Five of the Best!

FIVE 5-STAR READS
OCTOBER

SMILEYS

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 October reads – click on the covers to go to the full reviews…

 

2011

 

american psychoI started this book with some trepidation given that I knew it contains a lot of extremely graphic sex and violence. What I hadn’t expected was to find the book so very funny. The blackest black comedy I have ever read, Ellis lays bare the shallow and self-obsessed world of ’80s yuppie culture and does so superbly. The obsessions with brand clothing, with pop icons such as Genesis and Whitney Houston, with nouvelle and fusion cuisine and most of all with conspicuous spending – all combined to remind me of the awfulness of the laddish greed culture so prevalent at that time.

The violence is indeed graphic and gets progressively more extreme as the book goes on. However, given the theme of excess in all things that runs through the book, I felt it stayed in context. In fact, it eventually became so outrageous that, for me, it passed from being shocking to being, in a strange way, part of the humour of the book. Brilliantly written, extremely perceptive and amazingly funny – still surprised I enjoyed it so much.

 

2012

 

Testament of MaryThis short novella is an amazingly powerful account of a mother’s love and grief for her son. The fact that that son happens to be the Son of God is secondary. Beautifully written and with some wonderful, often poetic, imagery, Tóibín shows us Mary as a woman who lives each day with guilt and pain that she couldn’t stop the events that led her son to the cruel martyrdom of the cross.

Emotional, thought-provoking, at points harrowing, this book packs more punch in its 104 pages than most full-length novels. Its very shortness emphasises Mary’s driven urgency to tell her tale before her chance is gone. Despite the subject matter, it will appeal to lovers of great writing of any faith or none – this story is first and foremost about humanity. This was the book that first introduced me to Colm Tóibín – now firmly in place as one of my favourite authors.

 

2013

 

a time to killThe story begins with the horrific gang-rape and beating of a young black girl by two white men. The two men are quickly arrested and there is no doubt about their guilt. However, Carl Lee Hailey, the father of young Tonya, is not ready to let justice take its course and sets out to take his own revenge. When he is in turn arrested and charged with murder, he asks Jake Brigance to defend him. While there’s a lot of sympathy for Carl Lee, especially amongst the black townsfolk, there is also a sizeable slice of opinion that vigilantism, whatever the provocation, is wrong; and then there’s the minority of white racists who think Carl Lee should be lynched. Soon the town is plunged into fear as the Ku Klux Klan take the opportunity to resurrect the days of burning crosses and worse.

This is an ambitious, sprawling book that looks at racism, ethics, fatherhood, friendship, politics, gender and, of course, corruption and the law. As always with Grisham, the writing is flowing, the plot is absorbing, the characterisation is in-depth and believable and there’s plenty of humour to leaven the grim storyline. Grisham says that often people he meets tell him this is their favourite of all his books – if I ever meet him, I think I’ll be telling him that too.

 

2014

 

a separate peaceOne of the joys of the last few years has been reading my way through some of the American classics, including this one. The book begins with an adult Gene returning to visit the school that he attended as a teenager during the middle years of the Second World War. We very quickly learn that some major event occurred during his time at school and that, in some way, this visit is intended to help him face up to his memories of that time.

This shortish novel is beautifully written. The New England landscape is vividly described, often in war-like metaphors, as we see it change through the seasons from the hot summer days to the deep frozen snows of winter. The life of the school is sketched with the lightest of touches and yet it becomes a place we feel we know and understand – a place in a kind of limbo, suspending its traditional role as educator and feeling rather uneasy in its temporary purpose of training and indoctrinating these young men to play their part in the war. And though the book rarely takes us beyond the school boundaries, we see how the boys are being affected by the news from outside, of battles and glorious victories and horrors in places they can’t even point to on a map. But the most special thing about the book is the truth of the characterisations. A lovely book, intensely emotional and with a true heart.

 

2015

 

the blue guitarA difficult choice, since I also loved Resurrection Science in October, but I’ve decided to stick with the fiction choice.Olly Orme used to be a painter, but his muse has left him. He’s still a thief though. He doesn’t steal for money – it’s the thrill that attracts him. He feels it’s essential that his thefts are noticed or they don’t count as theft. Usually it’s small things he steals – a figurine, a tie-pin. But nine months ago, he stole his friend’s wife, and now that theft is about to be discovered.

This book about the narcissist Olly may not be the deepest or most profound novel I’ve ever read, but the characterisation of Olly is brilliant and, most of all, the prose is fabulous. I could forgive a lot to someone who makes me enjoy every word, whether deeply meaningful or dazzlingly light. And Banville dazzled me while Olly entertained me – I’ll happily settle for that. And will most certainly be backtracking to read some of Banville’s other books.

* * * * * * *

If you haven’t already seen Cleo’s selection for October, why not pop on over? Here’s the link…

 

Sycamore Row by John Grisham

Where there’s a will…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

“They found Seth Hubbard in the general area where he had promised to be, though not exactly in the condition expected. He was at the end of a rope, six feet off the ground and twisting slightly in the wind.”

sycamore rowSeth Hubbard was dying of terminal cancer and in extreme pain, so it was not altogether surprising that he had chosen to end his own life. Much more surprising was that, the day before, he had handwritten a new will, leaving the bulk of his substantial fortune to his black housekeeper and specifically cutting out his own children and grandchildren. He had also left clear instructions that he wanted Jake Brigance to be the legal representative for his estate and to fight any challenges to the will ‘to the bitter end.’

This book takes up the story of Jake Brigance three years after the end of the Carl Lee Hailey trial (A Time to Kill). Jake still hasn’t recovered financially from the loss of his house, and the expected rush of clients after the Hailey trial hasn’t materialised. So the idea of a case like this, with a guaranteed generous hourly rate for his work, strongly appeals. And when it becomes clear that Seth’s family intend to throw everything they have into challenging the will it looks like it’ll be a long case. Jake’s determined to take the dispute before a jury, mainly because he loves the thrill of a court appearance.

The question of why Seth would have left such a will is a matter of hot debate, with the majority view being that Lettie Lang must have been something more to him than just a housekeeper. But Lettie seems as bewildered as everyone else and maintains that their relationship was never more than that of employer and employee. So Jake’s old boss, Lucien, and Lettie’s daughter Portia set out to investigate the past…

(AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
(AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Grisham shows all his usual skill in this book – a great first chapter that hooks the reader straight away, an interesting plot, strong characterisation and the suspense of a jury trial with both sides pulling unexpected ambushes at the last moment. As in A Time to Kill, race is a major theme – the general feeling that Seth should not have cut out his own children is compounded by a belief amongst some of the white people that no black person deserves to have been left so much money. Greed figures prominently too – the greed of Seth’s unloving children scrambling for their share, Lettie being inundated with requests for help from relatives she wasn’t even aware she had, and, not least, the greed of the lawyers all trying to manipulate the case so that they get a healthy cut of the proceeds of the estate.

There is a but, though. Which is that, enjoyable and well-written as this is, it has nothing like the depth or impact of A Time to Kill. Something very strange has happened to Ford County in the last three years – attitudes have changed so dramatically that it seems as if the gap is more like the 24 years that actually exists between the two books. Here, not only is there no threat of the Ku Klux Klan and no real fear of race-related violence, but even the language has changed. In my review of the first book, I mentioned the frequent use of the n-word, which generally puts me off reading a book, but which in this case seemed relevant to the story. Three years on, not only do people not use that word any longer, but Portia is actually shocked by it on the one occasion it comes up. What happened in those three years to entirely change the culture and attitudes of this small town?

a time to killIt’s obvious that Grisham has projected modern sensibilities back onto his characters. I can see why he’s done it – readers today are even less likely to accept the kind of blatantly racist language and attitudes that would have just about been tolerated in the eighties. But it means this book doesn’t have the power or authenticity of the first – it’s all rather sanitised. And it means the fear and racial tension of the first book is almost entirely missing from this one. I’m sure it wouldn’t have struck me so much if I hadn’t read the two books back to back, but I couldn’t help feeling that this would have worked better if Grisham had set it ten or fifteen years later so that we were dealing with a different generation.

However, as a standalone, this is a very readable and enjoyable story. The twists were a bit obvious, I thought, meaning that the ending didn’t have as much surprise value as I feel Grisham intended, and the last chapter was pretty saccharin even for Grisham, as well as seeming a bit too rushed and neat. But the quality of the writing, the characterisation and the contrast of darkness and humour mean that this still stands up well as one of Grisham’s better books, leaving me hoping he will revisit Ford County and Jake Brigance again in the future.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

A Time to Kill by John Grisham

An eye for an eye…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

a time to killTonight around 1 a.m., Grisham’s new book Sycamore Row will appear on my Kindle as if by magic. (Somewhat annoyingly, so will Donna Tartt’s new one, The Goldfinch, but Grisham will get priority.) In it, he revisits the people of Ford County who appeared in his first book A Time to Kill all of 24 years ago in 1989. I couldn’t remember if I’d read it, and even if I had, the plot had faded completely from my mind, so a refresher seemed in order. As it turns out, I haven’t read it before, though I’ve certainly seen the film.

The story begins with the horrific gang-rape and beating of a young black girl by two white men. The two men are quickly arrested and there is no doubt about their guilt. However, Carl Lee Hailey, the father of young Tonya, is not ready to let justice take its course and sets out to take his own revenge. When he is in turn arrested and charged with murder, he asks Jake Brigance to defend him. While there’s a lot of sympathy for Carl Lee, especially amongst the black townsfolk, there is also a sizeable slice of opinion that vigilantism, whatever the provocation, is wrong; and then there’s the minority of white racists who think Carl Lee should be lynched. Soon the town is plunged into fear as the Ku Klux Klan take the opportunity to resurrect the days of burning crosses and worse.

burning cross

Grisham doesn’t give any easy answers and doesn’t paint anyone as a complete hero (and only the rapists and the KKK are seen as wholly villainous). There’s a huge cast of characters and we get to know their flaws as much as their strengths; and it’s an indication of Grisham’s skill that we can still like so many of them even when we are bound to disagree with most of them at least some of the time, whatever our own views. As the case proceeds and conviction looks increasingly likely, Jake has to decide how far he can stretch his fairly elastic ethics. And he also has to consider whether it’s worth the danger that he’s inadvertently brought on his family, employees and himself.

In the foreword, Grisham tells us that the book didn’t have much impact when it was first published but that over the years it has grown in popularity. I can understand both of those things. Firstly, it’s an enormous brick of a book, the first chapter is a graphic and shocking description of the gang-rape and, being based in the South and with racism as a major theme, the use of the n-word is liberal from the beginning and throughout. If it was my first introduction to Grisham, I’m not sure I’d have gone past the first few chapters. However, it is Grisham, and so I read on…and how glad I am that I did!

John Grisham
John Grisham

This is an ambitious, sprawling book that looks at racism, ethics, fatherhood, friendship, politics, gender and, of course, corruption and the law. As always with Grisham, the writing is flowing, the plot is absorbing, the characterisation is in-depth and believable and there’s plenty of humour to leaven the grim storyline. The sheer length of the book gives Grisham plenty of room to explore his themes thoroughly and he carefully balances his characters so that we get to see both sides of each argument, particularly on vigilantism and capital punishment. Grisham doesn’t peddle his own views – he lets his characters argue each side effectively and so the reader is left to decide. Grisham says that often people he meets tell him this is their favourite of all his books – if I ever meet him, I think I’ll be telling him that too. Now I can only hope that Sycamore Row lives up to the standard Grisham has set himself…

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 7…

Episode 7

 

Since I can’t possibly add any more to the heaving, tottering pile of books waiting to be read, there will be no TBR Thursday winner this week. So instead here’s a few of the books that I’m looking forward to reading over the next couple of months…

Courtesy of NetGalley:

 

the cave and the lightThis falls into the ‘seemed like a good idea at the time’ category, also known as the ‘what was I thinking?’ genre. However it’ll either be great or I will simply remind myself that suffering is good for the soul…apparently…

“Arthur Herman has now written the definitive sequel to his New York Times bestseller, How the Scots Invented the Modern World, and extends the themes of the book—which sold half a million copies worldwide—back to the ancient Greeks and forward to the age of the Internet. The Cave and the Light is a magisterial account of how the two greatest thinkers of the ancient world, Plato and Aristotle, laid the foundations of Western culture—and how their rivalry shaped the essential features of our culture down to the present day.”

*****

identicalAlready out in the US, but not yet published in the UK. I’ve been a fan of Scott Turow from way back when, although he is variable. But when he’s good, he’s very, very good…

“The Gianis’s and the Kronons. Two families entangled in a long and complex history of love and deceit . . . Twenty five years ago, after a society picnic held by businessman and politician Zeus Kronon, Zeus’ headstrong daughter Dita was found murdered. Her boyfriend, Cass Gianis, confessed to the crime. Now Cass has been released from prison into the care of his twin, Mayoral candidate Paul Gianis, who is in the middle of a high profile political campaign. But Dita’s brother Hal is convinced there is information surrounding his sister’s death that remains buried – and he won’t rest until he’s discovered the truth. A gripping masterpiece of dark family rivalries, shadowy politics and hidden secrets, Identical is the stunning new thriller from bestselling author Scott Turow, writing at the height of his powers.”

*****

smithAlthough this is nominally a children’s book, I first read it as a youngish adult and thought it was great. Now being republished as a ‘modern classic’ (gulp! am I really that old? – NB That’s a rhetorical question!) I’m interested to see whether it lives up to my memory of it…

“Twelve-year-old Smith is a denizen of the mean streets of eighteenth-century London, living hand to mouth by virtue of wit and pluck. One day he trails an old gentleman with a bulging pocket, deftly picks it, and as footsteps ring out from the alley by which he had planned to make his escape, finds himself in a tough spot. Taking refuge in a doorway, he sees two men emerge to murder the man who was his mark. They rifle the dead man’s pockets and finding them empty, depart in a rage. Smith, terrified, flees the scene of the crime. What has he stolen that is worth the life of a man?”

*****

Pre-orders:

 

sycamore rowA new Grisham is always a must-read – never less than good (except when he does one of his dreadful sports books) and often great. Unfortunately, it will be necessary to read A Time to Kill in preparation – so two for the TBR…

“For almost a quarter of a century, John Grisham’s A Time to Kill has captivated readers with its raw exploration of race, retribution, and justice. Now, its hero, Jake Brigance, returns to the courtroom in a dramatic showdown as Ford County again confronts its tortured history. Filled with the intrigue, suspense and plot twists that are the hallmarks of the world’s favourite storyteller, Sycamore Row is the thrilling story of the elusive search for justice in a small American town.”

*****


the goldfinchLike many other people I loved The Secret History and was disappointed by The Little Friend, so intrigued to see whether this will be a return to form…

“It begins with a boy. Theo Decker, a thirteen-year-old New Yorker, miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother. Abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Bewildered by his strange new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don’t know how to talk to him, and tormented above all by his unbearable longing for his mother, he clings to one thing that reminds him of her: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the underworld of art.

As an adult, Theo moves silkily between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty labyrinth of an antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love-and at the center of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle. “

*****

entry islandAnd finally, following his triumphant Lewis Trilogy, Peter May moves on to pastures new. As someone who has followed May through his China thrillers, his French series and the Lewis books (not to mention his career as scriptwriter/producer on Scottish Television), I felt the Lewis books were his best work. How will the new series compare?

“When Detective Sime Mackenzie boards a light aircraft at Montreal’s St. Hubert airfield, he does so without looking back. For Sime, the 850-mile journey ahead represents an opportunity to escape the bitter blend of loneliness and regret that has come to characterise his life in the city.

Travelling as part of an eight-officer investigation team, Sime’s destination lies in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Only two kilometres wide and three long, Entry Island is home to a population of around 130 inhabitants – the wealthiest of which has just been discovered murdered in his home.

The investigation itself appears little more than a formality. The evidence points to a crime of passion: the victim’s wife the vengeful culprit. But for Sime the investigation is turned on its head when he comes face to face with the prime suspect, and is convinced that he knows her – even though they have never met.

Haunted by this certainty his insomnia becomes punctuated by dreams of a distant past on a Scottish island 3,000 miles away. Dreams in which the widow plays a leading role. Sime’s conviction becomes an obsession. And in spite of mounting evidence of her guilt he finds himself convinced of her innocence, leading to a conflict between the professonal duty he must fulfil, and the personal destiny that awaits him.”

*****

All blurbs are taken from either Amazon or NetGalley.

What do you think? Any of these that you’re looking forward to too? Or are there other new releases you’re impatiently awaiting?

Calico Joe by John Grisham

‘Baseball is a game of failure…’

😐 😐 ❓

calico joeIn a departure from his usual legal thrillers, Grisham here gives us a book about the world of baseball. The first person narrator is Paul Tracey, whose father, Warren, was a pitcher for the Mets in 1973 in the same season as Joe Castle, the Calico Joe of the title, was breaking all records as a rookie player with the Cubs. Warren is now dying and as Paul travels to see him, he tells us about his childhood, his hero-worship for Joe and why his relationship with Warren reached breaking point.

Normally I am a big fan of Grisham but really, there are limits. Firstly it is very short and yet the plot, such as it is, is so slight as to barely maintain interest to the end. Instead the book is filled with extremely detailed descriptions of imaginary baseball games, so detailed that Grisham felt it necessary to give what he calls a summary of the basics of the game. This ‘summary’ runs to 13% of the entire Kindle book and was so dull that I gave up halfway through, deciding to trust that the book would make sense even if I didn’t know what a drag bunt or a pick-off might be. By about the fourth chapter, I was so bored that I was speed-reading through the innings by innings match descriptions that fill easily half the book dropping back in whenever it looked like the plot might move along a little. However, the plot was so uninteresting and clichéd and the characterisation so superficial that it did not make up for all the rest.

Hmm...
Hmm…

I would have given this book 2 stars but I recognise some people will be more interested in baseball and perhaps in interminable scoring statistics, even imaginary ones, than I and so have upped it to an extremely generous 3. Grisham says in his introduction ‘Baseball is a game of failures’. Unfortunately I feel this self-indulgent book is an example of that. Here’s hoping Grisham returns to form (and the legal world) in his next novel.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Litigators by John Grisham

the litigatorsThoroughly enjoyable…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

A thoroughly enjoyable outing from the master of the legal thriller. Our hero, David Zinc, walks out of his high-pressure career in a huge, high-flying law firm; and walks into the firm of Finley & Figg, ambulance-chasers extraordinaire. Oscar, Wally and their secretary Rochelle (to say nothing of the dog) only just manage to keep their heads above water by pursuing injury cases and divorces, and their tactics are not the most ethical. David is a Harvard graduate and son of a judge but has never actually been inside a courtroom. This mismatched group suddenly finds itself handling a potentially massive lawsuit against a major pharmaceutical giant, being represented by David’s former employers.

This book is much more light-hearted than some of Grisham’s other novels and has lots of humour. Wally dreams of making it rich with one massive settlement, Oscar dreams of being rich enough to divorce his wife, while David dreams of having enough energy left at the end of the working day to start a family with his lovely (and very understanding) wife, Helen.

John Grisham
John Grisham

Well-written, as Grisham’s novels always are, this time we get an insight into the distinctly unglamorous and uncertain life of the lower echelons of legal life and while it might not be much fun for the lawyers, it certainly is for us. Despite their flaws, all three of the lawyers are enjoyable characters whom we warm to more and more as the book progresses. My only complaint is that Grisham’s books are usually stand-alone, so we probably won’t get to meet with them again. All the more reason to enjoy this outing. Highly recommended.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link