Thursday, 28 June 2018

Girl on Fire, by Tony Parsons 

           DC Max Wolfe returns, prickly and recalcitrant as ever in his fifth adventure, but this time he is a victim in the opening pages.  Someone has programmed a drone to attack an ambulance helicopter, causing it to crash into a huge shopping mall causing multiple casualties.  Max was in the mall to buy his daughter Scout a new back pack (the old back pack is hopeless;  it’s only for babies) and, apart from cuts and bruises, considers himself blessed to have escaped when so many others died.  His good luck doesn’t stop him from feeling enormous anger and sorrow on behalf of those who didn’t survive, and the sooner Scotland Yard can track down the killers, the better.
            It doesn’t take them long:  Max is part of a team specially chosen to raid the house of Pakistani immigrants – on the surface law-abiding citizens, but the sons of the family have recently returned from Syria where they were apparently fighting Jihad.  Why weren’t they under surveillance? Max asks, for the raid turns bad, with one police officer murdered by one of the sons, and both brothers killed ‘in self-defence’ according to the official police statement.  Race relations in London have hit rock-bottom, and gangs have started to form outside the raided house, those in support of ‘Jihad!’ and far right extremists determined to shout them down.
            Max’s personal life decides to contribute to the powder-keg situation in the shape of his ex-wife:  it’s time for Scout to have some stability and order in her life.  She should come and live with her mother and mum’s new family, and to that end – for she knows that Max will not consent – she has retained legal advice, so there!  It goes without saying that Max’s lot is not a happy one, but hey!  He’s the hero, he’s supposed to solve all these problems with a careless grin and minimum effort, but when his beloved dog Stan becomes deathly ill too, he’s pretty much ready to throw in the towel.
            As always, (see review below) Mr Parsons evokes perfectly the fearful atmosphere of a huge city under threat;  his minor characters are portrayed with fairness and honesty, especially the raiding officers and what the job does to them – but he is equally stark in presenting the distorted view of Islam that murdering fanatics embrace, and the effect it has on their families.  Sadly, where this book falls just a little despite the author’s obvious competence is that it fails to engage the reader for the whole length of the story, even though there was an unexpected and shocking twist to the tale right at the end.  What a shame.  FOUR STARS.

The Hanging Club, by Tony Parsons

            How satisfying, how enjoyable it is to be hooked by a story on the very first page – it doesn’t happen very often, especially with crime writers who follow a by-the-numbers formula, but Tony Parson’s swashbuckling superhero DC Max Wolfe, despite his superior and unerring powers of deduction has a human side which makes him much more credible:  his personal life in each book so far (this is the third) is less than ideal, except for his love for his little daughter Scout, and their dog Stan.  Max has been a solo Dad for several years now, and while he wishes, as everyone does, for True Love (he has fallen for a different girl in each story – unsuccessfully!) he still blesses life with his little family. 
Not everyone is so lucky, especially the victims of the latest mindless violence he has to deal with every day:  a decent man remonstrates with louts who are urinating on his wife’s car parked outside their home.  The louts beat him to death, film it on their phones, then get the charges reduced to manslaughter in court – ‘he was freatening us, me Lord! It was self-defence!’ – despite the iphone evidence, their sentences are a slap on the wrist, leaving yet another family permanently in ruins.  Max feels a burning hatred for the smirking murderers in the dock, especially when they laugh at him, the arresting officer, on their way to prison.  Sometimes – many times, the Law is an Ass.
And another group thinks so, too – a masked group who post online their execution by hanging of taxi driver Mahmud Irani in a place so secret that no police at West End Central, Max’s base, has any idea where it could be – except that Mahmud’s body is dumped at the site of the old Tyburn Tree, London’s infamous place of Execution.  The video states that he was found guilty of grooming, drugging and abusing children, but the sentence he served (two years) was absurd:  death by hanging was the proper verdict.
This killing is followed up by another ‘execution’, in the same secret place of a trust fund manager who drove his Porsche over a child biking across a zebra crossing, sending the little boy into a coma for six months before he was taken off life-support, but Money-Man was sent down for two years only – another ‘wet bus ticket’ slap – and he was even reinstated in his job when he was released.
Once again, his death is posted online for all to see, and the internet is buzzing with support for the vigilantes who are doing what should have been done to those murdering bastards in the first place:  Bring Back Capital Punishment!
And those weak-kneed coppers who tiptoe around guarding the prisoners’ rights – they’re worse than the lot of them.  As Max finds to his horror when he puts two and two together and finds himself in the same secret place, awaiting his execution.
Mr Parsons keeps the action barrelling along at Porsche speed, at the same time giving readers a marvellous picture of another country within Britain:  London, that great and sprawling city, from the teeming centres of Smithfield and Soho to the elegant leafy avenues and squares of those rich enough to live there – and a compelling portrait of London’s underbelly, a place that no-one wants to explore.  FIVE STARS


Sunday, 10 June 2018

Red Queen, by Victoria Aveyard            Young Adult reading

Glass Sword, by Victoria Aveyard

            A lot of dystopian fiction has been written for young people since ‘The Hunger Games’, that superb trilogy by Suzanne Collins.  The genre has not always been well-served by writers hoping to leap on to the bandwagon as they churn out pale imitations of a very successful formula – until Victoria Aveyard restores the faith in what was becoming a tired old theme, i.e. impoverished but fearless (and beautiful) girl fights evil (and disgustingly wealthy) enemies to free the world of tyranny and (after numerous death-defying, shocking and nail-biting misadventures) vanquishes the Bad Guys and everyone lives happily ever after.

           While it is true that the above could be a much-abridged summation of Ms Aveyard’s quartet of novels (I’m galloping through the second one), her protagonist Mare Barrow is hugely appealing, and carries the story effortlessly – she is feisty (of course!), sassy and downright rude (you go girl!) whenever she can’t help herself, and that’s often – and she has a secret power unknown to her until she falls onto some electrified wires:  she wasn’t fried as she expected, instead she found that she could harness the electricity and use it to zap those who would do her harm – and they are many, for Mare has Red Blood.  Don’t we all?  I hear you say, but in this Dystopian future, a thousand years after a huge nuclear war razed cities and countries, those with red blood are servants and underdogs;  the Silver Bloods are the rich and dominant leaders, and they are cruel masters.
            So far, so familiar, except that Mare is a thief by trade, until she picks the pocket of a Silver Prince out slumming;  fortunately for her, he listens as she rants at him about having no choice in her occupation;  it’s the stranglehold the Silvers have on the Reds, keeping them downtrodden and oppressed that forces her to steal so that her family won’t starve.  His solution, instead of having her executed for theft, is to give her a job as a servant in his family’s summer palace.  Mare has just dodged death, but why?  Not that she isn’t grateful, but her new duties combined with her new-found talent for controlling electricity – she is now known as little lightning girl – complicate and endanger her life more than she ever dreamed.  It is clear too, that the ruling Silver family is not as secure on the throne as they appear.  They have enemies within as well as the seething rebelling Red masses without:  can the little lightning girl conquer them and become a Red Queen?
            Not in the first book:  Mare ends up on the run, a fugitive with a loyal little band of followers, searching for more gifted ‘Newbloods’ like herself, part red, part silver, but each with an extraordinary gift that, if enough are found, could be moulded into an elite army, capable of defeating the most powerful of enemies.  Ms Aveyard has given great new life to a genre that has been flogged almost to a standstill and her characters are full of life and exuberance – in Mare’s case, electricity! – and, as should be the case in fantasy sagas of Good and Evil, strong questioning of moral standpoints and values.
            This is a great series, action-packed to the last page, and once again I thank my granddaughter Ava, reader extraordinaire, for telling me about it.  FIVE STARS