Sunday, 17 July 2016

MORE GREAT READS FOR JULY, 2016

The Wheel of Osheim, by Mark Lawrence


           In the concluding volume of Mark Lawrence’s great fantasy trilogy, Jalan Kendeth Prince of the Red March, is in Hel – dragged there by his huge Norse companion Snori Ver Snagason who is searching for his slain family with the intention of bringing them back to life in the Real World.  Entry to the horror that is the Underworld has been made possible by Loki the Liar’s Key, a key that can open any door(Book Two, see review below), and once again Jalan is roped in to participate in life-threatening adventures he wants no part of – all he wants is to go home to Vermillion and re-engage in his usual hobbies of gambling, drinking and bedding compliant women (and there are so many of them;  he is a handsome devil!):  the bleak and wasted lands of Hel with its wandering and tragic populations of Dead Souls is making his hair stand on end, to say nothing of the various nightmarish monsters that try to kill the only two living creatures, he and Snori, in that terrifying landscape:  it’s not fair – he’s fed up, and wants out!   
            But not before Jalan’s survival instinct is tested to the utmost, and he discovers to his shock that he actually has a spine after all for his shivers to run up:  to his amazement he finds that he is the victor in more than one skirmish with the loathsome dead of Hel, and even saves Snori – not that his friend ever doubted him;  Snori has always had a touching faith in Jalan’s previously hidden fighting abilities (Jalan always believed that his talents as a runner should be more encouraged) but it is with a heavy (cowardly) heart that Jalan takes a single opportunity to return to the world above, leaving his only friend to battle on in his search for his dead family.
            Jalan’s joy at returning to the Red March is short-lived:  he finds his city under siege and his grandmother the Red Queen absent, warring against a neighboring state;  his brothers who always considered him (rightly) to be The Runt are in need of quick and efficient planning and leadership – and who (amazingly) steps into the breach?  Jalan’s trip to Hel has prepared him like a baptism of fire for the worst that war can throw at them.  Which it does.
            Prophecies of doom centring about the Wheel of Osheim, last  great symbol of the genius of the Builders, humans from a thousand years before who destroyed most of the earth with the explosion of a Thousand Suns, are now coming close to fruition:  the Wheel, the existence of which is known to a very few, is spinning faster and faster.  When it goes out of control the world will crack and break.  It is too awful to contemplate, especially as the only thing that will stop it is Loki’s Key, fitted into a special slot marked ‘Manual Override’.  And who is the reluctant custodian of Loki’s Key?  Yep.  Cowardy Custard Jalan.
            I have to admit that the intricate technicalities of the Wheel and its function (was this the Hadron Collider?) left me scratching my head and breathing through my mouth, but as a series, The Broken Empire is unsurpassed.  Mr Lawrence’s construct of a world post Nuclear Holocaust is masterly and his characters are unforgettable.  My only criticism regarding ‘The Wheel of Osheim’ is that Jalan’s ghastly sojourn in Hel is unevenly juxtaposed with his adventures back in the real world;  the story loses pace and flow here – but does resume when Snori and his axe return to save the day.  Great stuff.  FIVE STARS.      

The Liar’s Key, by Mark Lawrence.

Prince Jalan Kendeth of Red March returns to entertain and delight readers yet again with his utter lack of scruples, eye for the main chance and a remarkable propensity for attracting enemies by the shipload.  His reprehensible behaviour has not improved since Book One ‘The Prince of Fools’;  he still lies, cheats and tries to flee at the first sign of danger to himself (too bad about anyone else!) and the only reason he leaves the comforts of the snowbound inn he and Snori ver Snagason have been wintering in is the usual pursuit by various cuckolded husbands and outraged women who considered themselves his only true love.  Yes, it is time to leave before his enviable looks are spoiled and he has been made to eat certain essential parts of his anatomy, and Snori, an honourable man who still (despite so much proof to the contrary) considers Jalan his friend, is the perfect bodyguard.
            But Snori is on a seemingly hopeless quest, and will not be dissuaded:  he has possession of Loki’s Key – Loki, the trickster God of Norse mythology, Loki the Liar, Loki the Cheat who fashioned a key that can open any door, including that of the Underworld.  Snori means to find that door, open it, and search for his dead family.  He will bring them back, or die in the attempt, for his life is meaningless without them. 
            Needless to say Jalan (right up there with Loki at lying and cheating) is horrified at Snori’s reckless pursuit of a sticky end, but will travel with him (the Norseman might be mad but he’s superb insurance against the dangers on the road) as far as Vermillion.  Even though Jalan is only a minor princeling it will be wonderful to return home, where he can embellish shamelessly the stories of his exploits – and where he will at last be warm.  He thinks.
            Jalan is indeed warm, but the welcome from his family is not;   yet again he is forced to flee from creditors who are tiresomely demanding their money  and he finds to his horror that he misses his travelling companions – Christ on a bike – he must be ill!
            True to form, our cowardly hero undergoes much privation (usually his own fault), battles disturbing visions from mages, necromancers et al as they try to find out what he knows about Loki’s Key and its whereabouts – ‘A key?  What key?  I am a prince of Red March.  What use have I for keys!’  Yeah, right.  Those sorcerers aren’t fooled for a second.  Jalan is the conduit:  when he reunites with Snori, the Key will be theirs.
            It is not easy to create sequels that are successively better with each volume but Mr Lawrence is one great storyteller who seems to manage this feat effortlessly;  he leaves the reader always wanting more, hanging out impatiently for the next episode – which will see Snori and craven companion Jalan exactly where he does not want to be:  in Hel, searching for Snori’s beloved family.  My only complaint about this book is that I shall have to wait at least another year for Mr Lawrence to enlighten me. I’ll have forgotten all the plot details by then!  FIVE STARS.

The Quality of Silence, by Rosamund Lupton

Ruby is 10 years old and profoundly deaf.  She communicates with her parents by lip-reading and sign language, and life is difficult for her at school where she faces daily taunts about her disability – because that is what kids do, don’t they?  She had one good friend, a boy, who was driven away from her by his classmates’ harassment, but she  has decided that she doesn’t care (even though she does), because her parents are the best in the whole world;  Dad is a wildlife cameraman currently working in Alaska, and Mum is an astrophysicist, and they both know so many cool things about the wonderful planet we inhabit, and the stars that bathe us all in their crystalline light every night – whether we notice them or not, and Ruby fears that people are noticing (and caring) about the natural world less and less.
Well, she doesn’t care (even though she does) because she and mum have just arrived at Anchorage, Alaska from Britain, expecting Dad to be at the airport to greet them.  They were meant to come for Christmas in a fortnight’s time, but mum and dad had a fight on the phone and mum decided to bring the trip forward, much to Ruby’s delight;  she hasn’t seen dad for three months, and though they email and Dad sends wonderful pictures of the wildlife he photographs via his satellite connection, (they have even started a blog) to see him again in person would be totally cool.
But he is not at the airport to meet them.  Then it is revealed by a State Trooper who has been to Anaktue, the little village where dad was based, that there has been a terrible accident;  fuel appeared to be stored too near to a heat source, there was a terrible conflagration and all twenty-four inhabitants died.  Ruby’s dad is declared one of the fatalities, and she and her mother are in shock.  What to do next, especially as mum (Yasmin) refuses to believe that her husband Matt has died.  The authorities have it all wrong!  She would KNOW if he were gone:  their connection is so absolute that she would know.  She will find him – she will find someone to take them to the little village;  tanker drivers go back and forth to the Prudhoe Bay Oil wells regularly.  She will pay someone to take them on their search.          
And because Yasmin is a resourceful woman, she and Ruby are soon on their way – on a nightmare trip of hundreds of miles north in a savage Alaskan winter, in a big rig which she eventually has to drive herself, for the tanker driver becomes ill and has to be airlifted back to Anchorage, not knowing that his passengers are determined to carry on without him.    
Ms Lupton’s account of her protagonists’ nightmare adventures succeeds on so many levels:  as a testament to the natural beauty of our planet, the nurturing world in which we are so privileged to live – and the efforts that those consumed by greed will employ to destroy it in order to claim its wealth;  as an action-packed thriller that pits Yasmin and Ruby against the unforgiving environment as well as the Bad Guys, and as a love story involving a tight-knit family of three who will literally travel to the ends of the earth to be together, all told in beautiful, lucid prose that is a joy to read.  SIX STARS!

     


Sunday, 3 July 2016

FIRST GREAT READS FOR JULY, 2016

The Hanging Club, by Tony Parsons

            How satisfying, how enjoyable it is to be hooked by a story on the very first page – it doesn’t happen very often, especially with crime writers who follow a by-the-numbers formula, but Tony Parson’s swashbuckling superhero DC Max Wolfe, despite his superior and unerring powers of deduction has a human side which makes him much more credible:  his personal life in each book so far (this is the third) is less than ideal, except for his love for his little daughter Scout, and their dog Stan.  Max has been a solo Dad for several years now, and while he wishes, as everyone does, for True Love (he has fallen for a different girl in each story – unsuccessfully!) he still blesses life with his little family. 
Not everyone is so lucky, especially the victims of the latest mindless violence he has to deal with every day:  a decent man remonstrates with louts who are urinating on his wife’s car parked outside their home.  The louts beat him to death, film it on their phones, then get the charges reduced to manslaughter in court – ‘he was freatening us, me Lord! It was self-defence!’ – despite the iphone evidence, their sentences are a slap on the wrist, leaving yet another family permanently in ruins.  Max feels a burning hatred for the smirking murderers in the dock, especially when they laugh at him, the arresting officer, on their way to prison.  Sometimes – many times, the Law is an Ass.
And another group thinks so, too – a masked group who post online their execution by hanging of taxi driver Mahmud Irani in a place so secret that no police at West End Central, Max’s base, has any idea where it could be – except that Mahmud’s body is dumped at the site of the old Tyburn Tree, London’s infamous place of Execution.  The video states that he was found guilty of grooming, drugging and abusing children, but the sentence he served (two years) was absurd:  death by hanging was the proper verdict.
This killing is followed up by another ‘execution’, in the same secret place of a trust fund manager who drove his Porsche over a child biking across a zebra crossing, sending the little boy into a coma for six months before he was taken off life-support, but Money-Man was sent down for two years only – another ‘wet bus ticket’ slap – and he was even reinstated in his job when he was released!
Once again, his death is posted online for all to see, and the internet is buzzing with support for the vigilantes who are doing what should have been done to those murdering bastards in the first place:  Bring Back Capital Punishment!
And those weak-kneed coppers who tiptoe around guarding the prisoners’ rights – they’re worse than the lot of them!  As Max finds to his horror when he puts two and two together and finds himself in the same secret place, awaiting his execution.
Mr Parsons keeps the action barrelling along at Porsche speed, at the same time giving readers a marvellous picture of another country within Britain:  London, that great and sprawling city, from the teeming centres of Smithfield and Soho to the elegant leafy avenues and squares of those rich enough to live there – and a compelling portrait of London’s underbelly, a place that no-one wants to explore.  FIVE STARS

End of Watch, by Stephen King.
         
  
          ‘End of Watch’ brings to a close Stephen King’s masterly trilogy starting with ‘Mr Mercedes’ (see 2014 review below), bringing together an unlikely band of protagonists to fight Brady Hartsfield, the Suicide Killer, grown more powerful than ever despite brain damage that permanently disabled him – almost.
            Retired detective Bill Hodges (first name Kermit, unused for obvious reasons) runs a successful private investigation agency with Holly Gibney, a damaged and fragile person who hasn’t had the best of starts in life but has a gift for detection and computer talents matched only by Jerome (gone to Harvard), the last of the trio to bring down Brady Hartsfield.   Bill occasionally pays visits to the Brain Injury ward to see Brady, despite Holly and Jerome’s disapproval;  he can’t resist taunting and deriding the drooling wreck propped up in a chair so that he can see the riveting view of the car park from his window.  It feels good to heap scorn and hatred on a monster that had planned the death of more than a thousand young kids, thwarted at the last moment by Holly’s near-mortal blow to his head with a sock full of ball bearings.  Yes, Bill savours every moment of every visit, until Holly and Jerome finally persuade him that his gloating is turning him into a person they don’t like.  He’s better than that, so leave the monster alone.     
            So Bill’s hospital visits cease.  He still pays certain nurses to inform him of any changes or improvements in Brady’s behaviour – until he finds himself caught up in the medical system again, this time with results of hospital tests revealing the awful diagnosis of Pancreatic cancer.  As if that weren’t bad enough, disturbing things are occurring in the Brain Injury ward:  there have been several staff suicides, and an elderly hospital volunteer and the very specialist monitoring Brady are exhibiting worrying, out-of-character behaviour.  Bill’s subsequent digging reveals that everyone who died has been given a little computer game as a gift to while away free time, but his suspicions about the hypnotic effects of the little device are not confirmed until Jerome’s sister is given one in the Mall – and is rescued from throwing herself under a truck.
            All roads point once again to the wreck in the wheelchair:  how could someone so grievously, permanently injured mastermind (for he has!) a plan to hypnotise hundreds of kids, recipients of the little devices, into removing themselves from the planet?  The Suicide Killer is back with a vengeance, and Bill, Holly and Jerome once again are in a race against time to prevent more deaths.  And Bill is racing against the terrible symptoms of his last illness, hoping to defeat for good the true monster that Brady Hartfield has become.
            I could warble on (and often do!) of Mr King’s prowess at sweeping us all along with him on his heart-stopping, page-turning journey through each story, but in this trilogy his doughty band of heroes will stay in my mind far longer than old Monsta Brady:  it is the End of Watch for K. William Hodges (Det.Ret.) but his decency, kindness and honour illuminate every page.  Holly, that damaged girl who can’t be touched and can’t meet a person’s gaze stands up to be counted time and again;  and Jerome, who ultimately saves the day is a true babe!  Great characters, great story – FIVE STARS   

Mr. Mercedes, by Stephen King

Former Detective K. William Hodges is nearing the end of his tether.  Since he retired from the city Police Force, life has lost its edge;  there is nothing meaningful to relieve the boredom of his days, most of which are spent watching inane TV shows, eating junk food and drinking too much. 
Some days are worse than others:  on those days he contemplates suicide and sits in front of his TV with his father’s gun by his side – until the day he gets a letter, purportedly from a man who mowed down a line of jobseekers in a stolen Mercedes, a case that was still unsolved when he retired.
The letter writer seems to know a lot about Bill Hodges, including details of his first name (Kermit); information about his farewell bash (it was a drunken riot of fun!); and even more chilling:  insider knowledge of Bill’s suicidal thoughts.  Is this monster a mind-reader?  How does he know so much? 
The general tenor of the letter is designed to increase Bill’s feelings of worthlessness, to push him into that last act with his father’s gun:  ‘it would be too bad if you started thinking your whole career had been a waste of time because the fellow who killed all those Innocent People ‘slipped through your fingers’.
But you are thinking of it, aren’t you?  I would like to close with one final thought from ‘the one that got away’.  That thought is:
F--- YOU, LOSER.
Just kidding!
Very truly yours,
THE MERCEDES KILLER.’

Once again, Mr King takes the reader into the dark places of minds and hearts with his usual effortless skill.  In this latest opus there is nary a hint of the supernatural for which he is so famous; not a spectre in sight:  instead he writes of the monsters that contemporary society creates who walk among their unsuspecting victims disguised by spurious normality -  as here, where the Mercedes killer is revealed early in the plot as Brady Hartfield, dutiful son of an alcoholic mother and hard worker at two jobs, one as a computer technician, the other driving an ice cream van.  What could be more normal; (even a little sad – the sacrifices that boy makes for his mother!) he works super hard at blending in with everything and everyone – why, he’s practically invisible!
But not infallible.  Contrary to his expectations, his letter has given K. William Hodges (Det.Ret.) a huge boost;  the depressive clouds have parted – his mind, always keen, has something to grapple with again:  start playing the game, Mr Mercedes.  Let’s see who wins!
As always, Mr King provides his main protagonists with great supporting characters, in this case Jerome, Bill’s 17 year old lawn and odd job boy – who just happens to be black, highly intelligent and a computer whizz – but not half as whizzy as Holly, a true PC Maestro who unfortunately is plagued with ‘issues’.  They are Bill’s doughty assistants.  Their dialogue is perfect, crackling and comic (how I wish I could remember some of those one liners!) but it never distracts us from the horror and creeping suspense of a great story.  Mr Mercedes is going to strike again.  But where?  When?  And can they stop him?
Stephen King has once again held a mirror up to contemporary society, and it shows a chilling image, one that is very hard to look at.  FIVE STARS