Sunday, 28 May 2017

LAST GREAT READS FOR MAY, 2017

Red Sister, by Mark Lawrence

          
Well.  Mark Lawrence has done it again:  sucked me into his latest fantasy adventure from the first page – effortlessly, his story-telling skills buffed and polished from his first two trilogies, ‘The Broken Empire’ and ‘The Red Queen’s War’.  And so he should!  I would expect nothing less from the creator of murderous anti-hero Prince of Thorns Honorous Jorg Ancrath, (see 2012 review below) or his opposite number Prince of Fools Jalan Kendeth, (see 2014 review below) known chiefly for his good looks, shameless behaviour, and ability to hide or run like the wind at the first sign of danger.
            Now, Mr Lawrence introduces us to the Red Sister, the first book in The Ancestor trilogy.  Once again he has created a character as huge in spirit and soul as she is small and malnourished, for Nona, called Grey for the part of the narrow land from which she was sold to a Child-Taker, has unique powers, powers she is too young to understand or harness. All she knows is a world that is gradually being consumed by mile-high walls of encroaching ice, for the sun has died and all humankind has now to nurture life on the planet is an artificially developed Focus Moon.  Every night it casts its square (yes, square!) red warmth over the landscape and melts what the ice has claimed.
            There are still towns and cities, rich and poor, and Nona is dirt-scrabble poor.  She cannot understand why her mother and the head man of the village sold her – no, GAVE HER AWAY, so that she eventually ends up being sold to a Fight Master, who fattens her up with a view to training her to fight for money.  Her life is tolerable – the food is more than she has ever seen in her life! – and Nona actually makes a friend, a little girl called Saida:  perhaps she will survive after all.  Until an act of sadism towards her only friend causes Nona to wreak a terrible vengeance against the guilty one, the eldest son of one of the richest aristocratic families:  she and Saida are thrown into prison, ready to be hanged.
            It goes without saying that poor little Saida is sacrificed to the rope (and the plot);  Nona’s rescuer in the nick of time is Abbess Glass of Sweet Mercy convent:  by fair means (and foul) she manages to bring Nona within the shelter of her convent’s fortress walls, there to harness and train for good the propensity to violence and murder that rage can provoke within Nona’s skinny frame – and to discover eventually that Nona has no need of weapons with which to kill:  her hands and her anger are the only weapons she needs to vanquish whole armies, if need be.  WOW!!
            And again, Mr Lawrence teases us with his rocket science theories (well, he knows what he’s talking about) by intimating, despite the settings of medieval pomp and pageantry - not to mention squalor – that the world being overtaken by an inexorable Ice Age is not the original planet that existed;  rather, it was the destination of everyone’s forebears who travelled through the heavens in great ships, looking for a world that still had a bright sun.
            As always, Mr Lawrence leaves us all shouting for more – he simply cannot produce the sequel fast enough:  I want to start it NOW!  FIVE STARS

Prince of Thorns, by Mark Lawrence

You read it here first:  What an adventure!  Mark Lawrence’s debut novel has all the requisite ingredients for the ideal fantasy – a wronged and vengeful hero, warring kingdoms, ghosts, necromancers, murders most foul, and a complete lack of honour, except amongst thieves.
At the tender age of nine, Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath was forced to witness the slaughter of his mother and younger brother William by Count Renar of the Highlands and his troops.  If he expected his father the king to avenge their dreadful murders, he is sorely disappointed;  instead, the king negotiates compensation in the shape of land and horses for his loss.  Seeds of hatred and revenge are sown in the fertile ground of Jorg’s grief and heartbreak:  he takes to the road and joins a band of mercenaries and outlaws, and because he no longer cares if he lives or dies, he becomes their leader through sheer recklessness and a bravado that is fearless and suicidal – oh, Jorg has problems, alright – he has already lived five lifetimes and he’s only fourteen!
Mark Lawrence has created a rip-roaring, no-holds-barred, heart-in-the-mouth pageturner in this first book, and in spite of the reader knowing they shouldn’t believe a word of it, they are totally sucked in, swept along with the clever plot and more action than a body should rightly have to endure – oh, it’s great stuff, and this is just the first book of a Trilogy.  ‘King of Thorns’ is next, and a fascinating question for the reader is to figure out exactly the timeline in which Mr Lawrence has set his stories:  a vastly altered central Europe might  be the setting, but who can be sure?  Everyone fights in armour with medieval weapons, but Jorg wears a wrist-watch!  (which doesn’t make an appearance till book two) – and he lets loose what seems suspiciously like a nuclear explosion halfway through book one.  I have come to the conclusion (I’m ashamed to say it took me a while) that Jorg’s story is set far into the future:  it’s possible that the world we knew has been destroyed for whatever terrible reason, and the regenerating human race hasn’t progressed beyond another Medieval Age in its attempts to survive.
Which all adds to this trilogy’s great appeal.  ‘ Prince of Thorns’ was a gripping read, but book two, ‘King of Thorns’ is even better.  Roll out book three!  Mark Lawrence isn’t just a good storyteller – he’s a great one.  Whatever I read next, this will be a hard act to follow.  FIVE STARS

Prince of Fools, by Mark Lawrence

Jalan Kendeth is a prince of Red March, a southern kingdom blessed with bountiful harvests and buxom wenches.  He is young, handsome and filled with boundless energy – but not for anything constructive.  He freely admits to being irresponsible, (he is hugely in debt to a sadistic moneylender) feckless, (no woman is safe from his doubtful charms) and famously disinterested in the affairs and business of ruling his country – which is fortunate;  he is tenth in line to his grandmother the Red Queen’s throne and as such would never be considered for the crown.  Also, he is considered the runt of the litter of his family of older brothers, for despite his fine height and good build he is ‘The Little One’.  They dwarf him, every one.
Well, who cares?  Not him:  he’s quite happy to remain one step ahead of the moneylender (and he’s a damn fine runner!), and to worry about consequences for any of his actions after he has acted – until he becomes involved with a huge Norseman, a captive of his grandmother who has been freed because he gave her vital information about a huge and frightening army preparing to attack from the frozen Northern wastes of the Bitter Ice.  Through a dreadful twist of fate – and a ghastly spell concocted by a witch (truly!) – they are bound together by the good and bad strands of the spell and compelled to journey North to try to stop the advance of the Dead King and his ghastly army of corpses.  Snorri ver Snagason, the Norseman, is happy to begin the journey:  his wife and children are captives in the North and he means to rescue them.  Jalan, needless to say, feels exactly the opposite.  Heading purposely towards certain death is not on his agenda, but such is the power of the spell that he has no choice and begins the journey with a quaking heart and loud protestations.
And, regardless of his fears, he and Snorri travel inexorably northwards, most of the time with little food and no money, and depending more than once on ‘the kindness of strangers’, until they reach Ancrath, home of Jorg, Prince of Thorns, who is back in favour – however temporarily -  with his father, King Olidan.  Jalan makes much of his princely status while he can, until Olidan’s Queen tries to bribe him to kill Jorg, but Jalan has no stomach for such a task, especially when he sees the Prince of Thorns and is victim of his thousand yard stare.  No:  it’s time he and the Norseman resumed their journey – fast!
Once again, we are off on a marvellous adventure through Mark Lawrence’s great fantasy of Europe after The Big Bang, the Explosion of a Thousand Suns,  the setting of  his superb ‘Prince of Thorns’ trilogy.

Jalan Kendeth’s story runs parallel to the action in the first trilogy so he is bound to cross paths again with the deadly Honorous Jorg Ancrath;  it will be fascinating to see if his and Norri’s travails have given him an injection of the courage he honestly acknowledges he lacks, but by the end of Book One our expectations are not high – instead, what is certain is that Mark Lawrence has produced once again a fantasy of the highest order, with characters that readers truly care about, and more action than you can shake a stick at.  There are Unborn, Undead and Unnaturals littering every chapter, not to mention witches, bitches and seers by the score:  what more could a dedicated fantasy reader ask for, except top quality writing and plotting.  Mark Lawrence does it all.  FIVE STARS     

Monday, 15 May 2017

MORE GREAT READS FOR MAY, 2017

The Pretty Delicious Café, by Danielle Hawkins


           I have to say that I am not a big fan of Chick Lit.  Could it be for the very sound reason that I am no longer a chick?  In fact, Old Chook might be nearer the mark (but I’ll fight anyone who says that!).  Nevertheless, I thought I’d give Ms Hawkins’s Café story a whirl after reading some great reviews ( not the cover blurb, either),and am very happy to report that Chick Lit it may be, but it’s absolutely streets ahead of its romantic rivals.  Whoever they are.
            Now.  This is a Kiwi Chick Lit story, so the action takes place in a little Northland town not so far from the Big Smoke, Auckland – I have to admit that as I got deeper into the story I spent too much time trying to work out which real town the little seaside settlement of Ratai is imitating, but concluded finally that it could be any place north of Orewa.  
Lia (short for Aurelia, named so by her ex-hippy mum) and her best friend Anna run a very successful café just out of town.  They are mortgaged to the hilt and work like dogs to make money while the sun shines, for winter is famously a slack time for beach cafes.  Anna is planning her wedding (in the slack time) to Lia’s twin brother Rob, and wedding tension is adding its five cent’s worth to the usual stress. 
            Another irritant is Lia’s ex, Isaac, who stoutly refuses to believe that she has called off their relationship – not once but many times:  he just won’t take ‘no’ for an answer.  What a jerk!  Then we have ex-hippy mum, who wears lots of flowing scarves and draperies, and drinks horrible, unidentifiable juices in an effort to be physically and spiritually cleansed.  She is madly attractive in a middle-aged kind of way and always addresses Lia and Rob as ‘darling’.  Well, of course!  Oh, this little story is chock-full of stereotypes – but it’s FUNNY.  Ms Hawkins is a masterly exponent of the Kiwi sense of humour.  Every character, predictable though they may be, is sharply and wittily observed;  our very ‘kiwiness’ is portrayed affectionately and with a charm that perhaps some of us can only aspire to, but what fun it is to read about!
            OMG – I nearly forgot to mention Lia’s love interest.  What was I thinking?!  He is hunky mechanic Jed, a stranger in Ratai – with a past, naturally.  Will Lia and Jed walk off into the sunset with their buckets and spades?  Will Rob and Anna wed in spite of Anna’s flirtation with an eating disorder? (it’s the stress).  Will jerky Isaac get over Lia’s rejection or will he continue to be a stalker?  Will ex-hippy mum melt into her ex-stepson’s arms?  (Didn’t see THAT one coming, did you!)  This little book is serious fun.  FOUR STARS.

Leap of Faith, by Jenny Pattrick


         Jenny Pattrick reintroduces some of her lovely characters from ‘The Denniston Rose’ trilogy, that unforgettable saga of mining on the West Coast of the South Island in 19th century New Zealand:  now she transports them to the North Island in 1907, where there is new, well-paid work (hard labour) for good, honest men building the new railway line and its mighty viaducts across the Central Plateau,  in order to provide the first uninterrupted rail link from Wellington to Auckland. 
For Jock Cameron and his family, it will be a welcome break, a break for him from working permanently underground, and a change that his wife Sarah hopes will provide cleaner air for his faltering lungs.  Their grown family of three sons and a daughter welcome the change – Maggie does housework for a Temperance lady (a job she hates) in Ohakune;  the two oldest boys work with their father on the work gang he oversees, and youngest son Billy is thrilled to find work (at fourteen) at the Makatote Viaduct, still being constructed across a huge gorge, and considered by all who work there to be (along with the Raurimu Spiral) one of the wonders of the age, an edifice as visually beautiful as its use is practical:  a true combination of modern engineering genius and backbreaking labour.  Everyone, engineers, steel workers and navvies alike, is proud to be connected to such a masterpiece – including the Denniston Rose herself, now Rose Scobie, the mother of two small children and married to Brennan who is thrilled that she would leave the Denniston Plateau and with their family, follow him as he begins his engineering job at Makatote.
The scene is beautifully set for other characters to make their unforgettable presence felt, especially itinerant preacher Gabriel Locke, a silver-tongued devil who has more aliases than he can con hot dinners, and a fatal charm that Amelia Grice, Maggie’s employer and doughty warrior against the Demon Drink, is powerless to resist.  Their liaison, borne from guilt and blackmail, has tragic repercussions for all, including Maggie’s naïve and gullible brother Billy:  the corruption of his innocence is assured.
As always, Ms Pattrick draws her readers effortlessly into her lovely stories.  (See review below)  Her beautiful prose pays fitting homage to the men and women who laboured so hard and long more than a hundred years ago to bring New Zealand into the Twentieth Century. Each of Ms. Pattrick’s books is a reminder that, as a nation we owe these people everything.  Our present is enriched immeasurably by their past.  FIVE STARS
   

Heartland, by Jenny Pattrick

Donny Mac is on his way home to Manawa, a tiny village at the foot of Mt. Ruapehu on the central plateau of the North Island of New Zealand.  He has just served a six-month sentence for grievous bodily harm, charges brought by the overprotective mother of an old ‘schoolmate’, someone who has taunted and bullied him since he was a child – but Donny Mac doesn’t care now:  he has completed an anger management course;  still has his job as a shelf-packer at Manawa’s New World supermarket,  a little home his late grandfather left him and a place in the local rugby team, who could be  future winners of the regional championship. 
His life is on an even keel again and he is happy – childishly so, for Donny Mac is regarded as slow;  ‘ a few sandwiches short of a picnic’ and ‘not the sharpest knife in the drawer’, but he dearly loves Manawa and everyone in it  - except for all the townies, who turn up during the ski season on Ruapehu, having bought up all the old mill houses for use as their holiday accommodation.  No local likes the townies who disrupt their quiet way of life with speeding SUV’s and raucous parties, but they accept them as a necessary evil, for Manawa is dying.  The timber mills are closed, there are no jobs and all the young folk have left to look for work in the big cities, as has happened in countless other once-thriving communities.  At least the townies spend money when they come to ski on Ruapehu, enabling the village to stutter along for another year.
Yes, Donny Mac can’t wait to get home – until he finds that his house has been appropriated in his absence by Nightshade, the local slut, drunk most of the time, and hugely pregnant – ‘ and the baby’s yours, you ##@$!!’  Which in all fairness, is drawing a very long bow:  given her non-existent reputation, the hapless baby could belong to any one of the local youths, but after being rejected by them all, she has settled on poor slow Donny Mac as a last desperate resort.  She has been abandoned by everyone.  He is her only chance of support.
And support her he does, much against the wishes and counselling of his true friends, people who love him and worry about him and wish that his life could be better, and that is the crux of this charming story:  the fellowship of a tight-knit community;  their heartfelt affection for each other regardless of blood-ties, and their wildly disparate solutions to frightening problems.
Jenny Pattrick is a firm favourite with New Zealand readers.  Her ‘Denniston Rose’ trilogy has become a classic of Kiwi popular fiction, similarly the beautiful ‘Landings’ and while there are a couple of her titles that I thought weren’t up to her very high standard she has hit her mark once again with ‘Heartland’.  It is a heartwarmer of a tale in the very best sense of the word, and the only complaint I can make is that I finished it too quickly – I didn’t want to leave Donny Mac, Vera, Bull and the Misses Macaneny, finely drawn characters that will stay with the reader long after the story is finished.  FOUR STARS          
             


Sunday, 7 May 2017

GREAT READS FOR MAY, 2017

My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout.

            Lucy Barton is languishing in hospital in New York, the victim of an infection that has turned a short stay for an appendix operation into a hugely expensive nine-week-long endurance test for her, especially when the family friend entrusted to look after her two daughters brings them to visit her with grubby faces and dirty hair.  Even worse, her husband hates hospitals and each visit by him is an obvious feat of will:  the situation is not conducive to promoting rest and the return of strength necessary for Lucy’s discharge.
            Until she wakes one day to find an unfamiliar figure seated at the foot of her bed.   At Lucy’s husband’s request and subsequent expense, her mother has flown from her small town in Illinois to spend time with Lucy – which she literally does, not leaving her bedside for the five-day duration of her visit.  The nurses offered to provide a cot for her, but Lucy’s mum preferred the chair, she said. 
            Mum’s visit would be the norm, indeed expected in any extended family, except that Lucy’s family were not given to normal displays of emotion;  indeed it was imperative for the survival of Lucy, her sister and brother that they ask for nothing, expect nothing – and when they got nothing, not to be surprised.  The family’s poverty was abject, even though her parents worked every daylight hour to keep the family fed, and because they all lived in a garage, the family was also known as dirty as well as poor, labels that, had Lucy stayed in that town, would have branded her for life.
            Fortunately for Lucy, she had secret dreams, dreams of being a writer which were nurtured by a sympathetic teacher who was instrumental in helping her get a scholarship to a college in Chicago:  Lucy is on her way, ready to leave her brutal past behind.  She gradually transforms her life, falling in love with William, her husband, and giving birth to her beloved daughters.  She has success as a writer, too, which she hopes will make her parents proud, but who would know?  Their reactions to her academic success and marital stability are decidedly low-key;  she has not seen them for years and they have never seen their grandchildren.  Therefore, her mother’s presence at her sickbed, welcome as it is, is a surreal experience for Lucy.  Why is she here?
Ms Strout has constructed, as always, a story of great power encapsulated within the pages of a very slim volume.  She describes the rocks and shoals of familial love – and conflict – painfully and honestly.  We readers cannot turn away from the many truths revealed, nor should we want to. 
Initially, I was confused by Lucy’s revelations, some of them huge, that were dropped like bombshells casually into the narrative;  it was only at the end that it was announced that this is the first book of a series called ‘Anything is Possible’.  Presumably, more will be revealed of the bombshells (and their craters) in subsequent volumes, for Elizabeth Strout is a writer sublime.  My introduction to her was ‘Olive Kitteridge’ (see review below) – I became her Biggest Fan (along with the many millions of others) after reading that gem, and I haven’t changed my opinion.  FOUR STARS.

AN OLDIE BUT A GOODIE!
Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout.

Ms Strout’s eponymous protagonist is an exceptional woman.  She has been a high school mathematics teacher in the small town of Crosby, Maine for many years and has a wonderful empathy for her students, helping many of them with advice that in several cases is crucial:  she makes a positive difference to many  lives, including those she chooses as her friends – and they are few, for Olive Kitteridge does not suffer fools gladly.
Sadly, she regards her own husband and son as wanting:  her frustration with their good natured compliance with her whims, their longing for her approval and more importantly, a peaceful, loving atmosphere, turns her into a bully, ashamed of her actions but unable to stop her tyranny.
Ms Strout tells Olive’s story in a series of beautifully constructed short stories;  each one features her either as a major influence on the main character in the chapter or as a remote adjunct, a mere mention, as in the story devoted to the talented pianist at the local restaurant, who drinks to disguise her perpetual stage fright, and has more than her share of secrets and regrets.
 Olive attends the funeral of one of her former pupils, happily married to his high school sweetheart until his untimely death from cancer but once again, secrets are revealed at the wake;  the wife’s cousin had a fling with the dear departed, mentioned it to the grieving widow after a few drinks too many – ‘because I thought you knew!’  Needless to say, the poor widow knew nothing until that moment, and it falls to Olive to try to save the situation, saving with her innate, intuitive diplomacy the poor widow’s face and self-respect.
Which begs the question:  why is she unable to apply these essential, enviable gifts to her personal life, which as she gets older polarise her more from her loved ones?
Ms Strout provides the answers effortlessly in this wonderful little book, which deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2008.  She has just released another novel ‘The Burgess Boys’ to glowing reviews, and as I hadn’t read anything of hers before, I thought I would make Olive’s acquaintance before going on to meet the Burgess brothers.  And how glad I am that I did, for ‘Olive Kitteridge’ is an unforgettable character;  outstanding, outrageous, a person of lion-hearted courage and lily-livered cowardice;  an Everywoman who has had to endure great grief and pain, but is still able to transcend her sorrow to make sense of her existence.  Olive is simply superb, and I hope you will meet her soon.  SIX STARS!

Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien

            ‘In a single year, my father left us twice.  The first time, to end his marriage, and the second, when he took his own life’. 
            So begins Jiang Li-ling’s account of the great tragedy she suffered at the age of ten in 1989.  Her father Kai died in Hong Kong, after leaving his wife and daughter in Vancouver.  It was an utter mystery as to why he should return to China as he had obviously intended, before ending it all in China’s capitalist satellite.  Li-ling and her mother know that prior to escaping the Communist regime he had been a renowned concert pianist, a person of great gifts and the favourite of Madame Mao – until she, like so many millions of others, fell from grace.  When that happened, it was time to flee – like so many thousands of others.  But why try to return?
            To complicate the puzzle, Li-ling’s mother is asked by a mysterious correspondent in Beijing if she could care for her daughter Ai-ming, in the country without the correct papers and needing shelter:  Ai-ming’s father was Kai’s beloved music teacher, a  brilliant composer in his own right and, before all the purges and ‘re-education’ of useless intellectuals and those with bourgeoisie dreams, a person who lived entirely for music:  tragically, he spent many years of his re-education building crates, then became adept at assembling radios after requesting a shift to Beijing to further his precious daughter’s education.  Now the daughter has arrived in Canada, a victim of and shocked witness to the horrors she experienced in the student revolt in Tiananmen Square, where the Glorious People’s Liberation Army murdered thousands of their own countrymen – because they dared to protest, to demand democracy. 
            Canadian author Ms Thien has constructed an epic, a huge sweeping history of Mao’s China from the time of his overthrow of the KuoMintang led by Chiang Kai-Shek (exiled to Formosa), his ascension to power in 1949, his many and varied attempts to turn China from an agrarian nation to an industrial one (starting a famine in which it is estimated between fifteen and forty-five million people died), his scorning and re-education of the intellectual elite, and his carte blanche approval of the Red Guards, young fanatics and zealots who literally follow every one of his whims to the letter.  The Chinese people have given up one kind of serfdom for another.  They are all meant to be glorious revolutionaries, but the revolution smacks of the same old poverty and fear.
            In a series of flashbacks, Li-ling’s father Kai’s youth is revealed – his time in a Jesuit orphanage and his adoption by a distinguished music professor who enrols him at the Shanghai Conservatory, where he meets Sparrow the composer who is his teacher.  Sparrow is named by his mother for that common little bird who attracts no attention – she rightly believes that in the current climate it serves no-one well to have a pretentious name.  And she is right.  Sparrow survives longer than most because of his ability to blend anonymously with his surroundings, but like everyone else, he and his family eventually suffer terrible losses from which they will never recover -  not least betrayal:  in the interests of his own survival, Kai has become a Red Guard.
            Ms Thien’s story of one extended family’s attempts to survive within the whirlwind of revolt and repression is magnificent.  Her characters undergo many travails, but their forbidden sustenance is always the same:  stories and music, the balm for all troubled spirits.  SIX STARS.