Tuesday, 28 December 2010

The Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman by Elizabeth Buchan


DATE READ: December 2010

NOTES: Rose appears to have a very enviable life. Both she and her husband Nathan are in well-paid jobs, her good-natured children are emerging from University and she lives in a comfortable house with a much loved and well-cared for garden. So what can go wrong?

When Nathan reveals that he is having an affair and about to leave her, Rose sinks into despondency. Her problems far from over – his new love, Minty, is Rose’s underling at work and within a short time the ambitious Minty is promoted and Rose is squeezed out. This could then have become a story along the well-trodden path of the bitter, wronged and innocent woman versus a callous man. But Buchan avoids this and is much more nuanced in her approach.

It is a subtle story of a woman coming to terms with both her past and her present. Her children are very well drawn – and far from problem-free! I thought the only wrong note was the traitorous Minty turning up uninvited to a family celebration.

The Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman holds some lovely writing. The descriptions of the garden are particularly good – especially how the sudden neglect of the garden reveals itself. (Analogous with Rose’s neglect of her marriage?)

My first book by this author – but I shall look out for more!

Thursday, 23 December 2010

The Tent, the Bucket and Me by Emma Kennedy


DATE READ: December 2010

NOTES: This book was subtitled “My family’s disastrous attempts to go camping in the 70s”. It was certainly that – never was there a more inept and ill-prepared group of campers. Each holiday they set out optimistically but were continually dogged by disaster and misfortune. The book begins off well and is quite funny for the first two chapters. But there really is not enough material to sustain the narrative for 300+ pages and it feels as if the whole thing has been padded out.

Lots of the incidents sound very implausible. I don’t think this matters – but it should have been funnier! Telling us that French people are weird is not funny…..

We camped all through the 70s and had a great time. Yes, things went wrong. Cars broke down in France and Spain, we once forgot to take our camp kitchen and our roof rack collapsed in the Pyrenees. I got gastro-enteritis in Portugal – it was 108 paces to the toilet block! But it was all great. Hope no-one is put off camping by this book!

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

DATE PUBLISHED: 1947 (first published in English 2009)

DATE READ: December 2010

NOTES: This is a bleak, terrifying and haunting novel. Set in wartime Berlin it seeks to tell the story of Otto and Anna Quangel – a pair of very unlikely dissidents. After the death of their soldier son in France they decide that they must do something to challenge the Nazis. Otto decides he will write postcards with anti-regime slogans and leave them in random spots to be found and read by others. The book makes clear from the start that their actions are doomed to failure but despite that the story is compelling.

The title is intriguing. Throughout the book there is a sense of “aloneness” of the characters. Otto and Anna seem to be living quite separate lives (but do come together emotionally later in the book). The wastrel Enno moves from woman to woman thinking only of himself. Frau Rosenthal is a Jewess living alone and appearing to have no friends or relatives. Judge Fromm is also quite alone in his apartment with his books and his thoughts (or is he?) Even the Gestapo Inspector Esherisch is alone in his work with no respect for those around him.

What this book makes clear is the answer to the question: When the German people realised how bad the Nazis were why didn’t they challenge them? Fallada describes in graphic detail the ruthlessness of the police, the justice system and the terror and insecurity of the ordinary people. For the overwhelming majority it became easier and safer to be quiet, keep your head down and avert your eyes.

But (according to Fallada) in the final analysis the question to ask oneself is whether you remained a decent human being or sunk to the level of those around. When asked if their resistance has been in vain the prisoner Doctor Reichhardt says:

“Well, it will have helped us to feel that we behaved decently till the end………As it was, we all acted alone, we were caught alone, and every one of us will have to die alone. But that doesn’t mean that we are alone or that our death will be in vain.”

A profoundly moving book.

A Most Wanted Man by John le Carré


DATE READ: November 2010

NOTES: I have become a great fan of le Carré’s post-Cold War fiction – The Constant Gardener, Absolute Friends and The Mission Song. While I enjoyed A Most Wanted Man I found it to be a little uneven and didn’t hold my attention as much as his other books. The setting is Hamburg and he describes the Turkish community there vividly and realistically – explaining their hopes, anxieties and disappointments.

I think the main problem was the character of Issa – a young man who seemed to have appeared from nowhere and is espousing Islamic fervour. He reminded me of Prince Myshkin in The Idiot – a sort of innocent very much out of his depth. Le Carré has, I assume, deliberately made him an ambiguous character but for me he was the weak link in the plot. The banker Tommy Brue has various financial skeletons in his vaults left over from his late father’s regime and he seems to agree to help Issa and his attractive lawyer Annabel.

What the book describes well are the machinations and manipulation by various intelligence organisations. Their ruthlessness is terrifying – but in a very subtle way. They may appear to be on your side but in the final analysis all their loyalty is with their own organisation not with the people they are supposed to protect.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

The Unbearable Lightness of Scones by Alexander McCall Smith


DATE READ: December 2010 (audio)

NOTES: A gentle, funny satire on modern Edinburgh life. There are lots of characters whose lives cross in different ways. Matthew struggles to come to terms with marriage, young Bertie with his psychotherapy sessions, Domenica with increasing loneliness, Angus worries about what to do with six puppies delivered to his door and Big Lou is forever offering food and comfort. And Ian Rankin even makes and appearance!

There is no one plotlines – the story meanders along with a series of misunderstandings and errors of judgement.

The Steiner School children are particularly funny – and bearing some really whacky names: Tofu, Hiawatha, Merlin, Pansy, Laksmi! All very comical but a bit too precocious for six year olds (but perhaps I am misjudging Rudolf Steiner!). Bertie is an unwilling participant in psychotherapy. But he proves to be clever and manipulative and we cheer him on.

What comes over is McCall’s deep affection for Scotland and in particular Edinburgh.

As indicated in the title this book is light and fluffy. It is a feelgood read – and none the worse for that.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell


DATE READ: November 2010

NOTES: I had forgotten how good this book is. Orwell recounts his time as a hotel worker in Paris (albeit often unemployed) during the late twenties. He was hoping to write but found that all his time was taken up with looking, trying to eke out his money or recovering from the long hours required by hotels. What comes over again and again is the way in which employers were able to treat their workers with utter disdain. Jobs could be lost for the smallest infraction with no consideration for the employees’ situation. Although conditions are harsh Orwell tells of how friends help one another, give good advice and even share their meagre rations.

In London Orwell joined the large community of tramps. By being on the inside (rather than being a well-meaning do-gooder) he was able to write about the full horror of life for men on the road. Apart from the horror of the sleeping conditions in many of the hostels available the lives of the tramps were made more difficult by the numerous petty rules. For instance, men could only stay for one night in any place and could not return with a month. Although there were undoubtedly many people hoping to help the men but were nonetheless unable to hide their disdain. As Orwell says: “Curious how people feel they have a right to preach at you and pray over you as soon as your income falls below a certain level.”

Throughout the book he shows great respect for the tramps, beggars and others down on their luck. These were times when being “broke” meant that you had literally no money or means of any kind – no credit cards, no bank overdraft – and certainly no state benefits. A few coins made all the difference between eating and starvation. Anyone who feels the poor are treated too generously now should read this book!

Monday, 22 November 2010

Secret Histories: Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Teashop by Emma Larkin


DATE READ: November 2010

NOTES: Emma Larkin uses the writings of George Orwell as a “peg” for a travel memoir about Myanmar. She starts at Mandalay, goes on the Myangmya in the Delta region, then to Rangoon, then Moulmein and lastly to Katha. Her travels and interactions with locals are obviously helped with her knowledge of the local language. However in conversations it is never made clear whether they are talking in English or Burmese.

The best parts of the book are the linking together of Orwell’s novel Burmese Days with the places and people that she meets. Orwell was a complex character and some of his contradictions are included. He wrote passionately about anti-colonialism but he also seems to have been very domineering in his dealings with locals. The book fares less well when she tries to equate Animal Farm and 1984 with present day Myanmar. Many of the comparisons seemed clumsy and forced. I read this book in anticipation of a visit to the country. The book succeeded in giving a “feel” of the place – and I will definitely visit Pansodan Street, Yangon which is supposed to be filled with bookshops!

Homonym alert!!! On page 200 we have “hoards of people” – oh dear, that really should have been spotted by the editor….

The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck


DATE READ: November 2010

NOTES: Pearl Buck lived in China for many years and spoke the language so I am happy to accept the authenticity of her writing. The Good Earth tells the story of Wang Lung - a hard-working peasant farmer with ambitions to improve his life. O-lan is a plain servant girl (effectively a slave) in the house of the local landowner. Wang Lung takes her as a wife having said that he does not want a beautiful woman but one that is strong and willing to work and bear him sons. Love is not an expectation.

Although Wang Lung and his wife work hard other things conspire against him and his life is a continual struggle against poverty and destitution. Buck writes in a very simple and lucid way – which somehow makes the issues that she raises even more shocking. The story is interwoven with infanticide, murder, drug-taking, prostitution, greed and betrayal. But throughout it all Wang Lung is convinced that it is the land which will offer them salvation. For much of the narrative Wang Lung and many of the other characters are far from flawless – but the author doesn’t judge them. Instead she relates their actions and attitudes and leaves the rest to the reader.

It is not made absolutely clear when the book was supposed to be set. Slavery was abolished in 1910 so it is probably supposed to be set about that time. By 1912 the Republic of China had been created although there were many internal factions leading to the era of the warlords. The Good Earth was first published in 1931 – so the story was written without knowing the massive upheavals that were to occur in China a few years in the future. But already the country was in a state of flux with the mention of distant wars and gangs of local robbers.

A brilliant book – a true classic.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen


DATE READ: October 2010

NOTES: Like his earlier work, The Corrections, this is a family saga. Outwardly Patty and Walter Berglund look like the ideal parents to an ideal family. They are a bit smug and judgemental about others. But this is no happy family. Tensions and divisions abound. Teenage son Joey clashes continually with his parents and leaves home to live with (to Patty’s horror) their blue collar neighbours. Patty is a depressive and still bitter about the way in which her mother seemed to prefer her second daughter. In the same vein Walter feels he has always played second fiddle to his brother Mitch.

But throughout the whole novel there exists an eternal triangle: Walter, Patty and Richard Katz. Katz is an intriguing character – charismatic, talented, emotionally powerful and yet odious. The book is complex and spins off in different directions of time and space. But it is so beautifully written that it would be hard not to be drawn into the narrative.

As well as being concerned with the dynamics of family life Freedom clearly signals issues from the first part of this century. Walter is a keen environmentalist and becomes involved in a fairly dodgy project. Joey gets well paid work “reconstructing” Iraq which actually means buying up substandard equipment for selling on at inflated prices.

Franzen isn’t frightened about letting us know how he feels about things. Different ideas about freedom intersperse the story as do his frequent “rants” – such as against consumerism, the shallowness of youth, the Republicans. I especially applauded his rant about cats!

I loved The Corrections and so was looking forward to this new work. Was it worth the ten year wait? Yes, it certainly was – it is brilliant!

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

The Moon and Sixpence by W Somerset Maugham


DATE READ: September 2010 (audiobook)

NOTES: Inspired by Gauguin, this is the fascinating story of Charles Strickland. Strickland has the ambition to paint (but only in his own inconventional and idiosyncratic way) and develops such a passion for this that he is unable to think of anything else. He leaves his family (with no apparent guilt) and lives a life of poverty in Paris, Marseilles and Tahiti. He shows no feelings for anyone around him but at the same times evokes compassion and admiration in others. Strickland is obsessed by his art but not in any resulting commercial value.

The book has an interesting construction. It is narrated by an honest admirer – sometimes describing what he has observed but often via a third person. It is a very compelling story – despite the fact that Maugham ensures that there is little endearing in Strickland’s character. His actions reveal him to be savage, misogynistic and unfeeling. As the narrator says: “Strickland was an odious man – but I still think he was a great one.” The reader is left with some interesting questions. Does a great talent excuse wicked behaviour? Is a genius governed by a different set of morals than us lesser beings?

A compelling story.

No Mean City by A. McArthur and H. Kingsley Long


DATE READ: October 2010

NOTES: I can understand the stir this book made when it was first published in 1935. For many people in Britain the desperate lives lived in the poorest parts of our cities was something best not considered. But No Mean City showed in a powerful and graphic way the violence and poverty that dominated so many lives.

It tells the story of Johnnie Stark - the eldest son of a violent father. He seeks to make his mark in the community by fighting and soon becomes accepted as the Razor King. His younger brother Peter is also ambitious and hopes for a white collar job but quickly realises that he must escape from the Gorbals. Other characters are Bobby Hurley and his girl friend Lily. They are talented ballroom dancers and find that they can earn a decent living through this and soon have moved outside the Gorbals and have their own house complete with bathroom.

No Mean City shows the depressing aspects of the lives of so many of the inhabitants. They have become an underclass with few real ambitions. Johnnie’s sole aim in life is to be admired as a hard man and a hard drinker. In this he is supported by various women who are all happy to subjugate themselves to him and accept the violence shown to them. This casual violence towards women runs through the whole book.

But escape from the slums is no easy matter. Jobs are easily lost and there is a very narrow margin between managing the weekly budget and sinking into debt.

No Mean City is not a great piece of literature but it is a valuable social document.

NB. I remember my father talking of this book. He felt that it exaggerated the picture of life in the Gorbals. (This is where he lived for much of his life before he married in 1939.) His family were the “respectable” poor – they were always in work albeit in lowly paid jobs and certainly never associated with gangs or criminals!

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

The News Where You Are by Catherine O'Flynn


DATE READ: October 2010

NOTES: I have always found something a bit ludicrous about local television news. When the main national newsreader announces “And now the news where you are….” you know that the whole tone of broadcasting changes. Out go the challenging questions to people in power and reports on serious world issues and in come the charity events, the sick children seeking funds for treatment abroad and the pensioner robbed by yobs. And local television news is virtually the same throughout the country – just different hairstyles, different puns and different settees.

I don’t think I have read another novel that is based in a local television news room – it’s surprising that no-one thought of the idea before. But O’Flynn doesn’t belittle her subject but instead treats it with good humour and affection. Her main protagonist is Frank – and unambitious journalist with a terrible line in (purchased) jokes who nonetheless has a substantial local fanbase. His co-presenter Julia is bright but cynical and clearly feels she is meant for better things than local news.

The themes running throughout this novel are loss and change. Frank’s father had been the architect of many of Birmingham’s brutally modern sixties civic buildings. But now things are changing and one by one they are being demolished – and Frank feels sad about their loss but comforted by his chirpy and optimistic young daughter Mo. Frank also takes it upon himself to attend the funerals of people who have been reported as dying alone – often as the only mourner. He is hardly able to articulate why he does this but feels it is his responsibility – but we see it as evidence of his “goodness”.

There is a plot – nothing like as complex as What Was Lost – about the unexplained death of his predecessor. But it is not the plotting that is important in this book. It is the vibrant characters, the great dialogue and a superb evocation of a changing city.

I am a huge fan of Catherine O’Flynn’s debut novel What Was Lost so I approached her new book with some trepidation. But I was not disappointed – it really is an excellent novel.

Highly recommended.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

A Patchwork Planet by Anne Tyler


DATE READ: October 2010

NOTES: Another little gem from Anne Tyler. Her books never disappoint – she seems to create such lovely quirky characters and some really interesting and original story lines.

Barnaby is nearing his thirtieth birthday and is (let’s face it) a bit of a “slacker”. He has missed out on higher education and has instead moved from a delinquent adolescence to a job working as a helper for old people – moving furniture, carrying heavy loads, clearing attics and basements etc. He is divorced from Natalie and has a cool and rather forced relationship with his daughter. His mother is controlling and demanding – and very disappointed that Barnaby has not turned out better. Although there is much of his life that he finds unsatisfactory he seems to really love his job and is very good at it. His clients all like him because he is so patient and reliable and he gets on well with his colleagues.

He meets Sophia and begins to fall in love with her. She seems to be the ideal partner – so will it be “happy ever after” or will fate step in?

A lovely read.

(I don’t want to be too picky but if this story was set in UK then Barnaby with his police record would never be allowed to work in the homes of the elderly!)

Monday, 4 October 2010

Room by Emma Donoghue


DATE READ: August 2010

NOTES: Emma Donoghue has said that her book was inspired by the events surrounding the Fritzl and Kampusch cases. I was hesitant about reading Room as I thought it could be salacious and exploitative. But it is neither – instead she has produced an uplifting book about the love between a mother and her child and the human instinct for survival.

The whole story is told through the eyes of five year-old Jack. He has been born in the room and knows no other world. He has seen television but has not understanding about life outside. His mother (Ma) has told him stories constantly and taught him how to count and how to read. Their warm relationship is ripped apart whenever “Old Nick” chooses to come into the room. Jack knows that he is a hateful person but at the same time is aware that they depend on him for everything.

By choosing to relate the whole story through Jack the author was setting herself a difficult task but she rises to it magnificently. It could have become very twee or artificial but this is avoided. My only query is Jack’s use of language. He tends not to use the definite article and refers to objects as “room”, “chair” or “bed”. He has a good role model in his mother and also has a television so I thought this struck a wrong note.

Once they are outside Jack becomes embroiled in a whole series of misunderstandings and misperceptions – hardly surprising. I don’t want to quibble (as I thought this a really good book) but felt that Ma and Jack were not as protected from the wider society as they would have been in real life.

As I read Room I wondered how she would write the ending. I was not disappointed – I thought the ending was spot on!

The Great Stink by Clare Clark


DATE READ:  September 2010

NOTES: William May is suffering from post-traumatic stress following the Crimean War. He is working for Bazalgette on the upgrading of London’s sewer system. His mental state deteriorates after he becomes convinced he has witnessed a murder in one of the tunnels. His psychological problems are described in a most distressing way.

Tom is a “tosher” who illegally hunts for things in the sewers – including rats to be used in the dog fights that are put on in some of the public houses. Tom helps to cover up a crime which has been committed and his world and William’s begin to overlap.

Clare Clark has created an amazing a realistic picture of the harsh life lived by many in Victorian London. Her descriptions are vivid enough to make the strongest stomach turn. Definitely not a book to be read while eating you lunch!

The story moves at a swift pace and she introduces some excellent well-rounded characters. My only criticism would be that she creates an atmosphere of almost unremitting gloom – a few less serious touches would have been welcome.

The Draining Lake by Arnaldur Indridason


DATE READ: September 2010

NOTES: Icelandic Police Detective Erlendur Sveinsson is sent to investigate a skeleton that has been found in Lake Kleifarvatn. The bones appear to have been there for many years. The skull shows a serious injury and the body has been weighted down with an obsolete Russian listening device.

Assuming that this suspicious death occurred during the Cold War Erlendur seeks out missing persons from the 1950s and 1960s. The action switches back to Leipzig in the fifties when a group of socialist Icelandic students attended university there. Erlendur becomes convinced that a Ford Falcon car abandoned at the time is a key to who the victim is and why he was murdered.

The Draining Lake was a somewhat disappointing read. Erlendur as lead detective was far from original (troubled relationships, difficult children, addictions) and the other characters were little more than ciphers. There was no tension or pace. The fact that the murder took place so long ago in a quite different world did not help. The parts of the story set in East Germany were very hackneyed and unsubtle. The dialogue was clunky and unbelievable.

Very dull.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

The Man Who Disappeared by Clare Morrall


DATE READ: September 2010

NOTES: The concept of someone choosing to disappear from society is intriguing. After reading this book I asked an ex-police officer how feasible it was to slip “beneath the radar”. Surprisingly easy, was his response – if someone chooses to disappear then there is a strong possibility that they will not be found. The exception, of course, is if a crime is suspected – then the authorities have more options.

In The Man Who Disappeared Clare Morrall explores what happens to an apparently happy and prosperous family when the father simply disappears. In this case a crime seems to have been committed. Kate Kendall soon realises how little she actually knows about her husband’s life outside the home. At first there is terrible anger and disbelief as she seeks to hold her family together – not helped by the fact that she is now penniless and in danger of losing her home.

This book is well-crafted and the suspense is kept up well. The three children are particularly well drawn as fully rounded characters – very believable. Rory, the quirky youngest child, was especially interesting. The ending was suitably ambiguous – much better than a conventional happy ending.

My only real problem with this book was the fact that it was written in the present tense. Not sure why I find this a bit jarring…..

Saturday, 11 September 2010

The Love Secrets of Don Juan by Tim Lott


DATE READ: September 2010

NOTES: “Spike” Daniel Savage is continually confused about Man/Woman relationships. His marriage of some ten years with Beth has failed and he is in therapy hoping to uncover the elusive secrets of how to love and be loved. He decides that the result of the contradictions in women is B. M. A. – Bewilderment, Misunderstanding, Anger.

Daniels struggles to find happiness through a series of unfortunate meetings and mishaps. Much of the writing is funny and perceptive – but there is always a tinge of sadness…

The scene with the divorce mediator where his wife screws even more money out of him seems to be written from bitter reality!

I didn’t think this was as good as Lott’s Rumours of a Hurricane but I enjoyed it very much.

A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby


DATE READ: September 2010

NOTES: Four people all with different problems plan to commit suicide on New Year’s Eve. They meet up accidentally on the roof of a tower block (“Toppers’ Tower”). They are four very different personalities but by the end of the evening they have formed an uneasy alliance and agree to put off killing themselves until Valentine’s Day.

Some genuinely funny and quirky situations arise – all very Hornbyesque! The characters are more or less stereotypes – the disgraced media star, the downtrodden single mum, the failed rock musician and the troubled punk teenager. At times our credibility is stretched as to whether these people would really offer any meaningful support to each other. Three of them are quite likeable – but dare I say they may well have been tempted to push the appalling Jess off the roof!

On a more serious note – what would a family who had lost someone through suicide think of this book? A real would-be suicide inhabits a dark despairing world in which death seems to them to be the only option available.

The various plot threads are all tied up neatly at the end. There are no sweet and sentimental “happy” endings – Hornby did well to avoid this.

A light read – but a dark subject.

Stone's Fall by Iain Pears


DATE READ: August 2010

NOTES: Stone’s Fall is a complex and multi-layered historical novel. The story begins in 1909 when a young and inexperienced journalist is engaged by Stone’s widow to find the daughter mentioned in his will. In order not to let anyone know about this illegitimate offspring Braddock assumes the role as Stone’s biographer as a cover story.

This could have been a fairly predictable story in which the child is sought while at the same time enquiring into how Stone came to die in such mysterious circumstances. But nothing is as it seems. Braddock soon realises that he is in a shadowy world in which no-one can be trusted.

The second part is narrated by Henry Cort – a shady character with vague links to the British security services – as well as an intriguing link to Stone. The third part is told by Stone himself wherein many things are explained and various ends tied up. This book is written like a 19th century novel – lots of detail but with some really vivid characters and strong plot-lines. Often two parallel stories are running together – for instance the race to avoid financial meltdown takes place alongside the search for Elizabeth’s diaries.

A massive amount of research has obviously gone into Stone’s Fall. The concept that international capital is more important than the nation state is clearly explained. When discussing the possibility of war in Europe Lefevre says “It will not be the armies fighting next time, but economies…….War and peace will be decided by the movement of capital.” And who would have thought that intelligence about coal stocks could be so crucial?

Stone is obviously a complex egocentric larger-than-life character but his wife Elizabeth is also a brilliant creation. She continually fools those around her (and the reader) as she lies, schemes and reinvents herself again and again. She is like a character from Zola.

There are enough plots in it to make up three or four books and although I felt a little overwhelmed by the mass of detail at times Stone’s Fall is a great read.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie


DATE READ: August 2010

NOTES: Burnt Shadows is an ambitious book. The story moves from the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki in 1945 to India under colonial rule, to the birth of Pakistan and right up to the “war on terror” in the United States at the present time. The plotting is fairly complex – especially as it takes place over such a long time. However I thought it became a bit unwieldy and less credible towards the end……

Most of her characters are well rounded. Hiroko was a really interesting central character – a clever Japanese linguist who carries with her the emotional and physical scars of Nagasaki. She is perceptive and incisive in her judgements. Following the 9/11 attacks she reflects that the 3,000 Americans killed seemed to have so much more significance than other event.

Elizabeth Burton is a typical colonial wife but she gradually befriends Hiroko and eventually they become close. She is enigmatic and I feel Shamsie probably had ambivalent feelings about her.

A beautifully written moving book.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

The Tears of Autumn by Charles McCarry


DATE READ: August 2010

NOTES: Paul Christopher is a somewhat disillusioned CIA operative who sets out without any official permission to find out who was actually behind the Kennedy assassination. His search takes him from Italy to Austria, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and North Africa. He has contacts in all these places and his ability to speak the local languages is very much a plus factor. It is a fast paced story – and Christopher is portrayed as a pretty heroic character (but he is not above getting others to do his dirty work).

Although first published in 1975 The Tears of Autumn remains fresh and relevant. An Italian colleague says: “You Americans kill whole countries and it doesn’t bother you…..but for America to be wounded – ah!”

The plotting was a bit overcomplicated and involved the Viet Cong, Viet Minh, the Mafia, horoscopes, dwarf Nazis, Cubans, African nationalists…… Even readers who were sympathetic to the view that Kennedy was killed as a result of an international conspiracy would have had their credibility stretched to breaking point!

However Charles McCarry’s writing style is excellent. “They ate a bad meal, cooked with contempt and served with scorn, in an expensive restaurant in Georgetown that was going out of fashion.”

Thursday, 29 July 2010

In The Heart Of The Canyon by Elizabeth Hyde


DATE READ: July 2010

NOTES: Anyone who has looked down into the Grand Canyon and watched the turquoise waters of the Colorado river snaking along must wonder what it is like to be down there in “the heart of the canyon”. Elizabeth Hyde’s novel recounts the story of a river trip led by JT Maroney – a veteran guide with 124 trips under his belt. There are twelve assorted guests ranging in age from 12 to 76. Some are already experienced in this type of adventure holiday, some are obviously unfit and ill-prepared.

Over the twelve days JT and the other leaders have to respond to a range of tantrums, bad behaviour, selfishness, accidents and ill-health. While all these problems are probable typical of most package activity trips the dangers of the river add another dimension. As expected there is some unexpected drama along the way….

From a literary point of view In The Heart Of The Canyon is a fairly unremarkable work but it is a very light and enjoyable read. Some writers would have made this book into an Arizona version of Deliverance – but this reads more like an advertisement for the rafting companies listed at the back of the book!

A feel-good summer read.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

The Bed I Made by Lucie Whitehouse


DATE READ: July 2010

NOTES: The Bed I Made is a very well written novel. It is intriguing from the outset – we want to know why Kate has come to the Isle of Wight in winter when she has no friends there. Her story gradually unfolds and we learn how the wonderful romantic relationship she was having with Richard has disintegrated leaving her fragile and vulnerable.

The atmosphere of the out-of-season island is beautifully crafted – as are her growing links with a few locals. She is very much an outside looking in. She is curious about the missing (believed drowned) Alice Frewin as well as the relationships between other residents.

The review on the cover said: “Gripping, believable and unnerving”. Well, it was certainly gripping and somewhat unnerving but I was not really convinced about it being believable.  While it was made clear that Kate felt guilty about how the relationship with Richard had developed she was also too intelligent not to pass on her worries to another person.  Why keep it secret? The threatening atmosphere was built up well but I thought the ending was a bit lame…. Certainly not as good as the ending I had planned in my imagination!

Friday, 16 July 2010

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver


DATE READ: July 2010

NOTES: Lacuna – an empty space or a missing piece

This is an ambitious and brilliantly constructed novel. Harrison Shepherd is the son of a Mexican mother and American father. Mother takes him off to Mexico as a young boy as she pursues various men in the hope that they will look after her. Young Harrison winds up working for flamboyant artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahla. He is part of their household when Trotsky comes to stay and the whole tragedy of revolutionary politics unfolds before him.

From the beginning Harrison instinctively writes and records all that is going on around him. But it is not until well through the book that we begin to know how his writing has reached the printed page. After his return to the United States he successfully publishes two novels – but there are darker forces lurking and he is soon caught up in the anti-communistic witch hunts of the late 1940s.

Kingsolver brilliantly evokes both the vibrant, colourful and dangerous atmosphere of Mexico and the prosperous, introverted and small-minded North Carolina. She has created some wonderful characters: the unpredictable Frida, the stalwart, loyal Violet Brown and the honest, formidable Arthur Gold. The only criticism I would make of this book is that the writer has done a vast amount of research and seems to have been reluctant to leave any of it out of the finished work……

The concept of a lacuna is well employed. Throughout the book there are empty spaces and missing parts. The significant opening scenes describe the frightening spaces in rocks under the sea; various parts of Harrison’s notebooks and diaries go missing; there is a father-sized hole in his life. Harrison Shepherd describes the people and events that surround him but gives surprisingly little away about his own real self – another lacuna?

Very impressive – highly recommended.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

The Pattern in the Carpet by Margaret Drabble


DATE READ: July 2010 (audiobook)

NOTES: This memoir is a real nostalgia fest! Although Margaret Drabble set out to write a brief history of the jigsaw puzzle she found herself shooting off at tangents into a series of random memories and reflections.

She uses memories of her beloved Aunt Phyllis as a starting point but in the course of the book she reflects on childhood, children’s games, art history, the value of puzzles, mosaics, literature and the problems of growing old. Quite a mix! I also remembered well many of things from her childhood. - evaporated milk and tinned fruit (yum, yum!), five stones, jigsaws, board games played by the whole family. And those magical embroidery transfers – blue designs on tissue paper – that my mother never allowed me to iron on to the fabric in case I spoiled it! And ric-rac tape! And, yes, I even remember sewing cards – in fact I used to give these to my infant class pupils. I used them to help develop coordination in tiny fingers but Margaret Drabble sees no purpose in them.

I found the parts explaining the history of the jigsaw puzzle fascinating – especially the references to it in literature. I would however have liked to hear more about the inspiration and development Drabble’s novels – even though I realise this is not the remit of this book.

This was a really interesting read. Now I’m off to do a jigsaw!

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay


DATE READ: July 2010

NOTES: I don’t often choose to read autobiographies but was lured to this by some positive reviews and after hearing Jackie Kay talk about her book on the radio. She was adopted as a baby and Red Dust Road is her story of her search for her birth parents.

In no way is this a “misery memoir” – her story is told with openness, honesty and humour. Like many adopted children she had built up pictures of what her birth parents would be like and (let’s face it) neither of them really came up to her expectations. But she shows no bitterness or resentment and tries hard to understand them.

There is a dramatic tension when she recounts her trips to Nigeria to locate her father – but when he turns out to be a “born again” Christian zealot she continues to treat him with courtesy and respect. Let us hope that her dream of being welcomed into her village with drums beating will one day come true!

The real hero and heroine of this memoir are John and Helen Kay, Jackie’s adoptive parents. They sound like wonderful people – strong, principled, funny, loving and generous.

Red Dust Road is a beautifully written book that quickly draws the reader in. Warm and life-affirming.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

The Idea of Love by Louise Dean


DATE READ: May 2010

NOTES: I very much enjoyed Louise Dean’s This Human Season so was looking forward to this book. The Idea of Love is a much more complex book and not at all what I expected. I thought it was going to be about prosperous Brits settling down to an idyllic life in the French countryside – a sort of Year in Provence (only better written!). But my preconceptions were quite wrong.

Richard has moved to the Var region with his French wife and their son. They make friends with the other local ex-pat crowd but have little contact with locals – except for Valerie’s parents who loom large throughout the narrative. The story has many dark undertones – everyone is seeking happiness and love but things go awry through jealousy, disloyalty or selfishness. Things are not helped by the challenging behaviour of their son Maxence who seems to be very disturbed.

Richard works for a large pharmaceuticals firm and he goes to Africa specifically to persuade doctors there to use anti-depressants. He gradually realises that these powerful and expensive drugs are not really necessary in African culture but are being pushed as a means of gaining profits for his company. Their neighbours also visit Africa to try to adopt a child but soon become disillusioned as they realise that the “orphanages” they visit are not what they seem. (I thought that the African sections of the book were the best parts.)

There is a lot packed into 300 pages – a compelling read.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Chosen by Lesley Glaister


DATE READ: June 2010

NOTES: After Dodie finds her mother dead from suicide she seeks out her younger brother but is told he has gone to America to stay with relatives. As Dodie is unaware of any relatives she sets out to find him. She is led to a religious community in New York State but instead of finding Seth and bringing him home she is gradually drawn into the cult by a mixture of curiosity, persuasion and mind-altering drugs. This is possibly the best part of the book – very effectively written – as we feel Dodie being drawn more and more into a dangerous situation.

The second part of the book is written by Dodie’s aunt Melanie who is a long term resident of the Soul-Life Community. She is in complete thrall to the leader Adam and again and again finds herself being persuaded to make wrong choices against her better judgement. However I was not convinced by why anyone would really respond to Adam. He was rather a laughable and pathetic character but only Stella (seriously depressed and possibly mentally ill) sees through him. Though, having said that, I suppose most cults are filled with vulnerable or damaged people just waiting to be told “the truth”.

The writer evokes the atmosphere of a cult community brilliantly and it is a compelling read. But if you would like a story about happy family life this is not for you!

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov


DATE READ: May 2010

NOTES: Another classic ticked off….. but, oh dear, what a disappointment. I was fully expecting a satirical look at like in a totalitarian state and the effects of censorship on the lives of writers. What I got was a Faustian fantasy that left me bemused and confused. The opening chapter where Berlioz is killed is brilliant but then it all just became too crazy. The parts where the story of Pontius Pilate is told were much better – but again this never really went anywhere.

Sorry, I can’t take books seriously that have people flying on broomsticks and rushing into the street and tearing off their clothes.

Is this sacrilegious?

Monday, 17 May 2010

The Illusionist by Jennifer Johnston


DATE READ: May 2010

NOTES: I read some interesting reviews of Jennifer Johnston’s books and thought I would give her a try. She really is very good! The Illusionist is the tale of the relationship between Stella and Martyn. Even though she knows so little about him, she quickly falls in love with him and agrees to marry him. But as time goes on he reveals no more about himself.

But as the story of the marriage unfolds the book takes an unexpected turn. What it reveals is a bullying and abusive relationship – one in which Martyn’s powerful personality seems to overwhelm Stella. Their daughter Robin is included in the psychological drama – she is very much her father’s daughter and Martyn ensures that he has first place in their child’s affection. The subsequent betrayal of Stella by Robin is very disturbing.

We know that Stella escapes as the book begins with her living alone and looking back on her life. Alternate chapters are in the present and the past – a device that works well. A very touching story written without a surplus word. And it even has a satisfying ending!

Friday, 14 May 2010

Solar by Ian McEwan


DATE READ: May 2010 (audiobook)

NOTES: For this novel about climate change McEwan has opted for a darkly comic format. Nobel prize-winner Michael Beard works in the field of artificial photosynthesis. The aim is to provide the world with a cheap and clean source of fuel – but perhaps the main aim is to make the egotistical Beard rich and famous. Beard is McEwan’s most dislikeable protagonist so far – greedy, sexually predatory, amoral and self-centred.

There are numerous comical set pieces – such as the Arctic trip when Beard tries to answer a call of nature out of doors and the chaotic boot store in the ship in which Beard fails again and again to find his correct clothing. Then there are some very misjudged comments about the abilities of women in science that land our hero in a massive media storm. At one point on a train a young man sitting opposite him begins to take crisps out of Beard’s packet. Beard becomes quietly infuriated and begins to gobble them up himself before the interloper takes them all. But this is an old story, I thought to myself, although I remember it being a Kit Kat bar. But, of course, Ian McEwan is ahead of us and later introduces a University professor who deconstructs this urban myth.

McEwan is obviously serious about how we are causing damage to the environment. However a serious novel about climate change would probably be so depressing and worthy it would alienate many people. Solar makes us laugh – but also makes us think.

Highly recommended.

The Way Home by George Pelecanos


DATE READ: May 2010

NOTES: Chris Flynn is a troubled teenager from a good home. As the book opens he is incarcerated in a facility for young offenders in Maryland. His parents’ disappointment in him is all too apparent and it is uncertain whether Chris will continue with his criminal behaviour or whether he will mature into a reasonable law-abiding adult.

The narrative moves on and Chris is now released and working in his father’s carpet-laying business. His partner is Ben – an old friend from the youth facility – who is also trying to get his life together. While laying a carpet in a house that is being refurbished they find a bag of cash. What to do? Chris persuades Ben to leave the cash where it is and say nothing about it. From this one incident a whole train of events occur…..

The Way Home is a cracking read. Although superficially this is a crime novel it has a very human heart. The characters struggle to do the right thing and it is acknowledged that while Chris has the advantage of caring parents many young men are not so lucky.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford


DATE READ: March 2010

NOTES: I read this book as it is always mentioned in lists of “must reads” and is included in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.

The Good Soldier turned out to be very much a case of style over substance. John Dowell, the narrator (usually referred to as unreliable) sets out to tell the story of his marriage. But as his knowledge of events changes he has to continually revise what he is revealing to us. Dowell’s wife Florence has been involved in a long affair with Edward Ashburnham (the good soldier of the title) and so his attitude to them both changes as the book proceeds. My problem was that all the characters were very unsympathetic and I simply didn’t care what happened to them and whether they were happy or sad (or even alive or dead).

I was puzzled by the opening sentence: “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” This implies that the story was related to him when in fact he was personally involved in it from beginning to end. Very confusing.

So now I can tick this off as having been read – but wish I had spent the time elsewhere!

Friday, 30 April 2010

The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas


DATE READ: April 2010

NOTES: This is a really difficult book to review! I found the opening premise brilliant. A group of friends and relatives gather for a barbecue in suburban Melbourne. All is fairly relaxed until a brat of a child disrupts everything with his appalling behaviour. One guest, who fears his own child is being physically threatened, extracts the awful Hugo from the dispute and slaps him. From this one event a whole stream of actions and recriminations unfold. Some are very certain of what should happen, others more ambivalent. But as the story progresses positions harden and loyalties between friends and family members become strained.

The Slap is told from the point of view of different characters. Everyone is well drawn and the writing is powerful and compelling. I found myself racing to the end because I wanted to know the final outcome. Tsiolkas focuses on the many rifts within modern Australian society. There is a beautifully written scene when the old Greek Manolis bumps into a young man and his girlfriend in the doorway of a café. He had assumed they would give way for him – but they didn’t and a collision takes place. Manolis is confused and embittered about the general lack of respect – money has become more important than manners.

My problem with the book is that I felt so alienated from most of the characters. He paints a very depressing picture of suburban life. Alcoholism, drug-taking and adultery all seem to be the norm. I found the overt racism and racist language very disturbing – do people really speak like this? Sexual obscenities occur on almost every page and nearly all the explicit sexual activity is verging on the violent. I would be interested to know how middle-class Australians relate to this book.

Some superb energetic writing and excellent plotting – but not a comfortable read!

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier


DATE READ: April 2010

NOTES: Mary Anning lived in Lyme Regis in the early 19th century. She had a good eye for finding fossils on the beach which she sold to visitors. When she located an ichthyosaur and a plesiosaur she attracted the attention of serious collectors and scientists.

From this simple story Tracy Chevalier has created an enthralling novel. Poor working-class Mary strikes up a friendship with impoverished middle-class Elizabeth Philpot. They are both obsessed with finding fossils – a hobby for Elizabeth but a financial necessity for Mary. Their unlikely friendship has its ups and downs because of class differences and petty jealousies. What Chevalier does brilliantly is create for the modern day reader an understanding of the restrictions placed on women at that time. Although Mary had a natural gift for finding fossils this was not acknowledged by the men who bought them from her and subsequently displayed them in museums or wrote research papers about them.

Also woven into the story is the growing understanding that the fossils they are finding could be of creatures that are now extinct. This idea was almost blasphemous as the Book of Genesis was considered to be the literal truth by most people.

The Remarkable Creatures of the title could be the pre-historic beasts unearthed by the fossil hunters. But I am sure that it is Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot who are the truly remarkable creatures – struggling against prejudice, envy and greed in a man’s world.

A lovely read.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz


DATE READ: April 2010

NOTES: A Fraction of the Whole is a cleverly constructed novel that records the heartbreaking (but funny) story of the life of Jasper Dean. Jasper’s father Martin wrote copiously of his own life and his notebooks are included. Martin (and to a lesser extent Jasper) lives very much in the shadow of his dead brother Terry. Terry is a notorious criminal who becomes an Australian folk hero even though he is clearly a despicable character. Every time Martin seems on the verge of doing something the spectre of Terry seems to arise…..

Right from the very first page the book is brimful of quirky ideas and droll observations. Although more than 700 pages long the narrative seldom lags and the reader is swept along in a tide of ideas, coincidences and outlandish incidents. On nearly every page there is a witty, wise or just plain silly saying. For instance Martin (in Paris) observes: “No wonder key existentialists were French. It’s natural to be horrified at existence when you have to pay 4 dollars for coffee.” Later Jasper is scorned by the love of his life – “To this day the memory of that look still visits me like a Jehovah’s Witness, uninvited and tireless.”

Apart from Anouk, the hippy housekeeper, I didn’t really like the main characters – but was intrigued enough to keep on reading. A Fraction of the Whole is an amazing debut novel written with great energy and exuberance. Very impressive.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets' Nest by Stieg Larsson


DATE READ: April 2010

NOTES: The final part in the great Millennium Trilogy. Lisbeth Sander is in hospital with bullets embedded in strategic parts of her body and is under arrest for murder and attempted murder. Malign forces continue to plot against her (because of what she knows) and this time they feel increasingly confident that she will be declared insane and returned to a secure psychiatric unit.

But campaigning journalist Mikael Blomkvist is on her side and is determined to help Lisbeth and reveal the illegal and murderous machinations of rogue agents within the Swedish state security police. Once again there is the heady mix of journalism, computer hacking, violence and sex. There are also several sub-stories such as Erika Berger’s move to edit a daily newspaper and her subsequent problems with a stalker. And Blomkvist finds a new love in a tough security operative Monika Figuerola.

The final part of the book details a riveting courtroom scene – a film script already written. Found myself cheering on Lisbeth’s defence lawyer Giannini.

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets’ Nest is probably overcomplicated and has too many characters. The Swedish names are not easy for the English speaking reader – so easy to get confused between Erlander, Edklinth, Eriksson, Ekström, Endrin and Estholm! But it is such a cracking read that all imperfections are forgiven.

A stunning finale.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

If It Bleeds by Duncan Campbell


DATE READ: March 2010

NOTES: Laurie Lane is a crime reporter for a national newspaper. An ageing gangster, Charlie Hook, gets in touch with him and says he wants Laurie to help him write his life story. But before Laurie is able to make a decision Hook is found murdered.

Laurie’s post with him newspaper is precarious and the editor is threatening to move him to the motoring department…. But if he can come up with a scoop about Hook’s murder then his job might be secure. As the plot unfolds more and more complications arise. The dialogue is hilarious and much of the banter between the characters rings true. The pub quiz team (made up of Laurie and some ex-criminals) is particularly entertaining.

A great fun read – but Campbell isn’t afraid to take the reader to some dark places.

The Long Song by Andrea Levy


DATE READ: March 2010 (audiobook)

NOTES: Andrea Levy’s latest book is a joy! An old Jamaican woman, July, recounts her life at the behest of her son. She tells of her childhood on the Amity plantation, of slave uprisings and how slavery ended. We learn about how she was conceived, how she became separated from her mother and about her life as a house slave. We are not spared the cruelties of the slave-owners and their disregard for the people in their possession. There are some truly horrific episodes described in a direct and matter-of-fact way. But what makes the narrative so impressive is how the character of July shines through. She often addresses the reader directly and tells us that she thinks we now know enough about what happened. She also complains constantly about her son (who she obviously adores) – she says that he forgets to bring her new writing supplies and sometimes criticises what she has produced. In this way the reader learns that July sometimes embroiders her story and tells it as she would have liked it to happen.

It goes without saying that the whole slavery industry in the West Indies was cruel in the extreme and the ill effects of it remain to this day. But this is no “misery memoir”. The slaves themselves learn to be overtly submissive but all the time they are scoring small victories….. bottles of rum are stolen, buttons from the mistress’s blouse are pocketed and instructions to use the best Irish linen tablecloth are ignored (and a stained bed-sheet is used instead!) Levy doesn’t shirk from some of the unpleasant truths. Lighter skinned slaves (usually occurring following a rape) feel superior to their dark skinned fellows. (“Me no n*****, me a mulatto!”)

The audiobook was lovely to listen to. Adrian Lester (as her son) reads the first and last chapter and the rest is narrated by Andrea Levy. Quite unusual for an author to read their own book but she is magnificent – and made me wonder if she had done any acting.

A humane and uplifting book - highly recommended.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Land of Marvels by Barry Unsworth


DATE READ: March 2010

NOTES: Barry Unsworth never lets me down – Land of Marvels is a lovely read and a cracking good story. Somerville, an English archaeologist, is directing an excavation in Mesopotamia. It is 1914 and hostilities are already looming and encroaching on his work. He has invested him own money in the project and is desperately hoping that something of real value and interest will be found – thus ensuring his acceptance by the academic community. His wife is with him but she has little interest in his work – even though it was his enthusiasm and ambition that first attracted her.

The Germans are financing a railway line which Somerville suspects will be routed right through where he is excavating so he feels he must proceed with all due haste. He is persuaded by a somewhat shady British businessman and the ambassador in Constantinople to take on an American called Elliott. He is asks to pretend that Elliott is a fellow historian when in fact he is a geologist looking for oil deposits. But Elliott’s loyalties do not lie with the British.

Land of Marvels is superbly researched. Knowing very little about Assyrian or Babylonian history I found myself checking to see whether the facts given were correct. (Yes, they were!) The characterisations were all very believable – from the wily Jehar to the practical Patricia. Somerville can be viewed as someone of the “old world” interested in academic pursuit and learning. Elliott is very “new world” – dynamic, ambitious and skilled.

There are some interesting imperialist attitudes. When some interesting things are found in the dig Somerville assumes confidently that they should all be transported to England. The German engineers are granted ownership of the land surrounding the railway. Elliott knows that any oil he finds will profit an American company.

Churchill prophesied: “He who owns the oil will own the world…” How true.

Monday, 22 March 2010

The Children's Book by A S Byatt


DATE READ: February 2010

NOTES: The Children’s Book is a very ambitious work. The story begins in 1895 and the narrative carries us forward to 1919.

It is a vast book in every way – lots of characters are introduced, events twist and turn and many dark secrets are revealed. Olive Wellwood is a writer of children’s stories and she lives in a rambling house with her husband Humphrey (banker turned writer/lecturer) and numerous children. They are a Fabians with many liberal ideas in how society and families should function. But although Olive obviously loves her family her writing comes first and there is a general air of benign neglect. At the V & A Museum she meets Phillip, a young boy who has run away from the Potteries. He “wants to make something” and proves to be artistic and talented. Olive links him up with the Flood family who live some miles away. Benedict Fludd is an eccentric (but brilliant) potter with an alcoholic wife and rather odd children. Other important characters are Humphrey’s brother Basil and his half-German wife Katrina and their children and Major Prosper Cain who runs a department in the V & A.

Although in many ways this is a complex work it is probably one of Byatt’s most accessible novels. There is a weaving of history and fairy stories and she offers us a magical exploration of childhood. But this is far from being picture of idyllic family life – the book is suffused with adultery, child abuse, incest and neglect.

The research has been meticulous and many real people are either referred to or included in the narrative: the Pankhursts, Emily Davis, Marx, Kenneth Grahame, Dreyfus…. The Great War is graphically portrayed – but so depressing when characters you have come to feel affection for are killed.

The Children’s Book is a compelling multi-layered read crammed with incidents and ideas. Would have been a worthy Booker Prize winner!

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Blacklands by Belinda Bauer


DATE READ: March 2010

NOTES: Steven is a troubled young boy – he feels unloved, he is bullied by “hoodies” in his community and he is very conscious that his family is still grieving over his uncle (Billy) who disappeared some nineteen years previously. Billy’s body has never been found but it is generally believed that he was murdered by a serial killer now in prison. Steven feels that if only Billy’s body could be found then his grandmother and his mother could turn their attention away from their grief and towards him.

From this beginning Belinda Bauer has produced a cleverly plotted, intense thriller. The story moves at a brisk pace and she keeps the suspense going right to the end. She invokes the sense of place of Exmoor – we can well believe its dark secrets. Steven is a good central character and the reader is drawn to support him in his plan. Arnold Avery, the serial killer, is suitably devious and evil – a psychopath who can only view the world from his own distorted viewpoint.

I like crime thrillers and “police procedurials” but am never really happy with plots involving paedophilia and child murder….and Blacklands was in parts a very uncomfortable and creepy read.

The actual ending (and I don’t want to give anything away) was just a bit too unbelievable – and based on all the information given earlier in the book – physically impossible.

A very good first novel – a name to remember.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry


DATE READ: February 2010

NOTES: Gustad Noble lives a frugal life as a bank worker in Bombay. It is the 1970s and India is ruled by Indira Ghandi and the Congress Party. He has a wife Dilnavaz, sons Sohrab and Darius and daughter Roshan. They are a loving Parsee family but from the outset his precarious life seems to be on the verge of collapse. His young daughter is ill and his son Sohrab is refusing to go to college. They live in a crowded apartment block with fractious neighbours and every day they face powers cuts, food rationing, a shortage of medicines and low level corruption.

Then an old friend begs a favour from him. He claims to be involved in secret government work and claims to want to help the oppressed Bengalis. Gustad (who is naïve and trusting) picks up a parcel with a large amount of money to be deposited in a bank account. This is an illegal act but once Gustad is involved he sees no way out.

The bitter-sweet struggle of life in Bombay is well portrayed and despite all the setbacks and disappointments it is ultimately an uplifting story of good people in a harsh world. Such a Long Journey does not have the great sweep of time and place of A Fine Balance but in its own way is just as good.

A great read from a great writer.

The True History of the Kelly Gang


DATE READ: February 2010

NOTES: Because Peter Carey is such a good writer we approach his work with high expectations. The True History of the Kelly Gang does not disappoint. Carey allows Ned Kelly to tell his own story. The book reads as if it is a direct transcript of handwritten documents with each chapter beginning with a description of the pages.

It is a somewhat depressing tale of the inexorable descent into lawlessness for someone who had all the cards stacked against him. The writing is very atmospheric and shows the harshness of 19th century Australia where the forces of law and order are themselves beyond the law.

I enjoyed this book immensely – but did feel that some of the episodes in the middle of the book were a bit repetitive. However the fine writing and sympathetic portrayal of a folk hero overcame this.

Gone Tomorrow by Lee Child


DATE READ: February 2010

NOTES: Jack Reacher spots a potential suicide bomber in a late night train in New York’s metro. She shows all the right “symptoms” but when he approaches her something completely unexpected happens….. After that a whole train of events unfolds.

Who are the mysterious Ukranians (?), a mother and daughter (or are they?) who have their own security crew. How does senatorial candidate John sansom fit in? He seems to have been involved in secret ops while in the army in 1980s. Why are the Feds bent on silencing Reacher?

Gone Tomorrow gives us lots of action, umpteen fights and Reacher avoids capture over and over. And in the end he wreaks vengeance on all the bad guys. Lots of blood, gore and pain! I liked the way Jack Reacher has no home and no possessions and lives “on the move”. I also liked the fact that he was not au fait with modern technology.

Let’s face it – it does what it says on the label. Gone Tomorrow has no intellectual pretensions but is a good fast (but forgettable) beach read.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson


DATE READ: February 2010

NOTES: Human Croquet offers the reader Atkinson’s usual quirkiness. She is so fond of people “disappearing” – sometimes to pop up again but perhaps they are gone for ever. The happy family remains elusive…. The Fairfax parents disappear and Isabel and Charles are left with acidic Vinny. Next door Audrey is the troubled child of Headmaster Baxter and his abused wife who is always “bumping into doors” or “falling down stairs”.

But the missing father reappears after a long absence with Debbie his new wife. A baby is left on their doorstep….

There are lots of timeshifts so we don’t really know what is really happening. Of course, there is in the end a (more or less) rational explanation for everything. Her omniscient narrator allows us to know the truth in certain circumstances although the characters do not necessarily know.

Kate Atkinson writes with such energy making it hard to resist this funny but dark story.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Snow Hill by Mark Sanderson


DATE READ: March 2010

NOTES: This book had a great opening: “I went to my funeral this morning. I expected more people to be there….”. John Steadman is a London newspaper crime reporter and is drawn into a mystery involving a missing (or dead) policeman, police corruption, male prostitution, pornography and blackmail. London of the 1930s is well portrayed and impressively researched. But after a very promising start Snow Hill soon deteriorated.

Unfortunately much of the dialogue was very clunky and the plot is really creaky in places. The professed love of one policeman for another was, quite frankly, ludicrous. And towards the end the criminals freely admit their guilt and their motives – something that simply does not happen in real life.

The advance publicity for this book compares him to Jake Arnott – a very unjust comparison!

Theo and Matilda by Rachel Billington


DATE READ: January 2010

NOTES: The book is made up of four different Theos and Mathildas across the years. The first part is in the late 8th century – a monk and abbess build a church for a monastery6 in the West Country. But their love is never consummated. Then the Vikings arrive….

Then in the 16th century Matilda is a widow of a brutish nobleman and Theo is a monk. The abbey is taken over by Henry VIII and many of its artefacts and books are destroyed. After the dissolution of the monastery Theo and Matilda marry and live together in the adjoining manor house.

In the same manor house in the late 19th century Theo is a Darwinian keeper of snakes and Matilda a mother of seven. (A not very credible section) As the family fortunes decline the house is handed over to a local doctor to use an as asylum – Abbeyfields. Then later another two patients fall in love in the mental hospital…. No prizes for guessing their names.

The book ends with a young couple moving into a new housing estate built in the hospital grounds. They find some Anglo-Saxon documents thus linking them with the past.

A pleasant enough read but nothing special.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Master Georgie by Beryl Bainbridge


DATE READ: February 2010

NOTES: George Hardy, surgeon and photographer, travels from 19th century Liverpool to the Bosphorus at the start of the Crimean War. Chapters are narrated by different characters. These are Myrtle (his adoptive sister taken in as an orphan), Pompey Jones (a former street urchin turned photographer’s assistant and sometime fire-eater) and Doctor Potter (his geologist friend).

Beryl Bainbridge writes superbly and both time and place are brilliantly captured. We are not spared the horrors of war but her approach is subtle. The disastrous charge of the Light Brigade is conveyed by the description of the many riderless horses appearing in their camp.

She cleverly uses the new technology of photography to help with the structure of the book and each chapter title describes a photographic scene – like a series of wonderful tableaux.

I was however less convinced by some of the characterisations. Georgie never really came alive for me and I remained unconvinced as to why Myrtle and Pompey should have been so devoted to him.

Sunday, 28 February 2010

The Sound of Laughter by Peter Kay


DATE READ: January 2010

NOTES: Although I am not especially a fan of Peter Kay this book was recommended to me as a great “aeroplane read”. So with a long flight ahead of me I packed it in my hand luggage. It did not disappoint. It is jokey throughout – this is a bit wearing at times but there were some genuinely funny lines. There is probably a layer of truth among the outlandish tales. I loved his names for the nuns: Sister Matic, Sister Act II, Sister Sledge, etc.

He tells of his many rubbish jobs – in a loo roll factory, bingo hall, cinema usher, garage hand. He was obviously far from being an ideal employee! His affection for his family shines through – good to hear from someone with a happy childhood!

An unchallenging fun read. I left it on my travels and hope that someone else picked it up and enjoyed it…..

Monday, 18 January 2010

The Honourable Schoolboy by John Le Carré


DATE READ: January 2010

NOTES: This book follows Tinker, Tailor Soldier Spy. George Smiley is in charge of a demoralised secret service. Karla from Moscow Central sent Bill Haydon as a mole and caused serious damage to the British organisation. The main area of activity is now the Far East – Smiley is convinced that Karla has something serious going on and sends The Honourable Gerald Westerby to Hong Kong to work ostensibly as a newspaper reporter but at the same time to find out what Chinese businessman Drake Ho is up to.

Le Carré lets the plot unfold in its own time and gives us insights into the workings of the organisation, the difficult relations with the Americans and the general air of unease and betrayal that hangs over everyone. When he describes interrogations he gives these time to develop and may write pages of questions and answers before the interrogator gradually gets hold of the information desired. A lesser writer would probable feel the needed to speed up the process for fear of the reader losing interest.

Westerby, a romantic and somewhat naïve hero, moves from Hong Kong to Thailand to Cambodia and to Laos – always using his wits and charm to bluff his way into the confidence of others. Along the way he falls in love……which could be his undoing.

As you would expect the plotting is complex and there are many characters introduced but it is an excellent read about a hard and cynical world.

Friday, 8 January 2010

The Brass Verdict by Michael Connolly


DATE READ: January 2010

NOTES: The Brass Verdict heralds the return of Mickey Haller, the Lincoln Lawyer, as he takes up the caseload of a murdered attorney, Jerry Vincent. He takes over the imminent case of a film producer (Walter Elliot) accused of murdering his wife and her lover. There is lots of evidence against him but Haller is perturbed by the casual and unworried attitude shown by the defendant. Haller is convinced that Elliot has some sort of “get out of jail free” card up his sleeve and sets about investigating this.

Harry Bosch is part of the police investigation into Jerry Vincent’s death and he passes some information about what may be going on to Mickey. Mickey soon realises that some serious jury manipulation is going on and that his own life is in danger.

This book is typical Michael Connolly – a fast paced plot, some good characterisation, believable police work and credible court drama. I do feel it dragged a little at times – some of the court scenes could well have been shortened. However it is a good fun read.

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym


DATE READ: January 2010

NOTES: Barbara Pym is one of the undiscovered treasures of fiction. She writes with a gentleness and wry humour (usually) about the lives of women who are not the most beautiful or talented or desirable. But nonetheless these women have charms of their own – especially in their observation of the behaviour and dalliances of others.

Mildred is an unmarried woman in her thirties who thinks that the chances of marriage are slipping away from her. Things are not helped by the fact that all the men in her life are such clots! There are some nice observations of the male “helpers” at the church jumble sale who leave all the work to the women but are first in line for tea and cakes…. She is also puzzled by the fact that the married women she comes across are physically attractive but hopeless at most everyday skills.

Excellent Women was published in 1952 and very much reflects Britain of the time – such as the need to share a bathroom with fellow tenants.

Barbara Pym became rather unfashionable in the 1960s but it is good to see all her books reissued.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Resolution failed - and it is only first week of new year!

Yes, I know one of my New Year reading resolutions was to only buy one book for every three read from my shelves...... But I noticed that Barry Unsworth's latest Land of Marvels was out in paperback and so was A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book. Both are on my wish list and before I knew it I had bought them both. But the resolution still stands!

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Black Water Rising by Attica Locke

DATE PUBLISHED: 2009 DATE READ: January 2010 NOTES: Good to begin off the New Year with a really good book! I heard Black Water Rising reviewed on Radio 5 and was eager to read it. I was not disappointed. Set in Houston, Texas in 1981 it tells of struggling lawyer Jay Porter as he grapples with problems – both personal and professional – in a USA that is still coming to terms with the Civil Rights struggle. Attica Locke creates a wonderful picture of the steamy city which is beset by political corruption, union strife and corporate greed. She makes it very clear to the reader that although many of the demands of black citizens had been met by 1981 there still remained covert racism and many black people still felt they had to be careful in their actions and mistrustful of those in authority. It is a complex and gripping story. All the characters are well portrayed – from the ambitious manipulative white mayor to Jay’s heavily pregnant, highly principled and somewhat neglected wife. If you like James Lee Burke, Walter Mosley, the TV series The Wire or the film Chinatown then you will love this book. TITLE: