Monday, 22 August 2016

MORE GREAT READS FOR AUGUST, 2016

A Rising Man, by Abir Mukherjee

            Now.  Here’s a Whodunit with a difference – the setting, for a start:  the great British-established capital of Bengal, Calcutta, in 1919;  a time when the sun had not yet set on the great British Empire, but the twilight is lowering as  objections and unrest fomented by that seemingly innocuous little lawyer Mohandas Ghandi are starting to be felt.
            Into this gathering disquiet arrives First World War veteran Captain Samuel Wyndham, recruited from Scotland Yard by Commissioner Lord Taggart, head of the Imperial Police Force in Bengal.  Taggart hopes that Wyndham’s superior Detective skills will expose those shadowy beings who are bent on sabotage, sedition and terrorist acts in a bid to drive the British from India, and the situation is worsened by the discovery of the body of a burra sahib, a British civil servant of high standing lying in the gutter outside a Calcutta brothel with his throat cut.
            A speedy solving of the crime is required ASAP, especially to demonstrate to ‘those natives’ that British Law and Order reigns supreme, and is executed with accurate and unswerving efficiency:  Wyndham is expected to find the perpetrator post-haste, despite less than stellar backup from his new colleagues, a white sub-inspector called Digby, already sulking because he feels Wyndham’s job should be his;  and a ‘native’ Sergeant, Surendranath Banerjee, called ‘Surrender-not’ because it is easier to say.  Digby is also scathing of the reason Banerjee has a position in the police force, stating contemptuously in the Sergeant’s presence:  ‘Sergeant Banerjee, is, apparently, one of the finest new additions to His Majesty’s Imperial Police Force and the first Indian to post in the top three in the entrance examinations.  He and his ilk’, continues Digby, ‘are the fruits of this government’s policy of increasing the number of natives in every branch of the administration, God help us.’
            Which Wyndham finds is a telling example of the Raj’s opinion of the people it rules.  After having survived the cauldron of trench warfare, his feelings towards the ‘natives’ are ambivalent;  besides, he has secret shortcomings of his own to conquer and sorrows that refuse to stay buried.  He hopes he can survive his past experiences and present alien surroundings, not least because the deeper he probes into the burra sahib’s murder, the more obstacles are thrown in his way, as in a spectacular lack of co-operation from his supposed colleagues in British Military intelligence, a severe beating administered by thugs employed by same, and an almost successful attempt on his own life – by whom?
            Mr Mukherjee writes with great verve and humour.  His characters for the most part ring true, but he can’t resist going for the florid and torrid approach when he reveals the identity of The Murderer:  the Villain has centre stage for more time than is strictly necessary to explain How, Why and Where hedunit;  in fact I think the only reason he didn’t twirl his moustaches at the end was an oversight by the author.  But!
This is Mr Mukherjee’s debut novel, and the first of a series.  I am sure it will succeed because of the time in which it is set, and Mr Mukherjee’s intelligent and reasoned analysis of events exposing the jingoistic approach of the Raj, perpetuated in literature and deed by all those burra sahibs, those ‘Rising Men’ whose rule created the reason for their expulsion.  FOUR STARS.

Outfoxed, by David Rosenfelt.
           
            David Rosenfelt’s Andy Carpenter novels are heaps of fun and enormously popular;  the author’s  humour and great love of dogs permeate every page and there isn’t a continuing character that the reader doesn’t enjoy meeting again, from Andy’s two staunch friends Pete and Vince, loyally keeping him company at Charlie’s Bar whilst he watches the Baseball – loyal and staunch because he always pays the bill – for  Andy is the one with the money, thanks to an enormous trust fund, so it’s only fair that he front up with the cash - friendship has its price, after all; to Willy and Sondra Miller, who help him run the rescue shelter for dogs that is beloved to all their hearts, and his office lady Edna, who considers it a personal affront if he expects her to do any work;  not to mention the great loves of his life, his wife Laurie and adopted son Ricky, and The Best Dog in the Whole World, Tara.
            This is a tried and true, very successful formula for Mr Rosenfelt (see 2013 review below), and I’ve enjoyed each book enormously – till now.
            It pains me to say it, but he seems to have lost his mojo with this latest addition to Andy’s adventures.   The baddies are two-dimensional, provoking yawns instead of suspense and/or horror (now, I feel really disloyal typing that – maybe I felt that way because it was late at night when I read it!) and even some of the regular characters seem to be operating at half-speed, possibly because there is very little that is new in the plotting.
            Because of his trust fund, Andy doesn’t have to earn his daily bread;  the only time he takes on his role of defense lawyer is when a prospective client hasn’t a chance of escaping a long gaol term;  then it is up to Andy’s undoubted expertise to convince the judge and jury of his client’s innocence, in this case a rich technology company owner, Brian Atkins, who is nearing the end of a three-year sentence for embezzlement when he escapes from his minimum security prison, supposedly to murder his wife and his cheating business partner.  Andy’s investigations reveal that the evidence against Brian for embezzlement is trumped-up in an effort to cover up dirty dealings by Brian’s business partners, and there is more than a whiff of Mob involvement.  The plot should have been thickening satisfyingly by this time, especially when it is plainly evident that Brian could not have killed his wife and partner;  sadly, I had reached the stage of thinking ‘Well, Andy, is there any reason for me to stay awake to the end?’, for even when the real killer is revealed, despite not suspecting that dastardly bloke even for an instant, I still couldn’t generate the necessary enthusiasm and thoughts of ‘Woo Hoo – bring on the next Carpenter/Man’s Best Friend story!
            Having said that (most disloyally), I will still look forward to Andy’s next adventure – I just hope it has more oomph than this one.  THREE STARS.

Leader of the pack, by David Rosenfelt

Mr Rosenfelt is a very funny man.  He is also a dog-lover, and in each of his novels about Andy Carpenter, sometime defense lawyer (Andy  is a wealthy man;  he can please himself when he works –why did I never have this choice!),  Andy’s high regard for Man’s Best Friend is such that he clearly trusts dogs more than people, and rightly so:  dogs never let their best friends down, nor do they betray them.  Ever.
In fact, the boot is frequently on the other foot.  Fortunately, Andy and his friend Willie Miller run an animal shelter, caring for and re-homing stray dogs. He has his own beloved dog at the home he shares with his wife Laurie, and life would be very satisfactory if it were not for the bad guys he is forced to meet in the course of his work – and some of them are very bad indeed.
This is the tenth Andy Carpenter thriller, and Mr Rosenfelt’s books are rescued from being formulaic by the credible plots, GREAT characters – Andy’s long-time friends are a delight – and sound research.  He writes about what he knows – and he knows a lot.
In this latest novel, Andy is disquieted by the fact that, six years ago, he lost a case in which his client Joe DeSimone was imprisoned by a jury for a double murder:  he is convinced of Joe’s innocence and it rankles terribly that Joe is in jail for life – purely because he has the misfortune to be the son of one of the big New Jersey Mafia bosses.  Andy feels that the sins of the father have been visited upon the innocent son, but it is not until new information reveals itself from an entirely unexpected source that he can start gathering enough evidence to petition for a new trial.  And you’ll never guess whodunit in a month of Sundays!  Well, I didn’t anyway.  Yep, there is a very satisfying little twist to the plot here, guaranteed to fool all but the Superhuman among us:  Mr. Rosenfelt’s writing is pure entertainment right to the last page – even his page of acknowledgements is unique.  He states that he had stopped thanking various friends several books back because he had been accused of name-dropping, but had decided to resume his ‘thankyou’ page because ‘like it or not, I move among the stars, and I’m not afraid to admit it’.
Here are a selection of names dropped:
Barack Obama, David, Butch and Hopalong Cassidy, Kim Jung Il, the entire Jung Il family, Daniel and Jenny Craig, Albert Schweitzer, Anne and Barney Frank, Harrison and Betty Ford, Vladimir Putin, Aretha and Benjamin Franklin, Charlie Sheen, Charlie Chan, Hannibal and Sally Lechter (Oh, sorry, I couldn’t resist, that’s one of mine!) Bruce, Spike and Robert E. Lee,  Neil and Hope Diamond.
The man’s incorrigible!  And mighty good fun.  FIVE STARS

                 

Sunday, 7 August 2016

GREAT READS FOR AUGUST, 2016

The Dying Detective, by Leif G.W. Persson

Lars Martin Johansson is 67 years old and retired from his job as one of the most effective and respected police officers in Stockholm.  He was known among his colleagues as ‘the man who could see round corners’ and his success rate at crime solving was envied by all, but he has to admit that time has dragged somewhat since he stopped work.  However, he has occupied himself in other ways, usually by eating and drinking huge amounts of everything that he loves – until  horrifyingly predictable consequences in the shape of a massive stroke give him warning that he must change the beloved habits of a lifetime, otherwise there will be no lifetime left.
                Needless to say, Lars Martin is not a happy man.  He hates being parked up on the sofa in his study contemplating his floppy right arm and weakened right leg;  physiotherapy exercises are boring and the food his banker wife arranges for the caregiver to prepare for him wouldn’t keep a vegetarian nourished, let alone a dedicated carnivore like himself.  He needs distraction!  And it arrives before he has even left the hospital, in the shape of a request for help from the neurologist who treated him:  she has found among her late father’s papers evidence that suggests that he as a church minister heard a confession from one of his parishioners that they knew the identity of the killer of a 9 year old girl whose rape and murder  25 years ago was never solved.  She can think of no-one more able ( despite his physical infirmity)  to reinvestigate a heinous crime that was mishandled right from the start – by tactless, hamfisted and lazy Evert Bäckström, no less, anathema to all good Stockholm police detectives.  (See review below).
            On reviewing all the old files which his contacts in the force make available to him, Lars Martin is not surprised that the investigation failed:  the whole thing’s a dog’s breakfast, mostly attributable to ‘that fat little horror’ who should never have risen higher than issuing traffic fines – but nepotism is alive and well as the fat little horror has a relative in the Police Union:  he can’t be touched.  Still!  Lars Martin is determined to go through everything with a fine-tooth comb, even though due to a recently passed law, the case is prescribed:  no-one can now be prosecuted for the crime.  The statute of limitations has expired.  But how poor little Yasmine Ermegan died fills all normal people with such horror and revulsion that Lars Martin is determined to find the killer;  he will worry about punishment for that pervert once he has a name – and he WILL find him, for Lars Martin is still ‘the man who can see round corners’.
            Mr Persson has given us a stand-alone novel this time, with only indirect reference to his usual anti-hero ‘that fat little horror’ but what a delight it is to read.  His plotting is (as always) perfect, and minor characters all have great back stories, including Maksim, the mysterious Russian orphan provided by Lars Martin’s brother and employed as a chauffeur/general factotum, but able to lift a heavy tray of food with just thumb and forefinger.  He knows no-one who is stronger, he says, and Lars Martin believes him.     
            Mr Persson is not averse to inserting himself into the story, either – and not in a very flattering way!  Oh, he’s a charmer and a great wit, is this Mr Persson, but he also lays bare the underside of the human condition in stark and unflattering terms, leaving us all in no doubt whatsoever that criminal behaviour, neglect and cruelty are always with us.  This is his best book yet.  SIX STARS!   

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 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!

One Dog and his Boy, by Eva Ibbotson            Children’s Fiction
           

         Children’s writer Eva Ibbotson died in 2010, aged 85 and ‘One Dog and his Boy’ was her last novel:  what a sad day for the children of the world that there will no longer be any more products of her wonderful imagination to delight and charm them.  She made the impossible seem plausible and reality larger than the everyday:  what a gift, and how fortunate our library is to carry some of her best titles, delighting children of all ages (especially me!)
            Hal is an only child.  His family is seriously rich, but Donald, Hal’s dad is never home, instead racking up heaps of air points pursuing all his worldwide business deals.  Mum Albina is a shopaholic and changes houses, furniture and carpet whenever she feels like it.  Which is often.  She also is a cleanliness freak and can’t bear mess of any description, so, despite the fact that it is Hal’s birthday she will never consent to him having a dog – the only present he has ever wanted:  well, he’ll get over it, thinks Albina.  She’ll just buy him another huge electronic whatsit that he can play with by himself.  For Hal has few friends – not that he cares, IF ONLY HE COULD HAVE A DOG!
            His sadness finally makes an impression on his father, who decides to follow the advice of one of his friends – why not rent a dog?  There is a firm called Easy Pets that rents dogs by the hour or by the weekend;  it’s jolly expensive (the proprietors cater to all tastes, especially people’s worries about appearances, and charge accordingly) but Hal could choose a dog on Friday, have it for the weekend, then on Monday when he returns to school, the dog can be taken back to Easy Pets.  Simple.
            Naturally, Hal has no idea that he will only be renting a dog for the weekend;  he is speechless with delight to think that he will be allowed a dog at last and is completely unprepared for any future betrayal.  On his visit to Easy Pets with his dad he chooses Fleck, a little mongrel terrier who was only there on suffrance, smuggled in by the kennel maid who found him as a stray:  it is the best weekend of Hal’s young life.
            It goes without saying (though Eva Ibbotson says it very well!) that his parents’ treachery has far-reaching effects:  Hal decides he will not be without his true friend Fleck.  He decides to kidnap the little dog from Easy Pets and use his birthday money to travel to see his grandparents, Donald’s mum and dad whom Albina thinks are so low-rent they are really not welcome to visit.  It will be a long trip from home to the North-East of England, but he is determined not to live in a house with two people who have betrayed him so cruelly.
            The adventures of Hal and Fleck – and the other purebred dogs at Easy Pets (for they would not stay behind!) are beautifully told, and the people they meet along the way are charmingly drawn (even the villains).  Ms Ibbotson covers a multitude of social ills – environmental pollution, abandoned children and dogs – in a language so plain and clear that every child who reads her books gets a great, humane message to show kindness to animals, the environment  – and each other.  SIX STARS!    
           
Pegasus and the Flame, by Kate O’Hearn                                          Junior Fiction

What a lovely story - and what a great introduction to the Greek Myths for children who would not otherwise come in contact with these marvellous legends.  Kate O’Hearn is doing more than she can possibly know to stimulate children’s interest in the timeless and ancient tales of the Gods and Heroes of Olympus,  especially with the amount of excitement she can generate in her plotting and her true blue characters.
Emily Jacobs is 13 years old.  She is trying to deal with the loss of her beloved mother who died of cancer three months before.  Her father is a member of the New York City Police force, and he has to leave Emily alone on a night when a particularly bad storm is raging.  She is not really afraid of being alone;  her grief troubles her more than solitude – until she hears thumping and bumping on the ceiling, and it is even more worrying when the plaster starts to crack and flake!  Now, if that were me I would rush to the bedroom and hide under the bed, but Emily is brave enough to go up onto the roof to find out what – or who – is going to crash through to her level.  (Obviously she is braver than this mere mortal) And what does she find but a beautiful horse, breathtaking in its magnificence, and even more unbelievable:  it has WINGS.  And it’s badly wounded.  How can she help him, especially when she realises that he is Pegasus, beloved of the Gods, and bearer of Zeus/Jupiter’s thunderbolts.  Pegasus has come to earth to search for ‘The Flame’,  a descendant of Vespa, keeper of the Sacred Flame of Olympus, now extinguished by enemies.  If it is not reignited soon, Olympus and all the Gods will perish.
Ah, this is thrilling, and things get better and better as the plot advances – the characters are positively Olympian in more ways than one;  Ms. O’Hearn has an excellent knowledge of  Greco-Roman mythology and she weaves this brilliantly into her story of young people dealing with grief and loss, not to mention her love of animals, particularly horses – and even better still, the story doesn’t end with this book:  the next title is ‘Pegasus and the Fight for Olympus’.  What a neat treat to look forward to:  can’t wait.  FIVE STARS

Pegasus and the Rise of the Titans, by Kate O’Hearn  Junior fiction

  
          This is the fifth book in Ms O’Hearn’s series starring Pegasus the winged horse and his earthly companion Emily:  once again they have death-defying adventures, and again the plot concerns the Gods of Olympus and their enemies, this time Saturn, power-crazy brother of Jupiter, Pluto and Neptune:  he has discovered a potent weapon to release him from the captivity and exile his brothers have imposed on him, and nothing will give him more satisfaction than to destroy Olympus and everyone who lives there – including Emily and her soulmate Pegasus, instrumental in imprisoning him the first time.
            Once again Emily and her friends journey to earth to find a solution to Olympus’s imminent destruction, this time ending up at Diamond Head in Hawaii (true!);  they are forced to make the acquaintance of Pele, the Fire Goddess, and her pesky, quarrelsome sister Na-Maka, Goddess of the Sea, neither of whom get on – and their subsequent battles are world-shaking!

            This is such a great series for children, with all the right ingredients to make them look forward to the next episode, but Ms O’Hearn also has a vital underlying message concerning animal and environmental conservation that can never be stressed early enough;  it is greatly reassuring to know that children’s environmental education can be absorbed so effortlessly and with so much fun.  FIVE STARS.