Friday, 5 December 2014


The Wolf in Winter, by John Connolly

The town of Prosperous, Maine lives up to its name.  Founded in the eighteenth century by persecuted religious fugitives from England, the settlement grew and gradually flourished, whilst still retaining quaint old buildings (why, they even brought their own church with them to assemble, brick by brick!) and  customs.  The town is still governed by a hereditary council of Selectmen, all descendants of the original inhabitants and, while displaying courtesy to all who come to visit such a picturesque place, it will be eventually noticed that Prosperous does not welcome new people to live within its limits:  Prosperous keeps to itself.
            Until the apparent suicide of Jude, a homeless man who visited the town searching for his daughter, brings private detective Charlie Parker looking for answers:  while it is hardly unusual that a man of the streets would want to end his life, the method of death feels wrong, especially when Charlie checks into Jude’s movements in the days before his death.  Jude had helped Charlie in the past;  it is now up to Charlie to do the right thing.  If Jude’s death was indeed suicide, was it because of his daughter?  Is she dead, too?  And if so, why?  How?
Yet again, Mr Connolly draws the reader into the web of Charlie’s latest dark adventure.  In modern Man of Sorrows Charlie Parker and his two murderous sidekicks Louis and Angel, Mr Connolly has created three unforgettable protagonists – and their enemies are legion, especially The Collector, a self-appointed avenging angel of righteousness, dedicated to ridding the world of those so evil that no lawful punishment is fitting enough. 
Charlie, Angel and Louis have undergone more than one baptism of fire in preceding books to seal their bonds of friendship and loyalty, but when they face the chilling mystery that is Prosperous, one of their number is so grievously wounded that, even as this great book comes to a close it is impossible to guess if he will survive, let alone appear in a sequel.
I take my hat off to Mr Connolly, first of all in praise of his wonderful literary skills:  there are many writers who tell great stories but there are few who write with such clarity and elegance.  And it takes a rare talent to make the supernatural element of every Charlie Parker story so credible, and all the supporting characters so real that they are itching to step off the page and do us harm.
That said, how long will it take Mr Connolly to produce his next book – will there be a next book, with the life of one of the Three Dark Musketeers hanging in the balance?  It’s a big worry, one that I hope will be removed soon.
In his acknowledgements at the conclusion of ‘The Wolf in Winter’, Mr Connolly thanks his readers for continuing to read ‘these odd little books’.
As if we could stop.  AS IF!!  Highly recommended.

All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr.

Werner and Jutta Pfennig are orphaned when they are very small;  they live a precarious existence in 1930’s Germany at Children’s house, an orphanage in a mining town outside Essen in the Ruhrgebiet.  Despite their deprivation they are happy in each other’s company and secure in the love of Frau Elena, who keeps home and hearth together, caring selflessly for each child left with her.
            Both children show an aptitude and intellectual curiosity beyond their years, Werner for Radio Mechanics (he builds a radio out of next-to-nothing at age eight) and Jutta for Art.  As she grows, Jutta is increasingly disturbed by what she sees happening in her country and is inclined to voice her relentlessly logical opinions of the new order at all the wrong times.  Werner is more cautious, especially when he earns the opportunity to attend a school for gifted boys:  he hopes Jutta will keep her mouth shut so that his prospects of bettering himself won’t be ruined.
            Marie-Laure lives in Paris with her father, Daniel.  She became blind at the age of six and relies completely on him to show her ways through her sightless world.  He is a locksmith and safebuilder and has charge of all the locked, precious places of the Museum of Natural History;  six days a week they rise early to go to his job, and while he works, Marie-Laure gets an education from various Professors, all eager to impart their specialised knowledge to a child whose attention is absolute, enhanced by sound and touch, undistracted by extraneous images.
            In 1940 the prospect of the German invasion of France becomes a terrible reality:  the Museum sets about hiding its most priceless possessions elsewhere, for it is well-known that the Nazis wish to plunder the museums of Europe to fill their own galleries with ‘appropriated’ treasures – those that Göring does not want, of course.  Marie-Laure’s father is given the task of smuggling the Museum’s most prized gem, ‘The Sea of Flames’ out of Paris to a safe location at Evreux:  tragically, everyone else is fleeing Paris ahead of the Germans at the same time – what should have taken hours takes days, and when Daniel and his exhausted, sightless child arrive at the Chateau where he thinks he can at last leave the huge responsiblility the Museum has given him to someone else, they find everything looted, ransacked and ruined.  The owners have fled.
            Instead of returning, minus the precious gem, to their apartment in Paris, they are forced to seek shelter at St. Malo on the Breton Coast.  Daniel’s great-uncle lives there in seclusion;  his experiences in the Great War have made him a recluse but he provides shelter and stability for the fugitives at a time when they need it most – until August, 1944 when war and death come to St. Malo , as it did everywhere in France.
            Werner, meantime, has found that the school in which he centred all his hopes for the advancement of a scientific career is more interested in producing the perfect Aryan soldier, and despite excelling in his chosen subjects – and witnessing acts of brutality and sadism against his gentle, principled best friend – he is not sent to Berlin for further education as he had hoped, but sent to the front instead.  Germany is losing the war and they need every able-bodied man or boy that they can find.  Werner’s disillusionment is complete:  he now sees what his sister Jutta saw with such clarity nearly a decade ago.  As he and his radio unit limp into St. Malo in August, 1944 he despairs for his dashed hopes, his foolish dreams of a distinguished life of science:  eighteen years old and his life looks like it will soon be over before it has even begun.
            Mr Doerr writes of the parallel lives of Marie-Laure and Werner with dazzling skill;  such are his talents that each time we leave one character we are regretful – until we are swiftly bound up in the life of the other.  At no time does his story descend into sentimentality, nor is one country condemned more than another;  instead he writes of human nature:  kindness, greed, nobility, brutality, and the familial love that binds most things together:  the very glue of humanity – until war rips everything apart.
            This book is very special.  Mr Doerr makes his words sing.  Highly recommended.    


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