Saturday, 2 June 2012


Cinder, by Marissa Meyer (Young adult reading)
Children’s librarian Wendy Fraser recommended this book to me, and as she’s seldom wrong in her reading choices (we have to agree to disagree about Nalini Singh) I’m happy to give this the ravingest (ravingest??) endorsement possible:  WHAT A STORY! 
The tale of Cinderella – yep, Cinderella, her nasty stepmum and the two stepsisters – is transferred hundreds of years into the future.  Cinderella is now Cinder, living in New Beijing with a family who are, to say the least, most reluctant guardians.  She is a mechanic (truly!) and a Cyborg, to her shame, having been fitted out with a steel hand, leg and inbuilt computer screen after a terrible childhood accident.  Cyborgs are the future’s Untouchables, considered fit only to perform the most menial and degrading of tasks, but Cinder is such a good mechanic that a Royal prince visits her to have his tutor android repaired, and after that visit she and the reader are lost:  she to alien romantic impulses (she is not programmed for this!)and a reluctant involvement in a life and death experiment -  and the reader to being nailed to one spot until they have reached the last page.
To add insult to injury, the hapless reader finds that after a thrilling journey at a breakneck pace through more clever plot twists than a pretzel, there are three more books to come – and they haven’t been written yet!  To say I feel cheated is an understatement and the withdrawal symptoms are dire, but I also say with complete confidence that ‘Cinder’ will be the next big Blockbuster book/movie series:  you read it here first.

Waiting for Sunrise, by William Boyd.
I have been a devoted fan of William Boyd’s since I read ‘Any Human Heart’.  He is a writer of elegance and style, and also has the exceptional gift of effortlessly generating suspense and mystery in his plots without belonging to the thriller genre.  One reviewer called him an expert writer of ‘the literary thriller’ and that is certainly true of ‘Waiting for Sunrise’.
It is 1913, the setting is Vienna, and Lysander Rief, a young British stage actor of middling success has decided to visit the Austrian capital because it is currently the centre of the daring new medical science of psychoanalysis:  he has a worrying sexual problem that he hopes will be resolved so that he doesn’t disappoint his new fiancĂ© when they eventually consummate their union.  Sadly, Lysander disgraces himself utterly by a series of ill-considered decisions, and eventually breaking his engagement turns out to be the least of his worries.  He must call on the help of an attachĂ© at the British embassy to help him flee the country, and is aghast to find upon his return to Britain that his saviours expect financial repayment for their assistance – but all will be forgotten if he will carry out a small intelligence mission for them.  He is asked in such a way that refusal is not an option;  his descent into espionage and life-threatening danger reveals a cunning and ingenuity he wasn’t aware he had, and a distressing, conscious lack of honour and conscience when ‘up against it’ which can be rationalised away  - except when he dreams. 
Mr. Boyd has created with great assurance the lowering atmosphere of Europe on the brink of the Great War, and the disintegration of one man’s shaky hold on principle and decency in his efforts to survive – he does, but at enormous personal cost.  Highly recommended.

Wild Thing, by Josh Bazell.
Peter Brown, former Mob hitman turned State’s evidence is on the run again.  Those Mafia heavies will NOT leave him alone to lead a respectable life undercover as a doctor in the witness protection programme and his mentors have had to remove him from danger yet again, (read Beat the Reaper review below) this time jacking him up a job as a physician on a cruise ship.  And THAT’S not all it’s cracked up to be – far from lolling around in a deck chair working on his tan, Peter finds that it’s 24/7 drudgery;  he and the rest of the crew have no say at all in their working conditions or lack of them, let alone a union to represent them – in short, the job stinks.  To add insult to injury he has been given a new name that sounds like a nasty medicine.  He is not happy!  But (in the best tradition of wildly-plotted novels of this type) salvation is at hand:  his mentor requires him on another more important job, this time to join an expedition financed by a reclusive billionaire (hereafter called Rec Bill) to explore the veracity of a claim that a creature similar to the Loch Ness Monster is terrorising people in a remote lake in Northern Minnesota.  Peter is recruited as part of the team so that he can test the truth of the claim, and to provide security and protection of a sort to the Palaeontologist sent by Rec Bill to verify whether the ‘Monster’ is real or a hoax.
Violet Hurst is not your usual idea of a Palaeontologist:  she is loud-mouthed, foul-mouthed and she bad-mouths;  she is half-drunk most of the time because she can’t bear to face our polluted and overpopulated world sober;  she is a doomsayer and a naysayer and her lack of belief in everything ordinary people (what are they?) hold dear gets her into some unenviable situations, but she is a very good scientist, can scale cliffs like a mountaineer and shows a resourcefulness under pressure that Peter can only describe as admirable: together they could conquer the world!  Or at least, find a prehistoric monster if it exists.
And from here, things start getting silly, not to say absurd;  the plot thickens to the extent that even Sarah Palin makes an unlikely appearance -  it’s obvious that Josh Bazell doesn’t like her or the Republican Party – but the plot could well have done without her inclusion.  There is the usual plethora of footnotes (some of them VERY funny) to clarify science for the reading masses, and Mr.Bazell has even included an appendix to prove all the assertions and theories Peter and Violet espouse in the book.  I found some of this so bewildering my brain was in danger of exploding, but having said that (now that I have come up for air!) ‘Wild Thing’ whilst indeed a wild read, was also a FUN read, with the right amount of suspense at the right time, and characters that remain so likeable and engaging that we look forward to meeting them again.  And Messrs. Lincoln and Child, those former masters of the absurdist crime genre, must be looking very sour at the advent of Josh Bazell, New Kid on the Block.

Beat the Reaper, by Josh Bazell.
Peter Brown is a first-year hospital doctor in Manhattan.  He is chronically tired, an arch-cynic, prone to taking all sorts of dubious meds to keep himself awake and firing, but he loves medicine and respects his Hippocratic oath.  He is a good and dedicated Medical practitioner.  And in a former life he was a ruthless hitman for the Mafia.  This is the first paradox in Mr. Bazell’s hugely entertaining novel:  the trained killer is now saving lives.  However, Peter’s former occupation is, naturally, a big and constant worry, especially as he fell foul of his Mob bosses and testified against them, gaining himself a much-needed place in the Witness Protection program.
Unfortunately, Peter is not the sort who fades into the background;  he’s enormous, a cross between Godzilla and Attila the Hun, but after six years of medical school and nary a sighting of his former employers, he is confident enough in his new identity to lead what passes for a normal life, as an overworked and underpaid member of the medical staff at Manhattan Catholic Hospital – until one of the ‘made men’ turns up for cancer surgery in Peter’s ward.  In a horrifyingly short time, Peter is on the run, and only his previous expertise at killing people can save him – oh, the corpses stack up at an alarming rate, and there are so many novel ways for the baddies to die:  did you know that the tibia in one’s leg can be removed (provided it’s done competently, without damaging the knee and ankle);  it’s not weight-bearing, and appears to be of no earthly use at all until Peter removes his own tibia, entirely without anaesthetic (naturally!) - to stab the arch Mafia villain in the heart.  What a warrior!  And Lincoln and Child, creators of Aloysius Pendergast, that peerless paragon of Right over Might, must be writhing with envy that they didn’t come up with anything half as outlandish.  Yep, the reader’s credulity is stretched to the utmost, but there is also much to admire in this story;  there are fascinating medical and historical footnotes, a huge and ironic twist in the tale towards its conclusion, and more humour than a body has a right to expect. 
On the library’s remark sheet at the front of the book, one person has written ‘Stupid’.  Fair enough, but another has written ‘awesome read, and that’s the one I’M going with

Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn West.
This story is narrated by Esch Batiste, aged 15 and the second youngest child of a black scrap-dealer in a small Louisiana town near the Mississippi River delta.  She has two older brothers, Randall aged 17, and Skeetah, aged 15.  Junior, the youngest at 8, survived childbirth, but their mother didn’t, and the family has not managed well without her:  each carry their own memories of her loving ways and try to exist on them like a precious food that will soon run out, and they each have their defences against the harshness of their existence, Randall in his athleticism and the hope that he will eventually be eligible for a free school basketball training camp which could lead to a college scholarship, and Skeetah to make money for the family by breeding pups from his beloved pitbull, China.  Esch loves to learn and reads prodigiously, particularly the Myths of Greece, and one story, that of Jason and Medea, strikes her as having a similar parallel to her own hopeless yearnings for Randall’s best friend Manny.  The person most adrift is their Daddy, unmanned and helpless without his life’s partner.  He turns inward and away from his children, giving the new baby entirely into their inexperienced care;  for the next eight years he puts food on the table but very little else.  His heart has turned to stone.
Despite their poverty, the Batiste children still have their goals and aspirations - until  terrible unplanned events wreck their hopes:  they are floored by fate’s cruelty and don’t believe that things could get any worse – until they do, with their father bedridden by an awful, fluky accident, and Hurricane Katrina about to hit the Louisiana coast.
Ms. West’s account of the Hurricane alone is stark and terrible:  we are there trying to shield ourselves in our pathetic little shelter from the howling, roaring wind and waterfalls of rain;  we are completely given over to our gutclenching fear in the face of such a huge, elemental power, and watch in terrified disbelief as the water floods our mean little dwelling and threatens to drown us all.
I cannot remember when I last read such splendid prose.  Ms. West is a true wordsmith;  she paints compelling, unforgettable pictures with her beautiful language and her characters are so strong and true that I didn’t want her lovely book to end, for despite the parallels to Greek tragedy, the story ends on a triumphantly hopeful note:  the Batistes and their friends survive, and they survive because they love each other enough to make all the right sacrifices.  They now have even less than before, but what they have gained is immeasurable.  FIVE STARS!!!!!


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