Saturday, 8 July 2017

FIRST GREAT READS FOR JULY, 2017

A Game of Ghosts, by John Connolly


         Charlie Parker’s back!  But I have to say that his battles against evil with his redoubtable friends Louis and Angel are proceeding at a very pedestrian pace in this particular episode:  Charlie is still pursuing his usual ghostly enemies, but for this story at least, they are a pretty tame lot, murderous though they may be. They are descendants of the Capstead Martyrs, an 1850’s sect who made a pact with the terrible Angel Belial that, if they kept on killing (i.e. blood sacrifices) they would never have to answer for their crimes in the next world - which is so terrifying that if we mere mortals had any inkling of its existence we would try to stay alive forever!
            Be that as it may.  Charlie is instructed by laconic FBI Agent Edgar Ross, his sometime employer, to search for private investigator Jaykob Eklund who has not contacted Ross for two weeks.  Eklund was on the trail of the Capstead descendants;  he also had evidence of ghostly presences connected to them, a theory the hard-bitten Ross dismisses:  from previous experience however, Charlie knows differently.
            As is the norm in a Charlie Parker book (see reviews below), there are a treasure trove of minor characters, all beautifully drawn and some completely unforgettable, like The Collector, a murderous avenger who collects a souvenir from each of his victims;  (we say farewell to him in this volume, and I stress again:  you really need to read the previous stories) and Mother, widow of a shadowy super gangster, who is determined to wind up all his criminal enterprises – to the dismay and fury of her son Philip, who has the ambition but not the skill to continue operations.  Compared to them, not to mention that mismatched pair of killers, Angel and Louis, the Capstead descendants are third rate, and their eventual come-uppance hardly raised an eyebrow, let alone my heart-rate.
            Fortunately, Charlie Parker’s daughters alive and dead, provided more goose pimples:  Sam the living daughter, has daily conversations with her dead sister Jennifer;  they have appointed themselves guardians of Charlie and Co. and have developed formidable powers between them in an effort to keep their father safe, as Sam’s mother Rachel discovers when she decides to place restrictions on Sam’s access to Charlie:  everything hits the fan, and Rachel is persuaded to change her mind by the reactions of her living daughter – and the dead one.
            So.  Still plenty of reasons to look forward to the next book, but I hope that Mr Connolly, that master of supernatural suspense, is back on song next time – in this book, all the I’s are dotted and T’s crossed;  answers are given to outstanding plot questions, but in such a perfunctory manner that the reader could be forgiven for thinking that Mr Connolly rushed to finish everything off so that he could indulge himself in something more interesting.  FOUR STARS      

A Time of Torment, by John Connolly

The State of West Virginia hides a reclusive sect within one of the smallest counties within its bounds, Plassey County.  Everyone in the adjoining villages surrounding The Cut, as it is known, are careful not to recognise – or God forbid – antagonise the Cut dwellers;  it is common knowledge that bad things happen to them if they do.  People disappear, and if they don’t, their bodies are found burnt and desecrated.  The people of the Cut keep to themselves, and their neighbours are happy to leave them alone.  It is rumoured that their small sect worships an alien God, a God of blood and retribution, a God that no normal Christian could countenance:  the Dead King.
Enter private investigator Charlie Parker, no stranger to battling the forces of evil, and recently terribly injured in his efforts to vanquish his enemies.  He comes to Plassey County to find his client, a man just released from prison after serving a trumped-up sentence for child molestation.  His only request of Charlie is to look into the disappearance of two women who were dear to him while he was inside;  women who didn’t believe that he was guilty of the heinous crimes of which he was accused.  He also tells Charlie that if he disappears, then he has been kidnapped, probably by The Cut, and his life will be over.  Charlie and his two murderous sidekicks Louis and Angel, are ready as always to ferret out the truth and find out where the bodies are hidden, not to mention adding a few corpses of their own to the growing pile.
Last, but certainly never least, Charlie’s two daughters, one living and one dead watch over him with varying degrees of anxiety – at least on the part of Jennifer, the little daughter murdered many years before.  (You really DO have to read these books from the beginning!)  Samantha, daughter # 2, seems to have more confidence in her father’s ability to successfully fight the Dead King;  she has quite exceptional powers of her own, which have yet to be tested.
John Connolly has always described his Charlie Parker tales as ‘odd little books’:  maybe they are for some but for legions of his fans around the world, odd is good!  (see 2014 review below)  His characters are always, without exception, well-drawn and credible and each story is wonderfully plotted with just the right mix of horror and humour – and always, ALWAYS beautifully written.  It won’t be a spoiler to say that the people of The Cut are eventually defeated, but horror and dread is still just around the next corner for Charlie and his mighty friends.  FIVE STARS.


A Song of Shadows, by John Connolly

In ‘The Wolf in Winter’, John Connolly’s last opus an attempt was made on the life of Charlie Parker, dark hero of most of Mr Connolly’s books.  He was grievously wounded, but with a choice he made whilst hovering between life and death, and the spiritual support (literally) of his murdered daughter (it pays to have read the preceding books), Charlie decides to give life one more chance.  With the devoted assistance of Louis and Angel, hired killers par excellence he rents a house in a little village on the Maine coast, there to try to regain his former strength and dexterity.
It is a long, painful road back to recovery.  Charlie is not used to the weakness and agony his many injuries cause him but he is determined to get better:  he made the decision to live, now that is exactly what he plans to do.
He is delighted to have a visit from his daughter Samantha, his child by his ex-lover Rachel, and it gives him pleasure to have found a playmate for her;  his beach side neighbour, Ruth Winter has a little girl Amanda who, despite health problems that keep her away from school a lot, welcomes Sam’s company:  from a social perspective life is good.
Until a body is found on a nearby beach, and it is eventually established that it wasn’t a drowning or a suicide, but murder;  at the same time a family has been found murdered in their burning house and the Maine police are swamped with crimes for which they are badly under-resourced.  Tragically, these crimes pale into insignificance when Ruth Winter is cruelly murdered on the night of Sam and Amanda’s playdate, but the most uncanny event for Charlie Parker is that his daughter wakes him to tell him that a man is trying to enter Ms Winter’s home.  How could she know?
Charlie is injured trying to apprehend the murderer on the dunes and it seems that finally his own life is about to end – until Sam (who was under strict instructions to stay in her bedroom) appears at his side to confront the killer – who succumbs to burial under a massive fall of sand, an occurrence that hasn’t happened for decades at that part of the beach .To say that Sam is no ordinary little girl is an understatement.
It is time for Charlie, with the assistance of Louis and Angel, to return to what he is best at:  investigating murder and stamping out evil – if he can, and the deeper he delves into Ruth’s killing, unspeakable old crimes and pure evil finally reveal themselves, for Ruth, a Jew, was killed so that she would not disclose anything she may have inadverdently learned about old Nazis:  Nazi war criminals who entered the United States from Argentina under assumed identities, several of whom settled in Maine.  None wish to be exposed and sent back to Germany, and they will go to any lengths, including multiple murders, to stay where they are.
Charlie Parker is a different person now, after his close brush with death.  There is an implacability, a hardness and resolve about him that cause his loyal friends much disquiet but they are determined – as always – to support him to the hilt in his efforts to purge evil.  Charlie is unfazed by the fact that the battle may be uneven;  what nearly stops his heart is the knowledge that his daughter Sam is just as committed as he to stamp out the enemies of the world, and he is fully aware that she is in just as much danger.
As always, Mr Connolly leaves his readers in terrible suspense right to the last page -  which only poses more questions and enables this beautifully written series to continue.  What a master he is, and what a pleasure it is to read a Charlie Parker book.  FIVE STARS

Don’t Let Go, by Michel Bussi

          French Author Michel Bussi (according to the book blurbs) is the second highest-selling author in France, but it is only recently that his novels been translated into English starting with the superb thriller ‘After the Crash’ (see ecstatic 2015 review below), and followed by ‘Black Water Lilies’ – such a disappointment to me that I did not waste my time writing a review for such a mediocre offering;  after limping to the end of it I decided reluctantly that Mr Bussi was a One Hit Wonder -   until now.
            When ‘Don’t Let Go’ became available, the memory of ‘After the Crash’ convinced me to give Mr Bussi another try, and while his latest work is still below the very high bar he set for himself originally, it’s still a classy, highly readable thriller, proving that when he’s not distracted from his day job (a Professor of Geography:  where does he find the time!) he can write suspense novels par excellence.
            The Mascarene Island of Réunion is a French possession in the Indian Ocean and prides itself on being the perfect tourist destination;  it has everything required for R & R – perfect weather and beaches, palm trees, five-star accommodation, an oversupply of bars and night clubs – and a wondrous, frightening number of active volcanoes.  No matter if the local population lives in varying degrees of minimum-wage poverty and squalor;  tourism is the premier industry  and those with Euros to spend must be kept ignorant of poverty, squalor – and the crime that accompanies it - at all costs.
            Therefore, it comes as an enormous shock to the local police force when the beautiful wife of a tourist couple goes missing from the top-class hotel in which they were staying.  She left behind her husband and six year old daughter, saying she was going to change after her swim;  then she was not seen again.  She was reported missing by her distraught husband, but subsequent enquiries reveal that he had also gone back to their room, and was eventually seen by several hotel employees wheeling a laundry cart downstairs and outside to his rental car:  rumours rebound from one end of the island to the other:  tourist Martial Bellion has killed his wife Liane after a domestic (lots of locals could identify with that) and tried to shield himself by reporting her missing, BUT.  Now he has disappeared, too, along with his little daughter Josapha.  A manhunt is launched – this man is dangerous, a killer, for two more murders are discovered in the course of the police search.  All the evidence, circumstantial though it may be, fits:  Martial is a crazed murderer and his little daughter will probably be next, if she hasn’t been despatched already.
            Mr Bussi writes very convincingly and well of island life and politics;  he is a good researcher and brings to life in his no-nonsense prose the various levels of strata in the lives of the haves and have-nots.  And it eventually comes as no surprise to find that handsome tourist Martial has several shameful secrets, secrets that don’t show up well in the light of day:  is he as guilty as the police think?  And if not, then who is?
            I am happy to say that I didn’t know Whodunit until Mr Bussi chose to let me.  He is definitely back on song with ‘Don’t Let Go’;  his characters are always engaging, especially the local police chief and her Second-in-Command and, apart from an unnecessary touch of melodrama when the real killer is revealed, he has done much to restore the respect I lost for him after staggering through ‘Black Water Lilies.’  FOUR STARS 
              
After the Crash, by Michel Bussi

On December 23rd, 1980, an Airbus 5403 flying from Istanbul to Paris crashes during a terrible storm in the Jura mountains bordering Switzerland and France.  All are killed, except for a three-month-old girl, found half-frozen in the snow but otherwise unharmed – a miracle baby, a child who survived impossible odds, and the precious darling of her surviving family in France.
            But which family?
            According to the passenger list, two baby girls were travelling with their parents;  Lyse-Rose, 3 month old daughter of the son of a fabulously rich family, the de Carvilles, returning from running subsidiaries of the family business in Turkey, and Emilie, a baby of the same age whose parents, Pascal and Stephanie Vitral had been given a trip to Turkey by Pascal’s parents who had won it themselves but couldn’t make the trip;  instead they looked after Marc, Emilie’s elder brother aged two, so that his parents could have a lovely holiday.
            The Vitral grandparents are unashamedly working class people who make ends meet by running a food van in Dieppe and the surrounding area.  They are salt-of-the-earth good citizens with sound principles – and a strong conviction that the surviving miracle baby is their granddaughter, and they are willing to fight to the end of their slim resources to prove it.  Léonce de Carville, grandfather of Lyse-Rose, is also as convinced that the little girl belongs to his family, the difference being that he has enormous wealth and power at his disposal, not to mention the services of Crédule Grand-Duc, a private detective in his employ charged with investigating fully the origins of the surviving child, and establishing beyond doubt that she is a de Carville –  for Léonce is so used to controlling the lives and fates of others that he cannot bear to have uncertainties in his own life, let alone lose a fight.
            So begins one of the most compulsive page-turners I have read this year.  French author Mr Bussi gathers up readers and flings them forward on a truly thrilling, mysterious ride spanning eighteen years, and not once (and I’m usually very good at figuring out whodunit well before the book’s end) was I able to see who resorted to murder, and why:  each chapter was never what it seemed.

            Mr Bussi’s style is competent and workmanlike;  no pretty word pictures here except for the character of Lyse-Rose’s emotionally damaged elder sister Malvina:  his prose turns purple and melodramatic to the point of turning her into a Witchy-poo from a fairy tale, but this does little to detract from the overall impact of this high-octane thriller.  I hope he is hard at work on another one.  SIX STARS!!

Sunday, 25 June 2017

LAST GREAT READS FOR JUNE, 2017

The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas                 Young Adults


Starr Carter is at a party in the ‘Hood.  She is not supposed to be there ;  her brother Seven would get her into serious trouble with their parents if he knew, but she’s there to be cool (she hopes) with his sister Kenya (no relation to Starr – it’s complicated!), the daughter of the Hood’s Supremo Drug Dealer and local gang leader.  She used to go to Grade School with all the kids at this party, but her parents, store-owner Big Mav and community nurse Lisa have decided that their children will no longer attend any schools in the ghetto;  instead Seven and Starr attend a white high school interested in expanding its ethnic diversity – which is fine, except that it’s a long drive every day, and when she arrives, she’s never comfortable about which Starr she should  be:  the token, sassy black girl who speaks properly – and has a cool white boyfriend in the same class (yep, it’s true!), or the Girlfriend who think her ass too good to come to a party with her sistahs.
              
            So.  Here she is, minus the white boyfriend, naturally.  Everyone ignores her, until she sees her childhood friend, Khalil, seventeen now and wearing some VERY expensive gear.  Diamond studs in the ears, too.  Starr’s happiness at seeing him after several months is spoiled by worrying where he got the money for these things.  It’s a well-known fact that his mother is a crackhead and his grandmother with whom he lives has cancer and has been sacked from her job – at a hospital! – because she is too ill to work.  There can be only one answer:  Khalil is selling drugs for King, Kenya’s father.  But when fronted about it Khalil tells Starr to butt out – he OK!  The situation is not improved when the party turns into the exact reason why her family would never knowingly allow her to go there:  shots are fired and everyone hits the floor – it’s time to go!
          Khalil offers Starr a ride home, which is great;  she might even get in the door without anyone knowing where she went!  Instead, the worst happens, and her life is changed forever.
            A white police officer stops them as they drive through one of the worst parts of the Hood;  Khalil supposedly has a broken tail-light.  Starr is terrified.  She remembers the instructions her Daddy has given them all:  show your hands at all times;  don’t make any sudden moves;  be polite – directions that Khalil should know but is not following.  Ordered out of the car, he attempts to lean back in to ask Starr if she is OK – and is shot to death by Officer 115.
            That number will be engraved on Starr’s consciousness for a lifetime.  This is the second time she has lost a loving childhood friend to murder;  her friend Natasha was killed in a drive-by shooting when they were 10.  Now Khalil has met the same fate.  Black Jesus, where are You?
            This wonderful book should be read by ALL adults, not only the young.  This is Angie Thomas’s first novel, a fact I find hard to believe, for it is written with a maturity and assurance that more experienced writers can only dream of.  She explores through Starr’s narration of events the endless connotations of a single cowardly act and the repercussions that ripple outwards from the decisions, right or wrong, that people make to stand against abuse, racism and tyranny of every stripe. 
            The novel’s title is taken from a Tupac Shakur Album that Khalil loved:  T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E.  The Hate U Give Little Infants F---s Everybody.  And that’s the truth.  This book is totally badass, cool and dope.  SIX STARS!!! 

  
The Thirst, by Jo Nesbo
           

           It shames me to admit that I have never read one of Mr Nesbo’s thrillers featuring flawed but brilliant detective Harry Hole – there are so many of them that I thought I would concentrate instead on his stand-alone novels.  Which exceeded expectations brilliantly (see 2014 review below), however ‘The Thirst’ provided me with so much information about established characters and their backstories that I felt quite up with the play.
            Harry Hole suffers from all the fictional detective’s usual demons:  alcoholism, nightmares, ghosts of murder victims from previous cases who visit to torment him – but he is currently ‘dry’ and a loving husband to Rakel and thrilled that his stepson Oleg is a student at Police College where Harry now lectures.  Life is as good as it is going to get.  Until two grisly murders take place within days, shattering the calm, not just of Harry’s world, but of the entire city of Oslo, for both women had met their assailant through the Tinder website, and both women had been drained of blood through terrible wounds to their throats – caused by a set of iron teeth.  And there are no clues.
            Police Chief Mikael Bellman wants this monster caught as quickly as possible;  he has political ambitions and a speedy resolution will cement his reputation as a fearless and effective future Minister of Justice, not to mention silencing the yammer of the tabloid press: yes,  even though Bellman hates Harry Hole, Hole and his rat trap memory and vastly analytical mind is the best man for the job – but has to be blackmailed to do it.  Harry doesn’t want to be plunged into the maelstrom again, but when his family is threatened he has no choice.
            Back in the saddle once more:  back to sleepless nights for everyone, consultations with behavioural psychologists and various other experts and all that is initially learned is that the killer is a ‘Vampirist’, a murderer who loves drinking blood.  And the Vampirist keeps on killing.  Oslo is in an uproar and Harry’s life plunges further into chaos when his beloved Rakel is struck down by a mystery illness which puts her into a coma. 
            Jo Nesbo drags the reader kicking and screaming through every blood-drenched chapter;  he is merciless in his portrayal of human depravity and because he is such an excellent writer we are must tolerate all the gory details, BUT!  To dilute all the violence, there is a fine vein of comedy introduced whenever Mr Nesbo judges that the reader needs some light relief.  And about time, too, I say!  My nerves were in shreds.  I have to say that I never guessed the identity of the killer, for Mr Nesbo is adept in casting Red Herrings throughout his plot;  I headed off entirely in the wrong direction – as I was meant to do.
            Sadly, the only criticism I have is quite a big one:  when the killer is finally revealed he is (naturally) the last person anyone (except Harry Hole) would suspect – BUT!  (Yet another one) – said killer takes Harry hostage, forcing him on a long car trip across the city, all the while revealing  his reasons for his almost-perfect crime rampage with such hysterical glee that I expected him at any moment to start twirling his moustaches or, when justice finally triumphed,  shout ‘curses, foiled again!’ 
            Still, Harry survives – just – to battle his own demons and everyone else’s in the next book, for this particular episode is not over:  not every villain has been caught.  I just hope that the plotting will be more plausible and less farcical next time.  FOUR STARS

Blood on Snow, by Jo Nesbo

Olav Johansen is dyslexic.  He has had trouble reading all his life, but it hasn’t stopped him trying.  His memory for what he so painstakingly absorbs is razor-sharp, as he reveals in his first-person narrative – except that he is self-deprecating whenever he shares with the reader a little morsel of his vast knowledge on myriad subjects – ‘but what do I know?’  He is also a romantic, and inclined to donate money anonymously to down-and-outers;  he falls in love with fallen women – and he is also a hit man, a ‘fixer’ for one of Oslo’s bigtime gangsters.
 He sees nothing incongruous in his coldblooded dispatching of whoever his boss tells him to remove, and the soft side of his nature which exhorts him to care for the exploited prostitutes his boss employs, particularly Maria, a deaf-mute with a limp:  he still can’t understand why Maria works as a prostitute, until he finds out that she is paying off her junkie boyfriend’s drug debt.
Olav’s life is fairly predictable, and he doesn’t expect it to change in any dramatic way – until his boss tells him that his next ‘assignment’ is to remove the boss’s faithless wife.  Olav feels a sense of awful forboding with regard to this new task, especially when he stakes out the rich apartment in which Mrs Boss spends her ineffectual days and learns that she has a young man who visits her every day at the same time to beat and rape her.  True to form, Olav’s warped sense of chivalry rears its mutant head and he decides to rescue Mrs Boss – and ‘fix’ her tormentor.
And that is just the start of Olav’s life-threatening problems.  Life goes pear-shaped and remains so, despite his best attempts to resolve his situation so that he may be the White Knight for Mrs Boss.  Maria has been entirely forgotten and while many people will die because of his actions,  he will learn yet again that the people he most trusts are capable of the worst betrayal.
Once again, Jo Nesbo has created an anti-hero that every reader backs to the hilt.  As always Mr Nesbo makes each sentence do the work of ten, giving this story a huge impact in relation to its size, and the bloody imagery of the title is never more appropriate than in the final pages.  FIVE STARS     
           
             
             


Wednesday, 14 June 2017

MORE GREAT READS FOR JUNE, 2017

Moonglow, by Michael Chabon


           Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon has written what he officially describes as a memoir of his childhood and youth with the three most important people in it:  his mother and her parents, each vastly different in outlook and personality, but each equally beloved despite the life-changing mistakes and missteps made throughout their lives together and the misfortune that strikes when they are not looking (and even when they are!).  In fact, there is so much travail in their lives that they wonder why God can’t leave these particular Jews alone for a change and go off to bother someone else?  As if.
              Mr Chabon mysteriously never names his mother and her family, but does mention his grandfather’s brother by name – uncle Reynard, a character who could carry the story by himself, initially the darling of his family and showing brilliant religious promise by becoming a dashing and eligible young Rabbi at the local Synagogue – until he experiences a huge crisis of faith (he says) and pursues the alternate life of a pool shark and all-round shady character.  What a transformation!  But he is instrumental in arranging the meeting at a social night in the Synagogue between his reluctant brother, just back from the war traumatised and unemployed, and a beautiful and exotic refugee with a French accent, a little daughter (Mr Chabon’s future mother),  yet to be revealed mental problems, and a set of numbers tattooed on her left arm.
            Married life is difficult from the start:  the new bride is constantly beset by terrible war-induced fears and hallucinations requiring costly hospital treatment and necessitating in the author’s mother living a gypsy existence among relatives (she even stays with Uncle Ray!) as her stepfather tries to keep working and provide a home for her;  those days are grim indeed, but recounted with wondrous skill, humour and verve.  There are random flashbacks to the Grandfather’s war in Germany ‘cleaning up’ with the Army Engineers and experiencing the true horrors of Nazi brutality as the American troops reach Nordhausen and its huge slave factories, birthplace of the V2 rockets, those exquisitely designed missiles which should have been aiming at the stars, instead turned into weapons of death by their inventor, Wernher von Braun.
            It is of lasting shame to the grandfather that he could not pursue and ‘remove’ Von Braun before the scientist decided which of his enemies to surrender to, eventually giving himself up to the USA, a much better choice than Russia: it is an enemy that allowed him to exercise his genius on the American Space Program, creating the Saturn V rocket and the means by which Old Glory was proudly raised on the moon – propelled there by ‘a ladder of bones’, for Von Braun’s Nazi past is mysteriously forgotten, expunged completely from the record as America celebrated Neil Armstrong’s first footsteps on Earth’s nearest neighbour.  And, when the world was watching the TV coverage with bated breath, Michael Chabon’s grandfather left the room:  he could not watch this unbelievable milestone in human achievement knowing that it was engineered by an unrepentant Nazi who climbed ‘the ladder of bones’.
            Mr Chabon states that memories, places, names, motivations, interrelationships of family members and dates have all been ‘taken with due abandon’, which throws the reader:  are we reading a wonderful collection of memories or a novel, or both?  Who cares?  This is a loving family tribute, a grand homage paid to a patriarch worthy of the name, and Mr Chabon’s hero, as he should be to all who read this beautiful book.  SIX STARS!!!

The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat, by Edward Kelsey Moore

          This is not a recent novel;  it was published in 2013, but it is new to our library – and all I can say is:  BETTER LATE THAN NEVER!
            This little story could be called a heart-warmer, but that hoary old cliche doesn’t do it sufficient justice, for the characters and events are portrayed so lovingly and well that they don’t deserve to be consigned to a genre, for the Supremes and their friends and family are a force of nature, bowling over the unsuspecting reader with the sheer gusto of their zest for life.
            First, we have Big Earl, owner of the All-You-Can-Eat Diner and his wife Miss Thelma, two mighty pillars of black society in the small Indiana town of Plainsview.  Their rock-solid and silent support has helped many a needy person on the path to future stability:  those that can’t or won’t be helped still know that Big Earl and Miss Thelma will never give up on them regardless, which in itself is an enormous source of comfort.
            The Supremes are next, called that because the trio have been together since Grade School;  now they are in their fifties and two of them are grandmothers.  They have endured heartbreak, infidelity and despair but their friendship, their sisterhood is as strong as ever.  Odette, the most fearless of the three (and the fattest;  she loves the All-You-Can-Eat for obvious reasons) has had reason lately to worry:  she has not been feeling great and puts it down to The Change, but more concerning are the conversations she has been having with her sassy and irreverent old mama lately, who has taken to visiting any old time of the day and offering up her five cents worth whether Odette wants it or not.  The big problem with these visitations is that that’s what they are:  visitations.  Odette’s mama has been dead for six years.
            Supreme # Two Clarice showed great promise as a classical pianist when she was a girl, but love in the form of the local football hero got in the way;  marriage and children followed – not that Clarice minded exchanging her musical dreams for family and becoming the local piano teacher instead,  but she minds very much being wed to a serial cheater.  Something will have to give, and it won’t be her!
            Barbara Jean is the beauty of the three, also the most disadvantaged by having an alcoholic mother who died at a very young age.  Fortunately, after a series of horrible experiences, Barbara Jean is taken in by Big Earl and Miss Thelma:  stability at last!  Until she meets another of Big Earl’s waifs and strays, Ray Carlson, a young white boy who has been beaten and brutalised by his racist brother, his only relative.  He works as a busboy for Earl and lives in the storage shed. Everyone is intrigued (but not surprised) that Earl has given him shelter, for that is what Big Earl does.  The Supremes – like all his customers – are fascinated by Ray, not least because he is so handsome and it doesn’t take them long to come up with the right name for him:  The King of the Pretty White Boys.  And Barbara Jean and The King of the Pretty White Boys eventually fall in love, setting the scene for heartbreak, for Indiana in the 60’s is not the place for interracial love.  
            How the Supremes and  their friends and family (not to mention the ghosts!) deal with the thunderbolts that God, ‘that Great Comedian’ sends them during their lives is beautifully recounted by Mr Morgan;  throughout his lovely story the twisted thread of racism, subtle or overt is always present but never triumphs - and the very best thing?  Mr Morgan has written a sequel, ‘The Supremes Sing the Happy Heartache Blues’.  Lead me to it!  FIVE STARS.
           
    
           
             
                
             

  

Sunday, 28 May 2017

LAST GREAT READS FOR MAY, 2017

Red Sister, by Mark Lawrence

          
Well.  Mark Lawrence has done it again:  sucked me into his latest fantasy adventure from the first page – effortlessly, his story-telling skills buffed and polished from his first two trilogies, ‘The Broken Empire’ and ‘The Red Queen’s War’.  And so he should!  I would expect nothing less from the creator of murderous anti-hero Prince of Thorns Honorous Jorg Ancrath, (see 2012 review below) or his opposite number Prince of Fools Jalan Kendeth, (see 2014 review below) known chiefly for his good looks, shameless behaviour, and ability to hide or run like the wind at the first sign of danger.
            Now, Mr Lawrence introduces us to the Red Sister, the first book in The Ancestor trilogy.  Once again he has created a character as huge in spirit and soul as she is small and malnourished, for Nona, called Grey for the part of the narrow land from which she was sold to a Child-Taker, has unique powers, powers she is too young to understand or harness. All she knows is a world that is gradually being consumed by mile-high walls of encroaching ice, for the sun has died and all humankind has now to nurture life on the planet is an artificially developed Focus Moon.  Every night it casts its square (yes, square!) red warmth over the landscape and melts what the ice has claimed.
            There are still towns and cities, rich and poor, and Nona is dirt-scrabble poor.  She cannot understand why her mother and the head man of the village sold her – no, GAVE HER AWAY, so that she eventually ends up being sold to a Fight Master, who fattens her up with a view to training her to fight for money.  Her life is tolerable – the food is more than she has ever seen in her life! – and Nona actually makes a friend, a little girl called Saida:  perhaps she will survive after all.  Until an act of sadism towards her only friend causes Nona to wreak a terrible vengeance against the guilty one, the eldest son of one of the richest aristocratic families:  she and Saida are thrown into prison, ready to be hanged.
            It goes without saying that poor little Saida is sacrificed to the rope (and the plot);  Nona’s rescuer in the nick of time is Abbess Glass of Sweet Mercy convent:  by fair means (and foul) she manages to bring Nona within the shelter of her convent’s fortress walls, there to harness and train for good the propensity to violence and murder that rage can provoke within Nona’s skinny frame – and to discover eventually that Nona has no need of weapons with which to kill:  her hands and her anger are the only weapons she needs to vanquish whole armies, if need be.  WOW!!
            And again, Mr Lawrence teases us with his rocket science theories (well, he knows what he’s talking about) by intimating, despite the settings of medieval pomp and pageantry - not to mention squalor – that the world being overtaken by an inexorable Ice Age is not the original planet that existed;  rather, it was the destination of everyone’s forebears who travelled through the heavens in great ships, looking for a world that still had a bright sun.
            As always, Mr Lawrence leaves us all shouting for more – he simply cannot produce the sequel fast enough:  I want to start it NOW!  FIVE STARS

Prince of Thorns, by Mark Lawrence

You read it here first:  What an adventure!  Mark Lawrence’s debut novel has all the requisite ingredients for the ideal fantasy – a wronged and vengeful hero, warring kingdoms, ghosts, necromancers, murders most foul, and a complete lack of honour, except amongst thieves.
At the tender age of nine, Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath was forced to witness the slaughter of his mother and younger brother William by Count Renar of the Highlands and his troops.  If he expected his father the king to avenge their dreadful murders, he is sorely disappointed;  instead, the king negotiates compensation in the shape of land and horses for his loss.  Seeds of hatred and revenge are sown in the fertile ground of Jorg’s grief and heartbreak:  he takes to the road and joins a band of mercenaries and outlaws, and because he no longer cares if he lives or dies, he becomes their leader through sheer recklessness and a bravado that is fearless and suicidal – oh, Jorg has problems, alright – he has already lived five lifetimes and he’s only fourteen!
Mark Lawrence has created a rip-roaring, no-holds-barred, heart-in-the-mouth pageturner in this first book, and in spite of the reader knowing they shouldn’t believe a word of it, they are totally sucked in, swept along with the clever plot and more action than a body should rightly have to endure – oh, it’s great stuff, and this is just the first book of a Trilogy.  ‘King of Thorns’ is next, and a fascinating question for the reader is to figure out exactly the timeline in which Mr Lawrence has set his stories:  a vastly altered central Europe might  be the setting, but who can be sure?  Everyone fights in armour with medieval weapons, but Jorg wears a wrist-watch!  (which doesn’t make an appearance till book two) – and he lets loose what seems suspiciously like a nuclear explosion halfway through book one.  I have come to the conclusion (I’m ashamed to say it took me a while) that Jorg’s story is set far into the future:  it’s possible that the world we knew has been destroyed for whatever terrible reason, and the regenerating human race hasn’t progressed beyond another Medieval Age in its attempts to survive.
Which all adds to this trilogy’s great appeal.  ‘ Prince of Thorns’ was a gripping read, but book two, ‘King of Thorns’ is even better.  Roll out book three!  Mark Lawrence isn’t just a good storyteller – he’s a great one.  Whatever I read next, this will be a hard act to follow.  FIVE STARS

Prince of Fools, by Mark Lawrence

Jalan Kendeth is a prince of Red March, a southern kingdom blessed with bountiful harvests and buxom wenches.  He is young, handsome and filled with boundless energy – but not for anything constructive.  He freely admits to being irresponsible, (he is hugely in debt to a sadistic moneylender) feckless, (no woman is safe from his doubtful charms) and famously disinterested in the affairs and business of ruling his country – which is fortunate;  he is tenth in line to his grandmother the Red Queen’s throne and as such would never be considered for the crown.  Also, he is considered the runt of the litter of his family of older brothers, for despite his fine height and good build he is ‘The Little One’.  They dwarf him, every one.
Well, who cares?  Not him:  he’s quite happy to remain one step ahead of the moneylender (and he’s a damn fine runner!), and to worry about consequences for any of his actions after he has acted – until he becomes involved with a huge Norseman, a captive of his grandmother who has been freed because he gave her vital information about a huge and frightening army preparing to attack from the frozen Northern wastes of the Bitter Ice.  Through a dreadful twist of fate – and a ghastly spell concocted by a witch (truly!) – they are bound together by the good and bad strands of the spell and compelled to journey North to try to stop the advance of the Dead King and his ghastly army of corpses.  Snorri ver Snagason, the Norseman, is happy to begin the journey:  his wife and children are captives in the North and he means to rescue them.  Jalan, needless to say, feels exactly the opposite.  Heading purposely towards certain death is not on his agenda, but such is the power of the spell that he has no choice and begins the journey with a quaking heart and loud protestations.
And, regardless of his fears, he and Snorri travel inexorably northwards, most of the time with little food and no money, and depending more than once on ‘the kindness of strangers’, until they reach Ancrath, home of Jorg, Prince of Thorns, who is back in favour – however temporarily -  with his father, King Olidan.  Jalan makes much of his princely status while he can, until Olidan’s Queen tries to bribe him to kill Jorg, but Jalan has no stomach for such a task, especially when he sees the Prince of Thorns and is victim of his thousand yard stare.  No:  it’s time he and the Norseman resumed their journey – fast!
Once again, we are off on a marvellous adventure through Mark Lawrence’s great fantasy of Europe after The Big Bang, the Explosion of a Thousand Suns,  the setting of  his superb ‘Prince of Thorns’ trilogy.

Jalan Kendeth’s story runs parallel to the action in the first trilogy so he is bound to cross paths again with the deadly Honorous Jorg Ancrath;  it will be fascinating to see if his and Norri’s travails have given him an injection of the courage he honestly acknowledges he lacks, but by the end of Book One our expectations are not high – instead, what is certain is that Mark Lawrence has produced once again a fantasy of the highest order, with characters that readers truly care about, and more action than you can shake a stick at.  There are Unborn, Undead and Unnaturals littering every chapter, not to mention witches, bitches and seers by the score:  what more could a dedicated fantasy reader ask for, except top quality writing and plotting.  Mark Lawrence does it all.  FIVE STARS     

Monday, 15 May 2017

MORE GREAT READS FOR MAY, 2017

The Pretty Delicious Café, by Danielle Hawkins


           I have to say that I am not a big fan of Chick Lit.  Could it be for the very sound reason that I am no longer a chick?  In fact, Old Chook might be nearer the mark (but I’ll fight anyone who says that!).  Nevertheless, I thought I’d give Ms Hawkins’s Café story a whirl after reading some great reviews ( not the cover blurb, either),and am very happy to report that Chick Lit it may be, but it’s absolutely streets ahead of its romantic rivals.  Whoever they are.
            Now.  This is a Kiwi Chick Lit story, so the action takes place in a little Northland town not so far from the Big Smoke, Auckland – I have to admit that as I got deeper into the story I spent too much time trying to work out which real town the little seaside settlement of Ratai is imitating, but concluded finally that it could be any place north of Orewa.  
Lia (short for Aurelia, named so by her ex-hippy mum) and her best friend Anna run a very successful café just out of town.  They are mortgaged to the hilt and work like dogs to make money while the sun shines, for winter is famously a slack time for beach cafes.  Anna is planning her wedding (in the slack time) to Lia’s twin brother Rob, and wedding tension is adding its five cent’s worth to the usual stress. 
            Another irritant is Lia’s ex, Isaac, who stoutly refuses to believe that she has called off their relationship – not once but many times:  he just won’t take ‘no’ for an answer.  What a jerk!  Then we have ex-hippy mum, who wears lots of flowing scarves and draperies, and drinks horrible, unidentifiable juices in an effort to be physically and spiritually cleansed.  She is madly attractive in a middle-aged kind of way and always addresses Lia and Rob as ‘darling’.  Well, of course!  Oh, this little story is chock-full of stereotypes – but it’s FUNNY.  Ms Hawkins is a masterly exponent of the Kiwi sense of humour.  Every character, predictable though they may be, is sharply and wittily observed;  our very ‘kiwiness’ is portrayed affectionately and with a charm that perhaps some of us can only aspire to, but what fun it is to read about!
            OMG – I nearly forgot to mention Lia’s love interest.  What was I thinking?!  He is hunky mechanic Jed, a stranger in Ratai – with a past, naturally.  Will Lia and Jed walk off into the sunset with their buckets and spades?  Will Rob and Anna wed in spite of Anna’s flirtation with an eating disorder? (it’s the stress).  Will jerky Isaac get over Lia’s rejection or will he continue to be a stalker?  Will ex-hippy mum melt into her ex-stepson’s arms?  (Didn’t see THAT one coming, did you!)  This little book is serious fun.  FOUR STARS.

Leap of Faith, by Jenny Pattrick


         Jenny Pattrick reintroduces some of her lovely characters from ‘The Denniston Rose’ trilogy, that unforgettable saga of mining on the West Coast of the South Island in 19th century New Zealand:  now she transports them to the North Island in 1907, where there is new, well-paid work (hard labour) for good, honest men building the new railway line and its mighty viaducts across the Central Plateau,  in order to provide the first uninterrupted rail link from Wellington to Auckland. 
For Jock Cameron and his family, it will be a welcome break, a break for him from working permanently underground, and a change that his wife Sarah hopes will provide cleaner air for his faltering lungs.  Their grown family of three sons and a daughter welcome the change – Maggie does housework for a Temperance lady (a job she hates) in Ohakune;  the two oldest boys work with their father on the work gang he oversees, and youngest son Billy is thrilled to find work (at fourteen) at the Makatote Viaduct, still being constructed across a huge gorge, and considered by all who work there to be (along with the Raurimu Spiral) one of the wonders of the age, an edifice as visually beautiful as its use is practical:  a true combination of modern engineering genius and backbreaking labour.  Everyone, engineers, steel workers and navvies alike, is proud to be connected to such a masterpiece – including the Denniston Rose herself, now Rose Scobie, the mother of two small children and married to Brennan who is thrilled that she would leave the Denniston Plateau and with their family, follow him as he begins his engineering job at Makatote.
The scene is beautifully set for other characters to make their unforgettable presence felt, especially itinerant preacher Gabriel Locke, a silver-tongued devil who has more aliases than he can con hot dinners, and a fatal charm that Amelia Grice, Maggie’s employer and doughty warrior against the Demon Drink, is powerless to resist.  Their liaison, borne from guilt and blackmail, has tragic repercussions for all, including Maggie’s naïve and gullible brother Billy:  the corruption of his innocence is assured.
As always, Ms Pattrick draws her readers effortlessly into her lovely stories.  (See review below)  Her beautiful prose pays fitting homage to the men and women who laboured so hard and long more than a hundred years ago to bring New Zealand into the Twentieth Century. Each of Ms. Pattrick’s books is a reminder that, as a nation we owe these people everything.  Our present is enriched immeasurably by their past.  FIVE STARS
   

Heartland, by Jenny Pattrick

Donny Mac is on his way home to Manawa, a tiny village at the foot of Mt. Ruapehu on the central plateau of the North Island of New Zealand.  He has just served a six-month sentence for grievous bodily harm, charges brought by the overprotective mother of an old ‘schoolmate’, someone who has taunted and bullied him since he was a child – but Donny Mac doesn’t care now:  he has completed an anger management course;  still has his job as a shelf-packer at Manawa’s New World supermarket,  a little home his late grandfather left him and a place in the local rugby team, who could be  future winners of the regional championship. 
His life is on an even keel again and he is happy – childishly so, for Donny Mac is regarded as slow;  ‘ a few sandwiches short of a picnic’ and ‘not the sharpest knife in the drawer’, but he dearly loves Manawa and everyone in it  - except for all the townies, who turn up during the ski season on Ruapehu, having bought up all the old mill houses for use as their holiday accommodation.  No local likes the townies who disrupt their quiet way of life with speeding SUV’s and raucous parties, but they accept them as a necessary evil, for Manawa is dying.  The timber mills are closed, there are no jobs and all the young folk have left to look for work in the big cities, as has happened in countless other once-thriving communities.  At least the townies spend money when they come to ski on Ruapehu, enabling the village to stutter along for another year.
Yes, Donny Mac can’t wait to get home – until he finds that his house has been appropriated in his absence by Nightshade, the local slut, drunk most of the time, and hugely pregnant – ‘ and the baby’s yours, you ##@$!!’  Which in all fairness, is drawing a very long bow:  given her non-existent reputation, the hapless baby could belong to any one of the local youths, but after being rejected by them all, she has settled on poor slow Donny Mac as a last desperate resort.  She has been abandoned by everyone.  He is her only chance of support.
And support her he does, much against the wishes and counselling of his true friends, people who love him and worry about him and wish that his life could be better, and that is the crux of this charming story:  the fellowship of a tight-knit community;  their heartfelt affection for each other regardless of blood-ties, and their wildly disparate solutions to frightening problems.
Jenny Pattrick is a firm favourite with New Zealand readers.  Her ‘Denniston Rose’ trilogy has become a classic of Kiwi popular fiction, similarly the beautiful ‘Landings’ and while there are a couple of her titles that I thought weren’t up to her very high standard she has hit her mark once again with ‘Heartland’.  It is a heartwarmer of a tale in the very best sense of the word, and the only complaint I can make is that I finished it too quickly – I didn’t want to leave Donny Mac, Vera, Bull and the Misses Macaneny, finely drawn characters that will stay with the reader long after the story is finished.  FOUR STARS          
             


Sunday, 7 May 2017

GREAT READS FOR MAY, 2017

My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout.

            Lucy Barton is languishing in hospital in New York, the victim of an infection that has turned a short stay for an appendix operation into a hugely expensive nine-week-long endurance test for her, especially when the family friend entrusted to look after her two daughters brings them to visit her with grubby faces and dirty hair.  Even worse, her husband hates hospitals and each visit by him is an obvious feat of will:  the situation is not conducive to promoting rest and the return of strength necessary for Lucy’s discharge.
            Until she wakes one day to find an unfamiliar figure seated at the foot of her bed.   At Lucy’s husband’s request and subsequent expense, her mother has flown from her small town in Illinois to spend time with Lucy – which she literally does, not leaving her bedside for the five-day duration of her visit.  The nurses offered to provide a cot for her, but Lucy’s mum preferred the chair, she said. 
            Mum’s visit would be the norm, indeed expected in any extended family, except that Lucy’s family were not given to normal displays of emotion;  indeed it was imperative for the survival of Lucy, her sister and brother that they ask for nothing, expect nothing – and when they got nothing, not to be surprised.  The family’s poverty was abject, even though her parents worked every daylight hour to keep the family fed, and because they all lived in a garage, the family was also known as dirty as well as poor, labels that, had Lucy stayed in that town, would have branded her for life.
            Fortunately for Lucy, she had secret dreams, dreams of being a writer which were nurtured by a sympathetic teacher who was instrumental in helping her get a scholarship to a college in Chicago:  Lucy is on her way, ready to leave her brutal past behind.  She gradually transforms her life, falling in love with William, her husband, and giving birth to her beloved daughters.  She has success as a writer, too, which she hopes will make her parents proud, but who would know?  Their reactions to her academic success and marital stability are decidedly low-key;  she has not seen them for years and they have never seen their grandchildren.  Therefore, her mother’s presence at her sickbed, welcome as it is, is a surreal experience for Lucy.  Why is she here?
Ms Strout has constructed, as always, a story of great power encapsulated within the pages of a very slim volume.  She describes the rocks and shoals of familial love – and conflict – painfully and honestly.  We readers cannot turn away from the many truths revealed, nor should we want to. 
Initially, I was confused by Lucy’s revelations, some of them huge, that were dropped like bombshells casually into the narrative;  it was only at the end that it was announced that this is the first book of a series called ‘Anything is Possible’.  Presumably, more will be revealed of the bombshells (and their craters) in subsequent volumes, for Elizabeth Strout is a writer sublime.  My introduction to her was ‘Olive Kitteridge’ (see review below) – I became her Biggest Fan (along with the many millions of others) after reading that gem, and I haven’t changed my opinion.  FOUR STARS.

AN OLDIE BUT A GOODIE!
Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout.

Ms Strout’s eponymous protagonist is an exceptional woman.  She has been a high school mathematics teacher in the small town of Crosby, Maine for many years and has a wonderful empathy for her students, helping many of them with advice that in several cases is crucial:  she makes a positive difference to many  lives, including those she chooses as her friends – and they are few, for Olive Kitteridge does not suffer fools gladly.
Sadly, she regards her own husband and son as wanting:  her frustration with their good natured compliance with her whims, their longing for her approval and more importantly, a peaceful, loving atmosphere, turns her into a bully, ashamed of her actions but unable to stop her tyranny.
Ms Strout tells Olive’s story in a series of beautifully constructed short stories;  each one features her either as a major influence on the main character in the chapter or as a remote adjunct, a mere mention, as in the story devoted to the talented pianist at the local restaurant, who drinks to disguise her perpetual stage fright, and has more than her share of secrets and regrets.
 Olive attends the funeral of one of her former pupils, happily married to his high school sweetheart until his untimely death from cancer but once again, secrets are revealed at the wake;  the wife’s cousin had a fling with the dear departed, mentioned it to the grieving widow after a few drinks too many – ‘because I thought you knew!’  Needless to say, the poor widow knew nothing until that moment, and it falls to Olive to try to save the situation, saving with her innate, intuitive diplomacy the poor widow’s face and self-respect.
Which begs the question:  why is she unable to apply these essential, enviable gifts to her personal life, which as she gets older polarise her more from her loved ones?
Ms Strout provides the answers effortlessly in this wonderful little book, which deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2008.  She has just released another novel ‘The Burgess Boys’ to glowing reviews, and as I hadn’t read anything of hers before, I thought I would make Olive’s acquaintance before going on to meet the Burgess brothers.  And how glad I am that I did, for ‘Olive Kitteridge’ is an unforgettable character;  outstanding, outrageous, a person of lion-hearted courage and lily-livered cowardice;  an Everywoman who has had to endure great grief and pain, but is still able to transcend her sorrow to make sense of her existence.  Olive is simply superb, and I hope you will meet her soon.  SIX STARS!

Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien

            ‘In a single year, my father left us twice.  The first time, to end his marriage, and the second, when he took his own life’. 
            So begins Jiang Li-ling’s account of the great tragedy she suffered at the age of ten in 1989.  Her father Kai died in Hong Kong, after leaving his wife and daughter in Vancouver.  It was an utter mystery as to why he should return to China as he had obviously intended, before ending it all in China’s capitalist satellite.  Li-ling and her mother know that prior to escaping the Communist regime he had been a renowned concert pianist, a person of great gifts and the favourite of Madame Mao – until she, like so many millions of others, fell from grace.  When that happened, it was time to flee – like so many thousands of others.  But why try to return?
            To complicate the puzzle, Li-ling’s mother is asked by a mysterious correspondent in Beijing if she could care for her daughter Ai-ming, in the country without the correct papers and needing shelter:  Ai-ming’s father was Kai’s beloved music teacher, a  brilliant composer in his own right and, before all the purges and ‘re-education’ of useless intellectuals and those with bourgeoisie dreams, a person who lived entirely for music:  tragically, he spent many years of his re-education building crates, then became adept at assembling radios after requesting a shift to Beijing to further his precious daughter’s education.  Now the daughter has arrived in Canada, a victim of and shocked witness to the horrors she experienced in the student revolt in Tiananmen Square, where the Glorious People’s Liberation Army murdered thousands of their own countrymen – because they dared to protest, to demand democracy. 
            Canadian author Ms Thien has constructed an epic, a huge sweeping history of Mao’s China from the time of his overthrow of the KuoMintang led by Chiang Kai-Shek (exiled to Formosa), his ascension to power in 1949, his many and varied attempts to turn China from an agrarian nation to an industrial one (starting a famine in which it is estimated between fifteen and forty-five million people died), his scorning and re-education of the intellectual elite, and his carte blanche approval of the Red Guards, young fanatics and zealots who literally follow every one of his whims to the letter.  The Chinese people have given up one kind of serfdom for another.  They are all meant to be glorious revolutionaries, but the revolution smacks of the same old poverty and fear.
            In a series of flashbacks, Li-ling’s father Kai’s youth is revealed – his time in a Jesuit orphanage and his adoption by a distinguished music professor who enrols him at the Shanghai Conservatory, where he meets Sparrow the composer who is his teacher.  Sparrow is named by his mother for that common little bird who attracts no attention – she rightly believes that in the current climate it serves no-one well to have a pretentious name.  And she is right.  Sparrow survives longer than most because of his ability to blend anonymously with his surroundings, but like everyone else, he and his family eventually suffer terrible losses from which they will never recover -  not least betrayal:  in the interests of his own survival, Kai has become a Red Guard.
            Ms Thien’s story of one extended family’s attempts to survive within the whirlwind of revolt and repression is magnificent.  Her characters undergo many travails, but their forbidden sustenance is always the same:  stories and music, the balm for all troubled spirits.  SIX STARS.
  
    

    

Sunday, 16 April 2017

GREAT READS FOR APRIL 2017

Carry Me, by Peter Behrens

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

The Wonder, by Emma Donoghue

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

Room, by Emma Donoghue

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

The Refugees, by Viet Thanh Nguyen

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

The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen.

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