FIVE 5-STAR READS
Each month this year, I’ll be looking back over my reviews of the past five years and picking out my favourite from each year. Cleo from Cleopatra Loves Books came up with this brilliant idea and kindly agreed to let me borrow it.
So here are my favourite August reads…click on the covers to go to the full reviews, though it must be said my early reviews were somewhat basic…
Teddy Daniels, US Marshall, is a capable and attractive hero, a decorated veteran battling with memories of the horrors he saw during WWII and the more recent memories of the death of his beloved wife in a tragic fire. Sent to investigate the escape of a patient from a high-security asylum for extremely violent and insane offenders, Teddy and his new partner Chuck Aule come to believe that the break-out would only have been possible with the help of one or more members of the staff. From this promising start, the book then spirals through ever changing conspiracy theories, which buffet and batter the reader much as the asylum is being battered by the hurricane that has cut off communication with the mainland. As the book progresses, it becomes harder and harder to know what is true and who is sane. An excellent and disturbing psychological thriller that reminded me a little of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in its questioning of the nature of sanity and madness. The cause of some lost sleep…
The second in Lexie Conyngham’s fine historical crime series, this one sees Charles Murray of Letho, estranged from his father, taking work as tutor to the young sons of Lord Scoggie. Lord Scoggie’s domain is divided between hill farmers and fishermen between which communities there is a long-standing feud. And when old India hand Major Keyes comes a-wooing the Scoggie daughter, simmering resentments come back to the surface…
Set in 19th century Scotland, Conyngham does her usual excellent job in combining a look at aspects of post-Enlightenment Scottish society with a decent murder mystery. In this one, Charles’ interactions with his young pupils give scope for a good deal of humour which lightens the tone, and his position as tutor gives him an entry into the worlds of both masters and servants. This has been one of my favourite series for a while now, despite a little disappointment with the most recent one. Although each book works as a standalone, to get the full benefit of the characterisation I would recommend they should be read in order, starting with Death in a Scarlet Gown.
Kalfus lived in Russia during the period 1994-1998, when his wife was appointed Moscow bureau chief of the Philadelphia Inquirer, allowing him to get to know the country and its people. The result is this collection of six short stories and a novella, all based in the Russia of the USSR era. Overall, he gives us a grey and grim depiction of life under the Soviet regime, but leavened with flashes of humour and a great deal of humanity. In each of the stories Kalfus personalises the political, creating believable characters struggling to find a way to live under the Soviet system. He doesn’t take the easy option of concentrating on dissidents and rebels; instead, he shows us ordinary people, often supporters of the regime, but living under the constant fear of stepping out of line. As a collection, these are insightful and thought-provoking, and Kalfus’ precise language and compelling characterisation make them an absorbing read.
If the sign of a great book is that it takes up permanent residence in the reader’s mind, then this one must be great. It’s one of those books that I appreciate more in retrospect than I did during the actual reading of it. This tale of the feckless ‘lost generation’ drinking their way across Europe while taking turns to have sex with the ever willing Lady Brett irritated me intensely with its constant descriptions of drunkeness and long passages of tediously banal dialogue. But as I stood back after finishing it, I realised what a stunning depiction of machismo and masculinity it actually is, while the beauty of some of the descriptive writing has left indelible images in my mind – of the dusty streets, the restaurants and bars, the bus journey to Spain, and most of all of the rituals surrounding the annual bullfighting fiesta and running of the bulls in Pamplona. The characterisation is patchy, often using cheap racial stereotyping, and the structure is messy but, despite all its flaws, in the end the picture that emerges of a damaged man metaphorically rising from the ashes through a kind of examination of maleness is really quite compelling after all.
When young actor Lysander Rief gets sucked into the shadowy world of spies and espionage, it all feels like a bit of a game – an adventure. The book is about lies, deception and self-deception and, despite some dark moments, has a layer of wit bubbling beneath the surface which keeps the overall tone light. Lysander has been visiting a psychiatrist who introduces him to the concept of ‘parallelism’. A technique developed by the good doctor himself, the idea is to identify the event at the root of a problem and then to invent an alternative history of the event, embellishing and repeating it until it feels like a truer memory than the thing that actually happened. And this book feels like an exercise in parallelism itself – a hazy, shimmering story that seems just a little unreal, a little off-kilter. It feels as if a false memory is being created as the reader watches, and to a degree the reader has to agree to be complicit in its creation. Lysander is a great character, self-absorbed, self-deceiving, but fundamentally a good guy with a too-trusting nature and a kind of relaxed, go where the wind blows him attitude that makes him a pleasure to spend time with. When Boyd is on form, as he is here, then there are few more enjoyable authors.