ONE SHOT by LEE CHILD

The books I had taken on a holiday up in the mountains were finished, so I poked around on my host’s book-shelves.

“Is this one any good ?” I asked, holding up a copy of “One shot”.

“Um, don’t know, can’t remember.  Let me have a look.”

Re-reading the enthusiastic blurb on the back cover, my host said, a tad dubiously “Yes, I think so.  Sort of forgettable, but good.”

And so it was.

I have to admit that I had never heard of Lee Child, and felt suitably chastened and humbled when I read a quote from Bill Clinton.

As in the Bill Clinton.  “I love Jack Reacher.”

Jack Reacher, in case there are any more un-Lee-Child-savvy people out there, is the hero of what would appear to be a torrent of successful novels.

“One Shot” is easy holiday reading, though rather too detailed in a bloke-y way for me, to be honest.  There’s a lot of technical talk about guns and ammo, so you get passages like the following :

“It was a Springfield M1A Super Match autoloader, American walnut stock, heavy premium barrel, ten shot magazine, chambered for the .308…It was loaded with Lake City M852s…”

You take my point.

It’s a good entertaining whodunnit with characters who all act as they should do – criminal Russian mafia, corrupt city officials, brave heroine, laconic hero – and the plot is clever, if a tad convoluted at times.

And the writing is as rapid-fire as the many bullets that feature in the novel.

“The man with the rifle drove north. Not fast, not slow.”  Lots of sentences without verbs, presumably to give a staccato effect.

A good holiday read. No more, no less, as Lee Child might well have put it.

The paperback is published by Bantam Books and costs £7.99.

To buy the book right now, simply click on one of the links below. 

Couldn’t be easier. (This Reacher speak is quite addictive…)

A MONSTROUS REGIMENT OF WOMEN by LAURIE R. KING

The second in the delightful Mary Russell novels, “A Monstrous Regiment of Women,” sees our intrepid, eminently likeable young blue-stocking of a heroine turn 21 and take over her considerable inheritance from her hated aunt.

Mary’s life is as busy as ever.

She is finishing her Oxford thesis, and preparing to defend it.

She wonders increasingly about the exact nature of her feelings towards her mentor, one Mr. Sherlock Holmes.

Mary meets up with Veronica Beaconsfield, an old friend from her Oxford undergraduate days, who is very involved in a feminist group called the New Temple of God.  This organization, headed by a mystic, mysterious woman called Margery Childe is part religious cult, part suffragette campaign, and part social welfare organization.  And much more.

Mary gets swept into a world of drugs and kidnapping, of unexplained deaths and attempted murders.

Sherlock Holmes is there at her side for part of the time, but Mary leads from the front.  She gets herself into and  – thank goodness – out of all manner of scrapes, and it is only towards the closing moments of this hugely enjoyable novel that we are witness to one of the most unexpected moments in literature : Sherlock Holmes admitting his love for his much, much younger associate.

It is delicious.

“A Monstrous Regiment of Women” is clever, exciting and erudite.  Rather like young Mary Russell, in fact..

Published in 1995, the Bantam Books paperback edition costs $6.99 or Can $ 10.99

 

THE SUMMERHOUSE by JUDE DEVERAUX

It probably sounds dismissive to describe Jude Deveraux’s “The Summerhouse” as perfect airplane reading, but it is. And that is not a bad thing at all.

A slightly improbable premise – 3 young women meet briefly on their (joint shared) 21st birthdays, all waiting to get their driving licenses. They all then go their separate ways, losing contact with each other.

On the eve of their (joint shared) 40th birthdays, Leslie, Madison and Ellie somehow contrive to get together again and spend a long weekend talking, catching up on the intervening years, and lamenting all the might-have-beens and wrong turnings they have all taken.

Life has taken its inevitable toll on their youthful dreams and ambitions, and one by one they share their stories and regrets and mistakes with their 2 companions.

Enter Madame Zoya.

They meet this mysterious lady, who offers them the chance to go back in time, to any 3 weeks in their past lives and relive them. They can then decide whether to stay in their past lives, or return to their present.

Missed opportunities, wasted opportunities, misunderstandings, regrets – all these are revisited, and when the 3 women return to their about-to-be 40 selves, they all decide.

Ah, but you must read this entertaining novel to see what our 3 heroines decide. Light, entertaining, and it made this reviewer reflect for a moment on a long plane journey about which 3 weeks she would’ve chosen.

Published by Pocket Books, the paperback sells for $7.99, Can $10.99

PEOPLE LIKE OURSELVES by PAMELA JOOSTE

“People like Ourselves” by the South African novelist Pamela Jooste is both engaging but also ever so slightly disappointing at the end.

Perhaps it’s because I lived in Johannesburg for several very happy years, in a gated community that is featured in the novel, that I felt an instant connection to the world described. In fact, the writer even mentions my former street, so there was an immediate feeling of engagement and familiarity about this well-written book.

Johannesburg in the early years of the “new” South Africa still runs on traditional lines.
The rich, white South Africans live in their elegant homes in the northern suburbs, attended to by an army of black staff. Although cautiously aware of the need for reform, and new attitudes, and new language – for instance you no longer refer to your maid as a maid, but rather as a house worker – old habits otherwise die hard.

We follow the closely inter-connected lives of Gus and Caroline, Julia and Douglas, all born into the wealthy upper crust of Johannesburg society. Their mothers and mothers-in-law are friends, they all frequent the same parties, they are expected to inter-marry, and usually they do.

And when they don’t, as Douglas did in his first, frowned-upon marriage to the rebellious young English woman Rosalie, just look how things turn out. She runs away with another man, gets involved in politics, but now, thank goodness is far away, back in London.
And so the privileged of Jo’burg live out their middle-aged lives, worrying about rebellious children, and loveless marriages, with financial woes crowding ever closer.
Plus, of course, there is the new South Africa to deal with.

Crime.

The new order of things.

The whites may think they are reaching out to their fellow – read black – compatriots, but the feeling is hardy reciprocated. There is trusty old Gladstone, whose name is absolutely not Gladstone, but that’s what his white employers think he is called.

There is the canny, ambitious small-time actress in TV soap operas, whom we see through the eyes of her young daughter, Tula. Her mother, who is absent from her life most of the time, is categorical about the rules in the new South Africa, contemptuous of the way her own mother treats her white employers :

Do I look to you like I was born to know anything about “back gate,” “servants’ entrance” kind of rubbish ? No more “master” and “madam” and “yes, sir” and “thank you, miss.”

The book weaves all the varied stories together skillfully, shifting from one character and view point to another, not only within Johannesburg, but also to and from London, where Rosalie is heading inexorably towards her own nightmare.

Possibly because the Jo’burg parts of the novel are so well written, finely attuned to every verbal and social nuance, the London chapters are not quite as convincing. We are not as interested in the minor English characters as we are in their African counterparts.

The end of this very enjoyable novel comes upon us rather abruptly, with several loose ends untied.

I, for one, could have down with many more chapters, to finish off the many stories in as leisurely a way as they started.

“People like Ourselves” is published by Black Swan, and the paperback retails for £6.99 or Can $19.95.

If you wish to order the book, you can do so now by clicking on the link below :

BALZAC AND THE LITTLE CHINESE SEAMSTRESS by DAI SIJIE

This slim, charming novel about one of the darkest periods in recent Chinese history, the Cultural Revolution, manages to combine ugliness and brutishness with a life-saving thread of hope and young love and dreams.

It is 1971, and 2 young men, teenaged sons of then-reviled intellectuals, are sent off to be re-educated, in a remote corner of China.  Their new home, a dirt-poor village, is dominated by the poetically named “Phoenix of the Sky”.  In other words a forbidding slightly terrifying mountain, whose presence and moods dominate the novel.

The 2 youngsters survive in the village.

Just.

Their smuggled-in violin provides some moments of relief from the otherwise soul-destroying manual labour to which they are subjected.  When they chance upon a hidden trunk, filled with books –  books, forbidden books – of translations of 19th century French classics, they grasp at the chance to read, after months of privation.

Books and stories and weaving happiness through words and music is the leitmotiv of this book.  Luo (the narrator’s friend) is a natural story-teller, and once the trust of the suspicious village headman has been won, the 2 young men are occasionally dispatched to the neighbouring small town of Yong Jing to watch whatever film is showing.  They then return, and tell the story to the villagers over many sessions.

This power to tell stories wins Luo the heart of the Little Seamstress, the daughter of an itinerant tailor.  She is far and away the prettiest girl on the mountain, and Luo endures terrifying walks up and down the mountain to court her.

He reads to her, tells her stories, all in an attempt to “better” her, and their love develops under the wistful eye of the narrator and the spying eye of an old miller.

The end of the novel is dramatic and sad.

The Little Seamstress walks –  at times literally runs –  down the mountain, out of the book, and out of their lives.

And a heart-broken, drunken Luo burns the books that had kindled their love.

Charming, full of descriptions that bring to life the damp, cold, poor countryside of Mao’s Revolutionary China, “Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress” is published by Vintage Books.

The novel was originally published in French in 2000 and the English translation in 2001.  The paperback costs £7.99

 If you would like to buy the book now, just click on any of the links below :

A LETTER OF MARY by Laurie R. King

Of all the delightful novels in the Mary Russell series, Laurie R. King’s “A Letter of Mary” is perhaps the most tender and romantic, bordering at times on sensuous.  In this book, we see at work the love that unites the young, clever, courageous Mary Russell and her much older, equally clever husband, one Mr. Sherlock Holmes.

The author’s craftsmanship and skill are displayed to dazzling effect in this novel, and from the moment we read the author’s preface, we are plunged headlong into a world of mystery, adventure, suspense, and her trademark inter-mingling of fact and fiction.

Or would that be fiction and fiction ?

What we have to remember, of course, is that Laurie R King is only transcribing manuscripts that she was sent in a trunk, many years earlier – the stage is thus set, and another delicious adventure starts.

This novel takes place entirely in England, though the Palestine Mary and her husband visited in an earlier adventure (“Oh Jerusalem”) is as integral part of the story as is the utterly delightful Dorothy Ruskin, whose brief appearance in the early chapters lights up the book, and drives the mystery from there on.

Mary Russell is as likeable and admirable a heroine as one could wish to meet.

Young, but wise beyond her years. Clever, but rather bored with her arcane academic word at Oxford.  Tall, short-sighted, staunchly independent and feminist, very conscious of her Jewishness in an otherwise era of muscular Christianity, and utterly devoted to her older, and very famous husband.

Mary has to do a lot of detective work on her own in this book, much of it deathly boring, and she bemoans the fact that the writings of Dr. Watson “give the overall impression of the detective leaping into the fray, grasping the single most vital clue in an instant…There is little indication of the countless hours spent in cold, cramped watch…all are passed over with a laconic reference to the passage of time. Of course, Watson was often only brought in at the end of a case, and so he missed the tedium. I could not.”

We encounter a different side of Sherlock Holmes in this novel – he is more openly affectionate towards his delightful young wife, and worries dreadfully about her when she must go into a tricky situation to help with their murder investigation.

There are enough twists and turns in this clever book to keep the reader enthralled, as we encounter the other Mr. Holmes –  the clever brother Mycroft, who blushes easily at some of his young sister-in-law’s teasing, and the young Inspector Lestrade, and a whole host of characters, both savoury and decidedly unsavoury.

Another great read from the pen of a witty, clever author.

Even the title is very clever.

A Letter of Mary (1997) is published by Bantam and the paperback costs $6.99.

Do read the book.  It’s a gem.  If you want to buy it right now, nothing could be easier.  Just click on one of the links below :

O JERUSALEM by LAURIE R.KING

Reviewing such an exciting, action-packed novel as “O Jerusalem”, the second (chronologically speaking) in the Mary Russell series, the period detail is such that one wants to use words like derring-do and possibly even swashbuckling, to describe the utterly delightful young heroine.

In this story, Mary Russell is only 19, but she is wise beyond her years (we know precious little about her private life at this point), fearsomely clever, courageous, gutsy (in modern-day parlance), and a tad cheeky towards her mentor, the great Sherlock Holmes.

To escape problems in London, they escape to Palestine in the turbulent days at the end of the First World War, amid the violent jockeying for political position between the colonial British, the Turks, the local Arabs, the Jews – and plunge headlong into a series of dramatic adventures.  Nay, even rollicking adventures, with definitely a touch of derring-do.

They are accompanied throughout by 2 delightful spies, the quick-tempered, often grumpy Ali and the easier-going, more introspective Mahmoud.  Disguised as Arabs, our heroine and her partner in crime, Sherlock Holmes, endure privation, hard work, being shot at, being kidnapped –  all of which the bespectacled Mary takes in her cheerful stride.

Only she is not Mary nor is she bespectacled for most of the story.  She is disguised as Amir, a young Arab boy, and she has to forgo her glasses as they would be out of character, so she wanders round in a slight blur for much of the book, learning to answer to the masculine forms of address.

One of the author’s delightful touches is to introduce real live historical figures into the story, this time the charismatic and hugely likeable General Allenby, who is one of the very few people in the book to know that the perpetually filthy, unwashed Amir is in fact a blonde-haired teenage Oxford undergraduate.

The last line of the book is an absolute gem.

Another page-turner from the talented Ms King, crammed with historical detail and colour and adventure.  The author wears her scholarship lightly, and is a pleasure to read.

 

Published by Bantam in 1999, the paperback costs $6.99.

If you would like to buy this wonderful book, it couldn’t be easier.  Just click on one of the links below :

THE MOOR by LAURIE R.KING

“The Moor” is another novel in the clever, entertaining and very successful Mary Russell series.

Mary Russell, as in Mrs. Sherlock Holmes.

The young wife of the now elderly detective is the one with energy and good humour and a delicious sense of irony, and we see the world and its crimes through her eyes.  She may be notoriously short-sighted, and totally dependent on her glasses, but not much escapes her notice.

This adventure, set on Dartmoor, sees husband and wife set out to solve the mystery of the reappearance of the Hound of the Baskervilles, and from this point onwards, in typical Laurie R. King style, fact and fiction –  well, more accurately, fiction and fiction –  are joyously mixed together.

There is a delicious moment when Sherlock Holmes suggest to his young wife that she re-read “The Hound of the Baskervilles” and she privately admits to we the readers, that “although I would have hesitated to admit it in Holmes’ hearing, I enjoyed Conan Doyle’s stories”.

She goes on to tell us that apparently when Sherlock Holmes had discovered that Conan Doyle had set some of the stories in the first person, so seemingly narrated by Sherlock Holmes, he had threatened the author with a lawsuit.

Delightful twists and turns such as these abound, adding to the cleverness of the book.  The Moor of the title plays a major role in this adventure, and the descriptions of its savage, frightening beauty are powerful.  We also meet the frail but still intimidating and erudite Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould, in whose home Mary and Sherlock Holmes stay, whilst solving the murders that are taking place on the moor.  Yet again, the clever interweaving of fact and fiction makes the adventure that much more fun.

Laurie R.King has pulled off another literary tour de force – perhaps almost as dazzling as “The Game” (reviewed in an earlier review in this blog) –  and thus “The Moor” is an immensely enjoyable, clever, witty novel.

Published by Picador (originally in 1998), the paperback costs $15.

 

If you would like to buy the book, after reading this review (and I would take that as a compliment !) then simply click on the link below :

 

THE MANDALA OF SHERLOCK HOLMES by Jamyang Norbu

Ever wondered what happened to Sherlock Homes, after he fell over the Reichenbach Falls and was presumed drowned ?

The only clue generations of Sherlock Homes fans had were two meagre sentences beginning “I travelled for 2 years in Tibet…”

Jamyang Norbu’s clever, well-written novel fills in these missing 2 years, thanks to a cache of documents which were in the possession of a well-known Bengali scholar who goes by the name of Hurree Chunder Mookerjee.

Yes. The very same.  Hurree Chunder Mookerjee of “Kim” fame.

The tone for this fun, light-hearted book is set in the preface, when the author tells us how he came upon Hurree’s documents, which a retired tea-planter in Darjeeling had found hidden in a wall that fell down during an earthquake.  The tea-planter is the great grandson of Hurree Chunder Mookerjee –  and from this moment on, the line between fact and fiction has been so skilfully blurred, that you do not know quite where it lies.

What ensues is a clever fusing of two worlds and two great characters, who then set off on an exciting adventure together in Tibet.  No reviewer ever wishes to spoil the pleasures of a great read,  by revealing too many details, but suffice it to say that Holmes’s arch-enemy and bitter rival, Moriarty, is also a character in the book.

There are so many period details, and references and anecdotes that from time to time you catch yourself believing in the whole adventure.  Of course, why shouldn’t Hurree Chunder and Sherlock Holmes have met up ?

You read how irritated Hurree Chunder Mookerjee is with the flippancy with which “one Mr Rudyard Kipling, late of the Allahabad Pioneer” coined the term the Great Game, which he feels isn’t respectful enough to the diplomatic work of the Ethnological Survey…And it’s at that point that you realise you have been caught in a web of great skill.

The combination of Conan Doyle + Rudyard Kipling, set against the backdrop of mysterious Lhasa makes for a winning formula.

 

“The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes” is published in India by Harper Collins and is priced at Rs 250.

It’s a great read, and if you feel like buying the book now you have read this review, then just click on the link below :