Friday, 29 May 2020

Grown Ups, by Marian Keyes.

            Millions of Marian Keyes fans will heave a sigh of pleasure at the appearance of her latest book.   True to form, it follows the fortunes of yet another Irish family, the three Casey brothers, over the course of six months.  As we all know, a lot (good and bad) can happen in such a short time, and Keyes fans can settle back and prepare for the tragicomic read that Ms Keyes is so good at:  strong, credible characters;  lots of slap and tickle, and plenty of wonderful Irish craic.  What more could we ask for from the Queen of Chick Lit?  Except that this time, not all the boxes are ticked.
            It is Johnny Casey’s 49th birthday party.  Wife Jessie has pulled out all the stops to prepare (catered) a five-star spread, inviting his brothers Ed and Liam and their families, and all appears to be proceeding satisfactorily – until Ed’s wife Cara, suffering from delayed concussion from an earlier ‘incident’, decides to reveal family secrets that will profit none of them to know.  ‘Loose Lips Sink Ships’ could not be more apt as the Casey Family Ship starts listing terribly under the weight of the revelations:  Johnny has a separate secret bank account that struggling businesswoman Jessie is unaware of – and it appears he has been having an affair with an ex-family-friend;  youngest brother Liam, (still forty, though!) recently married for the second time to considerably younger theatre set-designer Nell (whom all the family children adore) bonked a teenage friend of Jessie’s daughter on their Tuscan holiday;  Cara, a Bulimia sufferer who told everyone she was cured, was caught in the act of bingeing – by Nell and Ferdia, Jessie’s eldest son (but still nine years younger than Nell) who can’t keep their hands off each other.
            What a party!  What a Rage!  What a mess.
            Ms Keyes works hard to bring us all up to speed with the plot details and how all these lamentable situations developed, but halfway through this mighty tome (upwards of 640 pages) the action slows to a pace that snails would breeze past – which is a great shame, for at her best Marian Keyes is a hugely entertaining writer who can combine with great empathy the highs and lows of our frenetic modern existence:  in this story she has thrown too many balls in the air without being able to catch them all.  FOUR STARS.  (Because she’s Marian Keyes).    

Friday, 22 May 2020

Nothing to See Here, by Kevin Wilson. 

           Lilian Breaker has not made a success of her life to date, after being expelled as a formerly promising Scholarship teenager from a prestigious Tennessee prep school for taking the fall for her very rich room-mate.  Lilian’s mother’s silence was bought with a big pile of money – not that Lilian saw any of it, but strangely enough, she is still in contact many years later with rich room-mate Madison, who is now married to Jasper Roberts, fabulously rich Senator for Tennessee, and aspirant for the soon-to-be-vacant position of secretary of state.  Madison’s future is golden but, being kind as well as breathtakingly beautiful (Lilian is not), she thinks of Lilian often and to that end, has a position at the Roberts estate that might interest her:  would she like to be Governess (‘like a Nanny?’ says Lilian, but no, a Governess is much more high-end, she is informed), to twin children, a 10 year-old boy and  girl  from Senator Robert’s first marriage.  Their mother is dead and there is no one currently to care for them –Stepmother Madison can’t;  her life is much too busy, especially as she has produced son Timothy – who goes to day-care and has an unusual obsession with stuffed toys. 
‘Come and meet Bessie and Roland, Lil, see what you think’.
            Okay, then.
            Lilian has never been able to resist the siren call of her best and only friend and reluctantly embarks on the weirdest adventure of her life so far, as she discovers that Bessie and Roland are Madison and Jasper’s shameful secret, a secret that would destroy Jasper’s political aspirations permanently if it were revealed. 
For Bessie and Roland ignite.
            Yes, they internally combust.  If they get upset, angry or frightened they start to burn, real flames that don’t harm them, but play havoc with the furniture, not to mention creating unnecessary attention from the fire department:  they must be kept the absolute opposite of upset, and Lilian is just the person for the job. 
            Kevin Wilson has produced a fantasy for the bizarre times in which we live.  All his characters, especially the heroic Lilian, are larger than life, as they must be to convince the reader to believe.  His story is hugely funny but the humour leavens the difficulty of trying to keep a family together these days – especially a new one.
            Yep, nothing to see here guys, unless you turn the pages.  This is a great book.  SIX STARS.  

Saturday, 18 April 2020

American Dirt, by Jeanine Cummins.

            Lydia owns a bookshop in Acapulco, a city in Mexico that was formerly a tourist paradise, until the cartels started moving in;  now people are frightened of what their city has become, especially after bodiless heads starting appearing in random suburbs, their mouths stuffed with notes saying ‘They talked’.
            Still, life goes on and Lydia’s family has come together to celebrate her niece’s 15th birthday, her quinceañera;  it’s a bright and happy day and Lydia and her son Luca are in the bathroom when the shooting starts:  when it has stopped, all sixteen of her family members have been massacred and the cartel gunmen are looking through the house for survivors – they are expressly looking for her and her son.  For Lydia’s husband Sebastián is a reporter who is fearlessly outspoken about the cartels and the evil with which they are polluting society, and he has just written a damning article about the local cartel boss Javier ‘La Lechuza’ (The Owl) – who is also a devotee of Lydia’s bookstore:  today is pay-back time for the bad press.
            Miraculously, mother and son are undiscovered in the bathroom, but are forced to listen to the assassins help themselves to the barbecue her beloved husband was cooking when he died;  it seems an eternity before they can emerge and call police who, as everyone knows are entirely ineffectual:  Lydia knows there will be no justice;  she also knows that she is ‘unfinished business’ for Javier and his sicarios;  they won’t stop until she and Luca are both dead.  The Owl’s vengeance and reach are terrifying.
            Unless she starts running.  Running to El Norte, the USA – surely his influence doesn’t reach that far – yet?  Lydia cannot stop to reflect for any length of time on the rightness of her decision to flee:  she has no choice, and there begins a nightmare journey where death pursues them every step of the way.  Lydia is forced to make snap decisions, trust people she has never met before, but regard everyone new as a potential enemy, including a cocky teenage gang member who has a knack of eventually appearing wherever she goes.  This reader, too, travelled every step of the way with her:  I covered my eyes when she and Luca leapt off a bridge to board ‘La Bestia’ The Beast, the freight train that all migrants fleeing homeland brutality must board to take them further North;  I shuddered at the cruelty inflicted upon them because of their vulnerability, and marvelled at the spontaneous kindness and care that desperate people can still show each other.
            Ms Cummins has produced a tour de force, a masterwork of contemporary American fiction that reads like a thriller, yet explores every human emotion.  ‘She sticks her hand through the fence and wiggles her fingers on the other side.  Her fingers are in El Norte.  She spits through the fence.  Only to leave a piece of herself there on American dirt.’  SIX STARS.

Saturday, 28 March 2020

Peace, by Garry Disher.

            ‘All a cop wants at Christmas, thinks Constable Paul Hirschhausen (Hirsch, please) is not Heavenly Peace, just a general absence of mayhem’.  And fair enough, too.  Hirsch was a detective in a former life – and a previous book, which naturally I haven’t read.  (Where have I been all my life?)  He exposed crookedness and graft in the South Australian Police force, but is regarded as a nark by his colleagues, and instead of being rewarded for his honesty, has been demoted to country constable, patrolling tiny towns and remote farms.  It’s not what he was trained for, but he’ll do his best regardless, and after a year based in Tiverton, Christmas has rolled around again - he hasn’t exactly hit his stride, but he is being seen as less of an outsider and more of a fixture – he hopes.
            Criminal acts are pretty minor by big city standards;  the usual domestics, drunks and thefts – until several of the miniature show ponies of one of the locals are carved up and left to die in their paddock.  As if cruelty to animals weren’t horrific enough, a woman visiting the weekly Doctor’s clinic left her little daughter in her car in stifling summer heat:  it was touch-and-go for a time as Hirsch fought to free the child from the car, only to have the subsequent battle with the mum uploaded to YouTube – publicity he doesn’t need, being already in bad odour with his superiors.  He just can’t catch a break and, true to form, when you’re sure that things can’t get worse, they invariably do.
            The neglectful mother is found murdered, along with her teenage son (‘No, no, constable, I only have one child!’);  her little daughter has disappeared, along with an older daughter that no-one knew about, necessitating an influx of the top brass from Adelaide – and Sydney, even, and it goes without saying that these luminaries treat constable Hirschhausen as the yokel he deserves to be – but he was a good detective, and the demotion hasn’t deprived him of his skills.  He can still mix it with the big boys, and does so with aplomb.
            Mr Disher is SUCH an entertainer!  He paints great word-portraits of small-town Australian life;  the huge, empty, dried-out landscape, and the hardiness and humour of the classic Aussie battler.  In prose stark, shocking and familiar to us all on this side of the Tasman, he introduces us to characters that we could recognise anywhere in Oz or EnZed:  we are cuzzies, after all.  And happy to be so.  FIVE STARS.  

Sunday, 22 March 2020

A Heart so Fierce and Broken, by Brigid Kemmerer.  Young Adults

            This is the sequel to ‘A Curse so Dark and Lonely’, Ms Kemmerer’s epic retelling of the Sleeping Beauty legend (search drop box), but with a great contemporary twist – that of introducing protagonists from our modern world into the parallel kingdom of Emberfall, there to break the curse set by evil enchantress Lilith that turns Crown Prince Rhen into a murdering monster:  well, in  the best of fairytale traditions, true love in the shape of Harper rescues him from the curse, his kingdom is freed, and everyone should live happily ever after.  Except that they don’t.
            Rhen has inherited a kingdom in ruins after constant warfare;  his subjects are starving, and there are rumours that he is not the rightful Heir:  there is an older half-brother whose mother could practice magic, and no matter how hard Rhen’s troops try to quell the gossip it still persists.  The only high point in his life is his love for Harper, so-called Princess of Disi, who has supposedly promised thousands of troops from her country:  Washington, DC?  If his subjects find out about that, it will be the end of his reign – and of him.
            Enter Commander Grey, formerly his most loyal and trusted servant:  Grey has discovered that he and Prince Rhen are indeed brothers, but he decides the best thing to do is to leave Emberfall and take up another identity;  he doesn’t want the crown under any circumstances and the less people know about him, the better.  Naturally, life is not like that, particularly in fairy tales:  he is captured, cruelly flogged by Rhen’s men, eventually escapes thanks to trusted friends, but is forced into an alliance with Karis Luran, queen of Syhl Shallow, Rhen’s sworn enemy:  she will back him with troops and weapons, everything he needs for military success, if he will vanquish Rhen’s army with his nascent magical powers – powers he wasn’t aware that he had until he was flogged by Rhen’s order.  Grey is in between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.  And to complicate life even further, he begins to fall in love with Lia Mara, Karis Luran’s daughter, a girl as good as her mother is evil:  his life is starting to slip beyond his famous discipline and control.
            Ms Kemmerer has us all by the scruff of the neck, and won’t let go:  I was turning pages at a furious rate, and was even more frustrated when I reached the end and found that an arch-villain, thought dead, is still stirring up lethal trouble.  It’s going to take aaaaages for the next instalment to appear, and in Trump’s  America, anything could happen in that time.  I hope it doesn’t!  FIVE STARS.


Sunday, 15 March 2020

Half a World Away, by Mike Gayle.

           Most times it makes me cringe to read that a novel is ‘heartwarming’.  Such a description usually means it’s heavy on the romance and pathos, and light on real-life situations to which the reader can relate, so I approached Mr Gayle’s novel with the necessary caution – and am happy to say that this story does indeed deserve to be called ‘heartwarming’ in the very best sense, and another praiseworthy adjective:   unputdownable.
             Kerry Hays writes to her little brother Jason:  they were both put into care when their mother disappeared;  Kerry was ten and Jason was eighteen months old.  She hasn’t seen him since, her beautiful little coloured brother (same mum, different dads) whom she loves to distraction, but she writes to him regularly, even though she is not allowed to know where he is:  he has to contact her.  Which is a bit hard as he doesn’t know she exists, and the authorities don’t have to inform him.  Still, Kerry believes that one day they will make contact again;  she has much to tell him as the years go by, including the fact that, in her thirties, she became a mother herself, an event that thrills her to the marrow:  she finally had her wish to love and care always for a vulnerable little being that is hers alone, a feeling she hasn’t experienced since she was everything to Jason that her mother wasn’t.  Kian’s dad is a space-waster, but Kerry doesn’t care.  They don’t need him!
            Kerry and her son are managing adequately;  they have a small flat on a semi-tough housing estate;  she cleans posh houses for a living and has a reliable income:  Jason by contrast has been adopted into a wealthy family who, having already had their children thought it only right that they give a needy little someone the opportunity to shine and be loved by them.  Jason is now Noah Martineau, a Barrister with a beautiful home in London’s Primrose Hill and a family to match, a fact that makes Kerry burst with pride when she eventually makes contact with him, the only problem being that he has never been interested in his origins;  he’d much rather face the present and speculate about the future, much to his wife’s exasperation:  in fact his refusal to face up to his past has induced her to kick him out, which means that he is not receptive to a stranger turning up professing to be his half-sister.
            Mr Gayle tells the poignant story of Noah and Kerry’s new relationship with humour and grace as they both traverse the strata of British society:  racism as everywhere in the world,  constantly rears its ugly head, but it doesn’t stop old love from being remembered, nor new, loving relationships from being forged, even in the face of tragedy.  FIVE STARS.        

Sunday, 8 March 2020

The Overstory, by Richard Powers.

           The 2019 Pulitzer Prize, America’s most prestigious literary award, has been deservedly given to Mr Powers for his towering and beautiful paean of praise for that which we take so much, to our peril, for granted:  the tree.
            Written as a novel, it still abounds with incontrovertible facts, especially as to what will happen to our earth when the human race has finally denuded our wonderful, nurturing planet of all the forests and their ecosystems: we will be breathless, airless – and non-existent, but still homo sapiens rushes to its destruction, for clearing trees means clearing land, means cities built, means crops farmed for increasing populations, means money, money, money, now our only God.
            Mr Powers introduces us to nine disparate characters who connect, sometimes intimately, to tell his wonderful story:  Nicholas Hoel, artist and sculptor;  Mimi Ma, Chinese-American engineer;  Vietnam veteran Douglas Pavlicek;  Dr. Patricia Westford, Botanist and Dendrologist;  Neelay Mehta, wheelchair-bound Silicone valley Gamer King;  Olivia Vandergriff, college student on the verge of attaining her degree in Actuarial Science;  Adam Appich, student psychologist;  and Ray and Dorothy Brinkman, a prosperous but unhappy childless couple.
            Not all these people will meet, though five of them link up in protest at the denuding of American redwood forests in the ‘90’s and join groups which are successful – initially – at stopping Redwood destruction in Northern California.  They are so delighted with small victories that they name themselves after their favourite trees:  Mulberry, Doug.Fir, Maple, MaidenHair, Watchman - and Maidenhair/Olivia and Nicholas/Watchman actually stop the felling of an enormous thousand year old wonder with its own name (Mimas) for nearly a year by camping on a platform in its upper branches – until the money men send in a helicopter to knock them out of the air while the cutting machines assemble at Mimas’s base.  The tree is doomed, and so is the protest.
            And further desperate, illegal protests end in tragedy and eventual betrayal, with one of their number tricked into confessing to a crime for which they all were guilty:  he receives not one, but TWO life sentences for domestic terrorism.  From eco-Warrior to domestic terrorist – so much for youthful idealism.  And did their efforts, puny as they seemed, make any difference to the fate of the most giving things on earth?  To trees, ‘our link between earth and sky'?  We must hope and pray so - to a deity other than the Money God.
Every person who cares about our planet should read this book.  SEVEN SERIOUS STARS!    

Sunday, 1 March 2020

The Butterfly Girl, by Rene Denfeld.

          I have never forgotten a book by the above author that I read six years ago, called ‘The Enchanted’, an astonishing story about a prisoner on Death Row, and how he got there.  It was horrifying, heart-breaking and ultimately uplifting, a story of the emotional and spiritual vandalism perpetrated upon the most vulnerable, and what turns a child into a killer:  now, Rene Denfeld has produced another searing exposé of the careless ignorance and cruelty that permeates our society, and the few – too few – good people who try to make a difference.  And she knows whereof she speaks, as a journalist, investigator and foster-mother.  She writes from  experience.
            Celia is a 12 year old street kid in Portland, Oregon.  She sleeps under a freeway on-ramp with two other boys, panhandling and turning the occasional trick to get money.  (Not much).  She left home because her mother has become a heroin addict thanks to her new husband, who introduced her to the habit so that he could move in on Celia:  when Celia reported him to the authorities she was called a liar, so she ran away and joined the homeless kids on Skid Row, but her only regret is that she left her little sister behind;  Celia knows that Alyssa will eventually meet the same fate.  She is only six. 
Celia has a single fantasy that sustains her:  her love for the grace and beauty of butterflies, instilled within her when she was very small by her mother when times were different:  Celia stays in the local library for hours reading about the gorgeous winged creatures, and when life is particularly ugly, she can lose herself in butterfly dreams.  It’s the only way to survive.
Naomi is an Investigator of missing children, and has had some success in her searches – but she cannot find her own sister, left behind as a toddler when Naomi herself escaped from captivity in a bunker when she was nine years old:  her failure to track Sarah down eats at her soul, for she promised that she would return, return to rescue her – and she hasn’t.  But she still tries, still relentlessly goes over all the old clues – and meets Celia, the Butterly Girl.
Ms Denfeld weaves a masterful spell over the reader as she takes us to the story’s end at a thriller pace;  her characters are all too tragically real, as the vulnerable always are, but hope is there too, thanks to good people like Ms Denfeld:  she puts her money where her mouth is!  SIX STARS. 

Saturday, 22 February 2020

Down the River Unto the Sea, by Walter Mosley.

           Walter Mosley has a huge body of work to his name and, as always, I have been shamefully ignorant of his accomplishments until now:  his stand-alone novel featuring brilliant, world-weary and jaded Afro/American Private Investigator Joe King Oliver follows all the rules of classic crime fiction as laid down by Dashiel Hammett, Raymond Chandler et al, but lends a 21st century perspective to crimes and corruption as old as civilisation itself.
            Joe wasn’t always a PI;  he used to be a hot-shot, ambitious Detective in the New York Police Department, until he was mercilessly framed by anonymous colleagues:  he was unwittingly getting too close to some of their horrifying scams and he needed to be removed from the scene.  This involved luring Joe into the embrace of a beautiful, supposedly wronged woman whom he was sent to arrest and he was videoed by hidden cameras used to provide ‘evidence’ when she screamed RAPE.  He was incarcerated for several months in the infamous Rikers prison;  his wife could have bailed him out, but was shown the ‘rape’ video by colleagues supposedly meant to be his friends;  now his marriage is in ruins;  he is irreparably damaged by his time in Rikers, not to mention physically scarred and, if it hadn’t been for one of his old work mates who set him up as a PI, he would be on the streets:  his life is one big grudge – except for the existence of his teenage daughter, literally the light of his life.
            She works for him after school as his receptionist and one afternoon ushers in a young woman on a mission:  Willa is a lawyer who has recently been working for attorney Stuart Braun, who has been crusading with great fanfare to free black radical activist Leonard Compton.  Compton killed two police officers he said were drugging and trafficking young, poor women and he is now on Death Row, but Braun’s zeal and enthusiasm to appeal for justice seems to have waned:  he is no longer interested in the case.  Could Joe read through the files she has brought and consider finding out what happened to make Braun lose interest?
            And Joe does, embarking on a dangerous, almost fatal journey to dig through layers of corruption so thick he thinks he’ll never reach the bottom – until he does, starts to ascend and realises that he’s climbing into the heights of wealth, gentility – and power. 
            Mr Mosley’s story is well-constructed, smart, funny and peopled with great characters, including a spectacularly evil man who is thoroughly engaging and charges Joe a dollar for all the mayhem he alone can create (he owes Joe a favour from long ago).  For lovers of Crime Noir (and there are so many of us) he cain’t be beat!  FIVE STARS.      

Monday, 10 February 2020

Silver, by Chris Hammer.

           Chris Hammer’s second crime novel is a sequel to ‘Scrublands’, his epic, page-turning tale of drought, bush fires and murder in a remote little town in Australia’s New South Wales (reviewed January 2019):  now he follows it up with ‘Silver’, a sequel blessed with all the elements that made ‘Scrublands’ so successful – strong characters, marvellous evocations of time and place, and shrewd journalistic assessments of Australian reaction to foreign investment on a federal and local government level.
            Sacked journo Martin Scarsden is once again the main protagonist;  he is joining his new love, Mandy Blonde and her baby son Liam in Port Silver on the NSW coast.  Mandy has inherited a large property there and she thinks it’s the perfect place for a new start for them all – time to put the horrific events of the past year in their proper place:  behind them.  The only problem is that Martin hasn’t been completely honest with Mandy:  unbeknownst to her, he was born in Port Silver and when he was eight, suffered the terrible loss of his mother and twin sisters in an accident;  then he had to watch his father drink himself to death.  The day Martin left Port Silver was the happiest day of his life, and he doesn’t know how he will settle back into normal living (doing what?  He is no longer a journalist) when he has so many ghosts to haunt him.
            Their new life is off to a very shaky start, he thinks – until he calls round to the townhouse Mandy has rented, only to find her with hands bloodied, shaking with terror, and a stabbed and dying man stretched out in her hallway.  To make a horrendous situation even worse, Martin recognises the victim as that of his old school friend Jasper Speight who, presumably, had called round particularly to see Martin:  he had damning evidence of local corruption and wanted Martin to investigate.  Now he is dead and Mandy, of all people, is a suspect.  The situation could not get any worse, thinks Martin, and God hears that and laughs.
            Mr Hammer has written a big novel – some 560 pages – and it’s chock-full of minor characters and situations, a lot of which feels like unnecessary padding:  there are more murders and even more suspects:  when the final unveiling is flourished I have to say that it’s almost an anti-climax.  It’s true that I never suspected whodunnit, but I nearly drowned with all the red herrings.  Having said that, ‘Silver’ is still a fine, suspenseful read.  (You just have to have strong wrists!)  FOUR STARS. 

Saturday, 1 February 2020

The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood.

            It has been thirty five years since Margaret Atwood’s brilliant Dystopian novel ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ was published, a tiresomely lengthy time for her myriad fans to wait for answers to What Happened Next to the Handmaid Offred and her precious children:  now, our curiosity has been satisfied by Ms Atwood at her most sublime:  ‘The Testaments’ has it all - a gripping plot, magnificent characters, and a heroine who was forced into villainy but redeems herself utterly:  Vengeance, Thy Name is …..  nope, no spoilers in THIS blog!
            This book was worth waiting 35 years for, especially after the wonderful TV series. It centres on Offred’s daughters – Agnes Jemima, who started life in freedom as Hannah before a calamitous Civil War transformed the United States into Gilead, and Baby Nicole, Offred’s child of bondage in the new totalitarian society, planned to be given to ‘pretend’ parents, Fred and Serena Waterford to raise. 
Agnes remains in unhappy thrall to her Gilead parents;  her loving first ‘mother’ Tabitha has died and her ‘father’ Commander Kyle wastes no time in taking another wife, who wants Agnes out of the house, and the best way to achieve that is – marriage.  Marriage to the elderly but immensely powerful Commander Judd, who enjoys a worrying propensity for very young wives, all of whom eventually become sickly and die.
            Agnes’s fate appears to be sealed, until in desperation she applies to Aunt Lydia, one of the Founders, to be an Aunt, a so-called guardian of the various classes of women in Giladean society.  It is not an ideal fate;  she will never have children, the sacred destiny of all Gilead women, but at least she will still be alive.
            By contrast, her unknown little sister Baby Nicole has been abducted from her pious family and spirited off to Canada, where she becomes Daisy and grows up with foster parents, unaware of her origins and in an atmosphere of freedom unimaginable to any Gilead inhabitant – until her foster parents are cruelly murdered by those over the border who have never stopped looking for Baby Nicole.  It’s time for Daisy to grow up, and return to Gilead – not as Baby Nicole but as Jade, a homeless street kid who wants God in her life:  she has had a crash course as a spy and is expected to bring back vital information from an important inside source to American revolutionary groups in Canada – if she can pull it off.
            Ms Atwood pulls it off in spades.  This is an astonishing, masterly sequel to her most famous and beloved novel, and is a fitting testament to today’s 21st century ‘democracy’.  SIX STARS.  


Saturday, 18 January 2020

Masters and Mages Trilogy

Masters and Mages Trilogy
Cold Iron,
Dark Forge
Bright Steel

            Miles Cameron is not an author I am familiar with, but he has a vast body of fantasy work, according to the fly-leaves of his books, that I have never heard of, so where have I been all my literary life?  Well, never mind – I have soldiered through this mighty trilogy, and lived to tell the tale.
            I have to say that I spent a fair bit of the first book trying to square Mr Cameron’s parallel fantasy world with the helpful map he provided in ‘Cold Iron’ (which is the name of a secret society of spies bent on saving the known world from destruction), with our European world in Medieval times (I have to know these things!), and have cleverly deduced that the action takes place around the Mediterranean, between Greece and Turkey, where lowly farm boy  Aranthur Timos is a scholarship student at the prestigious Studion in the great city of Megara.  He is reminded often of his lack of status by the other students but manages to survive because he is resourceful, naturally gifted with magic powers (which is why he is at the school) and a clever swordsman – he even spent his rent money on a mysterious old sword that he purchased at the market, never dreaming that it would save his life more than once - because it can talk. 
            And in return for becoming his arm of fire, the sword wants a favour, too:  to be freed from its metal prison, so that it once again may become a mighty Paladin. 
            Oh, there’s something for everyone here!  From Aranthur’s reluctant initiation into Cold Iron, to his blooding as a warrior in the war against The Pure, the terrifying hierarchy of powerful Mages so determined to control universal power that they manage to split the sky asunder, making a Dark Forge that grows bigger every day.  It is up to Aranthur and his loyal band of friends (and a supernatural lover) to defeat these ghouls so that the world can survive – all very well, thinks Aranthur as he wields Bright Steel, but he loathes killing, and he must do much of it on his reluctant path to be a Lightbringer, a Magos powered for good.

            Mr Cameron has a mighty imagination and a tremendous gift for writing thrilling, heart-stopping prose.  Poor old Aranthur is under attack on every second page, but as this is fantasy he wins each encounter – sometimes by the skin of his teeth, but he’s the larger-than-life hero, so it’s only fitting, and his mates deserve a special mention, too – a more motley band couldn’t be found anywhere else.  And there’s even a Chinese Dragon on the side of the good guys:  what more could one want!  FIVE STARS    


Sunday, 5 January 2020

The Last to See Me, by M. Dressler.

          This is a big story packed into a little volume.  Ms Dressler is writing a series entitled ‘The Last Ghost’, and Book One contains only 264 pages, but enough action to fill a book twice the size:  narrator Emma Rose Finnis is a very busy spirit!
            She died more than 100 years ago, and haunts a stately old home in a small tourist village in Northern California.  Benito used to be a timber town until the trees were all felled and the mills closed;  now, it bolsters its faltering economy by promoting itself as a charming tourist destination, a restful and scenic coastal break from San Francisco to the South.  The mansion Emma ‘occupies’ was the home of the Lambry family, the original timber barons and uncrowned royalty of the area;  now old Alice Lambry has died and her distant heirs, who have no interest in the property, want the place sold.
            So far, there has been scant interest – until local agent, ‘timid little Ellen DeWight’ (Emma likes her and hasn’t tried to scare her silly – yet.) brings Mr and Mrs Dane to visit.  He is a rich developer, interested only in the land and the house’s position;  his wife wants to gut the place, removing all the wonderful architectural features that make the property a treasure, but their whispered plans in the butler’s pantry enrage Emma so much that she locks them in, turns off the lights and starts filling the pantry with water.  There.  That will teach them a lesson!
            And it does.  They are almost in a state of collapse (Mrs Dane wet herself!), but Emma reckons without Mr Dane’s zeal and determination to close the deal:  he wants that property now more than ever, and hires a ‘ghost cleaner’, the very best, to get rid of her.
            Emma had this reader in an iron and ghostly grip as she recounts her tactics to outwit Philip Pratt, the man who states that he was born to eradicate ghosts, shades and phantoms.  He is absolutely committed to hunting down and sending Emma off to the local graveyard, where she rightly belongs:  she, naturally (or not) resists with all her supernatural might, and as the story progresses we learn the sad circumstances of Emma’s eighteen years of life, and her efforts to remain what she has always striven to be – a free spirit.
            Ms Dressler has given us a beautifully written, tightly plotted introduction to her series.  I could say I’m dying to read Book Two, but that doesn’t sound right – I’ll look forward to it, instead!  FIVE STARS