Wednesday, 21 August 2013

The Long Shadow by Mark Mills

DATE READ: August 2013

NOTES: Ben is a somewhat unsuccessful film scriptwriter with a failed marriage and no money.  He is thrilled to hear that  multi-millionaire businessman Victor Sheldon is keen to branch out into film production and is interested in Ben’s latest script.  A lunch meeting is set up and Ben is amazed when Victor turns out to be a childhood friend previously known as Jacob Hogg.  Apart from the change of name there are more subtle changes in Victor.  He seems not to be able to do enough for Ben – even inviting him to move into his manor house and stay while he works on completing the script.

The narrative moves back and forth from childhood to the present.  Ben has bitter memories of his rivalry with Jacob – and of Jacob’s powerful manipulation of both adults and other children.  Ben finds himself enjoying life in such comfortable surrounding until a few things begin to niggle him.  Has Victor/Jacob really changed?  Does he have ulterior motives for rekindling his friendship with Ben?

This is a slow-burn psychological page turner as the long shadow of their childhood friendship darkens Ben’s world as he remembers the betrayals and guilt of the past.  Once I started to read it I couldn’t put it down.  The scenes involving Ben’s son Toby and Victor’s son Marcio were really chilling.

I do have some issues with the ending which I thought was a bit weak – I would have preferred a firmer resolution.  But Mark Mills is a brilliant storyteller and the writing is superb throughout.

Friday, 12 August 2011

The Redeemer by Jo Nesbo


DATE READ: August 2011

NOTES: The Redeemer is a tautly plotted crime thriller. The wintery atmosphere of Oslo is brought to life as Harry Hole investigates the murder of a member of the Salvation Army. Much of the book follows the modern formula of a policeman with a troubled private life, drinking problem and antagonism to his superiors. However the writing is good, the characters well drawn and fairly credible and the action moves at a cracking pace.

The plot is fairly complex, involving a hitman (the Redeemer) from Croatia coming to Norway to carry out a contract killing. But who sent for him? Nesbo keeps us guessing right to the end. There are biblical references to the Redeemer and how he rises again on the third day – but this is not overdone. It may have been better with fewer characters but there were lots of twists and turns and it was a compulsive read.

Translators are rarely acknowledged – but Don Bartlett deserves congratulations for a very stylish translation.

The Good Muslim by Tahmima Anam


DATE READ: July 2011

NOTES: This is the follow-up book to Tahmima Anam’s excellent A Golden Age. It follow the story of Maya and Sohail and their mother Rehana and what happened to them after the end of the Bengali War of Independence.

She uses the narrative device of two different time lines: the first in the immediate aftermath of the war in 1972 and the second in 1984. She shows how all have been affected by the war in different ways. Maya is cynical about the way things have turned out and is shocked and confused by her brother Sohail and his devout adherence to Islam. But even though she counts herself as an unbeliever she finds herself drawn into the spiritual atmosphere of the female followers of Sohail.

Feelings of despair about the new state of Bangladesh run through the book but fortunately there is a redemptive ending. The one false note in the plotting was Sohail’s attitude to his young son Zaid whom he treats with disdain and neglect.

The Good Muslim is beautifully written – and tells a good story.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Our Kind of Traitor by John Le Carre


DATE READ: July 2011

NOTES: After the somewhat disappointing A Most Wanted Man John Le Carré is once more back on form with his latest book. An English couple on holiday in the Caribbean meet a rich Russian, Dima, and his family. They are both curious about him – their relationship with him is a mixture of fascination and revulsion. Dima seems to be at odds with the Russian criminal fraternity and wants to make a deal with the British to enable him to live in London and bring his large laundered fortune to British banks.

Needless to say the plan does not go smoothly. Perry and Gail have different motives and the Intelligence Services are murky and untrustworthy. Our Kind of Traitor is written with great verve and style as we are propelled through political and financial machinations. Le Carré casts his cynical eye over the current British establishment. Links between grasping politicians, amoral bankers and the criminal fraternity? Surely not! The dialogue is terrific – especially that of the intelligence agents Hector and Luke. A film script already written….

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Prophecy by S J Parris


DATE READ: July 2011

NOTES: This is a follow-up to Heresy. Once again Italian ex-monk GiordanoBruno becomes involved in unravelling a mystery. This time two of Queen Elizabeth’s maids are found murdered and there seems to be a plot to kill the queen and install Mary Stuart on the throne.

Prophecy is quite a lively read. The atmosphere of late 16th century London is well drawn and the scenes at court are particularly vivid. The diplomatic rivalries, religious in-fighting and scheming are well drawn. I feel that the plot became over-complex with the introduction of occult symbols carved into the flesh of victims and the search for the esoteric book of Hermetic wisdom. Bruno is not a very attractive character, nor unfortunately were any of the other protagonists (though I liked Castelnau, the French ambassador). Although the plot moves at a good pace there are some rather “clunky” moments. At one point Bruno is trapped in a room and a villain informs him of his role in the plot and that Bruno will presently be killed. Then the bad guy leaves Bruno alone in the room. Big mistake! And right at the end just as Bruno is once again facing certain death a new character appears from nowhere! Very unsatisfactory.

A good summer read…..but my loyalties remain with Shardlake!

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

The King of the Badgers by Philip Hensher


DATE READ: June 2011 (audiobook)

NOTES: The King of the Badgers shows Philip Hensher at the top of his form. If you liked The Northern Clemency you will love this. Set in a fictional North Devon town, the book is inhabited with a huge range of (mostly awful) characters. On the surface everything seems fairly conventional but it doesn’t take much scratching to find out the reality of their lives. In these genteel streets there is adultery, betrayal, cheating, lying, lying and megalomania! Catherine is thrilled that at last her son is coming to visit – and is going to bring his boyfriend. But David never succeeds in attracting a boyfriend and persuades the desirable Mauro to accompany him and pretend to be his partner to please his mother. Kenyon and Miranda seem like the ideal couple except he is having an affair and their daughter is an appalling. Sam is a cheerful owner of a cheese shop in a long-term relationship with Harry but this doesn’t prevent them from joining in the local gay couplings. The gay orgies portrayed are shown to be funny but at the same time somewhat pathetic. And then there is John Calvin the mad-as-a-hatter Neighbourhood Watch Co-ordinator.

The part of the book that is definitely not funny is the disappearance of China, a child from the local housing estate. Actually I retract that statement – there is much comic material here in the attitudes surrounding the disappearance. But the part dealing with what happens to her subsequently is unfunny in the extreme. He uses a different writing style and relates the shocking details as if he were telling a fairy tale.

The whole book buzzes with ideas and observations. Among the choices for Miranda’s book group are Roberto Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas and The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki. (Ye gods, I’d be drummed out of my book group if I made suggestions like these!)

A sharply observed black comedy.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Burying the Bones by Hilary Spurling


DATE READ: June 2011

NOTES: I have been fascinated by the books by Pearl Buck that I have read…..especially The Good Earth which paints such a vivid picture of peasant life in China. However I knew virtually nothing about the author so was intrigued to read Hilary Spurling’s biography.

Pearl Buck had an amazing life that Hilary Spurling brings alive to the reader. Buck’s
parents went out to China in 1880s as missionaries. They were met with indifference from the local people and at times antagonism. But they also had to face dirt and disease. Spurling recounts the heart-rending events of losing three of their children in quick succession to cholera and fever. Pearl’s father was a driven man who cast aside everything except his work of proselytising; her mother was lively and sociable. Spurling acknowledges the contradictions in their lives. They were happy to ride roughshod over Chinese culture to encourage the conversion of souls but gave Pearl a Chinese tutor (as well as an amah) who taught her Confucianism as well as Calligraphy. Her ability to understand and communicate with so many different strata of Chinese society is what made her so different from writers at that time. She was able brave enough to tackle some taboo subjects: the subjugation of women, infanticide and marital rape.

From an early age Pearl Buck seems to have felt compelled to write but was only really keen to publish when she needed the funds. Spurling points out the irony that in her later life Buck was referred to in China as an interfering imperialist while back in America her espoused liberal causes made her a target for McCarthy.

This is a beautifully written book that sweeps the reader into the world of a fascinating woman writer.