Friday, 1 January 2016

FIRST GREAT READS FOR JANUARY, 2016

Crimson Shore, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

  
          ‘When the doorbell chimed, Constance Green stopped playing the Flemish virginal and the library fell silent and tense.’
            Well.  Who else would start off a novel with such deliciously florid and torrid prose but Messrs Preston and Child – and do it so successfully?  This is the latest in a long line of adventures starring Special FBI Agent Aloysius Pendergast and his mysterious ward, Constance, proficient virginal player.  The plots of each book have become progressively more outlandish, unbelievable – and HEAPS of fun, not to mention faster paced than a speeding bullet.  And let us not forget the addictive factor:  Agent Pendergast, with his silvery eyes, inexhaustible supply of funereal bespoke suits, seeming invincibility against everything that villains most dastardly can throw at him, and superlative deductive powers (he has more PhDs than you can shake a stick at) is a protagonist who has gathered devoted fans (including me) from all over the world – he has his own website, for goodness’ sake!
            We last met him in ‘Blue Labyrinth’ (see review below);  now, he and Constance are persuaded by a noted sculptor to do a little moonlighting:  someone has stolen the sculptor’s priceless wine collection from his home in a converted lighthouse on the wild and stormy New England coast.  Would Pendergast (whose stellar reputation at solving difficult crimes has even penetrated artistic circles) care to investigate?  There would be considerable financial reward – but our hero, after learning that a single case of wine had survived the theft, requests just one glorious item from that case:  a bottle of Chateau Haut-Braquilanges.  The Nectar of the Gods.  (Needless to say, for mere mortals such as I, its virtues would be entirely wasted.  It’s just as well Aloysius knows his stuff.  I’ll take his word for it.)
            Anyway.
Quelle horreur!  After careful examination of the wine racks, Pendergast is able to deduce – from a tiny finger bone (!) -  that behind the empty shelves is a niche which had contained a body – a man who was  bricked-up in said niche and left to starve to death:  the wine theft was a clumsy cover-up by people who wanted to remove the body and surrounding evidence.  There is a lot more villainy afoot in this storm swept little village than the theft of wine, distressing though that may be to its owner and wine connoisseur Pendergast.
            Naturally, the intrepid team of Pendergast and Green are soon following clues scattered everywhere like confetti;  Constance is dispatched to the local historical society, there to uncover evidence of the remains of a coven of Salem witches who fled from the trials and deaths of their sisters, and our Super FBI agent uncovers dreadful evidence in the wild salt marshes of a heinous 19th century crime – but wait:  there’s more!
            Constance, despite her penchant for prowling in dark basements and stubborn preference for retro garb (long cardies and longer tweed skirts), still harbours what can only be regarded as lustful thoughts towards her Guardian:   she lays her hand on his knee as they partake of the delights of Pendergast’s hard won bottle of Chateau whatsit.  A passionate embrace cannot be avoided, but Aloysius Pendergast is a man of superhuman self-control, and he thrusts her from him, crying ‘you are my ward!’
            Much to Constance’s fury.  (What a hussy!)  In fact she is so irate that she stalks out into the wild and stormy night clad only in her robe and nightie, filled with vengeful thoughts:  she will show that prissy paleface that she can solve the remaining mystery BY HERSELF.  Who needs Aloysius the Virginal (and we are not talking about the musical instrument): just you wait, she is the ultimate Weapon of Darkness – until someone even darker makes his big move. 
            Oh, oh, OH!  Constance is in the crapola, and can only be rescued by her funereal guardian, who realises too late that an arch enemy whom he thought dead (didn’t Constance push him into a bubbling volcanic crater?) has almost certainly returned.  Which just goes to show that Messrs Preston and Child can be as absurd as they like;  despite the presumed death of Aloysius, the disappearance of Constance (she has returned to the reassuring darkness of the basement) and the resurrection of Diogenes, Pendergast’s diabolical bro, we are still hanging onto every word and furious because this episode of epic silliness is finished. Well, buggeration is all I can say.  Preston and Child had  better be writing the next adventure at the speed of light.  What fun -can’t wait.  FOUR STARS

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, 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.  FOUR STARS

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, by Stephen King

Stephen King’s latest collection of twenty short stories contains some that have never before been published, plus oldies but goodies that have been revised.  Preceding each is a little intro from King, explaining to his Constant Readers his thoughts and motivation for writing the story, and for me this was almost as entertaining as having an actual conversation with this great storyteller.
Big themes permeate many of the tales:  morality, guilt, greed – and fear, for what would a Stephen King book be without that most disabling of emotions?  With accomplished ease he makes the hair on the back of one’s neck stand and the goose bumps rise, especially in Mile 81, the tale of a car supposedly broken down and needing assistance at a deserted rest stop on one of Maine’s highways:  those good Samaritans who stop to help meet an awful fate, until the line of deserted cars with doors hanging open eventually attracts attention of a more positive kind.  This is vintage King at his creepy-crawliest.
‘Batman and Robin have an Altercation’ doesn’t involve the supernatural;  instead the author examines senility, its ravages and the resentment of a loving son who dutifully takes his elderly dad to the same restaurant every Sunday for lunch, watches him eat the same thing, and say the same things EVERY SUNDAY – until one Sunday, when dear old dad is being driven back to the nursing home a road-rage attack of horrific intensity changes their lives forever:  a frail, handicapped old man still has it in him to become Batman, the Caped Crusader.
One enormous pleasure for me when reading Mr King’s fiction is his command of the various speech idioms throughout his vast country – and his great sense of fun.  It may seem incongruous to people who see him solely as a writer of supernatural fiction that he has such a rich vein of humour running throughout his work;  in fact some of it is laugh-out-loud funny, and that’s as it should be, for humour is one of the most vital weapons in our armoury with which to battle life’s pitfalls.  In short (and I could have said this first)  You need the laughs to balance the scary bits!
And the laughs come in abundance with ‘Drunken Fireworks’, a tale of neighbourly rivalry, initially good-natured, between a mother and son living in a little summer shack on the poor side of the lake, versus a prosperous Italian family living on the rich side of the lake.  Every 4th of July it is the custom for people to let off fireworks, and what began as ‘who has the biggest sparklers’ turns into a take-no-prisoners battle to the bitter end, the whole fiasco narrated by the shame-faced son from ‘the poor side’.  What a gem.
To be followed by ‘Summer Thunder’, the last story of the collection.  Such was its impact that I am still thinking about it – because it could happen so EASILY.
Nuclear bombs have been detonated.  (Mr King does not say how many, or who did the deed, but think how many countries have them!)  The world is dying and he introduces us to a landscape with few people left to enjoy the last sunlight.  The Southern Hemisphere is buried under a poison cloud and it is something of a miracle that Robinson and his dog Gandalf (a stray he found after the Event) are still alive and can enjoy the sun’s rays.  Robinson is almost  paralysed with grief;  his wife and daughter are dead, as is most of the population, and there is evidence everywhere in the country area in which he lives that the wildlife is dying in droves – but he still feels that he can carry on as long as Gandalf is OK.
There is no happy ending to this powerful little story.  With consummate skill Mr King demonstrates why man is the most ferocious animal on the planet, destroying his beautiful home and every life form in it to achieve dominance – over who, when there is nothing left alive?  FIVE STARS    
   






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