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!!