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                    

Thursday, 5 January 2017

FIRST GREAT READS FOR JANUARY, 2017

Blue Dog, by Louis de Bernières

            ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’ made Mr de Bernières so famous that he needs no introduction here;  currently he is working ‘on an enormous trilogy’ (his own words) the first volume – I hope – reviewed below.  Several of his books have been filmed, including ‘Red Dog’, a lovely tale based on the true story of a dog called ‘The Pilbara Wanderer’ who travelled whenever he could get a lift to various mining towns in Western Australia – he wasn’t adopted by people:  he decided who he would befriend, and for how long.  I hadn’t read the book, and after seeing the film decided that I was a big girl’s blouse and couldn’t bear more tears – it was a six-hanky movie!
            Anyway, a film prequel has been made which I shall be brave enough to see, for Red Dog doesn’t die at the end - hooray!  Again, Mr de Bernières has written another charmer, this time based on the screenplay by Daniel Taplitz. 
            We meet Red Dog’s original owner, 12 year-old Mick, who arrives in the middle of the Woop-Woops courtesy of a battered Cessna piloted by a rough and ready aviator who, after depositing him in the middle of a red desert excused himself ‘to shake hands with the unemployed’, shocking Mick to the core, for ‘he was from a polite family in Sydney, and they didn’t wee in public.’
            Mick has been sent to live with his grandfather who has a sheep station in what appears to be Mars;  his father died six months ago and his mother has had a mental collapse.  There is no-one else to look after him and he hasn’t visited his Granpa since he was two.  He has never felt more alone in his life.  He is trying not to be sad, trying not to cry, but it’s hard yakka:  he hopes he will be able to show a brave face, and not be a disappointment, a pale-faced city boy, albeit covered in red dust from the plane’s messy landing.
            Mr de Bernières weaves his reliable magic and we are hooked from the first page;  Mick’s  Granpa is the predictable rough diamond, helping his grandson to assimilate into the life of an outback station with lots of homespun wisdom – and uniquely Aussie humour.  I was so impressed by the writer’s effortless grasp of the wonderful slang that I had to Google him because I thought he was a Dinky-Di Aussie disguised as a Pom!  (My apologies to those of British ancestry – including Mr de Bernières, but I am paying him a huge compliment!)  
            For those who find all the dialect mystifying there is a Glossary at the end of the book where all shall be revealed, but what becomes beautifully clear is the healing process gradually established by good, rough and ready men who, despite their own losses (Mick’s dead father was Granpa’s beloved son) work together to make the world liveable again for a child who has lost everything.  
            And when a shivering, half-drowned puppy makes his appearance after a flood, Mick couldn’t ask for more – except a name for his new friend:  well, that was pretty easy, according to Granpa.  ‘All red dogs are called Blue.  It’s just a fact of life, the same as fat people are always called Slim.’
            This is a beautiful, poignant little story, made even better because Blue doesn’t die.  SIX STARS!

The Dust That Falls From Dreams, by Louis de Bernières

            It is August, 1902, and loyal Britons are holding Coronation parties throughout the land, for the dear old Queen has died after ruling for 63 years,   and her elderly and high-living son Edward the Seventh has ascended the throne.  The Victorian era has ended and the Edwardian age has begun, those sunlit years that reinforced – for the last time – the rigidity of class and certainty of one’s station in life:  everyone knows where they stand, and all is right with the world.
            Three prosperous neighbouring families meet on this beautiful summer day to celebrate the King’s ascension;  Mr and Mrs Pendennis, lately come from Baltimore, U.S.A. with their three fine sons;  Mr and Mrs Hamilton McCosh and their four vivacious daughters, and Mr and Mrs Pitt, parents of four strapping sons, two of whom are already fighting in the Boer War.  They are all fast friends and the children call themselves The Pals, certain that they will be friends always – in fact Rosie, the oldest McCosh girl has already accepted an offer of marriage (when they are old enough) from Ashbridge Pendennis, formalised by the gift of a brass curtain ring.  She will be his forever.
            It transpires that several of the other boys have crushes on Rosie, for she is the prettiest and because she has eyes for no-one but Ash, the most unattainable, despite great feats of courage and daring performed by the Pitt boys, Archie and Daniel in an effort to impress.  And Rosie IS impressed, but not long enough to alter her unswerving devotion to her beloved.
Mr de Berniéres, author of the wonderful ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’ is a master at setting the scene for this lovely story of the War to End all Wars and the  death of an Empire;  his characters beautifully personify the times, especially when ‘that dreadful Kaiser’ starts the war and the flower of England’s youth rush to enlist – after all, ‘it will be all over by Christmas’ and no young man wants to miss out on the excitement and the opportunity to ‘do his bit’, including Ashbridge Pendennis and Daniel Pitt, leaving their loved ones at home to fret and marvel at their bravery.
And the worst happens:  Ash dies of his wounds in France, leaving Rosie with a yawning hole in her life which she tries to fill with religion.  She and her sisters attempt to give meaning to their lives by volunteering at the hospitals to look after the wounded and are horrified and chastened by the suffering they see and try to alleviate.  Daniel Pitt’s two brothers did not return from South Africa and his widowed mother fears for her remaining two sons, for Daniel has become an Air Ace, and Archie is fighting on the NorthWest Frontier.  Life will never be the same again.  They will never return to the halcyon days of Coronation parties and certainty of place and Empire, and Mrs. McCosh, a gentlewoman who corresponds upon occasion with the King – and his secretary always replies – is horrified at the breakdown of manners and mores which now allow common people to Actually Come to the Front Door.  It’s entirely too awful to think about!
This is a story that is not finished in this book;  there are many characters (some extremely irritating, Rosie’s twitty sister Sophie being a prime example) that still have parts to play and the pace is so leisurely (except for the superb, brutal battle scenes) and the ending so inconclusive that Mr de Bernières MUST be planning a sequel.  I live in hope!  FIVE STARS.

The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry.

            In an obscure Essex coastal village, rumours flourish:  it has long been accepted by the locals that their little settlement of Aldwinter has been the occasional home of a sea serpent, a huge creature with ‘wings like umbrellas’ and a long thrashing tail, capable of taking  livestock and children when fish are in short supply.  It first made its appearance in the 17th century, and has been a stock explanation ever since for inexplicable absences; after a long period of quiet there have been so many puzzling and tragic anomalies lately that the rumour machine is working overtime:  the serpent has returned!
            Into this divided camp of superstition and ‘seeing-is-believing’ comes Cora Seaborne, a wealthy woman recently widowed (and not the least bit mournful.)  She has a keen interest in the fossils of millions of years ago, so recently discovered at Lyme Regis by – dare she utter it – A WOMAN! And Cora Seaborne hopes to discover the truth or otherwise of the tales that have reached as far as her upper-class home in London.  That her husband, the source of her wealth, has just died very painfully of throat cancer concerns her not at all:  he was a sadist and deserved his end and if anyone asked Cora (which they haven’t) she would reply that she earned every minute of the new-found freedom her wealth has given her.  Her only regret is that she does not have a more loving relationship with her son Francis, a solitary boy who does not regard the world as ordinary children do.
            Cora has a paid companion of whom she is very fond, Martha, originally hired to be a nurse to Francis, but becoming more of an indispensable friend as the years go by;  Martha is a socialist and wishes to make life better and more liveable for the poor, and to that end she harbours contempt for all the idle rich she meets through Cora but, emboldened by her friend’s heady first tastes of freedom and new-found feminism she is convinced that the Victorian male-dominated world can be breeched if only there were more women like themselves!
            Ms Perry paints a vast and splendid portrait of a world that in its strictures and mores still bears a chilling similarity to our own supposedly ‘enlightened’ one, especially with regard to price-gouging investors and their connection to homelessness and poverty;  she also employs through her main protagonists spirited combat between superstition, blind religious faith and scientific logic – for Cora meets the local vicar William Ransome and his beautiful wife Stella and is charmed by their whole family – but not enough to keep her revolutionary opinions to herself.  And the Reverend, trying all the while to turn his frightened flock away from what he sees as absurd superstition applied to coincidences (rather a number of them, it must be said) has also to fight a growing attraction for the hurricane force that is the newly-released Cora Seaborne, who wants only to be recognised as a person of intellect, of ideas, not the wearer of silks, corsets (!), jewels and perceived conventions.
            In the hands of a lesser writer, we would have had a good old-fashioned Victorian Fruity Melodrama, but Ms Perry writes with beauty and elegance and her stunning imagery lays bare the ugliness of Victorian life as well as its sumptuousness.  Does anything ever really change?  FIVE STARS.   

             

Friday, 23 December 2016

TE TAKERE’S TOP TWENTY FOR 2016!

Kia Ora, everyone;  it’s that time of the year again when all the lists of ‘The Best Of’ are published so, not to be outdone (by whom, you ask!) I am recommending the Crème de la Crème of the books I have reviewed this year for our library.  The list is not in any order;  I felt they were all of equally high quality.
I have to say that it was a mammoth task deciding which books would make this list – I read and reviewed dozens of books this year, but your library has such a fabulous range of fiction that there truly IS something for everyone, regardless of their preferences.
 
A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson                    reviewed January

A Little Life, by Hanya Yanigihara                               “             “

The Secret Chord, by Geraldine Brook          reviewed February

The Year of the Runaways, by Sanjeev
Suhota                                                                      reviewed March
Flood of Fire, by Amitav Ghosh                                            “             “

The Sword of Justice, by Leif G. W.
Persson                                                                    reviewed April

Riders, by Veronica Rossi  Young Adults              “            “

Coming Rain, by Stephen Daisley                    reviewed June

The City of Mirrors, Justin Cronin                           “           “

The Quality of Silence, by Rosamund
Lupton                                                                      reviewed July

One Dog and his Boy, by Eva Ibbotson
Junior fiction                                                                  “          

The Dying Detective, by Leif G. W.
Persson                                                                           “            

The Sympathizer, by Viet Than Nguen          reviewed Augus

The Sport of Kings, by C. E. King                       reviewed September

Nutshell, by Ian McEwan                                                       “                 “

My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante          reviewed October

Vinegar Girl, by Anne Tyler                                       “                “

The Mare, by Mary Gaitskill                                     “                “

The Underground Railroad, by Colson
Whitehead                                                              reviewed November

Brilliant, by Roddy Doyle  Junior Fiction               “                “

Wolf by Wolf and sequel Blood for Blood

By Ryan Graudin  Young Adult fiction                        reviewed December

The Story of a New Name, by Elena
Ferrante                                                                           “                 “

Well, shucks!  That’s more than twenty, isn’t it?  Never mind, the more the merrier, I say, and on that happy note I wish you on behalf of the excellent staff, Friends of Horowhenua Libraries fund raisers and volunteers (have I left anyone out?) a blessed Christmas and a safe and happy New Year.

(And I have to add, that Ben, ace designer of the new Horowhenua Libraries website will remodel my blog – he promised! - so that you can click on to each title and the review in the month in which I posted it.  Please, Ben?  TA!)    

Friday, 16 December 2016

FIRST GREAT READS FOR DECEMBER, 2016

Wolf by Wolf, by Ryan Graudin, Book One.   Young Adult fiction


Blood for Blood, by Ryan Graudin, Book Two.

            Ryan Graudin writes in her Author’s note at the end of Book One that she based her spine-chilling and utterly compelling story for teens on the premise ‘What if’?  What if Hitler and his gang of thugs and murderers had been victorious in the Second World War, resulting in slavery of all the conquered nations of Europe.  What if Japan had also emerged victorious, consequently controlling all of Asia.  Such a concept is unthinkable, especially when the true horror of Hitler’s ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Problem’ was revealed in all its evil when allied troops opened his concentration camps.
            Seventy years after the Holocaust, our world, whilst not ideal, celebrates a freedom that is taken very much for granted with each passing year.  Ms Graudin, by asking ‘What if’, forces us to revisit Hitler’s Germany of 1956, eleven years after his stunning victory and subsequent subjugation of Europe.
            Aryan supremacy reigns:  a nation of handsome blond children, born to handsome blond parents is under way, pursued with the same thoroughness and fervour that Hitler devoted to the Jewish Question.  Women are ‘encouraged’ to devote their lives to breeding perfect children – as many as possible; glorious motherhood in service to the Reich is the only career they need have.  Their Aryan menfolk will take care of them in all the traditional ways.
            And what better way to promote national pride than (in the manner of Bread and Circuses, a successful distraction since Roman times) an international motorcycle race, the Axis Tour, starting in Germania (renamed from old capital Berlin), to cross continents till the first contestant roars across the finish line in Tokyo.  Apart from the money, accolades and favours the winner would reap, he/she would also meet the Fuehrer personally.  To be presented to the Leader of the entire world is an undreamed-of honour, not least because the Fuehrer no longer makes public appearances – due to a small matter of forty-nine assassination attempts.  To be presented to this Demigod is every young contestant’s dream.  And they are young;  it is a race for those under eighteen, their chance to become heroes of the Third Reich, and if they win to call themselves Victor before their surname.  Bread and Circuses.
            Into this Aryan dream steps Yael, a member of the Resistance (yes, there is resistance and sabotage, personified in the forty-nine assassination attempts!).  Yael has a singular ability to change her appearance completely, thanks to her childhood in a concentration camp, the victim of a Dr Mengele type physician who enjoyed experimenting with Jewish children.  Those few who survived his torture found that in a matter of seconds they could disguise themselves as anyone they laid eyes on, a tremendous advantage when Yael escapes the camp, disguised as the Kommandant’s daughter:  she is destined for great things, and when she makes contact with the resistance her extraordinary gift is recognised for the mighty weapon it is.
            She will ride in the Axis Tour, win, be presented to Hitler – then shoot him dead.
            Ah, if only.  After much training and study of the other contestants, the girl Yael will be impersonating, Adele Wolfe, is kidnapped according to plan and hidden in the Resistance basement;  Yael presents herself as Adele, only to discover that Adele’s twin, Felix, is not going to let her out of his sight:  he’s coming too!  And the Axis Tour’s previous winner, Luka Loewe, is determined to win the race, by fair means or foul.  Yael is not just in a race so that she can kill Hitler, she is also in a race to keep from being killed.
            Ms Graudin grabs the reader by the throat from the very first chapter;  I have not turned pages so feverishly for years.  She has written two books that function on many levels;  a frightening and entirely plausible account of a dystopian world ruled by the Third Reich;   thrillers so fast-paced I had to lie down with a damp teatowel on my head after I’d finished them – and she wasn’t afraid to sacrifice a major character in Book Two in the interests of keeping her marvellous plot REAL.  I have our great librarians to thank for recommending these books to me;  now I am doing the same to you.  Start reading!  SIX STARS

The Story of a New Name, by Elena Ferrante

Book Two of the Neopolitan Novels.


            Elena Ferrante’s wonderful story of a lifelong friendship (see review below) is continued in Book Two.  Once again, Elena Greco narrates the next stage of her friendship throughout the sixties with her brilliant, driven and headstrong friend Rafaella Cerullo, called Lina, or Lila.  Lila has married Stefano Carracci the local grocer at the age of sixteen, in an effort to provide security for her parents, and a business opportunity for her brother Rino who is a shoemaker who, with his father, has made a start at manufacturing shoes designed by Lila and financed by Stefano.
            Everything should be fine – except that Lila discovers that Stefano has sought financial help from the Solara brothers, the local loan sharks and criminals;  once people get involved with them, they are seldom released from their ‘obligations’.  Lila is outraged at this dangerous and stupid alliance, and the newlyweds’ cosy, prosperous domestic bubble is soon popped in an atmosphere of screaming defiance from her, and physical violence from him.  After all, this is what men do in Neopolitan households to keep their wives in an appropriate state of respect and submission – especially if, like Stefano, they allow their gorgeous spouse free rein with money.  The fact that she finds objectionable any contact with the Solara Brothers (who both desire her) is trivial and a small price to pay for continued ‘investment’ opportunities with them.
            Ms Ferrante recounts with consummate skill the story of a marriage doomed to fail, especially when Elena, Lila’s devoted friend (who always feels overshadowed by Lila on every level) is roped into taking a vacation on Ischia with her – because she (Lila) is not pregnant!  And she should be!  The Doctor has prescribed sun, sand and sea, so the two friends are ferried away to Ischia, Lila to become by some mysterious osmosis fertile, and Elena to hope that she will meet up with her secret love, Nino Sarratore, a university student of such brilliance that she can’t believe he knows she’s alive, let alone have a conversation with her! 
            As always, nothing goes according to plan:  a love affair does develop, but with the wrong protagonists, and by the time Book Two ends, everyone’s fate has been scattered to the four winds.  And the only winners so far are the Solara brothers.
            Ms Ferrante covers a period of about seven years in this book;  international events of the time serve as a background to the action as Elena struggles to continue her education so that she will have something about herself of which to feel proud, but as always it is her mercurial, brilliant friend who dominates her life.  Whether she wants her to or not.  FIVE STARS

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

Ms Ferrante ends Book One with the explosive finale of Lila’s wedding at the age of sixteen to the grocer Stefano Carracci;  he has set up her father and brother in the business of crafting shoes designed by her;  he has showered clothes, furniture and a brand-new apartment on her, and Lila feels she has made a fine marriage, saving her family from continued penury – until the wedding reception, when it becomes abundantly clear that Stefano has made a deal with the Devil.  Book Two is ‘The Story of a New Name.’  Can’t wait!  FIVE STARS.    

Saturday, 26 November 2016

LAST GREAT READS FOR NOVEMBER, 2016

The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead

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

The Obsidian Chamber, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child


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

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

Blue Labyrinth, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

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