Sunday, 16 April 2017

GREAT READS FOR APRIL 2017

Carry Me, by Peter Behrens

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

The Wonder, by Emma Donoghue

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

Room, by Emma Donoghue

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

The Refugees, by Viet Thanh Nguyen

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

The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen.

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


Thursday, 30 March 2017

LAST GREAT READS FOR MARCH, 2017.

The Demon Road Trilogy, by Derek Landy               Young Adults

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

Desolation. Book Two.

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

            

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

MORE GREAT READS FOR MARCH, 2017

Hag-Seed, the Tempest Retold, by Margaret Atwood

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

Vinegar Girl, by Anne Tyler

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

Nutshell, by Ian McEwan

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

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

Saturday, 11 March 2017

FIRST GREAT READS FOR MARCH, 2017

Holding, by Graham Norton

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

The Rules of Backyard Cricket, by Jock Serong.

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

                      

Saturday, 25 February 2017

MORE GREAT READS FOR FEBRUARY, 2017

Don’t Tell Me You’re Afraid, by Giuseppe Catozzella


           In the early months of 2012, Samia Yusuf Omar, a Somali refugee, drowned in the Mediterranean Sea whilst trying to reach ropes hanging from an Italian vessel sent to escort back to Tripoli the barely seaworthy old boat that she and hundreds of others had paid traffickers huge amounts of money to board.  To return to the African continent was unthinkable after everything she had endured:  the ropes hanging over the side of the Italian ship were her last chance at freedom.  She couldn’t be afraid;  she had to try.
So she did, and she died, like countless others who fled their war-torn countries of birth looking for a better life, never reaching the peaceful shores they sought – in Samia’s case, she was to join her older sister Hodan and her family who had made it to Finland, had made ‘the Journey’ and survived to live a normal life in Europe – the dream of every refugee, but Samia had another, more urgent dream:  to run for her country in the London 2012 Olympics.  Time was running out!
In Giuseppe Catozzella’s novel based on the true story of Samia’s short life, he has Samia tell her own story;  how at the age of eight, she and her best friend Ali who lived across the courtyard, would run like the wind through all the narrow winding streets and alleys of Mogadishu – oh, there was never a feeling like it!  To power along a straight stretch at top speed (beating Ali every time), to revel in the freedom that her fast limbs gave her:  she would do this all the time if she could.  Until tribal wars, always hovering in the background meant that Ali and his family (an inferior tribe) were forced away from Mogadishu and an even worse alternative introduced itself:  El Shabaab, fundamentalist moslems of the worst kind.
Samia is forced to run in a Burka; even so, she is actually starting to be noticed by the Olympic Committee;  in 2008 the Olympic Games will be held in China, and Samia has outrun everyone in the country, despite the efforts of El Shabaab.  Her times are good enough for her to compete against the rest of the world – despite terrible family tragedy and ensuing hardship, her dream of representing her country is realised:  in 2008 Samia Jusuf Omar represents Somalia in the 200m heat – coming last, but undaunted;  she won’t give up, she’ll never give up.  If she can get out of Mogadishu and away from Al Shabaab, if she can travel to Europe and join Hodan and her family, her dreams are all possible.
Samia’s Journey takes five months from the start to the finish in the leaky boat.  I have to say that before this point, I was not overly impressed with Mr Catozzella’s writing – until we journeyed together on her last attempt to be free:  then he had me in a grip of iron, each page horrifying me with prose so vivid and cruel it left me breathless.
The Journey begins, that nightmare Journey that no-one speaks of if they are lucky enough to complete the distance, littered as it is by corpses along the diverse routes the traffickers take.  The conditions the refugees endure are brutalising and unspeakable, and more money is demanded at every drop-off point.  Families are allowed a minute on a mobile phone to contact their loved ones to wire more money, always more than anyone can raise.  Those who can’t find the money are left behind in the wilderness.  Life is reduced to its most elemental.  Survival is paramount.
There are many lessons to be learnt from this important story, not least our ignorance of the struggles to the death (more often than not) that people will undergo to have a life that we take for granted.  Samia died, but her determination and drive lives on in this book.  FOUR STARS.


The Pigeon Tunnel, by John le Carré


           At the venerable age of eighty-five, Mr Le Carré has decided that it is time to write a volume of memoirs.  Naturally, his fans (and they are legion) will hope that he doesn’t confine himself to just one volume, for the ‘Pigeon Tunnel’ is a delight, a feast for the reader of perfect prose, wonderful character studies, delicious humour, and memories that are never, ever fed by sour grapes or malice.
            His long and illustrious literary career has been shaped by many diverse people and experiences:  he confesses that his mastery of the perfect sentence came not at Oxford, (where, upon graduating with a degree in languages he was recruited into MI5 as the most junior of intelligence agents) but from his new bosses, all classically trained, who tore apart with derisory skill his first efforts at information-gathering.  No paragraph was left without a scathing comment in the margin:  ‘redundant – omit – justify – sloppy – do you really mean this?’ 
‘No editor I have since encountered was so exacting, or so right.’
            What a grounding for a future novelist, and what a time (the fifties and sixties) to be a diplomat/spy for the British Government.  Based in Bonn, Mr Le Carré practised his tradecraft, but learned to write his fiction based on his previous experiences only after he left the Service, signing an oath never to reveal State Secrets.  His fame as a writer blossomed with the publication of ‘The Spy Who Came in From the Cold’, then increased a hundredfold with the introduction of George Smiley & Co. in ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’.  A Star was Born!  Much to the displeasure of his former masters, who felt that they, and the Service as a whole, had been rather unfairly portrayed, old chap. 
            They all must have breathed a collective and gusty sigh of relief when the Berlin wall came down, the Cold War ended, and Mr Le Carré chose other subjects to write about, i.e. Middle-Eastern terrorism, gunrunning, money-laundering – you name it, there was still plenty of world corruption and scandal for an enterprising writer to expose, particularly someone with his talent and growing fame.
            A particularly fascinating aspect of these memoirs is the author’s meticulous research into the characters and settings of each book:  he has travelled all over the world (and endured some very hairy situations) to give authenticity to his plots, and I was amazed to read of the number of characters who are based (to a greater or lesser degree) on people he has met, who have made an impression on him for good or ill.  Mr Le Carré’s memory for appearances, accents and gesture is prodigious, and to be with him as he picks each character apart is akin to going backstage at the Ballet:  magic is created on the stage, but without the unseen mechanics it would not exist.
            I have included two previous reviews  where, if the reader is enjoying ‘The Pigeon Tunnel’ they may also see that Dima in ‘Our Kind of Traitor’ is a much kinder portrayal than the Dima that Mr Le Carré actually met in Moscow, and diplomat Toby Bell from ‘A Delicate Truth’ has marked similarities to the author as a young man.
            What an absolute pleasure it was to read this book.  I am now waiting impatiently for Volume Two.  SIX STARS!!
           
A Delicate Truth, by John le Carré

Mr Le Carré, long the undisputed King of the Spy novel, has changed literary direction considerably since the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, instead aiming his expository arrows closer to home, his last novel ‘Our Kind of Traitor’
being a perfect example (see review below).  In ‘A Delicate Truth’, the Blair New Labour government and its infamous alliance with its American counterparts are mercilessly exposed in their relentless use of any method to achieve victory – and profits -  in the War on Terror.
WILDLIFE is the code name for a combined U.S./British Special Forces counter-terrorist operation to capture a notorious jihadist arms buyer at a secret location on Gibraltar.  There is also a mysterious private right-wing arms and security company involved:  ‘War’s gone corporate, Paul!’
Fergus Quinn, a Junior minister of the Crown fuelled more by ambition than good sense recruits a diplomatic ‘low-flyer’ (codenamed Paul) to be his token Man on the Spot, his Eyes and Ears as the top-secret (even from his own government!)  mission is carried out and – the ‘low-flyer’ expects – the wit to abort the operation if the situation warrants it.  Ah, in a perfect world …..!
Things go wrong.  After the collapse of radio and computer contact Paul is literally left in the dark on a Gibraltar hillside until his rescue and hurried evacuation back to England by a young woman constantly exhorting him that the operation was ‘a triumph, right?  No casualties.  We did a great job.  All of us.  You, too.  Right?’
And maybe that was true, because the low-flyer ends up with a knighthood and a very cushy diplomatic post to the Caribbean. 
Enter Toby Bell, aspiring Foreign Office employee and soon-to-be Private Secretary (read minder) to Junior minister Quinn just prior to the Gibraltar fiasco.  Toby has been recommended by his long-time friend and mentor Giles Oakley;  this is a plum job which could lead to even higher things and Toby is delighted by his good fortune, for his origins are humble, his educational distinction and linguistic qualifications gained through intelligence, hard work and scholarships and disguising ‘the brand marks of the English tongue’ – his Dorset burr – in favour of the ‘Middle English affected by those determined not to have their social origins defined for them.’
Yes, Toby has ambition but he also has morals: ‘ he wishes to make a difference, to take part in his country’s discovery of its true identity in a post-imperial, post Cold-War world’;  he is an ethical, decent man, and whilst he is not naïve, he is far from prepared for the corruption he is forced to confront, or its extent.  And this is the fulcrum upon which Mr Le Carré’s fine story turns:  will Toby fold under the pressure of bribes or threats, physical and otherwise, or will he follow the maxim ‘evil triumphs when good men do nothing,’ and act on it?
Yet again, Mr Le Carré has constructed with trademark elegance and style a novel of honourable men -  21st century anachronisms, their integrity derided and courage discounted -  but not content ‘to do nothing’.  And again, Mr Le Carré demonstrates effortlessly why he leads and others follow:  he still blows lesser writers right out of the water.  FIVE STARS.

Our Kind of Traitor, by John le Carré   

Dima is a Russian gangster, and proud of it.  He is also an expert money-launderer for the Russian Mafia and has amassed huge wealth for them, and for himself – but a new young ‘Prince’ is coming to the fore in the Mafia Hierarchy, and the Prince doesn’t like Dima;  Dima is too ‘Old-School’, he dwells too much on the old Vor code of Honour amongst thieves (and murderers) and after one last, biggest laundering operation – the opening of a new ‘respectable’ bank in the City of London – Dima and his family will be eliminated, as were several of his dear friends and colleagues already:  it’s time, thinks Dima, to defect with all his secrets and sell them to his preferred country of asylum, Great Britain. 
Yet again John Le Carré has crafted an impeccable story of secret service diplomacy, political corruption and life-and-death back-room dealings;  his characters are superb,  almost Dickensian in range and description and utterly, utterly believable.  Mr. Le Carré has the best eye and ear for accents and body language in the business, and his wit, interspersed even at times of great suspense in this beautifully plotted story, is delicious.  This is the master at his best: FIVE STARS


              

  

Sunday, 12 February 2017

FIRST GREAT READS FOR FEBRUARY, 2017

A Man Called Ove, by Fredrick Backman

            Ove is fifty-nine years old and a grump.  A curmudgeon (that quaint old term that describes so many muttering, dissatisfied old men to a T), and as far as he’s concerned he has a lot to be grumpy about – the state of today’s ‘modern’ Sweden, for instance:  don’t tell him it’s not going to the dogs:  why, absolutely everything these days is run by men in White Shirts, bureaucrats without an ounce of humanity in them except a love for their Rules and Regulations.  Overseas interests have taken over Swedish companies whose superior craftsmanship was always a source of quiet pride for all, and Ove in particular.  Take car manufacturer Saab for example:  Ove swore by Saabs all his adult life, changing models every two years – but only for another Saab.  Now the AMERICANS have taken over Saab (this occurred  thirteen years ago, actually) and Ove was so incensed that he has driven the same model ever since, the last of the Saabs to be proudly manufactured in Sweden.  It will last him till he dies.
            And Ove wants to die as soon as possible, for it is six months since his beloved wife Sonja’s death from cancer.  Everything they shared together is over;  nothing is important to him any more without her support – even his rants about Men in White Shirts were tempered by her loving tolerance.  His life is meaningless to him now, and he wants to end it.
            His first attempt at suicide by hanging is foiled by a rope that snaps (blankety-blank imported rubbish!) and a visit from his new neighbours, a young couple with two little girls and a third one on the way.  Patrick is an IT consultant, a confession which earns a glance of withering scorn from Ove, especially when Patrick shows his lamentable lack of skill at backing a trailer (Ove’s mailbox will never be the same again), and Parveneh is Iranian and too pregnant to devote time to anything else but her family – and once she realises Ove’s intentions, to preventing him from Doing the Deed.
            For Ove, despite his irascibility and scorn for all things foreign is a kind and honourable man, a man with an innate desire always to Do the Right Thing, a man who will always battle the White-Shirted Bureaucrats on behalf of those unable to do so themselves – in short, a rough diamond;  a friend and neighbour worth having.  Even a particularly mangy stray cat thinks so too, and moves into Ove’s life and home as though it were his right.
            So.  Ove has to capitulate.  Life has become too full of people needing his help to think of making an early exit from this world, and that is something that Ove has always been very good at:  helping.  Sonja would be thrilled.
            Fredrick Backman has written us a beautiful little story, gentle and funny and encompassing life-changing events which in their very ordinariness have a huge impact:  loneliness;  grief and loss;  inability to keep up with changing times and trends – all of which can be counterbalanced by community support, neighbourliness, friendship and familial love.  FIVE STARS

Conclave, by Robert Harris

  
          ‘Conclave.  From the Latin con clavis:  ‘with a key.’ ‘  and the term for the meeting of Cardinals, the Princes of the Catholic church gathered together to elect a new Pope.
            It is hard to imagine that such an event could provide the basis of a thriller, but Robert Harris has done just that:  his latest novel cannot be described any other way, for it is as suspenseful and shocking – particularly at the end, as it should be – as any thriller worthy of the name.
            Mr Harris sets his plot in Rome a few years hence:  the Holy Father has died of a heart attack and, after the pomp and magnificence of his funeral obsequies have been completed, it is time to convene all those eligible to select his successor.  Papal tradition must be observed at all times:  when the cardinals are locked in the Sistine Chapel to vote they do so in absolute secrecy;  their voting papers and any notes they make are burnt when they leave the chapel in the evening.  A Papal Election must to be seen to be utterly scrupulous and above reproach, one hundred and twenty of Catholicism’s finest advocates voting according to God’s wishes.
            Except that as the hours wear on, it becomes clear that there are men of ambition hiding behind piety and humility – Jacobo Lomeli, Dean of the College of Cardinals and Convenor of each increasingly tense meeting in the Sistine Chapel is appalled to discover that the whole process is just as riven with factions, innuendo and scandal as any secular election.  He is a good man – and an honest one as he admits that the late Holy Father would not accept his resignation from office ‘because we need managers’.  He feels slighted.  Surely his religious career of more than fifty years has elevated him into higher realms than a ‘manager’.  Nevertheless, he decides to make the best possible job of ‘managing’ the selection of the next Pope, but is not above allowing himself a cynical smirk as he reviews the front-running candidates: 
The current Camerlengo (Chamberlain) of the Holy See, Cardinal Joseph Tremblay, a French-Canadian very conscious of his film-star looks and perfectly coiffed silvery hair;  Cardinal Joshua Ayedemi, a mighty Nigerian with a powerful physique and a bass-baritone voice to match, and the African continent’s great hope to be the first black Pope, and Lomeli’s own personal preference, Cardinal Aldo Bellini, Secretary of State.  Lomeli prays fervently that the right man will be chosen for the huge task of leading the Church and more than a billion Catholics with courage and honesty, but as voting progresses and stalemates occur it becomes plain that God is not going to make the choice easy for the 118 cardinals.
            An added complication is the late arrival of a mysterious Filipino cardinal appointed secretly by the late Pope:  Cardinal Vincent Benitez, Archbishop of Baghdad is unknown to everyone, but his credentials are impeccable;  he has as much right to vote – and be considered for Pontiff – as every other man in the room.  It appears that the Late Holy Father is controlling events even beyond the grave, especially when Lomeli starts reluctantly investigating scandalous rumours connected to various candidates and is horrified at what he finds:  the love of God comes a poor second to the love of power.
            Mr Harris  propelled me at lightning speed through the twists and turns of his masterly plot;  the grandeur of St Peter’s, great bastion of Christendom has never been more eloquently portrayed and his characters are all too recognisable for the men they are, rather than the paragons they desire to be.  FIVE STARS    

I Am Pilgrim, by Terry Hayes

            Mr Hayes’s debut novel was first published in 2013, so you can consider this an oldie, easily accessible in our library – I heard about it from a dear friend who raced through it, and is still thinking about it weeks later.  Could any book have a higher recommendation:  word-of-mouth is still the best publicity.  My only regret is that someone didn’t word-of-mouth me aaaages ago;  I am feeling pretty ashamed of my ignorance up until now of this great thriller but – better late than never, so there!
            Mr Hayes has had a stellar career as a journalist and screenwriter;  now he has turned his hand to The Big One, that which every aspiring writer dreams of:  The Novel.  And what a mighty job he has done;  his story is huge in every way, upwards of 900 pages (you’ll have to have strong wrists!), mighty in scope and bursting with characters so colourful and some so deadly that readers will feel that they have been smacked around the ears on every page.  And, in light of events in today’s unhappy world, Mr Hayes’s plot is entirely topical.
            Scott Murdoch is a retired intelligence agent.  He is not a happy man;  his work (some of it necessarily violent and fatal to enemies of the U.S.A.) has burnt him out and he has settled in Paris in his attempts to bring normalcy to his life.  He is the adopted son of a very rich couple who have since died – his adoptive father loved him, but his ‘mum’ didn’t;  regardless, he can still live comfortably and pretend to be ordinary.  Until a New York Police Lieutenant finds out where he lives and pays him a visit – even though Scott has put up multi-firewalls of names and disguises in his efforts to remain anonymous, this man has FOUND HIM.
            And he has been found because a few years before, he wrote a book under a pseudonym (naturally) about criminal behaviour, the various crimes he had encountered, and how they had been solved.  Now, the police lieutenant informs him, it appears that his little book has been used as a textbook to aid in the execution of an insoluble murder.  Scott’s expertise is required back in New York.  ASAP.
            Meantime, a parallel life is being lived:  a teenage boy’s father, a marine biologist, is publically executed in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia for criticising the Royal family – a capital offence.  The boy and his family become outcasts and are forced to live in Bahrain, where they are not known.  The boy, now fifteen, is head of his family as is the Muslim way, and he is deeply shocked and furious when he discovers that his mother has taken a job, and no longer wears the veil.  His local mosque sends him off the Afghanistan to fight the Soviets;  his grief and fury solidify into a burning hatred for all things Western, especially as the Westerners prop up the corrupt Saudi Royals:  as the Saracen he will plot a fitting revenge against the Sauds;  he will exterminate them!  Until he meets a woman who tells him to concentrate on ‘The Far Enemy’, the United States, for they are the supporter of the Near Enemy, Saudi Arabia. 
            A terrible, ingenious plan is born – vengeance of the worst, the sweetest kind, and all sanctioned by Allah, Praised be His Name.

            The plot is predictable only in that it is inevitable that Scott and the Saracen must meet, but how Mr Hayes gets us there is a tribute to his great gift as a master storyteller:  at no time does the reader feel that the action overtakes realism and logic, for so much has happened in the world since this book was published (and there’s going to be a movie, too!) that Scott’s adventures seem not the stuff of legend, but hard, cold fact.  FIVE STARS.       

Sunday, 22 January 2017

MORE GREAT READS FOR JANUARY, 2017

Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett


           Assistant District Attorney Albert (called Bert) Cousins gatecrashes a christening party one Sunday in Los Angeles.  He hardly knows Fix Keating, the detective who is celebrating his baby Francie’s baptism, but he’d heard other police and colleagues discussing the upcoming Sunday festivities, so he decided to come too – even though he hadn’t been invited.
            For Albert Cousins cannot bear to go home;  his wife and he have had three children in very quick succession, and Teresa is now hugely pregnant with a fourth.  His reckless statement when courting Teresa that he would love to have kids – ‘lots of them!’ is now coming to grim fruition, and he finds that he would rather work himself into the ground than spend any more time than he has to in the chaos and mayhem created by small children.  And the gilt has definitely worn off the gingerbread for his poor wife, who might as well be a solo mother for all the assistance she gets from her absentee husband:  she would feel even more fury if she knew that instead of coming home he has secreted himself at a party to which he wasn’t even invited, just so that he can kill time until after the yelling, disgusting, slobbering wee ones are in bed.
            To add insult to painful injury, Bert meets Fix’s wife Beverly whipping up a storm of drinks in the kitchen.  He cannot believe that a perfectly ordinary looking guy like Fix (short for Frances Xavier) could be wed to such a beautiful woman.  HE should be her knight;  her champion;  her lover.  Beverly thinks so too, and both embark on an affair that breaks up both families, and the hearts of all.
            They eventually marry, but not for keeps – spitefully, Bert makes life as hard as possible for Teresa (he is a legal eagle, after all), tying up their finances in drawn-out, complicated exchanges – then, when he is successful in having his four children stay with him for the entire summer vacation, palms them off onto his new bride.  Beverly didn’t bargain for a job as nanny to six children, all of whom have ‘issues’ caused by the divorces.  Both her daughters live with her – again, clever legal representation – and Fix is only allowed to see his daughters for two weeks in the summer break.  In her mind, this is entirely fair.  But four extra kids?  And such weird ones?  And where is their father, when he should be on deck being a strong, firm role model?  Hiding in his office, pretending to work;  repeating the behaviour that wrecked his first marriage.  Divorce # two coming up.
            Ms Patchett’s Dramedy of family life is one that every family can recognise, especially for those with new Stepsiblings they are supposed to blend seamlessly with so that they are all One Big Happy Family – which is what the new Stepmums and Stepdads always hope for but seldom occurs, as is proven by Frannie, whose christening party it was twenty-four years ago. 
            In the first flush of a wonderful love affair with a famous novelist, she recounts to him her summer vacations with her stepsiblings, their secrets and their faults and their view of their respective parents’ ill-starred union, never dreaming that her lover would weave her family’s travails into a best-seller, with future movie rights up for grabs.  The ructions caused by her indiscretion reverberate throughout the family.  Their lives – and loyalties - will never be the same again.
            Ms Patchett effortlessly demonstrates yet again her superior gift to transform what she sees and feels into a chronicle of lives wasted, lost – and celebrated.  What a pleasure she is to read.  FIVE STARS

Those Who Leave, and Those Who Stay, and
The Story of the Lost Child, by Elena Ferrante, Books four and five
Of The Neopolitan Novels.


            Elena Ferrante is justly famous for her quartet of novels recounting the lifelong friendship of two girls born in Naples in the same month of the same year, August 1944:  Raffaella (Lila) Cerullo and Elena (Lenu) Greco have travelled far from the violence and mean streets of their childhood – though Lila, whose mighty intelligence and beauty could have endowed her with a future of her choice, elects to stay in the neighbourhood, despite the breakup of her marriage and the end of her affair with Nino Sarratore, Elena’s great, unrequited love. 

           The neighbourhood is still controlled by the Solara brothers;  they now have fingers in many financial pies, and those who cross them or those who cannot pay the exorbitant cost of the ‘protection’ of being friends with them are soon ruined, financially, physically and spiritually:  the Solaras are very thorough.  And they are both obsessed with Lila, because she is the only person who has never been afraid of them;  her cheerful contempt is a constant thorn in their side and sooner or later they will find the means to bring her to heel – where she should be.  Elena, by contrast, decides that the only way she can have a happy life is to leave Naples, that city of the raucous working-class, academic Brahmins playing at being socialists and the sham modernism of its gimcrack architecture:  for her own survival she must find another life elsewhere – when all is said and done, there is nothing to keep her in Naples anyway:  she is at constant loggerheads with her family, who are proud of her educational achievements on one hand, and simultaneously contemptuous of her on the other, for not contributing any money to the family coffers.  And there is no chance of her great love for Nino Sarratore being returned;  in fact no-one seems to know where he is.  So!
            Yes, it is time to go and Elena is fortunate to gain a scholarship to a university in Pisa:  for the first time in her life, she is exposed on a semi-permanent basis to a completely different lifestyle;  different accents, manners, fashions and ways of learning.  The southern bumpkin has to transform herself as quickly as possible, or become an object of fun to her more sophisticated class mates.  Desperation to fit in, and her own academic excellence pave the way for a new Elena, one who discovers politics and socialism in particular, thanks to her new boyfriend Franco:  it is the late 60’s and the time of student unrest, particularly in Paris – she and Franco even travel to Paris (her first time out of Italy – could this really be happening to Elena Greco from the neighbourhood?).  Life’s boundaries have suddenly disappeared, and Elena cannot believe the intellectual, social – and sexual freedom that now exists.  And she begins work on her first novel.
            By this time, Franco is a figure from the past;  he failed his exams and after sporadic correspondence disappeared who knows where;  Elena is now seeing Pietro Airota, a young professor with a glowing future.  His mother is very encouraging of her work and through her many contacts arranges to have it published, much to Elena’s joy – and apprehension, for the story is about a secret, something she did entirely for revenge and self-disgust, and wrote originally as a cathartic exercise.  In the way of these things, her little book takes on a life of its own.  It becomes a success.
            And her marriage to Pietro is not.  After the birth of two daughters, the daily grind of domesticity and looking after a man whose head is always somewhere else, plus the absolute lack of enough inspiration to start another book means that Elena is more than ready for another titanic change in her circumstances.

           Nino Sarratore reappears.
            Suddenly, Elena is assailed – pursued by her god, he who had never shown any romantic or sexual interest in her before now finds her irresistible.
Nino has also advanced his own academic career prospects by marrying into a wealthy and influential Neopolitan family but, afire with his huge passion for Elena, swears to leave his wife (‘I never loved her!’) and child – if only Elena will join him in Naples – what a life they will have, together at last, always.
            It takes some time for Elena to realise that her idol has feet of clay:  after persuading her to burn all her boats and end her marriage to move south to join him she is deeply hurt to find that he is not prepared to jettison his own ties to his wife;  instead he maintains two households – well, why not when he has access to so much money?  And though he acknowledges paternity of a daughter born to them, he still refuses to make any permanent commitment.
            Lila adds insult to injury by disclosing that he has made advances to her as well, and other old friends from the neighbourhood report instances of his casual, almost daily betrayals:  finally, Elena must make the break and stand or fall on her own – and, once again, Lila and her companion Enzo come to the rescue.   The apartment above theirs in the neighbourhood is vacant.  Why not move in?
            Why indeed.  Elena is back where she started, in the mean streets of her childhood, there to hate herself for subjecting her daughters to a reduced standard of living in a low-class area, yet simultaneously revelling in the loyalty and affection of her dearest friends.  Lila and Enzo have discovered gold in computers (it’s the 80’s) and have started their own company;  they are even computerising the files of the Solaras – a task more fraught with danger than they realise, especially when Lila still won’t show them the proper respect.
            It is only a matter of time before the Solaras take their revenge with an act so terrible that it destroys lives, friendships, and the neighbourhood:  everything that defined Lila, Elena and their loved ones as good and inviolate has been shattered like breaking glass .  Their old lives have gone;  it is up to them as to what they will make of the future.  Elena manages and gains more success as a writer;  Lila is not so fortunate;  she rejects everyone and becomes angry and reclusive.  All friendships are over and Elena eventually leaves the neighbourhood for the last time, but not before witnessing the just and terrible retribution wrought on the Solara brothers.

            Yes:  the old adage ‘Revenge is a dish that people can eat cold’ was never more amply demonstrated.  Ms Ferrante has created a master work.  Her stark prose has the same effect as a fist in our faces.  She richly deserves all the praise heaped upon her.   FIVE STARS