Wednesday, 26 December 2012

The Book of Jonas, by Stephen Dau
Jonas is a teenage war refugee from an unstated country in this debut novel from Stephen Dau. Academically clever, he would prefer to be known as ‘a member of the Global Diaspora’;  it has a more independent ring to it, for a refugee is someone who has no control over his place in the world, instead being utterly reliant on the kindness of strangers in American relief organisations, who, when asked why they are helping him, reply ‘ We are the Right Hand.’
‘The Right Hand?”
‘Yes.  We are here to clean up the mess that the Left Hand has made.’
And this is the crux of this beautiful, tragic story:  the attempts that everyone makes to clean up the mess;  to right dreadful wrongs – in Jonas’s case the destruction of his village by the American military in the mistaken belief that insurgents are using the village to manufacture explosive devices and hide weapons to use against the U.S. soldiers, who initially were there only to help them.
Jonas is sorely wounded in the attack, but manages to escape to a cave in the mountains known to his father.  He is followed by Chris Henderson, an American soldier who is so horrified by the mayhem he and his unit have been ordered to perpetrate on innocent villagers that he goes AWOL.  Chris saves Jonas’s life but is eventually listed as missing in action, a mystery that fractures and divides his family forever;  Jonas is found and eventually taken to the U.S. to start life anew, and every opportunity is offered to him to forget his terrible past and make his home in the Land of the Free.
Sadly, this doesn’t happen:  the guilt that torments Chris into leaving his unit also consumes Jonas, but for entirely different reasons.  This story examines the nature and consequences of guilt in spare and beautiful prose;  it exposes to the reader the dreadful lengths that men will go to live with their shame, and the tipping point that sends them into the abyss.  I hesitate to use the term ‘literary tour de force’;  it can be a much hackneyed phrase,  but in Mr. Dau’s case, no other description will do:  it was a privilege to read this fine book.

Kill you Twice, by Chelsea Cain.
This is the fifth novel in Ms Cain’s series of the battle of wills between Super Detective Archie Sheridan, brilliant but damaged White Knight in the fight against evil, personified by gorgeous serial killer Gretchen Lowell.  (See July, 2011 review below).
Not much has changed in Ms Cain’s plotting armoury:  yet another crazed killer is on the loose in Portland Oregon, despatching victims in new and hideous ways, and this time leaving not a single clue for Archie and his dedicated task force.  It becomes increasingly clear (especially as Gretchen sends him tantalising messages from the mental hospital where she is now incarcerated) that he will have to consult the fiendish Ms Lowell in a bid to find out more about the killer:  it takes one to know one, as they say.
Archie survives the meeting – just;  as the awful Gretchen was heavily drugged and restrained his physical health was not endangered, but oh, what about his head:  it was nearly done in!  Talk about fatal attraction – the old, dreadful chemistry is at work as always, and Archie must contend not only with that but also the determined advances of Susan Ward, irritating girl reporter, and a new and sizzlingly sexy occupant of his apartment building.  His problems with women appear to be endless – and baffling to the reader, because Ms Cain’s description of his physical appearance is less than kind:  one can only conclude, then, that his aftershave is irresistible.
Regardless, Gretchen’s information, supported by determined sleuthing from Ms Ward, moves the action along at a hectic rate.  Although she has unkindly characterised Portland as having more than its fair share of crazies, Ms Cain knows its topography well and is masterly at evoking atmosphere and suspense.  I defy anyone not to keep reading until they reach the end of this great page-turner, especially when Gretchen breaks out of the hospital, leaving a trail of corpses behind her (oh, she’s so resourceful!) and has one last, revealing meeting with Archie.  It has to be said that Ms Cain’s plotting is getting a little wild, but roll on, Book Six - I’ll be waiting!

The Night Season, by Chelsea Cain
This is Ms Cain’s fourth novel in her Beauty Killer series.  It follows Evil at Heart, Sweetheart, and Heartsick, and one of her reviewers extols her as the new queen of serial-killer fiction.  That’s a fair comment.  In her first three novels she had all the necessary prerequisites of the genre:  blood and gore for Africa;  a crazed (but beautiful – gee, that’s a surprise!) FEMALE serial killer;  the brilliant but burnt-out detective who eventually captures her – but only after she has carved a heart on his chest and removed his spleen – (truly!),  and a plucky girl reporter with enough irritating habits to drive even the reader mad.  What more could one ask for in a thriller?  ‘The Night Season’ follows in the same vein, with the same characters , but evil Gretchen Lowell, the Beauty Killer of the other books plays a lesser role this time;  she was incarcerated for the second time at the end of book three and now sits in gaol refusing to talk, but the citizens of Portland, Oregon, must now contend with a new madman, as well as a huge, impending flood of the Willamette river caused by heavy rain and snowmelt that threatens to inundate huge areas of the city.  Oh, it’s all happening, especially as the new crazed killer poisons his victims in the most preposterously clever way, then disguises them as drowning victims.  It’s up to Archie the carved-up, burnt-out – but brilliant – sleuth and fearless girl reporter Susan Ward to track him down and reel him in.  (Sorry about that, but there is a lot of water in this novel!)  And they do, but not without a lot of heart-stopping suspense in between:  Ms Cain sets her scenes superbly;  she creates effortlessly the lowering atmosphere of a flooding city and the creeping dread of yet another killing just round the corner:  the reader cannot put the book down until the end, and there can be no more satisfying experience than to have to keep reading to see What Happens Next.  All the elements of good thriller writing have been satisfied in this series :  horror, black humour and psychological tension.  As one reviewer said:  ‘This time she adds another arrow to her narrative quiver:  the interplay between landscape and mood …. Terrifying. ‘  Wish I’d thought of that, but he’s absolutely spot on!

Now that we have reached the end of the year, it is customary for all the famous publications to publish their ‘Ten Best’ lists.  I refuse to be outdone!  Eat your hearts out, Time magazine and NYTimes - the Horowhenua Library trust can have a ‘Best Books of the Year’ list, too, so there.  For all those very kind readers who have accessed this Blog from faraway countries and would like to know where we are, just GoogleEarth to find the Horowhenua, which is a province in the lower North Island of New Zealand – there, see, I’ve made things easy for you – and you’ll eventually end up in Levin, deep in sheep and cow country, where our library and its treasures (including me) reside.
Now for the list:


1.        Maine, by J. Courtney Sullivan
2.        The Free World, by David Bezmozgis

3.        Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn West

4.        The Golden Mean, by Annabel Lyon

5.        The Chemistry of Tears, by Peter Carey

6.        Wulf, by Hamish Clayton

7.        Inside Out and Back Again, by Thanha Lai

8.        The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick de Witt

9.        Pure, by Timothy Mo

10.      Prince of Thorns, King of Thorns, by Mark Lawrence
            (parts one and two of a trilogy)

11.      Sarah Thornhill, by Kate Grenville

12.      Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain

13.      The Dexter books, by Jeff Lindsay

14.      The Book of Jonas, by Steven Dau

Sorry, everyone – I could not confine myself to just ten selections, for every one of these books deserves to be singled out for very special mention.  It’s a chronological list:  for my usual long-winded review scroll older posts for the titles that appeal.
I’m adding some photos of our lovely region and various flora and fauna (apart from the cows and sheep!) for overseas readers – I’m sure GoogleEarth won’t be half as arty-farty in showing us off – and on behalf of the Horowhenua Library Trust and the management and staff of our beautiful Te Takere Library and Community Centre, I wish you all a wonderful Festive Season and a most happy and healthy New Year.

The lawns need mowing!

One of our native birds, the tui, is a nectar eater - time for a drink!
 Didn't I tell you there were cows?  The mighty Tararua Ranges are in the background.

Tui and Kowhai blosssom


The beautiful Kaka beak, named for a native parrot's beak

Monday, 10 December 2012

The Twelve, by Justin Cronin
The Apocolypse is here.  The sequel to Justin Cronin’s epic novel ‘The Passage’ (see March 2011 review below) 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!    

The Passage, by Justin Cronin
Now:  Your first requisite for reading this book is strong wrists – it’s a doorstopper.  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 defence 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 perfect, 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 resourceful 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:  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’.

The Panther, by Nelson de Mille

Anti-Terrorist Task Force Agent John Corey and his long-suffering wife FBI Agent Kate Mayfield are back for another adventure – and it’s about time!  As he has ably demonstrated in previous books, Nelson de Mille’s two protagonists are endlessly entertaining, resourceful and courageous in their work on behalf of their country:  even to readers who have never experienced the tragic and terrible effects of terrorism, Mr de Mille’s characters speak with an authentic voice, and because they are so grounded they are all the more credible.
Kate’s boss, coldly efficient Tom Walsh, makes them both an offer they can’t refuse:  fly to Yemen, which in 2003, the timeline of this novel, is the latest hotbed of Al Qaeda activity and recruiting.  There is a new, charismatic leader rallying the Jihadists:  Bulus ibn al-Darwish, otherwise known as the Panther, the master planner allegedly behind the bombing of the U.S. warship ‘Cole’.  His ruthlessness and hatred for America and the West is no different from all other Al Qaeda members;  what is utterly repugnant is that he is American-born – a citizen of the U.S.A. and filled with an implacable hatred for the country of his birth.  It will be John and Kate’s job to apprehend him, read him his rights then hand him over to the appropriate U.S. authorities.  Their reward for the capture of the Panther?  Well, they can name their future long-term postings.  And if they decide to refuse the assignments?  No contract renewal for John, and Kate will be sent indefinitely to Washington.  Well.  What would YOU do?
They arrive in Yemen’s capital Sana’a after a crash course in Arab culture and customs and are briefed on plans to proceed with the ostensible ‘capture’, but there is tacit agreement that the Panther will not return to America alive – which is fine by all concerned, a fitting end for someone who betrays his country – the only problem for John is that something seems a little off.  He is an arch cynic, a ‘believe-it-when-I-see-it’ kind of guy, a man who trusts no-one, including his superiors, and eventually he is proven correct:  he and Kate find that they have been unwitting pawns in a much bigger game than they were aware of, and instead of hunters they become the quarry, pursued by their own kind, men who believe utterly in the end justifying the means.  It seems that the Panther will not be the only one who will not return to America alive.
This great read is narrated as always by John Corey.  Oh, he has such a smart mouth and uses it to great effect – except in conversations with his wife;  he thinks of endless last words, but delivers very few:  he’s not silly, is he?  He and Kate are the perfect candidates for the suicidal situation in which they find themselves, ably assisted by another character from previous books, Paul Brenner:  this redoubtable trio are determined not to leave their bones in Yemen to facilitate a Great Game, and Mr de Mille has great fun constructing hair-raising situations and twists in the plot to hinder them.  Oh, he is SO reliable and writes with such aplomb:  every book a gem.


Friday, 30 November 2012

50 Shades Freed, by E. L. James.
At the start of the last book in this indescribable trilogy, Beyond Handsome but Seriously Disturbed Captain of Industry Christian Grey and his blushing, accident-prone lover Anastasia are on their honeymoon in the South of France, bonking like a pair of rabbits up and down the Cote d’Azur:  this IS to be expected of newlyweds, but one wishes that every bout of love-making, (ah, yes – they love each other so nothing is off limits) each more innovative – not to say weird but  they LOVE each other! – than the last, didn’t have to be related in tedious, mind-numbing detail.  Say what one will about the  missionary position, at least when a gel has to go about her business she doesn’t whistle when she walks.
Oh, they are both insatiable!  It’s all jolly unseemly and I kept waiting for them to get a grip on themselves instead of each other, but it was a long time coming.
Eventually, Ms James settles down to follow a very insubstantial plot line:  Ana is engaged in a battle of wills with her control-freak (but Beyond Beautiful) hubby – he wants her to give up her job and she refuses, thereby earning his ire, and a denial of sexual congress unless it is on his terms.  Well, the hapless reader can imagine what that means:  more tedium in the Playroom (formerly the Red Room of Pain), but Ana is made of stern stuff:  she can play those games too – but I so wish she wouldn’t!  Many pages are devoted to who is going to win the battle to be a Dominant or a Dominatrix.  It’s all SO exhausting that I had to skip a lot of the ‘action’ until I came across the next part of the story, which is that Ana – oh, she’s so BUSY being an editor in the job Christian doesn’t want her to have – messes up her contraception injections, and to Christian’s horror, she is now IN THE CLUB.
He cannot share her!  She must terminate the pregnancy!  Mr. Kinky Freaky’s beautiful gray eyes are harrowed and his brow is furrowed!  (I am quoting here.)  Needless to say, Ana takes the opposite tack and a state of war exists in the Grey household, made worse by the return like a bad smell of the dreadful Jack Hyde, Ana’s ex-boss and sexual harasser.  This time he wants $4,000,000 because he has kidnapped Christian’s sister – ‘Bring me the money and don’t tell your S.O.B husband, or I’ll hurt her before I kill her.’  Well, what’s a gel to do?  Christian’s sister is such a twerp that I would have said ‘Give me a few months to think about it’ but Ana charges to the rescue with an enormous bag of money:  she has to endure a cruel assault from the evil Mr. Hyde, but she doesn’t bother to kick him in the sex organs this time – she shoots him in the knee!  She had a gun hidden down the back of her designer jeans all the time – I mean to say, did we REALLY think that she would go to such a rendezvous without a plan?  Silly sister is saved, Christian gallops onto the scene like a Parfit Knight, carts Ana off to hospital, swears undying love for her and the baby, puts the loot back in the numbered account and the ghastly Mr. Hyde is incarcerated once again, this time permanently.
Oh, there’s nothing like a happy ending, is there, but I have to admit to some dreadful unease when I reached the last page:  Ms James thanks the reader  prettily for reading her deathless prose, then says ‘That’s all ……. For now’.  Is that a threat?  My toes are curling up like Aladdin’s slippers:  Mein Gott, WHAT NEXT???     

Saturday, 17 November 2012

The Casual Vacancy, by J. K. Rowling
J. K. Rowling is known the world over for her wonderful Harry Potter series, one of the great morality tales of the last hundred years and the books that brought children back to reading.  She is a fitting companion to Tolkien and Lewis.  She is the deserving recipient of numerous prestigious literary awards and charitable causes and could rest easily on her laurels:  instead, she has produced her first adult novel, eagerly awaited by us all.
And it was hugely disappointing – at least for me.
We are in the land of the Muggles now.  There is no magic to transform us and bear us away to the delights and frights of Hogwarts;  there is not a vestige of humour to leaven the bleakness of Ms. Rowling’s plot or the singular nastiness of her characters;  everyone to a man (or woman) is morally bankrupt, and proud of it, and the ending is as tragic as the beginning.
Local counsellor Barry Fairbrother dies of a brain aneurysm in the car park of the Pagford Golf Club, where he and his wife were about to have dinner to celebrate their 19th wedding anniversary.  His shocking and unexpected demise means that there will now be a vacancy on the Pagford Parish Council, run as a mini-fiefdom by Howard Rollison, the local Deli owner.  He prides himself that he is the nearest thing to a mayor that pretty, picturesque Pagford has, and as soon as he installs his son Miles as Barry’s replacement they can both carry the vote to rid the village of the financial responsibility of The Fields, a dreadful housing estate that encroaches their borders, thanks to a land deal of fifty years before.  The Fields is full of lay-abouts, losers and junkies, and the particular eyesore that Howard wants to be rid of is the Addiction clinic which, because it is within their rural boundary, is Pagford’s expense to bear.  Howard never liked Barry anyway (because Barry was a product of The Fields);  good riddance to bad rubbish.
Howard is shocked to find that several other people, all for different reasons,  are eying the vacancy as well and have put themselves up for candidacy.   The ensuing election battle is the main impetus of the story, pitting various factions against each other and revealing secrets and sorrows that should have stayed hidden. 
The late counsellor Fairbrother is revealed as being more of a positive influence on everyone than at first thought, especially when his surviving friends and neighbours prove themselves to be much the lesser when it comes to the crunch of filling his very big shoes – not just on the council, but as a mentor to the local youth, particularly those from The Fields.  This is a very negative book – not because it is poorly written, (how could it be?  Ms Rowling has proved her literary credentials time and again) but because she doesn’t give the reader any hope that the bleak literary portrait she paints will ever change. 
Hope:  that vital and most cherished human emotion – the reader needs to feel hopeful of a better outcome in this story as much as in real life;  what a shame Ms Rowling doesn’t allow us that privilege.  Maybe it’s me and my yen for happy endings, but give me Hogwarts and its denizens any old time, for  Ms Rowling’s Muggles aren’t nice to be near.

Live by Night, by Dennis Lehane
Dennis Lehane has written many novels, several of which have been successfully filmed.  He centres his stories mainly in Boston, Massachusetts and has always created great characters and great plots.  ‘Live by Night’ is a loose sequel to ‘The Given Day’, an epic tale of the First World War, the soldiers who returned and the police force they joined.  Racism and Baseball play a huge part in this fine book and it would be an advantage for the reader to read this first, if possible, but ‘Live by Night’ can stand alone on its own merits.
Joe Coughlin is twenty years old when this story begins.  He is the youngest son of one of the most respected and prosperous senior police officers in the city of Boston, and he hates his father. His two older brothers have long since fallen out with their martinet parent and left home;  his mother has died, and Joe has happily turned to a life of crime – partly to spite his old man, but also because he likes it.  He doesn’t class himself as a gangster;  he’s an outlaw, a euphemism which has a better ring to it;  it’s 1926, Prohibition is in full swing and there are myriad opportunities to make piles of money from this absurd law as a bootlegger for speakeasies: Joe is thrilled with his circumstances and feels even better that his father, who knows everything that transpires in Boston, is aware that he has a successful criminal – sorry, outlaw – for a son.
Yep, Joe is a is a Twelve O’Clock Fella in a Nine O’Clock Town;  he lives by night, and the night has even more appeal when he meets Flora Gould, a very shady young lady whose hunger for thrills matches his own.  Unfortunately, she is the mistress of a real gangster called Albert White.  Albert is averse to sharing his mistress with Joe and in short order Joe’s life turns sour:  through a series of  unfortunate events he endures a terrible beating, hospitalisation, the loss of his great love and an eventual stint in prison, the sentence of which is reduced thanks to his father calling in some favours.
Like it or not, Joe  should now be repenting at leisure.  His father Thomas, despite his supposed neglect of his youngest has sacrificed his promotion to help his boy survive in prison with a shorter sentence;  all that matters to him now is that his son come out of the dreaded Charlestown Penitentiary alive.  Joe, far from repenting (he’s only sorry that he got caught) devotes his energies and considerable intelligence to surviving attacks from within – and without, eventually forming a long-term alliance with a mafia man, Maso Pescatore.  Ah, the road to Hell takes many forms, and Joe’s journey covers a lot of ground before the eventual showdown and fight to the death:  this is a classic tale of winning it all but losing everything in the process, and Mr Lehane tells it beautifully.  He is a master of suspense and snappy dialogue;  his research is impeccable;  he creates atmosphere and times without any discernible effort and I defy any reader to finish any of his books, then decide not to read another one.  Highly recommended.   

Friday, 9 November 2012

The ‘Dexter’ Books, by Jeff Lindsay
I was shelving books in our library the other day and came across the ‘Dexter” books from which the hit TV series was created.  Now, because I seem to spend a lot of my time on another planet, I still haven’t caught up with ‘Dexter’ on TV and he is now into his 6th or 7th season – logically enough, (it was one of those rare times when I think logically) I decided that I should check the books out before I try the TV series on DVD.  Lucky, lucky me.
True to form, I couldn’t start with the first book ‘ Darkly Dreaming Dexter’ – because it flaming-well wasn’t there, (!) nor was it in the library catalogue (it has probably fallen apart from overuse) so I am woefully ignorant of a lot of Dexter’s tortured background, but I read the next one, ‘Dearly Devoted Dexter’, followed at breakneck speed by ‘Dexter in the Dark’ and ‘Dexter by Design’.  I am now waiting for ‘Double Dexter’ to be returned, (that’s next) and have to say that I am pretty much Dextered out for the moment;  it’s good that it wasn’t there – I need a break!  Not because these books aren’t great, but it’s like eating too much favourite-flavoured ice-cream all in one sitting:  I was just being piggy.
For those who haven’t yet met Dexter, you’re in for a rare treat:  Dexter had a chaotic, dreadful childhood, so horrific that it engendered within him feelings of homicidal anger that could never be sublimated into any kind of force for good.  Fortunately for him, he was adopted into a good family and his foster-father was a policeman, tired, burnt-out by his job, and disgusted that so many of the really bad guys didn’t get the punishment that they deserved.  Harry the policeman recognises Dexter’s proclivities when he discovers Dexter’s secret cemetery of missing neighbourhood pets;  he also knows that Dexter won’t ever lose the killing urge, so decides to train him to use those urges only to dispatch the killers that society would do better without. 
‘Let’s get you squared-away, Dexter’, he says, and with the benefit of his excellent police training Harry turns Dexter into the ultimate killing machine for good – and how never, ever to get caught.
Oh, these books are SO enjoyable, especially as Dexter is such a complex character:  he freely acknowledges he is a monster;  he can’t feel emotion; (which comes in handy when he removes his victims – their pleading is useless);  he is handsome, witty and clever;  (he happily admits to this) he loves alliteration;  (dashing Dexter, daring Dexter, deadly Dexter, Devil-may-care Dexter etc.) and he has the perfect disguise for all his serial-killing:  he is a blood-spatter expert for the Miami Police Department.  Life is good!
Jeff Lindsay peoples his series with excellent minor characters;  Dexter’s Bull-at-a-Gate sister Deborah, a bona fide police detective who, unsurprisingly, has problems accepting what Dexter is, and Rita, Dexter’s girlfriend – who mystifies him with her devotion, her ability to speak sentences faster than he can process, and her two children, mysteriously silent little creatures who appear to communicate with each other telepathically but depend utterly  on our hero to stay with their mother and not desert them.  Dutiful Dexter.
And then there’s Sergeant Doakes:  it takes one to know one, as they say.  He’s on Dexter’s case, recognises the Beast Within because he has one of his own, and informs Dexter – often – that ‘Ah’m gonna get you, motherf*cker’.  Fair enough.  Sergeant Doakes gives Dexter a lot to think about.  Dithering Dexter.
Ah, this is a great series:  Mr. Lindsay has given us a unique new character in thriller fiction, and I wouldn’t miss a single one of his adventures.  Daring, dauntless, dreadful:    Dexter is DELICIOUS.

Fifty Shades Darker, by E. L. James
Here is book two of Ms James’s corny, porny, horny saga of sex and sadism – BUT!!  True love has reared its woolly little head at last between Christian Grey beyond handsome MegaZillionaire - oh, those abs, that perfect nose, those stormy gray eyes, those sculptured lips! - (I always thought it was ‘sculpted’, but what do I know?), severely damaged and disturbed titan of industry, and twirpy, accident-prone graduate student Anastasia Steele.
At the end of book one, Ms Steele marshalled some principles from a hitherto unknown place and, after having her bottom mercilessly paddled by Christian in his Red Room of Pain, decided that the whuppin’ was a bridge too far and left him, supposedly FOREVER!  She is driven snivelling like a big girl’s blouse into the sunset by Christian’s Man of All Work Taylor, but not before unleashing these last cutting words:  ‘You better get your shit together, Grey!’  He is fittingly silent at such linguistic brilliance;  only his wintry gray gaze betrays the agony he feels.
Well, her bum hurts a whole lot more!
They stay apart for five whole days – five days of torture for them both, not to mention the reader:  Mein Gott, it must be love!  And it is.  Christian starts to court Ana, but not in the old fashioned way.  She (the silly trout) cannot resist him and before you can say ‘sculptured lips’ she is hopelessly, completely HIS.  The Red Room of Pain is now the Playroom;  it positively bristles with whistles, bells, clamps, and things I’ve never heard of, which makes me wonder if Ms James spent her childhood reading ‘Hustler’ instead of nursery rhymes.  Oh, they have a jolly old time sexually christening every other room in Christian’s mega apartment, including having a bang-up time on his grand piano (fortunately with lid closed)  – Ana even drums her nekkid little heels on the keys (thereby hitting a lot of bum notes!  Oh, sorry, sorry);  they are so delighted with each other that they smirk ALL THE TIME, and I found that immensely irritating, even more than all the huffing and puffing every third or fourth page:  surely, one would expect the happy couple to gaze into each other’s eyes – you know, her cerulean blue gaze captured by his searing gray glance – but no, they insist on smirking.  It nearly drove me mad!  On the upside, Christian only steeples his ‘long, beautiful fingers’ once in book two.
The love affair continues apace:  Christian gets counselling for his f*ckedupness and Ana starts a job, but before you can say ‘sexual harrassment’ her new boss is coming on to her in a most odious manner.  What does our Ana do to prevent defilement in the staff kitchen? She does not cry ‘Unhand me, you cad!’, for this is the 21st century:  she breaks his little finger and knees him in the goolies, crying ‘and in the future make your own damn coffee!’  She is a true Warrior Queen!  Oh, what a great moment for feminism, but I rather hope that ordinary gels who read this book (and there are so many of us) won’t be tempted to try such moves on their own bosses who innocently request a coffee - employment opportunities are few and far between these days.
Christian proposes marriage;  dippy Ana accepts  (‘Holy shit – he loves me!’);  they are as happy as only great love, great wealth, great sex (remember it’s the Playroom now, not the Red Room of Pain) and great bullsh*t can make them, BUT.
There’s a nasty worm in the perfect red apple of their happiness in the shape of Ana’s broken and bruised ex boss:  he is planning revenge and it won’t be nice, but we shall have to wait until book three to find out WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.  I fervently hope I won’t die of old age on the library waiting list before it’s my turn for book three.  Let’s face it:  despite all my twittering about how awful these books are (and they are, truly!),  I’m as hooked as everyone else.    I shall be so glad when this uniquely dreadful Trilogy is behind me -   let’s hope Ms James is too busy spending her millions to feel compelled to write another lot of nonsense – or if she does, would she please get a good editor?  ‘Sculptured lips’?  Smirking?  ‘Holy crap/shit/f*ck’?  AAARGH!!

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Feast Day of Fools, by James Lee Burke
So.  I have to ask myself the question:  what rock have I been hiding under all these years that I could remain uninterested in a superlative writer who has now completed thirty thrillers?  Because I thought he was probably the same as all the other formulaic writers, that’s why.  Well, shame on me.
James Lee Burke’s literary reputation is so secure that he hardly needs an endorsement from a Library blog in New Zealand, but that won’t stop me from singing his praises all the same.  I’m just vexed at myself for not reading his books sooner.  Fortunately, ‘Feast Day of Fools’ despite being the latest in a series of stories about Texas sheriff Hackberry Holland  (yep, that’s truly his name),  is easily read as a stand-alone novel, for Mr Burke’s skill is such that he can bring the first-time reader (me!) up to speed with action from previous books,  introducing it so seamlessly that I never felt mad as I usually do, for approaching the series from the wrong end.
Sheriff Holland is an old man now, nursing much sorrow and many regrets, but still functioning superbly as the guardian of the law in a small West Texas town close to the Mexican border.  He has a loyal staff consisting of  deputies Pam Tibbs, whose devotion is a thin disguise for the great love she feels for him; and  R.C. Givens, whose frail-looking physique belies his resourcefulness and intelligence -  and let us not forget switchboard operator Maydeen Stolz, whose vulgarity offends the Sheriff daily.
Crime in the area is usually connected with the Wetbacks, those hapless Mexicans who cross the Rio Grande, then pay ‘Coyotes’, unscrupulous guides, to help them find menial work in Texas.  They are illegal aliens, willing to do anything to make a living, for compared to their miserable lives in Mexico the United States is still the Promised Land.  However, when the remains of a tortured man are found by a local alcoholic and reported to the sheriff, a chain of events is started that leads not just to wets and coyotes, but to defence contractors and organised crime, an ex-C.I.A operative and the shadowy pursuers of them all, the F.B.I.
Oh, everyone gets a mention in Mr Burke’s complicated plot and there are baddies of truly Olympian proportions, but Hackberry’s true nemesis from previous encounters is Preacher Jack Collins, a messianic, scripture-quoting killer whose favourite weapon is a machine gun.  Preacher Jack is a one-stop-shop of high intelligence, hatred, malice and forward planning, and he and the sheriff have unfinished business to conduct:  every now and then Jack rings Hackberry to remind him, to keep him on the back foot – and these little exchanges are gems.  Mr Burke writes scintillating, witty dialogue, so good that despite the fact that some of the characters reach caricature proportions, they are continually redeemed by their folksy, down to earth humour and logic. 
Sadly, logic is jettisoned in the last chapter of this otherwise fine story:  after a gun battle that should have left no-one alive, Hackberry and his allies march off into the desert and imminent rescue, even though they are all leaking gallons of blood and shouldn’t be able to walk a single step.  That’s stretching the reader’s credulity to snapping point!
But let us not forget Mr Burke’s wonderful descriptions of the natural world around him:  he populates his stark and beautiful landscapes with roiling purple clouds, fiery sunsets and the vastness of desert spaces.  Until I read this book I didn’t know a butte from a banana or a mesa from my elbow but I’m happy to say that I NOW HAVE THE PICTURE, thanks to Mr. Burke’s marvellous imagery.  He has the singular ability to make the reader examine crime in all its guises, too -  not just the who-done-it variety, but the greater crimes that start wars, the terrible crimes that wars unleash, and the criminals who set it all in motion.  Highly recommended.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain
This is a five-star story.  It ably illustrates many of the things I said about war in the last paragraph of the above review, this time from the perspective of the last, most unfortunate link in the chain:  the soldier who must kill or be killed in order to ‘win the War on Terror’ – to ‘Keep Our Country Free’, and to ‘Kill Them before they Kill Us.’
The myriad reasons for the War in Iraq are baldly displayed here, and it’s up to the reader to decide what opinion to have, but it’s obvious that Ben Fountain (at least in this book) is no friend of the Bush administration.  The sending of  invading troops to Iraq ostensibly to search for the mythical ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ is nothing more than a cover-up to gain eventual control of the oil supply – that’s what the surviving members of Bravo squad think, but they signed up (for all sorts of different reasons); they’re in it for the long haul, and they’ll fight.  That is what they have been trained to do;  it’s their job;  and they’ll do it until the end – either the end of their service, or the end of their lives.
One such soldier is Billy Lynn:  he’s nineteen years old and was given the choice of the army or jail when he was eighteen.  He trashed his beloved sister’s pussy-boyfriend’s ‘pussy car Saab’ because the pussy dropped her three weeks after she had a near-fatal accident.  Billy chose the army and, after Basic training was sent to Iraq to join Bravo squad, a time of crushing boredom, alleviated only by the huge fear everyone felt on going on patrol, an exercise ordered almost more often than they can stand by Staff-Sergeants Dime and Shroom, firm friends who served together in Afghanistan:  these men understand all too well how important it is to face and conquer the fear.  Eventually, the squad’s mettle is tested in a blazing firefight with insurgents: two of their number die but the insurgents are wiped out and the whole bloody conflagration is filmed by a Fox crew embedded with Bravo;  the three-minute film clip goes viral, becomes a YouTube sensation, and before anyone can say ‘Cheney and Halliburton’ the survivors of Bravo squad are brought back to the States for a two week victory tour after receiving medals for bravery from President Bush at the White House.
The men are intelligent enough to know that they are the Poster Boys for a huge propaganda drive to keep Americans’ hope and patriotism alive after years of The War on Terror, which seems to have slowed considerably in momentum lately – but who cares?  To sleep in a clean bed again, to not have to fight king-size insects for food and bedspace – and to see all those fine women again:  oh, those dudes are in HEAVEN.
And even better still:  a movie producer has joined the tour.  He’s a high-powered, fast-talking dealmaker with a mighty reputation, and he wants to make a film of the Bravos, with big-name stars playing them;  big names are quoted constantly (Billy is dismayed to hear that Hilary Swank is interested in playing him.  HUH???) and the magical figure of one hundred thousand dollars is quoted as a payment to each Bravo for the rights to his character.  The future – if they all survive, for they are to be sent back to Iraq when the tour is over – looks rosy indeed.  And if they don’t survive, why their wives and mommas will have a nest-egg!  They think.
Most of the action of this great story occurs on the last day of their tour;  the Bravos are the guests of honour at Texas Stadium for a huge Thanksgiving Day football match between the Dallas Cowboys and the Chicago Bears:  they meet the Cheerleaders!  (Billy falls instantly in love with one)  They meet the football team!  (Behemoths to a man.)  They meet the owner and his fabulously rich pals!  (And their plastic fantastic wives.)  And they are turned into a support act to Destiny’s Child! -  the halftime high-end musical attraction, an experience none of their training  has prepared them for.
And they realise, belatedly, that the bravery for which they are so loudly and publicly praised means nothing when confronted with Big Money and the Art of the Deal:  heroes are there to be screwed, just like everyone else.  Disillusioned, weary and disgusted with their brush with fame, the Bravos and Billy prepare to go back to war, no longer convinced that they are fighting for high ideals, but firm in their conviction that they will fight to the death – for each other.  ‘We happy few, we Band of Brothers’.  Shakespeare, as always, had it right, and so does Ben Fountain:  he has written a wonderful book, a darkly humorous, ruthlessly honest portrayal of a great nation under siege, hostage to The War on Terror and Nine Eleven, and the way that its politicians, citizens – and soldiers faced the threat.  This is a must-read – don’t miss it.      

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Sarah Thornhill, by Kate Grenville
Sarah Thornhill is the youngest daughter of a prosperous former boatman and convict, ‘sent out’ from England in 1806 for a crime he has always refused to divulge.  After his sentence was served he was able to disappear into the remoteness of the Colony of New South Wales, claiming land enough to establish himself on the Hawkesbury river and with his canniness and eventual wealth still the tongues of his neighbours, who have not been ‘sent out’ and don’t wear the taint of the Broad Arrow.
Sarah narrates her own story in bold, forthright and deceptively simple prose;  she is illiterate like the rest of her family and, like the rest of her family, sees no need to learn her letters – Pa never learnt and beat adversity, so why should they?  She has very few memories of her mother who died when she was very small:  instead she is raised by Ma, Pa Thornhill’s second wife and a force to be reckoned with. Ma has ironclad ideas of good behaviour and etiquette and all her stepchildren have to conform – even Pa appears acquiescent to her absolute authority:  therefore it is up to Sarah to be the rebellious thorn in her Ma and Pa’s side.  And she does it by falling completely in love with Jack Langland, strapping, staunch and handsome half-caste son of a close neighbour.
Jack is the product of the union between his father and an aboriginal woman.  He has been raised ‘White’, but when push comes to shove, when Sarah and he publicly declare their intentions, the hornet’s nest is disturbed and out come all the hidden hatreds and prejudices, the scorn and contempt for the original inhabitants of that vast and ancient land, and the unshakeable convictions of white superiority, especially over a ‘black buck’, formerly regarded as a sound fellow until he aspires to be a potential bridegroom and son-in-law.  Sarah has to face many hard truths and much tragedy as she tries to make sense of the injustice of her young life, and the thwarting of all that she sees as the natural and proper direction of her future;  the choices she makes are forced on her and are at the core of this wonderful story.  Ms Grenville is one of Australia’s foremost and respected writers  and evokes in breathtaking prose the struggles, drudgery and everyday heroism of the early settlers, Untainted and Convict alike, but still possessed of  a racism born of ignorance, malice and fear:  as Sarah carries on with her life, she discovers horrific and ugly family secrets that alter forever her perception of her world, and everyone she knows and cherishes within it.  This is a stark and powerful story of injustice and cruelty, kindness and love – just as life is for so many of us, regardless of the era.  Highly recommended.
50 Shades of Grey, by E. L. James
 Your library is ever mindful of the needs of its borrowers.  To that end it has faithfully supplied copies of E. L. James’s trilogy for those who wish to read it, and its popularity is such that some people could die on the waiting list.  Perish the thought, not those on the waiting-list, I say!
When this tale begins, Anastasia Steele is having a bad hair day and doesn’t have a suitable thing to wear for the interview she has been persuaded to do with MegaZillionaire Christian Grey for the student magazine.  Her room-mate, magazine editor Kate, the original interviewer, has the ‘flu.  As if that weren’t tarsome enough, the poor wee thing trips (because she’s accident prone) through the door to the Great Man’s MegaOffice.  As he rescues her from the floor and envelops her in his hot, gray gaze, all the usual things happen:  her heart falters;  she can’t meet his eyes (ah, those eyes, like a threatening sea on a windswept day!) she blushes furiously (she does this A LOT);  she asks her set questions in a monotone – ‘Are you Gay?’ – (all the while agog at his beauty, which frequently invokes bursts of great silent introspection: ‘ Holy Crap,  followed by ‘Holy Shit,’ then finally, ‘Holy F@@##!’).  Yep, she’s a deep thinker, alright.
For his part, MegaZillionaire Christian is undeniably impressed (why?  Anastasia is now redder than the sunset.  She blushes for Africa.) and attracted to the winsome, helpless, clueless interviewer and before one can say WATCH OUT ANA, PERVERT ALERT! he has her in his power.  And he doesn’t even have a moustache to twirl.  Yes, he’s a 21st century cad, a dastard, no doubt about it – BUT! – after their first tumultuous coupling, where he is horrified to find that naïve Ana is that worst kind of innocent, a VIRGIN, she finds him hours later semi-nekkid in his cavernous living room, playing a mournful Bach arrangement on his grand piano sadly but superbly, (of course he is a wonderful musician, because he is excellent in all things) - this proves to readers (and there are so many of us!) that the dastard has a tragic side, a mysterious past which he refuses to reveal, and an aversion to being touched.
Naturally this presents some problems for Ana, who has never had a relationship before (WHAAAAT?!!  In her twenties and never been kissed?  Who is she, Jane Austen?).  She longs to touch him, to trail her fingers through his gorgeous, tousled chest hair, but he refuses.  She is extremely worried that she is ‘falling for a man who’s beyond beautiful, richer than Croesus, and has a Red Room of Pain waiting for me.’  Yep,  I’d be worried, too, but Ana places great faith in two friends:  her subconscious, ever her reliable moral compass, and her Inner Goddess, which is just a euphemism for Ho:  her Inner Goddess wins every time.  That girl is doomed.
And so is the reader (and there are SO many of us!), doomed to absorb the riveting fact that Christian’s eyes blaze when he whups Ana’s ass;  they’re haunted when he plays Bach superbly semi-nekkid, and hooded when he wishes to disguise his true feelings.  He steeples his fingers a lot, too.
Oh, this is a corny, horny, porny story:  it’s so trashy that it should be in a plain brown wrapper – but what power there is in word-of-mouth advertising!  E.L. James will never have to write another rude word;  she can just sit on the millions made from this trilogy like a chook on her eggs, if she wants to.  In the meantime, fans of Anastasia and Christian (and there are so MANY of us!) will press on with books two and three, because despite all the huffing, puffing, painful sex, Ana’s perpetual blushes and Christian’s steely gaze or wicked grins, we all have to know WHAT HAPPENS NEXT. 
When all is said and done, I must confess that I would rather go to bed with a good book than a fruitloop in a suit, but there’s no accounting for taste.  And there’s nowt so queer as folk as we all succumb to the lure of a worldwide best-seller, purely because everyone is saying:  ‘Have you read it yet?’
Read this torrid, tortured tale (if you haven’t already).  I think this is a Gross Read for Great Readers, but you be the judge.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

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

Monday, 24 September 2012


Pure, by Timothy Mo
Firstly, apologies for the book cover:  for those who can’t see a thing it is pristinely white, as befits a novel about purity – the irony is that Snooky, its main protagonist and the principal narrator of this complex and brilliant story, is anything but.  She is a tall and strapping Thai ladyboy, drug-addicted, amoral, longing to be a woman but ultimately unwilling to have ‘the operation’.  She (always ‘she’ – the further the reader gets into the story the more her femininity is reinforced) is also a person of strong loyalties and friendships, not only among her ladyboy Sistas but for childhood friends at her local village school in the predominantly Muslim Southern region of Thailand.  She cherishes the friendship of charismatic and wildly popular Jefri, a benison casually bestowed upon her out of sympathy for her situation, she being the family disgrace, an insult to their good and devout name and an object of intense hatred to her older half-brother.  Oh, life was unkind to Snooky and it comes as no surprise that she lit out for the fleshpots of Bangkok as soon as the opportunity arose.
Snooky makes a life for herself;  she learns English well enough to become, of all things, a movie and food critic for a midsize paper – when she is not out clubbing and drugging, whoring and scoring with her trannie friends;  she has a good, close friendship with Avril, a straight Canadian girl, and apart from some new and worrying health problems, life is satisfactorily hedonistic – until.
Until the police raid her flat and take her and the screaming Sistas down to the local station, there to concentrate on beating them all up, but with the object of narrowing the field to Snooky, the real  person of interest.  And the person who is most interested is the sadistic Look Khreung, a Eurasian intelligence officer wishing to infiltrate the Southern Thai Muslim religious schools, or Pondoks, correctly believing that some or all of them are hotbeds of sedition and rebellion.  He needs a spy, a familiar face – suitably roughed-up by his cronies as authentic proof of Thai discrimination against Muslims – to return to the South as a Mole (see, I know my John Le Carré!), especially as the noble Jefri has now excited suspicion for his subversive activities. 
Needless to say, Snooky is not receptive to this suggestion but the alternative is even worse:  twenty years in prison for drug crimes.  What’s a girl to do, except to obey her hated handler who is in turn controlled by an old-school, retired Oxford Don, to whom Snooky is supposed to send encrypted info.
Poor Snooky:  she’s well and truly between a rock and a hard place, and feels even worse when her new Muslim teachers, who despise her otherness, call her Ahmed (her birth-name) and force her to take testosterone so that her beard will grow.  She has reached her nadir – until she realises after a few months of religious study with Shayk, the revered leader of the Pondok, that there can be an alternative to her old life, a just and clean way of living, a purity to her existence and a belonging that she has always yearned for but never previously experienced.  Eventually, the despised ladyboy becomes a valued and resourceful member of the cell.  (She even makes a dreadful propaganda movie!)  For the first time in her life she is truly part of a family – a family bent on the destruction of the infidel.
This book is brilliant:  it’s characters, some of whom have a turn at narrating the story, are masterful creations and Mr Mo gives us a superb overview of South East Asian politics and a deeply disturbing insight into religious fanaticism.  His scholarship is impressive – but daunting:  I have to admit that I floundered amongst the erudite ramblings of Victor Veridian, retired Oxford Don and sometime Spy.  There were references to various world events that flew over my head like sparrows, leaving me feeling more than a little lacking in the smarts department – and the print was so small it made my eyes water.
Regardless, Snooky will remain with me always, that irrepressible, hilarious, doomed and valiant girl, who, despite her worsening illness, decides to arrange a meeting with all her enemies, then go out with a bang – ‘Yah man, because Snooky loves the limelight!’
And rightly so:  she’s unforgettable.

Broken Harbour, by Tana French
Mick Kennedy, one of Dublin’s most successful detectives is assigned to a shocking new murder case:  the killing of an entire family in their recently purchased house at Brianstown, a new seaside estate some distance from the city.  Kennedy is an arrogant man, supremely confident in his ability to ‘get a solve’ because he is so good at what he does – and he is also a straight arrow;  incorruptible:  no easy, manufactured evidence or short-cuts when he’s on the case.
All the signs point to murder/suicide.  The husband lost his job almost as soon as they moved into their dream home;  the dream home turned out to be a jerry-built nightmare amongst many on an estate that quickly ran out of money before all the promises of beautiful new community facilities were met;  the estate was too far to commute to work, should anyone be lucky enough to have a job, for the great Irish recession had wiped out employment like the flick of a dishcloth countrywide – all perfect reasons for the breaking point to be reached and the family to be sent to the hereafter in a last terrible act of togetherness.
Ms French is a powerful writer.  She recounts with effortless ease of the ties of love and loyalty that bind people together – and the awful acts that tear them apart.  As detective Kennedy and his new probationary partner Richie Curran delve deeper into what should have been an open-and-shut case, they find to their dismay that, as with the humble onion, there are many more layers to peel away before they arrive at the awful truth, and many ghosts that must be laid to rest – not least by Mick Kennedy, whose past contains shocking memories of Broken Harbour, now called Brianstown.
This is the third book I have read by Ms French;  once again, she meets the same high standards she sets for herself and that every reader has come to expect in each story:  what a pleasure it is to read her work.  Highly recommended.  

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Black Boy, White School, by Brian F. Walker          Young Adult fiction
Anthony (Ant) Jones is an angry young man:  he is angry that at fourteen he is the youngest of three brothers and has to go shopping for groceries (and worse) for his acid-tongued Momma, simply because Andre and Darnell ‘are too old to be bossed around and too big to hit’;  he’s frightened because East Cleveland, Ohio, the city he lives in, is dying from all the diseases that have disabled so many American cities:  closure of long-established industries and consequent unemployment;  civic mismanagement and the apathy and loss of hope by welfare-dependent inhabitants – what will become of them all? 
Fortunately for Ant (not that he thinks so), a scholarship with free tuition for deprived minority kids is available in a top boarding school in Maine, Belton Academy: Ant’s Momma is determined that he will take this unheard of opportunity to better himself, to make a life for himself that won’t end like his friend Mookie’s, dead at 15 in a drive-by shooting.  He has to stop ‘acting ghetto’, seize this chance for a different life through education, and by God, he’s going to do it if she kills him to make him go to Maine!  When his choices are presented to him in such a way, Ant realises he HAS no choice:  he has to go to Belton, or get his Ass broken big-time by his Momma.  She’s still bigger than him.
His first months in Belton are like living on another planet with friendly but remote aliens:  everyone calls him Tony, even though he has stressed numerous times that his name is Ant;  his room-mate, Brody, is a white stoner with racist parents;  everyone assumes for some inexplicable reason that because Ant is black he is from New York as are the few other black students;  and worst of all, there seems to be an accepted practice called ‘hazing’ of freshmen – bullying by another name:  all new boys are tossed into ‘the brook’ by older students as part of ‘initiation rituals’.  Ant decides immediately that no white dude is going to do that to him, particularly when he finds out that the brook in question is actually a toxic waste spill.  Ant has never heard of hazing.  No-one would do that in East Cleveland – ‘back home, it would get someone shot.’
Ant’s solution to his freshman initiation, and his struggles to become accepted and respected in his white environment is a riveting story told with great empathy by Brian Walker, who has recounted through Ant’s experiences his own difficulties at the same age, when he was sent to a similar prestigious school far from all that was familiar to him, all that was family, and all that was ghetto.  He writes from the heart about Ant’s year at Belton, because it was his year too, and his year to return home to find that he was too scared any more to live in that terrible, hopeless environment, especially when another dear friend is murdered.  His desperation is complete when he HAS to leave Belton, which, for all its alien beginnings has provided him with the tools for a new way of looking at the world, because his Momma can no longer afford to pay for the boarding fees and textbooks for his ‘free’ education.  Where does he go from here?  He knows that white society will never be a comfortable fit, but he is too different now just to blend back into his old, sick neighbourhood:  the choices he makes will be his alone, and Brian Walker, by writing this wonderful book, has proved that the Ants of this world can still make the right, courageous decisions.  This was truly a great read.

Gods and Beasts, by Denise Mina
Detective Sergent Alex Morrow is back again in this taut and clever thriller from premier crime writer Denise Mina.  Ms Mina writes of Glasgow and its mean streets and meaner inhabitants with great assurance and skill, drawing the reader effortlessly into Alex’s Jekyll and Hyde world, introducing new characters and giving the existing ones lesser or greater roles as the plot demands.
Brendan Lyons takes his 4 year-old grandson to the post office to buy Christmas stamps;  while they are standing in the queue a gunman bursts through the door to rob the place.  In an act of tremendous bravery, Brendan passes his grandson to the person behind him (‘He’s yours’) then calmly proceeds to help the robber gather the cash, but when that is accomplished, he is shot to death, riddled with bullets by the gunman.  Even more horrifying is the fact that the robber and he knew each other.
Martin Pavel is the young man charged by Brendan with the safekeeping of his precious grandson.  He is a damaged soul, (as are we all) unsure of his place in the world, an inheritor of great wealth but at a loss to know what to do with it:  DS Morrow and her partner Harris are baffled by his presence in Glasgow, and his reluctance to divulge anything about himself;  in fact, the more they delve into Martin and Brendan and his family’s past, the more confusing and labyrinthine the case becomes – especially when the name of a very well-known local politician surfaces in the course of their investigations.  But DS Morrow is nothing if not dogged, determined to weave all the loose threads into a credible pattern that she can believe in. She presses on, only to find that to her horror, information is being withheld – from within:  by her own department.
Ms Mina can evoke atmosphere and construct characters so believable that her word pictures are indelible and have the reader, however disquieted by her no-frills prose, calling for more:  However, having stated the obvious, I  have to say that ‘Gods and Beasts’ is a bleak story, as bleak as the Glasgow weather at Christmas time – there are no happy endings, just respite and escape from tragedy for some of the characters, and the exposure of others to the criminal and corrupt underbelly of organisations they had thought unassailable to the gangster element.  It may be the city of Glasgow is so corrupt that it is irredeemable, unable to be saved - or forsaken - ‘by those who live with self-sufficiency outside the city walls –be they Gods or Beasts’:  regardless, by the time the reader reaches the explosive conclusion of this fine story it is clear that  Alex’s problems are just beginning, but it is a great consolation to know that once again, DS Morrow has won a battle in a long, frustrating and exhausting war.  Highly recommended.

The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick De Witt
It is 1851, and the Gold Rush has started in California:  previously sane and rational men have been struck by Gold Fever, leaving their loved ones and all they hold dear in order to scrabble about in dirt and streams to find the Mother lode,  presenting themselves as perfect victims to all the opportunists who spring from nowhere to exploit them.
Such a person is the Commodore, so enormously rich that he can afford a staff of hired killers to dispose of those who have not obeyed his orders to relinquish their paltry, new-found wealth – or more importantly inventions to him.  His premier killers are Eli and Charlie Sisters, brothers who are justly feared for their utter ruthlessness in carrying out their master’s instructions:  they are not to be trifled with and  older brother Charlie is proud of their reputation as murderers without peer.  Eli is not so sure;  killing people is not a comfortable fit for him and he wants to get out of ‘the business’, but his loyalty to his brother, his feeling that he must be there to protect him – from himself as much as their foe, creates almost unbearable conflict within him.  He is determined that their latest job will be their last, even though Charlie pours scorn on Eli’s distaste for their occupation – it doesn’t worry him either that their mother has banished them from the family home ‘until they change their murdering ways’.  Charlie has a magnificent unconcern for scruples of any kind:  life is for living until you die, by natural means or otherwise.
Their latest assignment from the Commodore is to track down a prospector who has done him wrong, Hermann Kermit Warm by name:  the brothers must travel from Oregon City to San Francisco to find Warm, then dispatch him to his last reward, returning with a secret formula that is of great interest to the Commodore.
So begins the brothers’ last great adventure, an odyssey peopled with some of the most singular characters in contemporary fiction, narrated by Eli with marvellous empathy and humour, and when the brothers aren’t shooting everything that moves they are either festering with sibling rivalry or banding together in brotherly loyalty, particularly in a tight spot.
This novel was shortlisted for last year’s Man Booker Prize and in this reader’s opinion deserved to win it, not only because the actual winner failed to engage me half as successfully as did Patrick de Witt’s perfect little literary gem, but because of the superb depiction of a particularly lawless, dog-eat-dog time in the Old West, and the underlying themes of great good, great evil, and greater forgiveness.  FIVE STARS.

Harbor Nocturne, by Joseph Wambaugh
Joseph Wambaugh first made his considerable reputation as an author of top class crime novels thirty years ago with ‘The New Centurions’, a story of the Los Angeles Police Department and the men and women who went out every day onto the city’s streets to patrol and protect its citizens. ‘Harbor Nocturne’, his latest story, doesn’t deviate from the same theme but concentrates more on Hollywood and the Los Angeles port of San Pedro for its action.
As always, Joseph Wambaugh has produced a page-turner par excellence, at the same time displaying his intimate knowledge of the job and  the many horrors and dangers faced by LA’s finest, for Mr Wambaugh was himself a policeman until he started to write and he still has strong links to law enforcement - which makes me wonder how many of his excellent characters and situations are based on actual people and events.  In this story we see the return of Flotsam and Jetsam, inseparable police partners and committed surfers in their spare time, even though Jetsam had a serious accident in a previous book which has resulted in the amputation of his foot and the fitting of a prosthesis.  Dude, does this slow him down?  No way:  Flotsam proudly proclaims to a bewildered vice sergeant (who is hoping to enlist Jetsam’s services as an undercover cop to investigate some baddies who have an unhealthy interest in amputees) ‘You should see all the Emmas ogle the robo kahuna with the bionic hoof.  It’s all beer, bubble baths, and blow jobs for him.  Me, I’m happy just to get his leftovers.’
‘He’s always pimping me out at Malibu’, replies Jetsam.  ‘He, like, tries to sell them on sympathy disrobing for a handicapped kahuna.’
Ah, it’s all great stuff, even though I understood about as much of the dialogue as the Vice Sergeant did, but Flotsam and Jetsam are just two of a great cast, not least of whom is Marius Tatarescu, a Romanian-born cop whose heavy accent and winged eyebrows elicit many enquiries as to his origins.  Depending on his mood he ‘is on secondment from KGB’, or on the subject of his bachelorhood: ‘I am fourth-generation vampire from Transylvania.  I suck too much blood from all girls I date, so nobody likes to marry me.’  He also has a few problems mastering American slang – a ‘piece of shit’ becomes ‘you are a slice of turd.’ Fair enough.
Then there is Chester Toles, known among his colleagues as The Unicorn because his knack for skiving off and disappearing was so uncanny that everyone says he is a mythical beast that didn’t exist.  But Chester is 59 years old and his retirement is imminent;  he refuses to do anything that could get him into trouble, let alone injured or God forbid,  KILLED before he can march through the doors of Hollywood Precinct with his pension intact – until he attends a child killing, where the murderer goes off to the local bar for a beer without a backward glance at the two-year old baby he beat to death:  Chester’s tipping point has been reached.  He has had enough and he deals out the vigilante justice the situation demands, then gives the police conduct investigators the Bird when they start screaming Police Brutality:  it’s time to leave and go fishing.
There are several subplots dealing with waterfront corruption at San Pedro and the human trafficking of migrant women into the brothels of Hollywood;  all the storylines are skilfully interwoven to create a very satisfying and credible read.  Mr Wambaugh is that rare storyteller:  he can make his readers laugh out loud, then in the next chapter reduce them to tears.  What a gift.