Monday, 30 December 2019

It’s that time again …….!

When all the August Publications and Flash Mags bring out their Best of the Best lists for the year. 
So here’s mine.
Well, why not, I say!  I’ve read some pretty amazing titles this year and while I can’t list a mighty Top Twenty, I have come up with Seventeen Stunners (sorry, sorry!).  These are books that I have rated more than five stars;  it’s not easy to award six stars out of five, or even seven – so the quality of writing is stratospheric in my August Opinion.  Should you wish to read individual reviews, please use the search drop box;  for some mysterious reason I can’t provide a title link. 
The titles are in chronological order, not in order of preference.  Happy New Year, everyone, and keep reading.  As if we could ever stop!

1                   Country, by Michael Hughes
2                   The Rosie Result, by Graham Simsion
3                   November Road, by Lou Berney
4                   The Border, by Don Winslow
5                   The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, by Imogen Hermes Gowar
6                   Necessary Secrets, by Greg McGee
7                   The Hoarder, by Jess Kidd
8                   Boy Swallows Universe, by Trent Dalton
9                   The War that Saved my Life, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (Junior fiction)
10              Flight of the Fantail, by Steph Matuku (Young Adults)
11              Good Girl, Bad Girl, by Michael Robotham
12              In the Shadow of Wolves, by Alvidas Slepikas
13              Auē, by Becky Manawatu
14              Elephant secret, by Eric Walters (Junior fiction)
15              The River, by Peter Heller
16              Bridge of Clay, by Markus Zusak
17              Akin, by Emma Donoghue

Thursday, 19 December 2019

Agent Running in the Field, by John le Carré.

Nat (anglicised from Anatoly) is in the middle:  middle-aged – coming up 47 – middle-sized – a slim 5’ 10” and pretty fit – and a British spy of the middle order, running agents in the field here and there in Europe, which he usually recruits through his middling prowess on the Badminton court.  It’s relatively easy in his guise as a middle-order diplomat to invite likely recruits from other consulates or embassies for a game of badminton, thence to practice his well-honed skills of charm and persuasion (and practical rewards) to turn the likely one into a middle-order spy.
            Now he has been called permanently back to Britain, a country he hardly recognises after so many years abroad, and given charge of a minor station on its last legs, surely a blatant signal by his bosses to position him for early retirement – ‘Dear old chap, thanks SO much for your sterling efforts’  etc.  The writing is on the wall, Nat informs his stoic wife Prue, a human-rights lawyer who is also getting used to his everyday presence, having decided to stay in London to bring up their daughter Stephanie who is now raised, and rebellious with it.  Yes, his new life will take some getting used to, not least Brexit, Trump’s presidency and its effect on the ineffectual Tory government scrambling to make trade deals with America -  and the meeting with a mysterious young man who visits Nat at his athletics club especially to challenge him to a weekly game.
            Ed Shannon is vague about his occupation:  he’s in Research, but researching what is unstated;  instead he uses their matches to expound on his hatred for Putin and Trump, those arch-collaborators and anti-Christs.  He is filled with the unquenchable zeal of youth, but no-one is more surprised than Nat when a badminton foursome he arranges at Ed’s request (so that his disabled sister can have a hit or two), and Florence, a very promising agent from his office develops into something much more – and infinitely more sinister.
            As always, Mr Le Carré’s enormous gifts of credible and witty  characterisation are a pleasure all by themselves, but his sharply-focused eye on Britain’s current troubles is all-encompassing, and his view is bleak:  the ways in which the world can now be manipulated are myriad, ‘Fake News’ being the least of them:  When Nat the cynic and Ed the idealist’s views collide, the fall-out is deafening.  FIVE STARS.   

Saturday, 7 December 2019

Akin, by Emma Donoghue.

           Retired, childless scientist Noah Selvaggio is planning a trip to Southern France – Nice, specifically, the city of his birth.  His late sister has left him a bequest in her will on the condition that he go off ‘and have some fun!’, so he shall follow orders, not hard to do as he has nothing to tie him to his New York apartment.  His brilliant wife, also a scientist, died nine years ago;  his sister’s beautiful, wastrel son died of a drug overdose a couple of years previously and it’s very obvious that Noah, about to ‘celebrate’ his 80th birthday is only marking time until it is his turn to follow his family into the beyond.  Still, it will be interesting to see the South of France again;  he wonders how much of Nice he will remember, having left as a young child towards the end of World War Two.  And it will be interesting to know if his maternal Grandfather’s illustrious reputation as a photographer will still be celebrated in his birthplace. 
            Yes, now that the trip is only days away, Noah is pleased to see that he can still feel some excitement at spending his Milestone birthday in such a special place.
            Until he is called by Rosa Figueroa, a social worker (with 24 other cases in her personal workload) who informs him that his sister’s late, overdosed son had an eleven-year-old son of his own, previously cared-for by the maternal grandmother:  sadly, she has died of complications from diabetes, and Michael has no-one from his biological family to care for him.  Apart from Noah, his Great-uncle. 
And it does Noah no good to enquire after the whereabouts of Michael’s mother:  ‘she’s currently incarcerated.’  Would Noah be prepared to care for Michael until Rosa can track down Michael’s Aunt (who is who knows where) – perhaps he could take Michael to Nice, too?
            The acclaimed author of  ‘Room’ takes us all to Nice on a very bumpy ride for two people who do not want to be together;  a man at the wrong end of his life forced with zero experience to care for a child who is grieving for the absence of his mother and grandmother, the pillars of his short existence. And there is the deepening puzzle of Noah’s origins, the mystery of which ultimately creates the fragile beginnings of a relationship that, at the end of the trip, doesn’t seem so impossible after all.  This is a story of the true meaning of kinship and the unbreakable bond of family, there whether we recognise it or not.  SIX STARS.   


Sunday, 1 December 2019

A Curse so Dark and Lonely, by Brigid Kemmerer.  Young Adults

            Seventeen-year-old Cerebral Palsy sufferer Harper and her older brother Jake are in trouble in Washington DC:  their father has abandoned the family with huge debts;  their mother is a terminal cancer patient, and the people from whom their dad borrowed want their money back yesterday – with interest, the interest being Jake as enforcer and standover man to extort money out of other unfortunate debtors.  Harper is Jake’s reluctant look-out when he works as a heavy, until one night she sees a woman being attacked by a man not far from where she is hiding.  Without thinking she grabs an old tire-iron and gives the attacker a good swipe – and finds herself hoisted up and dragged away, away into an alarming parallel world that bears no relation to her own in real life, for she is transported by her abductor Commander Grey to a fairy-tale castle inhabited by a handsome prince, and no, she wasn’t dropped on her head on the way:  she is now a captive in the realm of Emberfall, and is part of a curse that lays upon the land, a curse so dark and lonely that it seems no-one can break it.
The curse has been imposed by an enchantress called Lilith, and can only be broken by true love (truly!  Sound familiar?) between the handsome Prince Rhen and whichever young woman Commander Grey manages to purloin from the other side:  so far, results have been very sketchy, especially as Rhen turns into a monster every month and lays waste to anything that moves, including most of his subjects and all of the castle inhabitants, including the royal family.  Commander Grey is still alive because he’s a fast mover.  Believe it or not.
 And, needless to say, the arrival of Harper with her palsied leg does not inspire Prince Rhen toward any affectionate feelings – until Harper (after she has accepted her impossible circumstances) shows an aptitude for strategy, planning and tactics that are an unexpected and refreshing change from the norm:  handicapped Harper from DC becomes Princess Harper of Disi, a powerful and entirely fictitious ally of Emberfall, and there to promise Disi’s thousands of fictional troops to save the country’s inhabitants from a hostile Queen’s border attacks, the evil enchantress, and the monster, who is scheduled to make his dreaded appearance soon.
This is a great blend of fantasy, fairy tale and hard lessons in the Big City, and Ms Kemmerer leaves so many questions hanging that she must have Book Two underway.  Well, I hope so:  - what about Commander Grey, eh?  What’s happening with him?!  FOUR STARS.