Thursday, 30 March 2017

LAST GREAT READS FOR MARCH, 2017.

The Demon Road Trilogy, by Derek Landy               Young Adults

            After reading a glowing NYT review of Irish author Derek Landy’s ‘Demon Road’, the first book in his trilogy, I thought it was about time I made his acquaintance – and how happy I am to meet him!
            Today’s Teen fiction writers tend to concentrate mainly on dystopian themes (Suzanne Collins’s great ‘The Hunger Games’), not to mention the Vampire as thrilling and eternal love interest (Stephenie Meyer’s fabulous ‘Twilight’ series), but I have to say that Mr Landy beats everyone hands down in the fantasy genre with more monsters – of every variety except Zombies, so far - per page than any other aspiring horror writer in the business.  And he’s funny, too, which is very necessary to relieve all the tension built up by his characters’ copious blood-letting:  oh, it’s all happening here – murder, mayhem and as an added attraction a spot of cannibalism thrown in every now and then.  For anyone with a delicate tum I suggest not eating while they read this.  Their appetite will never be the same again.
            Overweight, unattractive 16 year-old Amber Lamont is an unhappy teen – not for the usual teenage reasons, but because her rich parents Bill and Betty are not the slightest bit interested in her.  They prefer to socialise with their equally glamorous friends and regard her as a nuisance, a responsibility – until she has an encounter with two boys one night who threaten her with harm:  all of a sudden she finds herself changing into a tall, powerful creature with horns and red skin.  She is so strong that she badly injures both boys before reverting to her terrified self, but worse is to come when she reaches home and tells her parents what happened:  they are uncharacteristically overjoyed that she has now ‘come of age’, for it means that she has reached demon maturity.  They can now kill her and eat her (oh, gross!), thus keeping and enhancing their own demonic powers.  Bill and Betty inform her – as though discussing the weather – that she is not their first child;  they have already consumed two siblings born before her, but don’t worry about it – it’s nothing personal!
            Amber does not take kindly to the idea of being killed and eaten, especially when all the glamorous friends turn up to partake in the feast.  After a series of lucky escapes (aided by Imelda, the only friend who (miraculously) doesn’t want to eat her), Amber goes on the run with Milo Sebastian, a mysterious, handsome and tall older Dude hired by Imelda to protect her and take her out of harm’s way.  Milo says about three words a day but he drives the ultimate Muscle Car, a 1970 Dodge Charger (I Googled it.  What a beast!) which seems to have a life of its own;  if Milo gets injured  (and in the course of his travels with Amber, whose parents are deeply offended by the escape of their prospective banquet and are in hot pursuit, he is forced to sustain all kinds of messy wounds), all he has to do is spend some time in the Charger and eventually emerge after a time – unscathed.  Is that Magic or what!
            Amber meets a lot of nasties too, for she and Milo are travelling on the Demon Roads, a network of Dark Places that criss-cross America and no matter how they far they go, Bill and Betty thanks to their demonic contacts, are never far behind.  Poor old Amber is not equipped for all the violence used against her until she learns how to harness her new powers – sprouting horns, height and muscles and red skin gives her a definite edge over her opponents.  And they are many;  she has to learn to change in the blink of an eye, and she has to put up with all the pain of her injuries when she reverts to her puny self:  life has become very complicated.
            Mr Landy gives us great minor characters to enjoy;  a hapless Irish hitch-hiker named Glen who tags innocently along, until they make the terrible mistake of staying in a town controlled by vampires:  Glen, poor silly enormously likeable Glen, is caught and turned;  as Book One ends Amber must say goodbye to him as she and Milo are pursued by a new threat:  the Hounds of Hell.

Desolation. Book Two.

            And the only way to escape them is to drive to Alaska (Alaska?  Seriously?)  Yep, for a small town called Desolation Falls is the only place that the Hounds can’t penetrate as an invisible shield surrounds the town, thanks to a deal done with a very Senior Demon, who is now held captive by the town’s Mayor – okay, okay, I freely admit that the plot veers off track more than once:  keep calm and pay attention! 
Anyway.
            This is ostensibly a safe haven for Amber and Milo, until they are told that they can only stay in the town until Hell Night, a town festival that may only be celebrated by the townsfolk.  No outsiders allowed.
            Amber and Milo are in between the Devil (literally!) and the Deep Blue Sea:  if they leave the town boundaries the Hounds of Hell will get them.  If they stay they will be in mortal danger from the inhabitants.  Not to mention Bill and Betty who have tracked them down like a couple of bloodhounds.  What will happen next?
            Well, read the books and find out.  I have to confess that I was totally monstered out at the end of Book Two, but after my stomach settles I’m still looking forward to reading Book Three, ‘American Monsters’.  Amber and Milo (and poor old Glen) are unforgettable – not to mention the Charger!  And it’s time those parents from Hell, Bill and Betty, get their just desserts.  I hope. 
            Derek Landy effortlessly transports us all on a thrilling, mad and bloody romp across the Dark and Demon highways of America, combining the perfect mix of horror and humour for us in his mighty teen trilogy.  What a ride!    FIVE STARS.        
           

            

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

MORE GREAT READS FOR MARCH, 2017

Hag-Seed, the Tempest Retold, by Margaret Atwood

                Acclaimed Canadian author Margaret Atwood is following in the footsteps of other eminent contemporary authors commissioned by the Hogarth Press to write modern versions of Shakespeare’s timeless plays.  So far the standard has been dauntingly high:  I read ‘Vinegar Girl’ by Ann Tyler with great pleasure (see review below)and was convinced no other writer, talented as they are, could emulate it – until now.
            Ms Atwood’s play-within-a-play has every Shakespearean requirement:  magic;  villains most evil;  young love;  comedy – and revenge, the over-riding emotion and reason for being of ‘The Tempest’, now given a depressingly modern setting at the Fletcher County Correctional Institute somewhere in the Canadian province of Ontario.  Felix Phillips, once the avant-garde director and darling of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival, has been usurped by his weasely assistant Tony Price, who has convinced the milksop Festival board to ‘let Felix go – he’s past his prime’.  Felix’s current upcoming production of ‘The Tempest’ is abandoned, as is his projected cast;  he is powerless to object, especially as he is escorted from the theatre by two bouncers courteously bearing all of his theatrical life in cardboard boxes.
            The stage is beautifully set for revenge which – as per Will’s play – takes twelve years to materialise:  Felix has lost everything;  quite apart from his reputation, his beloved little daughter Miranda also died shortly before his humiliating exit from Makeshiweg.  He has much to brood on and finds a suitably lonely place in which to do it, not far from Fletcher Correctional, where (after learning that one of his enemies is now the Minister of Justice and the other the Heritage Minister) he eventually applies under an assumed name for a job teaching literacy and drama to the inmates.  He is a shoo-in for selection, especially as he is the only applicant and finds that after several productions – Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Richard III – he has had a degree of success unheard of in similar programs.  Crims are lining up to be in his next production.  Aye, The Play’s the Thing!  And what’s more, his two Most-Hated want to visit the prison to see the next play:  fortune is smiling on him at last. 
And, with his choice of ‘The Tempest’ as the perfect vehicle with which to bring those MF*ckers down, Felix coaches his motley cast meticulously in theatrical artifice, constantly surprised by what his players teach him in return, especially his Ariel, a conman and computer hacker par excellence (he cooks up unlimited technological magic), his Caliban, a huge Afghanistan Vet with PTSD and addiction problems - ‘excellent actor, but touchy’ – the Hag-Seed of the title, and Felix’s original choice for Miranda when his star was in the ascendant:  Anne-Marie Greenland, then sixteen, a former child gymnast eager to act;  now an accomplished waitress – and still a great dancer and choreographer.  Well, she’ll have to be a fast mover to keep out of the way of his woman-starved cast.
Those two crooked Ministers haven’t a hope:  Felix’s faithful players follow all his directions to the letter (including rewriting some of their speeches in rap-talk and staging what the Ministers think is a murder and riot), and Ariel’s expertise with recording equipment exposes them cooking up more dastardly schemes, unaware that all their planning is being stored on a memory stick. 
Ms Atwood gives all in her brilliant cast a happy ending, not to mention the feeling that the reader has at the end of this sublime adventure into theatre craft:  Shakespeare’s brilliance at harnessing every human emotion, good or evil, hilarious or sad shines again in Ms Atwood’s superb modern version.  SIX STARS!!      

Vinegar Girl, by Anne Tyler

  
          The Hogarth Press, originally established by Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard, has approached internationally known and acclaimed authors to take part in the Hogarth Shakespeare project, the object being to produce modern versions of some of Shakespeare’s most famous works.  I am unsure if ‘Nutshell’, by Ian McEwan applies;  he doesn’t appear to be on the official list of writers – but he should be!  It is a delicious account of baby Hamlet in the womb, listening in horror as his mother and uncle discuss foolproof ways to murder his father so that they may inherit (instead of the Danish throne) a crumbling but hugely profitable mansion in Belgravia.  (See review below).
            Who could possibly top that?  Well, no-one really, but Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anne Tyler has elected to tackle ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, the Bard’s paean to misogyny, and the bane of feminists – and ordinary women – since it was first written.  She does a sublime job.
            Italy becomes the American state of Maryland, specifically Ms Tyler’s beloved Baltimore, the setting for most of her lovely stories.  Kate Batista is twenty-nine, a college dropout and reduced to keeping house for her largely absent father, a revered scientist researching autoimmune diseases, and her vacuous, empty-headed (but pretty and popular!) younger sister Bunny.  She knows that life is passing her by but she feels powerless to change her circumstances, until her father, desperate to keep his brilliant Russian research assistant whose visa is expiring, presents her with a request which she finds utterly outrageous:  marry Pyotr Cherbakov so that he can stay in the country and get a Green Card!  Her reward?  The knowledge that she has contributed to the unimpeded advance of vital scientific research!
            Needless to say, Kate is furious – she is a shrew, after all, something that Pyotr in his clumsy attempts to court her recognises early.  Not that it deters him:  ‘You are crazy about me, I think’, he states when Kate’s body language (not to mention her mouth) informs him of just the opposite.  He does not care;  he needs his Green Card, and the thought of having to return to Russia without finishing the exciting work he is doing with the world’s foremost researcher on autoimmune diseases fills him with dismay.  Besides, there is nothing for him to go back to:  he was a foundling, left on the steps of an orphanage in a box that held cans of peaches (brand name Cherbakov).  No:  his life must continue here in the U.S.A, where he has a chance to permanently  belong to a community – and a family.
            Ms Tyler was a finalist in last year’s Man Booker Prize (the first year it was opened to American writers) for her lovely novel ‘A Spool of Blue Thread’;  once again she beguiles the reader with prose as simple and natural as breathing, and she leaves no-one in doubt as to her mastery of Shakespeare’s comedic style, striking a blow (subtle though it has to be) for women everywhere with Kate’s wedding speech, in which she rationalises in the most charming, authoritative way Pyotr’s caveman tactics leading up to their hugely unceremonious marriage. 
            This is a little gem, and does the Hogarth Shakespeare Project proud.  SIX STARS!

Nutshell, by Ian McEwan

            ‘So here I am, upside down in a woman.’  This is Ian McEwan’s unforgettable introduction to his masterly modern interpretation of Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, specifically the murder of the King of Denmark by his brother Claudius and wife Gertrude.
            Hamlet is still in his mother Trudy’s womb, and space is getting more limited by the day;  however, he is quite comfortable for the moment and takes a keen interest in the sounds around him, especially the radio interviews, lectures and podcasts he listens to (Trudy believes in keeping up with the play, globally speaking);  his only complaint about unborn life so far is that his soon-to-be father, publisher John Cairncross, has been evicted from the crumbling family home because mum is having a very carnal and energetic affair with John’s brother Claude.  The frequent battering ram assaults by Claude on various parts of his tender anatomy infuriate our little narrator;  he hopes that his silly mother will soon see the huge differences between the brothers before he sees the light – he is astonished that his kind, intellectually superior father has been supplanted by property-developer Claude, whose claims to sophistication and intelligence are negligible – but he does know how to choose a wine!
            And a lot of wine is consumed, lulling the unborn to sleep most of the time, until he wakes up and hears a conversation which horrifies him:  Trudy and Claude have decided to remove John permanently from their lives by Murder Most Foul.  Because the decaying, filthy house in which Trudy lives (John and Claude’s childhood home) is in a very fashionable part of London, Claude knows that the site is worth millions, and because John is showing a marked and shameful reluctance to end his marriage (For Heaven’s sake, stop grovelling – where’s your self-respect!) there is only one solution:  he’ll have to go.  Claude intends to win Fair Lady and the loot.
            Baby is agog at their duplicity, especially when it becomes painfully clear that he will not figure in their futures, but will be ‘put somewhere’.  To add insult to injury his own father appears to have no interest in his imminent birth either, intent as he is at abasing himself at the sandaled feet of his faithless wife.  What can he do?  What awful fate awaits him?

            Mr McEwan’s book extends to just under two hundred pages, culminating with the birth of our fretting little narrator.  The author likes the idea of a novel that one can read in one or two sittings, ‘an intense experience’ – always assuming that it will entertain the reader sufficiently enough to do just that.  I have to admit that I have found some of his works to be of a much lesser quality than this one;  however, he has certainly achieved his objective with ‘Nutshell’.  His scintillating prose illustrates treachery, betrayal and murder in grand Shakespearean style and baby Hamlet’s family has never seemed more real.  FIVE STARS

Saturday, 11 March 2017

FIRST GREAT READS FOR MARCH, 2017

Holding, by Graham Norton

                Hugely popular Irish TV host Graham Norton has written his first novel, a long-held dream of his after writing two volumes of memoirs. And who would ever know that this is his literary debut if it hadn’t been publicised as such, for he writes with the charm and assurance of a seasoned performer – which of course, he is.
            He sets his story in the little village of Duneen, a picturesque farming community where time hasn’t stood still, but it is mighty close to it.  ‘Time doesn’t pass in Duneen, it seeps away’.  Predictably, everyone knows everyone else’s business – why, you only have to check the recycling bins to know what people are up to, like Brid Riordan, for instance:  sixteen wine bottles – Mother of God, has the woman no shame?!
            And what about that vastly overweight upholder of local law and order, Sergeant Patrick James Collins (PJ for short), who just sits about, jammed behind the steering wheel of his car inhaling tea and muffins – which he hardly needs – brought to him by Mrs O’Driscoll, fierce owner of the local shop.  He’ll never have to tax his policing skills with anything more than issuing parking tickets and hauling drunks out of the local of a Saturday night – until a workman knocks on his car window to report that a digger at the new subdivision has unearthed human bones.  HUMAN BONES??
            In no time at all (or so it seems) Detective Superintendent Linus Dunne is despatched from Cork, the nearest big city, to oversee ‘the crime scene’.  His initial impression of PJ is not favourable until he sees beneath the blubber caused by comfort eating kindness, intelligence and tact, not to mention an encyclopaedic local knowledge.  The fat man is a lot smarter than he looks.  And it isn’t long before they have a potential identity of the victim:  a young man called Tommy Burke, who disappeared twenty-five years ago in mysterious circumstances, after causing two young women of the village – one being the aforementioned Brid Riordan before she became an alcoholic and the other an upper class young lady called Evelyn Ross, to scrap in the street like a couple of navvies, for Tommy Burke had made romantic advances to both of them – even proposing marriage to Brid.  Because she owned a farm.
            But the more the case is investigated, the more bewildering and full of dead ends it becomes, until both men are forced to conclude that despite the head injuries to the corpse’s skull, death could very well have been accidental – until another body is found on the same construction site, this time of a newborn baby.
            Mr Norton writes very well of youthful dreams and potential wasted;  his characters are (for the most part) carefully portrayed and as recognisable as thee and me and despite a  bit of a rush to finish things with all I’s dotted and t’s crossed, he still beguiles the reader with his trademark warmth and humour.  The story’s conclusion leaves enough questions unanswered to hope that PJ, that kind, honourable and tactful fat man, will appear in a sequel at some time in the future, for he’s a broth of a boy.  FIVE STARS

The Rules of Backyard Cricket, by Jock Serong.

            Darren Keefe, former enormously talented bad boy of the Australian Cricket Team (this is the National SIDE, mate, not any old State team) has reached the nadir of his career.  And his life for, as his story opens, he is trussed up in the boot of a car with a bullet hole in his knee and various other injuries caused by a huge beating suffered at the hands of his abductors.  Yep, things don’t look too good and, as he is driven to the far-away destination where he feels sure his life will be ended, he has more than enough time to reflect on his life and all the ways he could have avoided this fate – if only he’d been a better person.  Yeah, right.
            For Darren is one of those enormously talented but directionless athletes, always impatient for the next thrill;  his pranks and misdeeds never seem to have many consequences to start with – until now.  Old crimes and misdemeanours are rearing their heads;  sins that he can’t even remember are surfacing and have to be examined.  It’s time to face up to the fact that, despite being Australia’s darling throughout a lot of his career, he didn’t deserve any of it – not like his brother Wally, older by two years and as much an example of probity and Good Sportsmanship as Darren is not – and Wal is the CAPTAIN of the National Side, mate, not just a player!
            Darren and Wally have a love/hate relationship, starting with their childhood in Melbourne’s Western Suburbs where they are raised by a loving solo Mum who, when she wasn’t working all the hours God sent at the local pub, encouraged their love of backyard cricket, little realising what gladiatorial combat it became between the two brothers:  The competition is so fierce and hate-filled between them that they don’t realise that cricket is a team sport until they play it at school, where their unique talents are recognised and developed:  they’re on their way to fame, fortune and a place in the pantheon of past Australian Heroes of the game.
            That’s the theory, anyway:  Wal leads the decent, upstanding life with a decent, upstanding woman.  They have a child whom Darren loves wholeheartedly (‘God.  I’m an uncle.  I’m anuncle.  I’m a nuncle.’).  Darren meets a decent, upstanding woman of his own, whose influence he feels – for a couple of years until the inevitable slide into his old boozing, drug-fuelled habits resumes, then rock-bottom (he thinks) is reached with match-fixing:  he is approached to miss a particular shot but instead hits it out of the park, setting in train the series of tragedies that result in him crammed in the car boot, riding to his death.
            Every character in Jock Serong’s great story is a gem, wholly credible and finely realised;  his plot is so gripping it could fit into multiple genres – crime, mystery, suspense, family saga – and fraternal love, for Darren will always love Wal.  Wal is his brother, no matter what.  But does Wal feel the same way about Darren? 
            I am still recovering from the revelations in the last few pages – I didn’t see the plot twist coming, and it was like a punch to the jaw.  Cricket will never be the same for me again.  SIX STARS!