MORE GREAT READS FOR APRIL, 2015
World Gone By, by Dennis Lehane
Joe Coughlin, the wild boy of ‘The Given Day’ and the reckless, charming outlaw of ‘Live by Night’ (see November 2012 review below), has now, ten years after losing his beloved wife and most of his friends to murder by his many enemies, become a respected consigliere to the Florida Mobs. It is 1943; Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano and Meyer Lansky control a huge moneymaking empire of vice and corruption, guaranteed to expand even further thanks to America entering the war after the bombing of Pearl harbour. Even though Charles Luciano is currently languishing in jail, he still has an iron grip on all his various enterprises, and the shrewd and clever advice given by Joe Coughlin is an essential element of their success.
Yes, Joe’s life has stabilised as much as his reputation as a gangster will allow: he is rich; he donates to many Florida charities; he has many successful businesses; he is having a red-hot affair with the blue-blood wife of the Mayor, and he has a young son whom he adores: except for the loss of his wife, his one great love, life should be pretty damn good – until he learns that someone has put out a contract on him.
Thanks to Joe’s comparatively early exit from gangster power struggles to a safer and more successful counselling role, he has gained a justified reputation within the criminal fraternity as a fair and clever mediator; he is everyone’s ally because his advice has benefited everyone. Who could possibly want him dead? What could anyone gain by killing the goose that laid the Golden Egg? And who is the young boy who appears with increasing regularity just at the corners of his vision, a young boy in clothes twenty years out of date: is he a ghost? Is he warning him of something? Joe’s life has suddenly become a frightening prospect, especially when he thinks of his beloved boy. Nothing must happen to him. He will do his utmost to protect him from evil without – and within, for Joe has started to suspect his most trusted friends and allies of duplicity. Something must happen soon, and it does.
Joe’s inexorable fall from gangster grace is beautifully, chillingly rendered as always by Mr Lehane’s storytelling expertise; he is a writer of such consistent quality that, though the reader knows that all will end in tears, they still gallop towards the last page, hearts in mouths, hoping for a different outcome – which Mr Lehane rightly refuses to provide, instead demonstrating superbly the sadness and inevitable nostalgia that Joe, that fatally charming criminal, feels for a world gone by. Highly recommended, as always.
Live by Night, by Dennis Lehane
Dennis Lehane has written many novels, several of which have been successfully filmed. He centres his stories mainly in Boston, Massachusetts and has always created great characters and great plots. ‘Live by Night’ is a loose sequel to ‘The Given Day’, an epic tale of the First World War, the soldiers who returned and the police force they joined. Racism and Baseball play a huge part in this fine book and it would be an advantage for the reader to read this first, if possible, but ‘Live by Night’ can stand alone on its own merits.
Joe Coughlin is twenty years old when this story begins. He is the youngest son of one of the most respected and prosperous senior police officers in the city of Boston, and he hates his father. His two older brothers have long since fallen out with their martinet parent and left home; his mother has died, and Joe has happily turned to a life of crime – partly to spite his old man, but also because he likes it. He doesn’t class himself as a gangster; he’s an outlaw, a euphemism which has a better ring to it; it’s 1926, Prohibition is in full swing and there are myriad opportunities to make piles of money from this absurd law as a bootlegger for speakeasies: Joe is thrilled with his circumstances and feels even better that his father, who knows everything that transpires in Boston, is aware that he has a successful criminal – sorry, outlaw – for a son.
Yep, Joe is a is a Twelve O’Clock Fella in a Nine O’Clock Town; he lives by night, and the night has even more appeal when he meets Flora Gould, a very shady young lady whose hunger for thrills matches his own. Unfortunately, she is the mistress of a real gangster called Albert White. Albert is averse to sharing his mistress with Joe and in short order Joe’s life turns sour: through a series of unfortunate events he endures a terrible beating, hospitalisation, the loss of his great love and an eventual stint in prison, the sentence of which is reduced thanks to his father calling in some favours.
Like it or not, Joe should now be repenting at leisure. His father Thomas, despite his supposed neglect of his youngest has sacrificed his promotion to help his boy survive in prison with a shorter sentence; all that matters to him now is that his son come out of the dreaded Charlestown Penitentiary alive. Joe, far from repenting (he’s only sorry that he got caught) devotes his energies and considerable intelligence to surviving attacks from within – and without, eventually forming a long-term alliance with a mafia man, Maso Pescatore. Ah, the road to Hell takes many forms, and Joe’s journey covers a lot of ground before the eventual showdown and fight to the death: this is a classic tale of winning it all but losing everything in the process, and Mr Lehane tells it beautifully. He is a master of suspense and snappy dialogue; his research is impeccable; he creates atmosphere and times without any discernible effort and I defy any reader to finish any of his books, then decide not to read another one. Highly recommended.
The Same Sky, by Amanda Eyre Ward
Two protagonists take turns to narrate this story; the first, Carla, is a young Honduran child of eight who lives in extreme poverty with her grandmother and her two much younger twin brothers. Her mother, in an attempt to make a better life for her family has managed to make the hazardous journey to America, land of gold-paved dreams; she will eventually send for them all when she saves up enough money from her job at Texas Chicken.
Alice is a Colorado girl transplanted to Texas after she meets and marries Jake, whose family own a long-established BBQ restaurant. Her life would be excellent except for the tragic fact that she cannot have a child, thanks to cancer and subsequent doses of chemotherapy. Jake and Alice’s forays into surrogacy and/or adoption have also failed, and they are resigning themselves with reluctance and sorrow to the fact that their family will only ever consist of themselves. Alice is not always a likeable character; she is disagreeable, contrary and downright mean from time to time, especially when she sees Jake’s acceptance of their situation as capitulation: where is his gumption, his spine, the ‘never-say-die’ attitude that she possesses in abundance? She is contemptuous of his resignation, and embarks on several new attempts (all unrewarding) to satisfy her thwarted maternal instincts.
Carla, meanwhile, has suffered tragedy: firstly, her mother saved enough money for just one of her children to come to her in Texas; the woman who is delivering the child opts for the ‘quiet one’, twin Carlos who has always been a steadying influence on Junior, his sibling. Junior is bereft and does not take the separation well; worst of all, Carla’s beloved grandmother, their island in a sea of poverty and desperation, dies after a short illness. Carla and Junior are alone.
Carla’s attempts to find a child’s solutions to her terrible adult problems are portrayed with agonising and brutal clarity by Ms Ward, who spares the reader nothing but the harsh, brutal truth of poverty and such degradation that countless migrants will do anything, including risk death, to Ride atop the Beast, the train that travels from Honduras to Mexico, there (if they are still alive – and lucky) to swim or ride with ‘coyotes’ across the Rio Grande into Texas without being caught by border guards.
By comparison Alice’s life seems breezy and uncomplicated; she is loved (most of the time - she’s prickly); she and Jake have built the BBQ restaurant into a thriving business; her family in Colorado have produced three nephews for her to love – but it is not enough: she will always want more. She will always want a child.
Ms Ward unites her two characters fleetingly at the end of this wonderful story, for Carla eventually makes the journey to Texas after suffering unspeakable torments on the way, only to realise that The American Dream is just that; a dream that hides a reality of drudgery and second-class treatment. Reuniting with her mother has not been the rapturous experience that she has always longed for; instead her mother and Carlos hold her responsible for Junior’s absence. She is now twelve years old.
In today’s world cruelty, evil and poverty in many countries is the terrible norm, and no writer in my experience has produced work more affecting and poignant, harsh and brutal, as Carla and Alice’s story. By the very simplicity of her prose, Ms Ward conveys life under the same sky as it is for so many, and as it could be for a very few. Most highly recommended.
A Song of Shadows, by John Connolly
In ‘The Wolf in Winter’, John Connolly’s last opus (reviewed November, 2014 see below) an attempt was made on the life of Charlie Parker, dark hero of most of Mr Connolly’s books. He was grievously wounded, but with a choice he made whilst hovering between life and death, and the spiritual support (literally) of his murdered daughter (it pays to have read the preceding books), Charlie decides to give life one more chance. With the devoted assistance of Louis and Angel, hired killers par excellence he rents a house in a little village on the Maine coast, there to try to regain his former strength and dexterity.
It is a long, painful road back to recovery. Charlie is not used to the weakness and agony his many injuries cause him but he is determined to get better: he made the decision to live, now that is exactly what he plans to do.
He is delighted to have a visit from his daughter Samantha, his child by his ex-lover Rachel, and it gives him pleasure to have found a playmate for her; his beach side neighbour, Ruth Winter has a little girl Amanda who, despite health problems that keep her away from school a lot, welcomes Sam’s company: from a social perspective life is good.
Until a body is found on a nearby beach, and it is eventually established that it wasn’t a drowning or a suicide, but murder; at the same time a family has been found murdered in their burning house and the Maine police are swamped with crimes for which they are badly under-resourced. Tragically, these crimes pale into insignificance when Ruth Winter is cruelly murdered on the night of Sam and Amanda’s playdate, but the most uncanny event for Charlie Parker is that his daughter wakes him to tell him that a man is trying to enter Ms Winter’s home. How could she know?
Charlie is injured trying to apprehend the murderer on the dunes and it seems that finally his own life is about to end – until Sam (who was under strict instructions to stay in her bedroom) appears at his side to confront the killer – who succumbs to burial under a massive fall of sand, an occurrence that hasn’t happened for decades at that part of the beach .To say that Sam is no ordinary little girl is an understatement.
It is time for Charlie, with the assistance of Louis and Angel, to return to what he is best at: investigating murder and stamping out evil – if he can, and the deeper he delves into Ruth’s killing, unspeakable old crimes and pure evil finally reveal themselves, for Ruth, a Jew, was killed so that she would not disclose anything she may have inadverdently learned about old Nazis: Nazi war criminals who entered the United States from Argentina under assumed identities, several of whom settled in Maine. None wish to be exposed and sent back to Germany, and they will go to any lengths, including multiple murders, to stay where they are.
Charlie Parker is a different person now, after his close brush with death. There is an implacability, a hardness and resolve about him that cause his loyal friends much disquiet but they are determined – as always – to support him to the hilt in his efforts to purge evil. Charlie is unfazed by the fact that the battle may be uneven; what nearly stops his heart is the knowledge that his daughter Sam is just as committed as he to stamp out the enemies of the world, and he is fully aware that she is in just as much danger.
As always, Mr Connolly leaves his readers in terrible suspense right to the last page - which only poses more questions and enables this beautifully written series to continue. What a master he is, and what a pleasure it is to read a Charlie Parker book. Highly recommended.
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.