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.