Saturday, 25 February 2017

MORE GREAT READS FOR FEBRUARY, 2017

Don’t Tell Me You’re Afraid, by Giuseppe Catozzella


           In the early months of 2012, Samia Yusuf Omar, a Somali refugee, drowned in the Mediterranean Sea whilst trying to reach ropes hanging from an Italian vessel sent to escort back to Tripoli the barely seaworthy old boat that she and hundreds of others had paid traffickers huge amounts of money to board.  To return to the African continent was unthinkable after everything she had endured:  the ropes hanging over the side of the Italian ship were her last chance at freedom.  She couldn’t be afraid;  she had to try.
So she did, and she died, like countless others who fled their war-torn countries of birth looking for a better life, never reaching the peaceful shores they sought – in Samia’s case, she was to join her older sister Hodan and her family who had made it to Finland, had made ‘the Journey’ and survived to live a normal life in Europe – the dream of every refugee, but Samia had another, more urgent dream:  to run for her country in the London 2012 Olympics.  Time was running out!
In Giuseppe Catozzella’s novel based on the true story of Samia’s short life, he has Samia tell her own story;  how at the age of eight, she and her best friend Ali who lived across the courtyard, would run like the wind through all the narrow winding streets and alleys of Mogadishu – oh, there was never a feeling like it!  To power along a straight stretch at top speed (beating Ali every time), to revel in the freedom that her fast limbs gave her:  she would do this all the time if she could.  Until tribal wars, always hovering in the background meant that Ali and his family (an inferior tribe) were forced away from Mogadishu and an even worse alternative introduced itself:  El Shabaab, fundamentalist moslems of the worst kind.
Samia is forced to run in a Burka; even so, she is actually starting to be noticed by the Olympic Committee;  in 2008 the Olympic Games will be held in China, and Samia has outrun everyone in the country, despite the efforts of El Shabaab.  Her times are good enough for her to compete against the rest of the world – despite terrible family tragedy and ensuing hardship, her dream of representing her country is realised:  in 2008 Samia Jusuf Omar represents Somalia in the 200m heat – coming last, but undaunted;  she won’t give up, she’ll never give up.  If she can get out of Mogadishu and away from Al Shabaab, if she can travel to Europe and join Hodan and her family, her dreams are all possible.
Samia’s Journey takes five months from the start to the finish in the leaky boat.  I have to say that before this point, I was not overly impressed with Mr Catozzella’s writing – until we journeyed together on her last attempt to be free:  then he had me in a grip of iron, each page horrifying me with prose so vivid and cruel it left me breathless.
The Journey begins, that nightmare Journey that no-one speaks of if they are lucky enough to complete the distance, littered as it is by corpses along the diverse routes the traffickers take.  The conditions the refugees endure are brutalising and unspeakable, and more money is demanded at every drop-off point.  Families are allowed a minute on a mobile phone to contact their loved ones to wire more money, always more than anyone can raise.  Those who can’t find the money are left behind in the wilderness.  Life is reduced to its most elemental.  Survival is paramount.
There are many lessons to be learnt from this important story, not least our ignorance of the struggles to the death (more often than not) that people will undergo to have a life that we take for granted.  Samia died, but her determination and drive lives on in this book.  FOUR STARS.


The Pigeon Tunnel, by John le Carré


           At the venerable age of eighty-five, Mr Le Carré has decided that it is time to write a volume of memoirs.  Naturally, his fans (and they are legion) will hope that he doesn’t confine himself to just one volume, for the ‘Pigeon Tunnel’ is a delight, a feast for the reader of perfect prose, wonderful character studies, delicious humour, and memories that are never, ever fed by sour grapes or malice.
            His long and illustrious literary career has been shaped by many diverse people and experiences:  he confesses that his mastery of the perfect sentence came not at Oxford, (where, upon graduating with a degree in languages he was recruited into MI5 as the most junior of intelligence agents) but from his new bosses, all classically trained, who tore apart with derisory skill his first efforts at information-gathering.  No paragraph was left without a scathing comment in the margin:  ‘redundant – omit – justify – sloppy – do you really mean this?’ 
‘No editor I have since encountered was so exacting, or so right.’
            What a grounding for a future novelist, and what a time (the fifties and sixties) to be a diplomat/spy for the British Government.  Based in Bonn, Mr Le Carré practised his tradecraft, but learned to write his fiction based on his previous experiences only after he left the Service, signing an oath never to reveal State Secrets.  His fame as a writer blossomed with the publication of ‘The Spy Who Came in From the Cold’, then increased a hundredfold with the introduction of George Smiley & Co. in ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’.  A Star was Born!  Much to the displeasure of his former masters, who felt that they, and the Service as a whole, had been rather unfairly portrayed, old chap. 
            They all must have breathed a collective and gusty sigh of relief when the Berlin wall came down, the Cold War ended, and Mr Le Carré chose other subjects to write about, i.e. Middle-Eastern terrorism, gunrunning, money-laundering – you name it, there was still plenty of world corruption and scandal for an enterprising writer to expose, particularly someone with his talent and growing fame.
            A particularly fascinating aspect of these memoirs is the author’s meticulous research into the characters and settings of each book:  he has travelled all over the world (and endured some very hairy situations) to give authenticity to his plots, and I was amazed to read of the number of characters who are based (to a greater or lesser degree) on people he has met, who have made an impression on him for good or ill.  Mr Le Carré’s memory for appearances, accents and gesture is prodigious, and to be with him as he picks each character apart is akin to going backstage at the Ballet:  magic is created on the stage, but without the unseen mechanics it would not exist.
            I have included two previous reviews  where, if the reader is enjoying ‘The Pigeon Tunnel’ they may also see that Dima in ‘Our Kind of Traitor’ is a much kinder portrayal than the Dima that Mr Le Carré actually met in Moscow, and diplomat Toby Bell from ‘A Delicate Truth’ has marked similarities to the author as a young man.
            What an absolute pleasure it was to read this book.  I am now waiting impatiently for Volume Two.  SIX STARS!!
           
A Delicate Truth, by John le Carré

Mr Le Carré, long the undisputed King of the Spy novel, has changed literary direction considerably since the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, instead aiming his expository arrows closer to home, his last novel ‘Our Kind of Traitor’
being a perfect example (see review below).  In ‘A Delicate Truth’, the Blair New Labour government and its infamous alliance with its American counterparts are mercilessly exposed in their relentless use of any method to achieve victory – and profits -  in the War on Terror.
WILDLIFE is the code name for a combined U.S./British Special Forces counter-terrorist operation to capture a notorious jihadist arms buyer at a secret location on Gibraltar.  There is also a mysterious private right-wing arms and security company involved:  ‘War’s gone corporate, Paul!’
Fergus Quinn, a Junior minister of the Crown fuelled more by ambition than good sense recruits a diplomatic ‘low-flyer’ (codenamed Paul) to be his token Man on the Spot, his Eyes and Ears as the top-secret (even from his own government!)  mission is carried out and – the ‘low-flyer’ expects – the wit to abort the operation if the situation warrants it.  Ah, in a perfect world …..!
Things go wrong.  After the collapse of radio and computer contact Paul is literally left in the dark on a Gibraltar hillside until his rescue and hurried evacuation back to England by a young woman constantly exhorting him that the operation was ‘a triumph, right?  No casualties.  We did a great job.  All of us.  You, too.  Right?’
And maybe that was true, because the low-flyer ends up with a knighthood and a very cushy diplomatic post to the Caribbean. 
Enter Toby Bell, aspiring Foreign Office employee and soon-to-be Private Secretary (read minder) to Junior minister Quinn just prior to the Gibraltar fiasco.  Toby has been recommended by his long-time friend and mentor Giles Oakley;  this is a plum job which could lead to even higher things and Toby is delighted by his good fortune, for his origins are humble, his educational distinction and linguistic qualifications gained through intelligence, hard work and scholarships and disguising ‘the brand marks of the English tongue’ – his Dorset burr – in favour of the ‘Middle English affected by those determined not to have their social origins defined for them.’
Yes, Toby has ambition but he also has morals: ‘ he wishes to make a difference, to take part in his country’s discovery of its true identity in a post-imperial, post Cold-War world’;  he is an ethical, decent man, and whilst he is not naïve, he is far from prepared for the corruption he is forced to confront, or its extent.  And this is the fulcrum upon which Mr Le Carré’s fine story turns:  will Toby fold under the pressure of bribes or threats, physical and otherwise, or will he follow the maxim ‘evil triumphs when good men do nothing,’ and act on it?
Yet again, Mr Le Carré has constructed with trademark elegance and style a novel of honourable men -  21st century anachronisms, their integrity derided and courage discounted -  but not content ‘to do nothing’.  And again, Mr Le Carré demonstrates effortlessly why he leads and others follow:  he still blows lesser writers right out of the water.  FIVE STARS.

Our Kind of Traitor, by John le Carré   

Dima is a Russian gangster, and proud of it.  He is also an expert money-launderer for the Russian Mafia and has amassed huge wealth for them, and for himself – but a new young ‘Prince’ is coming to the fore in the Mafia Hierarchy, and the Prince doesn’t like Dima;  Dima is too ‘Old-School’, he dwells too much on the old Vor code of Honour amongst thieves (and murderers) and after one last, biggest laundering operation – the opening of a new ‘respectable’ bank in the City of London – Dima and his family will be eliminated, as were several of his dear friends and colleagues already:  it’s time, thinks Dima, to defect with all his secrets and sell them to his preferred country of asylum, Great Britain. 
Yet again John Le Carré has crafted an impeccable story of secret service diplomacy, political corruption and life-and-death back-room dealings;  his characters are superb,  almost Dickensian in range and description and utterly, utterly believable.  Mr. Le Carré has the best eye and ear for accents and body language in the business, and his wit, interspersed even at times of great suspense in this beautifully plotted story, is delicious.  This is the master at his best: FIVE STARS


              

  

Sunday, 12 February 2017

FIRST GREAT READS FOR FEBRUARY, 2017

A Man Called Ove, by Fredrick Backman

            Ove is fifty-nine years old and a grump.  A curmudgeon (that quaint old term that describes so many muttering, dissatisfied old men to a T), and as far as he’s concerned he has a lot to be grumpy about – the state of today’s ‘modern’ Sweden, for instance:  don’t tell him it’s not going to the dogs:  why, absolutely everything these days is run by men in White Shirts, bureaucrats without an ounce of humanity in them except a love for their Rules and Regulations.  Overseas interests have taken over Swedish companies whose superior craftsmanship was always a source of quiet pride for all, and Ove in particular.  Take car manufacturer Saab for example:  Ove swore by Saabs all his adult life, changing models every two years – but only for another Saab.  Now the AMERICANS have taken over Saab (this occurred  thirteen years ago, actually) and Ove was so incensed that he has driven the same model ever since, the last of the Saabs to be proudly manufactured in Sweden.  It will last him till he dies.
            And Ove wants to die as soon as possible, for it is six months since his beloved wife Sonja’s death from cancer.  Everything they shared together is over;  nothing is important to him any more without her support – even his rants about Men in White Shirts were tempered by her loving tolerance.  His life is meaningless to him now, and he wants to end it.
            His first attempt at suicide by hanging is foiled by a rope that snaps (blankety-blank imported rubbish!) and a visit from his new neighbours, a young couple with two little girls and a third one on the way.  Patrick is an IT consultant, a confession which earns a glance of withering scorn from Ove, especially when Patrick shows his lamentable lack of skill at backing a trailer (Ove’s mailbox will never be the same again), and Parveneh is Iranian and too pregnant to devote time to anything else but her family – and once she realises Ove’s intentions, to preventing him from Doing the Deed.
            For Ove, despite his irascibility and scorn for all things foreign is a kind and honourable man, a man with an innate desire always to Do the Right Thing, a man who will always battle the White-Shirted Bureaucrats on behalf of those unable to do so themselves – in short, a rough diamond;  a friend and neighbour worth having.  Even a particularly mangy stray cat thinks so too, and moves into Ove’s life and home as though it were his right.
            So.  Ove has to capitulate.  Life has become too full of people needing his help to think of making an early exit from this world, and that is something that Ove has always been very good at:  helping.  Sonja would be thrilled.
            Fredrick Backman has written us a beautiful little story, gentle and funny and encompassing life-changing events which in their very ordinariness have a huge impact:  loneliness;  grief and loss;  inability to keep up with changing times and trends – all of which can be counterbalanced by community support, neighbourliness, friendship and familial love.  FIVE STARS

Conclave, by Robert Harris

  
          ‘Conclave.  From the Latin con clavis:  ‘with a key.’ ‘  and the term for the meeting of Cardinals, the Princes of the Catholic church gathered together to elect a new Pope.
            It is hard to imagine that such an event could provide the basis of a thriller, but Robert Harris has done just that:  his latest novel cannot be described any other way, for it is as suspenseful and shocking – particularly at the end, as it should be – as any thriller worthy of the name.
            Mr Harris sets his plot in Rome a few years hence:  the Holy Father has died of a heart attack and, after the pomp and magnificence of his funeral obsequies have been completed, it is time to convene all those eligible to select his successor.  Papal tradition must be observed at all times:  when the cardinals are locked in the Sistine Chapel to vote they do so in absolute secrecy;  their voting papers and any notes they make are burnt when they leave the chapel in the evening.  A Papal Election must to be seen to be utterly scrupulous and above reproach, one hundred and twenty of Catholicism’s finest advocates voting according to God’s wishes.
            Except that as the hours wear on, it becomes clear that there are men of ambition hiding behind piety and humility – Jacobo Lomeli, Dean of the College of Cardinals and Convenor of each increasingly tense meeting in the Sistine Chapel is appalled to discover that the whole process is just as riven with factions, innuendo and scandal as any secular election.  He is a good man – and an honest one as he admits that the late Holy Father would not accept his resignation from office ‘because we need managers’.  He feels slighted.  Surely his religious career of more than fifty years has elevated him into higher realms than a ‘manager’.  Nevertheless, he decides to make the best possible job of ‘managing’ the selection of the next Pope, but is not above allowing himself a cynical smirk as he reviews the front-running candidates: 
The current Camerlengo (Chamberlain) of the Holy See, Cardinal Joseph Tremblay, a French-Canadian very conscious of his film-star looks and perfectly coiffed silvery hair;  Cardinal Joshua Ayedemi, a mighty Nigerian with a powerful physique and a bass-baritone voice to match, and the African continent’s great hope to be the first black Pope, and Lomeli’s own personal preference, Cardinal Aldo Bellini, Secretary of State.  Lomeli prays fervently that the right man will be chosen for the huge task of leading the Church and more than a billion Catholics with courage and honesty, but as voting progresses and stalemates occur it becomes plain that God is not going to make the choice easy for the 118 cardinals.
            An added complication is the late arrival of a mysterious Filipino cardinal appointed secretly by the late Pope:  Cardinal Vincent Benitez, Archbishop of Baghdad is unknown to everyone, but his credentials are impeccable;  he has as much right to vote – and be considered for Pontiff – as every other man in the room.  It appears that the Late Holy Father is controlling events even beyond the grave, especially when Lomeli starts reluctantly investigating scandalous rumours connected to various candidates and is horrified at what he finds:  the love of God comes a poor second to the love of power.
            Mr Harris  propelled me at lightning speed through the twists and turns of his masterly plot;  the grandeur of St Peter’s, great bastion of Christendom has never been more eloquently portrayed and his characters are all too recognisable for the men they are, rather than the paragons they desire to be.  FIVE STARS    

I Am Pilgrim, by Terry Hayes

            Mr Hayes’s debut novel was first published in 2013, so you can consider this an oldie, easily accessible in our library – I heard about it from a dear friend who raced through it, and is still thinking about it weeks later.  Could any book have a higher recommendation:  word-of-mouth is still the best publicity.  My only regret is that someone didn’t word-of-mouth me aaaages ago;  I am feeling pretty ashamed of my ignorance up until now of this great thriller but – better late than never, so there!
            Mr Hayes has had a stellar career as a journalist and screenwriter;  now he has turned his hand to The Big One, that which every aspiring writer dreams of:  The Novel.  And what a mighty job he has done;  his story is huge in every way, upwards of 900 pages (you’ll have to have strong wrists!), mighty in scope and bursting with characters so colourful and some so deadly that readers will feel that they have been smacked around the ears on every page.  And, in light of events in today’s unhappy world, Mr Hayes’s plot is entirely topical.
            Scott Murdoch is a retired intelligence agent.  He is not a happy man;  his work (some of it necessarily violent and fatal to enemies of the U.S.A.) has burnt him out and he has settled in Paris in his attempts to bring normalcy to his life.  He is the adopted son of a very rich couple who have since died – his adoptive father loved him, but his ‘mum’ didn’t;  regardless, he can still live comfortably and pretend to be ordinary.  Until a New York Police Lieutenant finds out where he lives and pays him a visit – even though Scott has put up multi-firewalls of names and disguises in his efforts to remain anonymous, this man has FOUND HIM.
            And he has been found because a few years before, he wrote a book under a pseudonym (naturally) about criminal behaviour, the various crimes he had encountered, and how they had been solved.  Now, the police lieutenant informs him, it appears that his little book has been used as a textbook to aid in the execution of an insoluble murder.  Scott’s expertise is required back in New York.  ASAP.
            Meantime, a parallel life is being lived:  a teenage boy’s father, a marine biologist, is publically executed in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia for criticising the Royal family – a capital offence.  The boy and his family become outcasts and are forced to live in Bahrain, where they are not known.  The boy, now fifteen, is head of his family as is the Muslim way, and he is deeply shocked and furious when he discovers that his mother has taken a job, and no longer wears the veil.  His local mosque sends him off the Afghanistan to fight the Soviets;  his grief and fury solidify into a burning hatred for all things Western, especially as the Westerners prop up the corrupt Saudi Royals:  as the Saracen he will plot a fitting revenge against the Sauds;  he will exterminate them!  Until he meets a woman who tells him to concentrate on ‘The Far Enemy’, the United States, for they are the supporter of the Near Enemy, Saudi Arabia. 
            A terrible, ingenious plan is born – vengeance of the worst, the sweetest kind, and all sanctioned by Allah, Praised be His Name.

            The plot is predictable only in that it is inevitable that Scott and the Saracen must meet, but how Mr Hayes gets us there is a tribute to his great gift as a master storyteller:  at no time does the reader feel that the action overtakes realism and logic, for so much has happened in the world since this book was published (and there’s going to be a movie, too!) that Scott’s adventures seem not the stuff of legend, but hard, cold fact.  FIVE STARS.