Sunday, 25 June 2017

LAST GREAT READS FOR JUNE, 2017

The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas                 Young Adults


Starr Carter is at a party in the ‘Hood.  She is not supposed to be there ;  her brother Seven would get her into serious trouble with their parents if he knew, but she’s there to be cool (she hopes) with his sister Kenya (no relation to Starr – it’s complicated!), the daughter of the Hood’s Supremo Drug Dealer and local gang leader.  She used to go to Grade School with all the kids at this party, but her parents, store-owner Big Mav and community nurse Lisa have decided that their children will no longer attend any schools in the ghetto;  instead Seven and Starr attend a white high school interested in expanding its ethnic diversity – which is fine, except that it’s a long drive every day, and when she arrives, she’s never comfortable about which Starr she should  be:  the token, sassy black girl who speaks properly – and has a cool white boyfriend in the same class (yep, it’s true!), or the Girlfriend who think her ass too good to come to a party with her sistahs.
              
            So.  Here she is, minus the white boyfriend, naturally.  Everyone ignores her, until she sees her childhood friend, Khalil, seventeen now and wearing some VERY expensive gear.  Diamond studs in the ears, too.  Starr’s happiness at seeing him after several months is spoiled by worrying where he got the money for these things.  It’s a well-known fact that his mother is a crackhead and his grandmother with whom he lives has cancer and has been sacked from her job – at a hospital! – because she is too ill to work.  There can be only one answer:  Khalil is selling drugs for King, Kenya’s father.  But when fronted about it Khalil tells Starr to butt out – he OK!  The situation is not improved when the party turns into the exact reason why her family would never knowingly allow her to go there:  shots are fired and everyone hits the floor – it’s time to go!
          Khalil offers Starr a ride home, which is great;  she might even get in the door without anyone knowing where she went!  Instead, the worst happens, and her life is changed forever.
            A white police officer stops them as they drive through one of the worst parts of the Hood;  Khalil supposedly has a broken tail-light.  Starr is terrified.  She remembers the instructions her Daddy has given them all:  show your hands at all times;  don’t make any sudden moves;  be polite – directions that Khalil should know but is not following.  Ordered out of the car, he attempts to lean back in to ask Starr if she is OK – and is shot to death by Officer 115.
            That number will be engraved on Starr’s consciousness for a lifetime.  This is the second time she has lost a loving childhood friend to murder;  her friend Natasha was killed in a drive-by shooting when they were 10.  Now Khalil has met the same fate.  Black Jesus, where are You?
            This wonderful book should be read by ALL adults, not only the young.  This is Angie Thomas’s first novel, a fact I find hard to believe, for it is written with a maturity and assurance that more experienced writers can only dream of.  She explores through Starr’s narration of events the endless connotations of a single cowardly act and the repercussions that ripple outwards from the decisions, right or wrong, that people make to stand against abuse, racism and tyranny of every stripe. 
            The novel’s title is taken from a Tupac Shakur Album that Khalil loved:  T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E.  The Hate U Give Little Infants F---s Everybody.  And that’s the truth.  This book is totally badass, cool and dope.  SIX STARS!!! 

  
The Thirst, by Jo Nesbo
           

           It shames me to admit that I have never read one of Mr Nesbo’s thrillers featuring flawed but brilliant detective Harry Hole – there are so many of them that I thought I would concentrate instead on his stand-alone novels.  Which exceeded expectations brilliantly (see 2014 review below), however ‘The Thirst’ provided me with so much information about established characters and their backstories that I felt quite up with the play.
            Harry Hole suffers from all the fictional detective’s usual demons:  alcoholism, nightmares, ghosts of murder victims from previous cases who visit to torment him – but he is currently ‘dry’ and a loving husband to Rakel and thrilled that his stepson Oleg is a student at Police College where Harry now lectures.  Life is as good as it is going to get.  Until two grisly murders take place within days, shattering the calm, not just of Harry’s world, but of the entire city of Oslo, for both women had met their assailant through the Tinder website, and both women had been drained of blood through terrible wounds to their throats – caused by a set of iron teeth.  And there are no clues.
            Police Chief Mikael Bellman wants this monster caught as quickly as possible;  he has political ambitions and a speedy resolution will cement his reputation as a fearless and effective future Minister of Justice, not to mention silencing the yammer of the tabloid press: yes,  even though Bellman hates Harry Hole, Hole and his rat trap memory and vastly analytical mind is the best man for the job – but has to be blackmailed to do it.  Harry doesn’t want to be plunged into the maelstrom again, but when his family is threatened he has no choice.
            Back in the saddle once more:  back to sleepless nights for everyone, consultations with behavioural psychologists and various other experts and all that is initially learned is that the killer is a ‘Vampirist’, a murderer who loves drinking blood.  And the Vampirist keeps on killing.  Oslo is in an uproar and Harry’s life plunges further into chaos when his beloved Rakel is struck down by a mystery illness which puts her into a coma. 
            Jo Nesbo drags the reader kicking and screaming through every blood-drenched chapter;  he is merciless in his portrayal of human depravity and because he is such an excellent writer we are must tolerate all the gory details, BUT!  To dilute all the violence, there is a fine vein of comedy introduced whenever Mr Nesbo judges that the reader needs some light relief.  And about time, too, I say!  My nerves were in shreds.  I have to say that I never guessed the identity of the killer, for Mr Nesbo is adept in casting Red Herrings throughout his plot;  I headed off entirely in the wrong direction – as I was meant to do.
            Sadly, the only criticism I have is quite a big one:  when the killer is finally revealed he is (naturally) the last person anyone (except Harry Hole) would suspect – BUT!  (Yet another one) – said killer takes Harry hostage, forcing him on a long car trip across the city, all the while revealing  his reasons for his almost-perfect crime rampage with such hysterical glee that I expected him at any moment to start twirling his moustaches or, when justice finally triumphed,  shout ‘curses, foiled again!’ 
            Still, Harry survives – just – to battle his own demons and everyone else’s in the next book, for this particular episode is not over:  not every villain has been caught.  I just hope that the plotting will be more plausible and less farcical next time.  FOUR STARS

Blood on Snow, by Jo Nesbo

Olav Johansen is dyslexic.  He has had trouble reading all his life, but it hasn’t stopped him trying.  His memory for what he so painstakingly absorbs is razor-sharp, as he reveals in his first-person narrative – except that he is self-deprecating whenever he shares with the reader a little morsel of his vast knowledge on myriad subjects – ‘but what do I know?’  He is also a romantic, and inclined to donate money anonymously to down-and-outers;  he falls in love with fallen women – and he is also a hit man, a ‘fixer’ for one of Oslo’s bigtime gangsters.
 He sees nothing incongruous in his coldblooded dispatching of whoever his boss tells him to remove, and the soft side of his nature which exhorts him to care for the exploited prostitutes his boss employs, particularly Maria, a deaf-mute with a limp:  he still can’t understand why Maria works as a prostitute, until he finds out that she is paying off her junkie boyfriend’s drug debt.
Olav’s life is fairly predictable, and he doesn’t expect it to change in any dramatic way – until his boss tells him that his next ‘assignment’ is to remove the boss’s faithless wife.  Olav feels a sense of awful forboding with regard to this new task, especially when he stakes out the rich apartment in which Mrs Boss spends her ineffectual days and learns that she has a young man who visits her every day at the same time to beat and rape her.  True to form, Olav’s warped sense of chivalry rears its mutant head and he decides to rescue Mrs Boss – and ‘fix’ her tormentor.
And that is just the start of Olav’s life-threatening problems.  Life goes pear-shaped and remains so, despite his best attempts to resolve his situation so that he may be the White Knight for Mrs Boss.  Maria has been entirely forgotten and while many people will die because of his actions,  he will learn yet again that the people he most trusts are capable of the worst betrayal.
Once again, Jo Nesbo has created an anti-hero that every reader backs to the hilt.  As always Mr Nesbo makes each sentence do the work of ten, giving this story a huge impact in relation to its size, and the bloody imagery of the title is never more appropriate than in the final pages.  FIVE STARS     
           
             
             


Wednesday, 14 June 2017

MORE GREAT READS FOR JUNE, 2017

Moonglow, by Michael Chabon


           Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon has written what he officially describes as a memoir of his childhood and youth with the three most important people in it:  his mother and her parents, each vastly different in outlook and personality, but each equally beloved despite the life-changing mistakes and missteps made throughout their lives together and the misfortune that strikes when they are not looking (and even when they are!).  In fact, there is so much travail in their lives that they wonder why God can’t leave these particular Jews alone for a change and go off to bother someone else?  As if.
              Mr Chabon mysteriously never names his mother and her family, but does mention his grandfather’s brother by name – uncle Reynard, a character who could carry the story by himself, initially the darling of his family and showing brilliant religious promise by becoming a dashing and eligible young Rabbi at the local Synagogue – until he experiences a huge crisis of faith (he says) and pursues the alternate life of a pool shark and all-round shady character.  What a transformation!  But he is instrumental in arranging the meeting at a social night in the Synagogue between his reluctant brother, just back from the war traumatised and unemployed, and a beautiful and exotic refugee with a French accent, a little daughter (Mr Chabon’s future mother),  yet to be revealed mental problems, and a set of numbers tattooed on her left arm.
            Married life is difficult from the start:  the new bride is constantly beset by terrible war-induced fears and hallucinations requiring costly hospital treatment and necessitating in the author’s mother living a gypsy existence among relatives (she even stays with Uncle Ray!) as her stepfather tries to keep working and provide a home for her;  those days are grim indeed, but recounted with wondrous skill, humour and verve.  There are random flashbacks to the Grandfather’s war in Germany ‘cleaning up’ with the Army Engineers and experiencing the true horrors of Nazi brutality as the American troops reach Nordhausen and its huge slave factories, birthplace of the V2 rockets, those exquisitely designed missiles which should have been aiming at the stars, instead turned into weapons of death by their inventor, Wernher von Braun.
            It is of lasting shame to the grandfather that he could not pursue and ‘remove’ Von Braun before the scientist decided which of his enemies to surrender to, eventually giving himself up to the USA, a much better choice than Russia: it is an enemy that allowed him to exercise his genius on the American Space Program, creating the Saturn V rocket and the means by which Old Glory was proudly raised on the moon – propelled there by ‘a ladder of bones’, for Von Braun’s Nazi past is mysteriously forgotten, expunged completely from the record as America celebrated Neil Armstrong’s first footsteps on Earth’s nearest neighbour.  And, when the world was watching the TV coverage with bated breath, Michael Chabon’s grandfather left the room:  he could not watch this unbelievable milestone in human achievement knowing that it was engineered by an unrepentant Nazi who climbed ‘the ladder of bones’.
            Mr Chabon states that memories, places, names, motivations, interrelationships of family members and dates have all been ‘taken with due abandon’, which throws the reader:  are we reading a wonderful collection of memories or a novel, or both?  Who cares?  This is a loving family tribute, a grand homage paid to a patriarch worthy of the name, and Mr Chabon’s hero, as he should be to all who read this beautiful book.  SIX STARS!!!

The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat, by Edward Kelsey Moore

          This is not a recent novel;  it was published in 2013, but it is new to our library – and all I can say is:  BETTER LATE THAN NEVER!
            This little story could be called a heart-warmer, but that hoary old cliche doesn’t do it sufficient justice, for the characters and events are portrayed so lovingly and well that they don’t deserve to be consigned to a genre, for the Supremes and their friends and family are a force of nature, bowling over the unsuspecting reader with the sheer gusto of their zest for life.
            First, we have Big Earl, owner of the All-You-Can-Eat Diner and his wife Miss Thelma, two mighty pillars of black society in the small Indiana town of Plainsview.  Their rock-solid and silent support has helped many a needy person on the path to future stability:  those that can’t or won’t be helped still know that Big Earl and Miss Thelma will never give up on them regardless, which in itself is an enormous source of comfort.
            The Supremes are next, called that because the trio have been together since Grade School;  now they are in their fifties and two of them are grandmothers.  They have endured heartbreak, infidelity and despair but their friendship, their sisterhood is as strong as ever.  Odette, the most fearless of the three (and the fattest;  she loves the All-You-Can-Eat for obvious reasons) has had reason lately to worry:  she has not been feeling great and puts it down to The Change, but more concerning are the conversations she has been having with her sassy and irreverent old mama lately, who has taken to visiting any old time of the day and offering up her five cents worth whether Odette wants it or not.  The big problem with these visitations is that that’s what they are:  visitations.  Odette’s mama has been dead for six years.
            Supreme # Two Clarice showed great promise as a classical pianist when she was a girl, but love in the form of the local football hero got in the way;  marriage and children followed – not that Clarice minded exchanging her musical dreams for family and becoming the local piano teacher instead,  but she minds very much being wed to a serial cheater.  Something will have to give, and it won’t be her!
            Barbara Jean is the beauty of the three, also the most disadvantaged by having an alcoholic mother who died at a very young age.  Fortunately, after a series of horrible experiences, Barbara Jean is taken in by Big Earl and Miss Thelma:  stability at last!  Until she meets another of Big Earl’s waifs and strays, Ray Carlson, a young white boy who has been beaten and brutalised by his racist brother, his only relative.  He works as a busboy for Earl and lives in the storage shed. Everyone is intrigued (but not surprised) that Earl has given him shelter, for that is what Big Earl does.  The Supremes – like all his customers – are fascinated by Ray, not least because he is so handsome and it doesn’t take them long to come up with the right name for him:  The King of the Pretty White Boys.  And Barbara Jean and The King of the Pretty White Boys eventually fall in love, setting the scene for heartbreak, for Indiana in the 60’s is not the place for interracial love.  
            How the Supremes and  their friends and family (not to mention the ghosts!) deal with the thunderbolts that God, ‘that Great Comedian’ sends them during their lives is beautifully recounted by Mr Morgan;  throughout his lovely story the twisted thread of racism, subtle or overt is always present but never triumphs - and the very best thing?  Mr Morgan has written a sequel, ‘The Supremes Sing the Happy Heartache Blues’.  Lead me to it!  FIVE STARS.