Saturday, 15 October 2016
MORE GREAT READS FOR OCTOBER, 2016
The Jealous Kind, by James Lee Burke
I have long been one of James Lee Burke’s staunchest fans; consequently it comes as a big shock to the system to read his latest book and find it lacking in a lot of the attributes that make him so hugely popular worldwide with enormous numbers of thriller readers.
The above title is classed as a Hackberry Holland novel, Burke’s doughty Texan sheriff and his Texas Ranger ancestor of the same name (see previous reviews below) but its 1952 setting has characters who bear only a fleeting connection to the first Hackberry; his grandson Aaron Holland Broussard is the main protagonist here but there is very little reference to his forebears.
And that’s a shame, for ‘House of the Rising Sun’, the first Hackberry’s post World War One adventures was almost unsurpassable in plot, characterisation, imagery and suspense; it is undeniably a hard act to follow, but Mr Burke’s fans never doubt that he will always pull another top quality story effortlessly from his cowboy hat.
Not this time. Aaron Holland Broussard is seventeen years old and appears to have a death wish: on a visit to a Galveston drive-in he intervenes in an argument between ‘The Most Beautiful Girl in Houston’, Valerie Epstein (also seventeen) and her current boyfriend Grady Harrelson. He sets in motion events and consequences which he never intended, for Grady’s father is enormously rich and has Mob connections. Grady does not like to be humiliated by Aaron’s death-wish smart mouth in front of his hangers-on and Valerie, and a feud of mammoth proportions is born when Valerie publicly tells him to get lost and elects to go home alone. To make matters worse, a romance, classic first love, trembles into life between Aaron and Valerie, oblivious of the dangers that threaten its growing strength; they are so attuned to each other that they can’t imagine a solo life in the future. Nothing will part them – not even threats and attacks from a murderous Mafia chieftain and his brain-damaged son: normal people would quail at the mere thought of attention from the Mafia, but Aaron is impervious to such danger, for he has ‘spells’ which turn him into a berserker, dispensing terrible, near-fatal beatings to those who light his fuse.
Needless to say, even more threats are made, involving his parents and household pets: he has to mount a counter-attack! Fair enough, but let us remember that he is just a high school student; he hasn’t even been drafted to Korea yet. What does he know? Well, a lot more than your average seventeen year old, the feasibility of which worries me more than a little, especially when he and Valerie beard the Mafia chieftain and his overweight minions in their den, have a huge slanging match with them – then walk away, still breathing.
Nevertheless, Mr Burke engineers a satisfying if predictable climax; the baddies are all eliminated with deaths deserving of their crimes; then he informs us of each character’s fate in an Epilogue so perfunctory that they are cut off at the knees, appearing to bore him so much that their future is told in paragraphs.
That said, Mr Burke still pushes his story along at a satisfying pace; the reader still wants to find out What Happens Next, but this time there are too many side-tracks and dead-ends in the plot, too many characters half-developed then dispensed with, to rate ‘The Jealous Kind’ more than FOUR STARS.
House of the Rising Sun, by James Lee Burke
I first doffed my hat to Mr Burke’s literary excellence when I read ‘Feast Day of Fools’ (see 2012 review below); now he delights us yet again with another rip-roaring tale of Hackberry Holland, Texas Lawman and singular hero of impossible situations, but this story travels back in time to the early years of the 20th century and the War to End All Wars: Mr Burke writes of Hackberry Holland’s grandfather of the same name, a man with more demons than a fellow rightly needs, but (when he’s not killing no-good varmints and giving lesser baddies a good whuppin’) he is a man of honour, according to his own reasoning; a champion of the weaker sex and those of colour – until he goes on a bender: Marshal Holland and booze should never mix, for when they do all principles are forgotten and he becomes no better than those he despises.
The action begins in 1916 when Hackberry travels to Mexico in search of
His son Ishmael, an Army officer who leads a troop of coloured soldiers. Hackberry has let down his son and the boy’s mother, Ruby Dansen in such a way that he feels he will never be able to make amends, but he has to make the attempt even if he is shunned for his efforts. He doesn’t find his son, but finds trouble, lots of it; in fact so much that he has to kill a Mexican General, plus several soldiers who are visiting a brothel run by a mysterious and beautiful (naturally) woman called Beatrice DeMolay. The Madam has helped his son escape; now Hackberry is happily indebted to her, but makes a formidable enemy when he blows up a hearse (yes, truly) packed with weaponry owned by an Austrian gunrunner called Arnold Beckman – but not before he searches the hearse and finds a mysterious artefact hidden within it.
Arnold wants his artefact back and is seriously ticked off about the loss of the weaponry; he is also a sadist and murderer who, if he ever got his homicidal hands on any member of the Holland family would subject them to a long and torturous death. In the hands of any other writer, Arnold would be an arch villain from a fruity Victorian melodrama, but Mr Burke invests him with a chilling liveliness that makes the hairs rise on the back of the neck, and dialogue so scintillating that it is a pleasure to read what Arnold is going to say next.
And Arnold Beckman is not the only smiling monster in Mr Burke’s arsenal of Hackberry’s enemies: Maggie Bassett, prostitute and sometime lover of Butch Cassidy, famed gunslinger of the Hole-in-the-Wall gang has a very big bone to pick with Marshal Holland. On one occasion when Hackberry was Under the Influence, she swears they married – which may have happened, but Maggie was an inconstant wife and left him pretty quickly – until he wanted a divorce so that he could marry Ruby Dansen, the mother of his child. (Are you still with me? There’s no such thing as a simple plot here.)
In short, Hackberry’s problems are legion. Absolutely EVERYONE wants him dead, except the reader, and what a pleasure it is to see how Mr Burke manages to extricate Our Hero time and time again from nostril-deep ordure, each close call accompanied by unique humour provided by colourful minor characters, all of whom save Hackberry’s bacon more than once.
And once again, Mr Burke writes achingly beautiful prose to describe the country he loves; he evokes superbly a time long gone but his peerless imagery enables the reader to be there, amongst the poverty and beauty and cruelty of a lawless land. This is the thinking man’s Western. FIVE STARS
Feast Day of Fools, by James Lee Burke
So. I have to ask myself the question: what rock have I been hiding under all these years that I could remain uninterested in a superlative writer who has now completed thirty thrillers? Because I thought he was probably the same as all the other formulaic writers, that’s why. Well, shame on me.
James Lee Burke’s literary reputation is so secure that he hardly needs an endorsement from a Library blog in New Zealand, but that won’t stop me from singing his praises all the same. I’m just vexed at myself for not reading his books sooner. Fortunately, ‘Feast Day of Fools’ despite being the latest in a series of stories about Texas sheriff Hackberry Holland (yep, that’s truly his name), is easily read as a stand-alone novel, for Mr Burke’s skill is such that he can bring the first-time reader (me!) up to speed with action from previous books, introducing it so seamlessly that I never felt mad as I usually do, for approaching the series from the wrong end.
Sheriff Holland is an old man now, nursing much sorrow and many regrets, but still functioning superbly as the guardian of the law in a small West Texas town close to the Mexican border. He has a loyal staff consisting of deputies Pam Tibbs, whose devotion is a thin disguise for the great love she feels for him; and R.C. Givens, whose frail-looking physique belies his resourcefulness and intelligence - and let us not forget switchboard operator Maydeen Stolz, whose vulgarity offends the Sheriff daily.
Crime in the area is usually connected with the Wetbacks, those hapless Mexicans who cross the Rio Grande, then pay ‘Coyotes’, unscrupulous guides, to help them find menial work in Texas. They are illegal aliens, willing to do anything to make a living, for compared to their miserable lives in Mexico the United States is still the Promised Land. However, when the remains of a tortured man are found by a local alcoholic and reported to the sheriff, a chain of events is started that leads not just to wets and coyotes, but to defence contractors and organised crime, an ex-C.I.A operative and the shadowy pursuers of them all, the F.B.I.
Oh, everyone gets a mention in Mr Burke’s complicated plot and there are baddies of truly Olympian proportions, but Hackberry’s true nemesis from previous encounters is Preacher Jack Collins, a messianic, scripture-quoting killer whose favourite weapon is a machine gun. Preacher Jack is a one-stop-shop of high intelligence, hatred, malice and forward planning, and he and the sheriff have unfinished business to conduct: every now and then Jack rings Hackberry to remind him, to keep him on the back foot – and these little exchanges are gems. Mr Burke writes scintillating, witty dialogue, so good that despite the fact that some of the characters reach caricature proportions, they are continually redeemed by their folksy, down to earth humour and logic.
Sadly, logic is jettisoned in the last chapter of this otherwise fine story: after a gun battle that should have left no-one alive, Hackberry and his allies march off into the desert and imminent rescue, even though they are all leaking gallons of blood and shouldn’t be able to walk a single step. That’s stretching the reader’s credulity to snapping point!
But let us not forget Mr Burke’s wonderful descriptions of the natural world around him: he populates his stark and beautiful landscapes with roiling purple clouds, fiery sunsets and the vastness of desert spaces. Until I read this book I didn’t know a butte from a banana or a mesa from my elbow but I’m happy to say that I NOW HAVE THE PICTURE, thanks to Mr. Burke’s marvellous imagery. He has the singular ability to make the reader examine crime in all its guises, too - not just the who-done-it variety, but the greater crimes that start wars, the terrible crimes that wars unleash, and the criminals who set it all in motion. FIVE STARS
The Brotherhood of the Wheel, by R. S. Belcher
Naturally, the seasoned thriller reader knows there has to be a hitch, and that is the fact that Jimmie is a member of The Brethren, a powerful modern version of the Knights Templar, founded in the twelfth century to protect and defend travellers and merchants on the roads of the Holy Land. The same rings true in the 21st century – Jimmy and his fellow Brethren (truckers, bikers, police, cab-drivers, state troopers et al) are sworn to uphold the same traditions a thousand years later. The highways and byways are still as dangerous as ever for the innocent, in fact more so: there has been an upsurge in children and teenagers reported missing, all last seen, then disappearing completely near main roads and highways.
Events take a supernatural turn when Jimmie stops to pick up a young girl hitchhiking on the highway in the dead of night: she says ‘she just wants to get home’, and even though her home is nowhere near his destination he knows he must take her there. It is also very clear to him that she is already dead. Her ghostly appearance is a request for him to investigate all the disappearances, and to stop and vanquish the evil creature behind these awful crimes.
How can he refuse? In florid and torrid prose, Mr Belcher sets the opening scenes in sometimes tedious detail (do we have to know what everyone is wearing right down to their shoelaces?), and his vast knowledge of country music is illustrated in the choice of music and artist in diners, restaurants and trucker’s cabs every few pages. Okay. I get the picture, BUT! When all the preliminaries have finally been dispensed with, Mr Belcher has assembled a courageous and doughty band of Road Knights, beginning with Heck Sinclair, taken on as jimmie’s Squire, a biker and marine burn-out with a short fuse and powers of which he is only half-aware (and very afraid of!); Lovina Marcou, a Louisiana State Police investigator on her last warning for investigating child disappearances in a less than procedural manner; and Dr. Max Leher, called in as backup from another secret branch of the Knights Templar: together they are a formidable and frightening team, the only ones capable of wiping out the gathering evil that threatens modern civilisation.
And while the reader has a ‘yeah, right!’ moment at least once every chapter, Mr Belcher charms and cajoles us all into finishing this tall tale with his great dialogue (some of it laugh-out-loud funny), even better minor characters (Elvis makes an appearance, young and beautiful again and ready to access his Hellish contacts for Jimmie), and strong plotting obviously leading to a sequel – and I’ll be waiting: ‘The Brotherhood of the Wheel’ and its members are heaps of scary fun! FOUR STARS, C’mon?
Sunday, 2 October 2016
GREAT READS FOR OCTOBER, 2016
The Sport of Kings, by C. E. Morgan
Henry Forge, Southern gentleman, is master of all he surveys. Through iron-clad determination and obsessive planning he has converted the family farm of his ancestors, those hard men and slave owners who had trekked across the mountains into Kentucky looking for a new life 200 years before, into a premiere Thoroughbred horse-breeding operation: his aim is to produce a Superhorse, an animal with beauty, speed, stamina and a mighty heart to win all the major horse races in the country, just as the peerless Secretariat had done so effortlessly and convincingly years before – it can be done again, and he is just the man to do it.
Henry’s fixation on horses began at a young age when he saw horses broken in on the neighbouring farm; unfortunately his burgeoning interest is not encouraged by his autocratic father, who believes that his only son should accept unquestionably that the Forges have always made their reputation and considerable fortune growing corn; there will be no deviation from this tradition – until Henry, whose hatred of his father is absolute, discovers a family secret so terrible that he cannot resist flinging his new knowledge into his unsuspecting father’s face: Henry’s beautiful mother is having a torrid affair with a family servant. A nigger.
So begins Ms Morgan’s huge, epic novel about breeding – of horses and men; a story that explores ruthlessly the cruel pathways of slavery and racism, as innate and inbred in the old Kentucky families as the bloodline of a favourite dam or sire.
Henry’s obsession with producing the perfect animal doesn’t stop with horses; it extends to his own progeny, Henrietta, whose high-society mother soon becomes dissatisfied with her quiet life on a horse farm and lights out for pastures new, leaving Henrietta to grow up gaining a home-schooled classical education thanks to dear old dad, but lacking the warmth and normalcy of a loving feminine influence. The solitary child grows into a singular, brilliant woman, one who takes her pleasures when and where she wants, always conscious of her privileged position and her status as her father’s ‘right-hand man’, but always, always lonely.
Then the miracle occurs: one of Henry’s mares gives birth to a foal that has all the early indications of a champion, and as she grows, the little filly called Hellsmouth fulfils all her early promise. She is the longed-for wonder horse, and a new groom is hired by Henrietta to care for her exclusively. Allmon Shaughnessy is gifted with horses; he has the touch – unfortunately, he also has a prison record, and he is black. But Henrietta is intrigued by him and hires him while her father is elsewhere, thus setting in train events that culminate in undreamed-of success for Hellsmouth, and tragedy of Shakespearian proportions for everyone else.
Ms Morgan’s talents as a writer are frightening. She can beguile the reader with wondrous imagery one minute, then plunge us all quailing into utter horror the next as she hurls words like javelins to describe the cruelty casually dispensed to animals and people. There are no happy endings here; Henrietta does not walk off into a rosy sunset with a perfectly-bred Beau approved by Henry, but I have to say it: WHAT A RIDE!! And what a writer, despite the eyewateringly small print (my eyes will never recover) and tragedy on every page. SIX STARS!!
Nutshell, by Ian McEwan
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 Shakespearian style and baby Hamlet’s family has never seemed more real. FIVE STARS
Wednesday, 7 September 2016
GREAT READS FOR SEPTEMBER, 2016.
The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen.
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!
The History of Blood, by Paul Mendelson
Colonel Vaughn de Vries joins us again, more rumpled and disillusioned than ever in this third story (see review below) of his battles against crime – within and without – the South African Police Service. The criminals on the street are straightforward, relatively easy adversaries compared to the daily skirmishes he has with the ‘higher-ups’ in his department; he is constantly admonished by his friend and immediate superior Hendrik du Toit to preserve the status quo; to keep below the parapet – don’t make waves! For they are both white and Afrikaner, and the Rainbow Nation is too recent an entity for their new black bureaucracy not to scream ‘racism!’ and ‘apartheid!’ at any questioning of efficiency or department inaction. De Vries is one of those rare birds who is on the side of the victim of whatever colour, of whichever crime he is investigating; he will be their champion, mourn their deaths and bring them justice, pure and simple.
Which is why he feels particularly sour and increasingly frustrated by the blatant obfuscation and lack of co-operation of various departments when he investigates the apparent suicide of a young woman in a seedy motel near the airport. The post-mortem reveals dozens of tiny packages of cocaine in her gut, and a package she wrapped and swallowed herself, containing a note: ‘ I can’t go back.’ She came from a rich family; her late father was a politician who was assassinated when she was three years old and she was raised by his brother, her uncle; now she lies dead in a seedy room, hours before being compelled to fly to Thailand as a drug mule.
The more de Vries digs into the mystery of her suicide and the person who induced her to swallow the cocaine, messier (predictably) and more evil crimes are exposed; people-trafficking and prostitution are mild compared to blackmail and the indiscriminate, ruthless murder of anyone even remotely threatening to the anonymous, powerful criminals who have built themselves an empire with links to the very top echelons of the South African legal system. De Vries now understands why he is told so consistently to leave things be, especially when his own precious daughters are dragged into the picture and threatened with a long, slow death. Never has he felt so vengeful – or so powerless.
Once again Mr Mendelson takes the reader on a breakneck ride through the wonderful African countryside with de Vries as, with heart in mouth (‘I’m too old – I’m not fit enough for this!’) he pursues a clever, relentless and ruthless enemy, one for whom the torture and death de Vries’s daughters would be an amusing and momentary diversion from the business of making big money. De Vries has to stop him permanently, but how?
There is no rest for the Wicked (or the Righteous) – or the reader! - until this tale is told: Mr Mendelson has produced another page-turner, with subplots and (with the exception of one or two) minor characters as satisfying as ever, and once again his novel’s setting is a major delight. FIVE STARS.
The First Rule of Survival, by Paul Mendelson
Colonel of the South African Police Service Vaughn de Vries is a typical protagonist of classic crime fiction. Suffering Burn-out? Of course. Marriage down the tubes? Naturally. Finding solace in Alcohol? Goes without saying. Appearance less than inviting? Women ‘avert their eyes when they see him sitting at the bar’.
In short, Colonel de Vries’s life is rather less than satisfactory – except when he is working: his job is ‘what gets him up in the morning’, and his passion for justice is legendary; it is what elevates him above the norm, especially in respect of his colleagues, new examples of the integrated police force of Mandela’s Rainbow Nation, all vying for power and prestige in a department formerly run by white men like de Vries, whose time must surely soon be up. They hope. Yes, give him a bit more time and he will be the author of his own misfortune …… until the naked bodies of two malnourished teenaged boys are found in a skip at the back of a farm café miles from Capetown, de Vries’s base. They have been murdered, and Vaughn, the token white officer is sent to investigate – and finds to his horror that they are the victims of a terrible abduction seven years before, when three young white boys, one the son of a serving police officer, were kidnapped on three consecutive days, never to be seen again.
It is a case that has haunted Vaughn’s dreams, turned them into nightmares and destroyed his peace of mind forever, especially when the case becomes cold after months of searching fruitlessly for clues – any clue – as to their fate. Now, two of the three kidnap victims have been found, obviously transported to the skip after death – from where? And where is the third boy? de Vries and his immediate superior Hendrik du Toit faced unprecedented contempt from the media and eminent child psychologists alike for their inability to provide answers seven years ago: now, their new bosses are demanding bold actions and quick solutions to the murders; any delay will reflect badly on the new Rainbow police hierarchy. Those dinosaur Boers Messrs du Toit and de Vries better shape up or ship out.
British writer Paul Mendelson has constructed an impressive debut thriller for his first foray into crime writing. He has created credible, excellent characters – especially Vaughn’s black second-in-command Warrant Officer Don February, so called because his real name would be impossible for most people to pronounce – and his descriptions of the wild and splendid coastline and croplands around Capetown make one feel that they are riding shotgun with Vaughn de Vries and Don February, hanging over their shoulders, exhorting them to find the killers before more children are abused and killed.
This is a page-turner par excellence, made the more readable by its magnificent setting. FIVE STARS!!
Monday, 22 August 2016
MORE GREAT READS FOR AUGUST, 2016
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.
Outfoxed, by David Rosenfelt.
David Rosenfelt’s Andy Carpenter novels are heaps of fun and enormously popular; the author’s humour and great love of dogs permeate every page and there isn’t a continuing character that the reader doesn’t enjoy meeting again, from Andy’s two staunch friends Pete and Vince, loyally keeping him company at Charlie’s Bar whilst he watches the Baseball – loyal and staunch because he always pays the bill – for Andy is the one with the money, thanks to an enormous trust fund, so it’s only fair that he front up with the cash - friendship has its price, after all; to Willy and Sondra Miller, who help him run the rescue shelter for dogs that is beloved to all their hearts, and his office lady Edna, who considers it a personal affront if he expects her to do any work; not to mention the great loves of his life, his wife Laurie and adopted son Ricky, and The Best Dog in the Whole World, Tara.
This is a tried and true, very successful formula for Mr Rosenfelt (see 2013 review below), and I’ve enjoyed each book enormously – till now.
It pains me to say it, but he seems to have lost his mojo with this latest addition to Andy’s adventures. The baddies are two-dimensional, provoking yawns instead of suspense and/or horror (now, I feel really disloyal typing that – maybe I felt that way because it was late at night when I read it!) and even some of the regular characters seem to be operating at half-speed, possibly because there is very little that is new in the plotting.
Because of his trust fund, Andy doesn’t have to earn his daily bread; the only time he takes on his role of defense lawyer is when a prospective client hasn’t a chance of escaping a long gaol term; then it is up to Andy’s undoubted expertise to convince the judge and jury of his client’s innocence, in this case a rich technology company owner, Brian Atkins, who is nearing the end of a three-year sentence for embezzlement when he escapes from his minimum security prison, supposedly to murder his wife and his cheating business partner. Andy’s investigations reveal that the evidence against Brian for embezzlement is trumped-up in an effort to cover up dirty dealings by Brian’s business partners, and there is more than a whiff of Mob involvement. The plot should have been thickening satisfyingly by this time, especially when it is plainly evident that Brian could not have killed his wife and partner; sadly, I had reached the stage of thinking ‘Well, Andy, is there any reason for me to stay awake to the end?’, for even when the real killer is revealed, despite not suspecting that dastardly bloke even for an instant, I still couldn’t generate the necessary enthusiasm and thoughts of ‘Woo Hoo – bring on the next Carpenter/Man’s Best Friend story!
Having said that (most disloyally), I will still look forward to Andy’s next adventure – I just hope it has more oomph than this one. THREE STARS.
Leader of the pack, by David Rosenfelt
Mr Rosenfelt is a very funny man. He is also a dog-lover, and in each of his novels about Andy Carpenter, sometime defense lawyer (Andy is a wealthy man; he can please himself when he works –why did I never have this choice!), Andy’s high regard for Man’s Best Friend is such that he clearly trusts dogs more than people, and rightly so: dogs never let their best friends down, nor do they betray them. Ever.
In fact, the boot is frequently on the other foot. Fortunately, Andy and his friend Willie Miller run an animal shelter, caring for and re-homing stray dogs. He has his own beloved dog at the home he shares with his wife Laurie, and life would be very satisfactory if it were not for the bad guys he is forced to meet in the course of his work – and some of them are very bad indeed.
This is the tenth Andy Carpenter thriller, and Mr Rosenfelt’s books are rescued from being formulaic by the credible plots, GREAT characters – Andy’s long-time friends are a delight – and sound research. He writes about what he knows – and he knows a lot.
In this latest novel, Andy is disquieted by the fact that, six years ago, he lost a case in which his client Joe DeSimone was imprisoned by a jury for a double murder: he is convinced of Joe’s innocence and it rankles terribly that Joe is in jail for life – purely because he has the misfortune to be the son of one of the big New Jersey Mafia bosses. Andy feels that the sins of the father have been visited upon the innocent son, but it is not until new information reveals itself from an entirely unexpected source that he can start gathering enough evidence to petition for a new trial. And you’ll never guess whodunit in a month of Sundays! Well, I didn’t anyway. Yep, there is a very satisfying little twist to the plot here, guaranteed to fool all but the Superhuman among us: Mr. Rosenfelt’s writing is pure entertainment right to the last page – even his page of acknowledgements is unique. He states that he had stopped thanking various friends several books back because he had been accused of name-dropping, but had decided to resume his ‘thankyou’ page because ‘like it or not, I move among the stars, and I’m not afraid to admit it’.
Here are a selection of names dropped:
Barack Obama, David, Butch and Hopalong Cassidy, Kim Jung Il, the entire Jung Il family, Daniel and Jenny Craig, Albert Schweitzer, Anne and Barney Frank, Harrison and Betty Ford, Vladimir Putin, Aretha and Benjamin Franklin, Charlie Sheen, Charlie Chan, Hannibal and Sally Lechter (Oh, sorry, I couldn’t resist, that’s one of mine!) Bruce, Spike and Robert E. Lee, Neil and Hope Diamond.
The man’s incorrigible! And mighty good fun. FIVE STARS
Sunday, 7 August 2016
GREAT READS FOR AUGUST, 2016
The Dying Detective, by Leif G.W. Persson
Lars Martin Johansson is 67 years old and retired from his job as one of the most effective and respected police officers in Stockholm. He was known among his colleagues as ‘the man who could see round corners’ and his success rate at crime solving was envied by all, but he has to admit that time has dragged somewhat since he stopped work. However, he has occupied himself in other ways, usually by eating and drinking huge amounts of everything that he loves – until horrifyingly predictable consequences in the shape of a massive stroke give him warning that he must change the beloved habits of a lifetime, otherwise there will be no lifetime left.
Needless to say, Lars Martin is not a happy man. He hates being parked up on the sofa in his study contemplating his floppy right arm and weakened right leg; physiotherapy exercises are boring and the food his banker wife arranges for the caregiver to prepare for him wouldn’t keep a vegetarian nourished, let alone a dedicated carnivore like himself. He needs distraction! And it arrives before he has even left the hospital, in the shape of a request for help from the neurologist who treated him: she has found among her late father’s papers evidence that suggests that he as a church minister heard a confession from one of his parishioners that they knew the identity of the killer of a 9 year old girl whose rape and murder 25 years ago was never solved. She can think of no-one more able ( despite his physical infirmity) to reinvestigate a heinous crime that was mishandled right from the start – by tactless, hamfisted and lazy Evert Bäckström, no less, anathema to all good Stockholm police detectives. (See review below).
On reviewing all the old files which his contacts in the force make available to him, Lars Martin is not surprised that the investigation failed: the whole thing’s a dog’s breakfast, mostly attributable to ‘that fat little horror’ who should never have risen higher than issuing traffic fines – but nepotism is alive and well as the fat little horror has a relative in the Police Union: he can’t be touched. Still! Lars Martin is determined to go through everything with a fine-tooth comb, even though due to a recently passed law, the case is prescribed: no-one can now be prosecuted for the crime. The statute of limitations has expired. But how poor little Yasmine Ermegan died fills all normal people with such horror and revulsion that Lars Martin is determined to find the killer; he will worry about punishment for that pervert once he has a name – and he WILL find him, for Lars Martin is still ‘the man who can see round corners’.
Mr Persson has given us a stand-alone novel this time, with only indirect reference to his usual anti-hero ‘that fat little horror’ but what a delight it is to read. His plotting is (as always) perfect, and minor characters all have great back stories, including Maksim, the mysterious Russian orphan provided by Lars Martin’s brother and employed as a chauffeur/general factotum, but able to lift a heavy tray of food with just thumb and forefinger. He knows no-one who is stronger, he says, and Lars Martin believes him.
Mr Persson is not averse to inserting himself into the story, either – and not in a very flattering way! Oh, he’s a charmer and a great wit, is this Mr Persson, but he also lays bare the underside of the human condition in stark and unflattering terms, leaving us all in no doubt whatsoever that criminal behaviour, neglect and cruelty are always with us. This is his best book yet. SIX STARS!
The Sword of Justice, by Leif G. W. Persson
The absolute antithesis to the usual burnt-out but noble detective in thriller fiction returns, much to every Swedish Noir readers’ delight: Detective Superintendent Evert Bäckström rears his head again, corpulent, crafty and amoral as ever – and just as successful, mainly because he is so expert at ‘making a bit on the side’ (what else is a man to do to supplement the basic wage?), and manipulating every system to his advantage.
He is still not popular with those lesser beings, his colleagues; they know that every time he says – nearly every day – that he has to attend an important meeting at Headquarters in Stockholm he is really skyving off; filling his fat little frame with expensive food and drink, then going home to sleep the sleep of the just and/or avail himself of obliging female company, thanks to his growing reputation as Sweden’s premier crime fighter. His colleagues will never take kindly to all the orders and legwork he dispenses, particularly when his own dubious habits and chronic laziness are well known: yep, they’d love to see him fall flat on his smug face, preferably in something nasty and foul-smelling, but will it ever happen?
Not immediately, for Our Hero has received wonderful news: Thomas Eriksson, Sweden’s most crooked defence lawyer has been found murdered at his home, along with his huge Rotweiler. The police are hardly at a loss to name suspects; there are so many who want Eriksson dead that it will take considerable time to cross them off their list of ‘people of interest to the investigation’ – which (naturally) Bäckström is heading: as far as he is concerned, someone has done Sweden an enormous favour ridding it of such vermin – he is glad Eriksson is dead; still, it is up to him (and his grumbling, mumbling team) to wield The Sword of Justice and apprehend the killer.
Mr Persson is a master of characterisation – he has created an anti-hero absolutely unforgettable; portly, gluttonous, an unashamed leaker of info to the newspapers (for a hefty consideration) as the investigation continues, but a sharp little man intelligent and shrewd enough to figure out every angle of what is fast becoming a crime involving art fraud, the Swedish Mafia and – last but not least – a trail that could lead to (surely not!) – the Swedish monarchy.
And let us not forget Bäckström’s regrettable impulse buy: Isak the parrot, on his best behaviour in the Pet Shop, only to turn into the Parrot from Hell when his new owner brought him home. Isak plays a minor but important role in proceedings, becoming in his own little way as memorable as his owner, who trusts and prays that he will not meet the same fate.
Leif Persson has produced yet another winner: he effortlessly patrols Jo Nesbo country – with dark satire and delicious humour. SIX STARS!
One Dog and his Boy, by Eva Ibbotson Children’s Fiction
Hal is an only child. His family is seriously rich, but Donald, Hal’s dad is never home, instead racking up heaps of air points pursuing all his worldwide business deals. Mum Albina is a shopaholic and changes houses, furniture and carpet whenever she feels like it. Which is often. She also is a cleanliness freak and can’t bear mess of any description, so, despite the fact that it is Hal’s birthday she will never consent to him having a dog – the only present he has ever wanted: well, he’ll get over it, thinks Albina. She’ll just buy him another huge electronic whatsit that he can play with by himself. For Hal has few friends – not that he cares, IF ONLY HE COULD HAVE A DOG!
His sadness finally makes an impression on his father, who decides to follow the advice of one of his friends – why not rent a dog? There is a firm called Easy Pets that rents dogs by the hour or by the weekend; it’s jolly expensive (the proprietors cater to all tastes, especially people’s worries about appearances, and charge accordingly) but Hal could choose a dog on Friday, have it for the weekend, then on Monday when he returns to school, the dog can be taken back to Easy Pets. Simple.
Naturally, Hal has no idea that he will only be renting a dog for the weekend; he is speechless with delight to think that he will be allowed a dog at last and is completely unprepared for any future betrayal. On his visit to Easy Pets with his dad he chooses Fleck, a little mongrel terrier who was only there on suffrance, smuggled in by the kennel maid who found him as a stray: it is the best weekend of Hal’s young life.
It goes without saying (though Eva Ibbotson says it very well!) that his parents’ treachery has far-reaching effects: Hal decides he will not be without his true friend Fleck. He decides to kidnap the little dog from Easy Pets and use his birthday money to travel to see his grandparents, Donald’s mum and dad whom Albina thinks are so low-rent they are really not welcome to visit. It will be a long trip from home to the North-East of England, but he is determined not to live in a house with two people who have betrayed him so cruelly.
The adventures of Hal and Fleck – and the other purebred dogs at Easy Pets (for they would not stay behind!) are beautifully told, and the people they meet along the way are charmingly drawn (even the villains). Ms Ibbotson covers a multitude of social ills – environmental pollution, abandoned children and dogs – in a language so plain and clear that every child who reads her books gets a great, humane message to show kindness to animals, the environment – and each other. SIX STARS!
Pegasus and the Flame, by Kate O’Hearn Junior Fiction
What a lovely story - and what a great introduction to the Greek Myths for children who would not otherwise come in contact with these marvellous legends. Kate O’Hearn is doing more than she can possibly know to stimulate children’s interest in the timeless and ancient tales of the Gods and Heroes of Olympus, especially with the amount of excitement she can generate in her plotting and her true blue characters.
Emily Jacobs is 13 years old. She is trying to deal with the loss of her beloved mother who died of cancer three months before. Her father is a member of the New York City Police force, and he has to leave Emily alone on a night when a particularly bad storm is raging. She is not really afraid of being alone; her grief troubles her more than solitude – until she hears thumping and bumping on the ceiling, and it is even more worrying when the plaster starts to crack and flake! Now, if that were me I would rush to the bedroom and hide under the bed, but Emily is brave enough to go up onto the roof to find out what – or who – is going to crash through to her level. (Obviously she is braver than this mere mortal) And what does she find but a beautiful horse, breathtaking in its magnificence, and even more unbelievable: it has WINGS. And it’s badly wounded. How can she help him, especially when she realises that he is Pegasus, beloved of the Gods, and bearer of Zeus/Jupiter’s thunderbolts. Pegasus has come to earth to search for ‘The Flame’, a descendant of Vespa, keeper of the Sacred Flame of Olympus, now extinguished by enemies. If it is not reignited soon, Olympus and all the Gods will perish.
Ah, this is thrilling, and things get better and better as the plot advances – the characters are positively Olympian in more ways than one; Ms. O’Hearn has an excellent knowledge of Greco-Roman mythology and she weaves this brilliantly into her story of young people dealing with grief and loss, not to mention her love of animals, particularly horses – and even better still, the story doesn’t end with this book: the next title is ‘Pegasus and the Fight for Olympus’. What a neat treat to look forward to: can’t wait. FIVE STARS
Pegasus and the Rise of the Titans, by Kate O’Hearn Junior fiction
Once again Emily and her friends journey to earth to find a solution to Olympus’s imminent destruction, this time ending up at Diamond Head in Hawaii (true!); they are forced to make the acquaintance of Pele, the Fire Goddess, and her pesky, quarrelsome sister Na-Maka, Goddess of the Sea, neither of whom get on – and their subsequent battles are world-shaking!
This is such a great series for children, with all the right ingredients to make them look forward to the next episode, but Ms O’Hearn also has a vital underlying message concerning animal and environmental conservation that can never be stressed early enough; it is greatly reassuring to know that children’s environmental education can be absorbed so effortlessly and with so much fun. FIVE STARS.
Sunday, 17 July 2016
MORE GREAT READS FOR JULY, 2016
The Wheel of Osheim, by Mark Lawrence
But not before Jalan’s survival instinct is tested to the utmost, and he discovers to his shock that he actually has a spine after all for his shivers to run up: to his amazement he finds that he is the victor in more than one skirmish with the loathsome dead of Hel, and even saves Snori – not that his friend ever doubted him; Snori has always had a touching faith in Jalan’s previously hidden fighting abilities (Jalan always believed that his talents as a runner should be more encouraged) but it is with a heavy (cowardly) heart that Jalan takes a single opportunity to return to the world above, leaving his only friend to battle on in his search for his dead family.
Jalan’s joy at returning to the Red March is short-lived: he finds his city under siege and his grandmother the Red Queen absent, warring against a neighboring state; his brothers who always considered him (rightly) to be The Runt are in need of quick and efficient planning and leadership – and who (amazingly) steps into the breach? Jalan’s trip to Hel has prepared him like a baptism of fire for the worst that war can throw at them. Which it does.
Prophecies of doom centring about the Wheel of Osheim, last great symbol of the genius of the Builders, humans from a thousand years before who destroyed most of the earth with the explosion of a Thousand Suns, are now coming close to fruition: the Wheel, the existence of which is known to a very few, is spinning faster and faster. When it goes out of control the world will crack and break. It is too awful to contemplate, especially as the only thing that will stop it is Loki’s Key, fitted into a special slot marked ‘Manual Override’. And who is the reluctant custodian of Loki’s Key? Yep. Cowardy Custard Jalan.
I have to admit that the intricate technicalities of the Wheel and its function (was this the Hadron Collider?) left me scratching my head and breathing through my mouth, but as a series, The Broken Empire is unsurpassed. Mr Lawrence’s construct of a world post Nuclear Holocaust is masterly and his characters are unforgettable. My only criticism regarding ‘The Wheel of Osheim’ is that Jalan’s ghastly sojourn in Hel is unevenly juxtaposed with his adventures back in the real world; the story loses pace and flow here – but does resume when Snori and his axe return to save the day. Great stuff. FIVE STARS.
The Liar’s Key, by Mark Lawrence.
Prince Jalan Kendeth of Red March returns to entertain and delight readers yet again with his utter lack of scruples, eye for the main chance and a remarkable propensity for attracting enemies by the shipload. His reprehensible behaviour has not improved since Book One ‘The Prince of Fools’; he still lies, cheats and tries to flee at the first sign of danger to himself (too bad about anyone else!) and the only reason he leaves the comforts of the snowbound inn he and Snori ver Snagason have been wintering in is the usual pursuit by various cuckolded husbands and outraged women who considered themselves his only true love. Yes, it is time to leave before his enviable looks are spoiled and he has been made to eat certain essential parts of his anatomy, and Snori, an honourable man who still (despite so much proof to the contrary) considers Jalan his friend, is the perfect bodyguard.
But Snori is on a seemingly hopeless quest, and will not be dissuaded: he has possession of Loki’s Key – Loki, the trickster God of Norse mythology, Loki the Liar, Loki the Cheat who fashioned a key that can open any door, including that of the Underworld. Snori means to find that door, open it, and search for his dead family. He will bring them back, or die in the attempt, for his life is meaningless without them.
Needless to say Jalan (right up there with Loki at lying and cheating) is horrified at Snori’s reckless pursuit of a sticky end, but will travel with him (the Norseman might be mad but he’s superb insurance against the dangers on the road) as far as Vermillion. Even though Jalan is only a minor princeling it will be wonderful to return home, where he can embellish shamelessly the stories of his exploits – and where he will at last be warm. He thinks.
Jalan is indeed warm, but the welcome from his family is not; yet again he is forced to flee from creditors who are tiresomely demanding their money and he finds to his horror that he misses his travelling companions – Christ on a bike – he must be ill!
True to form, our cowardly hero undergoes much privation (usually his own fault), battles disturbing visions from mages, necromancers et al as they try to find out what he knows about Loki’s Key and its whereabouts – ‘A key? What key? I am a prince of Red March. What use have I for keys!’ Yeah, right. Those sorcerers aren’t fooled for a second. Jalan is the conduit: when he reunites with Snori, the Key will be theirs.
It is not easy to create sequels that are successively better with each volume but Mr Lawrence is one great storyteller who seems to manage this feat effortlessly; he leaves the reader always wanting more, hanging out impatiently for the next episode – which will see Snori and craven companion Jalan exactly where he does not want to be: in Hel, searching for Snori’s beloved family. My only complaint about this book is that I shall have to wait at least another year for Mr Lawrence to enlighten me. I’ll have forgotten all the plot details by then! FIVE STARS.
The Quality of Silence, by Rosamund Lupton
Ruby is 10 years old and profoundly deaf. She communicates with her parents by lip-reading and sign language, and life is difficult for her at school where she faces daily taunts about her disability – because that is what kids do, don’t they? She had one good friend, a boy, who was driven away from her by his classmates’ harassment, but she has decided that she doesn’t care (even though she does), because her parents are the best in the whole world; Dad is a wildlife cameraman currently working in Alaska, and Mum is an astrophysicist, and they both know so many cool things about the wonderful planet we inhabit, and the stars that bathe us all in their crystalline light every night – whether we notice them or not, and Ruby fears that people are noticing (and caring) about the natural world less and less.
Well, she doesn’t care (even though she does) because she and mum have just arrived at Anchorage, Alaska from Britain, expecting Dad to be at the airport to greet them. They were meant to come for Christmas in a fortnight’s time, but mum and dad had a fight on the phone and mum decided to bring the trip forward, much to Ruby’s delight; she hasn’t seen dad for three months, and though they email and Dad sends wonderful pictures of the wildlife he photographs via his satellite connection, (they have even started a blog) to see him again in person would be totally cool.
But he is not at the airport to meet them. Then it is revealed by a State Trooper who has been to Anaktue, the little village where dad was based, that there has been a terrible accident; fuel appeared to be stored too near to a heat source, there was a terrible conflagration and all twenty-four inhabitants died. Ruby’s dad is declared one of the fatalities, and she and her mother are in shock. What to do next, especially as mum (Yasmin) refuses to believe that her husband Matt has died. The authorities have it all wrong! She would KNOW if he were gone: their connection is so absolute that she would know. She will find him – she will find someone to take them to the little village; tanker drivers go back and forth to the Prudhoe Bay Oil wells regularly. She will pay someone to take them on their search.
And because Yasmin is a resourceful woman, she and Ruby are soon on their way – on a nightmare trip of hundreds of miles north in a savage Alaskan winter, in a big rig which she eventually has to drive herself, for the tanker driver becomes ill and has to be airlifted back to Anchorage, not knowing that his passengers are determined to carry on without him.
Ms Lupton’s account of her protagonists’ nightmare adventures succeeds on so many levels: as a testament to the natural beauty of our planet, the nurturing world in which we are so privileged to live – and the efforts that those consumed by greed will employ to destroy it in order to claim its wealth; as an action-packed thriller that pits Yasmin and Ruby against the unforgiving environment as well as the Bad Guys, and as a love story involving a tight-knit family of three who will literally travel to the ends of the earth to be together, all told in beautiful, lucid prose that is a joy to read. SIX STARS!