Sunday, 24 February 2019

Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard
The Sword of Summer (Book One) by Rick Riordan.  Junior Fiction

           Magnus Chase has been homeless for two years.  He has been living on the streets of Boston since his mother was murdered by supernatural wolves when he was fourteen:  he knows that something supremely evil is looking for him and so far, hiding in plain sight, dossing down under bridges and in parks, and fossicking in dumpsters for food feels a whole lot safer than contacting his few living relatives – all of whom could care for him, but he doesn’t want to bring mortal danger into their lives.  Until finally, it becomes unavoidable:  at an unplanned meeting with his uncle Randolph, an expert on Norse mythology, he is ordered to raise the Sword of Summer from the Charles River, where it has been submerged for a millennium – yes, it is Uncle Randolph’s firm belief that the Vikings did sail, plundering and looting, as far south on the eastern seaboard as Boston and Magnus, who is turning 16 on this very day, must call the sword forth from the river-bed, for the Sword of Summer is a vital weapon in the Doomsday War of Ragnarok, the destruction of the Gods of Asgard.
            Needless to say, Magnus wants to leave uncle as soon as it’s polite to go, especially when told he is the son of a God (!) -  but he is stopped by (yes, truly!) a gigantic fire-demon called Surt who, in his efforts to track Magnus down, has also set fire to most of the bridge they are standing on.  He wants the sword, so hand it over and he’ll promise a quick death.  Oh, Okay then.
            So begins Magnus’s adventures  in the Nine Worlds:  he is introduced in many dangerous and undignified ways to various elves, dwarves – two of which are his firm friends from his homeless days – Valkyries (including Samirah Al-Abbas, Sam for short, of Iraqi heritage but deeply ashamed that she is a daughter of God Loki the Liar:  at the Hotel Valhalla it gets her into no end of strife) and he and his friends have to battle (or at least try to avoid) a giant, homicidal squirrel, one of the guardians of the World Tree, whose tangled branches conceal the entrances to the nine worlds, most of whom Magnus has to visit on his quest to prevent Ragnarok beginning.  The action is non-stop and the mythical beasts of Norse mythology all make an appearance, either to rescue the adventurers, impede them – or eat them.  In the meantime, the Sword of Summer gets sick of its name and decides to change it to Jack:  yep, time to be cool, dude.
            This is the first of the Gods of Asgard series, and as with Rick Riordan’s forays into Greek Mythology, he takes readers of all ages on a fabulous, action-packed ride through the old Norse tales.  It’s hard to know what is most admirable about his books;  his pinpoint accuracy of character and legend, or his wonderful humour which raises a laugh on every page (especially the chapter headings!):  either way it’s a winning formula.  FIVE STARS.      

Saturday, 16 February 2019

What You Wish For, by Catherine Robertson.

           This is Catherine Robertson’s second instalment in her wholly addictive chronicle of life in a small New Zealand town – I still haven’t figured out where it is yet, and she herself says that it could be anywhere, or where we want it to be.  Fair enough, but she makes Gabriel’s Bay sound so inviting, so typical of a community that we would all like to join, that I would like to pay it an extended visit. 
            Her characters are very real, as the first book demonstrated (see review below).  Some have had an improvement in their circumstances;  Kerry McFarlane has made a satisfying life with Sidney, no-nonsense solo mum of two strapping boys, and is currently expecting a visit from his parents in the U.K.  His dad is famed for being monosyllabic, but his mum makes up for it in spades.  Kerry’s powers of oratory fall somewhere in between.  Mum and Dad are going to stay with struggling farmer Vic Halsworth in a guest cottage Vic’s wife established during their very short marriage.  Vic doesn’t say much either, and doesn’t really know how it came to be that Kerry’s parents are renting his cottage.  While the income will be very welcome, he has bigger problems to deal with:  there are squatters on his land camping by the river and the local council (who haven’t changed their spots at all since the first novel) wants Vic to move them on – health and safety, you understand, not to mention polluting the waterway);  now an anonymous person has started a blog naming Vic as a ‘dirty’ farmer.  Things are only middling!
            The beloved, long-serving and suffering Doctor Love has retired, replaced by earnest young Indian Doctor Ashwin Ghadavi:  he has his own cross to bear in the shape of his mother in Ahmedabad;  he must uphold the family honour by marrying soon – here are the details of a suitable twenty-five year old.  Return home forthwith, and look rested!  Yes Mum.  The only inconvenience with that plan is that he has fallen helplessly in love with Emma, gorgeous free-spirited daughter of Jacko, proprietor of The Boatshed, the best bar and cafĂ© in the district – well, the best bar ever if measured on the friendliness and conviviality scale.  Yes, Ashwin has found his niche, and doesn’t want to return to Ahmedabad, looking rested.  Gabriel’s Bay is IT.
            Ms Robertson treats us to interesting subplots as well, characters such as Devon, so beautiful he is mistaken for a girl, not least because he refuses to cut his long blonde hair in defiance of people’s opinions that he must be a poof;  and Brownie, just out of jail and trying to integrate himself into the community again:  they’re all here in this charming story that ace journalist John Campbell said made us ‘not so much readers as neighbours’.  An entirely fitting compliment.  FIVE STARS.

Gabriel’s Bay, by Catherine Robertson

          Gabriel’s Bay could be any small coastal town in New Zealand, according to Catherine Robertson, so if your small town fits the description, then that’s where this charming little story is set:  easy-peasy.
            Gabriel’s Bay has high unemployment, an aging and diminishing population, and the attendant problems of petty crime, drug use and child neglect.  The local council are all dyed-in-the-wool practitioners of licking each other’s nether regions depending upon what it will get them, and those sterling characters who are genuine in their wish to see the town they love survive and prosper – somehow! – are at a loss to know how to remedy the situation before Gabriel’s Bay deteriorates into a ghost town.
            Enter Kerry Francis MacFarlane from London, employed as home help to an elderly couple who were one of the first families in the area, and therefore the Gentry:  they are of the mistaken belief that they have employed a woman, when in fact Kerry is a male, and a ginger one at that (every stripe and colour gets an outing in this book).  He has left his bride at the altar and feels that the farther he travels from the scene of the crime, the better:  to say that he is feckless is unkind, but he definitely needs to overhaul his ‘responsible-for-his-own-mess’ sensibilities.  Gabriel’s Bay is just the place to have a change of heart.  It rolls out its characters to him gradually;  they don’t accept charming strangers with the gift of the gab at face value, so it is up to Kerry to prove that he has stickability, especially when floating the idea of luring tourists to the town by opening a kind of Museum of Miniatures:  both his employers have made a wonderful miniature railway and a gorgeous dollhouse (with a real diamond chandelier!) and the local Doctor spends his rare leisure hours making intricate and authentic mini soldiers for war games of famous battles.  These  games are tremendously popular among the local aficionados because the historical outcome is not always achieved, depending on who’s playing:  Sacre Bleu – Bonaparte won against Wellington last week!
            Naturally, Romance rears its pretty head for Kerry, but not in the shape of someone gorgeous, lean and lithe:  instead Sidney is a struggling solo mum with two unruly sons and a waistline that disappeared long ago – in other words, someone real.  She is also a big-hearted minder of waifs and strays, not all of whom are poor – and she doesn’t tolerate any BS, so to Win Plump Lady and prove his worth as the town’s saviour, Kerry has to grow a spine and, for the first time in his life, Stay Put and Follow Through.
            Christmas is coming, and ‘Gabriel’s Bay’ is the ideal present for a hugely entertaining Beach or Airport read -  just the fun, feel-good story to relax with during the holidays.  Catherine Robertson has done small-town New Zealand proud.  FOUR STARS. 

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Verses for the Dead, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

           Woo Hoo!   Silver-eyed, silver-haired and silver-tongued FBI special Agent Aloysius Pendergast is back, and about time, too:  it’s all very well gadding off to the Himalayas to bring back Constance, his 120 year-old (or thereabouts.  Ask me no questions;  you will just have to read the previous books) ward, for whom he has developed a great love, even though she has been despoiled by his wicked  brother Diogenes and bore him (Diogenes) a child (looked after by monks in the same Himalayan Monastery.  Oh, for goodness’ sake:  do I have to fill in the whole backstory?  Read the books!)
            Pendergast and Constance are back in New York, cosily ensconced in his Riverside Drive Mansion, when he is called to Miami on a most distressing case:  a young woman has been found dead, her heart cut out – and the same heart has been found on the gravestone of a young woman who committed suicide.  Also, Pendergast has a new boss in place of his late superior, who always allowed him free reign to employ often unconventional – and sometimes fatal – means to solve the many cases for which he is famous:  Assistant Director Pickett has no such intentions – it’s time Pendergast’s rogue behaviour and lack of discipline was curtailed.  The sooner he is exiled to a desk job in Utah, the better.
            To that end, Pendergast is given a partner of Pickett’s choosing, Agent Coldmoon, a rising, ambitious young star who will solve this awful crime and expose Pendergast for cutter-of-corners and lamentable rule-breaker that he is:  Coldmoon will report everything to Pickett;  the FBI will shine and Pendergast will be out the door. 
            But that doesn’t happen:  Three more young women are killed by the same horrible method, their hearts left on the tombs of three suicides, and it is patently clear that only Pendergast has the expertise and foresight to plumb the depths of the sick mind behind these crimes.  As always, our hero wears his usual garb in spite of the Florida humidity:  a series of black designer suits of finest wool, equipped with multiple pockets in which to secrete plastic bags of clues that he gathers at the crime scenes.  He invariably resembles a very rich undertaker.  He does change at night, though, into a white suit of finest linen, accompanied by hand-made loafers.  He is a polymath par excellence, and Coldmoon has never met anyone like Pendergast, ever;  eventually, he is so impressed with his unconventional partner that he defies his boss, offering to go to Utah too, rather than betray Pendergast. 
            And what of the killer, and who done what?  The big reveal is made in true Preston and Child fashion;   an entirely unsuspected villain is unmasked, snakes and alligators feature in large numbers, and Special Agent Pendergast, covered with gory glory (as usual) is free to return to his Constance.  Great fun!  FIVE STARS