Wednesday, 7 June 2017

An Honourable Man - Paul Vidich

I had no great expectations of this book. In truth I acquired it from a book swapping website. I had heard the author and title on a book review site I follow and I think that’s why I chose it to swap. I was pleasantly surprised when I read it. I found it concise, slow but nevertheless gripping. I thought it was very visual and can see it translating well to maybe the small screen rather than the the big. I was reminded both of John Le Carre and Len Deighton as i read. I don’t know whether that is a criticism or not! I suspect that those two writers did rather set the benchmark for spy material.

A US, Cold War spy fiction sounds almost clichéd but as Karen Joy Fowler says if we didn’t have cliches there would be no need for the word at all! Maybe this is more old fashioned than clichéd. Or maybe the writer very skilfully recreated that sinister atmosphere of constantly looking over your shoulder during that era in America.  That subtle unease of everyday normality exploding into anything but. The constant mistrust of everyone including our, somewhat detached protagonist, George Mueller.

It is somewhat formulaic and characters seemed to be functional and lacked depth but that seemed to work within the intentions of this novel. It’s the Cold War, these are spies, maybe depth of a character is a luxury that cannot be afforded when you’re suspicious of everyone. 

My understanding is there is an imminent further publication featuring Mueller again. I won’t rush to read it but I won’t pass the opportunity by should the book pass my way.

Monday, 29 May 2017

A History of Running Away - Paula McGrath

Maybe it was the ‘Paula’ and I was thinking Radcliffe that made me speculate as to whether this might be an homage to marathon running. Nope. But the marathon of life might be seen as a fitting metaphor to sum up this second novel from Paula McGrath.

For me this was one of those rare books where you had to reach the end to realise how good it really is. If that sounds like stating the obvious I apologise. And I will endeavour to explain without giving anything away. I spent much of the book feeling frustrated. The novel was supposed to be telling me about three women, their separate lives and ultimately the connections between them all. And it did. It all began so promisingly; chapters with a little on each woman ending on, not so much a cliff hanger, as a stumble down a little incline. Except that as the fiction progressed there seemed to be a disproportionate bias towards the story of just one of the women. I wanted to know about all of them. 
It was only at the end that it became clear why such an emphasis and detail had gone into the story of that one woman. I hope that makes sense. If it doesn’t reading the book will.

To do this and get it right is the work of a competent and meticulous writer. For this is a well crafted plot that could easily go awry but it all unfolds skilfully. Unwittingly the reader is forced into engaging with one of the characters more than the others because, quite simply, you are told more about her. But the other characters are easily accessible. Much of it is good, old fashioned story telling, a tale unfolding before you with some satisfactory conclusions and no real loose ends.

It’s a tale of growing up and allowing that maturity to help you discover who you really are. In a sense it’s not about the circumstances and situations but more the motivations and commitment to seeing things through. That is clever because it seems the very paradox of running away from things! There is plenty of actual running in the book too the descriptions of which gave the book a rhythm and a flow.

It’s a tight story that doesn’t allow a reviewer to give much of the plot away without risking spoilers. I found it a worthwhile and absorbing read. I don’t think it covered any new ground but then I don’t think that was the intention of the writer. It’s refreshing to simply read  - a story, 

Don't Close Your Eyes - Holly Seddon

I read this in almost one session. Was it THAT good, I hear you ask? More of that later but I will quantify that by also saying it was a very hot day and reading was a perfect and enjoyably activity for the conditions.

I make no secret of loving a debut novel, the potential of experiencing a new, important voice. But I also relish the follow up, ‘that difficult second album’ syndrome. I love to see how a writer develops in style and in confidence dispelling any suggestion that they might be a one trick pony. I think Jessie Burton is a perfect recent example. So having enjoyed Try Not To Breathe, Ms. Seddon’s debut work I was bubbling with enthusiasm to read her next offering.

This is another uncomfortable read with little in the way of light relief. And if I’m honest there was much to potentially irritate me; split chronologies that dance from one decade and person to another and back again, yet another flawed narrator/protagonist, (although here we have two!), so in vogue in today’s writing, and the device of a character seeing events unfold through the windows of buildings is fast becoming a cliche. BUT it didn’t irritate me here. 

The characters engaged me and sucked me into the vortex of the storyline where there was no escape. I suppose it is a book about people believing they are doing their best in any given situation but falling far short in msot cases with devastating, far reaching consequences. Some almost dystopian family dynamics at play here that chill your heart. 

The writing style is recognisable as Holly Seddon’s from her first book, whilst the content may be uncomfortable reading the writing flows easily and accessibly.

The plot deals with some sensitive and challenging issues so much so that the writer saw fit to acknowledge this in her afterword  affirming her intention to have dealt with these issues respectfully and sensitively. I’d say she did. 

I think what does pull this book together is the twist at the end which seemed ultimately to make the entire novel worthwhile. One of those delicious ‘never saw it coming’ moments.

Don’t expect to come away from this book feeling uplifted unless it is to celebrate some compelling writing. And that brings me to my opening premise as to whether this books was so good it needs to be read in one session. I’m not gonna say!! Go read it for yourself!!

Monday, 22 May 2017

The Frozen Woman - Jon Michelet

I don’t speak Norwegian, doubt I ever will so I am indebted to Don Bartlett, who apparently translates Jo Nesbo too, for rendering this fiction accessible to an ageing anglospeak. However I am sure my experience in reading it would have been enhanced if I could experienced the native expression. As always with a translation I feel I am getting half a book.  That is no criticism  of the translator, its just that different languages have such different idiosyncrasies.

This book has won an award for being Norway’s best crime novel. The cynics among you may pose the question, just how many crime novels does Norway have? Quite a lot in fact; NordicNoir and ScandiCrime are potent forces within the genre. The sceptics among you might enquire just why Scandinavia should merit a genre(s) of its own when other nations don’t. I think this book is a perfect example of why.

For me anyway, Nordic crime, indeed broaden that to Swedish, Danish maybe Finnish and Icelandic too, is far more cerebral in its intent. The works seldom function as pure action packed thrillers, they demand the reader pays attention and not leave all the work to the fictional detective. Is that a bit too much like hard work when you’re simply trying to enjoy a read? And is it worth it?

I liked this book but I didn’t love it. The characters were quirky, difficult to get to know. It wasn’t that they were merely functional but they seemed detached from the reader.It sometimes seemed as if they were all enjoying an ‘in’ joke that the reader wasn’t ‘in’ on!

Much of the financial, business, political and economic strands of the plot lines were lost on me but that isn’t a criticism that’s just me. The ultimate unravelling of the actual crime was clever and well constructed. I had the sense of jig saw pieces falling into place. I think there were some attempts at humour to offer some light relief in what was quite a tense story but they may have lacked impact in translation. 

Ultimately I am confused by my own reaction to this book. I can’t assert definitely exactly how I feel about it which I am finding unnerving and unusual. Certainly its worthwhile and I’m glad I read it but I’m more comfortable with the likes of Jo Nesbo and Anne Holt.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

The Lost Book of the Grail - Charlie Lovett

Charlie Lovett? I love it!  The Lost Book of the Grail has been found, by me anyway! I actually entered a competition at Alma Books to win this novel and then the good people at Nudge sent me a copy to review. Some kind of karma? I don’t know but I was delighted.

This is a book for the bookish. An homage to all things bibliophilic. If anything shines through the entire volume it is the author’s love for books. Physical books, especially antiquarian books. And the enduring e-books/physical books debate continues loosely disguised within the narrative of this endearing story.

If you want a fast paced, swashbuckling mystery then look away, this book is not for you but if you like something thoughtful, populated by ordinary people living ordinary lives, slow paced yet meaningful then this is a novel to explore.

i love Arthur Prescott. He is so alarmingly ordinary as to be disarmingly quirky, possibly somewhere on the spectrum given the nature of some aspects of his behaviour and obsessions. One of those rare beings that has managed to eschew the digital age -  even mobile phones! His world is ordered, predictable. The mystery he seeks to solve has been with him most of his life.

A storyline that isn’t entirely unique - slightly older intellectual’s equilibrium is disturbed by younger person who eventually turns out to be a kindred spirit and also acceptably intellectual. But the writer almost uses the novel as a soap box for his thoughts and opinions on religious beliefs, legends, history, the fragile compatibility of old and new technologies and the appreciation of beauty.

The dual chronologies work well and puts the present into context as you read about the past. There is a thread of humour running throughout and for me friendship endures as a constant theme in this book. I found it a feel-good read with the ends pretty much nicely tied up. I guess to a degree it is a little saccharin but it works very well.

I love that Lovett uses an established fictional setting, Trollope’s Barchester and even giving some of his characters similar names.  It is a fitting tribute to the Barchester chronicles and allows a poetic licence that might not work within a real or actual cathedral city setting. 

If you’re a stickler for realism you may find some anomalies here but if you love to lose yourself in a fictional world where all things are possible this book will allow you to pass several absorbing hours.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Shelter - Sarah Franklin

I enjoyed this book much more than I thought I was going to when I started it. It seemed as if it was going to be yet another overwritten, debut novel. And to a certain extent that is exactly what it is. But it  meanders along with some considerable charm. If you want to try and ‘genrealise’ (is that a word even, or did I make it up?) it’ll fit into WWII, historical fiction or chick lit very nicely.

It’s a grand little tale of what the war can do, and indeed does do, to people, their families and their lives. It asks questions about the nature of imprisonment that goes beyond mere physical incarceration. It’s about secrets and the divulging of these secrets. It’s about family in its broadest sense and some of the decisions women face and have faced throughout time.

This may smack of criticism and negativity but I did find it somewhat predictable and cliched.  So what? What does it matter? Does a book have to be different and overtly original? If reading is about enjoyment, as it should be, I enjoyed reading this. It was well written and the characters were likeable and accessible. Connie is a very real person, maybe not always behaving as convention might demand but she is honest. She is the pivot that drives the rest of the story along, the maypole to which several of the other characters are attached. Many of them experiencing life dilemmas brought about by situations they could not influence. And if it feels like things you’ve read before then there’s some comfort in the familiar isn’t there? 

The writer’s deep love of the forest location goes a long way to lifting the narrative out of its potential stereotypical trappings of war story. The descriptions offer a tangible sense of being within a forest that offered a sanctuary , the ‘shelter’ of the title, living and breathing trees. So much so that the forest becomes as much a character as the humans in the book. 

It’s a credible debut novel from this writer and I will watch the progress of this book with interest.

Friday, 28 April 2017

Hunting the Hangman - Howard Linskey

This is a very clever piece of work. For it can be accessed on a number of levels which surely guarantees it reaching a wider audience. It can be taken as a good old WWII yarn. It can be read as a spy/resistance thriller. You can enjoy it as an historical fiction. Students of the Holocaust will find it of interest. There’s even some fleeting chick lit appeal!

2017 is the 75th anniversary of the attempted assassination of Reinhard Heydrich who earned himself a number of nicknames none of which match what I’d like to call him but unprintable in this context! This book is a fictional account of that assassination attempt. 

And the result is an extremely readable and engaging book which may sound paradoxical given the subject matter. And it’s no mean feat either. A straightforward non fiction account of this event could have come across as somewhat turgid and inaccessible. I believe readers who might ordinarily eschew a book of this nature would be surprised at how much they gain from reading it. Mr. Linksey has liberally punctuated this book with humanity. The paradox of all the Nazis stood for in many ways? 

The narrative flows easily and gathers momentum as the book progresses. The historical research is impeccable and what shines though is Mr. Linskey’s passion for his subject. Without that this story would be just another tale. But he makes every word count. He makes his characters come to life and we care about those we are supposed to care about. 

I am not unfamiliar with Howard Linskey’s work and I love the way he has developed as a writer. But this book has elevated him even further in my opinion. And to know that it has been seventeen years in the making fills me with awe. 

I have a strong belief that the damage carried out by the Third Reich should never go unforgotten for the sake of those who perished innocently and those who gave their lives to resist the evil onslaught. So this is an important book. It also celebrates Jan Kubis and Josef Gabcik - all that they did and all that they stood for. Celebrate may seem an inappropriate choice of word for which I only partly apologise.