Monday, 22 July 2013


Rage Against the Dying, by Becky Masterman
Brigid Quinn is fifty-nine years old.  She is a former FBI agent who took early retirement because she didn’t get along with her boss, ‘that asshole’ Roger Morrison, head of the Bureau in Tuscon Arizona, where she lives with her new husband Carlo, a retired Doctor of Philosophy and former Catholic priest.  WHAAAAAT??? 
You may well ask.  Ms Masterman makes no excuses for the oddball characters with which she populates her story:  as unlikely a good guy as Carlos seems, he is the antidote to the toxicity that Brigid ingested during her long years as a very successful agent – she’s mad about him and has been very careful not to reveal too much about her former life bringing in the baddies;  she worries that if he finds out how far she had to go to rid society of these lowlifes,  this aesthete, this paragon of goodness would find her deeply unworthy of his love - her former boyfriend (a cello-playing father of two) found her frightening in the extreme, and told her just that:  ‘I can’t have you round my children.’
So:  Brigid has been successfully evasive about details of her past and she and Carlos are enjoying their retirement and first year of marriage immensely – until an old, unsolved case comes back to haunt her;  the one case of which she is not proud.  The Route 66 murders.
Some years before, young women hitchhikers went missing on Route 66;  they were eventually found, brutally murdered  in a distinctive fashion:  their Achilles tendons were cut so that they couldn’t run, and after death one of their ears was sliced off as a souvenir. 
Brigid used to be good at disguising herself as bait for murderers, but age has caught up with her and she must train a replacement agent, one who looks deceptively young and vulnerable – as she used to. 
All goes according to plan until young agent Jessica falls into the killer’s trap and becomes a victim herself, causing utter devastation among her colleagues, particularly Brigid – she trained her, after all.  Jessica’s body is never found – until a trucker is stopped with a mummified body in his rig and a remarkable desire to confess to all the crimes.  His confession has the ring of authenticity because he knows details that were never publicly revealed, but there is something off – something that doesn’t ring true to Brigid, who has been unofficially consulted by an ambitious young FBI agent bent on growing a reputation of her own.  What could it be?  How can they shake this sick trucker’s desire to tell all in exchange for life imprisonment instead of the death penalty, especially as all the authorities are crowing with delight, thankful that they can at last close the book on seven gruesome murders.
And this is what lifts this debut novel above the usual run-of-the-mill thrillers:  a villain you never see coming;  dead ends and dry gulches galore before our gal does the business;  and a protagonist so far beyond youth and glamour that she should be a poster girl for every woman ‘of a certain age’.  Brigid Quinn has no illusions about her abilities, or otherwise:  she’s a straight arrow and finds her targets with intelligence, guile and doggedness.  Ms Masterman has created a character so smart, endearing and funny that I hope this is only the first of a series of novels about Brigid and her Holy Hubby – not to mention his twin pug dogs, given to him by his wife Jane as company for him after she died of cancer.  I ask you:  how can you resist?  Highly recommended for all dedicated thriller readers.

Donnybrook, by Frank Bill

‘Donnybrook’ is the name given to a clandestine weekend meeting in Indiana of bare-knuckle fighters competing for a huge money prize, run by the enormously rich and sadistic Bellmont McGill and his daughter Scar.  (she has none, but should:  she’s ugly.)  Brawlers from near and far pay $1000 entry fee for the doubtful privilege of getting their brains loosened and their noses knocked to the back of their heads, and to a man are fuelled to the gills with booze and meth to keep up the insane courage needed to risk their lives for $100,000, the payout for the last man standing. 
This is a tale that drips blood, gore and body fluids from every page;  Mr Bill paints a bleak and desperate picture of a part of the country where jobs have disappeared and hope has gone with them, leaving only the temporary drug-induced euphoria that masks the squalor and despair covering lives like a film of grease – oh, it’s a hard read and if this is an authentic depiction of life in some parts of today’s America, then the American Dream has become a nightmare and the Apocalypse is nigh. I do hope that the graphic detail of meth manufacture and ingestion has not been personally seen by Mr. Bill;  if he did happen upon any of the places he writes about, he was lucky to get out alive! 
There is a suitably motley cast of characters and more than enough Good Ole Boys to start an Army:  meet Jarhead Johnny Earl, who robs the local gunshop of precisely $1000 so that he can have a shot at winning the big prize.  He wants a new start with his beloved Tammy and two little ones;  siblings Angus and Liz,  ruthless meth-cookers on the run after a double murder;  Fu (this is true!) a Chinese assassin on the trail of Angus and Liz for a $20,000 debt they indirectly owe his master Mr Zhong (they murdered the man who owed the money so the debt is now theirs);  Deputy Sheriff Whalen, in pursuit of Angus for killing his nephew;  and Purcell, an old visionary whose predictions reveal themselves with chilling accuracy.
It comes as no surprise to the reader that all of these evildoers meet at the Donnybrook and the climax of this story is so predictably chaotic, violent and bloody I’m still wondering how I got through to the end of the tale in one rational piece.  I can only surmise that it’s because there are rich seams of wonderful, anarchic humour in Mr Bill’s Novel Noir and the dialogue is as down-home funny as I’ve read anywhere i.e. ‘Head-bang this made-in-China Motherf-cker, Pete!’ yells a character called Elbow, under attack from Fu.  He doesn’t survive; in fact it’s amazing that there is anyone left standing in them old Piney Woods, but from the way the story finishes there will be a sequel.  The question is:  will we all be brave enough to read it?    

Monday, 15 July 2013


The Burgess Boys, by Elizabeth Strout
Since devouring ‘Olive Kitteridge’ by Ms Strout I have been dancing on coals waiting for her latest offering, for Olive was a superb creation; she was all things to all people and Ms Strout was a worthy winner of the Pulitzer prize for that great book.
As before she reels the reader effortlessly, lovingly, and inexorably into this story of small town people trying to live big city lives –here we meet the Burgess boys, who left their Maine birthplace of Shirley Falls for better things in New York:  Jim, handsome, shrewd and bursting with charisma, on the way up the legal ladder with astonishing speed and blessed with a loving, rich wife and beautiful children who haven’t given either of them a moment’s worry.  (Truly!)  Yes, he is blessed and has plans eventually to run for political office;  all his friends are in the right places and he cannot fail.
Bob his younger brother, is not so lucky:  he too has a legal career but, unable to bear the cut and thrust of the courtroom he has engaged himself in appellate work where he doesn’t have to be in the public eye.  His marriage sadly failed because he could not give his beloved Pam children (low sperm count);  she left eventually to marry someone who could, and he now lives by himself in Brooklyn a few blocks from his glitteringly successful brother.  Bob drinks too much, sleeps too little and depends more than he should on Jim and his wife for that sense of identity and belonging that we all need.
But Jim is a bully:  he exacts a high price from Bob for a little family feeling, belittling him relentlessly whenever the mood takes him – which is often.  Bob tolerates the bad behaviour because he loves his brother, admires him and is content to lurk on his periphery – Jim has always behaved like that, so what’s new?
What’s new is that their sister Susan, Bob’s twin calls from Shirley Falls to say that her teenage son has thrown a pig’s head into the local Somali mosque.  She has been raising him since her husband left her to live in Sweden 7 years before – she doesn’t know what to do:  please help, oh (Jim), PLEASE help!
And Jim does, (Bob’s well-meaning attempts to be of help are scorned) but the assistance that Jim provides is less than ideal, and as time passes Ms Strout reveals in masterly fashion old, gnawing family secrets, tragedies unfairly shouldered, and the eventual exposure of Jim’s feet of clay.
Ms Strout writes superbly about ordinary life;  life as we all know it;  its disappointments, joys, triumphs and pain.  She is never less than convincing in her plotting and her prose is as refreshing and lovely as a cool drink on a hot day.  Highly recommended and a true pleasure to read.
And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini

This is Khaled Hosseini’s third novel.  He needs no introduction;  his first book, ‘The Kite Runner’ was a world-wide bestseller, beloved by millions for its wonderful characters and the lessons they learnt in familial love and loyalty.  Most of all, it was a story of Afghanistan, Mr Hosseini’s homeland, that wild, beautiful and lawless country that became for all his readers astonishingly real and immediate thanks to his superb gifts as a storyteller.
Now he enthrals us again with another tale of an Afghani family:  the same principles of family unity are espoused, but what happens when the ties that bind are threatened by poverty and death?
It is 1952.  Abdullah is ten years old and lives in the tiny village of Shadbagh with his father Saboor and father’s new wife Parmana.  Abdullah’s mother died giving birth to Pari three years ago and Saboor remarried as soon as he could to provide a new mother for his children.  Ironically, Abdullah has turned out to be the surrogate parent for his little sister;  they adore each other and are inseparable – until lack of work and the death of Parmana’s first baby from the winter cold forces Saboor to consider selling Pari in a deal arranged by his brother-in-law Nabi to Nabi’s employer in Kabul.  ‘The finger must be cut off to save the hand.’
Nabi is young, handsome and madly in love with his employer’s wife Nila Wahdati;  she is imperious, headstrong and exciting beyond belief – he would do anything to please her:  anything.  Including driving her to Shadbagh to meet his horrified family, their poverty on abject display, so that she can see Pari and decide if she wants to continue with the transaction.
She does, and a chain of events is set in motion that will reverberate for three generations, crossing continents, irrevocably shaping and altering lives:  little Pari eventually forgets she had another family;  she was only three when she was sold to the rich lady.  It is not hard to believe after a time that Nila is truly her mother.
Abdullah, devastated by his father’s betrayal, swears he will leave his hated family as soon as he can, and he does, eventually travelling to Pakistan where he meets his future wife, then on to San Francisco, where they raise a daughter – called Pari.  He never forgets his cherished little sister;  she is in his heart always, the heart that was broken when he was ten. 
As in the best stories, brother and sister do meet again, thanks to good detective work from the younger Pari and beautifully realised, convincing minor characters, but there is a gentle and sad irony to their reunion – best left for readers to find out:  I’m no spoiler!  Suffice it to say that as always, Mr Hosseini weaves his magic with consummate ease:  the reader is willingly ensnared in his beautiful imagery, the strength of the players that people his literary stage, and the truths they utter that we should all know.  Highly recommended.      

Friday, 5 July 2013

Great Reads for July, 2013

Mission to Paris, by Alan Furst
I have been reading a lot of mediocre stuff lately, books that promised much but delivered little;  none have been (in my humble opinion) worth reviewing – some I skimmed through, and one or two I didn’t finish at all.  The above title is the best of a bad bunch.
Alan Furst’s specialty is the spy novel:  he has a well-deserved reputation as an intelligent and masterly writer of high-powered suspense stories and sets his novels during the Second World War.  His protagonists to a man are tough, kind-hearted and honourable, seeking always to follow the right path instead of one of expedience (See review of ‘Spies of the Balkans’ below).  They are heroes all, and thanks to Mr Furst’s considerable writing skills they are never caricatures.
In his latest opus, Mr Furst introduces us to Frederic Stahl, famed movie star, ordered by his Hollywood studio to Paris, ostensibly to make a film called ‘Aprés la Guerre’.
  It is 1938 and war is indeed on the horizon.  Gay Paree’s inhabitants are anything but, believing every rumour, wild or otherwise about Herr Hitler’s intentions, rumours fuelled by the hard facts related by those lucky enough to escape Germany while they still could.  Now, those emigrés who fetched up in Paris are beginning to think they didn’t flee far enough.
Frederic Stahl, because of his fame and matinée idol looks is much sought after by certain Parisian hostesses who hasten to assure him of their admiration of his talent and huge reputation, and would he like to join a society to foster continued peace between Germany and France?  His public support of their society would do much to promote friendship and goodwill between the two countries.  Let us make you an offer you can’t refuse.  And when Stahl does refuse, the pressure mounts:  it has been decided in Berlin that Stahl would be the ideal person to be the face of subtle political efforts to lull the French into thinking that all in the European garden is rosy, despite compelling evidence to the contrary – Stahl, unless he can use his wits as well as his looks and charm, looks set to become the Poster Boy for the German propaganda machine. 
The theme of this story is political warfare, its insidious effects twining like ivy through every facet of French life, powerful at softening the target before the heavy weaponry is employed.
The bones of Mr Furst’s story are very good, as his readers have come to expect;  sadly, his characters miss the bus:  Stahl is never more than two-dimensional and instead of propelling the reader along at a satisfyingly heart-stopping pace, the plot meanders about in fits and starts, stuttering along as though the power supply is on the blink.  This novel is not up to Mr Furst’s usual standard;  he just goes through the motions here, which is a shame.  A writer of his calibre owes it to himself – as well as his public – to produce better work than this.

Spies of the Balkans, by Alan Furst         Reviewed December, 2010

Costa Zannis is a Senior Police Officer in Salonika, Greece, in 1940.  World War 2 is underway and Hitler is massing his forces in the Balkans, ready to push south.  Costa is very good at his job;  he is a decent man, blessed with an empathy and  excellent judgement of his fellow citizens and their failings - but  Costa’s world has become a very dangerous place, and feels even more so when he is approached by a very rich lady, a German Jew, who wishes his assistance in smuggling Jews out of Berlin, where she lives with her husband, a high-ranking Wehrmacht officer.  So far, she is untouchable by the Gestapo – her husband is powerful  - but her friends are not;  she has the money to finance their flight, but not the contacts, until she hears of Costa and his very special network of friends and colleagues.  Thus begins Costa’s reluctant expansion of his talents;  from canny policeman to clandestine operative, for he cannot refuse her request for his help – no decent man could.  Mr. Furst takes the reader on a fascinating, suspenseful journey through the Balkan countries as the first Jews make their tentative way to Greece and safety;  he has a particular talent for establishing atmosphere and mood, essential elements in a spy story – BUT! – (and it’s a very big one) – in the latter half of the story Costa’s talents become known to others who require him to further the war effort  in a different, risky,  even more life-threatening way and though the novel’s tension should heighten at this point to an unbearable level,  the story suffers and the suspense starts to sag with the introduction of glamorous, beautiful Demetria , wife of a cruel shipping magnate.  It is love at first sight for hitherto down-to-earth and sensible Costa;  he falls for her like a blind roofer (which brings me to wonder cynically why no-one ever seems to fall in love at first  sight with a woman who has, say, a wall eye or is slightly mustachioed.  Demetria is also blonde – what a surprise! - and has a big bottom, but this is 1940:  big bottoms are IN).  The plot’s impetus suffers accordingly.  Having said that, ‘Spies of the Balkans’ is still an enormously entertaining read;  Mr. Furst is too clever a writer to produce a flop – it’s just not quite as good as his previous novels, in particular ‘The Spies of Warsaw’.  Try that one as well.