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.