Saturday, 26 November 2016

LAST GREAT READS FOR NOVEMBER, 2016

The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead

            Cora is a slave, a field-hand, on a rich cotton plantation in Georgia.  Her abject life is made even worse by the fact that she is a stray;  her mother Mabel escaped from bondage when Cora was ten years old and has never been seen again – all the other slaves think her run for freedom was admirable, the only problem being that she left Cora behind to fend for herself.  She is sent to the Hob, a derelict cabin housing the sick, the maimed and the demented:  her life outlook appears to be bleak – and short.
            Until Caesar, a newly arrived slave from Virginia, makes her a proposition:  he has made contact with those who run the Underground Railroad, a fabled means of escape for blacks organised by abolitionists and people horrified and opposed to the obscenity that is slavery:  the notion that one human being may be the property of another wholly in the interests of growing King Cotton and reaping its profits.
            Caesar and his parents were promised their freedom by their mistress in Virginia;  tragically for them she died without leaving a will and they were all sold down the river as part of her estate.  Caesar has been educated.  He can read and knows that he cannot live the rest of his life in bondage where animals are treated better than humans;  he sees a similar resolution and will to live life in freedom in Cora, and when the time is right they take their giant, perilous step into the unknown.
            Their first stop after a nightmare journey in a broken-down boxcar is South Carolina, where life seems unbelievably wonderful and carefree compared to what they left behind:  Cora has a new identity and works as a maid in a prosperous household.  She gets paid wages!  Caesar works in a factory;  both live in dormitories created especially for the new coloured population.  It is only after some months and the decision made to stay rather than press on, that they realise that South Carolina has other, ulterior designs for its new black population:  sterilisation is but one of the many ‘solutions’.  The theory of Eugenics could have had its origin in this very place.
            Once again, Cora is forced to flee on the Underground Railroad, pursued relentlessly by Ridgeway, a slave catcher of uncommon determination, hired by her original owners in Georgia:  he is implacable in his pursuit for her mother Mabel was the only slave he could not return to ‘its’ owners and he has no wish to be thwarted again.
            In stark, powerful language Mr Whitehead describes Cora’s many paths to freedom, from her incarceration of several months in a sympathiser’s attic and her horrendous recapture by Ridgeway, to a brief respite in Indiana on a prosperous farm owned by coloureds and visited regularly by abolitionists – until the surrounding farmers decide to mount an attack and get rid of those uppity niggers once and for all.
            Cora’s determination to live freely or die trying has many parallels with today’s America:  compared to her horrendous treatment and attempts to escape from it, today’s African Americans enjoy a freedom, education and respect unknown to their ancestors, especially after the singular achievement of the election of America’s first African American President - but bigotry and racism still prevail, albeit in a more subtle disguise.  Mr Whitehead has written a major work, excoriating the Old South for its Old ways, and gently reminding readers that not everything has changed.  FIVE STARS

The Obsidian Chamber, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child


           The highly-coloured adventures of FBI Special Agent Aloysius X. L. Pendergast are starting to mount up;  this is Messrs Preston and Child’s sixteenth action-packed novel recounting the exploits of that pale-eyed, pale-skinned, pale-haired warrior extraordinaire, he of the perpetual Old Southern Charm and bulging wardrobe of identical black designer suits, righter of wrongs (couldn’t resist that!) and killer of villains natural and otherwise. 
The last time we heard of him (see reviews below) it appeared that Aloysius had finally kicked the bucket, cruelly drowned at sea after a ferocious battle with a monster off the New England coast.  BUT!!!
We, his millions of devoted fans, know that couldn’t possibly happen, though Constance Green, his ward who wished to be his lover (what a strumpet!) truly believes that he has left this Vale of Tears, so she must too, at least by retiring to mourn alone in the depths of the basement of Pendergast’s bizarre family mansion on New York’s Riverside Drive.  There she can lead a life of the mind, studying literature, ikebana (she is so versatile!) and poetry, and let us not forget the harpsichord if she feels like bashing out a bit of Bach.  What more could she want?
Except that no-one has bargained for the return of the Devil in Designer Duds, Master of Many Disguises, Murderer of Many and (gasp!) sneering father of Constance’s little son. (who is being educated by Tibetan monks in an Indian monastery.  This is a fact!)  Diogenes, dreaded, homicidal younger brother of Aloysius, the beast that Constance had thought she had murdered by tipping him into a volcano, pulls off an ingenious plan to send Constance’s guardian and Aloysius’s General Factotum Proctor, off to Namibia on a wild goose chase, believing that Constance has been kidnapped, when all she was doing was banging away down below on the Harpsichord.  Oh, foolish Proctor!  It takes him just about the whole story to get back to New York, half-eaten by lions. That should larn him not to leave home.  With Constance in an unguarded and vulnerable state, Diogenes has the way clear to – plight his troth!  It’s true.  A more bizarre plot twist could only happen in the next Pendergast novel.
Anyway.  Surprise, surprise!  Aloysius has been plucked from a watery grave by a boat full of drug smugglers, who find out who he is and decide to ransom him, hoping the FBI will cough up;  in the meantime, they treat their prisoner badly, earning dreadful retribution when Our Hero breaks free from his bonds:  he too returns home much the worse for wear;  a new set of cuts, bumps and bruises, and yet another designer suit in tatters – there to find that Constance has flown the coop with Diogenes, of all people.
There is nothing for it but to pursue that Dastard, and by superior deduction, tracking skills and plain old Southern common sense, Aloysius and his millions of readers reach the end of the tale in one piece – but what of Diogenes and Constance?  Constance, once again, has declared her great love for prissy Aloysius, only to be rejected:  will she go over to The Dark Side?  Revenge is a dish that people of taste prefer to eat cold, as the saying goes, and we are all set up to wait for the next episode.  I have my theories as to What Will Happen Next, but really, the plot is so mad that Preston and Child, those masters of the absurd, can – and will – take us anywhere they like!  FOUR STARS
             
Crimson Shore, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

            ‘When the doorbell chimed, Constance Green stopped playing the Flemish virginal and the library fell silent and tense.’
            Well.  Who else would start off a novel with such deliciously florid and torrid prose but Messrs Preston and Child – and do it so successfully?  This is the latest in a long line of adventures starring Special FBI Agent Aloysius Pendergast and his mysterious ward, Constance, proficient virginal player.  The plots of each book have become progressively more outlandish, unbelievable – and HEAPS of fun, not to mention faster paced than a speeding bullet.  And let us not forget the addictive factor:  Agent Pendergast, with his silvery eyes, inexhaustible supply of funereal bespoke suits, seeming invincibility against everything that villains most dastardly can throw at him, and superlative deductive powers (he has more PhDs than you can shake a stick at) is a protagonist who has gathered devoted fans (including me) from all over the world – he has his own website, for goodness’ sake!
            We last met him in ‘Blue Labyrinth’ (see review below);  now, he and Constance are persuaded by a noted sculptor to do a little moonlighting:  someone has stolen the sculptor’s priceless wine collection from his home in a converted lighthouse on the wild and stormy New England coast.  Would Pendergast (whose stellar reputation at solving difficult crimes has even penetrated artistic circles) care to investigate?  There would be considerable financial reward – but our hero, after learning that a single case of wine had survived the theft, requests just one glorious item from that case:  a bottle of Chateau Haut-Braquilanges.  The Nectar of the Gods.  (Needless to say, for mere mortals such as I, its virtues would be entirely wasted.  It’s just as well Aloysius knows his stuff.  I’ll take his word for it.)
            Anyway.
Quelle horreur!  After careful examination of the wine racks, Pendergast is able to deduce – from a tiny finger bone (!) -  that behind the empty shelves is a niche which had contained a body – a man who was  bricked-up in said niche and left to starve to death:  the wine theft was a clumsy cover-up by people who wanted to remove the body and surrounding evidence.  There is a lot more villainy afoot in this storm swept little village than the theft of wine, distressing though that may be to its owner and wine connoisseur Pendergast.
            Naturally, the intrepid team of Pendergast and Green are soon following clues scattered everywhere like confetti;  Constance is dispatched to the local historical society, there to uncover evidence of the remains of a coven of Salem witches who fled from the trials and deaths of their sisters, and our Super FBI agent uncovers dreadful evidence in the wild salt marshes of a heinous 19th century crime – but wait:  there’s more!
            Constance, despite her penchant for prowling in dark basements and stubborn preference for retro garb (long cardies and longer tweed skirts), still harbours what can only be regarded as lustful thoughts towards her Guardian:   she lays her hand on his knee as they partake of the delights of Pendergast’s hard won bottle of Chateau whatsit.  A passionate embrace cannot be avoided, but Aloysius Pendergast is a man of superhuman self-control, and he thrusts her from him, crying ‘you are my ward!’
            Much to Constance’s fury.  (What a hussy!)  In fact she is so irate that she stalks out into the wild and stormy night clad only in her robe and nightie, filled with vengeful thoughts:  she will show that prissy paleface that she can solve the remaining mystery BY HERSELF.  Who needs Aloysius the Virginal (and we are not talking about the musical instrument): just you wait, she is the ultimate Weapon of Darkness – until someone even darker makes his big move. 
            Oh, oh, OH!  Constance is in the crapola, and can only be rescued by her funereal guardian, who realises too late that an arch enemy whom he thought dead (didn’t Constance push him into a bubbling volcanic crater?) has almost certainly returned.  Which just goes to show that Messrs Preston and Child can be as absurd as they like;  despite the presumed death of Aloysius, the disappearance of Constance (she has returned to the reassuring darkness of the basement) and the resurrection of Diogenes, Pendergast’s diabolical bro, we are still hanging onto every word and furious because this episode of epic silliness is finished. Well, buggeration is all I can say.  Preston and Child had  better be writing the next adventure at the speed of light.  What fun -can’t wait.  FOUR STARS

Blue Labyrinth, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Special FBI Agent extraordinaire Aloysius Pendergast returns yet again to do battle against the forces of evil – and not before time, I say!  His myriad fans have been languishing without him, and it’s all very well for Messrs Preston and Child to throw them a bone from time to time with various solo novels and the combined authorship of a series featuring a new hero, Gideon Crew, BUT.
All that secondary activity is a mere distraction until the Master resurfaces, this time to fight a mysterious new villain, one who has hidden his identity so well that more than half the book is (greedily) consumed before his identity is revealed.
In common with all the other evil ones that Pendergast has dispatched to the hereafter, Mystery Man is festering with hatred towards our pale hero -  but he is no ordinary Dastard, for he is motivated by revenge:  thanks to an awful genetic curse wrought upon his family by one of Pendergast’s ancestors, Mystery Man contrives through absolutely genius planning, to infect Pendergast with the same fatal malady - but not before leaving the dead body of Pendergast’s twin son on the Agent’s front doorstep as a calling card and to start the ball rolling.  Pendergast’s days are numbered!
Now.  Because Pendergast knows something about absolutely everything he is able to self-medicate for a while as he searches for his killer, but as the horrid disease starts to have its wicked way, raising his temperature uncomfortably in his black wool suits, he realises that the cavalry will have to be summoned – and who better to ride to his rescue than Margo Green, anthropologist and ethnopharmacologist,  doughty companion on many previous bloody adventures at the New York Museum of Natural History.  It will be her job to manufacture ASAP an antidote from rare  ingredients pinched by none other than Constance Green, Pendergast’s mysterious ward – well, she’s certainly mysterious to ME, as I haven’t yet found the book (and I thought I had read them all) where she makes her first appearance.
By any reader’s calculation she must be about 150 years old, but is as young and glowing as the dawn;  the only clue to her advanced years is her curiously formal way of speech, and her retro fashion sense, but – but the woman is an Amazon!  And she knows HEAPS about various acids, and how to administer them to nasty men who should know better than to try to stop her at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden from stealing a super-rare plant to save Pendergast’s failing life.  Constance Green is a warrior, and she accomplishes grand larceny and mass murder in minimum time and maximum efficiency (he’s definitely worth it!) clad only in a silk Teddy.  Sorry, Constance:  chemise.
Does Our Hero survive?  Well, what a silly question:  of course he does, returning to his healthy pallor in no time at all, and enjoying a fresh supply of Armani funeral garb.  And he and Constance are closer than ever, which is only right:  she rubbed out half an army of mercenaries that he might live!  Do you suppose she fancies him?  Watch this space.  FOUR STARS

             

Sunday, 13 November 2016

GREAT READS FOR NOVEMBER, 2016

The Mare, by Mary Gaitskill


           Velveteen Vargas is eleven years old and she lives in Brooklyn, New York with her mother and younger brother Dante.  The slum neighbourhood in which they live is populated with families whose parents work hard and have little;  Velvet’s Mum works hard and has even less for the children’s father left them years ago and has another family.  He doesn’t send any money, except for the occasional dollar sent to Dante for his birthdays, but Velvet is never the recipient of the occasional anything:  in his eyes she seems not to exist.
            Velvet’s mother Sylvia came from the Dominican Republic many years before but still cannot speak English;  she is also illiterate, believing that education never helps anyone;  people all have to endure a hardscrabble existence whether they can write their name or not.  Consequently, anything on paper must be translated and read out by Velvet, and instead of being praised for her responsibility she is often beaten so badly she has come to the attention of the school social workers.  Fortunately for him, Dante is treated as the Golden Child by his mother, a role he plays to the hilt.  Once again, Velvet is forced to wonder why she isn’t treated the same as Dante and concludes that she must be worthless, a loser, someone not worth worrying about.  She is too young to understand that her mother blames her very existence on their current circumstances:  if she had never gotten pregnant with Velvet, Sylvia’s life would have been entirely different – she would be happy, not living in this nightmare!  Dante’s father would have stayed with them, their lives would be perfect! 
            Velvet has been turned into a punching bag so that her mum can get rid of all her frustrations, blighted hopes and hatred at her circumstances.  Velvet’s future is bleak.
            Until Velvet is enrolled in a holiday programme for disadvantaged children (her mother explained to the social worker that the child is now too big for daycare and is so stupid that she would sit on the tenement steps while Sylvia was at work and talk to strange men.  The social worker is appalled.)  It has been arranged for Hispanic and black children to spend two weeks upstate ‘in a country setting’ with kind and loving people who wish to give them a good holiday, and that first trip becomes Velvet’s salvation.
            She is billeted with Ginger and Paul, a prosperous and well-meaning white couple who live close to a riding stable;  when Velvet is taken to see the horses an epiphany occurs:  she meets a damaged and abused rescue horse called Fugly Girl, and a long, difficult transformation begins for them both, from hurt and crippled to whole and strong, culminating in emotional and spiritual triumph .  And if that sounds corny, well we’ll have to blame it on my inferior writing powers, for Ms Gaitskill has told a superb story:  each character (with the exception of Fugly Girl) narrates different sections of the novel, sometimes giving different versions of the same event, and it works beautifully, not least because Ms Gaitskill is a writer able to speak convincingly in any voice.  She lays bare the people behind the facades that we all build to protect ourselves, and she does it brilliantly.  SIX STARS!!

The Trespasser, by Tana French

I first became one of Ms French’s devoted fans when I read her excellent ‘Faithful Place’ some years ago;  her perfect blend of the treacherous shoals of a Dublin family’s dynamics with all its horror and humour, plus an unsolved disappearance and a cruel murder made one of the most entertaining and incisive thrillers I had read for some time.  (See ecstatic reviews below!)  Needless to say I have read with great pleasure everything she has written since;  she is a writer of consistent high quality and has never short-changed the reader – until now.
In her efforts to produce a story where we cannot possibly guess WhoDunit, Ms French has disappeared more than once into her own plot labyrinth;  I found myself continually thinking ‘Stop with the navel-gazing – get on with the story!’  but Ms French’s  tale proceeds at an eyelid-drooping pace and she refuses to speed up till she’s good and ready.  Fair enough, but as I only read at night I had enormous trouble staying awake.
 Anyway.
Detective Antoinette Conway, a lead character in Ms French’s previous novel ‘The Secret Place’ has achieved her dream of working permanently for the Dublin Murder Squad after serving an apprenticeship in Missing Persons;  unfortunately she feels that she is still an apprentice as she and her partner Steve have been consigned only to Domestic Incidents and Saturday night Brawls where people have been kicked to death because they looked at someone funny.  Where’s the skill in that?  Until their Gaffer puts them both as lead detectives on something more meaty:  a young woman has been found dead in her home while she was preparing a romantic dinner for two the night before.  This is not what Antoinette and Steve usually investigate, and they would both feel grand about it if they hadn’t just finished the night shift, but never mind – show willing!  This could be their big break!
Except that they have been assigned a rock-star older Detective to ‘mentor’ them – not to interfere, mind, but just to offer shrewd advice whenever he thinks they might be heading down the wrong track:  the trouble is, the rock star seems to be throwing red herrings at them by the bucketful – and why?
            Antoinette has not made any friends on the Murder Squad;  she’s a prickly girl who tells people truths they would rather not hear, but she doesn’t care – she has had to withstand discrimination all her life because she has mixed parentage;  also because she is a woman doing a man’s job.  Well, they’ll all have to get over themselves:  she’s here;  she’s good, and she intends to stay.
            Which would be fine if there weren’t so many shadowy people working against her – even in her own squad, she discovers, and true to form she manages to alienate even those few who believe in her.  After all, attack is always the best form of defence.  Except when a brutal murder needs to be solved.
            There are still flashes of Ms French’s trademark wit and humour in the guise of Antoinette as acid-tongued narrator, but there are enough what-ifs, buts and maybes to investigate the serial-killing of a dozen young women, not just one, and that’s a shame;  one of the strengths of Tana French’s writing is her perfect pace and razor-sharp characterisations, sadly absent this time.  FOUR STARS, in the hope that the next book will be back to her usual high standard.

The Secret Place, by Tana French

I am a committed fan of Tana French.  The Crime and suspense genre has many good authors, but few great ones:  Ms French deservedly belongs in the latter category and it is satisfying to know that each time we read one of her books we are enjoying a story of the highest quality. 
Yet again, she doesn’t disappoint:  ‘The Secret Place’ is a masterly analysis and dissection of friendships and those that pass for the word;  the lengths that people will go to preserve the relationships that are important to them;  and the tipping point between friendship and obsession.
The unthinkable has happened at one of Dublin’s most exclusive private girls’ schools:  The body of a young man, a pupil at a nearby equally expensive boys’ school has been discovered with severe head injuries in the grounds of St. Kilda’s.  The shock amongst the elite is absolute:  this sort of crime happens in lesser, meaner suburbs;  parents pay good money to St Kilda’s to protect their darlings from such horror – surely the murder was random, committed by some low-class weasel who climbed over the wall!  The fact that the boy should have been in his own school, tucked up in bed instead of being AWOL in a place where he had no business to be – in short, HE had climbed over the wall to meet his fate – well, that seems irrelevant.  The police will sort it all out.
But they don’t.  There were precious few clues to start with, and despite extensive interviews with every pupil of both schools little has occurred to advance the case or produce a list of suspects.  After a year the case has gone cold, and everyone is supposed to be moving on with their lives – until Holly Mackey, a St Kilda’s pupil and acquaintance of the dead boy visits Detective Stephen Moran with a notice she found at ‘The Secret Place’, a school noticeboard that pupils can use to leave anonymous messages, supposedly to let off steam by disclosing secrets they would rather not keep.
The message that Holly shows Moran is simple:  it has a photo of Chris Harper, the murdered boy, with words beneath cut from a book or magazine:  ‘I know who killed him’.
Holly and Stephen have met before.  When she was nine, she had to testify in a murder case (see ‘Faithful Place’ review below) and Stephen prepared and supported her to do so;  trust was forged between them during that terrible time and she feels now that he will know what to do about this mystery message.  Stephen is an ambitious man.  He is currently working on Cold Cases but has been lusting to join the Murder Squad for years – he even enjoys a relationship of sorts with Holly’s father Frank, a high-ranking detective and local legend;  Frank has said good things about Stephen whenever the occasion warranted.  Could this anonymous message be the opportunity he has been waiting for?
Perhaps.  Unfortunately, he has to provide the Lead Detective on the case, Antoinette Conway with his new information, and it is up to her whether he rises or falls.  She makes it patently and quickly clear that she doesn’t suffer fools gladly: she is a lone wolf.  Her colleagues in Murder don’t want to work with her;  they think she’s an uppity bitch, and the fact that she hasn’t solved the case is enormously satisfying to them.  Stephen soon realises that there will be many bridges to cross before he reaches his goal.
Meantime, the investigation is resumed and fresh eyes see things that were not obvious a year before. It becomes plain eventually that what was originally a harmless vow of loyalty by four good friends has turned into something darker when one of the girls is emotionally harmed:  it’s time for payback.
Ms French is acutely observant of human behaviour, whether it be giggly, impressionable teenagers or the adults in their lives.  She has produced a beautifully written, compelling exploration of friendship in all its guises, and how far some will go to preserve it.  FIVE STARS

Faithful Place, by Tana French

Undercover Detective Frank Mackey works for the Dublin Police;  he’s very good at his job – and an absolute disaster at personal relationships:  so far, so predictable for readers of suspense novels, but Tana French invests Frank with so much more than the usual Brilliant but Burnt-Out persona -   all too readily adopted by other writers -  that he is like a chilling but welcome blast of fresh and frosty air, holding the reader in his ruthless grip from the start of this story to the finish.
His life so far has had some huge disappointments:  his first love Rosie stood him up on the night they were planning to run away from their gothically awful families to start a new life in England together, and was never seen again;  his marriage has ended in divorce and the associated recriminations; and apart from his job, his life doesn’t have much focus – except for the precious gift of his daughter, 9 year old Holly .  Frank’s love for her is profound and complete and he constantly blesses the fact that she will never know the horrors of living with an alcoholic Da who terrorized not just Ma, but all five children of that blighted union, and that she has never met his terrible relatives – and nor will she – he thinks.  He hasn’t seen any of his family except his sister Jackie for 22 years,  until a derelict house undergoing demolition in Faithful Place, their street, reveals some secrets that require his professional attention, and to his horror, he finds that Rosie didn’t stand him up after all:  she was murdered.
This book is more than just a who-done-it;  it’s more than the usual tragic family saga of violence and dashed hopes:  it has more layers than an onion, and as each layer is peeled away more insights are given into each character and the terrible reasons for their behaviour towards each other.  And before the reader decides that they wouldn’t touch all this tragedy with a barge pole, I’d like to lure them back in with the solemn (!) promise of a laugh on every page:  the uniquely Irish humour which has helped the entire race survive war through the centuries, famine and The Troubles  is here in abundance:  who else but an Irish author could write such great drama, and leaven it with such comedy.  This is a wonderful story:  FIVE STARS



                 

Thursday, 27 October 2016

LAST GREAT READS FOR OCTOBER, 2016

My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante
         
Ms Ferrante has caused a furore in the literary world:  apart from the superb quality of her writing, she is also very strict about anonymity, Elena Ferrante being a pseudonym.  She believes that novels should be born, then stand alone without the weight of an author’s name behind them propping them up.  Fair enough, but it is obvious that the search for Ms Ferrante’s true identity is ongoing, if only for the fact that someone so much the master of her craft should never remain secret, for Ms Ferrante has produced a remarkable feat, a quartet of novels that are unforgettable.
The first, ‘My Brilliant Friend’, opens in 1950’s Naples, that teeming, corrupt city overshadowed by Vesuvius and plagued by crime and poverty, particularly in the area that eight-year-old Elena Greco lives.  A porter’s daughter, she longs to be friends with the local shoemaker’s daughter, Rafaella, called Lila, for Lila is wild, different, a disturbance in the classroom, but of superior intelligence:  if only there were some way to impress Lila, to make her see that she, Elena, is smart too, worthy of her friendship though more of a follower than the instigator of mischief that Lila unleashes so effortlessly:  Elena feels that if she can persist in her attempts at friendship, it will be a win-win situation for them both.  For Lila has a natural brilliance, a propensity to soak up knowledge (and languages) like a sponge, that Elena must benefit from just by association.  She wants to be a scholar too, but doesn’t learn as easily as Lila, who is generous with advice on how to retain knowledge that eludes so many of their classmates.
Their friendship grows over the years, overshadowed by the stark poverty and casual, everyday violence that is a feature in the lives of their families and neighbours.  Money and the lack of it colours all decisions, and it is considered a triumph for Lila and Elena to go from elementary to middle school, much against parental objections, especially from Elena’s mother who says she should be earning a wage somewhere (at barely thirteen) to help the family.  Lila’s family is no different and at the same age she is seconded to her father’s shoe repair shop to ‘learn proper work’ with her brother Rino, who is already seething with discontent, for he has been ‘learning proper work’ for years and has not been paid a penny for his efforts because it is ‘for the good of the family’.
The only families doing well in the neighbourhood are those whom everyone is afraid of:  the family of Don Achille Carracci, grocer and black marketeer, eventually murdered by a carpenter he ruined, and the Solara family, local gangsters and loan sharks operating within a pastry shop.  The sons of these two families are the local lords of all they survey, and as Elena and Lila develop it becomes plain that Lila, the free spirit who laughs in their faces, is the prize.  The one who must be brought to heel, to show respect.
Ms Ferrante ends Book One with the explosive finale of Lila’s wedding at the age of sixteen to the grocer Stefano Carracci;  he has set up her father and brother in the business of crafting shoes designed by her;  he has showered clothes, furniture and a brand-new apartment on her, and Lila feels she has made a fine marriage, saving her family from continued penury – until the wedding reception, when it becomes abundantly clear that Stefano has made a deal with the Devil.  Book Two is ‘The Story of a New Name.’  Can’t wait!  FIVE 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.
            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’, see review below);  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!

A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler

Family dynamics:  that weary, well-worn euphemism for the myriad ways that people hurt those whom they should love most. 
            The clarion cry of ‘It’s not FAIR!’ engendered by sibling rivalry which, as siblings reach adulthood becomes ‘Why did they love you more than me?’ has never been portrayed with more skill, perception and humour than in Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anne Tyler’s peerless chronicle of a family’s life through three generations – not very long as a family ancestral record, but of sufficient length to draw the reader into this graceful story, because we recognise so much of it as our own.
            In 1994 Red and Abby Whitshank have four grown children.  They live in Baltimore, Maryland in a house that Red’s father built, and Red has taken over his father’s construction company after both his parents were killed in an accident.  Abby is a social worker, a woman who welcomes the waifs and strays, especially at Thanksgiving, a holiday her family secretly dreads for they never know which awful waifs will be present at the carving of the turkey – but Abby doesn’t care:  her heart is big and There But For the Grace of God etc etc.  More turkey, anyone?
            In the main, Red and Abby are content with their life and their family, whom they love dearly.  Amanda, the oldest girl is a lawyer;  Jeannie followed her father into the construction business, a bold step;  Douglas (called Stem for a very poignant reason) has also gone into the family company;  but Denny, the third child – well, Denny appears to have taken on the role of family failure;  family flitter-away-from-responsibility candidate;  family jack-of-all-trades – and master of none, despite much encouragement and many new starts,  assisted emotionally and financially each time by his parents.
Time passes inexorably;  Red and Abby age;  their family start families of their own – all except Denny.  His life is a mystery to them:  they have no idea where he lives, or what he does for a living – does he even work?  Then they receive an invitation to his wedding.  He is marrying the bride because she’s pregnant.  Oh.  Okay then.  They’ll have a grandchild to love and spoil!  Sadly, no.  Denny disappears for years, until family concern about Red and Abby’s vulnerability as they age brings him home, and what has been simmering beneath the family surface since childhood erupts in an ugly geyser of hatred and resentment:  Denny’s anger is never directed at himself;  he could never hold a mirror up to reveal his many faults:  instead, he lashes out at those who are the last to deserve his ire, causing ructions that are shocking but come as no surprise to anyone.
I can’t remember reading at any time a more perfect evocation of family life;  the petty jealousies, the perceptions real or imagined, of who loves who best, and the immense loyalty and unity only a family can draw on when tragedies occur.  And the great, beating heart of this family is contained in the house, built by their grandfather for someone else, but eventually becoming his, as told in beautiful flashbacks.
Roddy Doyle and Nick Hornby, both writers who ‘know their onions’ (my old gran used to say that often!) maintain that Anne Tyler is ‘the greatest novelist writing in English’ and it is easy to see why.  SIX STARS!!!   

      

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


           Hot Damn!  Now, here’s something different:  Jimmie Aussapile is a trucker who drives a big rig wherever on the vast American highway system he is directed to take his cargo of freight;  he is good at his job, has a loving family and a great music system in his cab:  life is going great for Jimmie when this story opens, for his adored wife is about to give birth to their son – what more can a man desire?
            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


           ‘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 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 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!

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 cafĂ© 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!!