Monthly Archives: February 2014

ONE BREATH AWAY by Heather Gudenkauf

one breath away by heather gudenkauf

Warning – do not read this book if you are already feeling tearful, emotionally vulnerable or a little shaky inside. It’s the story of a teacher, the pupils of Broken Branch high school, a police woman and the parents and grandparents who anxiously wait outside as a gunman holds their loved ones hostage. Unless you are stony hearted it will make you cry – quite a lot judging by my experience.

Told from different perspectives, the book opens with a desperate phone call from Augie to her mother, Holly. The child is hiding in a cupboard in the school. The mother is in a hospital bed, thousands of miles away, recovering from third degree burns and lamenting the fact that she has no option but to send Augie and her brother PJ back to Broken Branch to the care of their grandparents. We then backtrack to the events leading up to the phone call, gradually learning more about Holly’s accident, her relationship with her own estranged parents and about the children’s fathers, one of whom is soon in the frame as the potential identity of the, as yet unnamed, gunman.

Also a suspect is the father of Augie’s best friend Beth, whose wife has recently kicked him out after enduring years of domestic violence. Beth’s convinced her father is the one responsible for the entire school being in lock down so when she and Augie get the chance to leave their classroom and look for the gunman they seize the opportunity, Augie motivated by a need to find and protect her brother. Meanwhile, Mrs Oliver, dedicated lifelong teacher on the verge of retiring is racking her brains to recall all the past students she may have upset and who might be the man stood in her classroom now, wielding a gun and intent on revenge. Refusing to abandon her young charges, she sacrifices her own safety all the while hoping her own children and her husband will forgive her actions.

Outside the snow is falling more heavily, blocking roads, jamming communications and making it impossible for the tactical unit experienced in hostage situations to make it to Broken Branch. The parents gathered in Lonnie’s café want answers, the media descended on the town want their story, and the local farmers have turned up toting rifles and set on storming the school building in the face of what they see as police inaction.

Police woman Megan is counting blessings that her own daughter Maria isn’t in class but has gone to visit her father for a few days. Until, that is, she learns that her ex is now considered a prime suspect, as the man in the school starts asking for her by name. With so many lives hanging in the balance, Megan anxiously makes her way down corridors, past a pool of blood, to confront the gunman and try to talk him down. He, meanwhile, doesn’t understand why things have not gone according to plan. Why the post Columbine procedures that are meant to be followed by every school and police force in the country appear to have been ignored, thwarting his purpose and making him all the more desperate.

Gudenkauf captures each distinct voice beautifully, articulating a range of emotions and mapping the various and frail aspects of our human relationships.  The most powerful though does not belong to an individual, it belongs to regret and ONE BREATH AWAY almost throbs with a sense of “if only” as the characters reflect on the choices they’ve made and how things might have been different. Simple, clear prose allows Gudenkauf to build atmosphere and tension without melodrama or any of the feel of a typical thriller. Her real triumph though is in conveying how easily lives can be shattered, despite our enormous resilience and potential for courage. In debunking the very idea of a happy ending. And in reminding us that life really is too short.  That’s at the nub of what made my cry. You have been warned.

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READY PLAYER ONE by Ernest Cline

ready player one by ernest cline

It’s 2044 and the real world is a dystopian shadow of its former self, where corporations rule, natural resources are scarce, and the poor live in shipping container shanty towers. The vast majority of citizens chose to escape reality by spending their time inside OASIS, an elaborate and sprawling virtual world created by computer game geek James Halliday. Inside OASIS fortunes can be reversed and identities transformed; you can be best buddies with someone you have never met in real life; and your dreams might just come true.

When, on his death, Hailliday releases details of a complex and multi layered quest to find an Easter Egg hidden in OASIS, he unleashes a global obsession and a battle for the very soul of his creation. Whoever successfully solves the clues and finds all 3 keys will inherit Halliday’s fortune and a controlling stake in OASIS. Halliday fanatics the world over have been compulsively studying their icon’s journal, along with every scrap of information they can track down about the 80s pop culture he revered, from his favourite films and books to the early computer games he played and developed. These ‘gunters’, as they have become known, are in fierce competition with the ‘sixers’, employees of internet provider IOI who are desperate to hunt down the egg themselves and take over control of the OASIS for the corporation. Years after Halliday’s death nobody has even solved the first of his clues, until, that is, Wade, going by the avatar name of Parzival (after the Arthurian knight Percival) accidentally stumbles upon a piece of information that leads him to the first of the hidden keys.

So begins a race to the end that sees Parzival play a lot of computer games, take the starring role in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, battle the sixers and giant robots, fall in love with a fellow gunter Art3mis,  become the focus of a media storm, win undreamed of riches then give them all away, and form both virtual and real world friendships in his quest.

This book is such fun. I love the concept and in many ways reading it is just like that slight compulsion that comes from playing a computer or video game – logging off is difficult to do because you might just find what you need around the next corner. It’s clever, witty, sad at times, and the level of detail and research is phenomenal. Occasionally I did gloss over the geeky descriptions of gaming platforms and how Parzival hacks into IOI’s computer systems, for example, but the story is a such a strong one that I forgave Cline for these details. Pure escapism, READY PLAYER ONE is a homage to the enormous potential of virtual reality but it also contains a strong message about the here and now being far more important. The novel ends with Parzival making a discovery that prompts him to reflect that, for the first time ever, there’s something powerful keeping him from logging on. Despite appearances, READY PLAYER ONE is as much about the gamers than it is about the game – and it’s this that earns it a top rating on the score board from me.

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COCKROACHES by Jo Nesbo

cockroaches by jo nesbo

This is an early Harry Hole book and there’s a noticeable difference of style – the reader discovers things at the same time as the detective and there’s very little written from the perspective of the perpetrators or victims of the crimes Harry is investigating. As a result, it’s more like a standard crime novel although no less gripping for it. Battling as ever with his demons, Harry is sent to Bangkok to investigate the murder of the Norwegian ambassador who has been found by a prostitute in a hotel room, with a knife in his back and child pornography in his possession. Hand picked because he has spent the last few months in a drunken stupor and is therefore likely to be easy to manipulate, Harry confounds expectations, refuses to play ball with those whose primary goal is to cover up any political scandal, and uncovers corruption on a grand scale. As in all his later cases, Harry’s attention to detail, logic, grit, understanding of human nature and gut instincts merge together to give him a real gift for seeking out the truth. What we also find is a man who still trusts others – a trait that’s gradually eroded as the series develops and he grows more and more haunted by the deaths he’s unable to prevent. COCKROACHES is all it sets out to be – clever, entertaining and addictive. Vintage Nesbo in other words.

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PRAYERS FOR THE STOLEN by Jennifer Clement

prayers for the stolen by jennifer clement

Ladydi Garcia Martinez (named not for the princess but as an act of revenge for the way men betray women) is growing up in the lawless secluded mountains of Guererro in Mexico. Her mother, along with all the other mothers in the village, spends lots of time making Ladydi ugly and concealing her daughter’s identity, because everyone knows the drug barons will kidnap and probably sell you if you are a girl. This happens to Ladydi’s friend Paula, the most beautiful girl in Mexico – even more beautiful than Jennifer Lopez – and it’s probably happened to Ruth too, who used to run the hair salon and painted Ladydi’s fingernails one time, taking good care to remove every bit of the colour before allowing Ladydi back out into the jungle in her boy disguise. Ladydi’s other good friends are Estefanie, whose mother is dying from Aids, and Maria, born with a hare lip. One day the doctors arrive in the village to operate on Maria. They are surrounded by armed guards and in the midst of the operation tinted windowed SUVs roar by, leaving everyone cowering in their wake. The ants, iguanas and vultures later lead Ladydi’s mother to a corpse dumped near her house, which she and her daughter venture out in the dead of night to bury.

Ladydi’s father, in common with every other father, has left long ago. He did so, explaining “you and your mama are too good for me. I don’t deserve you.” When the earnings he used to send suddenly dry up, fierce, funny and smart Ladydi observes ” I guess we were also too good for his money.” But neither mother nor daughter are really surprised at being left alone, even though it hurts. And the everyday fears of snakes and scorpions, of the overhead planes that indiscriminately discharge chemicals meant for the poppy fields, and of the drugs men in dark glasses pointing guns, are all too present to leave much time for lamenting the past. However, Ladydi’s mother is eaten up by one of her husband’s transgressions in particular and that in turn leads to a chain of events that sees Ladydi leaving for a job as a housemaid in Acapulco, her best friend being shot, falling for a gardener named Julio and ending up in prison after being implicated in the murder of the biggest drugs baron and his little girl.

Told with an innocence and sense of humour that are in stark contrast to the darkness running through this book, PRAYERS FOR THE STOLEN is heartbreaking.  It vividly portrays the damage done to individual people by the drugs trade and by human trafficking in a way that all the reports and newspaper articles simply fail to do (and far better than Deputy PM Nick Clegg writing this weekend about a trip to Colombia and the need for drugs policy reform, much as it’s good to see him catching up with some of us). It does so by leaving much to your imagination – this is no bloodthirsty, graphic novel; the horrors are real enough and so it just doesn’t need to be.  Just as real is Clement’s depiction of a world in which women respond to the violence and terror that invade their lives by giving and finding the opposite – compassion, friendship, kindness and love. As such, PRAYERS FOR THE STOLEN is very much a book that reminds us some things can never be taken from us, that’s full of hope despite everything. Remarkable. Please read it.

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SNOWLEG by Nicholas Shakespeare

snowleg by nicholas shakespeare

As a young man, Peter Hithersay visits East Germany in an attempt to somehow connect with the father he has never known. He meets a young woman there, who is known only to him by the nickname Snowleg, and they spend the night together in a Shreber garden in Liepzig. His subsequent denial of the woman haunts Peter well into his adult life, and he is tormented by the thought of what might have happened to Snowleg, as well  as by his failure to live up to the ideals of nobility and courage that he holds so dear. So when an opportunity to return to Liepzig presents itself, Peter makes the journey and once more embarks upon the search for someone about whom he knows relatively little.

This is a powerful love story with a backdrop that is life under the Stasi and then later the challenges created by reunification. It’s also a story about identity – national identity, whether we can ever live up to the impressions we have of ourselves,  and the importance of names. Peter isn’t someone I wanted to like and yet I found it hard not too, perhaps because Shakespeare’s characterisation is so well done; the transition from hopeful, confused English public school boy to eccentric, self obsessed, broken Englishman abroad, by way of intense, callow student, so seamless.  I’d have liked more of Snowleg though. Her identity is  almost all shaped by someone else’s telling of her story – the Stasi files, Peter’s memories and projections, the warped memories of others – whilst her own voice is rarely heard. Unable to forget his treachery, Peter seeks her forgiveness and yet we have very little idea of what Snowleg might want.  Her personal emotional response to being betrayed is intrinsically caught up with the reaction of the East German regime to what seems a thwarted attempt to flee to the West, meaning that Snowleg the individual gets lost at times. As she says herself, “telling people your story doesn’t tell them who you are.” Perhaps this is deliberate on Shakespeare’s part, another aspect of his commentary on identity, but I found it leached some of the power of the love affair at the heart of this novel – although not enough to spoil my enjoyment of it.

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