Monday, 11 December 2017

GREAT READS FOR DECEMBER, 2017

Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah

  
          In the United States, Trevor Noah enjoys a stellar career as a Comedian and TV Host;  his life is enviable in its success and he is a shining example of ‘anyone can BE anything’ if they have the will to do it.
            Well, Trevor has certainly been gifted with the will, but reaching the top has been a scrambling, rocky ascent – for half-white half-black Trevor shouldn’t have been born at all:  in 80’s Apartheid South Africa it was legally a crime for the two races to cohabit.  Naturally, this didn’t prevent the mingling of the races, but the punishments were severe:  jail terms of five years or four years (depending on who was doing the mingling – a black man or woman doing the deed with a European got five years, but a white European of either sex cohabiting with a native of either sex was sentenced to four years).
            Babies, the consequences of all this sin, were taken away from their mothers to subsist in orphanages, kept there until they were teenagers, then released into an uncaring world where they would always be outsiders because of their indeterminate colour – at least if you were black or white, you knew WHAT you were in Apartheid South Africa.  You knew your place.  Being pale enough to be not-quite-white just didn’t cut it.
            Trevor’s mum Patricia, a member of the Xhosa tribe, was well aware of the pitfalls and trials of bringing a baby into the world, but being of a fiercely independent and rebellious nature, she decided to have a child anyway, because she wanted a child to love her and depend on her, somebody of her own – the only problem being her choice of father:  a Swiss German who was not interested in parenthood, and had to be persuaded over time to see that it was a good idea.  Really?  For when Trevor was born the can of worms truly opened:  Trevor’s mum had to find a coloured friend to go walking with them , the friend masquerading as The Mum;  Trevor was never allowed to call his father ‘Daddy’ in public, he had to address him as ‘Robert’, and when Patricia decided to introduce her beloved child to her estranged Xhosa family in Soweto, she endangered them all in her subterfuge, for they could not publicly acknowledge Trevor as their new grandson:  he was the wrong COLOUR, for Heaven’s sake, so he was never allowed out of the back yard – from which he frequently escaped.
            For Trevor was just as rebellious as his beloved mum, and this hugely entertaining autobiography chronicles his childhood and youth living on the outside even within his own family, but it demonstrates too, his resilience, resourcefulness and the enormous optimism and humour required to survive in such adversity.
            And don’t forget prayer!  For rebellious Patricia was so deeply religious that she dragged Trevor off to pray at three different churches every Sunday, whether he wanted to go or not:  the Spiritual, speaking-in-tongues church, the European church, and the native church.  There:  all holy again till next Sunday.  Magic!  SIX STARS

The Last Tudor, by Philippa Gregory

            Ms Gregory is justly famous for her fine and meticulously researched historical novels concerning the power struggles of the Plantagenets and Tudors, those medieval rulers of England who transformed their little country into a force to be feared throughout Europe, culminating with Henry VIII, who broke away from the Catholic Church so that he could marry ‘for love’ and get himself a son – which he did, (after two daughters to two queens) but his beloved Edward did not live beyond fifteen.  To maintain the strong and legitimate succession of an heir to the throne in the new and true faith the Privy Council decides on Lady Jane Grey, great-niece of Henry and eldest of three sisters who are royal princesses in their own right.
            Jane is deeply religious but also conscious of the responsibilities of her great new office;  she is reluctant to be queen but the only other alternative is Princess Mary, daughter of Katharine of Aragon – also deeply religious but of the Old Faith:  the people will never accept her!
            But they do.  Princess Mary brings an army to London to reinforce her claim as legitimate heir and Jane, ‘Nine Days a Queen’ is imprisoned in the Tower, where so many other luckless prisoners have languished.  Mary then goes on a royal rampage to avenge all the members of her faith who have been persecuted by the Protestants.  ‘Bloody Mary’ is feared and hated in due course but no-one escapes her wrath, including Lady Jane the Usurper:  she is beheaded, her body quartered and buried without ceremony in the Tower crypt.  The first Protestant Martyr is in Heaven.
            Lady Jane’s two younger sisters, Katherine and Mary, do not fare well either in their dealings with Queen Mary’s successor Elizabeth, Henry’s daughter by Anne Boleyn;  Elizabeth has been declared a bastard, hidden from sight and maligned for most of her young life:  now she has the ultimate power, and she and her powerful council will wield it to England’s best advantage.  Her autocracy extends to her Ladies-in-waiting:  none of them may marry without her permission –which she seldom gives, and when Katherine enters into a secret marriage with Ned Seymour, handsome son of an ancient and noble house, Elizabeth’s rage is such that they are both imprisoned in the Tower.  ‘For as long as it may please Her Majesty.’
            For they have produced a child, a healthy boy – an heir to the Throne -  which Elizabeth cannot achieve, especially as she has no husband.  Her jealousy is absolute and the Grey family endure persecution on the grand scale, even the youngest sister Mary.
            Crouchback Mary, stunted Mary, deformed of stature but not of heart, ordered to be Elizabeth’s Lady-in-waiting, but still able to enjoy her life despite the Queen’s best efforts to make her miserable – until her unpermitted marriage also has her imprisoned.  Elizabeth will not be defied, even by a Little Person.

            Each of the Grey sisters narrates their own part in this hugely entertaining chronicle of a savage and turbulent era:  Ms Gregory’s great characterisations and fine prose enable these giants of history to live again – as well they should.   FIVE STARS     

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

FIRST GREAT READS FOR NOVEMBER, 2017

The Cartel, by Don Winsow

            I am still thanking my lucky stars for introducing me to Don Winslow’s latest novel, The Force (see review below), so checked out our library’s stocks of his books – only to find that of the sixteen he has written, The Force and The Cartel are the sole examples of this master’s work on the shelves.  Which is a great shame, for he is one of the truly great 21st century crime writers and should be represented accordingly in our library.
            Mr Winslow turns his sights in this story on the Mexican drug wars with the U.S.A., the conflict that neither country can win as long as there are producers and consumers.  Supply and demand.  But Cocaine is not the God – money is:  the top ‘Narcos’ don’t mess with their own product;  they are in the business to get rich, for wealth can buy power – and governments.  At the top of the Narco pecking order sits El Senor, Adan Barrera, the best and most ruthless ‘businessman’ of them all.  Elite and untouchable, he and his soldiers have absolute power over large parts of Mexico – including the Mexican equivalent of the White House;  in fact his empire is unassailable except for an irritation from his past (this book is a sequel to The Power of the Dog but stands well on its own;  still, I would have loved to read that first!), an American D.E.A. Agent who is committed to bring him to justice for his many and brutal crimes. 
            Art Keller is a lone wolf, an honourable man who has lost a lot in his life but still believes in ‘doing the right thing’, and the right thing this time is capturing Barrera by any means possible – even if Barrera should have an ‘accident’ as he is being brought in, well that’s O.K. too.  It will be payback for the thousands who have died, not just the drug users, but the righteous folk - police, journalists, innocent townspeople who protested against his power:  yep, an accident would be fine.
            ‘The Cartel’ teems with characters that delight and horrify the reader.  The violence is gut-churningly graphic – there is no escape for us as the gory, bloody war that will never be won proceeds to the next stage;  instead we can only marvel at Don Winslow’s genius at bringing this monumental tragedy to life with such cruel realism:  although this is a work of fiction, it was all based on factual events.  SIX STARS!


The Force, by Don Winslow

            Steven King has written an endorsement for the cover of Mr Winslow’s book, saying:  ‘Mesmerising, a triumph.  Think THE GODFATHER, only with cops.  It’s that good’.  And he is not wrong.
            ‘The Force’ is a huge story of corruption, the rot that creeps into the hearts and souls of men who start life with the very best of intentions, and the consequences that follow, planned for or not.  It’s a story of justifications, rationalisations and excuses, with a plot so chillingly topical that it is almost impossible for the reader to separate fact from fiction.  ‘It’s that good’.
            NYPD Detective Sergeant Denny Malone is at the very top of his game:  he heads an elite Drug Squad known as the Manhattan Task Force and his crime busts are legendary in the Manhattan North area they patrol, which includes the Black Projects in Harlem.  He is justly feared by dealers and addicts alike and he and his team Hold the Line against the various ethnic gangs hoping to gain a foothold in his domain:  he’s the King, and his team are his knights.  Mess with them at your peril. 
            He is also very wealthy, thanks to kickbacks, bribes and other easy money that various people pay him for protection:  he reasons that he deserves some perks for keeping good people safe, and if he and his squad didn’t line their pockets occasionally, the crims would spend it and that would be a waste.  He and his team have also risked their lives numerous times taking down gangsters, in fact they have just lost one of their own at a bust who left a pregnant girlfriend – because they weren’t married she can’t claim his pension.  But Denny and his men will make sure she gets a package every month.  They look after their own;  they are The Force – May Dah Force Be With You!
            Until the consequences from that particular raid turn up to haunt Denny in the shape of the FBI:  they have evidence on him that they have been collecting for months – they know he’s crooked and they can prove it (they say), but if he becomes their snitch they’ll ‘go easy’ on him (they say).  Graft, corruption among the legal fraternity – Denny knows things that would blow them all away:  they want names?  He’ll give them names, but he won’t rat on his workmates.  Never.  Never, until his family is threatened;  then he becomes that despicable low-life, a Snitch Cop. 
            The desperate measures that Denny takes to protect his loved ones and repair the irreparable damage he has done is the action that drives this breathtaking novel.  It is impossible not to side with Denny – crooked as a dog’s hind leg, but willing to murder a drug dealer who ordered the ‘execution’ of an entire family;  who used his crooked money to do numerous good things for his area; then did his best to bring down the worst culprits – the rich and powerful, the old money – and the old money-launderers.  The city of New York has never been portrayed so starkly and so well.  This is Mr Winslow’s mighty tribute to The Force.  His prose is as harsh and tough and funny as his characters, and unrelenting in its drive to depict one man’s loss of his soul, and his efforts to regain it.  SEVEN STARS!!!  (And every exclamation mark is deserved, so there!)
  
The Shadow Land, by Elizabeth Kostova

            Twelve years ago Elizabeth Kostova’s first novel ‘The Historian’ became a runaway Best-Seller, thrilling readers (especially me!) with a tale that had everything:  secrets and ancient documents, a monumentally evil and authentic character in Vlad the Impaler, the barbarous medieval ruler who was the source of the Dracula myth, horror and suspense by the bucket load, and an intrepid heroine willing to risk her life to find the answers to the mysteries that confront her.
            With ‘The Shadow Land’ Ms Kostova creates a similar story set in modern-day Bulgaria.  Once again there is a powerful man whose cruelty is absolute, and a small group of people determined to undermine him – if they can.  This time there is no element of the supernatural, but plenty of very satisfying mystery and suspense, and the reader is happily hooked into the story in the very first chapter – as in ‘The Historian’. 
Ms Kostova’s protagonist, Alexandra Boyd, is a young American on her first trip to Eastern Europe.  She has accepted a job as an English tutor in a language Institute in Sofia, and is near tears as she realises that after seemingly endless travelling and crossing of time zones - what time is it now? – what day is it! – she finds that her taxi driver has delivered her to the wrong hotel:  instead of the student hostel that she can afford, she has been taken to a much grander establishment which is laughably out of her price range.  As she sits dejectedly on the sweeping steps leading up to the hotel entrance contemplating her luggage and her dwindling finances, a chance encounter with an elderly couple and their son and her efforts to assist them and their bags to a taxi changes her plans, and her life.  Alexandra discovers that in the profusion of luggage an extra bag has been mixed up with hers, a small valise containing a beautifully carved wooden box, and in the box, human ashes.
Alexandra is appalled to think that she has the last precious remains belonging to the family whom she assisted so briefly – she heard them mention a monastery to the taxi driver who took them away:  well, the only honourable solution is to follow them in another taxi so that she can return their precious cargo.  The day is not progressing well!  Especially when she finds that the beautiful little casket with its sad contents is really a Pandora’s Box of trouble unleashed:  the more she investigates in her efforts to find the owners, the more sinister attention is directed to her and the kind taxi driver who offers to help her (and he seems to have plenty of secrets of his own).  Alexandra ends up seeing much more of wild and beautiful Bulgaria than she ever expected to as they pursue their quest, and it soon becomes apparent that the owners of the box are in great danger from a very powerful enemy, a man who feared and hated the courageous and honourable musician whose ashes are in the box.

The parallel story of Bulgarian violinist Stoyan Lazarov is told in alternate chapters, of his fall from grace during the communist regime and the terrible punishments he endured in so-called ‘work’ camps after the war and Russian ‘Liberation’, but Ms Kostova’s characters and their travails are so compelling that it was hard for me to switch from Alexandra’s contemporary adventures to Stoyan’s historic troubles without feeling a reluctance to leave each unforgettable character -  surely the hallmark of great storytelling.  FIVE STARS    

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

MORE GREAT READS FOR OCTOBER, 2017

The Survivor’s Guide to Family Happiness, by Maddie Dawson

            Where would the dedicated reader be without Chick Lit?  If nothing else, the genre helps us to distinguish between ‘Light Reading’ – encompassing at one end the Bodice-Rippers which all seem to involve Dukes wearing tartan who fall for spirited (and beautiful) wenches from humble backgrounds, to the Feel-Good Heart-Warmers that make us go ‘Aaaaaaah’, only to forget them when something more substantial from the higher end presents itself – as indeed it should.
            Maddie Dawson’s higher end charming story ticks all the boxes:  it’s a heart-warmer;  the reader feels good at the end and no-one has to wear tartan.  Instead, real-life problems that we can all identify with are faced by ordinary, typical, disfunctional  characters  that we easily recognise as ourselves or our neighbours.  Ms Dawson casts a loving and astute eye here on families, especially of the adoptive kind, particularly that of Nina Popkin who is now mid-30s, divorced by her husband after six months of marriage – he fell in love with his bank teller and moved out on the day he confessed – and completely on her own after nursing her beloved adoptive mother through her last illness.  It’s time, thinks Nina, to start a search for her real  family, her birth family, kin who will fill the awful, yawning gap in her solitary life.  No-one should have to go through life alone.
            Which she doesn’t, because Nina has true friends and a new romance on the horizon – one that fills her with dismay, because Carter, though divorced, continues to live in the family home with his ex-wife and his two teenage children because he can’t bear to be away from them – the kids, that is, not the wife.  When the living arrangements eventually get sorted, Carter’s daughter, a terrifying fifteen-year old who dyes her hair with purple markers because she wants to be different and has a to-do list that includes having sex as soon as possible to ‘get it out of the way’ is instrumental in helping Nina search for her birth mother who (thanks to Google) is eventually revealed as a Pop Star of the Eighties. 
            In due course a younger sister is found, the biggest shock to that being that they both went to the same school, and Nina is ashamed to think that in those days she thought Lindy Walsh was a snivelly little thing.  Now Lindy Walsh is not interested in any kind of sister relationship with Nina, much less making contact with their birth mother.  Finding a replacement family is proving to be much harder than Nina thought, particularly when it is obvious that all concerned consider her to be ‘needy’.  Which she is, but surely in a good way?
            This is a charming story, and what elevates it into the higher ranks of Chick-Litdom is Nina’s floundering approach to the perils and joys of a ready-made family, and her inept but persistent attempts to bond with her true sister and birth mother:  the laughs come thick and fast, as do the tears, as in all families.  FOUR STARS.

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, by Lisa See
           
           Li-yan is a child of a remote hill tribe in China, the Akha.  It is an animistic, patriarchal society governed by traditional and ancient rituals designed to propitiate the many spirits that rule their lives;  life is hard and there never seems to be enough to eat, for Li-yan’s family, like the rest of the tribe, grows tea on the steep slopes of one of the six Tea Mountains in Yunnan.  They all work from dawn to dusk to tend the trees, harvest the leaves, then take them to the collection centre – and hope they will get a fair price for their labours.  If they don’t, everyone goes hungry.
            Fortunately, Li-yan’s mother enjoys a special status in the village.  She is a respected midwife and wishes to pass on her skills to Li-yan, the lowly daughter who is addressed as ‘Girl’ by all the male members of her family, but if Li-yan learns well, she too will have a status denied other women.  Also, Li-yan’s mother reveals a special secret known only to the female members of her family:  she is the custodian of a special grove of tea-trees which she lovingly tends.  Li-yan will be the next guardian of this secret, and no man must ever know where these trees are.
            Li-yan is not happy.  She does not want to be a midwife, especially after her first ‘birthing’ where newborn twins were killed because they would bring misfortune to the village – just because there were two of them;  she is interested in learning about teas and their myriad varieties and production, but the secret grove can remain so, as far as she’s concerned – she wants an education!  And the effort she employs to achieve her goals is mighty – until she falls in love, as all young people do, but with a young man who is not welcomed by her family.  The resulting baby from their union should be killed according to tribal tradition, but Li-yan’s mother, that superb midwife, helps her to give birth in the secret grove;  then it is up to Li-yan to take the baby to an orphanage in the nearest big town ,for abandoning her will give her a chance at life not possible in the Tea Mountains.
Ms See writes so well of the crippling traditions and superstitions of a remote people that the reader’s heart aches along with Li-yan’s as she eventually gains everything she dreams of:  an education;  a business;  an enviable reputation as a Tea Master;  a strong and loving husband;  a prosperous life in America, and a son, the greatest gift of all – except for the yawning hole in her heart where her daughter should rest.  Will she ever find her?
The reader certainly hopes so, especially as Li-yan’s child is adopted by Americans and we are treated to a parallel story of Haley’s childhood, youth and experiences both positive and negative of being a Chinese American Adoptee.  Ms See’s impeccable research delves into every aspect of brown skin in a white family and the contradictory emotions such a state evokes, and this great story is played out against a backdrop of the huge changes made in Chinese contemporary history over the last forty years – all melded together by the timeless allure and mystique of an ancient and beloved beverage.  FIVE STARS.

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towle

          Moscow, 1922.  Thirty year-old Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, scion of a formerly illustrious family of the Russian aristocracy faces a Bolshevik committee dedicated to investigating his reasons for returning to Russia on pain of execution by firing squad, rather than staying in exile in Paris with so many other cowardly White Russians.  His reply that he ‘missed the climate’ was greeted with the disdain it deserved, and if he hadn’t displayed pre-revolutionary valour during the First World War he would have been executed forthwith:  instead, his punishment is to remain under house arrest as a ‘Former Person’ in the Metropol Hotel, directly opposite the Kremlin.  If he should leave in the future for any reason at all, then he will be shot.
Alexander is a cultured bon vivant, educated to his very fingertips, an aristocrat to the bone.  He is also an optimist, determined not to be daunted by his new situation – even when his sumptuous apartment at the Metropol as part of his new circumstances is substituted for a poky attic room in the servants’ quarters, but he is still able to move precious items of furniture and possessions he holds dear into his new ‘accommodation’.  Things could be worse – he could be dead!  As it is, he is still able to indulge himself in his daily epicurean routines in the hotel’s various restaurants, forming firm friendships with the staff, all of whom accept him for the good man that he is, especially bored nine year-old Nina, whose father is an important cog in Stalin’s new government.  Their friendship is so strong that many years later, she entrusts her own precious child Sofia to his care (to his utter bewilderment!) while she searches for her husband, sent in disgrace to a Siberian Gulag.
Yes, life is tolerable at the Metropol, thanks to the staff loyalty and friendship – why, it is even possible to have a romantic liaison with ‘a willowy young beauty’ who is a rising film star:  she is attracted to his wit and urbanity, not to mention more intimate skills.  For the fact that he must never venture past the front door, his life contains everything he enjoys or desires.  Until a new waiter is employed in one of the hotel restaurants:  his waiting skills are negligible;  he is rude and inept – but he has contacts in high places, and he loathes Alexander, viewing him as a prime example of an effete and evil class system, the remains of which Comrade Stalin is purging assiduously.  Alexander has an enemy without making the slightest effort to gain one, and his life is more dangerous as a result.
Alexander’s story is recounted in prose as elegant and witty as its protagonist.  Amor Towle has created a singular and unforgettable man who makes the very best of his circumstances despite fate’s attempts to defeat his perpetual optimism - he is eventually employed as the hotel’s top restaurant’s head waiter, a position designed to humiliate, instead producing the opposite effect:  he excels at his new job, for no-one knows wonderful food and wine better than he.  But when a threat to Sofia rears its head, he must risk his own life to save hers.
This is a beautiful story of friendship and loyalty set against a background of some of the most turbulent times of Russia’s history – across the road from the Kremlin in fact, for the Metropol Hotel is as much a character as its occupants in this fine novel.  SIX STARS

             

Sunday, 15 October 2017

GREAT READS FOR OCTOBER, 2017

Among the Living, by Jonathan Rabb.

  
          Holocaust survivor Yitzhak Goldah has just arrived in Savannah, Georgia in the summer of 1947.  He is to live with his only surviving relatives, cousin Abe Jesler and Abe’s wife Pearl.
            He stands on the railway platform, feeling ghostly and entirely detached as his new-found family fuss around him;  they are all painfully polite to each other, as strangers invariably are – but Abe and Pearl have no conception of the impact their security and prosperity has on Goldah:  after years of unimaginable hell in the camps everything that is happening to him now is like a dream that is happening to someone else.  He is a ghost among the living.
            Savannah has a thriving Jewish community and Abe has done well in the shoe trade, rising from very humble beginnings to live in the best neighbourhood when he prospered.  He is proud to show his thin and exhausted cousin what he owns, especially his late-model car – ‘Brand new, Forty-Seven Ambassador with the unitized body.  You know your cars, Yitzhak?’
            No.  Pearl drops some clangers, too, about closing the drapes to his room as the sun could bake him ‘like an oven’, then weeps at her thoughtlessness:  it will take time before everyone relaxes enough to feel ‘normal’ again.
            As time passes Goldah endeavours to make his hosts know how grateful he is, what life savers they are, and how their generosity has given him another chance at life.  He has started work at Abe’s shoe store – a far cry from his job in Prague as a former overseas journalist for the prestigious Herald Tribune – but it occupies his time in a therapeutic way, and it doesn’t take him long to notice that Abe’s negro assistants, while not treated badly by him are regarded in the South as worthless.  Like the Jews of Europe.
            There is much for Goldah to absorb in his new life in America, not least the tremulous hope of a romance with one of Abe’s customers, a young war widow, the daughter of the local newspaper editor – a liaison frowned on by Pearl because the young woman’s family are ‘reformed Jews’ who go to a Temple, not to Shul, but this is not even worth thinking about for Goldah:  his life is starting again.  Hope, that vital emotion, has returned!
            As does another survivor:  The woman Goldah had pledged to marry, long thought to have perished in the camps.  She arrives in Savannah, irreparably damaged and holding Goldah to his promise:  she is now his responsibility – and his burden.  What this woman has endured was unspeakable, but Hope, for her, has died;  instead she despises the well-meaning people who want to help and comfort her, those fat smug Jews in Georgia who never knew what the war was really like – they never suffered a day in their lives!
            This is a very fine book.  Jonathan Rabb has told a story that aches with sadness at the same time as its lyrical prose fills the reader with hope:  what a literary accomplishment, a powerful chronicle of those who have the capacity to heal, and those who cannot.  His parallel story of Abe’s negro workers – unwittingly embroiled by him in shady dealings to their detriment – starkly underscores the age-old racism that blights even the very best of intentions.  Rabb’s characters are unforgettable and will remain with me for a long time, especially Goldah, who eventually becomes a Man Among the Living.  SIX STARS!

The Blood Miracles, by Lisa McInerney

            Ms McInerney is a writer of astonishing talent, smart enough to leave the reader gawping at her superlative imagery and language that swings a punch on every second page – that is, once one can figure out the local idiom for, as this novel is set in the city of Cork in Southern Ireland, English is not immediately recognisable as the main language.
            Fair enough.  This is not so much a warning as a respectful caution NOT TO GIVE UP EARLY!  I nearly did until I got hooked eventually by the plight of hapless Ryan Cusack, drug dealer and sad sack extraordinaire, a young man whose life is unravelling, thanks to an overindulgence in what he is dealing, a depressive episode (coming down off whatever he is sniffing/smoking only makes things worse), the imminent break-up of his long-term relationship with his True Love Karine, and a very risky deal to import ‘New Product’ from Italy by his Boss, Dan Kane.
            Ryan is essential to the success of the Italian venture, for he is bi-lingual.  His late mother was Italian and he still has relatives in Italy who dote on him, little realising what he is using his language skills for:  to his Nonna he and his siblings are perfect in every way:  the fact that he is facilitating drug deals between his boss and the Camorra would probably send her off to Heaven early.  She cannot know what he is really doing.
            No:  life is not good, and one night Ryan decides in a drugged-up haze to resign from the Human Race:  there are just too many insoluble problems all requiring his immediate attention;  it will be much easier to leave them all behind for someone else to deal with.  BUT!! 
            His cowardly exit is thwarted by an Ould Biddy, miraculously out for a walk on the very footbridge Ryan is contemplating The Dive.  She achieves the near superhuman feat of hustling him off the bridge and home to her place to come back to the land of the living, no easy task for Ryan is a snivelling quivering mess, in his own words ‘not worth saving’.
            Fortunately for him the Ould Biddy doesn’t believe him, and his eventual resurrection with her assistance (no:  it’s not a Damascus Moment – that would be too corny and corn doesn’t feature here) is one of the highlights of this great story, as is the revelation of her identity:  she has known him all his life, for she and his ill-fated mother were friends.
            And that is not the only revelation in store for Ryan.  I am not going to reveal any more plot shocks, (no spoiler alerts from me!), suffice it to say that Ms McInerney’s tale has more twists than a pretzel, with lies, betrayal and murder most foul playing a starring role – and humour, that wonderful Irish craíc that we have come to expect from even the least-talented of Irish writers – and Ms McInerney could never be on the lower rungs of contemporary Irish literature.  What a talent she is.  WHAT A BABE!  SIX STARS!!  (And I’ll really have to go easy on the exclamation marks.)

The Force, by Don Winslow

            Steven King has written an endorsement for the cover of Mr Winslow’s book, saying:  ‘Mesmerising, a triumph.  Think THE GODFATHER, only with cops.  It’s that good’.  And he is not wrong.
            ‘The Force’ is a huge story of corruption, the rot that creeps into the hearts and souls of men who start life with the very best of intentions, and the consequences that follow, planned for or not.  It’s a story of justifications, rationalisations and excuses, with a plot so chillingly topical that it is almost impossible for the reader to separate fact from fiction.  ‘It’s that good’.
            NYPD Detective Sergeant Denny Malone is at the very top of his game:  he heads an elite Drug Squad known as the Manhattan Task Force and his crime busts are legendary in the Manhattan North area they patrol, which includes the Black Projects in Harlem.  He is justly feared by dealers and addicts alike and he and his team Hold the Line against the various ethnic gangs hoping to gain a foothold in his domain:  he’s the King, and his team are his knights.  Mess with them at your peril. 
            He is also very wealthy, thanks to kickbacks, bribes and other easy money that various people pay him for protection:  he reasons that he deserves some perks for keeping good people safe, and if he and his squad didn’t line their pockets occasionally, the crims would spend it and that would be a waste.  He and his team have also risked their lives numerous times taking down gangsters, in fact they have just lost one of their own at a bust who left a pregnant girlfriend – because they weren’t married she can’t claim his pension.  But Denny and his men will make sure she gets a package every month.  They look after their own;  they are The Force – May Dah Force Be With You!
            Until the consequences from that particular raid turn up to haunt Denny in the shape of the FBI:  they have evidence on him that they have been collecting for months – they know he’s crooked and they can prove it (they say), but if he becomes their snitch they’ll ‘go easy’ on him (they say).  Graft, corruption among the legal fraternity – Denny knows things that would blow them all away:  they want names?  He’ll give them names, but he won’t rat on his workmates.  Never.  Never, until his family is threatened;  then he becomes that despicable low-life, a Snitch Cop. 

            The desperate measures that Denny takes to protect his loved ones and repair the irreparable damage he has done is the action that drives this breathtaking novel.  It is impossible not to side with Denny – crooked as a dog’s hind leg, but willing to murder a drug dealer who ordered the ‘execution’ of an entire family;  who used his crooked money to do numerous good things for his area; then did his best to bring down the worst culprits – the rich and powerful, the old money – and the old money-launderers.  The city of New York has never been portrayed so starkly and so well.  This is Mr Winslow’s mighty tribute to The Force.  His prose is as harsh and tough and funny as his characters, and unrelenting in its drive to depict one man’s loss of his soul, and his efforts to regain it.  SEVEN STARS!!!  (And every exclamation mark is deserved, so there!)   

Saturday, 23 September 2017

MORE GREAT READS FOR SEPTEMBER, 2017

A Dark so Deadly, by Stuart MacBride

  
          Detective Constable Callum MacGregor’s police career has reached a distressing Low:  he has been transferred to the ‘Misfit Mob’, so called because it is full of miscreants and has beens that Police Scotland don’t know what to do with.  They are charged only with cleaning up drunks, druggies and petty crime, the rationale being that everyone in the squad will eventually resign or die of boredom.
Callum is being investigated by a disciplinary committee on a fictional bribery charge;  his live-in girlfriend is due to have their baby in two weeks;  his precious privates have been squeezed to a pulp by a fleeing criminal, and two feral children from a particularly noxious part of the city have stolen his wallet, dropped in his pursuit of the aforementioned fleeing criminal.  His day surely couldn’t get worse – could it?
            Never think such thoughts while God’s listening:  when Callum eventually drags his wounded pride and body back to GHQ, it is to find that he has a new partner whether he wants one or not, DC Franklin, a beautiful black woman transferred from the South because she assaulted her boss.  And she assaulted her boss because he grabbed her backside;  he was just a sexist pig, and she’ll do the same again to the next grabber if she has to.  Get the picture?
            Yep, loud and clear.  All Callum wants to do is go home to be tenderly looked after by his beloved, but before he leaves he must endure various remarks about his ineptitude – delivered haiku-style – by his boss DI MacAdams, himself in the Misfit Mob because he is dying of bowel cancer, and MacAdams’s offsider DI Malcolmson, currently recovering from a heart attack.  Yes, everyone in their sorry little band has a story to tell, but it doesn’t stop them from longing to be back in the action again, doing REAL police work.  If only…….
            A capricious God decides to grant their collective wish:  mummified remains are found in a landfill, followed by the discovery of two more ‘mummies’, one in the boot of an abandoned car, the other on the coffee table in the flat of an ex-felon who drowned in the river in his attempts to flee from police:  the Misfit Mob is a-tremble with delight and anticipation – until they find that the clues they so eagerly pursue lead to the cleverest dead ends ever.  The more they investigate, the less they find.
            This is a mighty book, in weight, size (596 pages) and scope:  there are plenty more shocks ahead for Callum, especially on a personal level and none of them are good, for Callum was deserted by his family as a child and bought up ‘in care’;  he unearths clues from his past that he would rather not know, and evildoers that he thought he had forgotten forever.  Meantime, the Mummies lie in the morgue, silently waiting for their murderer to be revealed, and I defy ANYONE to figure out Who Done It.  Mr MacBride’s plotting is intricate and masterful and his characters are, as always, honest and entirely credible.  I am unsure if this latest book is stand-alone or the introduction to a new series, as in the Logan Macrae novels (see review below);   either way it was unputdownable, despite its weight.  FIVE STARS

In the Cold Dark Ground, by Stuart MacBride

Logan Balmoral MacRae is back, and about time, too, I say!  In the tried and true genre of Crime fiction – you know;  burnt-out detectives with shattered private lives but an uncanny knack for solving the most difficult crimes – well, Burn-Out Logan makes his recent experience of demotion to Police Sergeant in a small but dreary town in North East Scotland entirely credible.  Yes, he – and his team of fellow reprobate law-enforcers - all suffer from varying degrees of exhaustion and burn-out, but policing anywhere is a tough job: someone has to do it and they’ve put their hands up.  More fools them.
            Not much has changed since Logan’s last appearance in ‘The Missing and the Dead’, except to worsen:  his beloved girlfriend Samantha has been in a coma for five years (truly!).  She will never wake and he has been told by hospital staff that it is time to say goodbye, a situation he has been dreading and shying away from even though his rational mind knows it is inevitable.  Another death is imminent:  wee Hamish Mowat, crime boss supreme of Aberdeen is in the terminal stages of cancer.  In a last conversation with Logan, wee Hamish informs him that he wishes Logan to take control of his empire for he knows that upon his death all the other crime lords from near and far will be circling like vultures, ready to break up his ‘life’s work’:  he is convinced that Logan (despite the fact that he is a Police Officer – how I wish I’d read all those earlier books!) will be the only one strong enough to hold it all together.  All this under the homicidally jealous eye of Reuben, the Reubenator, wee Hamish’s wing man who has the intimidatory strength to keep things going – but not the brains.  Reuben hates Logan, and Logan knows it is only a matter of time before the Reubenator mounts an attack.
            He is almost relieved when a conventional murder rears its ugly head:  a man’s naked body is found in the woods, hands bound behind his back and a rubbish bag taped over his head.  Despite the classic imitation of a local gangland-style killing, Logan is not convinced that the Bad Guys actually did this – for once, they are innocent – of this crime, anyway, and when the Major Investigation Team from Aberdeen (still run by his old boss and friend – and proud lesbian – DCI Steel) mounts an investigation, his suspicions prove to be correct.
            Sadly, Logan’s week from Hell doesn’t end there:  he is also asked by the Police Internal Professional Standards division to covertly investigate DCI Steel:  there is suspicion that she manufactured evidence to send a sexual predator and rapist to jail.  As much as everyone abhors his crimes (for which he was never convicted) Scottish justice has to be SEEN to be done:  who better to investigate Roberta Steel, than her trusted friend and confidante, the turkey-baster father of her children, Logan Balmoral MacRae.  Yes, let’s add betrayal to the list of Logan’s Lousy Week.
            Last but not least, a new Superintendent from the Serious Organised Crime Task Force is visiting and seems have taken an inexplicable and irrational dislike to him, thus making his life doubly miserable.  Could anything else go wrong?  Well, of course it can and it does, at a breakneck pace that this reader could barely stand – I wanted to yell ‘Slow down, slow down!!’ – and all because I didn’t want this mighty episode in the hapless (but not entirely hopeless) life and times of Logan to end.  Stuart MacBride is a storyteller Extraordinaire, a superb wordsmith who is in the enviable position of being unable to write fast enough to supply his readers’ demands.  FIVE STARS


A Necessary Evil, by Abir Mukherjee

                Book Two of Abir Mukherjee’s series recounting the adventures of Captain Sam Wyndham of the Calcutta branch of the British Imperial Police Force and his trusty ‘native’ sidekick Surendranath Banerjee (called Surrender-not because his name is far too difficult for a chap to pronounce) is off to a flying start when the two men are asked to attend in their official capacity a vitally important meeting of the most rich and powerful state rulers and the top administrators of the British Raj.  Surrender-not’s invitation to attend is on the strength of his boyhood acquaintance with Crown Prince Adhir Singh Sai of Sambalpore – they both attended Harrow – and it is felt by the Viceroy that a familiar native face may soften the initial stance the Prince has taken, which is a reluctance to follow the Raj line of economic thinking.
            Prince Adhir recognises his old school friend immediately, calling Surrender-not ‘my dear Bunty!’ to ‘Bunty’s’ huge embarrassment and Wyndham’s glee, and proposes that they leave the boring ceremonies and drive to his hotel:  there is a troubling matter he wishes to discuss and as they are renowned police officers, he feels that his meeting with them today is indeed a sign from God.
            But as all will know, God moves in mysterious ways: on a very circuitous drive back to the hotel to avoid a huge religious procession, the Prince is assassinated by a Hindu Holy man who eventually makes his escape in the crowds of devotees.  Wyndham and Surrender-not are horrified and appalled to think that such a crime could happen RIGHT UNDER THEIR NOSES, and both are determined to bring the killer to justice.  Easier said than done.
            Their trip to Sambalpore for the Prince’s funeral reveals secrets and biases that should never have seen the light of day:  it is a well-known fact that the British would never approve a liaison between a white man and a ‘native’ woman (thus producing despised Anglo-Indian children), but congress between a white woman and an Indian, particularly a PRINCE, cannot be countenanced.  The threat of such a union must be removed by the most permanent means possible:  a trip to the funeral pyre.  But WHO has given the order to kill?  As more is revealed, the path to the truth becomes murkier.
            Surrender-not is a Brahmin, a member of the priestly caste;  he has always been familiar with the extremes of Hindu society, its savagery and beauty:  consequently he is more sanguine than Wyndham who is predictably appalled by what he discovers – possibly because he lusts after a beautiful Anglo-Indian woman called Annie Grant, and knows that he shouldn’t because he’s British.
            Mr Mukherjee does an excellent line in witty dialogue and smart characterisation, through which he paints a colourful and three-dimensional portrait:  that of a colonial power nearing the end of its ability to subdue an ancient people who are starting to believe in themselves again.  Despite perfunctory treatment of some initially intriguing characters, I still look forward with pleasure to Book Three:  I feel sure that by then Sam Wyndham  will have discarded enough of his prejudices to see Surrender-not as his friend – not just his trusted ‘native’ sergeant.  FOUR STARS.      


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.   

Saturday, 9 September 2017

FIRST GREAT READS FOR SEPTEMBER, 2017

Persons Unknown, by Susie Steiner


           Isn’t it great when you chance upon a book that you can’t put down – a book that has a perfect cast of characters with whom you are immediately engaged, and a plot that is sound and credible:  well, Susie Steiner has definitely ticked all the boxes for me, and will undoubtedly have gathered legions to her fan base with her second novel featuring Detective Inspector Manon Bradshaw.  I haven’t read the first, ‘Missing, Presumed’ but intend to ASAP – I have done my usual trick of reading series books out of sequence.  More fool me.
            Anyway!
            DI Bradshaw has decided that, though her police career is immensely satisfying, her personal life is rubbish;  no chance of marriage and the children she longs for when she considers all the Wayne Kerrs (one has to say that name really fast) she meets:  nope – the only thing left is the old turkey baster.  Artificial insemination.  A baby to order.  She is terrified of her looming responsibilities and the inevitable money worries even though her job is secure, but thrilled to think she will finally have part of what she wants -  except for a loving partner.  And she is also fearful of going ahead with this momentous decision without telling her adopted 12 year old son Fly, a black child already damaged by his terrible upbringing.  In this respect Manon is a coward.  She says nothing until it is obvious to the entire world that she is pregnant (especially as she develops an appetite that would put the fat lady at the circus to shame), with predictable results:  Fly, poor vulnerable Fly, thinks he’s not wanted any more.
            To complicate life still further, a murder takes place in a park just opposite Fly’s school.  The victim is a very wealthy young investment banker, just off the London train who collapses in the arms of a woman walking her dog:  he has been stabbed.  Where was he going?  Who did he intend to visit?  When the answers to these questions are found they are shocking:  he was about to visit his two year old son Solly – Manon’s nephew, who lives with his mum Ellie, Manon’s younger sister.  Manon and Fly also live in the same house (you can rent a bigger house if you share), but Manon had no idea that Solly’s father was back on the scene.  Sisters have their secrets.
            Then the unthinkable:  CCTV and circumstantial evidence place Fly at the scene of the crime, and he is detained at a juvenile holding facility on suspicion of murder.  Their world has collapsed.
            The fragile bubble of security and love that Manon has constructed for Fly is ready to pop.  Now is not the time to be heavily pregnant!  As she is his legal relative she is not allowed to investigate any part of the crime herself, and must rely on information leaked to her by her colleagues, most of whom are horrified that a child has been ‘fitted up’ for murder.
            DI Manon Bradshaw and her made-to-order family are a worthy and refreshing addition to crime fiction.  Ms Steiner’s characters are smartly drawn, her plotting is excellent and always credible and I am now off to read ‘Missing, Presumed’.  Lucky me!  FIVE STARS

Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner


           Ms Steiner’s first novel featuring Manon Bradshaw is a pleasure, pure and simple.  Even though I have done my usual trick of reading a series out of sequence it doesn’t matter:  I would have been doing myself a disservice if I had decided not to make Manon’s acquaintance in her introductory investigations into crimes seemingly unconnected, but involving characters from every level of society – who swear no knowledge of each other, until it is revealed that the opposite is true.
            The story opens with Manon enduring (barely) her umpteenth Internet Date.  It is not going well, especially when Mr Mean – supposedly a poet - suggests that she pay the lion’s share of the pub bill ‘because she had wine and he didn’t’.  Yep:  dead in the water.  But time is running out!  She is thirty-nine and her chances of marital contentment and happy, laughing children are reducing by the day.  Her neediness shames and saddens her;  if only (the saddest words in the world) she could be independent and strong-minded enough to be the Ultimate Career Copper, wedded to her job which she is very good at.  Well, onwards and upwards;  it’s a new day tomorrow;  best foot forward.  Okay then.
            And the new day brings a report of a mysterious disappearance that has the Press salivating:  Cambridge graduate student (and first-class looker) Edith Hind has been reported missing by her live-in boyfriend Will Carter, himself an absurdly handsome poster boy for the Upper Classes.  There is blood on the floor of their kitchen, coats are strewn on the floor and Edith’s wallet, keys and car are still in the house.  Will is beside himself with worry, especially when he has to report Edith’s disappearance to her patrician parents, Sir Ian and lady Miriam Hind, he the physician to Royalty and she the partner in a highly successful medical practice.  They are the perfect targets for the tabloids to tear down, and the better publications to build up – all of them trying to be FIRST with the news.
            Except that there isn’t any:  Edith has disappeared completely.  Then the body of a 17 year old black boy from a slum neighbourhood in London is found in a river near to Edith’s home, and though there appears to be no relevance between the disappearance of a privileged aristocrat and the murder of a young petty criminal, Manon’s team investigations turn up nuggets of evidence that bring them closer and closer to the story’s shocking conclusion, evidence that links irrevocably those at the very top of society with others lying broken at the bottom -  including Fly, the murdered boy’s younger brother.
            Ms Steiner has constructed a plot that fits together as neatly as Lego blocks, but her characters are hardly two-dimensional:  Manon is Everywoman;  we can recognise ourselves in her tactlessness, sibling rivalry, jealousy, cowardice – and huge kindness, humanity, and consideration for the underdog,  of which there are so many.  It has been a pleasure to meet you, Manon, and I hope we will all meet again soon.  SIX STARS!

                 

Sunday, 20 August 2017

MORE GREAT READS FOR AUGUST, 2017

Early Birds, by Laurie Graham.

 Laurie Graham is famous for writing immensely readable ‘social comedies’ as the book blurb says, and her latest novel is no exception.  It’s always a pleasure to settle down to enjoy each of her stories as they appear;  there are always great, true-blue characters that we can all recognise and identify effortlessly with what happens to them:  ill-health, tragedy, ageing and the ailments pertaining to;  precious, lifelong friendships sustained until the last gasp, and most importantly, lots of laughs. 
            Early Birds is the sequel to ‘The Future Homemakers of America’,  Ms Graham’s 2001 story of the young wives of American Airmen stationed in Norfolk, England in the 1950’s.  They weathered many an emotional and physical storm together, especially Lois, married to Herb, the best, most faithful husband anyone could wish for, but choosing instead to take an English lover who was anything but stable – the resulting child from that unhappy liaison being raised by Herb as his own. 
Now it is 2000 and the young women have become elderly;  Peggy Dewey, who narrates their latest adventures, has had a chequered career of her own:  her marriage to Airman Vern Dewey collapsed when he retired from the Air Force;  she bowed out because she objected to having the living room furniture thrown across the room – at her.  Now she and her inadvertent companion Grice, a much younger Gay man, have been asked to assist in the care of Vern, whose second wife has died:  Peggy’s daughter Crystal has been trying – and failing – to look after Vern, who now has Alzheimer’s.  Would they PLEASE get their selfish asses out of Texas and come to Maine to give her some help?  PLEASE??
So they do.  For their living circumstances in Texas are anything but ideal.  They are between the classic rock and the hard place – surely,  looking after Vern so that Crystal can work at being a taxidermist (!) and work at her shaky marriage to vegetarian Marc can’t be that difficult.  Can it?
Ms Graham writes beautifully of family relationships, fractured and otherwise:  Lois and Herb come to visit to give some respite care for those at the coalface of Vern, only for Lois to extend the visit by breaking her hip in a fall – which is common in ladies of a certain age, but she is anything but common, and certainly not a docile patient.  Then the huge, nation-wide tragedy occurs:  the attack and collapse of the Twin Towers, with its accompanying terrible loss of life shocks the world and conspiracy theories abound, even in Maine:  Vern’s stepson Eugene has constructed a bunker and fills it with canned food – all very well and good until the shelves collapse while he is underneath.  Things are only middling!  (As my dear old Granny used to say.)
Peggy begins a very cautious and tentative relationship with one of their remote ‘next-door’ neighbours;  it literally takes years to progress to the point where Grice says ‘Remember.  If you marry him you must promise to adopt me.’  Well, he is such a fabulous character that I would adopt him myself if I could!  Funny, touching and tender, this lovely story’s feel-good factor is guaranteed.  FIVE STARSü

Look Who’s Back, by Timur Vermes
         
           Berlin, 2011:  on a patch of waste ground where the Führerbunker was situated in 1945, Adolf Hitler wakes up, mightily confused.  How did he get here, and – surely more importantly – why?
            His uniform is grubby but intact;  he seems to possess all his excellent faculties;  his mind functions with its usual brilliance, and he is ready to lead the German Volk with his customary unerring genius – the only problem being that the Volk, in the shape of some kids kicking a ball around close by speak a language that is entirely unfamiliar to him: ‘ ‘Hey guys, check this out!’  ‘Whoooooa, major casualty!’ ‘  Then, ‘ ‘You alright, boss?’ ‘ All this without the Nazi salute!  It was obvious they wished to return to their game, but show him to the street when he demands directions from the tallest boy, who must have been their Hitler Youth leader.  (Hitler is gratified to see that the boy’s mother, a flower of good German Womanhood, had sewn the boy’s name to his shirt.)  ‘ ‘Hitler Youth Ronaldo!  Which way to the street?’ ‘
            So begin Hitler’s adventures in 21st century Germany, narrated by the man himself.  A kind News Vendor offers him shelter in his kiosk – even lending him a pair of ‘Genes’ so that he could get his uniform drycleaned, and introducing him to some of his customers, producers of comedy shows on local television.  Hitler is unimpressed with their attempts to find out who he really is, and finds tiresome the fact that he has to keep repeating himself all the time:  he is Der Fürhrer, for Pity’s sake!  It is not his fault if they have trouble accepting that.  What HE has trouble accepting is that it appears that he is the only one who has made this puzzling journey through time – none of his staff is here (what he wouldn’t give to have good, faithful Bormann by his side!) and he must carve out a new life for himself – and eventually, the Volk:  if he can gain exposure on this wonderful new invention of TV - even as ‘a Hitler Impersonator’ – well, that’s a start, and when his appearances go viral on YouTube ‘on the InterNetWork’, Herr Hitler is well pleased.  His powers of oratory have not left him:  thanks to the InterNetWork he now has a global audience.  World domination on behalf of the Volk will again be within his grasp!
            Until the ultimate irony occurs:  Der Führer receives the beating of his life one night by some Far Right louts, who called him ‘a dirty Jew’.  The nerve of them!  But he understands their feelings:  as he agreed with the Head of the TV company to whom he is now contracted when she said ‘The Jews are no Laughing matter”.  He succinctly replies ‘You are absolutely right!’
            Mr Vermes has written a brilliant satire which has since been made into a film.  It ruthlessly explores the hard-fought freedoms that everyone enjoys today without a thought, and exposes the shameful currents of racism and greed that underlie communities everywhere.  The old prejudices still apply.  He is a brave, honest and disturbing writer – and a very funny one.  SIX STARS!!


A Song for Drowned Souls, by Bernard Minier

          This highly-coloured page turner is a sequel to Mr Minier’s ‘The Frozen Dead’ (see 2015 review below).  Once again, sad burnt-out Commandant Martin Servaz is the main protagonist, trying to make sense of a senseless crime:  the murder of Claire Diemar, a wildly popular and beautiful young teacher at an exclusive prep school in a rich town near the Pyrenees.
            Her body has been found in her bath trussed up with metres of cord tied in complicated knots, and a small torch has been jammed down her throat:  still turned on, it gleams under the water like a tiny headlight.  And Mahler’s 4th Symphony has been set up to play on the stereo downstairs, a fact which makes Servaz’s blood run cold:  the escaped serial killer from Book One was a great Mahler aficionado – surely this can’t be his work, especially as one of the corpse’s 17 year old pupils, Hugo Bokhanowsky, is found sitting by the garden swimming pool off his head on God-knows-what.  It is up to Servaz and his team to refrain from seeing it as an open-and-shut case with Hugo as the killer as the local Gendarmerie believe, until the evidence makes it so – especially as Hugo is the son of Marianne, the great love of Martin’s youth. 
            The plot thickens!  Especially when the Commandant meets Hugo’s mother in the course of his investigations and realises that her allure is still as powerful as ever, meaning that he will move heaven and earth to prove that her son is innocent – he hopes.
            As his investigations progress and no stones are left unturned, Servaz is faced yet again with many more questions than answers. True to form he is threatened, beaten up and shot at more times than a body should rightly have to endure (partly his fault for not having his gun with him, then being a lousy shot when he does), but he stubbornly presses on, not least because of pressure from his bosses On High:  this murder at such an exclusive Prep school (teaching Tomorrow’s Leader’s, for God’s sake!) could make a big stink if the killer isn’t caught soon;  political lives and reputations depend on it, especially as one of the rising stars of the ruling party was having an affair with Claire Diemar – while his wife was at home, quietly dying of cancer.
            Mr Minier spares no-one in the police force or politics;  his characters display a scathing disrespect for their judicial and political rulers that made this reader wonder if such real-life institutions in France are really in such a weakened and corrupt state.  One certainly hopes not.
            There are many sub-plots in this book;  the prose is quite purple at times and there are a host of minor characters described with more detail than their importance requires.  Once again the plot has more twists and turns than a pretzel, BUT!  Mr Minier keeps us turning the pages at a hectic speed:  he knows how to draw the reader in – and teach us all a few unpleasant societal home-truths at the same time.  And there will be a Book Three:  the evil serial killer is still around and has not been brought to justice.  Servaz is on the hunt!  FOUR STARS.     

The Frozen Dead, by Bernard Minier

Swedish Noir has been at the forefront of thriller writing for the last decade:  now, a worthy challenge to its dominance has emerged from France.  This is the second novel (the first being Michel Bussi’s ‘After the Crash’) I have read recently that employs all the tried and true elements necessary for the success of Nordic dread;  lowering skies, brooding mountains (the Pyrenees), and a labyrinthine plot, solved brilliantly by the archetypal burnt-out detective – but in this case, Martin Servaz is more fallible than usual:  he is a lousy shot, and frequently leaves his police weapon in the glovebox of his car when he most needs it;  he is constantly on the receiving end of all sorts of criminal attempts on his life and survives only because other people fortuitously appear to rescue him;  BUT!  His saving grace is what makes every excellent investigator above the norm:  an incisive intelligence and intuition and an incomparable ability to think outside the square.
And he certainly needs to after being despatched from Toulouse to the small ski resort town of Saint-Martin in the Pyrenees, there to investigate the killing of …. a horse.  A horse??  Yes, but not just any horse – this animal was a thoroughbred belonging to one of the richest men in France, a powerful man who demands answers after his beloved animal was beheaded, then partly flayed before being strung up on a ski-lift.  It is a grisly crime, the ultimate in animal abuse, but hardly worthy of the huge numbers of police seconded to investigate – except that Servaz feels that this crime will be the start of worse things to come, especially when his enquiries lead him to a secluded psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane in the district, jam-packed with any number of likely candidates for the atrocity, if only the building and grounds weren’t as impregnable as Fort Knox.
His worst fears are confirmed when the first human victim is discovered hanging from a bridge, then another is murdered almost in front of his eyes in a carefully engineered trip on another ski lift:  his job is getting more impossible by the minute, especially when political pressure is exerted from high places.   The longer these crimes remain unsolved, the worse it looks for those in power. 
Fair enough – except that the higher-ups aren’t at the coalface, and Servaz and his offsiders are faced with many more questions than answers – until random clues start falling  into place, and the eventual shocking outcome  reveals villains that no-one could have suspected at the start of the investigation.  Which is as it should be:  the recipe for a superior thriller/crime novel is that (obviously) the reader shouldn’t figure out the solution until the end, and the pages should turn at a furious rate before one gets there.  ‘The Frozen Dead’ ticks all the boxes.  There could be a sequel , too, because the most homicidal villain escapes the long arm of the law, so I live in hopes of reading that he gets what he surely deserves in Book #2.  FIVE STARS