Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Grey Sister, by Mark Lawrence

         It’s entirely unnecessary to state (but I must!) that once again Mark Lawrence has all his readers by the scruff of the neck from the first page of this second book in his fantasy the Ancestor trilogy:  little Red Sister Nona Grey (see review below) has gone from strength to strength at the Convent of Sweet Mercy, presided over by her rescuer and mentor, Abbess Glass – a person whose powers compared to her charges, seem negligible until called upon to prevent the bloodshed and murder that threatens her community on an almost regular basis, for the Convent of Sweet Mercy is regarded as the home of a monstrous traitor, a novice guilty of the heinous crime of killing the heir of one of the country’s most powerful noble families.  Nona Grey is the killer, and the Abbess is regarded as just as guilty for sheltering her.
            The Abbess is taken prisoner and removed from the Convent to stand trial.  Nona is forced to flee from the only real home and haven she has ever experienced but is comforted by the knowledge that she has made firm friends and loyal allies among the novices and tutors;  if they can they will follow her and protect her as much as their powers will permit:  in the meantime she must fend for herself in a hostile world, accompanied by a truly nasty new character who, when Nona dispatched Raymel Tacsis to the Hell he deserved at the end of Book One, transferred itself to her ‘because she enjoyed killing Tacsis’.  Keot is a devil, a ruthless, evil presence that had to look for a new home when Raymel breathed his last, and where better to reside than Nona Grey when she is in the midst of a killing frenzy?  Perfect.
            Nona’s new ‘lodger’ is a thorn in her side, full of bad advice, i.e. anyone remotely suspicious on Nona’s travels should be rubbed out, wiped out and generally stubbed out;  if his counselling is not followed (and it never is)  he shrieks with rage or goes into a sulk.  He is not the ideal travelling companion, but when the chips are down – especially then, for he and Nona are captured more than once by fearsome creatures called the Noi Guin:  then, his advice is sound, his ‘solutions’ effective and instant, and Nona (for once) is glad that she has him.  The Noi Guin are assassins, hired by the late Raymel Tacsis’s grieving father to track her down and imprison her so that he can take his time giving her the slow death she deserves. How she escapes them all to wreak a terrible vengeance is heart-in-the-mouth suspense of the highest order.
Once again Mark Lawrence satisfies his legions of fans admirably, leaving us all clamouring for the third book – the final showdown, the last battle for supremacy between Good and Evil:  Magic!  And I hope Keot features again;  for a thoroughly nasty little creature he is really quite endearing.  FIVE STARS.  
Red Sister, by Mark Lawrence

            Well.  Mark Lawrence has done it again:  sucked me into his latest fantasy adventure from the first page – effortlessly, his story-telling skills buffed and polished from his first two trilogies, ‘The Broken Empire’ and ‘The Red Queen’s War’.  And so he should:  I would expect nothing less from the creator of murderous anti-hero Prince of Thorns Honorous Jorg Ancrath, or his opposite number Prince of Fools Jalan Kendeth, known chiefly for his good looks, shameless behaviour, and ability to hide or run like the wind at the first sign of danger.
            Now, Mr Lawrence introduces us to the Red Sister, the first book in The Ancestor trilogy.  Once again he has created a character as huge in spirit and soul as she is small and malnourished, for Nona, called Grey for the part of the narrow land from which she was sold to a Child-Taker, has unique powers, powers she is too young to understand or harness. All she knows is a world that is gradually being consumed by mile-high walls of encroaching ice, for the sun has died and all humankind has now to nurture life on the planet is an artificially developed Focus Moon.  Every night it casts its square (yes, square!) red warmth over the landscape and melts what the ice has claimed.
            There are still towns and cities, rich and poor, and Nona is dirt-scrabble poor.  She cannot understand why her mother and the head man of the village sold her – no, GAVE HER AWAY, so that she eventually ends up being sold to a Fight Master, who fattens her up with a view to training her to fight for money.  Her life is tolerable – the food is more than she has ever seen in her life! – and Nona actually makes a friend, a little girl called Saida:  perhaps she will survive after all.  Until an act of sadism towards her only friend causes Nona to wreak a terrible vengeance against the guilty one, the eldest son of one of the richest aristocratic families:  she and Saida are thrown into prison, ready to be hanged.
            It goes without saying that poor little Saida is sacrificed to the rope (and the plot);  Nona’s rescuer in the nick of time is Abbess Glass of Sweet Mercy convent:  by fair means (and foul) she manages to bring Nona within the shelter of her convent’s fortress walls, there to harness and train for good the propensity to violence and murder that rage can provoke within Nona’s skinny frame – and to discover eventually that Nona has no need of weapons with which to kill:  her hands and her anger are the only weapons she needs to vanquish whole armies, if need be.  WOW!!
            And again, Mr Lawrence teases us with his rocket science theories (well, he knows what he’s talking about) by intimating, despite the settings of medieval pomp and pageantry - not to mention squalor – that the world being overtaken by an inexorable Ice Age is not the original planet that existed;  rather, it was the destination of everyone’s forebears who travelled through the heavens in great ships, looking for a world that still had a bright sun.
            As always, Mr Lawrence leaves us all shouting for more – he simply cannot produce the sequel fast enough:  I want to start it NOW!  FIVE STARS

Sunday, 22 July 2018

Snap, by Belinda Bauer

           In summer 1998 a car breaks down on a busy British motorway.  Pregnant mother Eileen Bright instructs her eleven year old son Jack to stay in the car with his nine year old sister Joy, and two year old Merry:  he will be in charge while she walks ‘just a little way’ to a roadside phone to call for help. 
            Well.  She has been gone so long that Merry is now yelling and Joy is whining that something must have happened to Mum.  And the heat in the car is so unbearable that they have to do something for relief.  They will walk up the road to find her, even though Jack has to carry Merry because she won’t walk, and Joy still whines because of the heat, then because no-one will stop to help them, then because the roadside emergency phone booth is empty, it’s receiver dangling:  WHERE IS THEIR MOTHER?
            Three years later Jack is still in charge whether he wants to be or not:  more than a week after their Mum disappeared and the police finally picked them up, despite tearful public pleas by their Dad for any sightings of her, her body is found, stabbed to death down a bank not far from the emergency phone.  The Bright family is in disarray:  Dad turns to drink, Joy starts to collect every newspaper report of her mother’s disappearance and murder, Merry is running wild, and Jack has resorted to burglary to put food on the table – and to pay for Joy’s newspapers.  It will only be a matter of time before Social Services arrive and they are all taken in to care, especially when Dad goes out for milk and never returns.  Jack would give anything not to be in charge:  he’s not old enough to cope with all this chaos and sadness.  And rage.  No-one has ever been charged with the murder of his mother, the evil, senseless act that destroyed their entire family.  If he could ever meet that killer, he would make him suffer long and hard before he killed him.
            Ms Bauer treats us to another beautifully plotted thriller, as engrossing as ‘Rubbernecker’ (see review below), the first of her books that I loved.  She invests great care into building her characters credibly, especially in the parallel mystery of pregnant wife Catherine While, who disturbs a burglar, (Jack) only to have the burglar turn the tables on her by leaving a knife by her bed with a note saying ‘I could have killed you.’
            And let us not forget The Boys In Blue:  it takes them some time to join the dots, mainly because DCI Marvel, transferred under a cloud from London is not initially interested in old cases, cold cases and least of all in burglaries;  it’s only when the burglar (Jack) is outed that he finally shows some interest, and a deal with the devil is made.  This is crime writing at its best:  Aren’t we readers lucky!  FIVE STARS.      

Rubbernecker, by Belinda Bauer

Patrick Fort is 18 years old, and has left home  to study anatomy at university in the Welsh city of Cardiff.  He will share a tiny house with two other students and has a small allowance from his mum for food and incidentals, similar to so many other young people experiencing relative independence for the first time – with one huge difference:  Patrick has Asperger’s syndrome, and has gained his place at university because of his disability. The institution must accept a certain quota of handicapped students by law.
Patrick will never be ‘normal’.  His social skills are practically non-existent;  humour and irony are completely wasted on him, for Patrick takes every statement and situation literally.  If logic is not evident to him in conversations and actions he refuses to respond.  He is also fanatically clean and hates being touched, foibles which baffle and irritate his flatmates and fellow students, who are unaware that his condition has a name.
On the upside, however, Patrick has some enviable skills:  he loves puzzles;  he can fix a mucked-up Rubik’s cube in seconds, then offer to show the mucker-upper (in this case, the university Professor who admitted him to the anatomy class) where he went wrong;  he has a wonderful aptitude for all things mechanical;  and the human body, that most supreme example of physical mechanics, is the puzzle he most wants to solve – for Patrick’s father was killed in a hit-and-run accident when he was eight and the killer was never found.  Nor can Patrick understand the concept of death logically;  he needs to know by dissecting a body, where life goes, and if it could ever come back.  He needs to know, and the logical place to find out is in the Dissection class where he and his classmates are introduced to a corpse they name Bill.
Bill has donated his body to medical science;  he had been in a serious car accident, putting him in a coma for several months before he died;  now it is up to Patrick and three other students to study every part of Bill, and they must also establish the official cause of death whilst they do so.  Patrick is thrilled;  the mystery of where his father went when his life ended may soon be revealed!
Unfortunately, the only mystery revealed is the cause of Bill’s death:  he did not die of heart failure as was officially stated – he was murdered, and Patrick is faced with solving the biggest puzzle of his young life, and trying to keep himself alive as the murderer becomes aware that his was not, after all, the perfect crime.
This is SUCH a good book!
Ms Bauer has, through her impeccable research and enviable writing skills, made Patrick an entirely credible character, imprisoned within his syndrome but not lost to it.  Her minor characters are excellent and there are some great twists and turns in the plot – she had me fooled more than once, which is, after all, one of the most basic requirements of a good crime novel.  This was a pleasure to read.  FIVE STARS.

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Radio Boy, by Christian O’Connell                   Junior Fiction

            Spike Hughes is so average at St. Brenda’s that most of the other kids hardly notice him – except the school bully, Martin Harris, who likes to torment everyone.  Perhaps that wouldn’t be so bad, except that Martin Harris is good looking, the captain of the cricket and football teams – and is the son of the Headmaster, Fish-Face Harris, whom everyone fears and despises:  Fish-Face is a bully too;  even the teachers are anxious around him.
            Spike’s major pleasure is being an early morning  DJ at the local hospital where his mother is the Ward Manager – it’s only for an hour but he’s sure being a DJ will be his life’s work;  he has no other ambition except to wed Katherine Robertson, the Most Wonderful Girl in the School – one day.  But he is utterly betrayed by the Station Manager, who wants to give his spot to the Garden Show because ‘no-one listens to Spike’s Show between 6 and 7.  (That’s AM, not PM).  Spike is beside himself with rage and disappointment, leaving the hospital studio unusable by exploding the stink bombs he got for Christmas.  Well, it was the Station Manager’s own fault, giving his hour to someone who looked like a Garden Gnome!
            However, help may be at hand with the news that St Brenda’s is going to start its own Radio Show.  Spike is overjoyed:  he will have another chance to realise his dreams, at the same time impressing Katherine Robertson, the Girl He is Going to Marry.  Until Fish-Face Harris announces that the new Radio Show will be manned by his own dear son Martin.  BETRAYED AGAIN!!
            There’s nothing else for it but to rally the rest of the school AV club (his two friends Artie and Holly), and start a secret Radio Show of their own, broadcasting online with equipment begged, ‘borrowed’ and bought on EBay with his Dad’s assistance:  it has to be secret because if his Mum found out the sky would fall in – Mum’s pretty tough, but worries constantly about ‘what people think’.  What she doesn’t know won’t worry her, Spike reasons:  this idea can’t fail!  And he’s right.  With techno genius Holly as Producer and Artie in charge of music (Artie rescued his Dad’s vinyl collection from being dumped and is an ace music selector on a ‘borrowed’ turntable.  He lives in a huge house called The Gateau Chateau, so named because Artie’s Dad owns a chain of bakeries.  This means that there is always a supply of cakes and buns past their use-by date:  genius!)  Yep, Radio Boy/Spike, Elvis/Artie and Mystery Girl Producer can’t go wrong – until they do.  Majorly.
            Christian O’Connell has his own Breakfast Show on Britain’s Absolute Radio so he knows what he’s writing about, and how to capture hearts and minds of today’s techno-savvy kids  by making the AV Club’s exploits so laugh-out-loud funny but believable that a huge uptake of 10 year old AV students in the future will be a sure thing.  FIVE STARS    

Sunday, 8 July 2018

The Wanted, by Robert Crais.

           This is Robert Crais’s twenty-first novel;  he’s a New York Times bestselling author, so where was I while he was churning out this huge output?  Living in happy ignorance, obviously, BUT.
            I have finally caught up with the rest of the world and recognise a classic example of formulaic crime writing, especially when series protagonist ace Private Investigator Elvis Cole has top karate and kung-fu moves, cool looks, a smart mouth, and a murderous side-kick called Joe.  Who could resist such a God?  He makes other classic PI’s of modern fiction look like Grade A twits, and his villains – OMG, his bad guys are literally to DIE for!
            Elvis is called by a frantic mother to investigate the mega-expensive Rolex watch she found hidden in her teenage son’s bedroom.  Son Tyson has been expelled from several schools for ‘behavioural’ problems’ and has recently taken up with a girl that his mum deems wholly unsuitable.  Elvis thinks so too when he searches Tyson’s desk (yep, Elvis is even better at ferreting out hiding places than a mum), and finds great wads of greenbacks:  Tyson is a thief, and he and the wholly unsuitable girl have been burgling rich properties in Bel Air and other L.A. high-end neighbourhoods – just for the thrill of it, because life is boring, and life has been mean to them.  They deserve to have some fun!  And lots of money.  The problem is, they took a laptop belonging to someone who has major incriminating secrets on it;  the owner wants it back, and to that end has hired a couple of Enforcers, Harvey and Stemms, to recover it.  All well and good, except that Harvey and Stemms are killers, and think nothing of leaving a trail of bodies in their wake as they track down the teenage burglars.
Well, thank the Lord for Elvis, his coolness, his Corvette, and sidekick murderous Joe:  in short chapters and even shorter sentences, Mr Crais introduces and dispatches minor characters with experienced ease;  we learn a little of Elvis’s backstory in the process – he fell in love a book or two ago;  the lady had a son with whom Elvis bonded, and he would have loved to have been a dad – now he feels the sorrow of a solo life, but by the next book he may have paired up again;  he attracts women like flies.  Of course! 
Anyway.  Harvey and Stemms meet a very predictable fate – which is a shame, for they were more finely drawn than I expected, and a heap more interesting than some of the main characters, several of whom appeared to be forgotten about when this story ambled towards its end.  And despite the pleasurable fact that Elvis has a cat so savage that all visitors give it a wide berth, I’m not inclined to read past or future books.  This is Fast-Food writing:  tasty, fills a gap, but has zero nutritional value.  THREE STARS  

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

The Twelve-Mile Straight, by Eleanor Henderson

            The Twelve-Mile Straight in 1930 is an unpaved Georgia road leading from a cotton mill town to the poor Negro wards at the impoverished end of the county.  It is also the scene of the bloody murder of negro labourer Genus Jackson, accused of raping the daughter of the white share-cropper who employed him on the farm owned by the most powerful man in the county. Despite his innocence, he is lynched first, then dragged behind a pickup truck along the twelve-mile, and dumped broken and unrecognisable outside the sheriff’s office.  His boots are missing, stolen by the driver of the pickup, who has since lit out for parts unknown.
            So begins Eleanor Henderson’s explosive novel of Southern Georgia during the Depression, a state that would always be part of Old Dixie, regardless of the Civil War, Emancipation and all the other hard-won racial concessions:  in 1930 white privilege, fear and hatred still rule, and the only difference from being slaves is that the coloureds are reluctantly paid starvation wages – if the cotton crop doesn’t fail.  Elma Jesup, daughter of the share-cropper who made the accusations against Jackson has  ostensibly given birth to twins, a girl red-headed and freckled like herself, and a boy who is obviously mulatto:  she is a Jezebel!  There she was, engaged to the grandson of Mill-owner George Wilson (also red-headed and freckled) but she done crawled into bed with a nigger!  The town ladies vow never to associate with her or her wild, nigger-loving father Juke, even though they know the same could be said of their own feckless husbands;  they can’t seem to stay away from them coloured gals and the number of ‘terminations’ that Doc Rawls has to ‘arrange’ is proof of that fact. 
            In prose that should be the envy of all aspiring writers, Ms Henderson describes Elma’s attempts to make something of her young life and circumstances against the backdrop of racism and unchanging views as old as the hills beyond her home:  the writer’s voice is clear and sweet when she describes Elma’s undying sisterhood with her mute negro housegirl Nan, and harsh as a crow’s call when she writes of incest and unspeakable cruelty on the farm, and the hypocritical lengths that Southern society will pursue in order to preserve the old, comfortable way of life.  As we all know nearly ninety years later, old attitudes die hard, and sometimes don’t die at all.  ‘The Twelve-Mile Straight’ is a monument to all those who struggled for dignity and change – and are still doing so.  SIX STARS