Bugging Miss Benson!

15th January 2021 (15:15)

I confess that I was prevailed upon to read “Miss Benson’s Beetle” by my wife (having read the book, she felt an urgent need to discuss it with someone and the restrictions of COVID ‘lockdown’ conferred the privilege on me. Hence the formation of a rather bijou book club for two). However, it proved to be rather fun! This was also my introduction to the work of Rachel Joyce, though the author has ‘bestseller’ credentials and this latest novel has the hallmarks of an accomplished storyteller.

The Coleoptera referred to in the title is the Golden Beetle of New Caledonia, which, in 1914, ten year-old Marjorie Benson studied with her father in his rectory study, while her older brothers were away fighting in France. Together they imagined how it would be to discover this incredible creature and bring the first specimen home, for scientific validation. Such an expedition was the stuff of dreams. However, real life intervened harshly for Miss Benson and aged 46, she was instead washed up on the shores of a hopeless teaching career, acutely aware that her capacity for adventure was running out. Still, what had been sustained through her intervening passage into adulthood was an enduring fascination with beetles and her passion re-ignited, an expedition to the French archipelago is belatedly and hurriedly planned.

Clearly, the limited life experience of the doughty Miss Benson will be one barrier among many, but despite Marjorie’s misgivings, her self-appointed, flamboyantly attractive companion (Enid Pretty) becomes the equivalent of a latter day Passepartout. Certainly Enid and her more worldly perspective provides a crucial counterweight to her earnest employer, but she also injects comic relief within a sometimes tense journey towards Miss Benson’s overdue date with destiny.

Set mainly in the 1950s, the plot follows the intrepid duo’s travelling obstacle course and challenges, compounded by sexist attitudes commonly held at that time. However, the author also ridicules the imperialist assumptions of the Brits encountered abroad and lampoons the civilising influence of such a nation of stereotypical eccentrics (Miss Benson leaves her native shores in a pith helmet). Indeed, the dated images successfully created by the narrative, at times felt like a Pathé newsreel brought to life. This is by no means a criticism, but it does apply a gloss to the story, which knowingly underplays some of the attendant struggles encountered by the two main characters. Yet, what is most gratifying is the burgeoning relationship between Miss Benson and Ms Pretty, forged by circumstances that ultimately erase their obvious differences in favour of their collective and considerable strengths.

I think it would be fair to suggest that whilst not labelling this book as ‘chick lit’, my fellow reader’s appreciation was more lavish, but as the book demonstrates, life demands ‘different strokes for different folks’. An entertaining, light read for all!

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The Narrowest Margin

27th December 2020 (22:35)

“I know that my life’s mission would always take me to places where the truth that I might find would be an ugly and horrible thing.” Harry Bosch

The return of ‘The Poet’ (former FBI agent and serial killer, Robert Bachus) is a potential embarrassment for the bureau, having presumed his demise and demands the recall of Agent Rachel Walling from her four year exile in Dakota. The killer’s calling card is unmistakable, however, another trail of victims may also offer his former colleague a means of redemption.

Meanwhile, another former Special Agent has died. Terry McCaleb (key character in “Blood Work” and “A Darkness More Than Night”), he of the heart transplant, passed away on his boat, while out on a charter. But, based on her husband’s recognition of an investigator that never gives up, McCaleb’s widow (Graciela) engages Harry Bosch to look into the circumstances of his death. Thus, the hares are set running on another thrilling, trademark plot, teeming with intrigue, suspense and dark threat. Walling also recognizes Bosch’s worth to the investigation, but will need to get over their personal history and the FBI’s mistrust of outsiders, if she is to harness the private investigator’s know-how. Even in death, Terry McCaleb is the bridge.

What I relish about the author’s ongoing exposition of Harry Bosch is the multi-faceted nature of the character. Notwithstanding his maverick tendencies, and the prominence of his self-imposed ‘mission’, the detective continues to be buffeted by life outside of his dark bubble, presenting choices to challenge his resolve. For example, his burgeoning role as a belated father and his complicated relationship with estranged wife, Eleanor Wish (also a former FBI agent) are clearly important to Bosch, made easier by his current ‘free agent’ status. A permanent move to Las Vegas to be near them is a prospect. Yet, his identity has suffered since leaving the LAPD and when former partner (Kiz Rider) signposts the recruitment of recent retirees back onto the force, the reader just knows the temptation will be great. Once a cop…

Rachel Walling also possesses ingrained instincts and has a hunch Bosch may just get to their quarry first, but with her career already in tatters, to collaborate with Bosch is a serious gamble.

The titular ‘narrows’ refer to man-made protective channels designed to sluice flood water to the sea, preventing damage and helping manage the risk. They also provide an interesting metaphor for the bulwarks of criminal justice and public protection and the solidity that is Harry Bosch. Book 10 in the series is another masterful display of Michael Connelly’s skill as a writer and bears testament to the enduring appeal of the author’s storytelling in this very popular genre. 

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Sublime Though Rampant Execution…

Saturday 26th December 2020 (17:25)

‘Now a major motion picture’ is not necessarily an endorsement of an original novel, even when the movie has enjoyed international acclaim, but “The Hunger Games”, first in a book trilogy, is equal to the hype. Technically, this novel is almost surgically dissected into three equal parts (beginning, middle and end) and is set in Panem (formerly North America), where, following a civil insurrection, the Capitol has enslaved the surviving twelve districts. Moreover, as an ongoing reprisal for the uprising, ‘tributes’ are periodically taken from each district in the guise of one boy and one girl, aged 12-18, to fight to the death in the arena of the Hunger Games. 

Clearly the concept is barbaric, made more shocking by the youthful combatants and the fact that the carnage is televised like episodes of “I’m a celebrity…”, only with weapons. Still, at the same time it is fascinating, in spite of the implied voyeuristic sadism. That this dystopian novel, reflecting a post-apocalyptic America, is pitched at young adults, might also appear surprising. Yet, from District 12, the poorest region and reliant on its coal production, the author provides the reader with a true diamond among modern heroines, Catniss Everdeen, whose sixteen year old voice carries the story.

From the drama of ‘the reaping’ (the district lottery to determine the identity of the tributes), to the sacrificial whittling down of the twenty four in the purpose-built arena and the ultimate triumph of survival, the tension and attendant violence is overlaid by the macro politics at play and the love and key relationships that drive the main protagonist. There is also a cast of sympathetic characters enmeshed in the fabric of this epic tale, some of whom will doubtless reappear later in the trilogy.

The world-building is exceptional, the plot superbly paced and the denouement expertly delivered, such that the reader is compelled to hanker for the sequel. In short this book is a masterclass in the YA genre from conceptualisation, to character development, to the almost faultless execution of the storytelling. Notwithstanding the contentious nature of her creation (the book has been repeatedly challenged as ‘dangerous’), in my opinion, Suzanne Collins is rightly lauded for her achievement.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Killing the Dream…

13th December 2020 (13:18)

I was drawn to this book due in part to the setting (Northern Ireland during ‘the Troubles’), with which I’m quite familiar and the ambition implied by using as the main backdrop to the novel, 21st July 1972 – ‘Bloody Friday’. For those unfamiliar, this was the name given to a series of bombings in Belfast perpetrated by the Provisional Irish Republican Army. At least twenty bombs exploded in the space of eighty minutes, culminating in 9 deaths and 130 casualties (the even more notorious ‘Bloody Sunday’ occurred in January of the same year). Yet, within this real-life sectarian horror, David Hough has founded an intriguing story replete with love, guilt, violent anger, regret and potential redemption.

Sorcha Mulveny is imprisoned in Armagh gaol for murders committed during that turbulent period, but the narrator of the book is an anonymous journalist seeking to piece together the sequence of events leading up to her original trial. The intervening eight years might offer the benefit of hindsight, but as he discovers the legacy of physical and mental scarring is long-lived and remains all too real. Everyone it seems is carrying baggage.

The journalistic endeavour, which will inform a non-fiction book, takes place over months and is a useful device with which to synthesize the multiple perspectives reflecting on that fateful day. The terrorists, the terrorized and the police, seeking to marshal the factions and uphold a common law, are represented through serial interviews with Sorcha, her protestant boyfriend (Martin) and a former detective sergeant (Will Evans). Their respective recollections are painstakingly pieced together, enabling a satisfying overview that the reader can stand back and admire. In a sense, the author methodically assembles the pieces of a complex jigsaw and fits them together for a fascinating slow reveal. Each of the key characters explain, through their disparate experiences, how they were personally affected, but inevitably it is where their networks overlap and spheres of influence collide that the drama arises.

This novel offers a sobering, fictional commentary on the catastrophe of communities at war and the many victims of the attendant crossfire. On a more philosophical note the author also calls into question the price of ‘belonging’ and the irrational choices sometimes made in the name of ‘loyalty’. A cleverly constructed moral maze, which challenges the reader, but also suggests the possibility of a different, better outcome, this book is well worth reading.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

 

Alone in the Dark…

12:55, 29 November 2020

The first case for Harry Bosch since relinquishing his LAPD detective’s badge a year ago and a sense that the series’ readers are being prepared for a new direction, but not yet. Even shorn of the most potent symbol of his personal mission, this story confirms the fire energizing ‘Mr’ Bosch isn’t even damped down, never mind extinguished. Indeed, retirement has provided Bosch with that most precious commodity – time and when an ex-colleague, Lawton Cross, gives him a call, Bosch is soon back on the job. 

As noted recently in “A Darkness More Than Night”, the main character is dogged in his pursuit of justice and unsolved/unresolved cases are mentally archived and copies of the investigation records retained, pending further consideration. Five years earlier, Bosch, Kiz Rider and Jerry Edgar were the first responders to the murder of a production assistant from a movie company. However, when a $2m dollar heist occurs on a film set just a few days later, the case is transferred to the Robbery Homicide Division. It galled Bosch that the young woman’s life wasn’t considered important until the money was stolen. In any event the RHD investigation went nowhere and when the two detectives involved were the victims of a bar shooting, the case was shunted onto the unsolved pile. The incident had left Lawton Cross in a wheelchair, his partner dead. 

There was also the spectre of a missing FBI agent linked to the case bringing more echoes from the past hoving into view. Special Agent Roy Lindell (also appeared in ‘Trunk Music’ and ‘Angels Flight’) knows the value of Bosch’s involvement and runs interference for him, while former prosecutor, Janis Langwiser (‘Angels Flight’ and ‘A Darkness More Than Night’) provides some heavyweight legal cover. 

Since Bosch ‘pulled the pin’ his former partner, Kiz Rider, traded a career in the RHD for the greasy pole of the Chief’s Department, angered by his decision to walk away. But, though Rider is sent to warn him off, Bosch has never been one to surrender in the face of authority and well-versed in the respective agency processes and scare tactics, he’s fleet of foot enough to duck and weave past the pitfalls devised by the LAPD and the Feds. 

Bosch’s kryptonite remains his estranged wife and former FBI agent, Eleanor Wish. Settled in Las Vegas and making a living as a professional poker player, the intimate bond between the couple remains, but neither can compromise and risk their respective vulnerability. It’s a gnawing sensation for Bosch, the loss of the light in his life and an interesting diversion for the reader from the intricate plot of the investigation. Bosch also reflects on the very different relationship between Lawton and Danielle Cross, but they are equally casualties of circumstance, their lives marred by a shared history, from which there can be no escape. Amid the familiar thrill of Bosch’s relentless pursuit of justice, in this book the author poignantly captures the sense of multiple losses weighing on the main character, but the very satisfying denouement also hints at a potential source of salvation.

The story arcs that link characters intermittently across the series continue to demonstrate a remarkable feat of storytelling, but the gradual exposure of Harry Bosch, warts and all and the ongoing description of Los Angeles and Las Vegas, through his eyes, remains compelling, even as I move inexorably towards Book 10 in the series (‘The Narrows’). 

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Marooned in Venice…

12:15 29 November 2020

Book 8 in the Harry Bosch series and the enigmatic main character is once again having a bit of a time of it. When the Deputy Chief describes one of his officers as a “shit magnet”, even the broad shoulders of Detective Bosch might feel the urge to sag a little, but as we have learned in the series thus far, above all Bosch is a resilient guy. 

Just as well! After the frenetic, testosterone-steeped rutting of Harry Bosch and Terry McCaleb in “A Darkness More Than Night”, this book is, by comparison, a far more reflective, sombre affair. Notwithstanding child murder cases are the worst kind in Bosch’s view (“they hollowed you out”), this story also sees the main character beset by female colleagues and needing to wrestle emotionally with a former lover (coroner, Teresa Corazon) and former partner (Kiz Rider), current boss (Lt Grace Bilets), and a potential new romantic interest (Patrolwoman Julia Brasher). The plot also maroons Bosch outside of his comfort zone and offers the reader a glimpse of another side of the undistilled macho hero.

The book’s dramatic title was coined by an archaeologist for a mundane method of applying a grid to the crime scene. Still, the attendant challenges of addressing historic crimes are interesting and the need for a forensic anthropologist is a first for the series. The case also acknowledges (more than others) the tough miles that often underpin the investigative journey, with Bosch poring over microfiche records, sifting information, following leads.

One of the consistent elements of the series that this reader especially enjoys is the description of the locality through the eyes of Bosch. Never having been to California, the imagery evoked by the author fascinates and informs in equal measure, on this occasion introducing the reader to Venice, stateside. The running sore that is the relationship between Bosch and Deputy Chief Irving is also further irritated, but arguably the detective’s most redeeming quality is his insistence on keeping the department honest and not giving way to expedience. However, as he once more rails against departmental politics, in this episode Bosch discovers for the first time that the ‘cage’ of his job did not provide the safe haven he supposed and his allegiance to the LAPD must be evaluated anew.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Fury and the Fae

21:45 PM, 21 November 2020

This was my first book by indie author Will O’Shire and Book 1 of the ‘Fae Awakening’ series seemed like a logical start point. The author especially enjoys writing in the urban fantasy genre and in this novella the narrative explains how the Fae and human worlds co-exist, side by side. Ordinarily the permeable interface, which enables each to carry on oblivious to the other, is  marshalled by the likes of the main character, investigator Hunter Braydenbach (human) and the Fae ‘Guardians of the Realms’. Tasked by a treaty between the different spheres with ensuring ‘never the twain shall meet’, their clandestine activities are perilous and thankless, but crucial to maintaining peace, albeit no one would choose to be a hunter or a guardian.

This short book also introduces a host of characters and mythical creatures. Troll and goblin, giant and gargoyle. Some working together, to solve the mystery of the flaming black unicorn that has set light to buildings and killed a human, whilst seeking to preserve the anonymity of the Fae. Others, like untrustworthy leprechaun, Damian Hurst, just trying to get ahead. An added complication in this story are the two unsuspecting human teenagers unwittingly drawn into the Fae world, where they need to be protected and preferably prevented from getting themselves killed!

It’s a thrilling mix and for the reader an important foundation for future books in the series. I’m especially keen to read more about the intriguing and illusive forest-dweller and ‘bigfoot’, ‘Kawa’, who helps Hunter’s team and I’m sure there’s more to come from guardian ‘Frank’ too.

The book seems to be pitched at a YA readership and though in my paperback copy the author pays tribute to the cover design by Ivan Cakic, the animated version shared by @willoshire on Twitter is also excellent. https://twitter.com/i/status/1310761213639319555 In any event an interest in the Fae has certainly been awakened in me!

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

“The Call of the Dark…”

11:24 PM 1 AUGUST 2020

Terry McCaleb has a new life on Catalina Island, with a house on the hill and his boat in the marina. New heart, new wife, new baby. Life is good. Yet, when an old colleague (Jaye Winston) comes calling for his skill as a former FBI profiler, McCaleb is immediately smitten by the lure of his past life and a return to the darkness.
The murder under investigation is particularly violent and gruesome. The victim, Edward Gunn, had been implicated in a murder six years earlier, but was never charged by the LAPD and the case was reluctantly dropped. The lead investigator had been Harry Bosch.

Immediately the story conjures up the potential clash of two titans of the justice system chronicled by Connelly and the author skilfully sets the scene for his most tenacious predators …”The cool air of the shark grey dawn…”.

In the courthouse, McCaleb also bumps into journalist Jack McEvoy in a passing nod to another of the author’s stable of well-known characters, but as the big beasts circle each other, it’s clear that’s where the action will be. Bosch makes no bones about his assessment of Gunn as a scumbag and retains a sense of being deprived of the opportunity to sweat the guy (due to Bosch shoving the intervening Lieutenant through his office window and getting himself suspended). But, for fans of the Bosch series, this interlinking of books and characters is fascinating and offers real depth to a pool of work that continues to deepen, though the respective novels can also stand alone. I am continuing to wade through them in published order and in this seventh novel featuring Bosch, the perspective of former agent McCaleb enables the author to really plumb the shadowy world that the two men choose to infiltrate. Still, when McCaleb identifies a tentative connection, or coincidence, potentially linking Bosch to Gunn’s murder, the two men would appear to be on a collision course. Moreover, the implied threat to Bosch’s integrity and reputation risks undermining his current murder prosecution.

The main tenet of the book is pondered by McCaleb. “You don’t go into the darkness without the darkness going into you.” and this is surely the point for the reader. McCaleb and Bosch are both hardened lawmen, perhaps even desensitised by their lengthy exposure to evil, but their mutual hankering for an almost gladiatorial lifestyle should be as much a cause for concern as a relief. Society perhaps needs such ‘soldiers’, but must also continue to demand that ‘ends’ are indeed through justifiable ‘means’.

Michael Connelly is a master of intrigue and this book is certainly thrilling, as it casts a light on two compelling characters that choose to work in the shadows.Another excellent example of why the author is among the best in his chosen genre.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Contrasting Fortunes

4:12 PM 26 JUNE 2020

One of the things I adore about Kevin Ansbro’s writing is the assured way in which he reconciles the seemingly incompatible. Few authors can so effortlessly weave together the incongruity of a European serial killer with a SE Asian mythical being, trapped in a two thousand year purgatory at the bottom of the Andaman Sea. Yet, the remarkable journey on which the author takes the reader also enmeshes very familiar human themes of attachment and loss, romantic love and platonic friendship, alongside Buddhist notions of karma. It makes for a heady mix!

This blending of perceived contrasts, the exotic and mundane, is exemplified perhaps in the main locations for the tale. With all due respect to the inhabitants of East Anglia, Norwich (UK) and Phuket (Thailand) are, on the face of it, very different! Still, through the travails of the main characters, the author suggests that human experience is not entirely shaped by location, or culture. If not ‘fate’, sometimes things are just ‘meant to be’.

Take the British couple, Calum and Hannah, they are close friends at school, but then are separated by the vagaries of family moves, but it is Calum’s solo visit to Thailand that proves the catalyst for a potential reunion with his ‘true love’. As well as developing an immediate affinity for this unfamiliar territory, Calum befriends a young local man, Sawat Leelapun, with a shared interest in martial arts, but a very different trajectory in life. As a boy, Sawat has survived the 2004 tsunami, but experienced the attendant tragedy and challenges that followed. He too has a significant other (‘Nok’), but more central is the bond formed between the two men and the influence of Sawat’s humble nature on his hot-headed British friend. As well as helping Calum reflect on his own approach to life, like the knock-on effect of dominoes, Sawat also confides in his friend an incredible secret he has harboured since childhood and introduces the reader to the mythical Kinnara.

This diversion into supernatural elements is not new for the author, but offers a very helpful vehicle for expressing the clear affection with which Mr Ansbro regards the people and culture of Thailand. ‘Klahan Kinnara’ is a prince among the mythical swan people, cast into the sea, spellbound and destined to be alone for eternity. Klahan is also separated from his beloved and like his human counterparts shares a profound sense of loss. The question posed by the story is whether the three couples can all rely on fate/karma/good fortune, or perhaps the invincible nature of their collective love, to generate similarly happy outcomes?

The fly in the ointment, of course, is the serial murderer I mentioned, but whilst the author has a penchant for a dash of the macabre, it is never arbitrary. Rather the latent threat is a further development of the contrast between good and evil. Just as the reader might hope for good things to happen to good people, the reverse can also be quite satisfying. With ‘Kinnara’ , the author has skilfully delivered another exhilarating and emotional ride for the reader and has secured another spot on my favourites shelf.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Bastard Rebellion

3:39 PM 24 JUNE 2020

One of the benefits of building a world unfamiliar to the reader and characters that can live for hundreds of years, is the size of canvas, on which the author can construct his story. Certainly, in ‘Shadowless’, Randall McNally has developed a book exploiting those epic proportions, ranging across the ‘Northern Realms’, with a large cast of characters that perhaps befits such an ambitious undertaking. The fact that this is also a debut novel merely emphasises the congratulations due to the author, for such an absorbing read.

Amid echoes of Greek and Roman mythology, the Northern Realms is a world that cultivates curiosity and discomfort, wonder and horror in equal measure. The book also rather morphs into a novel, as the first half comprises a series of chapters, which read almost like short stories, or vignettes, introducing the respective ‘heroes’, with their inherited power and explaining how their differing local environments are formulated.

The malevolent ‘villains’ in the region are undoubtedly the cohort of powerful gods, who have survived a civil war among themselves, but in the process killed all of the goddesses. As a consequence, this exclusively macho group, using their ability to assume any form, satisfy their carnal desires among mortal women, the resulting offspring being born with supernatural traits, but without shadows. The ‘shadowless’ are thus born with innate advantage and yet are destined to be marked out and damned, neither mortal, nor god. The power bequeathed by their respective fathers may grow, if they can survive, but it can also be ‘harvested’ by the relevant god, in a cynical cull of their illegitimate children. Moreover, the Northern Realms are in the thrall of temples and mortal worshippers, who seek to enthusiastically appease the gods, by deploying a militia of ‘Shadow Watchers’, to identify and sacrifice the shadowless. Survival depends often on staying hidden from public view, in aristocratic isolation, forest, dungeon, or underground community. Only the mysterious Brother Amrodan, priest within a sole religious order committed to finding and helping the shadowless, appears to be on their side. Moreover, Amrodan is the lynchpin, mapping the whereabouts of the disparate individuals over centuries and devising the plan by which the gods might eventually be challenged. For me, he was a fleeting reminder of Nick Fury, meticulously assembling the ‘Avengers’, only Amrodan’s use of the dark arts involved a primeval pool and his kickass firepower came in the shape of a black dragon!

In a sense, the fact that these fascinating shadowless individuals seemed to struggle to gel as a group was hardly surprising. However, as prophesied, within the group is an especially powerful ‘shadowmancer’ who didn’t really fulfil his potential in this first outing. Coming up against a 25 feet tall monster with destruction on his mind may test the mettle of any leader, but it has left me with the impression that this book is the foundation of an ongoing story, the opening battle in a war, which I hope the author will continue. Interesting as they are, I did wonder at the sheer number of characters and the juggling required to keep them all in play, but if this does indeed culminate in further volumes, then returning to the canvas analogy, the author has acres of material to work with. Certainly the polish in some of those discrete early chapters bore the hallmarks of a talented wordsmith and I hope to return for Mr McNally’s next instalment soon. Incidentally, whilst the reader should rarely judge a book by its cover, the cover art, which did well in an online competition, on this occasion, is rather a good guide to the quality within.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.