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.
  
    

    

Sunday, 16 April 2017

GREAT READS FOR APRIL 2017

Carry Me, by Peter Behrens

  
          Hermann ‘Billy’ Lange narrates this beautiful story, the story of his life as he lived it, and the secrets he must reveal as it reaches its end. 
            As lives go, his started off well:  his German father Heinrich ‘Buck’ Lange and his Irish wife EilÍn reside at ‘Sanssouci’ on the Isle of Wight;  Buck is the Protestant yachting captain for Hermann von Weinbrenner, a rich German Jewish businessman who is proud of his membership of the Cowes yacht club (the second Jew to be admitted;  the first was Lord Rothschild) and proud of the victories of his yachts piloted by Buck.  He is equally proud of his friendship with Buck, regarding him as part of his family, and offers him permanent accommodation at ‘Sanssouci’, his summer home, as part of his contract.
            Life couldn’t be better for Buck and EilÍn, for their beloved son is born there in 1909 and Baron von Weinbrenner and his wife stand as godparents.  The baby has been named Hermann after his godfather, but Billy is the name that sticks, along with his earliest memories of his father using his binoculars to watch rival yachts sailing on the English channel;  there is very little that Buck does not know about winds, tides, and the various craft he compares to his employer’s. 
            And his knowledge proves to be his downfall:  the First World War starts in 1914:  the Lange’s idyll at Sanssouci is over, the Baron and his family return to Germany and Buck’s employment is not only terminated, but he is arrested by the local authorities as a spy ‘because he was constantly watching the English channel through binoculars’.  He is imprisoned for the duration of the war, and then deported back to Germany – good riddance!
            In the meantime, EilÍn and Billy endure a hell of their own:  the Irish aren’t regarded much higher than Germans (it is common knowledge that the Irish favour the Hun and will stop at nothing to hurt and kill Our Boys, particularly after the Easter Uprising!) but despite increasing poverty they try to stay in London so that they may visit Buck whenever they are allowed, until they are finally forced to return to Ireland and the charity of the family that EilÍn had hoped never to see again.
            For Billy this is a definite improvement - anything would be an improvement on the taunting and bullying he endured at school in London – ‘Herm the Germ’, ‘the nasty basty Hun’.  And that was on a good day!  For Billy at least, Ireland is a blessed, peaceful haven, a time to rebuild his spirits until the end of the war, when his father is released and sent back to Germany – to the employ once again at the estate of the Baron von Weinbrenner, his true friend.
            Tumultuous times reign in Germany with the defeat of the Volk;  people are starving and crippling reparations must be paid;  inflation is rampant and the wildly disparate political factions are perfect spawning grounds for the rise of Nazism and Herr Hitler.  Jews, the traditional scapegoats of the ages, are beginning to worry.
            Billy completes his education, sustained by a friendship with Karin, the Baron’s daughter, who introduces him to the children’s books of classic German author Karl May, and the seemingly mythical place of ‘El Llano Estacado’, the Staked Plain’ of May’s Apache hero Winnitou:  ‘that’s where we should go, Billy, riding forever!’.  El Llano Estacado becomes their metaphor for freedom – of choice, of will, of place.
   As they grow older, Billy’s friendship for Karin turns to love;  he will do anything to save her from the fate that is inevitable for her if she stays in Hitler’s Germany;  sadly, Karin sees leaving as the coward’s way out.
            It has been too long since I have read prose so lucid, so direct and compelling.  Canadian author Mr Behrens writes with grace and candour of terrible world events that even now most of us would rather forget, and Billy’s struggle to find courage to speak up when he would rather hide ‘until things return to normal’ is a lesson in cowardice for us all.  SIX STARS!!

The Wonder, by Emma Donoghue

  
        English nurse Elizabeth (Lib) Wright has just returned from the horrors of the Crimean War, trained at Scutari by the redoubtable Florence Nightingale herself.  The year is 1859 and after her baptism of fire nursing wounded and dying soldiers she feels that she has now seen everything:  human behaviour and all its extremes holds no further secrets for her.  She is shockproof.
            Until she is sent to a tiny hamlet in Ireland at the request of a committee of eminent gentlemen who wish to investigate reports of a miracle, a holy child who  seemingly has not eaten for months, but in every way appears hale and hearty:  Lib’s duty over the course of a fortnight is to observe for twelve hours every day that The Wonder is either a fraud with a secret supply of food hidden somewhere, or a true child of God, worthy of beatification at the very least.  Lib’s companion nurse for the other twelve hours that Lib must eat and sleep is a Catholic nun, Sister Michael, a lady who hides behind her wimple and offers little unless she must;  they are both overseen by Doctor Mc Brearty, the local physician – bluff, cheerful, and as time goes on, spectacularly short of interest in the wellbeing of the Miracle Child, Anna O’Donnell.
            Upon meeting Anna, Lib is astonished at the poverty that she and her family endure;  father Malachy digs peat out of the bogs for fuel to use and to sell but the family barely subsists, as appears to be the norm for most of the locals;  the potato crop hasn’t ‘come in’ yet.  It is ‘the hungry season.’  Despite this, Anna’s mother briskly accepts donations from sundry travellers who visit them in the hope of seeing The Wonder – perhaps she could even rub a hand over the old lady’s sore knee?  Or say a blessing?
            Lib is appalled and stops all the visitations, even though Anna’s mother turns every penny of the donations over to the local priest – they may be poor but they’ll not profit from money meant for God!  And Lib’s Anglican upbringing has not prepared her for the fatalistic, fervid Hellfire and Damnation style of Irish Catholicism, especially the many stops during the day for various prayers – and the incantations recited so that ‘the Little Folk’ (the fairies) be kept happy is almost too much for her to swallow:  this is another world, a world completely alien to a rational, level-headed and efficient woman who believes in what she sees, not in prayers and superstition.
            Still, Lib must do her duty and her job and as the days pass, Anna and her sweet, resigned disposition grows on Lib, particularly as she sees a marked deterioration in Anna’s physical state:  incongruously, the only confidante to whom she can unburden herself is a young journalist from the Irish Times, sent to cover the story of the ‘fasting girl’.  Drastic action must be taken to stop this poor child dying, but what?  How?  Anna’s parents are no help;  they are overcome with religious fervour – even though their child will die, they will have given birth to a saint, which will open the doors to heaven for themselves in time to come.  How can this young life be saved, and is Lib battle-hardened enough to do it?
            Ms Donoghue is an accomplished novelist;  I loved her 2010 best-seller ‘Room’ (see review below) which has enjoyed equal success as a movie, and once again she presents the reader with a story that grips the imagination while remaining always grounded in irrefutable fact.  FIVE STARS

Room, by Emma Donoghue

     Jack lives in room with Ma.  He sleeps in Wardrobe, plays with Paper Snake and eats food off Table.  He has to be very quiet at night when the beeps sound at Door;  it means that Old Nick will come to Ma.  Jack is supposed to be asleep and not meant to listen to any conversation between Old Nick and Ma but he knows that this man is someone to be afraid of, and that he once hurt Ma’s wrist so badly that it doesn’t work properly anymore.  But!  It is Jack’s 5th birthday today, and Ma has made him a cake, his very first one, just like ‘in the TV’;  yesterday he was only four, but today he is five, and anything can happen.  And does.  So begins Emma Donoghue’s gripping story of a young student kidnapped and held hostage for seven years, the birth of a son to her captor, and their eventual escape from him, all told in Jack’s words.  What a singular feat of great writing, to describe the thoughts of a young child whose only reality is a 12x12ft room;  who has never experienced rain, or hot sun;  who has never heard the sound of a car engine, except ‘in the TV’, who has never spoken to anyone else but his beloved Ma, let alone played with another child.
        Ms Donoghue’s portrayal of Jack’s isolation is profound and very moving – and brilliant, especially as he struggles to understand and make sense of his new-found freedom – as does Ma:  her attempts to reintegrate herself into society and family bring catastrophic results.  This story will stay with me for a long time.  I found (as the blurb on the cover suggested) that I HAD to read it until it was finished, and anything else I read hereafter has a lot of measuring up to do!  This novel has just been selected as one of  the New York Times’  10 best books of the year, and shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize:  rightly so.   FIVE STARS.

The Refugees, by Viet Thanh Nguyen

    
        Before Mr Nguyen won the 2016 Pulitzer prize for fiction with his brilliant novel ‘The Sympathizer’ (see review below) he wrote short stories over a period of twenty years which have now been published in a single volume called ‘The Refugees’.
            Eight vastly different tales are offered for the reader to savour like courses of the finest gourmet cuisine, but they are all linked irrevocably to the refugee experience, the terror accompanying flight, the limbo of refugee half-way camps, and the upheaval and confusing integration into an alien society.  Not everyone is successful, as in the first story, ‘Black-Eyed Women’, where the exodus from Vietnam was so horrific for one family that the events of that nightmare journey must never be spoken of again – until the ghost of the son who gave his life for his sister turns up at the window of the family apartment.  He is very wet, he informs them, because he ‘had to swim all the way’.
            ‘I’d Love You to Want Me’ deals with an illness we all fear, Dementia:  Professor Khanh, a respected Oceanographer in their old life in Vietnam has recently been diagnosed.  Since their resettlement in the U.S.A., he has been teaching Vietnamese at a local community college, but won’t be able to continue.  His wife Mrs Khanh is much younger than he;  she works part-time in the local library and enjoys the social contact, and resents her eldest son’s suggestion that she should give up her job to take care of her increasingly vague husband.  Matters are made worse when the Professor starts calling her by the wrong name – not once, but increasingly often, and as his mind deteriorates, it is clear that she never has been the main object of his affection and desire.  For theirs was an arranged marriage, and he was so much older than she, so much more life lived.  What to do, what to do?
            ‘If it weren’t for his daughter and his wife, James Carver would never have ventured into Vietnam, a country about which he knew nothing except what it looked like from forty thousand feet’.  For Carver flew B 52’s during the Vietnam war;  the closest he got to it (until now) was Okinawa on leave where he met his Japanese wife Michiko.  ‘The Americans’ packs a huge punch for the reader, as well as James Carver when he learns that his daughter has decided to stay in Vietnam to teach peasant kids how to read, instead of coming back to the States to live the American Dream that he tried so hard to create for her.  She feels more at home in Vietnam, she tells him, provoking utter disbelief from her parents – until she informs them that in America she ALWAYS felt out of place, the child of a Japanese woman – and a black man.  Doesn’t her father know how that feels?  And he does, but would die before admitting how hard it was for him to realise his dreams of becoming a pilot because of his origins and, unlike his daughter, he has never found a place where he feels truly ‘at home’.
            Mr Nguyen has beguiled us yet again with imagery so clean and clear that we are with the protagonists of each story for better or ill;  we all know people like them, for their problems and hopes are universal:  to be content, and to live in peace.  The lifelong dream.  FIVE STARS.

The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen.

  
          The fall of Saigon:  Ho Chi Minh’s victorious Northern troops are battering the city and the defeated Southern army and their hangers-on are using everything at their disposal to bribe their way to safety with their American allies.  Instrumental in the successful escape of a powerful Southern Vietnamese General and his family is his Aide, a Captain trained by the CIA as an interrogation officer, formidably intelligent and utterly trustworthy, American educated and indispensable in the execution of everything, including those who have earned the General’s displeasure.
            The Captain is young, personable and idealistic:  he is also a spy for the Other Side, feeding the General’s secrets back to his childhood friend Man.  He believes in the Revolution and wants it to succeed;  it’s time Vietnam people lived in freedom and independence, freed from the yolk of French Colonialism and the spurious and self-serving ‘friendship’ of the United States, the biggest Colonialist and Capitalist State of them all.  Man has ordered the Captain to escape with the General, so that the new government of a united Vietnam will have its own intelligence on what the despised refugees in America are up to, and the Captain’s indispensable servility is the perfect cover.
            Mr Nguyen has the Captain narrate his tale and it soon becomes clear that he is writing a confession for shadowy captors;  nevertheless his confession is as suspenseful as a thriller, containing equal parts of tragedy and comedy throughout its length. Characters leap off the page to threaten and beguile the reader, especially the Captain’s other childhood friend Bon:  Man, Bon and the Captain made a pact when they were young boys, swearing eternal friendship and loyalty to each other and sealing the oath with a bloody, scarring handshake. The lengths to which Bon will go to protect and defend his friends are indeed death-defying, not least because he considers his life over anyway.  His wife and little son were shot to death in the escape from Saigon.  He is now just going through the motions.  If he died tomorrow, who cares?  Certainly not him, so with suicidal bonhomie, he volunteers to return to Vietnam to mount a counter-revolution organised by the Captain’s boss. 
            The Captain is horrified.  He cannot let his true friend go back to certain death on the General’s half-crazed orders (and against the express instructions of Man).  He tells the General that he will go too, so that he may rescue his friend from his own death wish, fully expecting the General to excuse them both because of the Captain’s indispensability;  unfortunately, the General has decided otherwise.  The Captain has committed the unpardonable sin of courting Lana, the General’s daughter – ‘if it had been anyone else that would have been fine’, but the Captain’s ancestry is flung in his face:  you are Eurasian, a bastard.  I cannot have my daughter associate with ‘someone of your kind’. The Captain is crushed, once again, by the terrible fact that his beloved mother was seduced as a young girl by a French Catholic priest.  It has mattered little how many academic or military honours he has achieved throughout his life:  his origins will always be shameful.  Returning to Vietnam and almost certain death now seems the only option, made harder by the bitter realisation that the side for whom he spied so zealously regards him as a traitor, and treats him as such.
            Mr Nguyen has been awarded the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for this masterly work, plus a host of other glittering prizes.  It is hard to believe that this is his first novel, for he displays a complete mastery of sentence and imagery that much more established writers would die for.  He makes the reader think again about that terrible, failed Asian war, and its effects still being felt more than forty years later.  SIX STARS!             


Thursday, 30 March 2017

LAST GREAT READS FOR MARCH, 2017.

The Demon Road Trilogy, by Derek Landy               Young Adults

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

Desolation. Book Two.

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

            

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

MORE GREAT READS FOR MARCH, 2017

Hag-Seed, the Tempest Retold, by Margaret Atwood

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

Vinegar Girl, by Anne Tyler

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

Nutshell, by Ian McEwan

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

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

Saturday, 11 March 2017

FIRST GREAT READS FOR MARCH, 2017

Holding, by Graham Norton

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

The Rules of Backyard Cricket, by Jock Serong.

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