GREAT READS FOR JANUARY, 2015
Blue Labyrinth, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
Special FBI Agent extraordinaire Aloysius Pendergast returns yet again to do battle against the forces of evil – and not before time, I say! His myriad fans have been languishing without him, and it’s all very well for Messrs Preston and Child to throw them a bone from time to time with various solo novels and the combined authorship of a series featuring a new hero, Gideon Crew, BUT.
All that secondary activity is a mere distraction until the Master resurfaces, this time to fight a mysterious new villain, one who has hidden his identity so well that more than half the book is (greedily) consumed before his identity is revealed.
In common with all the other evil ones that Pendergast has dispatched to the hereafter, (see 2013 review below) Mystery Man is festering with hatred towards our pale hero - but he is no ordinary Dastard, for he is motivated by revenge: thanks to an awful genetic curse wrought upon his family by one of Pendergast’s ancestors, Mystery Man contrives through absolutely genius planning, to infect Pendergast with the same fatal malady - but not before leaving the dead body of Pendergast’s twin son on the Agent’s front doorstep as a calling card and to start the ball rolling. Pendergast’s days are numbered!
Now. Because Pendergast knows something about absolutely everything he is able to self-medicate for a while as he searches for his killer, but as the horrid disease starts to have its wicked way, raising his temperature uncomfortably in his black wool suits, he realises that the cavalry will have to be summoned – and who better to ride to his rescue than Margo Green, anthropologist and ethnopharmacologist, doughty companion on many previous bloody adventures at the New York Museum of Natural History. It will be her job to manufacture ASAP an antidote from rare ingredients pinched by none other than Constance Green, Pendergast’s mysterious ward – well, she’s certainly mysterious to ME, as I haven’t yet found the book (and I thought I had read them all) where she makes her first appearance.
By any reader’s calculation she must be about 150 years old, but is as young and glowing as the dawn; the only clue to her advanced years is her curiously formal way of speech, and her retro fashion sense, but – but the woman is an Amazon! And she knows HEAPS about various acids, and how to administer them to nasty men who should know better than to try to stop her at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden from stealing a super-rare plant to save Pendergast’s failing life. Constance Green is a warrior, and she accomplishes grand larceny and mass murder in minimum time and maximum efficiency (he’s definitely worth it!) clad only in a silk Teddy. Sorry, Constance: chemise.
Does Our Hero survive? Well, what a silly question: of course he does, returning to his healthy pallor in no time at all, and enjoying a fresh supply of Armani funeral garb. And he and Constance are closer than ever, which is only right: she rubbed out half an army of mercenaries that he might live! Do you suppose she fancies him? Watch this space.
White Fire, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
As patient readers of this little blog will know, I have long been a fan of Preston and Child’s fearless protagonist FBI Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast, along with millions of other dedicated followers of his hair-raising adventures as he deploys his considerable intellectual and physical powers to defeat all manner of dastardly villains. Sadly, ‘Two Graves’ the white-knuckle adventure preceding this latest title was so absurd, so defying of all credulity that I couldn’t in all conscience write my usual ecstatic review – I mean, come ON: a nest of evil NeoNazis in the South American Jungle conducting eugenic experiments so that they can breed another Master Race, and who should be involved but Pendergast’s great love Helen, mother of twins he didn’t know he’d fathered (gasp!), one of whom is bred specially for great things, and the other (double gasp!!) for slavery.
Our hero destroys the nest of evil Nazi vipers, but at great personal cost (Helen really does die this time), causing Pendergast to sink into a slough of despond from which he has great difficulty extricating himself, BUT!
His creators need to bring him back from his hell of substance abuse and depression for this latest adventure, and I am happy to say that ‘White Fire’ is a complete success, with only limited reference to ward Constance Green ( meditating in a monastery in the Himalayas) and his good and evil twins (of the nasty one no trace; the good one is getting an education at an exclusive Swiss Academy). Instead this adventure centres on Corrie Swanson, Pendergast’s sponsored protégé and student at the prestigious John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Corrie has decided to base her thesis on the supposed slaughter by a bear of eleven miners 150 years ago in a remote area mined for silver in Colorado.
By great coincidence the rough mining camp of Roaring Fork has now become the exclusive ski resort and winter vacation wonderland of the megarich and famous – and others who find Corrie’s desire for information and request to examine the exhumed bodies of some of the miners intrusive and unhelpful: she must be discouraged permanently from her investigations and with a ruthlessness that takes Corrie’s breath away, she suddenly finds herself in prison facing a ten-year sentence for ‘desecration of a corpse’ and various other lesser charges.
Her devastation is absolute – until Pendergast, finally roused from his torpor by her desperate situation arrives in Roaring Fork complete with the necessary evidence to refute the charges and send a message to the villains that their nefarious plans are not going to succeed. Oh, it’s great stuff, and as an added bonus Oscar Wilde, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his great hero Sherlock Holmes are connected to Pendergast’s modern day sleuthing in an entirely credible subplot, forming the basis of his ultimately successful solving of The Mystery – but not before Corrie undergoes some truly death-defying experiences (she has her little finger shot off and nearly goes up in smoke for being unwittingly lippy to a madman), as required in any suspense novel worth its salt.
It is a pleasure to welcome Pendergast back to the land of the living –at least as portrayed by Preston and Child: his mourning period is now thankfully over and he can attend to his usual business of conquering evil, striking fear into the black hearts of villains everywhere with his pale eyes, pale hair and an inexhaustible supply of money and black designer suits. Lincoln and Child are back to their best: sound scholarship, good research and a great plot. Who could ask for more? This is the ideal holiday read.
The Woman who Stole my Life, by Marian Keyes
Stella Sweeney is a beautician in Dublin. Her husband Ryan is a thwarted artist (his talent was never recognised or appreciated but he has channelled his gift into making posh bathrooms for posh people); they are parents to a teenaged boy and girl who require a lot of supervision and organising, and it is a source of great pride for her to know that despite she and Ryan’s working-class origins, they can afford (just) to send their children to an exclusive private school. Nothing but the best for Jeffrey and Betsy. They are Stella’s main focus in life; her reason for getting up in the morning. Ryan is another matter – his main focus seems to be on his business, then Ryan: the grand passion that controlled their young lives has now disappeared, lost in the stresses and strains of everyday living – so what else is new? This is what happens to us all, and that is the secret of Marian Keyes’s success: her great ability to recount stories of people just like us, her readers; people we can identify with so easily.
Where Ms Keyes starts to leave reality behind is the unbelievable misfortune Stella suffers when she contracts Guillain-Barré Syndrome, ‘an auto-immune disorder which attacks the peripheral nervous system, stripping the myelin sheaths from the nerves’. Got that? The body can recover eventually, but until that happy day, Stella spends a huge amount of time in hospital, paralysed and unable to communicate at all – except after a time to establish a winking, blinking code with a hunky neurologist who – quelle horreur! – eventually becomes her (gasp) lover! How could this happen to someone who couldn’t move a muscle for more than a year? And what about hubby and the kids? A? A? More importantly, how does a writer convince her readers that this is just an everyday occurrence? Well, I have to say with some regret, that she didn’t convince ME – which is a shame, because I was entirely willing to suspend belief – up to a point.
Never mind, though: for the most part, Ms Keyes writes beautifully of what she knows i.e. the publishing world, this time exposed in all its two-dimensional ugliness, and her supporting characters are as strongly drawn as ever. Lastly, let us not forget her biggest virtue as a writer: humour. That wonderful Irish variety of humour, so inimitable and so vital; such an arsenal against all the troubles that beset us ordinary folk and without which we would be defenceless indeed. Ms Keyes may have missed the bus with ‘The Woman who Stole my Life’, but I’ll be waiting for her at the next stop.