Sunday, 24 February 2013


Leader of the pack, by David Rosenfelt
Mr Rosenfelt is a very funny man.  He is also a dog-lover, and in each of his novels about Andy Carpenter, sometime defense lawyer (Andy  is a wealthy man;  he can please himself when he works –why did I never have this choice!),  Andy’s high regard for Man’s Best Friend is such that he clearly trusts dogs more than people, and rightly so:  dogs never let their best friends down, nor do they betray them.  Ever.
In fact, the boot is frequently on the other foot.  Fortunately, Andy and his friend Willie Miller run an animal shelter, caring for and re-homing stray dogs. He has his own beloved dog at the home he shares with his wife Laurie, and life would be very satisfactory if it were not for the bad guys he is forced to meet in the course of his work – and some of them are very bad indeed.
This is the tenth Andy Carpenter thriller, (see July, 2011 review below) and Mr Rosenfelt’s books are rescued from being formulaic by the credible plots, GREAT characters – Andy’s long-time friends are a delight – and sound research.  He writes about what he knows – and he knows a lot.
In this latest novel, Andy is disquieted by the fact that, six years ago, he lost a case in which his client Joe DeSimone was imprisoned by a jury for a double murder:  he is convinced of Joe’s innocence and it rankles terribly that Joe is in jail for life – purely because he has the misfortune to be the son of one of the big New Jersey Mafia bosses.  Andy feels that the sins of the father have been visited upon the innocent son, but it is not until new information reveals itself from an entirely unexpected source that he can start gathering enough evidence to petition for a new trial.  And you’ll never guess whodunit in a month of Sundays!  Well, I didn’t anyway.  Yep, there is a very satisfying little twist to the plot here, guaranteed to fool all but the Superhuman among us:  Mr. Rosenfelt’s writing is pure entertainment right to the last page – even his page of acknowledgements is unique.  He states that he had stopped thanking various friends several books back because he had been accused of name-dropping, but had decided to resume his ‘thankyou’ page because ‘like it or not, I move among the stars, and I’m not afraid to admit it’.
Here are a selection of names dropped:
Barack Obama, David, Butch and Hopalong Cassidy, Kim Jung Il, the entire Jung Il family, Daniel and Jenny Craig, Albert Schweitzer, Anne and Barney Frank, Harrison and Betty Ford, Vladimir Putin, Aretha and Benjamin Franklin, Charlie Sheen, Charlie Chan, Hannibal and Sally Lechter (Oh, sorry, I couldn’t resist, that’s one of mine!) Bruce, Spike and Robert E. Lee,  Neil and Hope Diamond.
The man’s incorrigible!  And mighty good fun.

Dog Tags, by David Rosenfelt
And now for something completely different!  Something for the readers who just want to be entertained, to NOT have to contemplate the huge questions of life, the universe and everything:  this is YOUR book, and what an unmitigated pleasure it is; a really good legal thriller combined with enough humour to carry us on to the next Rosenfelt opus (for this is a series) and to hope that Mr. Rosenfelt keeps the jokes – and the suspense coming.  True to form, I have come in on the fifth or sixth title in the adventures of Andy Carpenter, defence lawyer extraordinaire.  It irritates me immeasurably to realize this after I have started a book;  I like to start things FROM THE BEGINNING!  Well, never mind:  I have started to trawl back through the series to the start, and one thing that Andy can be counted on is to be perpetually smart-mouthed in a really death-defying way, to solve the current mystery, and to get rid of all the bad guys – oh, and he’s an unashamed dog-lover:  what’s not to admire?  And Mr. Rosenfelt’s dialogue had me breathless with admiration:  one of Andy’s friends knows absolutely everyone:  ‘You wanna meet the Dalai Lama?  Well, I don’t know him but I know his sister, Shirley Lama.  I could arrange a meeting.’  I  wish I’d thought of that, and I’m still trying to figure out how to introduce it as all mine in future conversations.  Hasn’t happened yet!

The Prisoner of Heaven, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Mr Ruiz Zafon is the author of the huge best-seller ‘The Shadow of the Wind’, first published to international acclaim in 2001. 
In 1949, the novel’s main protagonist, Daniel Sempere, son of a Barcelona bookseller, is taken by his father to the Cemetery for Forgotten Books, the last resting place in a surreal setting of thousands and thousands of titles and presided over by Isaac Montfort, its curator.  He is permitted to choose one title to take home with him and he selects ‘The Shadow of the Wind’.  That book launches him on an adventure that sweeps him and the reader up in a torrent of  mysteries within mysteries, stories within stories and suspense of the most nail-biting kind.
In 2009, Mr Ruiz Zafon launched a Prequel of sorts, ‘’The Angel’s Game’, again set in Barcelona, this time in the 1920’s and concerning David Martin, a young pulp writer of serialised dime novels for a minor publishing house:  his problems start when he agrees to write a novel on a particular subject for a mysterious publisher who may – or may not – be the devil.  It is entirely possible that David is writing to save his soul as well as his life.  Once again mystery pervades everything and the suspense generated effortlessly by Mr Ruiz Zafon bespeaks his superb literary skill.
Now we have ‘The Prisoner of Heaven’.  The year is 1956;  Daniel Sempere has wed his great love Beatriz and they have a son, Julian, named after Julian Carax, author of ‘The Shadow of the Wind’.  All would be well were it not for the fact that the bookshop’s takings are well down, and Daniel’s best friend in all the world, Fermin Romero de Torres (not his real name!) appears to have huge worries which are causing him weight loss and sleepless nights.  Fermin swears it is not the fact of his impending nuptials causing his big drop in suit size, but after a visit to the bookshop by a mysterious and decrepit stranger enquiring of his whereabouts, he becomes more anxious than ever, and finally confesses some of his worries – and his history – to Daniel.
In 1940 Fermin was imprisoned for espionage activities against the fascist government of Franco in the notorious Montjuic Castle, an impregnable mountain fortress and prison looming over Barcelona.  His eventual escape was engineered by none other than David Martin, hero of ‘The Angel’s Game’ now known as the Prisoner of Heaven and kept alive by Maurizio Valls, the governor of the prison, solely to  write stories that Valls, a literary snob and poseur wishes to pass as his own.
As with each preceding book, the plot has more twists and turns than a pretzel, not to mention a huge cast list of characters, all of whom appear or disappear over the course of the three stories;  it is not easy to keep everyone in their correct order and readers can be forgiven for thinking on occasion that they are embroiled in a fruity melodrama flavoured with dashes of magic realism:  having said that, the reader also must appreciate the wonderful characterisations:  Fermin is a master of wit and dialectics, not to mention a fab dancer,  and Daniel’s courage and idealism ring entirely true.  And Barcelona – ah, Barcelona, that pearl of culture on the east coast of Spain, Colombus pointing to America in one direction and Las Ramblas, that great boulevard, proceeding in the other.  No other author could love a place more, or write more lovingly of the great Catalan city than Mr Ruiz Zafon.  He writes of Barcelona with real magic, and makes it all magically real.  And there is more to come:  the third book ends with many unanswered questions and promises of revenge, making sure that this reader will be champing at the bit to return to the bookshop of Sempere and Sons in #4, hoping for thrilling answers.  I know I won’t be disappointed.            

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Those Across the River, by Christopher Buehlman
 University professor Frank Nichols and Eudora Chambers are lovers, forced to flee Chicago after their affair is discovered by her husband, a professor of literature at the same university:  it is 1935 and such scandals, particularly in conjunction with Frank’s very public beating by the cuckolded husband, are unforgivable in academia.
Fortunately (or not), Frank has recently inherited a property from an Aunt in a small town in Georgia;  they can hole up there until Eudora’s divorce comes through and they can discreetly legalise their union;  he can begin work on the Great American Civil War History – about one of his ancestors who owned the last big plantation in the area - then they can at last relax and start to enjoy small town life and each other with new neighbours and friends.
Ah, dreams are free, as we all know:  the sleepy hollow of Whitbrow has been hit hard by the depression;  businesses have closed and people have left, but those who remain show kindness and generosity to their new neighbours and maintain a healthy curiosity about them, particularly as they are a handsome young couple all the way from Chicago.  It is a mystery as to why they chose Whitbrow to put down roots.
In turn, Frank and Eudora find it quaint that the townsfolk maintain various rituals and traditions, one such being the monthly release of several hogs into the woods on the other side of the river – these pigs never seem to breed in the wild;  apart from thrashing and squealing sounds soon after their release they are never seen again;  but that doesn’t really mean anything;  the pigs could still be there – it’s just that the locals avoid those woods like the plague.  Stories have been told about ‘haints’ and a fearsome creature called a Look-a-Roo, an enormous dog-like animal who will eat anyone up who ventures into the forest.  Stories told to frighten children into good behaviour?  Maybe, but in all such tales there is a kernel of truth and eventually, Frank and Eudora find to their horror that they really should have stayed out of the woods – in fact, they should never have come to Whitbrow, for nothing good awaits them in either place.
This is Mr Buehlman’s first novel;  previously he has written plays and poetry.  His prose is graceful, describing horrifying events with a spare elegance that more experienced writers can only dream about, and his plotting is measured perfectly, increasing suspense and dread with each chapter, then allowing the reader a breather every now and then with some sly, down-home humour – and thank goodness for that, I say!  I had to keep turning those pages at a great rate until I reached the disturbing conclusion and I haven’t felt the hairs rise on the back of my neck so pleasurably for AAAAGES!  To successfully wed horror with humour is a gift:  Mr Buehlman has it in abundance.

Restoration, by Rose Tremain
(An Oldie but a Goodie!)
I am ashamed to confess that it has taken me  many years to read this very fine book, first written in 1988.  The recent publication of its sequel, ‘Merivel, a Man of his Time’ finally compelled me to stop dawdling (and procrastinating) so that I would know the background provided by Ms Tremain’s earlier novel.
In this new Vintage edition, Ms Tremain has written an introduction comparing the Restoration of the Monarchy under Charles the Second to Thatcherite Britain, a time she utterly abhors:  ‘Men’s eyes turned towards the new King.  The shadow cast by Whitehall was enormous.  It was understood that all blessings, all advancement flowed from here.  The King and the power he could bestow were God, just as money  became God to the British in the 1980s’…….’The stampede for personal advancement began.’
Ms Tremain recounts in masterly fashion the hectic excess of the time;  the adoration of the people for the new Monarch and his wonderful displays of luxury after the gloomy years of Puritanism;  the striving for elevation into the Royal favour by those worthy – and those who weren’t, a perfect example being Robert Merivel, the son of the Royal Glovemakers.
Robert is distressingly plain;  he has a flat nose and ‘hog-bristles for hair’, making him glad of the current fashion for wigs and perukes.  He is not tall but he has a great appetite for overindulgence, especially in food, drink and comely women, but his parents love him dearly and hope that through them he will gain a place at court, for Robert is a student of medicine – a good one, when he can be bothered rousing himself from his bed, and he has a sunny nature and a  ready,self-deprecating wit that endears him to all.
Robert is eventually entrusted with a task from his Monarch:  he must enter into a marriage with Celia Clemence, Charles’s latest love-interest.  In return, he will receive a knighthood, and the use of a grand estate in Norfolk, all in an effort to achieve a spurious respectability for Celia, who, needless to say, is besotted with the King and doesn’t take kindly to the idea of marriage to a buffoon. 
All proceeds according to plan until Celia becomes possessive and demands that Charles, that Divine Ruler, should love no-one but her;  as a result she is banished to Norfolk and her lawful, detested husband.  Robert is just as confused as she, but against his better instincts, falls in love – to his enduring regret:  that was the one thing that his Ruler was sure he wouldn’t do, the one thing that was forbidden him.  Robert finds to his enormous regret that what can be freely given can as soon be taken away.  The King’s displeasure is huge and far-reaching and Robert finds himself forced to face some terrible truths,  sliding down the precipitous slope of disillusionment and self-loathing, and compelled to make drastic changes to his life – and philosophy – in order to survive.
Ms Tremain recounts the huge historical events of the era – the Plague and the Great Fire of London – with such conviction that you would swear she had experienced everything first-hand, and her depiction of the historical titans of the day is utterly convincing.  How glad I am that I read ‘Restoration’:  now I look forward to reading its sequel with great pleasure, for Merivel, despite being ‘A Man of His Time’ and regardless of all his faults, has a beguiling honesty and loyalty to those he holds dear that we would all do well to emulate.  Highly recommended.