Monday, 29 April 2013

Rubbernecker, by Belinda Bauer
Patrick Fort is 18 years old, and has left home  to study anatomy at university in the Welsh city of Cardiff.  He will share a tiny house with two other students and has a small allowance from his mum for food and incidentals, similar to so many other young people experiencing relative independence for the first time – with one huge difference:  Patrick has Asperger’s syndrome, and has gained his place at university because of his disability. The institution must accept a certain quota of handicapped students by law.
Patrick will never be ‘normal’.  His social skills are practically non-existent;  humour and irony are completely wasted on him, for Patrick takes every statement and situation literally.  If logic is not evident to him in conversations and actions he refuses to respond.  He is also fanatically clean and hates being touched, foibles which baffle and irritate his flatmates and fellow students, who are unaware that his condition has a name.
On the upside, however, Patrick has some enviable skills:  he loves puzzles;  he can fix a mucked-up Rubik’s cube in seconds, then offer to show the mucker-upper (in this case, the university Professor who admitted him to the anatomy class) where he went wrong;  he has a wonderful aptitude for all things mechanical;  and the human body, that supreme example of physical mechanics, is the puzzle he most wants to solve – for Patrick’s father was killed in a hit-and-run accident when he was eight and the killer was never found.  Nor can Patrick understand the concept of death logically;  he needs to know by dissecting a body, where life goes, and if it could ever come back.  He needs to know, and the logical place to find out is in the Dissection class where he and his classmates are introduced to a corpse they name Bill.
Bill has donated his body to medical science;  he had been in a serious car accident, putting him in a coma for several months before he died;  now it is up to Patrick and three other students to study every part of Bill, and they must also establish the official cause of death whilst they do so.  Patrick is thrilled;  the mystery of where his father went when his life ended may soon be revealed!
Unfortunately, the only mystery revealed is the cause of Bill’s death:  he did not die of heart failure as was officially stated – he was murdered, and Patrick is faced with solving the biggest puzzle of his young life, and trying to keep himself alive as the murderer becomes aware that his was not, after all, the perfect crime.
This is SUCH a good book!
Ms Bauer has, through her impeccable research and enviable writing skills, made Patrick an entirely credible character, imprisoned within his syndrome but not lost to it.  Her minor characters are excellent and there are some great twists and turns in the plot – she had me fooled more than once, which is, after all, one of the most basic requirements of a good crime novel.  This was a pleasure to read.  Highly recommended.


The Cypress House, by Michael Koryta
I found after reading ‘The Prophet’ by the above author, that I absolutely HAD to check out some of his earlier fiction – which makes me wonder where I have been all my life that I have remained ignorant of Mr Koryta (and Ms Bauer) until now.  I have spent too long in my fairy bower, obviously.
Hang onto your hat:  you’re going to have another white-knuckle ride (as all those really flash reviewers say) through a hurricane;  into drug-trafficking;  smacking up against smelly corpses and other nasty things in swamps;  and feeling the hairs rise on the back of the neck (even if you have none) as the hero tries to deal with the supernatural.  Oh, it’s great stuff, and while the reader’s credulity has to be suspended more than once, it’s a small price to pay for such a page-turner.
It is 1935, the middle of the Great Depression, and a band of men employed by the Government  are on their way by train to Florida to work on a hugely ambitious  project:  to construct a succession of highway bridges across the Florida Keys.  The men are excited;  they are employed  where so many thousands are not, and the work will last a long time.  The atmosphere is light-hearted – until one of them, Arlen Wagner,  starts to see his workmates transformed into skeletons.  This is not the first time such a thing has happened to Arlen;  during the Great War of 1914-18 he fought as a Marine in France, in Belleau Wood:  that’s when he first knew who would live and who would die.  He has sought the anaesthesia of alcohol ever since, unable to come to terms with these terrible futuristic visions, but now he knows that they must all leave that train -  get off at the very next station, or die.    Something terrible is going to happen and he is never wrong.
The men regard him as a crank – does he seriously think that they are going to give up the chance of steady work on his whim?  Only one young man follows him off the train;  his would-be friend, Paul Brickhill, a gangly, friendly-as-a-puppy teenager:  something in Arlen’s warning rings true for him.
And as they watch the train of soon-to-be- corpses leaving a tiny station in the deepest, darkest Florida countryside, that’s just the start of misadventure and misfortune for the pair:  worse things are going to occur as inevitably as the sunrise.
This is the perfect airport or beach read.  As Stephen King, that peerless master of Horror says in a cover endorsement: ‘ a hurricane, gangsters and the supernatural – what’s not to like?’  I couldn’t agree more, and the icing on the cake is that Mr Koryta isn’t a sloppy scribe who can tell a good story:  he can really WRITE.  Lucky us.


Sunday, 21 April 2013

The Prophet, by Michael Koryta

High school football Coach Kent Austin has no contact with his big brother Adam, though they both live in the same small town of Chambers, Ohio.  Chambers has little to recommend it;  its once-prosperous steel mills have closed, people have left, and those who have stayed are there mainly because they can’t afford to live anywhere else.  Adam makes a living as a Bail Bondsman, not his first choice of occupations, but it pays the bills and he’s good at it.  Having a steady income also allows him to indulge in his alcoholism, the perfect medication for the huge guilt that plagues him, for nearly twenty years before, Adam and Kent’s younger sister was cruelly raped and murdered and he holds himself responsible.
In the meantime, Kent has found the Lord, inherited the football Coach’s job, and married his daughter:  he has successfully ‘moved on’, so much so that he feels it in his heart that it’s time to visit the prison and bestow his forgiveness on his sister’s killer (who laughed in his face), thereby earning Adam’s undying hatred.  Far from ‘forgiving’ the murderer, Adam wants to kill him himself and as slowly and painfully as possible.  In Adam’s eyes, Kent has committed the ultimate betrayal, a desecration of their sister’s memory and one awful, drunken night he uses his fists on his brother to emphasise his point.
There things stand until another brutal murder takes place.  This time the victim is the seventeen-year-old girlfriend of the high School’s star quarterback and her death occurs during a make-or-break game for the Cardinals, Kent’s highly successful team;  they are on the way to the State Championship for the first time in twenty years and they have the support of the entire town, not least because it’s great to have something to be proud of again in Chambers.
The girl’s murder casts a pall over everything, but it forces the brothers into the same orbit once more:  the parallels between the latest murder and their sister’s 20 years ago have a familiarity that they can hardly bear to endure – but they must, for the latest killer has intimated that he can murder with impunity – and he is coming for Kent, and Kent’s family.
This is the first time I have read any of Michael Koryta’s books but it won’t be the last:  here is the white-knuckle ride I was promised in ‘The Boyfriend’. After reading that plodder of a book, it was pure pleasure to read a thriller worthy of the name.   That’s not to say that it doesn’t have flaws – I was genuinely surprised when Mr WhoDunIt was revealed, but the reasons for his actions I felt were less than convincing.  That said, Mr Koryta portrays familial love and sibling rivalry in pure, real terms, and it was satisfying to know that Kent, that staunch, respected, holier-than-everyone high school and town leader finally faced the consequences of actions to which he gave no thought many years before.
One last comment:  (I know I should stop here, but I can’t.  It’s the reviewer’s version of verbal diarrhoea.)  For those familiar with gridiron football, this book will be a football fan’s delight.  For those who aren’t, like myself, its rules and plays etc. shall ever remain a mystery.  I watched all the seasons of ‘Friday Night Lights’ and loved it to bits, but was no closer to understanding gridiron at the end of the series than I was at the beginning.  In my defence I have to say that in this part of the world Rugby in its various forms is King, and the All Blacks are its princely warriors.  I have tried to look for similarities between the two games but there are none that I can see, so I’ll just have to sit on my fist and lean back on my thumb, and hope that American readers will forgive my ignorance.

Gold, by Chris Cleave.
A few years ago I read a book by Chris Cleave called ‘The Other Hand’ (‘Little Bee’ in the U.S.A.), a story that has stayed with me because of its unforgettable characters (especially little Bee);  the horror and brutality of the circumstances that turn people, particularly children, into refugees; and how they fare afterwards in a supposedly caring world. 
I have been waiting patiently for Mr Cleave to produce his next opus, and here it is:  he pursues a completely different path this time, but as before commands the reader’s full attention and doesn’t relinquish it until the last page.
The London Olympics of 2012 are fast approaching, and three of Britain’s top cyclists are training hard for what will be their last big competition;  they are into their 30’s now, and despite huge former success and gold medals in previous Olympic competition, they know that this meeting will be their Swansong.
Zoë Castle is Miss Photo Op, the rock star of the trio, the athlete everyone wants to be – but no man wants to really know, unless it is to boast on FaceBook that they have worn her medals while they serviced her.  She is obsessively, destructively competitive and has no friends except her long-suffering rival Kate Argall, who through a superhuman feat of selflessness – or martyrdom, remains her steadfast ally, in spite of Zoë’s constant insults, backstabbing and, at one earlier point, her attempt to steal Kate’s man – just because he was Kate’s.
And that man, Jack Argall, is the third cyclist, brilliant, committed to his sport, to Kate, who is now his wife, and utterly committed and devoted to their daughter Sophie, 8 years old and battling leukaemia.
They all want to win gold for the last time, though in Kate’s case, it would be the only time;  she was looking after baby Sophie for the Athens Olympics, then opted out of Beijing when Sophie was diagnosed with her terrible disease.  She is now in the form of her life and knows full well this will be her last chance.
Zoë wants to win, yearns to win, needs to win again, because without victory she has nothing;  her life is meaningless without competition and victory by fair means or intimidation.  She cannot contemplate a future without being a winner:  a future down amongst the earthlings instead of soaring among the stars is unthinkable.
Mr Cleave handles his trio’s relationships, secrets and dilemmas with skill and insight;  he avoids the obvious tear-jerker element when writing of Sophie’s illness and her parents’ suffering;  instead he produces that welcome and increasingly rare phenomenon:  a novel that makes us think, a story that reflects momentous decisions that we all must make at various times in our lives, and the consequences of those choices. And when all’s said and done, that should be the objective of any writer worth his salt:  to engage his audience completely – not by literary artifice, but with a credible story, beautifully told.  Mr Cleave does so effortlessly.  Highly recommended.      

Sunday, 14 April 2013

The Elephant Keepers’ Children, by Peter Høeg

‘Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow’ (as it was known in this part of the world) was the novel that launched Peter Høeg’s international reputation in 1992;  it was a worldwide bestseller, a fascinating thriller, a mystery on many levels, and the subject of a successful movie several years later:  now, Mr Hoeg travels a different road.
Peter, Tilte and Hans are the teenage children of the Pastor of a picturesque Danish island celebrated for its tourism – and the eccentricities of some of its locals, all of whom are gifted (or not) with some very unusual names, because the island of Finø has long been known as a place to which all races are welcome;  in fact, the more exotic the better, and all of those races have brought their names.
Pretty Tilte’s one true love is called Jakob Aquinas Bordurio Madsen;  he has broken her heart because he claims to have heard an inner voice ordering him to forsake the secular life and become a Catholic Priest.  Hans falls in love with Ashanti from Haiti, a renowned trance dancer (don’t ask!) and thrilling religious vocalist.  Peter, at 14 the youngest sibling, has lost his heart to Conny (the only one in the entire story with a normal name), a fellow student who shares his feelings – until after a series of lucky coincidences, she is whisked away by her mother to be a child star of stage and screen in Copenhagen. 
The local colour also extends to Bermuda Seagull Jansson, Finø’s combination midwife and undertaker:  she can hatch, AND dispatch!  Then we have Count Rickardt Three Lions, fabulously rich former heroin addict, who is now the owner of the local Rehab Centre.  Bodil Hippopotamus is a flinty-eyed undercover police officer;  and Pallas Athene is a two-metre-tall Dominatrix with a propensity for road rage when she is behind the wheel of her red Jag.  And these are but a few of the cavalcade of the strange and wonderful who aid the three siblings in the search for their parents – on the surface such pillars of the community, supposedly on their annual holiday to the Canary Islands, but in reality planning the biggest jewel heist in Danish history.
Their children have already had a taste of Mum and Dad’s less than religious activities two years before, when the parents returned from the Canaries with a Maserati and a mink coat:  highly suspicious, especially as most of the Danish police force thought so, too.  It was touch and go for a while but in the absence of proof of the insurance theft of which they were suspected, the rectory and its occupants were still all together;  Mum and Dad escaped prison by a whisker and the children weren’t condemned to separate children’s homes.
And that is at the crux of Peter Høeg’s zany, laugh-out-loud comic novel, overflowing as it is with unbelievable characters and Keystone Cops pursuits:  the fear within us all of losing our security;  our loved ones;  our WORLD, and the lengths to which we will go to preserve it.  Highly recommended – if you can stand the pace!

The Boyfriend, by Thomas Perry
At the risk of destroying my own credibility, I have to caution you, dear reader, NOT TO BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU READ IN BOOK REVIEWS!  Especially in really flash, reputable, long-established American newspapers.  I am enormously disappointed in the above author, especially as I was led to believe by the illustrious reviewer that I was in for a white-knuckle ride, and the speed wasn’t going to slacken until the last page was turned.
What a load of old rubbish!  We never get beyond walking pace in Mr. Perry’s story.  He is the respected author of twenty one previous thrillers, several of which have won prizes – the dust jacket tells us that so it must be true; therefore I am mystified to know why a writer of obvious experience should produce such a pedestrian tale.
So, here we go:
Jack Till, a Private Investigator and retired homicide Detective is hired by the parents of a young murder victim.  It was revealed to them after her death that she was an escort, and the police, after an initial investigation have come to the conclusion that she was murdered and robbed by one of her ‘clients’.  Her case has been put on the back burner;  the police have more important crimes to pursue.  This is not good enough for the young woman’s grieving parents.  They want answers so Jack is hired with an upfront payment of one hundred thousand dollars, to find out what the police have not.
After several desultory chapters, we learn that more young escorts have died in different cities, all of similar appearance, and just before a major murder of a public figure:  gracious moi, could these crimes be linked, do you think?  Of course they are - to Joey Moreland, a handsome, charming young sociopath who moves in on the various escorts as a way of lying low until he makes the hit, then he takes them out, too – but usually when they are not looking:  after all, they have been good to him, putting him up and all, not to mention providing free professional services.  It’s nothing personal, but he really can’t leave any girl alive who knows what he looks like.
Thereafter the novel is involved in Jack’s dogged search for Joey, and I have to say I have no idea why I stuck with this book and its two-dimensional characters to the bitter end.  I can only assume it was because I wanted Illustrious Reviewer to be right, but she flamingwell wasn’t!  In actual fact, her review was a whole lot better than the book, whatever that may signify:  maybe she should find a story more worthy of her reviewing skills, or go back to her knitting.  And I won't be so quick to take her at her word in future, so there.