Wednesday, 7 September 2016

GREAT READS FOR SEPTEMBER, 2016.

The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen.

        The fall of Saigon:  Ho Chi Minh’s victorious Northern troops are battering the city and the defeated Southern army and their hangers-on are using everything at their disposal to bribe their way to safety with their American allies.  Instrumental in the successful escape of a powerful Southern Vietnamese General and his family is his Aide, a Captain trained by the CIA as an interrogation officer, formidably intelligent and utterly trustworthy, American educated and indispensable in the execution of everything, including those who have earned the General’s displeasure.

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

The History of Blood, by Paul Mendelson

            Colonel Vaughn de Vries joins us again, more rumpled and disillusioned than ever in this third story (see review below) of his battles against crime – within and without – the South African Police Service.  The criminals on the street are straightforward, relatively easy adversaries compared to the daily skirmishes he has with the ‘higher-ups’ in his department;  he is constantly admonished by his friend and immediate superior Hendrik du Toit to preserve the status quo;  to keep below the parapet – don’t make waves!  For they are both white and Afrikaner, and the Rainbow Nation is too recent an entity for their new black bureaucracy not to scream ‘racism!’ and ‘apartheid!’ at any questioning of efficiency or  department inaction.  De Vries is one of those rare birds who is on the side of the victim of whatever colour, of whichever crime he is investigating;  he will be their champion, mourn their deaths and bring them justice, pure and simple.
            Which is why he feels particularly sour and increasingly frustrated by the blatant obfuscation and lack of co-operation of various departments when he investigates the apparent suicide of a young woman in a seedy motel near the airport.  The post-mortem reveals dozens of tiny packages of cocaine in her gut, and a package she wrapped and swallowed herself, containing a note: ‘ I can’t go back.’  She came from a rich family;  her late father was a politician who was assassinated when she was three years old and she was raised by his brother, her uncle;  now she lies dead in a seedy room, hours before being compelled to fly to Thailand as a drug mule. 
            The more de Vries digs into the mystery of her suicide and the person who induced her to swallow the cocaine, messier (predictably) and more evil crimes are exposed;  people-trafficking and prostitution are mild compared to blackmail and the indiscriminate, ruthless murder of anyone even remotely threatening to the anonymous, powerful criminals who have built themselves an empire with links to the very top echelons of the South African legal system.  De Vries now understands why he is told so consistently to leave things be, especially when his own precious daughters are dragged into the picture and threatened with a long, slow death.  Never has he felt so vengeful – or so powerless.
            Once again Mr Mendelson takes the reader on a breakneck ride through the wonderful African countryside with de Vries as, with heart in mouth (‘I’m too old – I’m not fit enough for this!’) he pursues a clever, relentless and ruthless enemy, one for whom the torture and death de Vries’s daughters would be an amusing and momentary diversion from the business of making big money.  De Vries has to stop him permanently, but how?
            There is no rest for the Wicked (or the Righteous) – or the reader! - until this tale is told:  Mr Mendelson has produced another page-turner, with subplots and (with the exception of one or two) minor characters as satisfying as ever, and once again his novel’s setting is a major delight.  FIVE STARS.
                               
The First Rule of Survival, by Paul Mendelson

Colonel of the South African Police Service Vaughn de Vries is a typical protagonist of classic crime fiction.  Suffering Burn-out?  Of course.  Marriage down the tubes?  Naturally.  Finding solace in Alcohol?  Goes without saying.  Appearance less than inviting?  Women ‘avert their eyes when they see him sitting at the bar’. 
            In short, Colonel de Vries’s life is rather less than satisfactory – except when he is working:  his job is ‘what gets him up in the morning’, and his passion for justice is legendary;  it is what elevates him above the norm, especially in respect of his colleagues, new examples of the integrated police force of Mandela’s Rainbow Nation, all vying for power and prestige in a department formerly run by white men like de Vries, whose time must surely soon be up.  They hope.  Yes, give him a bit more time and he will be the author of his own misfortune …… until the naked bodies of two malnourished teenaged boys are found in a skip at the back of a farm café miles from Capetown, de Vries’s base.  They have been murdered, and Vaughn, the token white officer is sent to investigate – and finds to his horror that they are the victims of a terrible abduction seven years before, when three young white boys, one the son of a serving police officer, were kidnapped on three consecutive days, never to be seen again.
            It is a case that has haunted Vaughn’s dreams, turned them into nightmares and destroyed his peace of mind forever, especially when the case becomes cold after months of searching fruitlessly for clues – any clue – as to their fate.  Now, two of the three kidnap victims have been found, obviously transported to the skip after death – from where?  And where is the third boy?  de Vries and his immediate superior Hendrik du Toit faced unprecedented contempt from the media and eminent child psychologists alike for their inability to provide answers seven years ago:  now, their new bosses are demanding bold actions and quick solutions to the murders;  any delay will reflect badly on the new Rainbow police hierarchy.  Those dinosaur Boers Messrs du Toit and de Vries better shape up or ship out.
            British writer Paul Mendelson has constructed an impressive debut thriller for his first foray into crime writing.  He has created credible, excellent characters – especially Vaughn’s black second-in-command Warrant Officer Don February, so called because his real name would be impossible for most people to pronounce – and his descriptions of the wild and splendid coastline and croplands around Capetown make one feel that they are riding shotgun with Vaughn de Vries and Don February, hanging over their shoulders, exhorting them to find the killers before more children are abused and killed.

            This is a page-turner par excellence, made the more readable by its magnificent setting.  FIVE STARS!!               

Monday, 22 August 2016

MORE GREAT READS FOR AUGUST, 2016

A Rising Man, by Abir Mukherjee

            Now.  Here’s a Whodunit with a difference – the setting, for a start:  the great British-established capital of Bengal, Calcutta, in 1919;  a time when the sun had not yet set on the great British Empire, but the twilight is lowering as  objections and unrest fomented by that seemingly innocuous little lawyer Mohandas Ghandi are starting to be felt.
            Into this gathering disquiet arrives First World War veteran Captain Samuel Wyndham, recruited from Scotland Yard by Commissioner Lord Taggart, head of the Imperial Police Force in Bengal.  Taggart hopes that Wyndham’s superior Detective skills will expose those shadowy beings who are bent on sabotage, sedition and terrorist acts in a bid to drive the British from India, and the situation is worsened by the discovery of the body of a burra sahib, a British civil servant of high standing lying in the gutter outside a Calcutta brothel with his throat cut.
            A speedy solving of the crime is required ASAP, especially to demonstrate to ‘those natives’ that British Law and Order reigns supreme, and is executed with accurate and unswerving efficiency:  Wyndham is expected to find the perpetrator post-haste, despite less than stellar backup from his new colleagues, a white sub-inspector called Digby, already sulking because he feels Wyndham’s job should be his;  and a ‘native’ Sergeant, Surendranath Banerjee, called ‘Surrender-not’ because it is easier to say.  Digby is also scathing of the reason Banerjee has a position in the police force, stating contemptuously in the Sergeant’s presence:  ‘Sergeant Banerjee, is, apparently, one of the finest new additions to His Majesty’s Imperial Police Force and the first Indian to post in the top three in the entrance examinations.  He and his ilk’, continues Digby, ‘are the fruits of this government’s policy of increasing the number of natives in every branch of the administration, God help us.’
            Which Wyndham finds is a telling example of the Raj’s opinion of the people it rules.  After having survived the cauldron of trench warfare, his feelings towards the ‘natives’ are ambivalent;  besides, he has secret shortcomings of his own to conquer and sorrows that refuse to stay buried.  He hopes he can survive his past experiences and present alien surroundings, not least because the deeper he probes into the burra sahib’s murder, the more obstacles are thrown in his way, as in a spectacular lack of co-operation from his supposed colleagues in British Military intelligence, a severe beating administered by thugs employed by same, and an almost successful attempt on his own life – by whom?
            Mr Mukherjee writes with great verve and humour.  His characters for the most part ring true, but he can’t resist going for the florid and torrid approach when he reveals the identity of The Murderer:  the Villain has centre stage for more time than is strictly necessary to explain How, Why and Where hedunit;  in fact I think the only reason he didn’t twirl his moustaches at the end was an oversight by the author.  But!
This is Mr Mukherjee’s debut novel, and the first of a series.  I am sure it will succeed because of the time in which it is set, and Mr Mukherjee’s intelligent and reasoned analysis of events exposing the jingoistic approach of the Raj, perpetuated in literature and deed by all those burra sahibs, those ‘Rising Men’ whose rule created the reason for their expulsion.  FOUR STARS.

Outfoxed, by David Rosenfelt.
           
            David Rosenfelt’s Andy Carpenter novels are heaps of fun and enormously popular;  the author’s  humour and great love of dogs permeate every page and there isn’t a continuing character that the reader doesn’t enjoy meeting again, from Andy’s two staunch friends Pete and Vince, loyally keeping him company at Charlie’s Bar whilst he watches the Baseball – loyal and staunch because he always pays the bill – for  Andy is the one with the money, thanks to an enormous trust fund, so it’s only fair that he front up with the cash - friendship has its price, after all; to Willy and Sondra Miller, who help him run the rescue shelter for dogs that is beloved to all their hearts, and his office lady Edna, who considers it a personal affront if he expects her to do any work;  not to mention the great loves of his life, his wife Laurie and adopted son Ricky, and The Best Dog in the Whole World, Tara.
            This is a tried and true, very successful formula for Mr Rosenfelt (see 2013 review below), and I’ve enjoyed each book enormously – till now.
            It pains me to say it, but he seems to have lost his mojo with this latest addition to Andy’s adventures.   The baddies are two-dimensional, provoking yawns instead of suspense and/or horror (now, I feel really disloyal typing that – maybe I felt that way because it was late at night when I read it!) and even some of the regular characters seem to be operating at half-speed, possibly because there is very little that is new in the plotting.
            Because of his trust fund, Andy doesn’t have to earn his daily bread;  the only time he takes on his role of defense lawyer is when a prospective client hasn’t a chance of escaping a long gaol term;  then it is up to Andy’s undoubted expertise to convince the judge and jury of his client’s innocence, in this case a rich technology company owner, Brian Atkins, who is nearing the end of a three-year sentence for embezzlement when he escapes from his minimum security prison, supposedly to murder his wife and his cheating business partner.  Andy’s investigations reveal that the evidence against Brian for embezzlement is trumped-up in an effort to cover up dirty dealings by Brian’s business partners, and there is more than a whiff of Mob involvement.  The plot should have been thickening satisfyingly by this time, especially when it is plainly evident that Brian could not have killed his wife and partner;  sadly, I had reached the stage of thinking ‘Well, Andy, is there any reason for me to stay awake to the end?’, for even when the real killer is revealed, despite not suspecting that dastardly bloke even for an instant, I still couldn’t generate the necessary enthusiasm and thoughts of ‘Woo Hoo – bring on the next Carpenter/Man’s Best Friend story!
            Having said that (most disloyally), I will still look forward to Andy’s next adventure – I just hope it has more oomph than this one.  THREE STARS.

Leader of the pack, by David Rosenfelt

Mr Rosenfelt is a very funny man.  He is also a dog-lover, and in each of his novels about Andy Carpenter, sometime defense lawyer (Andy  is a wealthy man;  he can please himself when he works –why did I never have this choice!),  Andy’s high regard for Man’s Best Friend is such that he clearly trusts dogs more than people, and rightly so:  dogs never let their best friends down, nor do they betray them.  Ever.
In fact, the boot is frequently on the other foot.  Fortunately, Andy and his friend Willie Miller run an animal shelter, caring for and re-homing stray dogs. He has his own beloved dog at the home he shares with his wife Laurie, and life would be very satisfactory if it were not for the bad guys he is forced to meet in the course of his work – and some of them are very bad indeed.
This is the tenth Andy Carpenter thriller, and Mr Rosenfelt’s books are rescued from being formulaic by the credible plots, GREAT characters – Andy’s long-time friends are a delight – and sound research.  He writes about what he knows – and he knows a lot.
In this latest novel, Andy is disquieted by the fact that, six years ago, he lost a case in which his client Joe DeSimone was imprisoned by a jury for a double murder:  he is convinced of Joe’s innocence and it rankles terribly that Joe is in jail for life – purely because he has the misfortune to be the son of one of the big New Jersey Mafia bosses.  Andy feels that the sins of the father have been visited upon the innocent son, but it is not until new information reveals itself from an entirely unexpected source that he can start gathering enough evidence to petition for a new trial.  And you’ll never guess whodunit in a month of Sundays!  Well, I didn’t anyway.  Yep, there is a very satisfying little twist to the plot here, guaranteed to fool all but the Superhuman among us:  Mr. Rosenfelt’s writing is pure entertainment right to the last page – even his page of acknowledgements is unique.  He states that he had stopped thanking various friends several books back because he had been accused of name-dropping, but had decided to resume his ‘thankyou’ page because ‘like it or not, I move among the stars, and I’m not afraid to admit it’.
Here are a selection of names dropped:
Barack Obama, David, Butch and Hopalong Cassidy, Kim Jung Il, the entire Jung Il family, Daniel and Jenny Craig, Albert Schweitzer, Anne and Barney Frank, Harrison and Betty Ford, Vladimir Putin, Aretha and Benjamin Franklin, Charlie Sheen, Charlie Chan, Hannibal and Sally Lechter (Oh, sorry, I couldn’t resist, that’s one of mine!) Bruce, Spike and Robert E. Lee,  Neil and Hope Diamond.
The man’s incorrigible!  And mighty good fun.  FIVE STARS

                 

Sunday, 7 August 2016

GREAT READS FOR AUGUST, 2016

The Dying Detective, by Leif G.W. Persson

Lars Martin Johansson is 67 years old and retired from his job as one of the most effective and respected police officers in Stockholm.  He was known among his colleagues as ‘the man who could see round corners’ and his success rate at crime solving was envied by all, but he has to admit that time has dragged somewhat since he stopped work.  However, he has occupied himself in other ways, usually by eating and drinking huge amounts of everything that he loves – until  horrifyingly predictable consequences in the shape of a massive stroke give him warning that he must change the beloved habits of a lifetime, otherwise there will be no lifetime left.
                Needless to say, Lars Martin is not a happy man.  He hates being parked up on the sofa in his study contemplating his floppy right arm and weakened right leg;  physiotherapy exercises are boring and the food his banker wife arranges for the caregiver to prepare for him wouldn’t keep a vegetarian nourished, let alone a dedicated carnivore like himself.  He needs distraction!  And it arrives before he has even left the hospital, in the shape of a request for help from the neurologist who treated him:  she has found among her late father’s papers evidence that suggests that he as a church minister heard a confession from one of his parishioners that they knew the identity of the killer of a 9 year old girl whose rape and murder  25 years ago was never solved.  She can think of no-one more able ( despite his physical infirmity)  to reinvestigate a heinous crime that was mishandled right from the start – by tactless, hamfisted and lazy Evert Bäckström, no less, anathema to all good Stockholm police detectives.  (See review below).
            On reviewing all the old files which his contacts in the force make available to him, Lars Martin is not surprised that the investigation failed:  the whole thing’s a dog’s breakfast, mostly attributable to ‘that fat little horror’ who should never have risen higher than issuing traffic fines – but nepotism is alive and well as the fat little horror has a relative in the Police Union:  he can’t be touched.  Still!  Lars Martin is determined to go through everything with a fine-tooth comb, even though due to a recently passed law, the case is prescribed:  no-one can now be prosecuted for the crime.  The statute of limitations has expired.  But how poor little Yasmine Ermegan died fills all normal people with such horror and revulsion that Lars Martin is determined to find the killer;  he will worry about punishment for that pervert once he has a name – and he WILL find him, for Lars Martin is still ‘the man who can see round corners’.
            Mr Persson has given us a stand-alone novel this time, with only indirect reference to his usual anti-hero ‘that fat little horror’ but what a delight it is to read.  His plotting is (as always) perfect, and minor characters all have great back stories, including Maksim, the mysterious Russian orphan provided by Lars Martin’s brother and employed as a chauffeur/general factotum, but able to lift a heavy tray of food with just thumb and forefinger.  He knows no-one who is stronger, he says, and Lars Martin believes him.     
            Mr Persson is not averse to inserting himself into the story, either – and not in a very flattering way!  Oh, he’s a charmer and a great wit, is this Mr Persson, but he also lays bare the underside of the human condition in stark and unflattering terms, leaving us all in no doubt whatsoever that criminal behaviour, neglect and cruelty are always with us.  This is his best book yet.  SIX STARS!   

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

The absolute antithesis to the usual burnt-out but noble detective in thriller fiction returns, much to every Swedish Noir readers’ delight:  Detective Superintendent Evert Bäckström rears his head again, corpulent, crafty and amoral as ever – and just as successful, mainly because he is so expert at ‘making a bit on the side’ (what else is a man to do to supplement the basic wage?), and manipulating every system to his advantage.
He is still not popular with those lesser beings, his colleagues;  they know that every time he says – nearly every day – that he has to attend an important meeting at Headquarters in Stockholm he is really skyving off;  filling his fat little frame with expensive food and drink, then going home to sleep the sleep of the just and/or avail himself of obliging female company, thanks to his growing reputation as Sweden’s premier crime fighter.  His colleagues will never take kindly to all the orders and legwork he dispenses, particularly when his own dubious habits and chronic laziness are well known:  yep, they’d love to see him fall flat on his smug face, preferably in something nasty and foul-smelling, but will it ever happen?
Not immediately, for Our Hero has received wonderful news:  Thomas Eriksson, Sweden’s most crooked defence lawyer has been found murdered at his home, along with his huge Rotweiler.  The police are hardly at a loss to name suspects;  there are so many who want Eriksson dead that it will take considerable time to cross them off their list of ‘people of interest to the investigation’ – which (naturally) Bäckström is heading:  as far as he is concerned, someone has done Sweden an enormous favour ridding it of such vermin – he is glad Eriksson is dead;  still, it is up to him (and his grumbling, mumbling team) to wield The Sword of Justice and apprehend the killer.
Mr Persson is a master of characterisation – he has created an anti-hero absolutely unforgettable;  portly, gluttonous, an unashamed leaker of info to the newspapers (for a hefty consideration) as the investigation continues, but a sharp little man intelligent and shrewd enough to figure out every angle of what is fast becoming a crime involving art fraud, the Swedish Mafia and – last but not least – a trail that could lead to (surely not!) – the Swedish monarchy.
And let us not forget Bäckström’s regrettable impulse buy:  Isak the parrot, on his best behaviour in the Pet Shop, only to turn into the Parrot from Hell when his new owner brought him home.  Isak plays a minor but important role in proceedings, becoming in his own little way as memorable as his owner, who trusts and prays that he will not meet the same fate. 
Leif Persson has produced yet another winner:  he effortlessly patrols Jo Nesbo country – with dark satire and delicious humour.  SIX STARS!

One Dog and his Boy, by Eva Ibbotson            Children’s Fiction
           

         Children’s writer Eva Ibbotson died in 2010, aged 85 and ‘One Dog and his Boy’ was her last novel:  what a sad day for the children of the world that there will no longer be any more products of her wonderful imagination to delight and charm them.  She made the impossible seem plausible and reality larger than the everyday:  what a gift, and how fortunate our library is to carry some of her best titles, delighting children of all ages (especially me!)
            Hal is an only child.  His family is seriously rich, but Donald, Hal’s dad is never home, instead racking up heaps of air points pursuing all his worldwide business deals.  Mum Albina is a shopaholic and changes houses, furniture and carpet whenever she feels like it.  Which is often.  She also is a cleanliness freak and can’t bear mess of any description, so, despite the fact that it is Hal’s birthday she will never consent to him having a dog – the only present he has ever wanted:  well, he’ll get over it, thinks Albina.  She’ll just buy him another huge electronic whatsit that he can play with by himself.  For Hal has few friends – not that he cares, IF ONLY HE COULD HAVE A DOG!
            His sadness finally makes an impression on his father, who decides to follow the advice of one of his friends – why not rent a dog?  There is a firm called Easy Pets that rents dogs by the hour or by the weekend;  it’s jolly expensive (the proprietors cater to all tastes, especially people’s worries about appearances, and charge accordingly) but Hal could choose a dog on Friday, have it for the weekend, then on Monday when he returns to school, the dog can be taken back to Easy Pets.  Simple.
            Naturally, Hal has no idea that he will only be renting a dog for the weekend;  he is speechless with delight to think that he will be allowed a dog at last and is completely unprepared for any future betrayal.  On his visit to Easy Pets with his dad he chooses Fleck, a little mongrel terrier who was only there on suffrance, smuggled in by the kennel maid who found him as a stray:  it is the best weekend of Hal’s young life.
            It goes without saying (though Eva Ibbotson says it very well!) that his parents’ treachery has far-reaching effects:  Hal decides he will not be without his true friend Fleck.  He decides to kidnap the little dog from Easy Pets and use his birthday money to travel to see his grandparents, Donald’s mum and dad whom Albina thinks are so low-rent they are really not welcome to visit.  It will be a long trip from home to the North-East of England, but he is determined not to live in a house with two people who have betrayed him so cruelly.
            The adventures of Hal and Fleck – and the other purebred dogs at Easy Pets (for they would not stay behind!) are beautifully told, and the people they meet along the way are charmingly drawn (even the villains).  Ms Ibbotson covers a multitude of social ills – environmental pollution, abandoned children and dogs – in a language so plain and clear that every child who reads her books gets a great, humane message to show kindness to animals, the environment  – and each other.  SIX STARS!    
           
Pegasus and the Flame, by Kate O’Hearn                                          Junior Fiction

What a lovely story - and what a great introduction to the Greek Myths for children who would not otherwise come in contact with these marvellous legends.  Kate O’Hearn is doing more than she can possibly know to stimulate children’s interest in the timeless and ancient tales of the Gods and Heroes of Olympus,  especially with the amount of excitement she can generate in her plotting and her true blue characters.
Emily Jacobs is 13 years old.  She is trying to deal with the loss of her beloved mother who died of cancer three months before.  Her father is a member of the New York City Police force, and he has to leave Emily alone on a night when a particularly bad storm is raging.  She is not really afraid of being alone;  her grief troubles her more than solitude – until she hears thumping and bumping on the ceiling, and it is even more worrying when the plaster starts to crack and flake!  Now, if that were me I would rush to the bedroom and hide under the bed, but Emily is brave enough to go up onto the roof to find out what – or who – is going to crash through to her level.  (Obviously she is braver than this mere mortal) And what does she find but a beautiful horse, breathtaking in its magnificence, and even more unbelievable:  it has WINGS.  And it’s badly wounded.  How can she help him, especially when she realises that he is Pegasus, beloved of the Gods, and bearer of Zeus/Jupiter’s thunderbolts.  Pegasus has come to earth to search for ‘The Flame’,  a descendant of Vespa, keeper of the Sacred Flame of Olympus, now extinguished by enemies.  If it is not reignited soon, Olympus and all the Gods will perish.
Ah, this is thrilling, and things get better and better as the plot advances – the characters are positively Olympian in more ways than one;  Ms. O’Hearn has an excellent knowledge of  Greco-Roman mythology and she weaves this brilliantly into her story of young people dealing with grief and loss, not to mention her love of animals, particularly horses – and even better still, the story doesn’t end with this book:  the next title is ‘Pegasus and the Fight for Olympus’.  What a neat treat to look forward to:  can’t wait.  FIVE STARS

Pegasus and the Rise of the Titans, by Kate O’Hearn  Junior fiction

  
          This is the fifth book in Ms O’Hearn’s series starring Pegasus the winged horse and his earthly companion Emily:  once again they have death-defying adventures, and again the plot concerns the Gods of Olympus and their enemies, this time Saturn, power-crazy brother of Jupiter, Pluto and Neptune:  he has discovered a potent weapon to release him from the captivity and exile his brothers have imposed on him, and nothing will give him more satisfaction than to destroy Olympus and everyone who lives there – including Emily and her soulmate Pegasus, instrumental in imprisoning him the first time.
            Once again Emily and her friends journey to earth to find a solution to Olympus’s imminent destruction, this time ending up at Diamond Head in Hawaii (true!);  they are forced to make the acquaintance of Pele, the Fire Goddess, and her pesky, quarrelsome sister Na-Maka, Goddess of the Sea, neither of whom get on – and their subsequent battles are world-shaking!

            This is such a great series for children, with all the right ingredients to make them look forward to the next episode, but Ms O’Hearn also has a vital underlying message concerning animal and environmental conservation that can never be stressed early enough;  it is greatly reassuring to know that children’s environmental education can be absorbed so effortlessly and with so much fun.  FIVE STARS.             

Sunday, 17 July 2016

MORE GREAT READS FOR JULY, 2016

The Wheel of Osheim, by Mark Lawrence


           In the concluding volume of Mark Lawrence’s great fantasy trilogy, Jalan Kendeth Prince of the Red March, is in Hel – dragged there by his huge Norse companion Snori Ver Snagason who is searching for his slain family with the intention of bringing them back to life in the Real World.  Entry to the horror that is the Underworld has been made possible by Loki the Liar’s Key, a key that can open any door(Book Two, see review below), and once again Jalan is roped in to participate in life-threatening adventures he wants no part of – all he wants is to go home to Vermillion and re-engage in his usual hobbies of gambling, drinking and bedding compliant women (and there are so many of them;  he is a handsome devil!):  the bleak and wasted lands of Hel with its wandering and tragic populations of Dead Souls is making his hair stand on end, to say nothing of the various nightmarish monsters that try to kill the only two living creatures, he and Snori, in that terrifying landscape:  it’s not fair – he’s fed up, and wants out!   
            But not before Jalan’s survival instinct is tested to the utmost, and he discovers to his shock that he actually has a spine after all for his shivers to run up:  to his amazement he finds that he is the victor in more than one skirmish with the loathsome dead of Hel, and even saves Snori – not that his friend ever doubted him;  Snori has always had a touching faith in Jalan’s previously hidden fighting abilities (Jalan always believed that his talents as a runner should be more encouraged) but it is with a heavy (cowardly) heart that Jalan takes a single opportunity to return to the world above, leaving his only friend to battle on in his search for his dead family.
            Jalan’s joy at returning to the Red March is short-lived:  he finds his city under siege and his grandmother the Red Queen absent, warring against a neighboring state;  his brothers who always considered him (rightly) to be The Runt are in need of quick and efficient planning and leadership – and who (amazingly) steps into the breach?  Jalan’s trip to Hel has prepared him like a baptism of fire for the worst that war can throw at them.  Which it does.
            Prophecies of doom centring about the Wheel of Osheim, last  great symbol of the genius of the Builders, humans from a thousand years before who destroyed most of the earth with the explosion of a Thousand Suns, are now coming close to fruition:  the Wheel, the existence of which is known to a very few, is spinning faster and faster.  When it goes out of control the world will crack and break.  It is too awful to contemplate, especially as the only thing that will stop it is Loki’s Key, fitted into a special slot marked ‘Manual Override’.  And who is the reluctant custodian of Loki’s Key?  Yep.  Cowardy Custard Jalan.
            I have to admit that the intricate technicalities of the Wheel and its function (was this the Hadron Collider?) left me scratching my head and breathing through my mouth, but as a series, The Broken Empire is unsurpassed.  Mr Lawrence’s construct of a world post Nuclear Holocaust is masterly and his characters are unforgettable.  My only criticism regarding ‘The Wheel of Osheim’ is that Jalan’s ghastly sojourn in Hel is unevenly juxtaposed with his adventures back in the real world;  the story loses pace and flow here – but does resume when Snori and his axe return to save the day.  Great stuff.  FIVE STARS.      

The Liar’s Key, by Mark Lawrence.

Prince Jalan Kendeth of Red March returns to entertain and delight readers yet again with his utter lack of scruples, eye for the main chance and a remarkable propensity for attracting enemies by the shipload.  His reprehensible behaviour has not improved since Book One ‘The Prince of Fools’;  he still lies, cheats and tries to flee at the first sign of danger to himself (too bad about anyone else!) and the only reason he leaves the comforts of the snowbound inn he and Snori ver Snagason have been wintering in is the usual pursuit by various cuckolded husbands and outraged women who considered themselves his only true love.  Yes, it is time to leave before his enviable looks are spoiled and he has been made to eat certain essential parts of his anatomy, and Snori, an honourable man who still (despite so much proof to the contrary) considers Jalan his friend, is the perfect bodyguard.
            But Snori is on a seemingly hopeless quest, and will not be dissuaded:  he has possession of Loki’s Key – Loki, the trickster God of Norse mythology, Loki the Liar, Loki the Cheat who fashioned a key that can open any door, including that of the Underworld.  Snori means to find that door, open it, and search for his dead family.  He will bring them back, or die in the attempt, for his life is meaningless without them. 
            Needless to say Jalan (right up there with Loki at lying and cheating) is horrified at Snori’s reckless pursuit of a sticky end, but will travel with him (the Norseman might be mad but he’s superb insurance against the dangers on the road) as far as Vermillion.  Even though Jalan is only a minor princeling it will be wonderful to return home, where he can embellish shamelessly the stories of his exploits – and where he will at last be warm.  He thinks.
            Jalan is indeed warm, but the welcome from his family is not;   yet again he is forced to flee from creditors who are tiresomely demanding their money  and he finds to his horror that he misses his travelling companions – Christ on a bike – he must be ill!
            True to form, our cowardly hero undergoes much privation (usually his own fault), battles disturbing visions from mages, necromancers et al as they try to find out what he knows about Loki’s Key and its whereabouts – ‘A key?  What key?  I am a prince of Red March.  What use have I for keys!’  Yeah, right.  Those sorcerers aren’t fooled for a second.  Jalan is the conduit:  when he reunites with Snori, the Key will be theirs.
            It is not easy to create sequels that are successively better with each volume but Mr Lawrence is one great storyteller who seems to manage this feat effortlessly;  he leaves the reader always wanting more, hanging out impatiently for the next episode – which will see Snori and craven companion Jalan exactly where he does not want to be:  in Hel, searching for Snori’s beloved family.  My only complaint about this book is that I shall have to wait at least another year for Mr Lawrence to enlighten me. I’ll have forgotten all the plot details by then!  FIVE STARS.

The Quality of Silence, by Rosamund Lupton

Ruby is 10 years old and profoundly deaf.  She communicates with her parents by lip-reading and sign language, and life is difficult for her at school where she faces daily taunts about her disability – because that is what kids do, don’t they?  She had one good friend, a boy, who was driven away from her by his classmates’ harassment, but she  has decided that she doesn’t care (even though she does), because her parents are the best in the whole world;  Dad is a wildlife cameraman currently working in Alaska, and Mum is an astrophysicist, and they both know so many cool things about the wonderful planet we inhabit, and the stars that bathe us all in their crystalline light every night – whether we notice them or not, and Ruby fears that people are noticing (and caring) about the natural world less and less.
Well, she doesn’t care (even though she does) because she and mum have just arrived at Anchorage, Alaska from Britain, expecting Dad to be at the airport to greet them.  They were meant to come for Christmas in a fortnight’s time, but mum and dad had a fight on the phone and mum decided to bring the trip forward, much to Ruby’s delight;  she hasn’t seen dad for three months, and though they email and Dad sends wonderful pictures of the wildlife he photographs via his satellite connection, (they have even started a blog) to see him again in person would be totally cool.
But he is not at the airport to meet them.  Then it is revealed by a State Trooper who has been to Anaktue, the little village where dad was based, that there has been a terrible accident;  fuel appeared to be stored too near to a heat source, there was a terrible conflagration and all twenty-four inhabitants died.  Ruby’s dad is declared one of the fatalities, and she and her mother are in shock.  What to do next, especially as mum (Yasmin) refuses to believe that her husband Matt has died.  The authorities have it all wrong!  She would KNOW if he were gone:  their connection is so absolute that she would know.  She will find him – she will find someone to take them to the little village;  tanker drivers go back and forth to the Prudhoe Bay Oil wells regularly.  She will pay someone to take them on their search.          
And because Yasmin is a resourceful woman, she and Ruby are soon on their way – on a nightmare trip of hundreds of miles north in a savage Alaskan winter, in a big rig which she eventually has to drive herself, for the tanker driver becomes ill and has to be airlifted back to Anchorage, not knowing that his passengers are determined to carry on without him.    
Ms Lupton’s account of her protagonists’ nightmare adventures succeeds on so many levels:  as a testament to the natural beauty of our planet, the nurturing world in which we are so privileged to live – and the efforts that those consumed by greed will employ to destroy it in order to claim its wealth;  as an action-packed thriller that pits Yasmin and Ruby against the unforgiving environment as well as the Bad Guys, and as a love story involving a tight-knit family of three who will literally travel to the ends of the earth to be together, all told in beautiful, lucid prose that is a joy to read.  SIX STARS!

     


Sunday, 3 July 2016

FIRST GREAT READS FOR JULY, 2016

The Hanging Club, by Tony Parsons

            How satisfying, how enjoyable it is to be hooked by a story on the very first page – it doesn’t happen very often, especially with crime writers who follow a by-the-numbers formula, but Tony Parson’s swashbuckling superhero DC Max Wolfe, despite his superior and unerring powers of deduction has a human side which makes him much more credible:  his personal life in each book so far (this is the third) is less than ideal, except for his love for his little daughter Scout, and their dog Stan.  Max has been a solo Dad for several years now, and while he wishes, as everyone does, for True Love (he has fallen for a different girl in each story – unsuccessfully!) he still blesses life with his little family. 
Not everyone is so lucky, especially the victims of the latest mindless violence he has to deal with every day:  a decent man remonstrates with louts who are urinating on his wife’s car parked outside their home.  The louts beat him to death, film it on their phones, then get the charges reduced to manslaughter in court – ‘he was freatening us, me Lord! It was self-defence!’ – despite the iphone evidence, their sentences are a slap on the wrist, leaving yet another family permanently in ruins.  Max feels a burning hatred for the smirking murderers in the dock, especially when they laugh at him, the arresting officer, on their way to prison.  Sometimes – many times, the Law is an Ass.
And another group thinks so, too – a masked group who post online their execution by hanging of taxi driver Mahmud Irani in a place so secret that no police at West End Central, Max’s base, has any idea where it could be – except that Mahmud’s body is dumped at the site of the old Tyburn Tree, London’s infamous place of Execution.  The video states that he was found guilty of grooming, drugging and abusing children, but the sentence he served (two years) was absurd:  death by hanging was the proper verdict.
This killing is followed up by another ‘execution’, in the same secret place of a trust fund manager who drove his Porsche over a child biking across a zebra crossing, sending the little boy into a coma for six months before he was taken off life-support, but Money-Man was sent down for two years only – another ‘wet bus ticket’ slap – and he was even reinstated in his job when he was released!
Once again, his death is posted online for all to see, and the internet is buzzing with support for the vigilantes who are doing what should have been done to those murdering bastards in the first place:  Bring Back Capital Punishment!
And those weak-kneed coppers who tiptoe around guarding the prisoners’ rights – they’re worse than the lot of them!  As Max finds to his horror when he puts two and two together and finds himself in the same secret place, awaiting his execution.
Mr Parsons keeps the action barrelling along at Porsche speed, at the same time giving readers a marvellous picture of another country within Britain:  London, that great and sprawling city, from the teeming centres of Smithfield and Soho to the elegant leafy avenues and squares of those rich enough to live there – and a compelling portrait of London’s underbelly, a place that no-one wants to explore.  FIVE STARS

End of Watch, by Stephen King.
         
  
          ‘End of Watch’ brings to a close Stephen King’s masterly trilogy starting with ‘Mr Mercedes’ (see 2014 review below), bringing together an unlikely band of protagonists to fight Brady Hartsfield, the Suicide Killer, grown more powerful than ever despite brain damage that permanently disabled him – almost.
            Retired detective Bill Hodges (first name Kermit, unused for obvious reasons) runs a successful private investigation agency with Holly Gibney, a damaged and fragile person who hasn’t had the best of starts in life but has a gift for detection and computer talents matched only by Jerome (gone to Harvard), the last of the trio to bring down Brady Hartsfield.   Bill occasionally pays visits to the Brain Injury ward to see Brady, despite Holly and Jerome’s disapproval;  he can’t resist taunting and deriding the drooling wreck propped up in a chair so that he can see the riveting view of the car park from his window.  It feels good to heap scorn and hatred on a monster that had planned the death of more than a thousand young kids, thwarted at the last moment by Holly’s near-mortal blow to his head with a sock full of ball bearings.  Yes, Bill savours every moment of every visit, until Holly and Jerome finally persuade him that his gloating is turning him into a person they don’t like.  He’s better than that, so leave the monster alone.     
            So Bill’s hospital visits cease.  He still pays certain nurses to inform him of any changes or improvements in Brady’s behaviour – until he finds himself caught up in the medical system again, this time with results of hospital tests revealing the awful diagnosis of Pancreatic cancer.  As if that weren’t bad enough, disturbing things are occurring in the Brain Injury ward:  there have been several staff suicides, and an elderly hospital volunteer and the very specialist monitoring Brady are exhibiting worrying, out-of-character behaviour.  Bill’s subsequent digging reveals that everyone who died has been given a little computer game as a gift to while away free time, but his suspicions about the hypnotic effects of the little device are not confirmed until Jerome’s sister is given one in the Mall – and is rescued from throwing herself under a truck.
            All roads point once again to the wreck in the wheelchair:  how could someone so grievously, permanently injured mastermind (for he has!) a plan to hypnotise hundreds of kids, recipients of the little devices, into removing themselves from the planet?  The Suicide Killer is back with a vengeance, and Bill, Holly and Jerome once again are in a race against time to prevent more deaths.  And Bill is racing against the terrible symptoms of his last illness, hoping to defeat for good the true monster that Brady Hartfield has become.
            I could warble on (and often do!) of Mr King’s prowess at sweeping us all along with him on his heart-stopping, page-turning journey through each story, but in this trilogy his doughty band of heroes will stay in my mind far longer than old Monsta Brady:  it is the End of Watch for K. William Hodges (Det.Ret.) but his decency, kindness and honour illuminate every page.  Holly, that damaged girl who can’t be touched and can’t meet a person’s gaze stands up to be counted time and again;  and Jerome, who ultimately saves the day is a true babe!  Great characters, great story – FIVE STARS   

Mr. Mercedes, by Stephen King

Former Detective K. William Hodges is nearing the end of his tether.  Since he retired from the city Police Force, life has lost its edge;  there is nothing meaningful to relieve the boredom of his days, most of which are spent watching inane TV shows, eating junk food and drinking too much. 
Some days are worse than others:  on those days he contemplates suicide and sits in front of his TV with his father’s gun by his side – until the day he gets a letter, purportedly from a man who mowed down a line of jobseekers in a stolen Mercedes, a case that was still unsolved when he retired.
The letter writer seems to know a lot about Bill Hodges, including details of his first name (Kermit); information about his farewell bash (it was a drunken riot of fun!); and even more chilling:  insider knowledge of Bill’s suicidal thoughts.  Is this monster a mind-reader?  How does he know so much? 
The general tenor of the letter is designed to increase Bill’s feelings of worthlessness, to push him into that last act with his father’s gun:  ‘it would be too bad if you started thinking your whole career had been a waste of time because the fellow who killed all those Innocent People ‘slipped through your fingers’.
But you are thinking of it, aren’t you?  I would like to close with one final thought from ‘the one that got away’.  That thought is:
F--- YOU, LOSER.
Just kidding!
Very truly yours,
THE MERCEDES KILLER.’

Once again, Mr King takes the reader into the dark places of minds and hearts with his usual effortless skill.  In this latest opus there is nary a hint of the supernatural for which he is so famous; not a spectre in sight:  instead he writes of the monsters that contemporary society creates who walk among their unsuspecting victims disguised by spurious normality -  as here, where the Mercedes killer is revealed early in the plot as Brady Hartfield, dutiful son of an alcoholic mother and hard worker at two jobs, one as a computer technician, the other driving an ice cream van.  What could be more normal; (even a little sad – the sacrifices that boy makes for his mother!) he works super hard at blending in with everything and everyone – why, he’s practically invisible!
But not infallible.  Contrary to his expectations, his letter has given K. William Hodges (Det.Ret.) a huge boost;  the depressive clouds have parted – his mind, always keen, has something to grapple with again:  start playing the game, Mr Mercedes.  Let’s see who wins!
As always, Mr King provides his main protagonists with great supporting characters, in this case Jerome, Bill’s 17 year old lawn and odd job boy – who just happens to be black, highly intelligent and a computer whizz – but not half as whizzy as Holly, a true PC Maestro who unfortunately is plagued with ‘issues’.  They are Bill’s doughty assistants.  Their dialogue is perfect, crackling and comic (how I wish I could remember some of those one liners!) but it never distracts us from the horror and creeping suspense of a great story.  Mr Mercedes is going to strike again.  But where?  When?  And can they stop him?
Stephen King has once again held a mirror up to contemporary society, and it shows a chilling image, one that is very hard to look at.  FIVE STARS


           

             

Friday, 24 June 2016

MORE GREAT READS FOR JUNE, 2016

The City of Mirrors, by Justin Cronin

            I am SO delighted to have finished this book – not because it wasn’t  a superb story, wonderfully told, but because it is the last title in Mr Cronin’s trilogy that started with ‘The Passage’ six years ago,(see reviews below) and the details of the first books have faded with time.  Given the huge complexities of the plot – not to mention a cast of thousands – Mr Cronin has written in record time his sprawling, monumental account of the world before and after a deadly virus strikes it, but those (like me) who read each book as it was published will have problems remembering who was who, who died, and what the present characters did in the previous books.  On the other hand, those who can read all three books in sequence now will be suitably awed by the mighty sweep of the story, and Mr Cronin’s all-too-real vision of our world in ruins.
            A century after the lethal virus as part of a failed military and scientific experiment was loosed upon the world, survivors on the American continent have gained huge victories:  the twelve monsters created to spread the disease to the population, turning them all into killing machines have been destroyed, in fact no-one has seen a viral for more than twenty years.  Rudimentary settlements have appeared in various places, making use of the detritus left behind to reconstruct as best they can the comforts and necessities they took for granted in that life B.V.  (Before Virus/Virals).  Could it be possible that the danger has passed?  Is it safe now to leave the walled cities and towns, and branch out into the countryside to live, as their ancestors did centuries ago – should they take the risk? 
            Of course.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained!  Besides, though secure against viral attacks the settlements are becoming crowded;  the population has expanded even though local governments have tried to limit it to two children per family;  it makes sense to establish new outposts elsewhere, especially if the virals are all dead.
            But they’re not.  (Didn’t you see that coming!)
            All Twelve leading virals were destroyed in Book Two – but the First, the first to be infected, Zero the most powerful, still exists and bides his time;  eventually he will mount a mega-attack of his own to finish off those scrabbling absurdities who feel superior because they have survived – so far.
            Mr Cronin’s masterly handling of the classic struggle between Good and Evil has as much tragedy as triumph;  Zero’s human story elicits sympathy at his luckless circumstances as well as horror, and the main protagonists, despite performing feats that would make Superman jealous never lose their credibility.  That is a mighty achievement in itself, but Mr Cronin also gives us a chilling glimpse into a time that we would rather know nothing of, a time where the human race oversteps the boundaries of its tenure on this planet – and nature strikes back.  SIX STARS
           
The Passage, by Justin Cronin

Now:  Your first requisite for reading this book is strong wrists – it’s a doorstopper.  Your second is a complete suspension of ‘yeah, right!’ comments as I recount my heavily-abridged version of the plot, for this is a novel on the grand scale as well as huge physical size;  it’s a tale of a scientific experiment gone dreadfully, fatally wrong, conducted by the U.S. Army in a remote location in the mountains of Colorado, the scientific objective being to create a race of ‘Super Soldiers’, impervious to heat, cold, disease and virtually indestructible, thereby conquering America’s terrorist enemies in Afghanistan and the Indian subcontinent. 
There would be no more wounded and dying to be returned home  ‘eating up the defense budget in the veterans’ hospitals’;  in short, it would be the answer to the Pentagon’s prayers – all that had to be done was to inject a new-found virus into chosen candidates, and after a short period of illness, a new, invincible warrior would be born. 
But here’s the rub:  the men initially chosen as guinea-pigs for the experiment were all convicts on Death Row, criminals of the worst kind.  When injected with the serum they were turned into killing machines, entirely devoid  of morals, compassion and conscience – and highly infectious.  The major part of the plot deals with their escape, the destruction they wreak on the world, and What Happens Next, for naturally there are some doughty survivors left to battle these thousands of dreadful beings. 
Mr. Cronin is a superb story-teller;  his masterly plotting and wonderful imagery create suspense of the most heart-stopping kind;   at no time does the story sag or lose impetus -  no mean feat when you consider the size of this book (760 pages).  I read that ‘The Passage’ is the first book of a trilogy:  well, my heart and my wrists quail at the thought of the sheer physical weight of words in the next two volumes, but I can honestly say that I can’t wait to continue this epic adventure,  at the very least  to find out WHAT HAPPENS, but also to know how Mr. Cronin’s characters eventually vanquish the mutants – or will they?  There’s only one way to find out:  keep reading.   Book #2 is called ‘The Twelve’.  êêêêê


The Twelve, by Justin Cronin

The Apocalypse is here.  The sequel to Justin Cronin’s epic novel ‘The Passage’ has arrived and once again the reader is swept into the bleak and terrifying new world that is the U.S.A., after a failed scientific experiment backed by the military in Colorado loosed twelve fatally infectious mutants onto an unsuspecting population.
The action switches back and forth from the weeks and months after the catastrophe to 100 years in the future, when America stands alone – all other countries of the world have forsaken it in their attempts to keep the virus and its dreadful carriers away from their shores and Mr Cronin paints, as always, superb pictures of the destruction and decay of once mighty cities;  the terrible despair and hopelessness of the population; the establishment by brave men and women still fuelled by hope of fortresses in which to build safe settlements, and the efforts of a few who have not lost their nerve to find and annihilate The Twelve so that Americans may once again live as they did in The Time Before.
As in the first book, there are many unforgettable characters, ancestors of those who take the fight in book two to its ultimate destination;  they are so beautifully realised that it is a regret to the reader when their role in the story ends.  As before, the action and suspense is palpably real – but intermittently:  Mr Cronin does not generate in this book the same breakneck pace so necessary to move along a story of this size and scope, and parts of the novel, particularly in the Homeland sections, are less than credible.  Which is a shame, for Mr Cronin met effortlessly all the requirements that any reader could desire in book one:  perhaps book three will find that exceptional rhythm once again, when good will triumph over evil – or Armageddon will destroy all.
Either way, the reader can count on Justin Cronin to keep them turning the pages until the very end –providing he doesn’t slow down in the middle.  FOUR STARS

            

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

GREAT READS FOR JUNE, 2016

The Summer Before the War, by Helen Simonson

                In mid-1914, School teacher Beatrice Nash arrives in Rye, a pretty coastal Sussex town to teach Latin to the local children.  She is under no illusions that they will share the same love for the great language as she, but she means to make her very best attempt to instil within young minds the epic poems taught to her by her father, an internationally recognised and revered classical scholar, from whose death she is still recovering. 
            Beatrice is determined to make her own way in the world, to support herself by her own efforts, rather than to depend on her father’s aristocratic but socially isolated (by their own rigid ideas of self-worth) relatives – who are not so eager to see her depart their care, for the sole reason that she may embarrass them by being ‘employed’ – which only makes Beatrice more determined to succeed.  She also vows never to marry, to yield all the decisions of her life to a man perhaps not smart enough to make them, especially not financially.  Beatrice admires Women’s Suffrage too, which makes her a square peg in a round hole, particularly in Rye, whose traditions and customs have been set in stone for centuries. 
Until the Great War changes everything.  In Ms Simonson’s lovely story the social strata of Britain is revealed in all its degrees of ugliness:  Dickie Sidley nicknamed Snout, Beatrice’s top Latin scholar (there aren’t many of them, but he is sharply intelligent and reads Virgil for the huge enjoyment it gives him) is denied the school Latin scholarship because his father is a Gypsy – and even if Snout didn’t have the Romany taint he still wouldn’t be eligible because his family is poor. 
Hugh Grange, an aspiring young doctor under the tutelage of an eminent Harley Street surgeon (and in love – he thinks – with the Great Man’s charming daughter) is railroaded into enlisting in the Army Medical Corps, not because lives must and will be saved by their expertise, but just imagine the scientific glory to be heaped upon those who can be at the forefront of new treatments for wounds great and small!  Hugh is privately uneasy that ‘men’ are not mentioned – just wounds.  The surgeon’s daughter, too, announces that any admirer in her circle who doesn’t enlist will be presented with a White Feather, the symbol of cowardice, by her and her equally patriotic friends.
Snout is so crushed by the school’s decision to award the Latin scholarship to a rugby player that he persuades his father to give him permission to enlist – a 15 year-old child, off to fight the Hun just as his favourite Trojan heroes did thousands of years ago.  His fate towards the end of the book is horrifying and undeserved, a searing and terrible example of inept and privileged leadership by those ill-equipped to have power over men, at the front because they had a title, and had inherited or bought their commissions.
Ms Simonson has marshalled a great cast of characters, too many to name here but all equally important for the many secrets they hide and hypocrisies they represent.  She has a lovely gift for writing humour in every form through all the social strata, and while I warn that this book is a real door-stopper (580 pages – yep, you’ll need strong wrists!) it is beautifully written and completely absorbing to the last page.  FIVE STARS

Coming Rain, by Stephen Daisley
         
            ‘Traitor’,Stephen Daisley’s debut novel six years ago (see review below) earned him several distinguished Australian literary awards, and ‘Coming Rain’, his second novel, has recently gained him New Zealand’s top literary prize.  And rightly so.
            Set in the Western Australia of the 1950’s, Mr Daisley paints an enormous canvas of harsh, bright horizons, red dust and flies ( I swear I can still hear them buzzing and feel the dust clog my nostrils), myriad wild creatures trying to survive and mean little settlements peopled by men and women as tough and unforgiving as the landscape.  Mr Daisley’s word pictures are breathtaking and brutal as he introduces us to his protagonists, Painter Hayes and Lewis McCleod, itinerant shearers-cum-charcoal burners on their way to shear sheep for Mr Drysdale, a landowner in decline;  his wife has recently died and the land is starting to get away from him.  Even though his lovely daughter Clara has returned from that posh finishing school to help him out, he can’t seem to find the old motivation, the old drive to farm the way he used to.  He is wallowing in his grief.
            Painter and Lew are an unlikely pair:  Lew has been with Painter for ten years, since he was eleven when his mother sent him off with a shearer’s agent after she was given a carton of Lucky Strikes;  fortunately for Lew he was taught the job by Painter, a Gun shearer – and a brawling, boxing drunk on his days off.  Painter lacks a lot as a father figure, but Lew is not complaining, for they look out for each other;  they work hard and travel from job to job in an old truck that becomes more scarred with each journey – but it still gets them there, as reliable an old horse.  He can’t imagine a different life for himself – until he meets Clara Drysdale, gloriously fit, charmingly pretty, a great horsewoman and dog-lover (she has a whole pack of adoring canines) – and the boss’s daughter.
            Painter tries to warn Lew away from certain disaster, but Clara is just as smitten and persuades her ardent admirer to ask her father for permission to ‘see’ her – and the consequences of such a respectful and timid request are  more brutal and tragic than anyone could imagine:  this reader didn’t see the figurative sledgehammer coming, and I am still shivering with horror, but again full of admiration for the sheer power, the absolute mastery of narrative that Mr Daisley displays, especially in his parallel story of a female dingo who keeps on crossing Lew’s path, both of them ultimate survivors  in a brutal world.
            What an honour it was to read this book.  I wish my review could do it justice, but I don’t have Mr Daisley’s wonderful word-power.   SIX STARS   
  

Traitor, by Stephen Daisley

This is a novel about friendship, sure and true and everlasting, born in the carnage of battle and strengthened by terrible subsequent adversity.  There are no happy endings in ‘Traitor’ for its theme is an exploration of what is traitorous:  the betrayal of friendship or of one’s country? 
David Monroe is a New Zealand soldier at Gallipoli;  he has already been mentioned in dispatches for his bravery at Chunuk Bair, but his life is changed forever by his meeting in the heat of bombardment with a Turkish Officer, a Doctor who is frantically trying to save the life of an Australian Digger – his enemy.  They are all victims of the next explosion;  the Australian dies and David, badly wounded by shrapnel, ends up being guard to the Turk Mahmoud, who has lost his foot and most of the fingers of one hand.  They bond with each other to the extent that David tries to help Mahmoud to escape, with disastrous results, especially for himself:  he is now regarded as a deserter and a traitor and undergoes terrible punishment, especially from men he formerly regarded as friends – they have no time for ‘conchies’. 
He demonstrates his courage again and again as a stretcher bearer on the battlefields of France and Belgium, where he has been sent after his prison sentence, but he is never forgiven, then or after the war;  people don’t care to associate with him for consorting with the enemy, a murderer of ‘our boys at the front’. 
This is Mr. Daisley’s debut novel and it is a searing, powerful evocation of a time when ‘King and Country’ meant everything to those at home and to those young men who went to fight – until they encountered the dreadful theatre of war, experiencing first-hand the great divide between patriotism and the bloody reality of destruction.  It is a story of love in many forms, parental love – in David’s case, the lack of it – the love of mateship, romantic love and the love of the land.  Mr. Daisley has crafted a superb and poignant story with unforgettable characters, and a wonderfully accurate portrayal of a life and times now barely remembered in this new century.   His prose is beautiful and elegiac – and utterly compelling.  SIX STARS