Wednesday, 6 August 2014

FIRST GREAT READS FOR AUGUST, 2014

Those Who Wish Me Dead, by Michael Koryta

Michael Koryta never disappoints.  (See April 2013 review below)  Each of his novels is different;  there is no adherence to a formula which can spoil the work of the very best thriller writers;  his characters are ordinary people who must face extraordinary situations, situations which, despite their awfulness do not strain the credulity of the reader or the credibility of the plot.  And such a plot this is!
Jace Wilson is thirteen years old and he is afraid of heights – but he is more afraid of the ridicule he faces from his schoolmates who dare him to jump into the quarry pool at the back of his father’s property, a jump that is fraught with danger for its height and the shallow depth of the pool.  He decides to have a little practice session (for girls will be there, witnesses to the Actual Jump), and launches himself into the water after many prayers – only to discover a weighted body at the bottom of the pool.  And as if that weren’t horrifying enough, the killers have not finished their work:  before Jace can leave the pool they return with another victim, despatching him the same way.
Jace is still praying, well hidden in a fold of rock and thinks God has heard him until the killers notice his sneakers beside his neatly folded clothes.
They know he’s there.  Somewhere.
God cuts Jace a deal:  the killers, professional assassins who are brothers, are on the run;  they don’t have the time at this juncture to search for him but they are so confident of their skills as hunters and trackers that they will return to him as ‘unfinished business’.
It is untidy and unprofessional to have such loose ends lying around.  They’ll get Jace squared away very soon.
Meanwhile Jace has been enrolled in the Witness Protection Program by his frantic family and it is generally agreed that the safest place for him to hide is in the remote mountains of Montana, part of a wilderness survival  summer course for ‘troubled’ boys run by Ethan and Allison Serbin.  The couple know that he is part of the group, but not which boy he is – and that is the way they prefer it:  the less they know, the better.  All should be well:  the killers will never find Jace, who is finally breathing easy again in his new guise as Troubled Teen – why, he is even learning great survival skills;  he can make a fire out of next to nothing!  He hangs on to Ethan’s every word with an almost religious fervour, growing in confidence daily, but can’t quite shake the idea that his assassins are not going to give up on him just yet:  He has seen what they do, remorselessly and efficiently and entirely without emotion.  Yes, he has seen that and even though he feels safer, he still has to be on his guard.
And he’s right.  The murderous brothers return, killing and maiming in their efforts to follow his trail so that Jace and the good people who have befriended him are plunged into a heart-stopping struggle for survival against two of the nastiest most believable villains in print:  will good triumph over evil as it should, or will the bad guys carry the day?
Such are Mr Koryta’s literary skills that the reader has no idea who will be last person standing at the novel’s end:  this story has it all:  pulse-racing suspense;  masterly characterisation – even the villains are admirable for their sheer cold-blooded planning and logic – and a deep knowledge and abiding love for the region of which he writes.  This is the consummate thriller.  Highly recommended.

The Prophet, by Michael Koryta

High school football Coach Kent Austin has nothing to do 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 occupation 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.  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.

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