Sunday, 29 December 2013
Ms Strout’s eponymous protagonist is an exceptional woman. She has been a high school mathematics teacher in the small town of Crosby, Maine for many years and has a wonderful empathy for her students, helping many of them with advice that in several cases is crucial: she makes a positive difference to many lives, including those she chooses as her friends – and they are few, for Olive Kitteridge does not suffer fools gladly.
Sadly, she regards her own husband and son as wanting: her frustration with their good natured compliance with her whims, their longing for her approval and more importantly, a peaceful, loving atmosphere, turns her into a bully, ashamed of her actions but unable to stop her tyranny.
Ms Strout tells Olive’s story in a series of beautifully constructed short stories; each one features her either as a major influence on the main character in the chapter or as a remote adjunct, a mere mention, as in the story devoted to the talented pianist at the local restaurant, who drinks to disguise her perpetual stage fright, and has more than her share of secrets and regrets.
Olive attends the funeral of one of her former pupils, happily married to his high school sweetheart until his untimely death from cancer but once again, secrets are revealed at the wake; the wife’s cousin had a fling with the dear departed, mentioned it to the grieving widow after a few drinks too many – ‘because I thought you knew!’ Needless to say, the poor widow knew nothing until that moment, and it falls to Olive to try to save the situation, saving with her innate, intuitive diplomacy the poor widow’s face and self-respect.
Which begs the question: why is she unable to apply these essential, enviable gifts to her personal life, which as she gets older polarise her more from her loved ones?
Ms Strout provides the answers effortlessly in this wonderful little book, which deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2008. She has just released another novel ‘The Burgess Boys’ to glowing reviews, and as I hadn’t read anything of hers before, I thought I would make Olive’s acquaintance before going on to meet the Burgess brothers. And how glad I am that I did, for ‘Olive Kitteridge’ is an unforgettable character; outstanding, outrageous, a person of lion-hearted courage and lily-livered cowardice; an Everywoman who has had to endure great grief and pain, but is still able to transcend her sorrow to make sense of her existence. Olive is simply superb, and I hope you will meet her soon.
HERE’S THE TOP TWENTY!
Now that the smoke from Christmas celebrations has settled (oh, I’m SO sick of eating leftovers – and leftover leftovers is even worse!) it’s the time of year when I brazenly imitate all the really flash publications who issue their lists of Notable Books for 2013: once again I say ‘well, I can do that!’
Thanks to Te Takere, our wonderful new (only a year old) library and community centre, I have read and reviewed some exceptional titles and it has been fiendishly difficult to pare the list down to twenty, let alone ten as I originally intended. Then I thought ‘ Hey! I’m not constricted to a deadline or space problems – I can recommend as many Great Reads as I like, so there!
Here we go:
In the interests of keeping readers awake I shall list the title, author and month reviewed; if you wish to read the whole review for a book just refer to older posts; otherwise take a punt on the title alone – live dangerously! You won’t be sorry.
Soon, by Charlotte Grimshaw January
The Dinner, by Herman Koch* January
Merivel – A man of his time March
By Rose Tremain
Kind of Kin, April
By Rilla Askew*
By Belinda Bauer*
Wash, by Margaret Wrinkle May
Girlchild, by Tupelo Hassman May
Olive Kittridge, by Margaret Strout* May
A Delicate Truth, by John Le Carré June
The Burgess Boys, Elizabeth Strout July
And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini* July
Sisterland, by Curtis Sittenfeld July
The Son, Philipp Meyer* September
Dexter’s Final Cut, by Jeff Lindsay October
Emperor of Thorns, by Mark Lawrence* October
The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride* November
Doctor Sleep, by Stephen King* November
Longbourn, by Jo Cook* November
Daughters of Mars, by Thomas Keneally* December
Any children’s book by master storyteller Michael Morpurgo*
Those titles marked with an asterisk are in my humble opinion the crème de la crème, the very best of the best in which every book listed is a Greatest Read.
On behalf of the staff and volunteers at our beautiful Te Takere in Levin, NEW ZEALAND I wish all great readers Seasons Greetings and a most happy, healthy and prosperous 2014.
Last but not least, my apologies for the nasty little Blog Gremlins who wouldn't let my list and my carefully ordered columns be published as I set them out. They are horrid little things and they hate me. Well, I don't care - I don't like them either: they can just sit on their thumbs and lean back on their fists. See you all next year. xxx
Last but not least, my apologies for the nasty little Blog Gremlins who wouldn't let my list and my carefully ordered columns be published as I set them out. They are horrid little things and they hate me. Well, I don't care - I don't like them either: they can just sit on their thumbs and lean back on their fists. See you all next year. xxx
Thursday, 19 December 2013
MORE GREAT CHRISTMAS READS FOR DECEMBER 2013
White Fire, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
As patient readers of this little blog will know, I have long been a fan of Preston and Child’s fearless protagonist FBI Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast, along with millions of other dedicated followers of his hair-raising adventures as he deploys his considerable intellectual and physical powers to defeat all manner of dastardly villains. (see October 2010 review of ‘Cold Vengeance’ below) Sadly, ‘Two Graves’ the white-knuckle adventure preceding this latest title was so absurd, so defying of all credulity that I couldn’t in all conscience write my usual ecstatic review – I mean, come ON: a nest of evil NeoNazis in the South American Jungle conducting eugenic experiments so that they can breed another Master Race, and who should be involved but Pendergast’s great love Helen, mother of twins he didn’t know he’d fathered (gasp!), one of whom is bred specially for great things, and the other (double gasp!!) for slavery.
Our hero destroys the nest of evil Nazi vipers, but at great personal cost (Helen really does die this time), causing Pendergast to sink into a slough of despond from which he has great difficulty extricating himself, BUT!
His creators need to bring him back from his hell of substance abuse and depression for this latest adventure, and I am happy to say that ‘White Fire’ is a complete success, with only limited reference to ward Constance Green ( meditating in a monastery in the Himalayas) and his good and evil twins (of the nasty one no trace; the good one is getting an education at an exclusive Swiss Academy). Instead this adventure centres on Corrie Swanson, Pendergast’s sponsored protégé and student at the prestigious John Jay College of Criminal Justice who decides to base her thesis on the supposed slaughter by a bear of eleven miners 150 years ago in a remote area mined for silver in Colorado. By great coincidence the rough mining camp of Roaring Fork has now become the exclusive ski resort and winter vacation wonderland of the megarich and famous – and others who find Corrie’s desire for information and request to examine the exhumed bodies of some of the miners intrusive and unhelpful: she must be discouraged permanently from her investigations, and with a ruthlessness that takes Corrie’s breath away she suddenly finds herself in prison facing a ten-year sentence for ‘desecration of a corpse’ and various other lesser charges. Her devastation is absolute – until Pendergast, finally roused from his torpor by her desperate situation arrives in Roaring Fork complete with the necessary evidence to refute the charges and send a message to the villains that their nefarious plans are not going to succeed. Oh, it’s great stuff, and as an added bonus Oscar Wilde, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his great hero Sherlock Holmes are connected to Pendergast’s modern day sleuthing in an entirely credible subplot, forming the basis of his ultimately successful solving of The Mystery – but not before Corrie undergoes some truly death-defying experiences (she has her little finger shot off and nearly goes up in smoke for being unwittingly lippy to a madman), as required in any suspense novel worth its salt. It is a pleasure to welcome Pendergast back to the land of the living –at least as portrayed by Preston and Child: his mourning period is now thankfully over and he can attend to his usual business of conquering evil, striking fear into the black hearts of villains everywhere with his pale eyes, pale hair and an inexhaustible supply of money and black designer suits. Lincoln and Child are back to their best: sound scholarship, good research and a great plot. Who could ask for more? This is the ideal holiday read.
Cold Vengeance, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
Guess who’s back! Messrs. Lincoln and Child have been working their little tails off to provide fans with the next instalment of the intrepid adventures of FBI Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast, that peerless paragon of perfection in all things, arbiter of funereal fashion excellence – he always wears black designer suits, giving him ‘the look of a wealthy undertaker’ - and lethal weapon in the perpetual battle against the forces of evil. As always, the reader is transported to places near and far, starting in the Scottish Highlands where Pendergast has been shot and left for dead in a bog by his wicked brother-in-law. He cannot possibly survive shooting and drowning – can he? Mere mortals would long be contributing to the swamp gases, but not our Aloysius : he manages to haul himself out of the muck and crawl 12 miles (truly!) to shelter and the devoted nursing of a reclusive auld biddie who lives on the wild moors (this is Scotland, remember), gradually returning to good health, thanks to his cast-iron constitution, burning desire for revenge, and the new-found knowledge that his beloved wife Helen, killed twelve years before by a lion (!) is actually still alive. And as the ultimate plot device, Lincoln and Child have brought in the Neo-Nazis in the shape of a diabolical organization called The Covenant. What CAN one say? Except that you’ll just have to keep on reading all this glorious silliness to find out WHAT HAPPENS NEXT. These books are seriously good fun and I can’t wait for the next one: will Aloysius be reunited with his wife, captured by said evil Neo- Nazis? Will Aloysius be able to sustain yet another gunshot wound? (He is now more ventilated than a Swiss Cheese.) Will his ward Constance Green reveal where she has hidden her baby, the son of his mad brother Diogenes? Oh, the questions are endless and had better be answered soon, otherwise the enormous cult following of Agent Pendergast - he has his own webpage – will suffer terminal withdrawal symptoms. Funeral garb has never been more cool, and the FBI”s reputation has been burnished quite undeservedly. Trashy escapism of the very highest quality, and entertainment par excellence.
Saturday, 14 December 2013
GREAT CHRISTMAS READS FOR DECEMBER, 2013
The Daughters of Mars, by Thomas Keneally
It is 1914 and Australia, as a Commonwealth member country loyal to the British Empire, is gearing for war. Country nurses Naomi and Sally Durance are sisters but Naomi has moved to Sydney from their farming home to work in a big city hospital while Sally works in the local hospital of her home town. They are rivals, not least because their parents appear to favour Naomi in Sally’s eyes, and she Is also resentful that her elder sister is living a life she wishes for herself. Sally is not happy to be regarded as the family spinster, consigned to the care of her dying mother while their father buries his concern in farm work, and when the call for nurses to sign up to care for any wounded in ‘the War that Will be Over by Christmas’ is issued, Sally takes her chance: both sisters are accepted, but leave for Cairo weighed down by their mother’s death and an act of mercy in which they are both complicit: for Sally at least, mercy weighs heavy and sleep is troubled; even the their new, alien surroundings in Cairo fail to blot out the secret she and Naomi share - until they are posted onto the hospital ship ‘Archimedes’ and sent to Gallipoli, that tiny Turkish peninsular where all the brave Diggers ‘each one worth ten Turks!’ were sent to scale the cliffs from the beach and win the peninsular, in theory gaining a good foothold against their Turkish adversaries.
Thus begins one of the cruellest debacles of World War One, forever deplored and enshrined in Australia and New Zealand as a Day of Remembrance: Anzac Day. The battle for Gallipoli is a disaster from the start, men being used as cannon fodder by inept and arrogant commanders, battling for impregnable territory defended by experienced Turkish soldiers fighting on their home ground, secure in the belief that each Turk was ‘worth ten Anzacs!’
For the sisters and their colleagues, trying to care for the floods of wounded ferried out to the ‘Archimedes’ in a constant stream is like a perpetual waking nightmare – never in their experience have they been confronted with such horror, such terrible wounds – such anguish. Life and death become reduced to the barest essence, and overriding everything is the grief all feel for the senseless, sinful waste, the slaughter of patriotic eager young men by commanders who had inherited their ranks but not the intelligence to match, for nine months later the Gallipoli campaign is over ( ‘didn’t succeed, don’t you know)’ and all remaining troops withdrawn, only to be sent to the Western Front.
The sisters and their colleagues are sent too, plunged again into the awful mayhem of agony and destruction, but with the results of a new weapon to contend with: poison gas. The adage ‘War is Hell’ has never been more true.
Mr Keneally writes with great power of this terrible time in history; his prose is starkly beautiful and his characters are vivid and all too human, especially the men Sally and Naomi eventually pledge themselves to: the dreadful art of war has never been more finely portrayed and ‘living for the moment’ has never held more urgency.
Mr Keneally has written a literary masterwork that has been a privilege to read: not to be missed.
Tuesday, 3 December 2013
LAST GREAT READS FOR NOVEMBER, 2013
Doctor Sleep, by Stephen King
Stephen King has produced a sequel to his 1977 horror novel ‘The Shining’ because he states that the main character, little Danny Torrance, wouldn’t leave him: he kept wondering how the child would grow into the man, and what kind of man would he be, that loving, sensitive, psychically gifted little boy who faced unspeakable horror at a place in Colorado called the Overlook Hotel when he was five years old.
Now we know. Dan Torrance has not done well as an adult. He is an alcoholic (like his father); he has an explosive temper (like his father); he still has his psychic ability – called the Shining – but he has suppressed it as much as possible; it’s a curse rather than a gift, and by the time he is thirty he has reached the bottom level of his own self-made hell.
Predictably, there is no other way to go but up, and Dan starts by drifting, seemingly at random, into the small town of Frazier New Hampshire where he meets several people who offer him practical and caring assistance to overcome his addiction. Slowly, miraculously, life starts to regain its appeal; he has good friends and a job he enjoys at the local Hospice – he can even employ the Shining to ease the passing of the terminally ill, and he is so compassionate and successful in his new role that he gains a nickname: Doctor Sleep. Life is good, indeed.
Until he is contacted via the blackboard in his room by Abra Stone, a little girl who has mystified her parents since she was a baby with what seem to be extraordinary powers of deduction and foresight. She has reached out to Dan without effort, something Dan wouldn’t even attempt, and as he comes to know her better, he compares his abilities to hers: ‘ I’m a flashlight and she’s a lighthouse’. Abra’s powers increase as she grows but become horrifying when she ‘witnesses’ the murder of a little boy thousands of miles away – he too has the Shining, and his murderers are a group of people who seek out and feed on the essence of children; she is forced to ‘see’ them torturing and devouring the poor child: the more pain, the more ‘steam’ the body releases. With horrid certainty, Abra knows that they will eventually find her, this awful band of ghouls who call themselves the True Knot. Disguising themselves as elderly mobile home drivers they amble across the country, conducting their evil business under the perfect cover. They are an implacable enemy and they are coming for her.
And what happens next is why Stephen King is the true master of this genre: he grabs the reader by the scruff of the neck and won’t let go until the last page is breathlessly read; there are some great plot twists and the minor characters are a delight, ordinary people facing the unspeakable and incredible. Dan’s alcoholism is portrayed with searing authenticity – Stephen King has conducted his own battle, so knows whereof he speaks - and as always there is a wonderful and very necessary vein of humour running through the horror. What a great storyteller he is, and if there is anyone left on the planet who hasn’t read his work, well that’s their loss: they don’t know what they are missing!
Longbourn, by Jo Baker
Jane Austen’s beloved classic novel ‘Pride and Prejudice must surely be one of the most well-known and exhaustively read stories in western fiction. There are very few of us who aren’t familiar with the pretty Bennet girls, that bundle of nerves who is their mother, and their long-suffering but lovingly wise and tolerant father. Miss Austen is justly renowned for portraying with sparkling wit the differences in the social strata of the time between country gentlefolk and their ‘betters’, rich landowning aristocratic acquaintances; the desperate attempts to find good matches for five daughters of differing talents; and dangers to the security of the family property for lack of a male heir.
Now we review the Bennets from a new perspective: the servants they employ to make their lives run smoothly, those anonymous toilers who silently keep the wheels of everyday life turning efficiently while the Bennets attempt to carve a better niche in society for themselves.
Housemaid Sarah has been with the Bennets since she was six; she came from the workhouse where she was sent after the rest of her family died of typhus. She knows she should be grateful to have found secure employment, even though it is hard, unremitting toil – she’s a drudge and she tries not to remind herself of the fact, but oh, there’s a big wide world out there and she longs to see it instead of emptying chamber pots and scrubbing unmentionables seven days a week.
Mrs. Hill the housekeeper is married to the butler; long ago it was a marriage of convenience; she was forced to give up a beloved child she gave birth to out of wedlock and Mr Hill offered her respectability even though he could not give her child a home.
And there is the new footman, James – he seems to arrive from nowhere and has a disturbing air of secrecy about him, especially as Mr Bennet hires him without references: ah, the plot is thickening!
This is a lovely story, a fitting below-stairs counterpoint running successfully parallel to all the events in Miss Austen’s masterwork. There is lively humour and great warmth in Jo Baker’s recreation of Longbourn’s unsung heroes who make the Bennets’ lives so seamless that they can concentrate on the weighty problems of the day, i.e. sending Sarah to Meryton, a walk of several miles in the pouring rain so that Jane and Lizzie may have new ‘shoe roses’ for the ball to be held that night – and that is only the least of Sarah’s duties: she is convinced that if Jane and Elizabeth were forced to do their own laundry they would be more careful of where they stepped, instead of trailing their skirts and petticoats so gaily through the mud of country lanes.
Ms Baker illustrates graphically and with great skill the enormous gap between those who employed and those who worked in the early 19th century; the cruelty, unconscious or otherwise, of always assuming that one’s servants belonged to the family body and soul - but to accuse such people of slavery would be unthinkable, an outrage: – nay, they are part of the family! The Bennets treat their servants most kindly – most of the time.
And Ms Baker presents an interesting side to Mr Bennet, that man of honour: his humanity is tested and found sorely wanting, and there are more clever little twists to enjoy in this beautifully written tale of hypocrisy and double standards.
It is possible that Miss Austen would be puzzled that someone would wish to write of a class beneath that which she portrayed so beautifully, but I am certain that notwithstanding she would salute Ms Baker’s great storytelling talent.
What a lovely Christmas gift this would be for all Jane Austen fans – and there are so many! Highly recommended.
Sunday, 17 November 2013
GREAT READS FOR NOVEMBER, 2013
The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride
The Good Lord Bird – so rare and beautiful that should anyone be fortunate to see one, they immediately exclaimed ‘Good Lord!’ - was a member of the woodpecker family in mid- 19th century America. It was also adopted as a good omen by Captain John Brown, fanatical anti-slavery campaigner and founder of a ragtag ‘army’ formed to bring freedom by fair means or foul to the Hapless Negro. Brown was absolutely certain of the righteousness of his cause and its eventual success because God was on his side; God directed his every thought and deed: even if it involved theft and murder, the noble end justified the basest means - which brings me to reflect that if Captain Brown had been born in medieval times he would have been canonised, as so many Catholic saints were, their piety and martyrdom overshadowing any dark deeds committed in furthering their Great Work.
In Mr McBride’s superb story of Brown’s last violent attack against the evils of slavery he recreates Brown’s strength and power – and madness, as seen through the eyes of Henry, a negro child kidnapped/freed by Brown from a lowly tavern in Kansas. Because of his small build Henry is immediately mistaken for a girl and christened Henrietta, and because he is a shrewd, clever little boy he decides that it would be politic to keep up with the charade, for these wild-eyed abolitionists are touchy varmints, some frighteningly ugly and all armed to the teeth. He wants to go home, home to his master, Dutch Henry! Dutch wasn’t so bad as slave owners go; Henry always got fed and had a place to sleep. Being free with Captain Brown is not half so secure; most of the time The Old Man’s fellow zealots do not eat unless they can find something to hunt or steal, and winter is coming on. Sifting through peoples’ garbage for scraps is not uncommon. Henry plans to flee back to slavery and a steady diet as soon as possible but true to form, plans and circumstances inevitably change.
Henry’s reluctant adventures with The Old Man and a host of wonderful supporting players are uproarious and unforgettable, especially as he falls in lust not once but twice, and has increasing difficulty disguising the very obvious fact that ‘the sap is rising’.
He goes on a tour of the northeastern cities with The Old Man to raise funds for The War on Slavery and is amazed at the outrage and disgust that good folk feel towards the bondage of the Negro, but what puzzles him most is that ‘everybody got to make a speech about the Negro but the Negro.’ His brothers in the Free Northern States are conspicuous by their absence, their reluctance to be involved.
As all students of American history will know, John Brown eventually planned his ill-fated war against slavery by attacking the Armoury at Harper’s Ferry Virginia with a view to taking weapons and hostages, then fleeing with hundreds of ‘freed’ negroes to the Allegheny mountains which he considered impregnable against attack because of steep, narrow passes that needed fewer men to defend.
And as history tells us, he failed mightily, in spite of the nobility of his motives and the greatness of his cause: his ‘negro army’ never materialised, thanks to inept planning, procrastination and misunderstanding. His raid on the Armoury at Harper’s Ferry brought about the deaths of many, including his own by hanging on December 2 1859 – but not before he passed on his Good Lord bird feather to Henry before his death, firmly convinced that it was still an omen of good things to come for the Negro, if not now, then in the future. And he was right: within a year, the American Civil War had started. The Cause was joined. Emancipation was four years distant.
Mr McBride has proved in previous works his literary worth: in ‘The Good Lord Bird’ he shows yet again his prodigious writing skills, breathing wonderful life into characters and events that fractured and changed a great nation. Madman, hero, Saint: John Brown’s body lays a-mouldering in the grave, but his truth still marches on. Hallilujah! This is a great book.
A Man of his Own, by Susan Wilson
Ms Wilson’s story begins with a great quotation from Corey Ford:
‘ Every dog should have a man of his own. There is nothing like a well-behaved person around the house to spread the dog’s blanket for him, or bring him his supper when he comes home man-tired at night.’
Amen to that! Ms Wilson must love dogs very much – she seems to specialise in books that involve our Best Animal Friend (see November 2010 review below). As every dog owner knows, they can have no truer friend, no ally more staunch, and no pet to love them with more selflessness than a dog. This story demonstrates beautifully the vital connection between man and canine and the bond formed between an aspiring baseball pitcher and a stray puppy he found at the back of a tavern in 1938, and his inability to turn his back on his new responsibility. Rick Stanton manages to further his baseball career, look after his new friend Pax and meet his future beloved human companion, Francesca. Life is happy indeed for all three – until the Japanese attack Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941 and the United States declares war on Japan and the Axis powers. The world has intervened in the Stanton’s lives, irrevocably changing their carefully laid plans and goals – Rick is drafted into the Army, and Francesca goes to work in a wire factory for everyone must ‘do their bit’. Even Pax is volunteered for duty as a War Dog after Francesca sees a magazine advertisement for intelligent pets to be considered for the newly formed K-9 force: the right candidates will be used as scouts, casualty dogs, messengers and sentries in the theatre of war and will be returned home to their owners at the end of the war – if they survive.
Rick fights his war with courage and fortitude but pays a terrible price in the defense of his country: his dream of being opening pitcher for the Boston Braves will never be realised for he sustains terrible wounds in a German ambush; his injuries bring him home but destroy forever he and his wife’s dreams of having a family.
Pax the War Dog also returns home – with his handler, a young man who has never had anything or anyone to love in his short life until he entered the army and applied to be a dog handler: Keller Nicholson is saddled with the task of returning his beloved Pax to the dog’s owners – he toys with the idea of just running off with Pax, his devoted companion, but that would be dishonourable: he must see the Stantons and inform them that he needs the dog more than they do. Until he meets them, and realises that their need for Pax is greater than his own. Rick is a paraplegic; his pitching arm has been blown off and he is plunged into depression; Francesca is valiantly trying to be Supercaregiver but is not physically equipped for the task; Keller cannot bear to leave Pax, so suggests that he could do the ‘heavy lifting’ of Rick that Francesca cannot: the ideal solution, one would think. The Stantons gain an aide and Keller gets to stay with his beloved canine partner. A win-win situation.
But it isn’t. Ms Wilson charts the waters of the psychological horrors of war with great skill; her characters are always credible, and while her coverage of the war is sketchy (to say the least!) her account of the terrible, lasting damage that war inflicts on those at home as well as those who fight is poignant and real. For want of a better description, this novel is a real heartwarmer, and I defy anyone not to shed a tear at the end.
ONE GOOD DOG, by Susan Wilson
I have been reading a lot of very mediocre stuff lately; consequently it was a pleasure, a DELIGHT, to come across this lovely story by Susan Wilson. This is her sixth novel and the first I have read – it’s strongly reminiscent of Garth Stein’s wonderful ‘The Art of Racing in the Rain’ in that part of the story is narrated by the Good Dog of the title, but there the similarity ends, for Chance is very different to Stein’s Enzo; in fact he fancies himself as a bit of a dude, an ex-fighting dog and a mighty street warrior with pit-bull ancestry – until he ends up in the pound on Death Row. He is rescued, albeit reluctantly, by Adam March, who because of a careless promise he made, needs to find a dog as a substitute pet for a homeless man he doles out lunch to everyday at a shelter for indigents. Adam, by his own standards has hit the bottom of the barrel, too: he is a former top executive of a huge corporation who loses everything –carefully sculpted wife, spoilt daughter, several homes, the bulk of his money and social status – when he strikes his P.A in a fit of uncontrollable rage. He is sentenced by a spectacularly unsympathetic judge to a year’s community service at the shelter. ‘You’re an arrogant bastard who needs to learn some humility’, says the judge, and this is what this book is about: learning to be humble, learning to redeem oneself, learning to make real friends, and learning to love again. It’s definitely a feel-good novel and in the hands of a lesser author these themes would seem chintzy and old-hat, but Ms Wilson’s considerable writing talents chronicle Chance and Adam’s experiences together in entirely credible fashion. Highly recommended.
Sunday, 27 October 2013
LAST GREAT READS FOR OCTOBER, 2013
Emperor of Thorns, by Mark Lawrence
Here is the final book of Mr Lawrence’s mighty trilogy chronicling the life of Honorous Jorg Ancrath, scion of one of the cruellest kings of the Broken Empire, all that is left of Europe after a terrible war wrought nuclear destruction a thousand years ago. (See ‘Prince of Thorns’ review below).
Jorg has not improved as a person since we left him bloody but victoriously enthroned at Renar four years ago; despite gaining a wife and baby son he is still intent on furthering his ambition, be it power or revenge, by any means possible. Honour and scruples are for weaker individuals, those who lack the heart to stand against him: so far in his short life he has been able to out think and outwit all his adversaries, as much by his almost suicidal courage as an obstinate and unstoppable instinct always to do the opposite if someone tells him ‘no’.
In his latest epic adventure he has great enemies to conquer, and a huge prize to win – to be crowned Emperor at the Congression of Vyene, held every four years to see if there is one amongst the various kings of the continent who is worthy of such power. Jorg also dreams of killing his father (who tried to kill him) as slowly and painfully as possible. As the king of Ancrath, dear old dad wields a lot of power with his vote, and his influence and contacts are legion. It will be enormously satisfying to get rid of him at Vyene – and the sooner the better.
But. As always the best-laid plans of mice and men oft go astray: on his way to Vyene, Jorg encounters Chella, a necromancer he thought he’d vanquished; she is now an agent of the fearsome King of the Dead. He is also disarmed by the unexpected love he feels for his newborn son, so much so that he will murder any and all who mean his family harm. He is much troubled by these alien feelings, for to Jorg they are fatal signs of weakness. He should be able to sacrifice his family to his plans for his subjects without a backward glance – ‘it’s useless to save one unless you can save them all!’
And let us not forget the Builders, those shadowy, elusive ancestors who have left their mysterious traces throughout the Broken Empire – their avatars still remain, intent on finishing what they started with their nuclear war so long ago, and to defeat them Jorg must not lose the murder, hatred and evil in his heart, his very best weapons, even though those same weapons are poisoning his soul. ‘We’re fashioned by our sorrows – not by joy – they are the undercurrent, the refrain. Joy is fleeting’.
Remorse is catching up with Jorg.
I was very fortunate to be able to read ‘Prince of Thorns’ and ‘King of Thorns’ consecutively, but had to wait more than a year to read ‘Emperor’ – and that is a shame, for I lost the thread of the story, forgetting quite a bit of the detail in spite of Mr Lawrence’s helpful synopsis of the first two books; consequently I became a bit mired and confused with the flashbacks, exciting though some of them were – in fact the plot became so convoluted and weighed down by scientific and mathematical mysteries that it lost its impetus for me. (Doubtless there will be legions of readers for whom that erudition wouldn’t be difficult, but my dad made me leave school early, education being wasted on girls. So there!)
Having said that, the plot picks up mightily when the assembled cast arrives at the Congression: the action is heartstopping and the twist in the tale at the very end is masterly. Mr Lawrence’s prose is stark, powerful and superb, as befits and describes his unforgettable anti-hero: there is a wonderful poetry to his writing and it is a shrewd move to finish Jorg’s story leaving everyone wanting more – this reader hopes and expects that Mr Lawrence’s next work will be just as gripping. And I hope we’ll see it soon.
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.
Sunday, 20 October 2013
AND SOME MORE GREAT READS FOR OCTOBER, 2013
Dexter’s Final Cut, by Jeff Lindsay
Ah, Dexter. Dark disciple of drastic solutions to dreadful problems; lover of alliteration; pseudo-pillar of society, proud possessor of wife and ready-made family and respected blood-spatter expert for the Miami Dade Police Department: could the latest book in this excellent series (see November 2012 review below) be Dexter’s final, fatal foray into murder and mayhem?
OK, I’ll stop right there with my attempts at alliteration – they’re not a patch on Mr Lindsay’s, but I do hope that this won’t be the final Dexter adventure. If a cold-blooded, relentlessly efficient and remorseless killer can endear himself to millions of readers, then anti-hero Dexter is a riotous success, a total knock-out - because he’s funny. And brilliant. And up until now, entirely unable to feel any emotional response to anyone he knows, including his family.
When this story begins Dexter is just boogying along in the same old groove, going to work, going home to the family, and sometimes departing from the norm with late night trips to find a ‘playmate’, someone who has committed a terrible crime for which he cannot be punished by the law – until Dexter decides that it is time for the miscreant to sin no more.
Life is uneventful, until a new TV crime series starts filming in Miami, and Dexter and his grumpy sister Detective sergeant Deborah Morgan are seconded as technical advisers to the production, Deborah being the ‘inspiration’ for TV star Jackie Forrest’s character, and Dexter’s expertise in forensics as a guide for Robert Chase, former megastar who is nearing his use-by date. Needless to say, the novelty of explaining his work to his handsome but dim pupil palls very quickly for Dexter; besides, Robert (call me Robert, not Bob) doesn’t seem to have the stomach for the latest grisly murder, that of a young woman found savaged, raped and carved up in a dumpster. Robert’s definitely a workplace hindrance but one that Dexter has to cart around like a large colicky baby – then another young woman is found, defiled in the same heinous way and disposed of in another dumpster, and when the third blonde corpse is discovered it becomes obvious that the beautiful Jackie Forrest has a stalker, one who is killing women who resemble her, and he states that she will be next.
Dexter, much against his wishes is nominated to be her bodyguard for the duration of the shoot; wife Rita and children are told by Deborah that he is away on highly secret business and Dexter moves into Jackie Forrest’s luxury hotel suite. Here the reader could be forgiven for expecting the action to proceed in an orderly predictable fashion, with Dexter, happy murderous beast that he is, finding and despatching the stalker in his usual efficient and clandestine way before Ms Forrest is attacked – or at a pinch, even after a nail-biting confrontation occurs – from which she is rescued, of course.
Mr Lindsay shocks us all with the direction of the plot, for the unthinkable happens more than once: Dexter discovers that his raisin of a heart is not completely dry – he starts to experience feelings. And because these alien emotions confound him he is not his usual sharp, analytical self. He makes several crucial mistakes, errors which have the reader screeching ‘For God’s sake, Dexter – pull yourself together. Man up!’ But he doesn’t. When the story ends he is fathoms deep in the darkest ordure ever, with no obvious way up, facing punishment for crimes that he didn’t commit. Is Dexter doomed? Will he survive to kill another day?
I can’t imagine that Mr Lindsay would pay any heed to the writer of a Library blog in far-off Hobbitland and her pleas for Dexter adventure # 8, but what about all the other millions of Dexter fans out there? It will be all Mr Lindsay’s fault if they get in a sulk, for he has created an unforgettable character in Dexter and his Dark Passenger, so much so that his literary demise is unimaginable. I have no realistic idea how Mr Lindsay can resurrect Dexter from his impossible predicament, but I have faith. I hope he doesn’t leave him in the shite for too long, though; Dexter’s fastidiousness is legendary and the suspense will kill me! Highly recommended.
The Dexter Novels, by Jeff Lindsay
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.
Tuesday, 15 October 2013
FIRST GREAT READS FOR OCTOBER, 2013
Abide with Me, by Sabin Willett
Here’s an ambitious undertaking: a modern retelling of ‘Wuthering Heights’, Emily Bronte’s classic Gothic novel. Those tragic lovers Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw are transformed into small town Vermont inhabitants Roy Murphy, ‘trailer-trash’, and Emma Herrick, beautiful daughter of the town’s first family.
In their teen years they spend an idyllic summer together before Emma departs for Yale and all the privileges her background affords. Roy has no such glittering prospects on the horizon: he has already been in juvenile detention, and is almost illiterate thanks to long absences from school. His appearance leaves a lot to be desired, too – menacing and/or intimidating, take your pick – in fact any reader could be forgiven for wondering why the patrician Emma would waste even a glance in his direction, but there you go; it’s that old animal magnetism, that ‘opposites attract’ theory proven true yet again that has Emma ensnared – but only for the summer, she thinks. Yale will be her release from this obsession that enslaves them both, and Roy has joined the Army, so the affair will die a natural death.
But it doesn’t. Roy endures a baptism of fire in Afghanistan; always so solitary in the past, he learns to depend on and enjoy the fellowship of his colleagues, and for the first time relies on them to have his back, as he has theirs. He suffers pain, terror and unimaginable loss during his time at Firebase Montana, but throughout he is sustained by his memories of his beautiful summer with Emma, the best summer of his young life: he has to survive so that he can return to his great love, for those were his last words to her: ‘I will come back’ - spoken to someone who was enormously relieved that he was leaving so that she could end family horror at her uncharacteristic behaviour, and pursue her own ambitions for a life that did not include Roy.
Mr Willett paces his story well. He has an excellent ear for dialogue and idiom and has created some great minor characters among the town’s inhabitants, enlisting them as a kind of a Greek Chorus to relate and comment upon the unfolding tragedy of Roy’s eventual homecoming.
For return he does, to find that Emma has found another and all he has left are his memories. This time they provide no solace and single minded determination turns to vengeful obsession, wreaking predictable and terrible results.
It is no easy task (and some would consider it an affront) to transform a singular and much-loved classic into a modern story that relies heavily on 21st century events, but Mr Willett succeeds, capturing the essence of Heathcliff and Cathy and effortlessly clothing them in their new contemporary lives to thrill the reader once more. What a fine writer he is. Miss Bronte would be pleased. Highly recommended.
The Heist, by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg
I have been a devoted fan of Ms Evanovich and her bungling bounty hunter Stephanie Plum (not to mention Stephanie’s sidekick ,former ‘Ho Lula, now an inept filing clerk but magnificently unaware of her shortcomings: what a neat character!) since ‘One for the Money’. Ms Evanovich has now reached # 20 in the series, the latest being ‘Takedown Twenty’, a treat I have yet to enjoy. In between times, she tries her hand with other characters and now she has teamed up with Lee Goldberg (so sorry, Mr Goldberg – despite the stellar qualifications you enjoy in the book jacket notes you are a man of mystery to me) to produce a new set of ongoing characters in ‘The Heist’, the story of goodies and baddies collaborating in an uneasy partnership to catch the ultimate Ponzi schemer, an investment banker who has skipped the U.S.A. with $500 million. His whereabouts are now unknown.
All very well and good: the bones of the plot are sound. the FBI figure that it takes a conman to know one and help them apprehend Mr Banker, so make a deal with Nick Fox, a crook they have just jailed, thanks to the determined - not to say obsessive - efforts of their agent Kate O’Hare to Bring Him to Justice: a phony escape is arranged and Mr Fox makes his getaway as part of the deal. The only fly in the ointment is that no-one kept Agent O’Hare in the loop: she is dancing with rage – puce with it, and decides that that S.O.B. is not going to get away from her. He is not going to outsmart her. Even if she has to kill him she will bring him back alive!
Fair enough. The only problem is the writing. The first chapters are just about the klunkiest things in print: Agent Kate is slim, trim, an ex-Navy seal, trained to a standstill in myriad different ways to kill. Naturally, she is blonde and possesses sparkling blue eyes. As an added bonus her Dad is also an ex intel operative, with favours owed to him all over the globe from his many secret missions on behalf of the U.S. He rescues her a lot, which is good because it keeps his clandestine skills honed and besides, it gets him out of the house.
Nick Fox is charming, irrepressible and a lover of the high life. Naturally, he has windswept brown hair, dark brown eyes and a lazy smile. And formidable, crooked skills that enable him to pull off breathtaking crimes of absurdity. Just like real life!
The only requirement to make all this silliness work is that the writing must be credible – and seamless, and that doesn’t happen until at least chapter six, before which it is almost possible to tell when either or is saying, ‘well, you can have a turn now’. Because I am so familiar with Ms Evanovich’s style it was pretty easy to work out when she was at the helm, and as always, the minor characters are great fun, and fans of hers take heart: there are twenty seven more chapters to go and it does get better. Despite the wild plotting (including lightning fast trips to Greece, Berlin, Bali and other more remote Indonesian islands, where Agent Kate’s Dad gets to quote geographical info about each destination with Wikipedia-like ease – oh, the joys of cutting and pasting!) Nick and Kate Get Their Man, no-one gets rubbed out except the bad guys, and Kate’s dad has so much time away from home that he’s looking forward to his former life as an Old Fart.
It’s a sure thing that a sequel will be planned; I just hope that by the time it appears, all the rough edges of this new partnership will have disappeared and what was a fun concept becomes a great series.
Monday, 30 September 2013
VERY LAST GREAT READS FOR SEPTEMBER, 2013
The Silver Star, by Jeannette Walls
Jeannette Walls is justly renowned for her wonderful memoir ‘The Glass Castle’, and her novelised version of her Grandmother’s life ‘Half Broke Horses’ (see February 2010 review below): her third book is fiction, concentrating on the lives of two sisters, Liz and Jean Holladay, and their attempts to make a decent life for themselves – they are convinced that they can; that nothing can bring them down – as long as they stay together.
They are the daughters of two different fathers. Their mother Charlotte is a self-professed free spirit, going where the road takes her as a backup singer, songwriter and guitarist. When the story starts 12 year old Jean, always nicknamed Bean, and 15 year old Liz are waiting patiently for their mother to return from several days away in Los Angeles looking for recording work. They are used to her absences and can look after themselves reasonably well – for a time, until a series of adversities make Charlotte decide that she should have some solo headspace ‘to get herself back on the right creative and spiritual track’ so that eventually they can continue being a merry ‘tribe of three’, for who needs anyone else when they have each other? She just needs a little break.
Except that Bean and Liz know that they don’t have their mother at all: they can only depend on themselves, and when the authorities start taking an interest, they embark on the only plan they can think of: a bus trip to Virginia where Charlotte’s estranged family live – the only relatives they know about for Charlotte would never discuss the girls’ fathers except to say that one was a wastrel and the other was ‘beneath her’.
Liz’s resourcefulness enables them to make the arduous journey from California to Virginia, there to arrive unannounced at the ancestral home and find that the rich family Charlotte had scorned and fled from in her efforts to find herself has entered a decline; the big white house on the hill is decaying, the land around it run down and untended, the family cotton mill has been sold and their Uncle Tinsley Holladay has turned into a semi-recluse after the death of his wife Martha.
Such shocking realities would daunt most people and the girls are no exception, but for all his eccentricity Uncle Tinsley is a kind and decent man; he takes his new-found and desperate nieces in, giving them some sorely-needed stability in their lives. Bean makes contact with her father’s family and life looks up – until they start looking for work so that they can buy themselves new clothes to start the coming school year.
And that is when this lovely story takes a nasty turn, for the only person to employ them in such a depressed small town is a tyrant and an abuser who regards them as easy game, to be reeled in whenever he pleases. It is only a matter of time before a chain of events is set in motion, causing the town to be divided and people’s loyalties tested along with newly-forged family bonds. Liz’s courage and resourcefulness runs out, and Bean finds a much-needed bull-at-a-gate gumption and steadfastness that obviously comes from the other side of her family - for their mother proves yet again that when it really, really matters, she still has feet of clay.
For this reader, Ms Walls has done it again, creating in strong and lucid prose great characters and a wonderful account of the ties that bind – and those that tear us apart; strengths and weaknesses that exist in every family, as we all know. Highly recommended.
Half-Broke Horses, by Jeannette Walls
Jeannette Walls, long-time journalist and already well-known for her celebrated memoir ‘The Glass Castle’, wanted to write a memoir of her maternal Grandmother, Lily Casey Smith , but Lily turned out to be such a larger-than-life character, so singular and indomitable that writing of her in the third person fell flat on the page; turning her story, all true, into a first-person narrative and therefore a novel, was the only way that Lily could leap satisfyingly off the print and into the reader’s mind and heart. The prose is matter-of-fact, without frills, chronicling Lily’s life from the age of six in the early 1900’s when she helped her father break horses; how her younger brother Buster got the only long-term formal education ‘because he was a boy and he would inherit the ranch’, whilst she and her sister were educated by Dad, who was well-read but had his own radical ideas about politics, government and civilization in general. When she was thirteen she was allowed to board at a mission school for six months, but was sent home because Dad had spent her tuition money on eight Great Danes, from whom he was going to make a killing when he bred them; sadly, his next-door neighbor shot them as soon as they ventured onto his land, thinking they would kill his stock. Lily, naturally, was bitter that her tuition money disappeared so quickly, but was eventually dispatched at the age of fifteen to a tiny settlement in Northern Arizona as its teacher. The First World War had started; able-bodied men were enlisting; women were moving into the factories, so she was offered a job as a relief schoolteacher at Red Lake, five hundred miles from her home, a journey she undertook on horseback without a backward glance. It took her a month, and this reader is still in awe of her accomplishment, written about not as a huge, brave undertaking, but just as a statement of fact: this was how it was ‘back in the day’. In the course of Lily’s life she learned to drive a car, fly a plane, manage a huge ranch in Arizona with her second husband (the first was a bigamous, low-down no-gooder), and led the kind of life that makes us city-slickers quake at the mere thought of the hard work, hardship and privation. She was a woman of huge heart, unshakeable conviction, great humour and rigid opinions, particularly about her daughter’s choice of a husband: ‘You need a steady man. He ain’t steady. What are you going to do for a honeymoon?’
‘Oh, I don’t know – we’ll go where the road takes us.’
‘Well honey, you’re in for a ride.’ And eventually had to wave them off as ‘they took off off up the street, heading out into open country like a couple of half-broke horses.’
Wednesday, 25 September 2013
YET MORE GREAT READS FOR SEPTEMBER, 2013
The Son, by Philipp Meyer
What a privilege it was to read this book. It is a novel in the grand style, epic in every sense. Chris Cleave, a writer I much admire, stated in the jacket notes that it should come with its own soundtrack, and all who read this wonderful story will know exactly what he means, for this is a great family saga couched in the birth and tumultuous history of Texas, that wild land won from Mexico in a bloody war and proclaimed a State in 1836, the year Eli McCullough is born. He is the younger son of a settler who also doubles as a Ranger, protecting with his companions and neighbours their fledgling properties from rustlers and no-goods – mostly Mexican, or those bloodthirsty Comanche.
In 1849 when Eli is 13 and his father is away Rangering, Comanche attack the McCullough farm, raping and butchering Eli’s mother and elder sister and kidnapping Eli and his brother Martin. White captives are as good as money in the bank to the Comanche: when times are hard they can always ransom them back to the palefaces. Martin, scholarly and introspective, does not survive the arduous trip back to the tribal village, but Eli is made of something stronger; he not only survives but embraces all that is fair and good about his captors and stays with them until the smallpox kills those he most loves and starvation forces the rest of the band to ransom him back to the nearest white outpost.
Eli is the patriarch of this story. He narrates his own sections of the book with a verve and gusto missing from his son Peter, also a narrator through his journals. Peter sees himself as a man of lofty and noble principles when compared to his father – but he cannot help noticing that all their Mexican vaqueros would follow Eli through hellfire but never for Peter would they show the same devotion.
His principles are put to a terrible test and found wanting when his father and friends mount a punishment for cattle-rustling that turns into a massacre of his nearest neighbours, a family descended from Spanish nobility. This crime reverberates through succeeding generations, becoming the metaphor for the dog-eat-dog ruthlessness of the early founders of the Lone Star State, and the tipping point for Peter who is forced to realise several bitter truths about himself that he finds intolerable to live with. He becomes the Family Disgrace and is never mentioned by future descendants, most notably J.A. McCullough – Jeannie, a determined chip off the old Eli block, driven to succeed and thus earn the respect of her male counterparts in the Oil industry. Sadly, this seems to be an unattainable goal: her femininity will always bar her from that exclusive club of Good Ole Boys and she is fated to end her long life contemplating her many life regrets, chief among them being that she could never be A Son.
Mr Meyer has written a great novel; a story as austere and beautiful as the country itself, with colourful characters as flawed as the times - especially Eli, that small brave man who becomes a titan of Texas history, a ruthless murderer to his son Peter, but a man who would speak the truth at all times – and who knew the truth about himself and was not afraid to live with it.
And Chris Cleave is SO right: this is where great rolling, crashing musical chords by John Williams or Howard Shore should knock us off our feet: this epic demands nothing less. ‘The Son’ should become a contemporary American classic. Very highly recommended.
Let Me Go, by Chelsea Cain.
They’re back again – burnt-out but brilliant Detective Archie Sheridan, his nemesis the evil (but gorgeous) serial killer Gretchen Lowell, and Susan Ward, ex-reporter (she was sacked) and surly freeloader at her Hippie Mum’s house (just for a short time.) Ms Cain’s five previous books in the series have had all the successful ingredients for the perfect thriller: smart plotting, lashings of suspense, credible characters, and black humour to burn: it is a recipe that can’t fail – can it?
Well, this time I think Ms Cain has missed the bus. It’s not that this reader grew tired of Archie and Gretchen et al; it’s just that this time around it seems that there are no new ideas. There is a distressing sameness, a tired, here-we-go-again familiarity with plot twists and turns that in all other books (see December 2012 review below) seemed fresh and new; now the reader, instead of being pleasurably excited merely thinks ‘Oh, for Heaven’s sake: get on with it!’
And that’s a shame, for Ms Cain is a clever, witty writer; she can evoke atmosphere and dread with the best of them: sadly, in this story suspense takes a back seat.
Gretchen has escaped – again – from custody. No-one knows where she is and Archie is being kept out of the loop on any relevant developments by his friends and colleagues, who know what a destructive hold she has on him. It’s for his own good – at each meeting she keeps on removing important bits of his anatomy – there’s not much left! Archie’s marriage is over (now that’s a surprise) and he has embarked on a new affair, strictly physical with his neighbour downstairs. Who is a Gretchen lookalike. Right. Susan, who harbours strong feelings for Archie (and what woman does not, despite his lack of a spleen and multiple scars (one in the shape of a heart) compliments of Gretchen) has been invited to a very posh party given by her boyfriend’s hugely rich and powerful drug-dealer father, there to be kept against her will in spite of FBI surveillance. Archie also has an invitation and who should be there but Sex Bomb serial slasher Gretchen – oh, everyone turns up; it’s quite a party and the plot thickens at an alarming rate; in fact the plot moves so rapidly and so many new, minor characters are introduced that the story takes on a Keystone Cops quality. Suffice it to say that blood runs freely, bodies (mostly killed very messily by Gretchen) litter the landscape and the good guys escape by the skin of their teeth: predictably, so does Gretchen which naturally means that there will be book number seven. This could be a bridge too far for this reader; much as I have loved the previous stories I think Gretchen and Archie should settle their differences – kill each other or move on!
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.
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!