Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne

Journey’s End…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It is Wednesday, 2nd October, 1872, and as he does every day, Mr Phileas Fogg is playing whist with his friends in the Reform Club. But this day the conversation turns to how the world is shrinking as more and more places become linked by fast steamships or railroads. Fogg claims that it is now possible to go around the world in eighty days. His companions pooh-pooh this notion, and Fogg offers to prove his point by making the journey. A wager is hastily arranged for the massive sum of £20,000 – half Fogg’s entire fortune. He intends to use the other half to cover any unforeseen expenses on his travels. And within hours he’s off, accompanied only by his French manservant, Passepartout, whom he had hired just that morning. But, unbeknownst to them, they are being followed…

I started my Around the World in 80 Books Challenge back in March 2016, so it has taken me considerably longer to make the trip than Phileas Fogg allowed himself! When I got close to the end I realised this was the only possible book I could choose to bring me back to London where my journey started all those years ago. And a perfect choice it proved to be! Not only is it a great book in its own right, but it also took me to all the places I’ve read about in the books I picked for my challenge. So when we got to Bombay I thought of playing cricket; when Fogg and his companions travelled by elephant I remembered Solomon’s journey; when they reached Omaha I thought of the World Fair. Anyway, I shall do a proper round-up of the challenge soon, but meantime, back to this book!

Fogg is a man of rigid habits and an obsessive concern with punctuality and exactness in all things. The narrator suggests his background is rather unknown, but that he must have travelled in the past to give him his fairly encyclopaedic knowledge of the world. He is unflappable to an extraordinary degree given that his entire fortune is in the balance, but we eventually see that he has hidden depths. Passepartout, in contrast, is volatile and constantly getting into scrapes, but on the other hand he soon develops strong feelings of loyalty to his master and shows true bravery on more than one occasion. Then there is Detective Fix, trailing Fogg whom he suspects of having robbed Baring Brothers bank on the day he left London so suddenly. Fix spends half the time trying to slow them down and the other half trying to speed them up since he can only arrest Fogg on British soil – and the book reminds us that British soil spreads fairly extensively across the world at this period. The fourth character is an Indian woman they pick up along the way, but I won’t say more about her because to tell her story would be a bit too spoilery.

The book starts a little slow, with a lot of concentration on timetables and dates and so on, and Fogg is not initially a very endearing character. He is interested only in achieving his aim of proving that the journey can be done in the time – he has no interest in the places to which they travel other than how quickly he can get out of them again on the next leg of the trip. Europe gets barely a mention, Egypt is a passing blur, and it’s only really when they reach India that they begin to have adventures. But by that time, Passepartout and Fix have developed into entertaining characters, sometimes friendly, sometimes not, and they give the story the life and liveliness that Fogg’s cold mechanical persona lacks. It’s in India too, though, that for the first time we see signs of humanity beneath that British stiffness, and from there on gradually Fogg also becomes someone we care about.

From India to Hong Kong, to Yokohama, across America – sometimes ahead of the clock, sometimes behind. One adventure after another holds them back, each time throwing Passepartout into gloom and desperation but leaving Fogg unruffled and determined. And each adventure is more fun than the one before – storms and Sioux warriors, acrobats and opium dens, trains and steamships, polygamists and Parsees, and oodles of luck both good and bad. Will they make it back in time? Even though I knew the answer, I must admit I found the last fifty pages or so pretty heart-pounding, and joined Passepartout on his emotional roller-coaster ride between despair and euphoria. And the end is brilliantly done, misdirection and twists abounding!

Jules Verne

The new translation by William Butcher in my Oxford World’s Classics edition is excellent – flowing and fun. His rather scholarly introduction left me somewhat befuddled, in truth. As always, I read the book first, and imagine my surprise on being told that it’s full of sexual innuendo and “brazen homosexual overtures” between the three male characters. I missed all of that! Even though he’s now told me it’s there, nope, I don’t see it. Maybe he’s right – in fact, since he’s a Verne expert and I’m not, I’m willing to assume he is right – but then, on the other hand… sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Butcher goes so far as to say “the book is not designed for callow adolescents”. Hmm, I was probably a callow adolescent when I first read it, and I don’t think it corrupted my innocence! I did enjoy Butcher saying that Verne had portrayed the Mormons as an “erotico-religious group” though – I missed that too…

So an excellent adventure story suitable for all ages, or a walk on the wild side of sexual psychology, depending on whether you believe me or Butcher. Either way, highly entertaining – great stuff!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

Book 5 of 20

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The African Queen by CS Forester

Love among the leeches…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

It is 1914. When the Germans round up all the native inhabitants of the Reverend Samuel Sayer’s mission in Central Africa to take them off to fight in the war, the Reverend quickly succumbs to fever and dies, leaving his faithful sister all alone. Until along comes Charles Allnut, a Cockney mechanic who had been out on the river collecting supplies when the Germans came, and returned to find all the people at the mine where he worked gone too. He realises he can’t leave Rose here, so takes her with him aboard the little steam boat, the African Queen, planning to find somewhere safe to hole up till the war is over, at least in this part of the world. Rose, however, has a different idea. She wants revenge on the Germans for destroying her brother’s life work, and quickly convinces herself that they should take the African Queen down river to Lake Wittelsbach, there to destroy the German gunboat that patrols the lake. It takes her a little longer to convince Allnut…

This, of course, is the book on which the Hepburn/Bogart film was based, and since that’s always been a favourite I knew the story well, and was interested to see how closely the movie had stuck to the original. The answer is that it does to a very large degree with one or two minor changes in characterisation, and then a huge divergence in plot at the end that makes the film into an adventure classic and leaves the book floundering as a rather anti-climactic disappointment.

Book 65 of 90

In the book, Allnut is a Cockney Londoner rather than an American. While I feel it would have been highly entertaining to see Bogie attempting to do a Cockney accent, I can understand why the star factor led to the movie character being portrayed as American. It doesn’t make much difference, except of course to change the patriotism emphasis from one of Brits fighting the Germans to the usual Hollywood hoopla of Americans saving the world. Rose is very much as Hepburn played her except that the woman in the book is a decade or so younger. So although she is still the “spinster sister” of the missionary, she is young enough to make her transformation into an active adventurer and passionate lover slightly more believable. She is, of course, actually English too, unlike Ms Hepburn!

The main strength of the book is in the descriptions of the African riverscape. Forester gives a real feeling for the abominable heat and how badly this affects the pale-skinned Brits, however used to it they may be. The sudden rains, the insects, the leeches lurking in the water, the reeds that choke some parts of the river and the rapids that make other parts a terrifying thrill ride – all of these are done brilliantly and feel completely authentic (at least, to this reader who has never been even close to Africa).

The characterisation is considerably weaker, unfortunately, although they are both likeable enough to keep the book entertaining. Allnut is a weak, rather cowardly man but with lots of practical skills and knowledge, while Rose has courage enough for two and the ability to learn quickly, so they complement each other well. Do people change as rapidly as these two do, even in extreme circumstances? Hmm, perhaps, but I wasn’t entirely convinced. Under the leadership of a strong woman, Allnut suddenly discovers a courage even he didn’t think he possessed, whereas Rose quickly throws off a lifetime of repression and strict religious beliefs to become the lover of this rather underwhelming man. I didn’t altogether believe it, but I still enjoyed the journey in their company.

CS Forester

At least, I enjoyed it up until the last ten per cent or so, when suddenly all the tension is destroyed by an ending that leaves our two main characters on the sidelines while the regular armed forces of Britain and German take over. No wonder the plot was changed for the film! I can’t imagine what Forester was thinking, really. Perhaps he thought that the idea of two people tackling a German gunboat on their own was just too unbelievable and in real life that might be true. But this isn’t real life – it’s an adventure novel and needs a dramatic end led by our two unlikely heroes! Let them succeed thrillingly or fail tragically, but don’t just stick them to one side and let other people take over! Pah! I was left infuriated and let down by the way it all fizzled out.

So overall, good fun for most of the journey but with a sadly disappointing ending. I enjoyed it, but I’m not sure that I’d really recommend it except to diehard fans of colonial adventure novels (which, by the way, reminds me that I haven’t mentioned that some of the language about the “natives” is toe-curlingly dated). One of those cases where I feel the film is better…

Book 3 of 20

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Sword by Bogdan Teodorescu

The politics of crime…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When a petty criminal is brutally killed, at first no one pays too much attention. But it quickly turns out he was only the first victim – soon there have been several murders, all carried out the same way: a method which earns the killer the nickname Sword. All the victims have two things in common. They are all criminals, and they are all members of the Roma, a minority ethnic group in Romania. Soon the matter becomes political as long-unresolved racial tensions rise to the surface, leading to outbreaks of violence. This is the story of a new, fragile democracy and of the men who are trying to make it work, or to undermine it…

This is the first book translated by Marina Sofia, long-time blogging buddy and now one of the co-founders of a new venture into translated crime fiction – Corylus books. The translation is excellent, as I expected, knowing Marina Sofia’s skill with words and expertise in about a million languages! Romanian is her mother tongue and English is the language she currently uses in her life, work and writing, so she really is the perfect translator for the book. There’s no clunkiness, and either she or the author, or both, know when an international audience might need a little bit of extra guidance to understand something that may be obvious to Romanians. This meant that, although the story is quite complex, I never felt lost.

The book is a very original take on a crime novel, looking deeply into the politics of racially motivated crime and how it impacts on an already divided society. The first chapter shows us the first murder in fairly graphic detail and it seems as if it’s going to be the start of a more or less standard crime fiction. But almost immediately we are taken, not to the police investigation, but to the corridors of power, where a Presidential election is only a few months away and all the top politicians are jostling for position. Some of the characters are named, but others are simply known by their titles – the President, the Minister of the Interior, and so on. There’s a cast of thousands (slight exaggeration, perhaps) and a handy cast list at the end, although I quickly found I didn’t need it, because in a sense who the characters are doesn’t matter – it’s their role in the politics of the country that matters. By about halfway through some of them had developed distinctive personalities, but others were simply “journalists”, “Presidential advisers”, “political commentators”, etc.

You hate the sound of this now, don’t you? But honestly, it works! It’s not really about the people, or even the crimes – it’s a political thriller about how politicians in a corrupt society manoeuvre, how they manipulate the media and how in turn the media manipulates them. It’s about Romania trying to juggle the demands of all the demanding new European and American partners they have to deal with now they’ve left the Soviet sphere of influence. And it’s a coldly cynical look at how politicians might ruthlessly inflame the divisions in society to boost their own electoral chances.

The Roma are seen as a kind of underclass, marginalised and discriminated against by a society that has written them off as criminals. They are the target of the Romanian version of white supremacists, but even the mainstream parties would rather they just stayed silent and invisible or better yet, left Romania altogether. As more victims turn up, tensions between the Roma and the Romanians grow, eventually leading to a series of violent confrontations, each more serious than the last. For those in power, a difficult balance must be struck – plenty of Romanians see the Sword as some kind of avenging angel, while the equally unscrupulous political leaders of the Roma see it as a way to lever some recognition for themselves. For those who want to be in power, it’s an opportunity – how can they best use it to bring the government to its knees?

Bogdan Teodorescu

I suspect you’d have to be interested in the skulduggery of politics to enjoy this one, although it’s certainly not necessary to understand Romanian politics specifically. The thing that most stood out to me, in fact, was that no matter the country, the corruption and the character of those who seek political power are depressingly similar. It’s so well done – too believable to be comfortable. Seeing how the actions of one man can cause a chain reaction that escalates to a point where society itself is fracturing and in danger of imploding is frighteningly relevant, especially when the basis of the story is about the marginalisation and repression of an ethnic group – something we’re all struggling with in the West at the moment. I love political shenanigans, so I loved the book, and learned a lot about Romania’s recent history as a bonus. Great stuff – highly recommended!

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The Never Game (Colter Shaw 1) by Jeffery Deaver

74% successful…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Sophie Mulliner is missing and her frantic father has offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who can find her. Enter Colter Shaw, professional “rewardist” – a man who uses the tracking skills instilled in him in childhood by his survivalist father to hunt for missing people for the reward money. The case soon becomes more complicated when another person goes missing, then another. Colter, teaming up with local police detective LaDonna Standish, must try to find each victim while they’re still alive, while also attempting to work out who is behind it all and what they’re trying to achieve. Soon the investigation will take them deep into the gaming industry in Silicon Valley, full of eccentric designers and cut-throat competition, and the whole weirdness of people who spend more time in virtual worlds than the real one.

As well as the main plot, this first in a new series fills us in on Colter’s unusual upbringing and the mystery that still hangs over him from back then, which is clearly going to become a running story arc over future books. Colter’s father bought a huge wilderness property and called it the Compound, on which he brought up his three children to be able to survive anything nature or mankind could throw at them. Although Colter then went on to college and is perfectly comfortable in the outside world, his childhood has left him unwilling to settle in a routine job and too self-sufficient to work for someone else, so he travels around the country in his Winnebago, sometimes for pleasure, sometimes chasing down a missing person for the reward money. But he’s not a traditional loner – he has friends and people he works with professionally, and still regularly goes back to the Compound to visit his mother. His father taught him to make decisions based on probabilities, so when making any decisions he runs through the various options allocating each a percentage rating of success. These percentages appeared to me to be entirely arbitrary and so became increasingly pointless and annoying as the book went on. I do hope Deaver drops that in future books because otherwise Colter has all the makings of an excellent series protagonist.

Jeffery Deaver

It took me a while to get into this and it never really turned into a heart-pounding thriller for me, but I liked Colter and loved LaDonna (who unfortunately probably won’t appear in future books, since Colter doesn’t stay in the same place for long), and I found the background story about the world of gaming interesting (though I suspect it may drive real gamers crazy since Deaver explains everything at a really basic level for the novice). It is too long at 450 pages, and the divide between the actual plot and Colter’s back story slows the pace too much, especially in the early section. The plot has lots of interesting twists and turns, though these aren’t always executed as smoothly as I’d expect from an author with Deaver’s long experience. However, the writing is excellent for the style of the book – that is, it’s plainly and clearly written, third person, past tense, with a nice balance between characterisation and action, and I gradually found myself absorbed in it. I must admit I actually found the mystery relating to Colter’s past rather more interesting than the main plot in the end, and it would be it that would tempt me to read the next book.

So overall, a good start to what has the potential to be a great series – I’d say there’s about an 81% chance of that. I look forward to finding out.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, HarperCollins.

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The Guest List by Lucy Foley

Wedding from hell…

🙂 🙂 🙂

When domineering and narcissistic Jules is getting married to handsome and charming TV celebrity Will, she wants her wedding to be glamorous and unique, so she books The Folly, a newly refurbished old house situated on a small, isolated island off the coast of Ireland. But when the guests begin to arrive, we soon learn that many have secrets, and long-hidden tensions and resentments will soon come to the surface as the drink starts to flow…

The blurb of this and many reviews are comparing it to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, so I’ll start by saying it’s not comparable, either in plot or storytelling. This isn’t a deranged seeker after justice gathering together a group of potential victims – rather it’s a group of victims, one of whom will take revenge against another. The mystery is all in which of the damaged and bitter people will be the one to break and who will they kill? And, of course, in order to create “tension”, the author keeps all their past secrets hidden until near the end, merely hinting dramatically at them throughout.

The trend of “that day” novels surely must be approaching its end now. It feels increasingly tired with every new “thriller” that comes along. In this one, nearly every character has a “that day” incident in their past, reminding me of why wedding receptions should never be held in remote places where there’s no easy escape route for the few sane, sober guests. Not, I hasten to add, that there are any sane, sober guests at this wedding. From Aoife, the wedding planner who hints regularly at some tragic incident that has resulted in a well tended grave in the grounds of The Folly; to Jules’ half-sister, Olivia, having dropped out of university over some shattering experience involving an unspecified man; to Helen, married to Jules’ oldest friend Charlie and suspicious of their relationship; to Johnno, the best man, and the ushers – all school friends of Will and all constantly hinting at a terrible incident that happened back in their schooldays; every single guest is portentously weighted with emotional damage.

Lucy Foley

It sounds as if I hated this and I didn’t, really. As what it is, it’s reasonably good – it’s simply that there have been so many of these identikit thrillers that I don’t see much point in them unless they’re real stand-outs, and for me this wasn’t. It relies hopelessly on piling up coincidence after coincidence until it loses any pretence at credibility, and frankly becomes a bit laughable. However, it’s well written, and, while I couldn’t really believe that anyone would build a wedding venue on an island that gets cut off in storms and is full of deadly bogs, quicksands and underground caves, Foley does use this unlikely setting well to develop an atmosphere of menace. Initially her characterisation is quite good too – she ranges through multiple narrators (of course) and their voices aren’t always distinct from one another, meaning that the chapter headings telling the reader who’s speaking are essential, but each has an interesting story to tell, even if they tell them at glacial speed. Gradually, as their stories are revealed, it all becomes overly dramatic and the characterisation dips a bit, but despite it being grossly overpadded as is standard with current crime fiction, it mostly held my attention and kept me turning the pages. I may have suspected the dénouement would be, as it was, unconvincing, but I still wanted to know how it all turned out.

So, not really my kind of thing but I enjoyed it enough to make the time spent on it worthwhile, and I’m sure it will work better for the many avid fans of this type of thriller, who I hope will not be deterred by my lukewarm, subjective review.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, HarperCollins.

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The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope

Buckle your swash…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Owing to the indiscretion of an ancestor, the Rassendyll family shares heredity with the ruling family of the small Germanic nation of Ruritania. Every now and then a Rassendyll is born with the red hair and long nose common to the Ruritarian Kings. Rudolf is one of these red-haired Rassendylls and, being a young man with a plentiful inheritance and time on his hands, he decides he will visit Ruritania to witness the coronation of the new young King, another Rudolf. When he gets there he discovers that everyone is startled by his appearance – he doesn’t simply resemble the King, they are almost identical. So when King Rudolf is incapacitated before his coronation, our Rudolf steps in to take his place in order to prevent the King’s jealous half-brother, Black Michael (so called because he hasn’t inherited the red hair), from carrying out a coup and stealing not just the throne but the beautiful Princess Flavia, destined to be the wife of the King. But when the King is then kidnapped, suddenly Rudolf finds the impersonation will have to go on until the King is free…

Short novel or long novella, this is a swashbuckling adventure full of drama, sword fights, high romance and chivalric honour. And it’s great fun! Rudolf tells us the story himself, and it reminded me very much in style of John Carter in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom books, where the first person narrator self-deprecatingly repeats the many compliments bestowed upon him by everyone he meets, so that we know he’s wonderful in every way without him having to tell us so directly. A great swordsman, a flawless linguist, a natural leader of men, and an irresistible wooer of women, Rudolf is also a man who puts honour above his own desires, even when faced by overwhelming temptation. But he lets us see his internal struggle to do the right thing, which stops him from becoming insufferable. The King is a weak drunkard and Black Michael is a hissable villain, so that the reader can only agree with the growing number of Ruritarians who begin to think that the impostor is an improvement over the real royals.

Ronald Colman as Rudolf and Raymond J Massey as Black Michael in the 1937 film.

Although Black Michael is the chief baddie in terms of the plot, it’s his henchman Rupert of Hentzau who becomes Rudolf’s main adversary. Rupert shares most of Rudolf’s manly attributes, but turns them to wickedness rather than good. So where Rudolf is not above stealing a kiss from an innkeeper’s daughter, Rupert is more likely to kidnap the girl and “ruin” her – such a useful euphemism! And while Rudolf will do the right thing even if it hurts him, Rupert will cheerfully sell his loyalty to the highest bidder. They are a little like Jekyll and Hyde – two extremes of the same personality, one good, one evil. And Rudolf recognises this himself – although he finds Rupert morally reprehensible, he still admires his spirit and bravado, and finds his outrageous behaviour amusing.

The introduction in my Oxford World’s Classics edition is by Nicholas Daly, Professor of Modern English and American Literature at University College Dublin. He tells us about the impact and legacy of the book, which spawned so many imitations they became a sub-genre all on their own, of “Ruritarian romances”. There were successful stage adaptations in both London and New York, and several film versions, and Daly gives many examples of later books and films that were inspired by it. Ruritania itself, although imaginary, has taken on a life apart from the book. Wikipedia gives a list of instances when it has been used in order not to offend real nations: for example, “Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer cited Ruritania as a fictional enemy when illustrating a security treaty between Australia and Indonesia”. Isaac Asimov apparently also used it if he wanted to tell a joke that was based on ethnic stereotyping, substituting it for the nation or people in the original joke.

Anthony Hope

The plot is very well done. It’s quite simple – how to free the King and restore order – but Hope uses the impersonation aspect to tie all three participants up in a tangle where each is prevented from taking the easy option without destroying his own plan. And he skilfully puts the reader in the position of not being sure what the best outcome would be. This gives it the suspense that keeps those pages turning – it’s hard to put down so it’s fortunate that it’s short enough to be read in an evening.

A thoroughly entertaining read, perfect for the next time you feel the need to buckle your swash! Or should that be swash your buckle…? Either way, recommended!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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Westwind by Ian Rankin

Eyes in the sky…

🙂 🙂 😐

When communications with the Zephyr satellite are suddenly cut, the monitoring staff at the Binbrook listening station work frantically to restore it. If it’s down for more than a few minutes, chances are it will be lost for good. Fortunately, it kicks back in after a couple of minutes, as mysteriously as the original breakdown. One of the technicians, Martin Hepton, is puzzled – even more so when a colleague tells him that he has spotted something odd, and then before Hepton gets the chance to ask him what, disappears from the base. At the same time, there is an accident aboard a space shuttle and all the crew are killed except one – a British astronaut, Major Dreyfuss. All this is happening at a time when tensions are high already, due to the imminent pullout of American troops from their bases across Europe. Soon Hepton will find himself in danger, and to save himself will have to work out what’s going on…

This is one Ian Rankin wrote many years ago when he was just starting out. It was first published in 1990 and sank without making much impression. Now there’s a little trend happening of publishers reissuing early books of authors who have gone on to become big names. I’ve recently read a couple of early Peter Mays – one I abandoned and didn’t review, and the other I loved. So there are gems out there – we’ve all read debuts we’ve thought were great and been disappointed when they didn’t break through. Sadly, while this one isn’t terrible, it’s not very good either.

It took me a while to figure out why it wasn’t working. It’s well written as you’d expect from Rankin, and although the characters are clichéd and the technology is seriously outdated, neither of these is unusual in action thrillers. I realised it’s the timing that’s off. In thrillers, there’s always a need to keep the reader in the dark alongside the characters as they battle against the odds to discover what’s going on. But there has to be something to hold the attention while the plot gets a chance to develop – usually the reader getting to know and care about the main character – and that’s where this one is weak. For several chapters, we keep meeting new people, most of whom are so underdeveloped that I found in the later stages I had no recollection of who they were or in what context we’d met them before, and each encounter is equally mysterious, constantly adding to the confusion. It bounces around so much that it was quite a while before I was even sure that Hepton was going to be the hero of the story. By that point my interest level had already flagged.

Hepton of course becomes the target of the baddies who are determined to kill him. This baffled me a bit, since he didn’t know anything and probably wouldn’t even have started looking into it if they hadn’t started chasing him around. A rather incompetent move, I felt, to actually inspire him to become suspicious! That wasn’t their only incompetence, though – I really felt that if their assassins were this bad at killing people, then the world probably wasn’t in too much danger from them.

And I’m afraid that when we finally find out who the baddies are and what they’re up to, I found it not only lacking in credibility but unfortunately all a bit silly. It left me feeling that Rankin was more interested in the action parts of the book than in ensuring there was a solid plot beneath them.

Ian Rankin

I’ve swithered over how to rate it. I suspect if it hadn’t been Rankin, my expectations would have been lower and therefore I’d have been less disappointed in it. But then if it had been written by someone else, I also think I’d be unlikely to seek out more of the author’s work based on this outing. I’m not convinced that this is a good trend – two disappointments out of three from two of my favourite authors of all time suggests that maybe their forgotten early books should be left to rest in peace. 2½ stars in the end, but I suspect that one of them may simply be because of my affection for Rankin’s later work…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Orion, via NetGalley.

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The Last Day by Andrew Hunter Murray

Stop the world…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When a rogue white dwarf star passes through the solar system, its gravitational pull affects the Earth’s rotation on its axis. Gradually over a period of years it slows, with days and nights lengthening; and then it stops completely, leaving half the earth’s surface in endless burning day and the other half in endless frozen night. Humanity scrabbles to survive and Britain comes out on top, lucky to be in the small habitable zone that surrounds the growing desert in the centre of the sunlit side. But when scientist Edward Thorne, on his deathbed, gives his old pupil Ellen Hopper a cryptic message, she is sucked in to uncovering secrets about how Britain has ensured its survival – secrets the authoritarian government will do anything to keep hidden…

There’s a lot to like about this promising début, so let me get my criticisms out of the way first. The book is drowning under the weight of words, being at least a third too long for its content. Murray describes everything in detail – he does it very well but a lot of it is unnecessary and it slows the pace to a crawl. In order to thrill, thrillers have to maintain a good pace and to speed up towards the climax. This is so self-evident that it always stuns me that editors don’t pick up on it even if writers make the basic mistake of getting too involved in their own descriptions of the settings at the expense of maintaining escalating forward momentum. The scene should be set in, say, the first third to half, and from there on the focus should switch to action. And the climax, when it comes, has to both surprise and be dramatic enough to have made the journey worthwhile. Here, unfortunately, the climax is one of the weakest points of the book, both in execution and in impact.

However, there are plenty of strong points to counterbalance these weaknesses. The writing is of a very high standard, especially the descriptions of the scientific and social effects of the disaster. Not being a scientist, I don’t know how realistic the world in the book is but it is done well enough for me to have bought into the premise. Murray shows how science during the Slow and after the Stop becomes concentrated on immediate survival – developing ways to provide food and power for the people – while less attention is given to research into how the long-term future may turn out. As Ellen, herself a scientist, begins to investigate Thorne’s hints, Murray nicely blurs whether this neglect is because of lack of resources, or because the government specifically doesn’t want researchers happening on things they want to conceal. In a world where the government brutally disposes of anyone who threatens them, it’s difficult for Ellen to trust anyone or to involve anyone else in her search for the truth for fear of the consequences to them, but her brother and her ex-husband both get caught up in her quest, and both are interesting relationships that add an emotional edge to the story.

Andrew Hunter Murray

The characterisation is excellent, not just of Ellen but of all the secondary and even periphery characters. I was so pleased to read a contemporary book starring a strong but not superhuman woman, intelligent and complex, who is not the victim of sexism, racism or any other tediously fashionable ism. The only ism she has to contend against is the authoritarianism of the government – much more interesting to me. Murray handles gender excellently throughout, in fact, having male and female characters act equally as goodies and baddies, be randomly strong or weak regardless of sex, and keeping any romantic elements to an almost imperceptible minimum. He also shows a range of responses to the authoritarianism, from those who think it’s essential in the circumstances, to those who dislike it but remain passive, to those who actively or covertly resist it; and he makes each rise equally convincingly from the personality of the character.

So overall a very strong début with much to recommend it – if Murray learns, as I’m sure he will, that there comes a point when it’s necessary to stop describing everything and let the action take over then he has the potential to become a very fine thriller writer indeed. I look forward to reading more from him.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Cornerstone.

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The Mystery of Cloomber by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Those mysterious Orientals…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When a new neighbour moves into the long vacant Cloomber Hall, our narrator John Hunter West and his father and sister are keen to make their acquaintance, since their estate in Wigtownshire, in Scotland’s southwestern corner, doesn’t afford much in the way of society. But they soon discover that the new tenant, Major Heatherstone, has an almost morbid aversion to company, preferring to keep himself and his family safely behind the new fences and gates he has installed all round the property. Youth finds ways to overcome these problems, however, and John and his sister, Esther, are soon romantically involved with the Major’s daughter, Gabriel, and son, Mordaunt, respectively. John soon learns that the Major’s reclusive habits are because he lives in constant fear, but of what he won’t reveal. However, his children tell the Wests that the Major’s fears intensify every year on October 5th, and then lessen once that date is safely past. This year, however, just a few days before the 5th, a terrible storm blows up and a ship is wrecked off the coast. The survivors include three mysterious men from the East – Buddhist mystics – and when Major Heatherstone hears of this, his fears reach new heights…

The narrator is writing this as a kind of statement to explain the events that follow, and includes various accounts given in the words of witnesses. This gives Conan Doyle the chance to use some Scottish dialect and he does it very well, making it sound very authentic while keeping it clear enough for non-Scots to understand. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing him in Scots mode, since mostly, like most Scots authors, he wrote in standard English to please the much larger English reading public. Most of this is in standard English too, but the dialect and locations give it a Scottish appeal.

In structure, it’s reminiscent of some of the longer Sherlock Holmes stories, in that it tells firstly of what happens in the present and then takes us back to the past to explain the reasons behind the events. It’s pretty clear from early on that the Major’s fears relate to something that he did when he was a serving officer in the Army. Conan Doyle was writing for a contemporary audience who would have been familiar with the campaigns the Major was involved in, but I must admit it took me a bit of time to work out where exactly he was. The Buddhists and the references to Sanskrit scholarship convinced me we were in India, as did the fact that the Major was leading troops including Sepoy soldiers. But there are references to Afghanistan too and John West tells us that the earlier events took place during the first Afghan War. It appears that they took place just over the border, where it was geographically Afghanistan but culturally still very similar to India, and the Indian troops were serving as part of the British Army in that war.

Conan Doyle was always interested in the mystical side of life even before he became so heavily involved in spiritualism, and this book is a real example of the then prevalent opinion of Eastern peoples as having mystical powers unknown to us in the West. There are lots of racial stereotypes and some unfortunate terminology, including use of the n-word, but if you can see past this, in fact Conan Doyle is expressing an admiration for a culture which he portrays as far more spiritually advanced than our own. He doesn’t overtly criticise the behaviour of the Brits in general, but he does show that the imperial belief in our racial superiority led some to commit acts that he in his time, like we in ours, would see as atrocities. His portrayal of the Buddhists is an intriguing insight into the mixture of fascination and fear that the mysterious people of the Orient held for Victorian Britain.

There’s mystery here, but there’s also a generous dollop of horror and very effective it is too! The start is a little slow, but once it gets going it becomes a real page-turner, full of tension as we see the Major haunted by his fears, and then drama as we reach the climax. The concluding section where we learn of the earlier events has its own different kind of horror, as we read the Major’s own diary account of what happened in Afghanistan. Great stuff, up there with the level of the Holmes’ long stories, and I’m at a loss as to why it’s not better known. Perhaps the outdated racial terms have made it fall out of favour, but I do think it’s worth making the effort to see them in their context and look more deeply at the underlying criticism of British imperialist attitudes implied in the story. Another example of wonderful storytelling from the master – highly recommended!

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Payment Deferred by CS Forester

Fade to grey…

🙂 🙂 🙂

We first meet William Marble as he sits in his dining room one evening, totting up his debts. William is a bank clerk who deals in currency exchange, and his salary is of the respectable rather than the generous kind. Despite his humble house, he and his wife Annie always overspend their budget and for a long time William has been shuffling his debt around, borrowing from one person to pay off another. But now he’s reached the point where he has no-one left to tap and his creditors are looking to be paid. Then his young nephew arrives unexpectedly from Australia, with a wallet stuffed with wads of banknotes. And it just so happens William has a cupboard full of photography chemicals that can easily double as poison…

This is not a detective novel, so that little blurb isn’t nearly as spoilerish as it might seem. The murder happens right at the beginning, and the book is actually about the impact it has on William’s psychology. We watch as guilt and fear eat away at him, destroying his already weak character. It’s very well written and psychologically convincing but, oh my, it’s depressing! William is deeply unlikeable while Annie is portrayed as so stupid that it seems unlikely that William would ever have found her attractive. They have two teenage children. Winnie, William’s favourite, starts out OK, but becomes progressively harder to like as the book goes on, while John, the son, has all the makings of a fine young man till his father’s increasingly erratic behaviour begins to affect him. I had a lot of sympathy for John, a little for poor stupid Annie, and none at all for the other two.

William eventually solves his money problems by carrying out a shady transaction at his bank – what today we’d describe as insider trading. Clearly Forester understood what he was talking he about when he described the details of how this scheme worked, but I fear I didn’t and my eyes began to glaze over. However, the end result is that William suddenly becomes well off, and we see how this change in fortune too affects the members of the family, not for the better.

Challenge details:
Book: 74
Subject Heading: The Psychology of Crime
Publication Year: 1926

The element of suspense comes from wondering what the outcome will be. Will William give himself away? Will Annie begin to suspect him? But it’s very underplayed – for reasons made clear early on, there’s no active investigation going on into the young victim’s disappearance. While the vast majority of the book is very credible, the ending left me annoyed at the abrupt and contrived way Forester tied everything up.

As you can probably tell, this one is not a favourite of mine. I often struggle with books where the criminal is the main character unless there’s plenty of black humour to lift the tone. In this one there is no humour, leaving it a bleak story with a couple of episodes that I found distinctly unpleasant. Had it been set amidst the anxious speed of big city life I would call it noir, but the respectable dullness of the middle-class suburban setting left the tone feeling grey. I also felt it went on too long (though in actual pages it’s quite short) – the endless descriptions of William drinking whisky to drown his guilt, his heart constantly thudding, pounding, racing, poor Annie’s repeated descent into sobbing for one reason or another, all became so repetitive that they lost any impact after a while.

CS Forester

However, this is mostly a matter of personal taste – I do think it does what it sets out to do very well; that is, to show the disintegration of the man and the effect this has on his family. Call me shallow but, although I admired the skill and the writing, I simply didn’t find it entertaining or enjoyable. Nor was it quite tragic enough to be harrowing, somehow. I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it, but the ratings on Goodreads suggest plenty of people have enjoyed it far more than I did, so if the idea of it appeals to you, don’t let my reaction put you off. Noir is not my favourite colour, even when it’s faded…

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The River at Night by Erica Ferencik

Wilderness adventure…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

Wini, our narrator, isn’t an adventurous type but she’s persuaded by her group of friends to go white-water rafting in the wilds of Maine. Pia has always been the leader, the one who holds the group together and who pushes them to step out of their normal routine once a year and take risks. This time she assures them their guide is experienced and knows the river well. It turns out Ryan is a twenty-year-old student with the looks of a Greek hero and enough confidence to persuade the more reluctant members of the group to trust him. Big mistake. Soon enough they run into trouble when their raft is lost and one of their party is killed. You’d think that would be the bad part of the trip, wouldn’t you? You’d be wrong… you’re forgetting that fictional wildernesses are always home to the strangest people…

There are so many books and films about wilderness adventures going horribly wrong that it must be difficult to bring anything original to the table, and Ferencik doesn’t try. We have the usual group of people with pre-existing tensions that will come to the fore when danger threatens. There’s the traditional mix of peril from nature and man – there’s always some kind of weirdo around when an adventure holiday goes wrong, right? We have the ubiquitous current trend of women discovering how strong and resilient they truly are under adversity. And in line with modern adventures, there’s plenty of blood, vomiting and unplanned urination to ensure that reading during mealtimes is not advised.

There’s nothing wrong with writing to a formula, of course – thriller writers have been doing it for at least a century. Ferencik relies on the quality of her writing and characterisation to carry the thing off, and on the whole she succeeds pretty well. The four women are well drawn, each with a distinct personality, and the dynamics of their friendship rings true, with the little petty annoyances and resentments that build up in any small group over time but underpinned by genuine affection and a history of mutual support in bad times. Ryan, the guide, is also reasonably believable, though at every point I felt he came over as older than his supposed age of twenty – he felt too mature and adult to be that age (but that may be a sign of my own age!). The baddies, on the other hand, are ridiculously over-the-top, and their back-story left me totally unconvinced. Sadly I thought they were a real weakness in the plotting, neither credible nor realistic.

Erica Ferencik

Ferencik writes well, both in the slower passages when she is revealing her characters to the reader and in the fast-action sequences which grow and escalate as the book goes on. Too much swearing, of course, none of it necessary and adding nothing to either story or character.

So a mostly good example of a fairly formulaic thriller, let down a little by the unbelievability of the baddies. I enjoyed reading it, but hope she does something a little more original next time – I believe she has the talent, she just needs to find a better plot. Recommended, though, as an entertaining read overall.

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The Second Sleep by Robert Harris

History through heresy…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s 1468, and young priest Christopher Fairfax is hurrying to reach the village of Addicott St George before curfew. He has been sent by his bishop to officiate at the funeral of the village’s priest, Father Lacy, who has died in a fall from the local landmark known as the Devil’s Chair. But once installed at the rectory, Christopher discovers that Father Lacy had been a collector of antiquities, some of them prohibited by the Church, and he soon has reason to wonder if there may be something more sinister behind the old priest’s death…

But… that isn’t really what the book’s about. And I can’t tell you properly what it is about, since that would spoil it! Makes writing a review kinda tricky. Suffice it to say, there’s a layer of depth that takes this beyond being a standard historical fiction novel. There are elements of apocalypse and dystopia, though I wouldn’t label the book as falling strictly into those categories either. It has as much to say about the present as the past, although we never visit the present. Are you intrigued? You should be!

Christopher has spent his young life in the Church, sent there as a boy to train in the priesthood. This is his first real venture into the world beyond the limits of the cathedral town he calls home, and he soon finds that the world outside has temptations, not simply of the body but of the mind. Heresy, he finds, is a slippery slope – somehow the forbidden exerts a pull on his mind, and the more he discovers, the more he begins to question all that he has been taught. Are the strict rules the Church forces on the population designed to save their souls, or simply to give the Church a stranglehold on power? At the same time, he is beginning to question his personal vocation – his faith is not in question, but as he becomes open to new thoughts and feelings, he wonders if he is able to go on preaching a religion he is beginning to question.

And he’s not alone in his questioning. Others have dabbled in what the Church calls heresy, although the punishments are brutal. Some tread a fine line, trying to disguise their research into the forbidden areas of the past as anti-heretical warnings. Church and state are inextricably linked, and those who fall out of favour with one must suffer the penalties imposed by the other.

As always, Robert Harris has the ability to create settings which have the feel of total authenticity. Here, there’s an added layer of subtlety as we discover that it’s all not quite as straightforward as it first appears, and he handles the ambiguity wonderfully. If there’s a flaw in his more recent books, it’s that his plotting takes second place to his portrayal of a place or time or event. In Conclave, it’s all about the inner workings of the Vatican and how popes are elected, and the actual plot is the only weak point; in Munich, the plot exists merely as a vehicle to allow us to be a fly on the wall at the Munich Conference of 1938. In this one, the plot revolves around Father Lacy’s death and Christopher’s growing interest in the beliefs of the heretics, but again it’s simply a device for Harris to show us this society from different angles – to let us see how and why it has developed as it has. For some people, I know this is a real weakness, and usually it would be for me too. But I find Harris’ scene-setting and the subjects he chooses so fascinating that I never feel the lack of a strong plot. Sometimes, as in Munich or An Officer and a Spy, he casts so much insight into a point in history that it’s enough for me. Other times, as in this one or, say, Fatherland, he uses a slightly off-kilter look at history to make us see it with fresh eyes – not so much as it was, but rather as how only very slight alterations may have made it work out differently – and I find those wonderfully thought-provoking.

Robert Harris

I also find his writing so smooth and effortless-seeming that the actual act of reading is pure pleasure. I find him a very visual writer – he doesn’t go off into extravagantly poetic descriptions, but nevertheless I always end up feeling that I know the places and societies he’s shown me as well as if I’d visited them. And even when he’s making a “point”, he never beats us over the head with it – he respects his readers to think it through for themselves.

As you’ll have gathered, I loved this one – another rung on the ladder that is rapidly helping him climb to the very top of my favourite author heap. I do hope my vague review has intrigued you enough to tempt you to read this one…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Hutchinson.

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The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware

Compare and contrast…

🙂 🙂 🙂

When Rowan Caine spots an advertisement for a nanny position, she’s staggered by the huge salary that’s being offered. So she’s willing to overlook the little detail that it’s a desperate bid by the potential employers to find someone who doesn’t mind that the house is reputed to be haunted. Because obviously ghosts don’t exist, right? The last four nannies who’ve all left in the last year must have been mistaken. Off she goes, way up to the north of Scotland to a house set in splendid isolation, to take on a family of four girls: two small children, one baby and a bratty teenager. Their parents are busy architects running their own business so are often away from home, leaving their brood in the hands of the nanny, with only a hot handyman and a grumpy old daily help for company. And then the strange noises begin…

The title is a give-away that this is based to some degree on Henry James’ novella, The Turn of the Screw. The isolation, the nanny who may or may not be a reliable narrator, the children who may or may not be sweetly innocent, the absence of parents, the suggestion of evil and the doubts over whether the odd things that happen are human or supernatural in origin, are all there.

At the risk of repeating myself, I will say again – if an author deliberately sets out to remind a reader of a great classic, she needs to be sure her own work will stand the comparison. I wasn’t a wholehearted fan of The Turn of the Screw, finding it a rather unpleasant read overall, but I admired James’ technique and ability to create a deeply disturbing atmosphere. He had, I assume, worked out that horror is exceptionally hard to sustain over lengthy periods, hence the novella form, and used ambiguity to great effect to unsettle the reader, never letting us know whether we could trust what we were reading. Ware has gone for novel length, meaning that there’s much repetition of not particularly scary stuff and far too much detail over the “joys” of childcare – do I need to know what the children have for breakfast every day? The framing mechanism is that Rowan, in prison, is writing a letter to a barrister begging him to take her case, so we are told from the beginning that a child has died and Rowan is accused of murdering her. A 384-page letter. The barrister knows the case from the papers, so Rowan repeatedly says things like “You’ll know why they think that I…” without letting the reader in on it. As always, I found this technique utterly annoying, although I know many people enjoy it.

Having got my grumps over with, there are some good things about it. After a far too slow start, it does become a page-turner, and the quality of the writing meant that even during the excessive details about everything I was never tempted to abandon it. The house is well done – a nice mix of Gothic overlaid with ultra-modern, again, I felt, a nod to the fact that this is a modern version of a classic story. It’s a “smart” house with everything controlled remotely by apps, giving plenty of scope for spooky things with a contemporary feel, but it also has traditional touches like the closed-off attic and the poison garden in the grounds. The house has a history of a dead child and a father who was either an evil murderer or a heartbroken bereaved parent – depends which gossip you listen to. The handyman is either a lovely guy who wants to be helpful or a weirdo with an obscurely evil agenda. Rowan herself isn’t clear-cut either – mostly it’s easy to sympathise with her, but sometimes she doesn’t seem to like children much and we quickly learn she has secrets in her background (of course), though (of course) we won’t learn what they are until the end.

Ruth Ware

The last quarter or so is the best bit, when the suspense begins to build towards a chilling climax, where all the hints finally become clear and everything is explained. And that brings me back to The Turn of the Screw, where the effectiveness of the story – and the reason it’s a classic – is precisely because all does not become clear! The reader is left to decide for herself what happened, and thus, in a sense, becomes complicit in the creation of the story. I finished my review of it by saying “Generally speaking, I shrug off written horror as soon as I close the book, but I found myself thinking of this story when I woke in the dark reaches of the night, and I had troubled dreams.” With this one, although I quite enjoyed reading it, because everything was neatly tied up and presented to me as a finished story I was left with no shivery after-effects and slept like a log.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Harvill Secker.

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The Spy Who Came In from the Cold by John le Carré

Ends and means…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Alec Leamas is the head of the West German office of the British Secret Service – the time is the early 1960s, just after the building of the Berlin Wall. His main adversary, Hans-Dieter Mundt, has been successfully eliminating all of Leamas’ agents one by one, and Leamas has just witnessed the death of the last double-agent he had in East Berlin. Called home, Leamas expects he will be retired, but he is asked to stay “out in the cold” for one last operation – to take part in an elaborate sting to infiltrate the East German set-up and bring down Mundt. But first he must establish a convincing cover story for himself, one that will make the East Germans believe that he is willing to betray his country…

This is my first le Carré novel, although his books have been adapted so often and he’s been so influential on the genre I felt I had a good idea of what to expect – a bleak, cold portrayal of the work of spies far removed from the glamour of James Bond and his like. And that’s exactly what I got in this slow-burn but engrossing thriller. Le Carré shows a moral equivalence between the agents on both sides of the wall rather than the good Brits/evil enemies portrayal that was more standard in fiction before his time. Both sides are shown as using methods that are murky at best and the question that underpins it is the old one of whether the ends justify the means.

To point this up, le Carré introduces an innocent into the story – Liz Gold, a woman with whom Leamas has an affair while building up his false story. She’s an idealist – a communist at a time when the Communist Party in Britain is so minor and insignificant that it’s more like a social club than a revolutionary political force. As the story progresses, she will have to face the reality of communism under a totalitarian government, and Leamas will have to face the consequences of having accidentally put her in a position of great danger. His world weary cynicism contrasts with her naive belief in humankind. Her love for Leamas and faith in him will force him to reconsider the methods and morality of the organisation of which he has been a part for so long.

Book 49 of 90

The writing style is in line with the character of Leamas – unemotional and somewhat cynical. It takes a long time to work out quite what’s going on, not just for the reader but for the characters too, since it’s full of bluff and double-bluff. There’s a distinction between characters who are doing what they’re doing out of ideological conviction and those who are simply out for power and advancement, but one senses that eventually the believers will in turn become the old cynics – it’s the job that does it to them in the end. This causes you to realise that once upon a time Leamas too was probably an idealist, making him more sympathetic than he first appears. We catch a glimpse too of how some join not through patriotism or belief, but because the job allows them to exercise a natural cruelty. And finally, we see how those at the top see agents as pawns on a chessboard, valuable up to a point, but sometimes worth sacrificing in the pursuit of victory.

There was only one light in the checkpoint, a reading lamp with a green shade, but the glow of the arclights, like artificial moonlight, filled the cabin. Darkness had fallen, and with it silence. They spoke as if they were afraid of being overheard. Leamas went to the window and waited. In front of him the road and to either side the Wall, a dirty, ugly thing of breeze blocks and strands of barbed wire, lit with cheap yellow light, like the backdrop for a concentration camp. East and west of the Wall lay the unrestored part of Berlin, a half-world of ruin, drawn in two dimensions, crags of war.

It’s a bleak tale and a complex one that requires concentration to follow the twisting maze of plot. Le Carré trusts his readers to read between the lines, in terms both of the action and of the motivations of the characters, and ultimately that’s what makes it so satisfying. There’s enough ambiguity in it for each reader to decide for herself exactly what the ending tells us, but there are also clues for those who were paying attention. For those of us who might have missed one or two(!), my Penguin Modern Classics edition has a short but insightful introduction from William Boyd, no slouch himself when it comes to espionage fiction, in which he discusses the impact of the book and his own interpretation of the underlying meanings. This intro must be read as an afterword since it gives away the ending, but it does have a warning to that effect.

John Le Carre
Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images

It’s a little more bleak than my taste usually runs to and it took me a bit of time to feel involved in the story, but by the end I was totally absorbed and emotionally hooked. The writing is excellent and le Carré remains totally in control of the complexities of the plotting at all times. There’s an almost noir feeling to it, certainly dark grey anyway, and a kind of despairing cynicism of tone, but there are also small shafts of light and the occasional unexpected humanity that remind us that these people do what they do so that we can live as we choose to live. But at what cost to themselves and, ultimately, to us? Thought-provoking, intelligent and engrossing – no wonder it’s considered a major classic of the genre.

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Book 12 of 20

Conviction by Denise Mina

And… action!

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

As Anna does all her usual early morning tasks, she’s expecting this to be a routine day. But then her best friend, Estelle, turns up at the door, and her husband, Hamish, comes downstairs with a suitcase and an announcement – he’s leaving Anna and going off with Estelle, taking the kids with him. Left alone and feeling shattered, Anna looks for something to distract her mind, and begins listening to a true-crime podcast. She’s amazed to discover that an old friend of hers, Leon, is at the centre of the story – as victim, or murderer, or perhaps both. With nothing better to do and not wishing to dwell on her broken life, Anna sets off to look up old acquaintances and do a bit of digging. Along the way she acquires a travelling companion – Estelle’s abandoned husband, Fin…

There are some dark elements to the story – rape, murder, suicide, anorexia – but the tone is surprisingly light. In the hands of someone less skilled I might have said too light – the handling of the anorexia in particular veered close to being a bit too jocular at times, even though I thought it was a quite realistic portrayal. But Mina keeps the book rattling along as such a pace that there’s no time to dwell on the bleaker themes – this is very much an action thriller. We soon learn that Anna is a woman with a past, one that has damaged her but made her strong. She’s a survivor, and since she quickly decides she’s not going to wallow in misery over her marriage, the reader is happily saved from wallowing with her.

Like all thrillers, the less you know going in the more you’ll enjoy it, so I won’t go too deeply into the story. Anna’s past soon erupts into the present and, as she and Fin hunt for the truth about Leon’s death, she in turn becomes hunted by the people she has been hiding from for years. It becomes a dangerous race across Europe as they begin to suspect that past and present might be connected in some way. Anna and Fin are an unlikely pairing (as Anna would be the first to point out) and their interactions add a lot to the humour and give the book its warmth. There’s an enjoyable mix of excitement and humour, with some serious moments to keep it grounded, and the tension gradually builds to an excellent (if improbable) and totally unexpected dénouement.

Denise Mina

OK, credibility got thrown overboard fairly early on and, after struggling to the surface a couple of times, finally sank without trace. If you’re looking for deep and meaningful, this isn’t it, despite it touching on some of the themes of the moment. But I found it thoroughly enjoyable, fast-paced and fun, and very well written. This is only the second Mina I’ve read, the other being the darkly realistic The Long Drop, and I find it hard to imagine two books more different in tone and style. I’m looking forward to getting to know her work better and, meantime, happily recommend this one. If Hitchcock were still with us, he could make it into a great film…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Harvill Secker.

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Book 9 of 20

Three Bullets by RJ Ellory

Camelot revisited…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

It’s the summer of 1964 and the Democratic Convention is on the horizon, when they’ll have to decide whether they will support President Jack Kennedy as their nominee for another four years. Scandal is beginning to swirl around him, though – over vote-rigging and corruption in the last election, over his increasing health problems and questions about his mental stability, over the many women with whom he is rumoured to have had affairs. When young journalist Jean Boyd is found dead, her mother can’t believe the official line that Jean committed suicide. So she asks Mitch Newman, an old lover of Jean’s, to look into it. Mitch’s investigations will soon take him to Dallas where, back in the previous November, Jean had been following a lead relating to the President’s visit there…

If you’re confused, don’t be. This is an alternative history, based on the premise that JFK did not die in November 1963. Ellory speculates as to how the Presidency would have played out if Kennedy had remained in office – would the scandals of which we’re all now aware have become front and centre during his re-election campaign? Was he fit, physically and mentally, for another four years? Would the Democrats have stuck by him if he lost the Camelot glamour that inspired a generation? Would Jackie have been able to tolerate another four years of his blatant philandering? All interesting questions, and Ellory’s research felt solid to me so that, although he perhaps takes some aspects a little further than my credibility was wholly willing to follow, it nevertheless felt mostly chillingly possible.

The other strand of the story is Mitch’s investigation into Jean’s death, and unfortunately this worked less well for me. Mitch has never got over Jean although they split up when they were barely adults, and we are treated to endless descriptions of his feelings of guilt, loss and self-loathing, all of which bored me to distraction. Ellory even chooses to include several of the love letters Mitch sent to Jean after their break-up, all of which reveal nothing more startling than that he was sorry and still loved her. (Poor Jean – if she was anything like me, she probably only read the first three…) Ellory repeats and repeats how Mitch feels today, how he felt back then, how he felt when he was in Korea during the war. The book could have lost ninety per cent of all this, and been considerably better for it.

RJ Ellory

It’s a pity because otherwise this strand is interesting too. Basically, it’s the story of the real assassination, only changed to reflect the fact that in the book the assassination doesn’t come off. But real people show up – Jack Ruby, Lee Oswald, etc. – and Ellory treads a line between the official account and the various major conspiracy theories. I’m not hugely knowledgeable about the details of the event, but it all seemed to tie in well with what is known as far as I could tell.

It all leads up to a satisfying thriller ending, which again teeters precariously on the edge of credibility but doesn’t quite fall off. The whole presents a dark, dark picture of the Kennedy clan, exaggerated in places (I assume) to achieve a thriller effect, but sadly mostly only too believable. If you can put up with all Mitch’s endless regrets or, like me, skim read past most of them, then the what-if? features make this an interesting and enjoyable read.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Orion.

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Book 3 of 20

Twisted by Steve Cavanagh

The clue’s in the title…

😀 😀 😀 😀

JT LeBeau is a hugely successful author who specialises in the twist. He, or could it be she, hides his or her identity from the world, and this mystique of course only adds to the hype around her or his books. She, or is it he, will do anything to keep his or her secret…

OK, every review I’ve read of this has started in basically the same way and now I’m adding to it – this is one that’s impossible to say much about without giving away too much, so this review will be short and not very informative!

It’s all in the title – this is a book full of twists about an author who writes books full of twists. It’s clever and amusing and a bit self-referential, in that it’s lightly mocking what it itself is. Cavanagh has fun with the twists and plays with the idea of authors using secret identities, not shying away from referencing the likes of JK Rowling, aka Robert Galbraith.

It’s very well written and the plot holds together pretty well despite the twists. However, it’s light on characterisation – it has to be really, so we can continually be surprised. This makes it a light read despite some dark moments. There’s no feeling of depth, nor does the reader get the opportunity to care much about the characters. The only one I built up any kind of feeling for was the local Sheriff who was investigating the… oh, sorry, can’t tell you what he was investigating. And not surprisingly, as twist piles on twist, credibility is the chief victim.

Steve Cavanagh

One minor irritation is that Cavanagh, clearly feeling that constant repetition of he/she, her/his, etc., would be irritating, chooses to use they/their instead – grammatically tooth-drilling to my pedantic soul. We really need to create a gender-neutral word. So, since the fault lies with the inadequacy of our language, I bit the bullet and forgave the author. Just.

Overall, I found it a fast-paced page-turner that kept me amused while reading, and will almost instantly be forgotten. That’s fine, though – sometimes entertainment is all that’s wanted, and this delivers well on that score. Recommended as a well written bit of fun.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Orion.

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Deadland (DS Alex Cupidi 2) by William Shaw

Ramping up the tension…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When a severed limb turns up inside an urn on loan to the local art gallery, DS Alex Cupidi and the team have a real mystery on their hands. First they have to try to work out to whom it belonged and if the owner is dead, and why it was left in a place where it was bound to be discovered, all before they can even begin to investigate who put it there. At the same time, two local lads, Sloth and Tap, are starting out on a life of petty crime. They decide to steal a mobile phone, but unfortunately for them they pick the wrong victim, and soon find themselves being hunted by someone who seems willing to go to any lengths to recover his property, so they run off into hiding. While Alex is tied up in the possible murder investigation, she can’t help being worried for the safety of the boys – criminals they may be, but they’re also victims, of difficult homes, of substandard schools, of a society that doesn’t seem to care. And they’re the same age as Alex’ own daughter, Zoe…

Alex Cupidi is a great detective. She isn’t an angst-ridden maverick, but there are enough complications in her personal life to make her interesting, and her relationship with her daughter is entirely credible. Zoe is seventeen, mostly adult but still part child, and Alex is finding it difficult to get the balance right between protecting her and letting her find her own way in life. The situation is complicated by Zoe’s zealous championing of causes which sometimes bring her into confrontation with the forces of law and order. Shaw handles this excellently, never taking it too far, and there’s plenty of love in the relationship to help smooth over any areas of conflict.

The police procedural aspect is just as good. Shaw lets us know about the painstaking detail that goes into an investigation without allowing the story to get bogged down in it. Alex’ colleague and friend, Jill, has got herself into a tricky personal situation, and this lets us see another side of Alex, trying to juggle loyalty to her friend with the professional demands of the job.

One thing I particularly loved was that Shaw includes people of different ethnicities and sexual orientations without making a big deal of it. I’m so tired of authors feeling they have to write “about” diversity – until we start treating diversity as normal, it never will be. So hurrah for an author who makes it unremarkable…

(This is the second time I’ve made a comment like this recently, the other being in relation to the entirely believable, positive background portrayal of racially diverse Birmingham in Lucie Whitehouse’s Critical Incidents. A new trend, perhaps? If so, a very welcome one.)

The plotting is great – complex and fast-paced, but never to a degree where the reader feels lost. It takes Alex and Jill into the rich and shady world of art-trading, where vast amounts of money changing hands provides opportunities for all kinds of dodgy dealing, and the wealthy shelter behind their security fences and sense of entitlement. But through Tap and Sloth we also see the other end of the social spectrum, where a meal in a burger bar can seem like a feast. There’s no faux “that day” suspense in this one. Instead, Shaw makes us care so deeply about the two boys that the tension level ramps ever higher as the story unfolds, with some real heart-thumping moments along the way. And there’s no cosiness about it, so that there’s a real feeling of fear that one or both of them may pay the ultimate price for their stupid crime. But equally their story is not too grim or gritty to be enjoyable. There’s a lot of warmth and humour in their friendship – two misfits who’ve each found someone they can rely on, even love.

Shaw makes excellent use of his Kent setting, both in town and out on the wild and forbidding marshland landscape of Dungeness. He lets us see all the contrasts in wealth in this area, the secluded and luxurious homes of the rich, while the old seaside hotels and boarding houses along the Kent coast are now hostels housing many of the refugees and migrants recently arrived on our shores.

William Shaw

This is one of those rare masterclasses in crime writing that should be made compulsory reading for all aspiring authors. I loved everything about it, especially the sections of the boys on the run, and raced through it because I needed to know whether they would make it. Did I come out of it smiling or sobbing though? I’m afraid you’ll have to read it for yourself to find the answer to that question. One thing I will tell you – I’ll be backtracking to read Shaw’s earlier books, and adding him to my read-on-publication-day list for future ones…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, riverrun at Quercus.

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Death In Captivity by Michael Gilbert

A locked tunnel mystery…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s 1943, and the British officers held in a prisoner-of-war camp in north Italy take their duty to escape seriously, so the camp is riddled with tunnels. The biggest and most hopeful of these is under Hut C, elaborately hidden under a trapdoor that takes several men to open. So when a body turns up in the tunnel the question is not only how did he die but also how did he get into the tunnel? The dead man is Cyriakos Coutoules, a Greek prisoner who was widely unpopular and whom some suspected of having been an informer. When it begins to look as if his death was murder, the camp authorities quickly fix on one of the prisoners as the culprit, but the Brits are sure of his innocence. So it’s up to them to figure out how and why Coutoules died, and who did kill him…

Well, this is a very different take on the classic “locked room” mystery. In fact, to a degree the mystery becomes secondary to the drama of what’s happening in the prison camp as the Allies approach and it looks as though the Italians may surrender. The prisoners doubt this will lead to their release – they anticipate the Italians will hand them over to the Germans before the Allies arrive – so it’s all the more important that they get their plans for escape ready urgently. The Italians meantime, facing almost certain defeat, know that the Allies will be looking to hold people responsible for any war crimes that may have been committed, so they have an incentive to destroy evidence or get rid of witnesses who might be used against them. So tensions are rising all round, and some people are driven to rash actions.

There is a bit of the gung-ho British heroism attitude in the book, unsurprisingly given that it was first published in 1952 when the war was still fresh in people’s minds. But Gilbert actually gives a fairly balanced picture – not all the Brits are heroes and not all the Italians are evil, and the relationships of the prisoners to each other are shown as complex, with everything from close friendships to rivalries and dislikes. As the men begin to suspect that there’s a spy in the camp, suspicion leads to mistrust, and we see how the officers in charge have to deal with that. Gilbert doesn’t pull any punches regarding either the treatment of the prisoners or the dangers associated with their various escape attempts, so the book is hard-hitting at points. But the general camaraderie and patriotism of the prisoners also give the story a kind of good-natured warmth and a fair amount of humour which prevent the tone from becoming too bleak.

The officers in charge delegate the task of investigating the murder to “Cuckoo” Goyles, a young man whose experience of detection is restricted exclusively to having been a fan of mystery novels. He has to try to sift through the little evidence that is available without revealing anything that might alert the Italians to the existence of the tunnel. He uses his knowledge of how the camp works and of some of the weaknesses in security the escape committee has observed while making their plans. And he has to work quickly – the cruel camp commander, Captain Benucci, has a man in custody and no one has any illusions but that he’ll be found guilty.

Michael Gilbert

However, I was far more interested in whether the men would escape safely than in the solution of the murder mystery, in truth. I felt Gilbert’s portrayal avoided the pitfall of being overly dramatic to the point where it crossed the credibility line, but this still left him plenty of room to create genuine tension and suspense. In his introduction, Martin Edwards tells us that Gilbert himself was a prisoner in Italy during the war and had personal experience of both failed and successful escape attempts, which no doubt is why the story feels so authentic. As the Allies draw ever nearer, the book takes on aspects of the action thriller and I found myself reading into the small hours, desperate to know how it would turn out.

This is so unlike the only other Gilbert I’ve read, Smallbone Deceased, but both are equally excellent in entirely different ways. I’m so glad the British Library has brought these books back into print and I now can’t wait to read the third one they’ve republished so far – Death Has Deep Roots. You can count me as a new Michael Gilbert fan, and if you haven’t already guessed, this one is highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

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Cruel Acts (Maeve Kerrigan 8) by Jane Casey

A thriller, a chiller and a serial killer…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Leo Stone was convicted of killing two women and sentenced to life imprisonment. But now one of the jurors has revealed that the jury broke the rules and as a result his conviction is certain to be overturned when it comes before the Appeals Court. There will be a retrial, but Superintendent Godley wants to make certain that he’s convicted again, so Detective Sergeant Maeve Kerrigan and Detective Inspector Josh Derwent are assigned to reinvestigate the case and to find more evidence if they can. Maeve quickly discovers in the files that there was a third woman who may have been a victim of Stone’s too, but he was never charged with her murder for lack of evidence. Maeve’s sense of empathy for this victim makes her determined to find out the truth of what happened to her too. In the midst of the investigation, after Stone has been released, another woman goes missing…

Well, it’s been a long wait for this latest instalment in Jane Casey’s excellent Maeve Kerrigan series, but this is well worth waiting for. As always, it’s told in the first person (past tense) by Maeve, so that we get her often humorous take on the people around her, especially Derwent. Their relationship has settled into a rather more equal friendship now that Maeve is more experienced, but that doesn’t stop Derwent from lecturing her about her personal life, being over-protective, embarrassing her at every opportunity and generally winding her up. For all that, she knows there’s no-one she’d rather have beside her when things get dangerous.

The other regulars are back too. Una Burt, Maeve’s boss, still doesn’t much like her and the feeling is mutual. Liv appears a bit more in this one – another colleague and Maeve’s best friend. Godley is back, though he plays only a small role. Maeve still looks up to him, but in a more mature way than the hero-worship she felt for him in the early days. And the new girl on the team, Georgia, is back too, just as obnoxious, and just as jealous of Maeve’s success. Followers of the series are doubtless thinking, yes, but what about Maeve’s love life? Is Rob back? Or is there a new man on the scene? Or are Maeve and Josh…? You don’t really expect me to tell you though, do you? 😉

In general, I’m not wild about serial killer stories and helpless females being tortured and killed, but I was right to trust Casey to handle it with her usual sensitivity and good taste. Although women are killed, the reader is not put in the room with them as it’s happening – there’s nothing prurient or gratuitous in the writing; no lengthy descriptions of torture scenes designed to titillate. That doesn’t stop it from being heart-in-mouth thrilling and chilling at points, though. The prologue is wonderfully scary and the thriller ending is tense and dramatic, with several scenes dotted throughout that also had my anxiety levels rocketing.

When it turns out that Leo Stone has an alibi for the time of the latest disappearance, Maeve and Derwent have to consider whether he was innocent of the earlier murders or if there’s a copycat out there. I thoroughly enjoyed the plotting in this one. I didn’t work it out – I rarely do – but all the clues are there. I always think that Casey plots like a Golden Age author, giving the reader a fair chance to do a bit of armchair detecting, although in every other respect her stories and characters are entirely modern.

Jane Casey

I also love that Maeve tries hard to stay within the rules. While her personal life might be a bit complicated, she’s no angst-ridden maverick. The same goes for her colleagues, in fact – they’re probably the most realistic police team I can think of, and while there are petty jealousies and squabbles, they behave overall like the kind of professional force I’d like to think we actually have. The women are not always struggling to be taken seriously by sexist bosses, which delights me since I think it’s such an out-dated image in most of our public services now, and completely overused in crime fiction. Casey simply has men and women working together as a team as if… gasp… it’s normal! But she still allows room for a bit of banter and the occasional flirtation, and she doesn’t feel the need to make the women superheroes or the men weaklings.

While this could easily be read as a standalone, I do recommend reading this series in order to get the full nuances of all the various relationships within the team, and especially to understand Maeve and Josh’s complicated friendship. For existing fans, you’re in for a treat with this one – isn’t it great to have Maeve back? Highly recommended, and I sincerely hope Ms Casey is hard at work on the next one…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, HarperCollins.

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