hovering between life and death, and the spiritual support (literally) of his murdered daughter (it pays to have read the preceding books), Charlie decides to give life one more chance.  With the devoted assistance of Louis and Angel, hired killers par excellence he rents a house in a little village on the Maine coast, there to try to regain his former strength and dexterity.
It is a long, painful road back to recovery.  Charlie is not used to the weakness and agony his many injuries cause him but he is determined to get better:  he made the decision to live, now that is exactly what he plans to do.
He is delighted to have a visit from his daughter Samantha, his child by his ex-lover Rachel, and it gives him pleasure to have found a playmate for her;  his beach side neighbour, Ruth Winter has a little girl Amanda who, despite health problems that keep her away from school a lot, welcomes Sam’s company:  from a social perspective life is good.
Until a body is found on a nearby beach, and it is eventually established that it wasn’t a drowning or a suicide, but murder;  at the same time a family has been found murdered in their burning house and the Maine police are swamped with crimes for which they are badly under-resourced.  Tragically, these crimes pale into insignificance when Ruth Winter is cruelly murdered on the night of Sam and Amanda’s playdate, but the most uncanny event for Charlie Parker is that his daughter wakes him to tell him that a man is trying to enter Ms Winter’s home.  How could she know?
Charlie is injured trying to apprehend the murderer on the dunes and it seems that finally his own life is about to end – until Sam (who was under strict instructions to stay in her bedroom) appears at his side to confront the killer – who succumbs to burial under a massive fall of sand, an occurrence that hasn’t happened for decades at that part of the beach .To say that Sam is no ordinary little girl is an understatement.
It is time for Charlie, with the assistance of Louis and Angel, to return to what he is best at:  investigating murder and stamping out evil – if he can, and the deeper he delves into Ruth’s killing, unspeakable old crimes and pure evil finally reveal themselves, for Ruth, a Jew, was killed so that she would not disclose anything she may have inadverdently learned about old Nazis:  Nazi war criminals who entered the United States from Argentina under assumed identities, several of whom settled in Maine.  None wish to be exposed and sent back to Germany, and they will go to any lengths, including multiple murders, to stay where they are.
Charlie Parker is a different person now, after his close brush with death.  There is an implacability, a hardness and resolve about him that cause his loyal friends much disquiet but they are determined – as always – to support him to the hilt in his efforts to purge evil.  Charlie is unfazed by the fact that the battle may be uneven;  what nearly stops his heart is the knowledge that his daughter Sam is just as committed as he to stamp out the enemies of the world, and he is fully aware that she is in just as much danger.
As always, Mr Connolly leaves his readers in terrible suspense right to the last page -  which only poses more questions and enables this beautifully written series to continue.  What a master he is, and what a pleasure it is to read a Charlie Parker book.  FIVE STARS