Monday, 10 February 2020

Silver, by Chris Hammer.

           Chris Hammer’s second crime novel is a sequel to ‘Scrublands’, his epic, page-turning tale of drought, bush fires and murder in a remote little town in Australia’s New South Wales (reviewed January 2019):  now he follows it up with ‘Silver’, a sequel blessed with all the elements that made ‘Scrublands’ so successful – strong characters, marvellous evocations of time and place, and shrewd journalistic assessments of Australian reaction to foreign investment on a federal and local government level.
            Sacked journo Martin Scarsden is once again the main protagonist;  he is joining his new love, Mandy Blonde and her baby son Liam in Port Silver on the NSW coast.  Mandy has inherited a large property there and she thinks it’s the perfect place for a new start for them all – time to put the horrific events of the past year in their proper place:  behind them.  The only problem is that Martin hasn’t been completely honest with Mandy:  unbeknownst to her, he was born in Port Silver and when he was eight, suffered the terrible loss of his mother and twin sisters in an accident;  then he had to watch his father drink himself to death.  The day Martin left Port Silver was the happiest day of his life, and he doesn’t know how he will settle back into normal living (doing what?  He is no longer a journalist) when he has so many ghosts to haunt him.
            Their new life is off to a very shaky start, he thinks – until he calls round to the townhouse Mandy has rented, only to find her with hands bloodied, shaking with terror, and a stabbed and dying man stretched out in her hallway.  To make a horrendous situation even worse, Martin recognises the victim as that of his old school friend Jasper Speight who, presumably, had called round particularly to see Martin:  he had damning evidence of local corruption and wanted Martin to investigate.  Now he is dead and Mandy, of all people, is a suspect.  The situation could not get any worse, thinks Martin, and God hears that and laughs.
            Mr Hammer has written a big novel – some 560 pages – and it’s chock-full of minor characters and situations, a lot of which feels like unnecessary padding:  there are more murders and even more suspects:  when the final unveiling is flourished I have to say that it’s almost an anti-climax.  It’s true that I never suspected whodunnit, but I nearly drowned with all the red herrings.  Having said that, ‘Silver’ is still a fine, suspenseful read.  (You just have to have strong wrists!)  FOUR STARS. 

Saturday, 1 February 2020

The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood.

            It has been thirty five years since Margaret Atwood’s brilliant Dystopian novel ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ was published, a tiresomely lengthy time for her myriad fans to wait for answers to What Happened Next to the Handmaid Offred and her precious children:  now, our curiosity has been satisfied by Ms Atwood at her most sublime:  ‘The Testaments’ has it all - a gripping plot, magnificent characters, and a heroine who was forced into villainy but redeems herself utterly:  Vengeance, Thy Name is …..  nope, no spoilers in THIS blog!
            This book was worth waiting 35 years for, especially after the wonderful TV series. It centres on Offred’s daughters – Agnes Jemima, who started life in freedom as Hannah before a calamitous Civil War transformed the United States into Gilead, and Baby Nicole, Offred’s child of bondage in the new totalitarian society, planned to be given to ‘pretend’ parents, Fred and Serena Waterford to raise. 
Agnes remains in unhappy thrall to her Gilead parents;  her loving first ‘mother’ Tabitha has died and her ‘father’ Commander Kyle wastes no time in taking another wife, who wants Agnes out of the house, and the best way to achieve that is – marriage.  Marriage to the elderly but immensely powerful Commander Judd, who enjoys a worrying propensity for very young wives, all of whom eventually become sickly and die.
            Agnes’s fate appears to be sealed, until in desperation she applies to Aunt Lydia, one of the Founders, to be an Aunt, a so-called guardian of the various classes of women in Giladean society.  It is not an ideal fate;  she will never have children, the sacred destiny of all Gilead women, but at least she will still be alive.
            By contrast, her unknown little sister Baby Nicole has been abducted from her pious family and spirited off to Canada, where she becomes Daisy and grows up with foster parents, unaware of her origins and in an atmosphere of freedom unimaginable to any Gilead inhabitant – until her foster parents are cruelly murdered by those over the border who have never stopped looking for Baby Nicole.  It’s time for Daisy to grow up, and return to Gilead – not as Baby Nicole but as Jade, a homeless street kid who wants God in her life:  she has had a crash course as a spy and is expected to bring back vital information from an important inside source to American revolutionary groups in Canada – if she can pull it off.
            Ms Atwood pulls it off in spades.  This is an astonishing, masterly sequel to her most famous and beloved novel, and is a fitting testament to today’s 21st century ‘democracy’.  SIX STARS.  


Saturday, 18 January 2020

Masters and Mages Trilogy

Masters and Mages Trilogy
Cold Iron,
Dark Forge
Bright Steel

            Miles Cameron is not an author I am familiar with, but he has a vast body of fantasy work, according to the fly-leaves of his books, that I have never heard of, so where have I been all my literary life?  Well, never mind – I have soldiered through this mighty trilogy, and lived to tell the tale.
            I have to say that I spent a fair bit of the first book trying to square Mr Cameron’s parallel fantasy world with the helpful map he provided in ‘Cold Iron’ (which is the name of a secret society of spies bent on saving the known world from destruction), with our European world in Medieval times (I have to know these things!), and have cleverly deduced that the action takes place around the Mediterranean, between Greece and Turkey, where lowly farm boy  Aranthur Timos is a scholarship student at the prestigious Studion in the great city of Megara.  He is reminded often of his lack of status by the other students but manages to survive because he is resourceful, naturally gifted with magic powers (which is why he is at the school) and a clever swordsman – he even spent his rent money on a mysterious old sword that he purchased at the market, never dreaming that it would save his life more than once - because it can talk. 
            And in return for becoming his arm of fire, the sword wants a favour, too:  to be freed from its metal prison, so that it once again may become a mighty Paladin. 
            Oh, there’s something for everyone here!  From Aranthur’s reluctant initiation into Cold Iron, to his blooding as a warrior in the war against The Pure, the terrifying hierarchy of powerful Mages so determined to control universal power that they manage to split the sky asunder, making a Dark Forge that grows bigger every day.  It is up to Aranthur and his loyal band of friends (and a supernatural lover) to defeat these ghouls so that the world can survive – all very well, thinks Aranthur as he wields Bright Steel, but he loathes killing, and he must do much of it on his reluctant path to be a Lightbringer, a Magos powered for good.

            Mr Cameron has a mighty imagination and a tremendous gift for writing thrilling, heart-stopping prose.  Poor old Aranthur is under attack on every second page, but as this is fantasy he wins each encounter – sometimes by the skin of his teeth, but he’s the larger-than-life hero, so it’s only fitting, and his mates deserve a special mention, too – a more motley band couldn’t be found anywhere else.  And there’s even a Chinese Dragon on the side of the good guys:  what more could one want!  FIVE STARS    


Sunday, 5 January 2020

The Last to See Me, by M. Dressler.

          This is a big story packed into a little volume.  Ms Dressler is writing a series entitled ‘The Last Ghost’, and Book One contains only 264 pages, but enough action to fill a book twice the size:  narrator Emma Rose Finnis is a very busy spirit!
            She died more than 100 years ago, and haunts a stately old home in a small tourist village in Northern California.  Benito used to be a timber town until the trees were all felled and the mills closed;  now, it bolsters its faltering economy by promoting itself as a charming tourist destination, a restful and scenic coastal break from San Francisco to the South.  The mansion Emma ‘occupies’ was the home of the Lambry family, the original timber barons and uncrowned royalty of the area;  now old Alice Lambry has died and her distant heirs, who have no interest in the property, want the place sold.
            So far, there has been scant interest – until local agent, ‘timid little Ellen DeWight’ (Emma likes her and hasn’t tried to scare her silly – yet.) brings Mr and Mrs Dane to visit.  He is a rich developer, interested only in the land and the house’s position;  his wife wants to gut the place, removing all the wonderful architectural features that make the property a treasure, but their whispered plans in the butler’s pantry enrage Emma so much that she locks them in, turns off the lights and starts filling the pantry with water.  There.  That will teach them a lesson!
            And it does.  They are almost in a state of collapse (Mrs Dane wet herself!), but Emma reckons without Mr Dane’s zeal and determination to close the deal:  he wants that property now more than ever, and hires a ‘ghost cleaner’, the very best, to get rid of her.
            Emma had this reader in an iron and ghostly grip as she recounts her tactics to outwit Philip Pratt, the man who states that he was born to eradicate ghosts, shades and phantoms.  He is absolutely committed to hunting down and sending Emma off to the local graveyard, where she rightly belongs:  she, naturally (or not) resists with all her supernatural might, and as the story progresses we learn the sad circumstances of Emma’s eighteen years of life, and her efforts to remain what she has always striven to be – a free spirit.
            Ms Dressler has given us a beautifully written, tightly plotted introduction to her series.  I could say I’m dying to read Book Two, but that doesn’t sound right – I’ll look forward to it, instead!  FIVE STARS

Monday, 30 December 2019

It’s that time again …….!

When all the August Publications and Flash Mags bring out their Best of the Best lists for the year. 
So here’s mine.
Well, why not, I say!  I’ve read some pretty amazing titles this year and while I can’t list a mighty Top Twenty, I have come up with Seventeen Stunners (sorry, sorry!).  These are books that I have rated more than five stars;  it’s not easy to award six stars out of five, or even seven – so the quality of writing is stratospheric in my August Opinion.  Should you wish to read individual reviews, please use the search drop box;  for some mysterious reason I can’t provide a title link. 
The titles are in chronological order, not in order of preference.  Happy New Year, everyone, and keep reading.  As if we could ever stop!

1                   Country, by Michael Hughes
2                   The Rosie Result, by Graham Simsion
3                   November Road, by Lou Berney
4                   The Border, by Don Winslow
5                   The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, by Imogen Hermes Gowar
6                   Necessary Secrets, by Greg McGee
7                   The Hoarder, by Jess Kidd
8                   Boy Swallows Universe, by Trent Dalton
9                   The War that Saved my Life, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (Junior fiction)
10              Flight of the Fantail, by Steph Matuku (Young Adults)
11              Good Girl, Bad Girl, by Michael Robotham
12              In the Shadow of Wolves, by Alvidas Slepikas
13              Auē, by Becky Manawatu
14              Elephant secret, by Eric Walters (Junior fiction)
15              The River, by Peter Heller
16              Bridge of Clay, by Markus Zusak
17              Akin, by Emma Donoghue

Thursday, 19 December 2019

Agent Running in the Field, by John le Carré.

Nat (anglicised from Anatoly) is in the middle:  middle-aged – coming up 47 – middle-sized – a slim 5’ 10” and pretty fit – and a British spy of the middle order, running agents in the field here and there in Europe, which he usually recruits through his middling prowess on the Badminton court.  It’s relatively easy in his guise as a middle-order diplomat to invite likely recruits from other consulates or embassies for a game of badminton, thence to practice his well-honed skills of charm and persuasion (and practical rewards) to turn the likely one into a middle-order spy.
            Now he has been called permanently back to Britain, a country he hardly recognises after so many years abroad, and given charge of a minor station on its last legs, surely a blatant signal by his bosses to position him for early retirement – ‘Dear old chap, thanks SO much for your sterling efforts’  etc.  The writing is on the wall, Nat informs his stoic wife Prue, a human-rights lawyer who is also getting used to his everyday presence, having decided to stay in London to bring up their daughter Stephanie who is now raised, and rebellious with it.  Yes, his new life will take some getting used to, not least Brexit, Trump’s presidency and its effect on the ineffectual Tory government scrambling to make trade deals with America -  and the meeting with a mysterious young man who visits Nat at his athletics club especially to challenge him to a weekly game.
            Ed Shannon is vague about his occupation:  he’s in Research, but researching what is unstated;  instead he uses their matches to expound on his hatred for Putin and Trump, those arch-collaborators and anti-Christs.  He is filled with the unquenchable zeal of youth, but no-one is more surprised than Nat when a badminton foursome he arranges at Ed’s request (so that his disabled sister can have a hit or two), and Florence, a very promising agent from his office develops into something much more – and infinitely more sinister.
            As always, Mr Le Carré’s enormous gifts of credible and witty  characterisation are a pleasure all by themselves, but his sharply-focused eye on Britain’s current troubles is all-encompassing, and his view is bleak:  the ways in which the world can now be manipulated are myriad, ‘Fake News’ being the least of them:  When Nat the cynic and Ed the idealist’s views collide, the fall-out is deafening.  FIVE STARS.   

Saturday, 7 December 2019

Akin, by Emma Donoghue.

           Retired, childless scientist Noah Selvaggio is planning a trip to Southern France – Nice, specifically, the city of his birth.  His late sister has left him a bequest in her will on the condition that he go off ‘and have some fun!’, so he shall follow orders, not hard to do as he has nothing to tie him to his New York apartment.  His brilliant wife, also a scientist, died nine years ago;  his sister’s beautiful, wastrel son died of a drug overdose a couple of years previously and it’s very obvious that Noah, about to ‘celebrate’ his 80th birthday is only marking time until it is his turn to follow his family into the beyond.  Still, it will be interesting to see the South of France again;  he wonders how much of Nice he will remember, having left as a young child towards the end of World War Two.  And it will be interesting to know if his maternal Grandfather’s illustrious reputation as a photographer will still be celebrated in his birthplace. 
            Yes, now that the trip is only days away, Noah is pleased to see that he can still feel some excitement at spending his Milestone birthday in such a special place.
            Until he is called by Rosa Figueroa, a social worker (with 24 other cases in her personal workload) who informs him that his sister’s late, overdosed son had an eleven-year-old son of his own, previously cared-for by the maternal grandmother:  sadly, she has died of complications from diabetes, and Michael has no-one from his biological family to care for him.  Apart from Noah, his Great-uncle. 
And it does Noah no good to enquire after the whereabouts of Michael’s mother:  ‘she’s currently incarcerated.’  Would Noah be prepared to care for Michael until Rosa can track down Michael’s Aunt (who is who knows where) – perhaps he could take Michael to Nice, too?
            The acclaimed author of  ‘Room’ takes us all to Nice on a very bumpy ride for two people who do not want to be together;  a man at the wrong end of his life forced with zero experience to care for a child who is grieving for the absence of his mother and grandmother, the pillars of his short existence. And there is the deepening puzzle of Noah’s origins, the mystery of which ultimately creates the fragile beginnings of a relationship that, at the end of the trip, doesn’t seem so impossible after all.  This is a story of the true meaning of kinship and the unbreakable bond of family, there whether we recognise it or not.  SIX STARS.