GREAT READS FOR DECEMBER, 2015
The Girl in the Spider’s Web, by David Lagercrantz,
Continuing Stieg Larsson’s Millenium series.
Swedish author David Lagercrantz has been given the daunting task of continuing Stieg Larsson’s blockbuster series of novels about Lisbeth Salander, ace computer hacker, mathematical genius and all-round general recluse and misfit, and Mikael Blomkvist, crusading investigative journalist, founder with his some-time lover Erika Berger of the high-end Millennium Magazine, their weapon against graft and corruption in high places. They have many enemies; those who don’t want their dirty secrets exposed, and colleagues from other publications who envy their stellar reputation. Millennium is constantly under siege from those whose causes would be furthered if it became defunct, and when this story opens, Blomkvist and Berger are facing a takeover that has definitely turned hostile.
Mr Lagerkrantz has done a formidable job of filling in the backstory from Stieg Larsson’s three wonderful books; he is meticulous in the origins of Salander’s and Blomkvist’s relationship and has fashioned a credible, clever plot that every reader will find compelling, especially as Lisbeth’s long lost sister Camilla – as beautiful as Lisbeth is not – makes an appearance to equal that of her half-brother Ronald Niedermann, a monster impervious to pain. It is very clear that the siblings’ awful father, Alexander Zalachenko has bequeathed some horrific genes to his unfortunate progeny, but Lisbeth is the only one with a conscience and a sense of what is right – which makes her a formidable opponent of her sister, whose hatred of Lisbeth is as deep as it is irrational.
The reader has to concentrate; Mr Lagerkrantz’s plot is not simple. Professor Frans Balder, a technological genius and front-runner in the race to produce superior artificial intelligence is murdered by intruders but all they take are his computer and cell phone. Unfortunately for the assailant, Balder’s 8 year-old son, August, witnesses the murder. He is severely handicapped by autism – but he draws beautifully and it is absurdly easy for him to produce with photographic realism his impression of the death scene and the killer. Which means that he has to die, too.
Enter Lisbeth Salander: she literally comes to the rescue of August with a flying rugby tackle and the hijacking of an innocent motorist (who will never be the same again!) – she knew Professor Balder and has uncovered from her various hacking exercises (the National Security Agency has received special attention) that his worries about keeping his studies and conclusions secret were anything but unfounded. She takes it upon herself (with the help of Blomkvist and Berger) to go into hiding with August, whose traumatic experiences Lisbeth identifies with completely. She is a formidable protector and once again the reader is swept up and borne inexorably on the waves of suspense to the end of a great story.
Mr Lagerkrantz is a highly efficient and meticulous writer; he has covered every base, recreated Mr Larsson’s characters superbly and generated enough suspense for more than one novel – which I hope means that another won’t be far off for the beautiful, evil Camilla is still at large, and the NSA is still highly suspect despite being on the side of right. This is a very competent sequel and I look forward to reading the next one. FIVE STARS
The Serpentine Road, by Paul Mendleson
Sequels don’t always fulfil the promise of the debut novel. Sometimes the author is unable to generate the same rapport with the reader, the suspense and excitement - particularly with thriller-writing – that is necessary to keep us all coming back for more: happily, Paul Mendleson’s sequel to his great ‘The First Rule of Survival’ (see review below) more than meets all requirements and once again the reader is caught up in a plot so fast-paced that it is almost a relief to reach the end so that blood-pressure can return to normal levels.
In 1994 Colonel Vaughn De Vries is a Captain in the South African Police Department. The infamous Apartheid system is over; Nelson Mandela is set to win the first democratic election for the Presidency of South Africa, yet dissident acts of violence have not abated, the latest being a bomb attack on a Capetown drinking hall resulting in carnage and destruction – and pursuit of the suspects by white police officers bent on bloody retribution.
De Vries is ordered to bring up the rear on their search of a slum settlement, to ‘get the officers’ backs’, but witnesses such a terrible act of atrocity by his commanding officer Kobus Nel that it still haunts him in 2015, especially as his young family was threatened by Nel if he didn’t make the same report as everyone else. This ‘masking’ the facts has never sat well with him, for De Vries, despite his myriad faults still believes in justice and fair play for everyone.
The many rotten apples in the Apartheid era P.D. are now thankfully gone – only to be replaced by the same fruit, but of a different colour, as De Vries finds when he is designated Lead Officer in the murder of Taryn Holt, an enormously wealthy socialite and art patron.
His interviews with various witnesses and ‘persons of interest’ do not at first reveal anything of note despite her high profile and controversial lifestyle – until it is discovered that Ms Holt was having an intimate relationship with the son of one of the original founding fathers and leading lights of the ANC, and she was prepared to finance the birth of a new political party with her lover at the head: suddenly, a senseless killing takes on a political hue, especially when orders start arriving from Pretoria to wrap the case up, and especially as a corpse conveniently turns up with the murder weapon in his hand and the victim’s blood on his teeshirt. De Vries is furious but forced to conclude (rightly) that the Opressed have now become the Opressors.
Add to that the fact that every officer from the atrocious murders they took part in twenty-one years ago has started to die, all stabbed multiple times: Once he makes the connection De Vries knows it is only a matter of time before it is his turn. What to do? Where to turn?
The only way to find out is to read this excellent story: in spare, powerful prose, Mr Mendleson writes of a land where ‘the fight will never end’ and of many peoples who do their best to survive in hugely disparate circumstances, all told against a backdrop of great and savage beauty. FIVE STARS
The First Rule of Survival, by Paul Mendelson
Colonel of the South African Police Service Vaughn de Vries is a typical protagonist of classic crime fiction. Suffering Burn-out? Of course. Marriage down the tubes? Naturally. Finding solace in Alcohol? Goes without saying. Appearance less than inviting? Women ‘avert their eyes when they see him sitting at the bar’.
In short, Colonel de Vries’s life is rather less than satisfactory – except when he is working: his job is ‘what gets him up in the morning’, and his passion for justice is legendary; it is what elevates him above the norm, especially in respect of his colleagues, new examples of the integrated police force of Mandela’s Rainbow Nation, all vying for power and prestige in a department formerly run by white men like de Vries, whose time must surely soon be up. They hope. Yes, give him a bit more time and he will be the author of his own misfortune …… until the naked bodies of two malnourished teenaged boys are found in a skip at the back of a farm café miles from Capetown, de Vries’s base. They have been murdered, and Vaughn, the token white officer is sent to investigate – and finds to his horror that they are the victims of a terrible abduction seven years before, when three young white boys, one the son of a serving police officer, were kidnapped on three consecutive days, never to be seen again.
It is a case that has haunted Vaughn’s dreams, turned them into nightmares and destroyed his peace of mind forever, especially when the case becomes cold after months of searching fruitlessly for clues – any clue – as to their fate. Now, two of the three kidnap victims have been found, obviously transported to the skip after death – from where? And where is the third boy? de Vries and his immediate superior Hendrik du Toit faced unprecedented contempt from the media and eminent child psychologists alike for their inability to provide answers seven years ago: now, their new bosses are demanding bold actions and quick solutions to the murders; any delay will reflect badly on the new Rainbow police hierarchy. Those dinosaur Boers Messrs du Toit and de Vries better shape up or ship out.
British writer Paul Mendelson has constructed an impressive debut thriller for his first foray into crime writing. He has created credible, excellent characters – especially Vaughn’s black second-in-command Warrant Officer Don February, so called because his real name would be impossible for most people to pronounce – and his descriptions of the wild and splendid coastline and croplands around Capetown make one feel that they are riding shotgun with Vaughn de Vries and Don February, hanging over their shoulders, exhorting them to find the killers before more children are abused and killed.
This is a page-turner par excellence, made the more readable by its magnificent setting. FIVE STARS!!
It’s that time of year again –the time for all the LISTS - you know: the best ofs. Well, I have compiled a list of MY best ofs, the very best books I have read this year, all reviewed on this blog. So: here’s my Top Twenty-Two for 2015 – I did try to limit myself to twenty but couldn’t do it. They’re not in any order, for every one is a worthy addition to the list. They are all different - and all uniform in their excellence.
The Bright Side of My Condition, by Charlotte Randall January blog
The Mountain School for Dogs, by Ellen Cooney February blog
The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan February
Amnesia, by Peter Carey March blog
The Same Sky, by Amanda Eyre Ward April blog
Swimming in the Dark, by Paddy Richardson April blog
The Bridge, by Jane Higgins Young Adult May blog
Havoc, by Jane Higgins Young Adult May blog
The Whites, Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt June blog
The Legend of Winstone BlackHat, by Tanya Moir June blog
Chappy, by Patricia Grace June blog
The Liar’s Key, by Mark Lawrence July blog
After the Crash, by Michel Bussi August blog
Saving Midnight, by Suzy Zail Young Adult September blog
Orhan’s Inheritance, by Aline Ohanesian September blog
The First Rule of Survival, by Paul Mendelson October blog
The Antipodeans, by Greg McGee October blog
Nora Webster, by Colm Toibin October blog
The Party Line, by Sue Orr November blog
Europa Blues, by Arne Dahl November blog
A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler November blog
The Girl in the Spider’s Web, by David Lagerkrantz December blog
It has been a great pleasure reviewing all these wonderful books this year and on behalf of the staff and the many volunteers of Te Takere, our beautiful library and community centre, I wish all Great Readers a very happy Christmas and a safe and healthy New Year. See you in 2016!