Eyejaybee is going to try for 100 again

Converses100 Books in 2022 Challenge!

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Eyejaybee is going to try for 100 again

Editat: des. 21, 2022, 6:26 am

Hello, everyone.

I am James, a 59 year old civil servant, and theoretically based in Whitehall (if we ever actually return to the office).

I am glad to be back for another year's reading challenge, and I am very grateful to Hemlokgang for setting up this Group. I am also looking forward to seeing how everyone fares, and hoping to pick up loads of book bullets as we progress through the year.

Best wishes for a happy, healthy and prosperous 2022, with a feast of great reading.

Here are my counters for the Challenge:

Books read tracker:

Pages read tracker:

Editat: abr. 8, 2022, 8:51 am

Before plunging into the challenge for 2022, I thought I would look back over my reading throughout 2021.

In the end I managed to read 121 books, just surpassing my personal target by one. As was the case last year, and rather counter intuitively, I found myself reading a lot less than was the case before the pandemic struck. This was partially down to working from home for the whole year (I only made it into my office about four times). As a consequence, I ‘lost’ two hours of commuting time each working day, which I had generally treated as valuable reading time.

My highs and lows for 2021 (listed in chronological order of reading for each category, rather than in any measure of preference) were as follows:

New-to-me fiction read during the year:

The Eighth Life (for Brilka) by Nino Haratischvili
Judas 62 by Charles Cumming
1979 by Val McDermid
Our House by Louise Candlish
The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles
The Appeal by Janice Hallett
The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz
Slough House by Mick Herron
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid
A Cursed Place by Peter Hannington

I think that my overall favourite among them was The Eighth Life (for Brilka).

My favourite non-fiction books (of which i read far fewer than normal throughout the year) were:

That Will be England Gone by Michael Henderson
The Prime Ministers by Steve Richards
Mozart’s Women by Jane Glover

My favourite re-reads during 2021 were:

Favourite re-reads

Utopia Avenue and Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
Capital by John Lanchester
Mr Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood
Trio by William Boyd

The books I enjoyed least during 2021 were:

No One Writes to the Colonel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Lying in State by Julian Rathbone

Editat: gen. 2, 2023, 4:17 pm

Cumulative list of books read during the year:

001. The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson.
002. Books Do Furnish a Room by Anthony Powell.
003. Death in the Dordogne by Martin Walker.
004. All That Remains by Patricia Cornwell.
005. The Midnight Hour by Elly Griffiths.
006. The Cruellest Month by Louise Penny.
007. The Twyford Code by Janice Hallett.
008. One Night, New York by Lara Thompson.
009. Star Trap by Simon Brett.
010. Eight Detectives by Alex Pavesi.
011. The Women of Troy by Pat Barker.
012. Songs for the Dark Times by Ian Rankin.
013. Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell.
014. Temporary Kings by Anthony Powell.
015. So Much Blood by Simon Brett.
016. Magpie by Elizabeth Day.
017. Hearing Secret Harmonies by Anthony Powell.
018. The Locked Room by Elly Griffiths.
019. O, How the Wheel Becomes It by Anthony Powell.
020. Cruel and Unusual by Patricia Cornwell.
021. The Mystery of the Midnight Rider by Carolyn Keene.
022. A Series of Murders by Simon Brett.
023. Billy Summers by Stephen King.
024. Perfidious Albion by Sam Byers.
025. The Body Farm by Patricia Cornwell..
026. The Paris Apartment by Lucy Foley.
027. A Killing in November by Simon Mason.
028. The Lost by Simon Beckett.
029. About the Author by John Colapinto.
030. Tragedy at Law by Cyril Hare.
031. Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan.
032. Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel.
033. Once Upon a Thriller by Carolyn Keen.
034. Living Proof by John Harvey.
035. Before the Fall by Noah Hawley.
036. The Waiter by Ajay Chowdhury.
037. Sabotage at Willow Woods by Carolyn Keene.
038. Reputation by Sarah Vaughan.
039. White City by Kevin Power.
040. The Devil's Bargain by Stella Rimington.
041. A Shadow Intelligence by Oliver Harris.
042. Sicken and so Die by Simon Brett.
043. Edith and Kim by Charlotte Philby.
044. The Crocodile Hunter by Gerald Seymour.
045. Paris Spring by James Naughtie.
046. Sea of Tranquillity by Emily St John Mandel.
047. Dead Lions by Mick Herron.
048. In a House of Lies by Ian Rankin.
049. Before the Dawn by Jake Woodhouse.
050. Bad Actors by Mick Herron.
051. Pantheon by Sam Bourne.
052. A Good Girl's Guide to Murder by Holy Jackson.
053. Capital by John Lanchester.
054. The Weather in Iceland by David Profumo.
055. We Are Bellingcat* by Eliot Higgins.
056. A Parliamentary Affair by Edwina Currie.
057. Good Girl, Bad Blood by Holly Jackson.
058. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré.
059. Walking the Great North Line by Robert Twigger.
060. From Potter’s Field by Patricia Cornwell.
061. Their Little Secret by Mark Billingham.
062. Murder Before Evensong by The Reverend Richard Coles.
063. As Good As Dead by Holly Jackson.
064. The Foot Soldiers by Gerald Seymour.
065. A Necessary Evil by Abir Mulherjee.
066. The Murder Book by Mark Billingham.
067. Smoke and Ashes by Abir Mukherjee.
068. Let it Bleed by Ian Rankin.
069. Murder in Mustique by Anne Glenconner.
070. This is Shakespeare by Emma Smith.
071. April in Spain by John Bainville.
072. The Masters by C. P. Snow.
073. Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas.
074. Dark Vineyard by Martin Walker.
075. Death in the East by Abir Mukherjee.
076. The Venetian Game by Philip Gwynne Jones.
077. On the Cusp* by David Kynaston.
078. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.
079. Black Diamond by Martin Walker.
080. Elektra by Jennifer Saint.
081. O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker.
082. Vengeance in Venice by Philip Gwynne Jones.
083. The Last Party by Clare Mackintosh.
084. The Twist of a Knife by Anthony Horowitz.
085. 1989 by Val McDermid.
086. The Ink Black Heart by Robert Galbraith.
087. Nobody Walks by Mick Herron.
088. The Bullet that Missed by Richard Osman.
089. The Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin.
090. Stone Blind by Natalie Haynes.
091. Marple by Various Authors.
092. Lessons by Ian McEwan.
093. Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell.
094. The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell.
095. Anthem by Noah Hawley.
096. A Buyer’s Market by Anthony Powell.
097. Bleeding Heart Yard by Elly Griffiths.
098. The Venetian Masquerade by Philip Gwynne Jones.
099. The Romantic by William Boyd.
100. The Atlas Six by Olivie Blake.
101. The Crowded Grave by Martin Walker.
102. Reconstruction by Mick Herron.
103. A Heart Full of Headstones by Ian Rankin.
104. Venetian Gothic by Philip Gwynne Jones.
105. The Devil’s Cave by Martin Walker.
106. A Loyal Traitor by Tim Glister.
107. The Acceptance World by Anthony Powell.
108. The Late Train to Gypsy Hill by Alan Johnson.
109. Standing by the Wall by Mick Herron.
110. Babel by R. F. Kuang.
111. Desert Star by Michael Connelly.
112. One of Our Ministers is Missing by Alan Johnson.
113. Cause of Death by Patricia Cornwell.
114. Murder on the Christmas Express by Alexandra Benedict.
115. The Snake Tattoo by Linda Barnes.
116. 1979 by Val McDermid.
117. At Lady Molly’s by Anthony Powell.
118. Rush of Blood by Mark Billingham.
119. Death and the Oxford Box by Veronica Stallwood.
120. The Venetian Legacy by Philip Gwynne Jones.
121. Oxford Exit by Veronica Stallwood.
122. The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh.
123. Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens.
001. Unnatural Exposure by Patricia Cornwell.

des. 31, 2021, 3:19 pm

Welcome back and happy reading in 2022!

des. 31, 2021, 4:42 pm

Happy reading for 2022, Ian :)

gen. 3, 2022, 12:17 pm

Good luck with your 2022 reading. I'm sure I will get some BB's--already am looking for The Eighth Life.

gen. 4, 2022, 11:36 am

01 The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson.

I enjoyed this novel, which offers a succession of twists and turns that had me fooled. It opens up with a chance encounter in an airport bar between Peter, a successful businessman, and Lily, a university archivist. Having already had a strong drink, Peter’s tongue is loosened as he chats to Lily, and he ends up telling her about his wife, whose infidelity he has recently discovered. Lily is intrigued, and starts discussing how Peter might resolve the situation, leading to a discussion of the possibility that Peter might, with her help, murder his errant wife. Clearly there are shades of Strangers on a Train, and amusingly Swanson has Lily reading a novel (but a different one) by Patricia Highsmith.

Peter and Lily agree to think more deeply about the idea and provisionally arrange to meet again a week later, if they are still interested in pursuing it. They do meet, and start formulating plans. In the meantime, Lily has been unfolding her own narrative, outlining strange events from her unconventional childhood, and her first serious relationship with a man that unfolded while she was at university.

The narrative moves very swiftly, and I found I was sucked into the story right from the start. I have often found that using alternating narratives can prove clumsy, but that was not the case here, where it added a valuable depth to the unfolding story.

gen. 6, 2022, 12:38 pm

>7 Eyejaybee: Going on my WL!

gen. 6, 2022, 2:18 pm

>8 Tess_W: I hope you enjoy it.

gen. 6, 2022, 2:20 pm

S'ha suprimit aquest usuari en ser considerat brossa.

gen. 7, 2022, 9:54 am

2. Books do Furnish a Room by Anthony Powell.

This is the tenth volume of Powell's autobiographical epic, A Dance to the Music of Time, and sees his fictional avatar Nick Jenkins return once more to civilian life after his service in the Second World War, as chronicled in The Valley of Bones, The Soldier’s Art and The Military Philosophers. However, before resuming his former place in London's literary world, he returns to academia, staying in his old Oxford college while researching the life of Renaissance philosopher Robert Burton, and in particular his classic volume, The Anatomy of Melancholy. There is a certain poignancy about this choice of subject for Nick Jenkins: while A Dance to the Music of Time has frequently been praised for its humour and piquant observations of life, beneath the jolly carapace the predominant theme is one of cyclical melancholia.

His return to a post-war Oxford offers an opportunity for another encounter with Sillery, one of the principal influences during Jenkins’s time as an undergraduate. Still steeped in his intricate webs of political intrigue and relentless snobbery, underpinned by his particularly delicious form of personal malice, Sillery has recently been ennobled by the new, post-war Labour administration, and seems agog for any snippets of gossip or speculation about life in London, although his energies are prmarily directed to editing his journals for publication.

Jenkins’s spell in Oxford is cut short by news of the sudden death of his brother-in-law, the socialist peer Lord Warminster (known to friends and family as Erridge). Erridge’s funeral is one of Powell’s set piece masterpieces, with the Tolland family demonstrating all of their own respective foibles while also having to contend with the unexpected appearance of Kenneth Widmerpool (now an ambitious Labour MP), and his wife, along with J G Quiggin and Gypsy Jones, among others, who had lately been involved with Erridge and, in particular, his plans to fund the launch of a new, left-leaning politico-literary magazine called ‘Fission’

Returned to civilian life and back from his brief hiatus in Oxford, Jenkins now finds himself "doing the books" for ‘Fission’ while also struggling to complete his exegesis of Burton, which will eventually be published under the title 'Borage and Hellebore'. Working for Fission brings Jenkins back into regular contact with J G Quiggin who has now relinquished his own aspirations as an author and taken to publishing. The magazine is edited by Lindsey Bagshaw, known to all his acquaintances as 'Books Do Furnish a Room' Bagshaw, or simply 'Books'. Bagshaw is a veteran journalist and lifelong student of the numerous strains of socialism. Through Bagshaw, Jenkins also makes the acquaintance X Trapnel, a highly accomplished yet dangerously volatile writer who strides around the icy capital in an old RAF greatcoat while brandishing a swordstick.

Jenkins was surprised to find that Kenneth Widmerpool, recently appointed as Principal Private Secretary to a member of the Cabinet, was involved with the magazine as one of its financial backers and a regular columnist. In this latter role he churns out wordy pieces espousing the merits of increased cultural and trade links with the Soviet bloc countries. After an inauspicious first encounter with her, Trapnel becomes utterly enchanted by Pamela, Widmerpool's unconventional wife. Pamela has hitherto been a fairly ephemeral character but takes a more prominent role in this volume, leaving her husband to set up home with Trapnel in the dim hinterland of Kilburn. Needless to say, life with Pamela is far from tranquil, which drags Trapnel down, and compromises his health (he has never been physically robust) and his writing. The portrayal of Trapnel is based upon the equally melancholic life of Julian Maclaren-Ross, who promised so much but died regrettably young without ever fulfilling his potential.

As Jenkins becomes more deeply immersed in Burton's work, he sees ever more characteristics of different forms of melancholia among those people with whom he works, and Trapnel in particular. Trapnel does display a certain style, but is ill-equipped for the vicissitudes of post-war London, and the Dickensian winter that shows no sign or thawing. Often very funny this novel is also very closely observed and offers pellucid insight into the difficulties endured by the professional writer.

gen. 13, 2022, 8:53 am

3. Death in the Dordogne by Martin Walker.

I really didn’t know what to expect from this novel, but as a lifelong Francophile, I was keen to experiment. It proved to be a good choice, and the novel is a well-constructed crime thriller, set in the glorious countryside of the Dordogne.

Bruno Courrëges is the head of the local police force in the little village of St Denis. Hitherto crime has not been a problem, and Bruno’s life is generally uncomplicated. He is a keen rugby and tennis player, and works in local clubs devoted to both sports, through which he is able to help keep the village’s youngsters on the right side of the tracks. The greatest risk to peace in the community is the presence of a team of officials sent from Paris to ensure that EU regulations about food safety are being observed. In countryside that had harboured such strong Resistance forces during the Second World War, people are well versed in the disruptive tactics calculated to send such interlopers packing. But things are about to change.

The whole community seems outraged following the discovery of the murder of one of its oldest members, an Algerian man who had lived in the village for decades, and whose son and grandson were prominent local characters. The murder prompts intervention from the local gendarmerie and also from regional police teams, all of which generates considerable tension between the various offices.

Martin Walker manages all the plot complications very deftly, and also manages to give an alluring description of the area, capturing its history, and its political context very clearly. I am looking forward to reading further books in this series.

gen. 13, 2022, 9:14 am

4. All that Remains by Patricia Cornwell.

I remember first encountering Dr Kay Scarpetta almost thirty years ago, and becoming a great fan of her. At the time, I thought that the first few books in Patricia Cornwell’s series were among the finest crime novels I had read, and revisiting this one after so long, that opinion still holds. That, of course, makes it seem all the sadder that Cornwell seemed unable to maintain that high standard, and that some of the later books in the series would prove to be so weak.

This one, however, is especially good – possibly the strongest in the series. As the book opens, Dr Scarpetta has been called to a suspected crime scene, where the Jeep driven by a young couple has been found abandoned at a rest-stop on one of the main highways through Virginia. The scene bears all the signs of being the latest in a series of killings of couples that has already claimed six lives over the last few months. In each case, a couple had been found dead, not far from their abandoned cars in wild undergrowth near major highways. The bodies had lain undiscovered for so long that there were not even any reliable indications of the cause of death.

This case proves to be slightly different because the young woman who has disappeared is the daughter of a prominent politician who had recently been appointed as the Federal ‘Drugs Czar’. That prominence ensures that the press scrutiny of the investigation, and all its failings so far, will fall under even greater media scrutiny that usual. Cornwell paints the scene vividly, leaving one feeling for Scarpetta who seems to be caught in a political battle between the FBI and the State Administration of Virginia. She also builds the tension very effectively, and the reader comes to share all of Scarpetta’s concerns.

While the science of forensic investigation has moved in leaps and bounds in the nearly thirty years since the book was written, that doesn’t seem to matter. At this stage, Cornwell was writing great stories with compelling and plausible characters that kept the reader’s attention. With the benefit of hindsight, having read some of the subsequent books in the series, I realise that one factor helping this book was the fact that Dr Scarpetta’s niece Lucy is not present. Still just a teenager at the time of this novel, she will grow up to be one of the most irritating characters I have encountered!

gen. 17, 2022, 5:24 am

5. The Midnight Hour by Elly Griffiths.

This latest instalment of the series featuring Max Mephisto and Edgar Stephens brings us to 1965. Edgar (whose part in this book is relatively minor) is Superintendent of the Brighton police force, while one of his former sergeants, Bob Willis, is now Detective Inspector. Hie other former sergeant, Emma Holmes, is now Mrs Stephens, and mother of their three children. Following prevailing social mores, Emma was unable to remain in the police following her marriage. She has, however, retained her raging curiosity and detection skills, which she now deploys as half of ‘Holmes and Collins’ a private investigation agency that she runs with Sam Collins, aspiring reporter for the Brighton Evening Argus.

The novel opens with the discovery of the death of impresario Bert Billington, who seems to have died of natural causes following a normal Sunday lunch. Further checks reveal, however, that he had been killed by a dose of rat poison. As the police commence their investigation, in which his widow Verity is naturally one of the suspects, she, adamantly maintaining her innocence, retains Holmes and Collins to find the real killer. Bert Billington had been a hard and callous man throughout his career, so there is no shortage of people with strong grudges that might have proved adequate to provoke his murder.

Verity’s retention of Holmes and Collins allows for an intriguing contract between the two investigations. The police case is pursued primarily by Inspector Willis and Margaret ‘Meg’ Connolly, an ambitious young officer who had been introduced in the previous novel, ‘Now You See Them’. The two intertwined investigations follow family leads in London and also up in Whitby, where one of the Billingtons’ sons is starring in a film adaptation of Dracula, ,in which Max Mephisto (now more actor than magician) plays his father.

As always with Elly Griffiths’s books, the plot is very soundly developed, and the characters all seem highly believable. I think that, on balance, I slightly prefer her series following Dr Ruth Galloway, but that is not to take away from the Brighton novels, which are highly entertaining, and to which this is a welcome and strong addition.

gen. 18, 2022, 10:13 am

6. The Cruellest Month by Louise Penny.

I had enjoyed the previous two novels featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec, but found my patience ran out with this third one. As a simple country boy myself, I had found the village of Three Pines initially familiar. By this third outing, however, I decided that the cloistered and parochial attitudes and cloying personalities were the biggest advertisement for the benefits of city life that I have ever encountered.

The principal plot surrounds the sudden death of one of the villagers while she was participating in a séance in the large house overlooking the village, which had previously been the site of dreadful climes. Meanwhile, a separate story of Machiavellian misdeeds within the Sûreté unfolds, with Gamache beset with a conspiracy of colleagues upset at his earlier unmasking of corruption within the force

While the other novels in the series had proved enjoyable, I found that this one became a trial of endurance, and I don’t think I will be revisiting the series.

gen. 21, 2022, 4:28 pm

>11 Eyejaybee: One of my favorite book titles! Also, I despise Widmerpool, and am now reminded that this series deserves a rereading

feb. 10, 2022, 9:10 am

07. Star Trap by Simon Brett.

Star Trap is set in 1975 and represents one of the earlier episodes in the investigative career of Charles Paris, down-at-heel journeyman actor.

Charles is recruited to appear in Lumpkin!, a musical loosely based upon Oliver Goldsmith's classic play She Stoops to Conquer. This production has been devised primarily as a vehicle for Christopher Milton, the enormously popular star of one of the leading television comedy series of the time.

Charles, however, has not won his role through the customary path of attending an audition and being deemed the most suitable actor for the part. He had instead been contacted by his urbane solicitor friend, Gerald Venables, one of the 'angels' investing in the show, who has been concerned about some odd incidents which he thinks might be part of a greater plot to sabotage the musical. Knowing of Charles's success in solving a couple of previous theatrical mysteries, Venables thinks that he might prove to be a helpful asset to the company management as their man on the inside.

As ever, Simon Brett demonstrates his detailed knowledge of the theatrical world, conjuring an authentic context for the escalating series of incidents that continue to bedevil the show. Personalities and egos clash, and Christopher Milton appropriates more and more of the body of the show to his part, leaving the rest of the cast bereft of any funny or worthwhile lines. He is, however, as Charles continually has to concede (often through gritted teeth following yet another of the star's dreadful tantrums), exceptionally talented, and though he may be hogging ever larger portions of the work to himself, his decisions do seem to make theatrical sense.

As usual with this entertaining series, the plot is well-constructed (and the relevant clues to the eventual denouement are all there), but delivered with a light touch, and Charles Paris remains a very engaging lead character (I think he is too self-effacing to want to be called a hero).

Editat: des. 21, 2022, 6:42 am

08. Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell.

The two great artistic passions of my life have been books and music (particularly rock music), and it has long been a source of some bemusement that so few novels have successfully managed to engage both. There are lots of books with characters who clearly love their music, or that are littered with musical allusions, but I haven’t come across many that the career of a singer or a band. Indeed, when I read Taylor Jenkins Reid’s marvellous Daisy Jones and The Six last year, I wondered if it was the first good novel that I had read which successfully evoked the world of a working band.

I was, therefore, delighted, when I learned that David Mitchell’s latest novel was to be just such a book. Rock music played a significant role in the background of his earlier novel, The Bone Clocks, and his ability to craft a powerful story is beyond question.

The Utopia Avenue of the title is the name of a band formed in the mid-1960s, and subject to a range of different influences. The band members are drawn from very different backgrounds … Bank Manager’s daughter, Elf Holloway, has had some success on the folk scene, and a song that she had written had been a major hit for an American singer just a couple of years earlier. Dutch-born but English educated Jasper de Zoete is a guitar maestro, whose instrumental pyrotechnics ably complement the accomplished, if more prosaic, bass-playing of Dean Moss, who had grown up on the rough side of the tracks in Gravesend. Peter ‘Griff’ Griffin, from Hull, is a professional Northerner, hewn from the ‘You can always tell a Yorkshireman, but you can’t tell him much’ school, and has made a name for himself as a great jazz drummer.

Four discrete characters, and four diverse routes into the music world. They might well have carried on along their separate routes if they had not been spotted by ex-pat Canadian Levon Frankland, who has just established his own music management company and is eager for a new act to promote. London is buzzing. The Beatles have just redefined popular music, having released Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, kicking off the summer of love and endorsing psychedelia. The time is ripe for a new band, and the air is heavy with optimism.

Of course, nothing is quite that straightforward. All four of them … well, five of them, as Levon is as fundamental to the band’s success as the musicians themselves … have their respective personal and emotional baggage. Elf has just split up from … well, been dumped by … her Australian boyfriend and musical partner; Jasper is highly intelligent but socially dysfunctional, with a history of inadequately-diagnosed mental health issues; Dean has overcome personal tragedy, having lost his mother at a young age and become alienated from his abusive father, and has no concept of monogamy; Griff is perhaps the most down to earth member of the band, and broadly satisfied with his lot, despite occasional chips on his shoulders about perceived southerners’ privilege and sense of entitlement; Levon is gay, which has led to him being complete estrangement from his straight-laced Canadian family.

While all four of the musicians are initially dubious about Levon’s vision of them as a band, they do experiment playing together, and find that there is, after all, an indefinable musical bond that brings them together.

Of course, with this being a David Mitchell book, their musical bond is not the only indefinable element. There are also a lot of pleasing allusions to characters and events from other books. Dean Moss’s early musical experiences include attending gigs at the Captain Marlow pub in Gravesend, which twenty years later will be home to the disaffected fifteen year old Holly Sykes, whose abrupt departure from home kicks off the feast of weirdness that is The Bone Clocks. Similarly, Crispin Hershey, reminiscences of whose literary life form such a rich platter within The Bone Clocks, is encountered as the five year old son of one of Dean’s amatory encounters. Suave, self-opinionated, and self-aggrandising critic, Felix Finch, who appears peripherally in both The Bone Clocks and Cloud Atlas turns up at an after-gig party, and investigative journalist Luisa Rey looms large and welcome, too.

There are cameo appearances from a huge range of real figures, too. The band are entranced by Jimi Hendrix, and meet the various Beatles at different stages of their own rise to fame. Jasper keeps bumping into am elfin figure with different-coloured eyes who is desperate to make a name for himself, but struggles to succeed. His name, then, is David Jones, although he will achieve that yearned for success after changing his name to David Bowie.

I am still a, little uncertain about my overall response, however. I enjoyed the book, as I was confident I would, but I can’t help feeling that something … I don’t know what … was missing. I think that I somehow expected a little more of the literary pyrotechnics that normally attend a David Mitchell book. I acknowledge that this is probably unfair – if anyone else had written this book, I would probably be awarding five stars without a moment’s hesitation, but now I am havering simply because I expected that little bit more. Still, it is beautifully presented, too, with a lovely psychedelic cover, so, what the hell, I am going to give it five stars anyway. That is what Crispin Hershey and Felix Finch would have done, and if it is good enough for them, it is more than good enough for me!

feb. 10, 2022, 9:16 am

09. Temporary Kings by Anthony Powell.

The eleventh volume of Anthony Powell's masterful Dance to the Music of Time sequence opens in Venice where the narrator, Nick Jenkins, has been lured to attend a literary conference. Among his fellow delegates are the erudite but rather intimidating academic, Dr Emily Brightman, and Russell Gwinnett, an American professor who has taken a sabbatical break to work on a literary biography of the talented yet personally disordered novelist, X Trapnel, (based upon Julian Maclaren-Ross) whose chaotic life formed much of the backdrop to the previous volume, Books Do Furnish A Room.

Gwinnett advises Jenkins that he is particularly eager to meet Pamela Widmerpool (now more properly addressed as ‘Lady Widmerpool’, following her husband's receipt of a life peerage), who had been instrumental in Trapnel's decline following her wanton destruction of the manuscript of his unfinished novel "Profiles in String". This encounter duly happens as the senior attendees of the conference are invited to visit the palazzo where the Widmerpools are staying. One of the principal attractions of the palace is a ceiling painted by Tiepolo which depicts the story of Candaules and Gyges, as recounted by Herodotus. Candaules, King of Lydia, had frequently boasted of the beauty of his wife, and arranges for his friend Gyges to lurk in their chamber where he can see for himself. The particular poignancy of this situation revolves around the fact that nakedness was a near taboo among the Lydians. The Queen, however, glimpses Gyges watching her naked form and subsequently confronts him, telling him that he must either kill her husband and marry her himself (en secondes noces), or she would arrange for him to be killed, thus either formalising his illicit knowledge of her nakedness, or removing him all together. Not surprisingly Gyges opts for the former course, and after killing Candaules and marrying the Queen, he ruled the Lydians for forty years.

Pamela is intrigued by the painting and seizes on its voyeuristic theme as an opportunity to denounce some of her husband's own unsavoury habits. Widmerpool is surprisingly unfazed by revelations as he has other worries to consider. At the time of his arrival in Venice he had been denounced in scurrilous elements of the British Press who had learned that he had been under investigation on suspicion of having been a Communist spy with connections to Burgess and Maclean.

Meanwhile Jenkins gets to visit his former boss, Daniel Tokenhouse, who turns out to have developed extreme left wing sympathies which have independently brought him into contact with Widmerpool. Pamela pursues, or is pursued by, several prospective suitors, including Gwynnett and Louis Glober, a larger than life American film producer, who is not without his own sexual idiosyncrasies.

Powell manages all this with consummate ease, and right up to the end of the novel one is never quite sure whether or not we are going to witness Widmerpool's final demise. Once again, Powell demonstrates his extraordinary ability to write a novel in which precious little actually happens yet throughout which the reader is kept at a pitch of excitement and expectation comparable to the most rip-roaring thriller.

feb. 10, 2022, 9:20 am

10. So Much Blood by Simon Brett.

One of the most intriguing aspects about reading a series of novels that features a continuing protagonist is the opportunity to see how the author allows the character to develop. Those changes are, of course, even more evident if one chances to re-read some of the novels in the sequence. This was the second of Simon Brett’s books featuring Charles Paris. Later on in the series Charles will metamorphose into an almost terminally unsuccessful bit part player, reduced to accepting the offer of almost any cameo role, regardless of whatever lack of dignity it might entail. In Murder In The Title, for example, he will play the part of a corpse discovered in a cupboard in the first scene of a traditional whodunit, although he will subsequently sink even further down the thespian pecking order to represent a man who is believed to have been abducted in a reconstruction for a programme of the Crimewatch ilk in A Reconstructed Corpse.

At the stage of So Much Blood, however, Charles is still portrayed as a fairly successful figure, recognised by several other characters from work he has done on television, and renowned for his work as a director. As the novel opens he is heading north to Edinburgh to join the Derby University Dramatic Society (which revels in the unfortunate acronym D.U.D.S.) which has secured several slots in the Festival Fringe. Owing to an unfortunate accident to one of the troupe there is now a vacancy which has been offered to Charles to perform his one man show, So Much Comic, So Much Blood, a selection from the works of Victorian poet Thomas Hood. To help enlighten the reader about Hood's works (and I have to admit that I knew very little beyond the frequently anthologised "I remember, I remember the house where I was born" and 'No-vember') Brett uses quotations from several of his poems as chapter headings.

After some brief scene-setting (Hey! I can pun with the best, or worst of them) we realise that D.U.D.S. is seething with tensions between over-inflated egos and artistic sensitivities. Consequently it really comes as no surprise when, during a publicity photo-shoot, Willy Mariello, who was to play Rizzio, lover of Mary, Queen of Scots, in a new play which was to be the centrepiece of D.U.D.S.'s contribution to the Festival, is stabbed. But was it an accident, or was it a carefully orchestrated murder? And if the latter, then orchestrated by whom? Charles worries over this and, as we all knew he must, he starts to delve more deeply.

This novel is engrossing, with affectionate (and accurate) descriptions of many favourite locations around Edinburgh, and captures the dynamism of the city during the Festival, neatly contrasting traditional theatrical ideals with the wealth of avant-gardism that has always been rife across the Fringe.

The relative success of Charles Paris is not the only difference from the later books in the sequence. This is still a straight crime story with a theatrical setting. Later instalments would move towards the comic (although Brett was always careful to ensure the integrity of his plots). Even without the humour that pervades the later books in the series, the theatrical insights are all there, and Charles is as self-effacing and vulnerable as ever.

Very enjoyable all round!

feb. 10, 2022, 9:27 am

11. A Song for the Dark Times by Ian Rankin.

Time and tide wait for no man, and they have been taking their toll on John Rebus, Ian Rankin’s ‘thrawn’ detective. I admire Rankin’s decision, like Michael Connelly with Hieronymus Bosch, to let his protagonist age in real time. Some prominent detectives (Hecule Poirot, Chief Inspector Wexford and Superintendent Peter Diamond), seem to have been preserved in aspic, plodding on year after year without ever changing.

One advantage of Rankin’s and Connelly’s approach is that it lends a greater verisimilitude, and also allows them greater scope for reference to real world events. The downside is that, sooner or later, they have to retire from the police force, and try to come to terms with retirement.

As this novel opens, Rebus is moving home. He isn’t going far, and is in the same block of flats, but now on the ground floor. Having been a lifelong smoker and drinker, he has succumbed to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which has meant that he can no longer readily cope with the two flights of stone stairs up to his old flat. He is helped in the move by his former colleague, Detective Inspector Siobhan Clarke, herself now clearly older than when she was first encountered as a minor character in The Black Book. Rebus will not be alone in his flat, though – he has taken Brillo, the stray dog he acquired a few books ago.

In this book, Rebus spends most of his time away from Edinburgh, summoned up to Wester Ross by a telephone call from Samantha, his largely estranged daughter (flaring additional guilt in Rebus’s already tormented mind when he realises that he had forgotten to tell her that he had moved house). Samantha’s partner, Keith, has gone missing in disturbing circumstances, and she is worried about him. Rebus parks Brillo with Siobhan and coaxes his trusty old Saab up into the desolate far north of Scotland.

Siobhan, meanwhile, has her own new case to investigate, following the murder in Edinburgh of a young Arabian student, who had high society connections. Needless to say, the two investigations eventually intersect, although Rankin manages this deftly, and the reader does not require any suspension of disbelief.

Of course, like his protagonist, Ian Rankin himself is growing older, and he captures Rebus’s changing perspective, and resignation with what life throws at him, very capably. I have driven along a lot of the roads that Rebus travels throughout the far north of Scotland (often in a car of similar vintage to Rebus’s Saab), and Rankin depicts them wonderfully. I know all too well the simultaneous awe at the splendour of the scenery with that gnawing concern at the back of one’s mind about what might happen if your car suddenly broke down.

The grating relationship between Rebus and Samantha is striking, too. Those familiar with the Rebus canon will know that Samantha has been through a lot: kidnapped by a maniac as a young child, knocked down by a hit and run driver, and left struggling through painful physiotherapy before she could be certain she would walk again, and caught in the emotional crossfire between Rebus and his ex-wife. While she calls on Rebus for help, she is still far from welcoming when he arrives, and past hurts contend sharply with current needs.

Rankin always writes well, and all of the Rebus books are entertaining, but I felt that this one rose significantly above its recent predecessors. In fact, I think that this is the best book in the series since Rebus’s initial retirement from the police back in Exit Music. A great success.

feb. 10, 2022, 12:17 pm

12. The Twyford Code by Janice Hallett.

One of my favourite books from last year was Janice Hallett’s novel, The Appeal, which took the form of a dossier of emails, witness statements and transcripts of telephone calls collated from a group of residents in a small town where a murder had occurred. The dossier was presented to two paralegal interns by the barrister involved in the case, with a request that they review the papers and offer any conclusions, without having had any prior knowledge of the case. I am occasionally wary of what could be seen as a novelty approach, but Janice Hallett managed the material with great dexterity, and the documents all added to the verisimilitude rather than seeming merely gimmicky.

This new novel has some similarities, with the text being a series of transcriptions of voice memos or calls stored on a mobile phone. The owner of the phone is Steven Smith, recently released from prison and struggling to adjust to life on the outside, while determined never to go back inside. Some forty years ago, while still at school, Steve had found a copy of a book discarded on a bus. The book proved to be by Edith Twyford, who had been a prolific writer of children’s adventure stories, and seems reminiscent of either Enid Blyton or E Nesbit (or possibly both). Because of the difficulties he experienced in reading, Steve had been assigned to a Remedial English class at school, presided over by Miss Iles, a teacher who managed to inspire much affection and attention from her pupils. Presented with the book that Steve had found, Miss Iles becomes convinced that there is a secret message within it, and engages the class in trying to work out what it might be trying to convey.

Her research into the book, and her attempts to engage and retain the attention of the class culminate in her taking them on a trip out into the country to visit the author’s old home. That school trip looms large as one of the major events in Steve’s memories of his childhood, not least because that outing represented the last time that he saw Miss Iles. She had disappeared from the pupils’ lives from that day on. Following his release from prison, Steve becomes obsessed with trying to discover what had happened to Miss Iles, and what secrets might actually be lurking behind the book.

As with The Appeal, Hallett manages the flow of the story expertly, helping the reader to suspend disbelief completely. The characters, as they emerge from Steve’s recorded notes, are all plausible. Not only does Hallett excel in recreating Enid Blyton’s style when invoking Ms Twyford’s book, but the novel itself is a paean to the engrossing high adventure espoused by those books.

This is as highly entertaining as The Appeal was.

feb. 11, 2022, 12:26 pm

13. One Night, New York by Lara Thompson.

I thought that this was a wonderful novel, and all the more impressive given that it is, as far as I am aware, Lara Thompson’s first book.

It would be difficult to offer much of a synopsis without running the risk of spoilers, and it is far too good a book to mar carelessly. Basically Frances leaves her brutal existence in poverty stricken Hays, Kansas to join her brother Stanley, who has established himself in 1930s New York. The train journey takes days rather than hours, and en route Frances encounters Dicky and Jacks, two relatively wealthy New Yorkers. They find Frances as alien as they seem to her, but establish a vague relationship, and Frances promises to contact them once she has settled in the city. Stanley is taciturn byt well meaning, although he won’t tell Frances any details about the job that he has landed. She gradually comes to realise that he is involved in some way with a night club, although details emerge only gradually.

The story flits around in time, opening with almost the final scene, with preceding events coming in the form of flashbacks. The cast of characters is wonderful, taking in affluent society figures, jazz musicians, and all sorts of figures involved in one way or another with the club, including the Mayor. The occasional scenes from Frances’s and Stanley’s former life in Kansas are heartrending, and offer a stark contrast to the vitality of the city. I found the portrayal of post-Crash New York very convincing.

This book made me recall The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles, which was one of my favourite novels of last year. They are set in different decades, but offered the same feeling of wide-eyed astonishment of country folk displaced to the big city. As a simple country boy myself, that is always a winning formula for me.

There are grim incidents throughout, but this is a beautiful book, and one that deserves a wide readership.

feb. 25, 2022, 5:37 am

14. Eight Detectives by Alex Pavesi.

Somehow I never really connected with this book, and am struggling to understand why it has received so many dazzling reviews.

The book takes the form of a series of exchanges between a literary editor and the writer of a selection of short mystery stories which he had written several decades earlier. The writer had composed his stories to demonstrate the different fundamental plotlines in the whodunit genre, which he had identified through a forensic, almost mathematical study. The editor had found a copy of the book and was considering what scope there might be to issue a new edition.

To be honest, none of the sample stories struck me as having any merit at all (nor even the consolatory quality of conciseness), and I found it very difficult to summon any empathy for, or even interest in, the characters.

This proved to be one of those instances where my optimism proved sadly misplaced, and my decision to keep pressing on because it might get better was sadly awry.

feb. 25, 2022, 5:54 am

15. The Women of Troy by Pat Barker.

As a boy I loved old legends, especially those of the Ancient Greeks, in which humans so often seemed like chess pieces moved around at the whim of the gods. They certainly seemed to bear out the Duke of Gloucester’s lament in King Lear, ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport.’

One Christmas, now probably not far short of fifty years ago, my sister gave me a boxed set of Puffin paperbacks by Roger Lancelyn Green, in which he retold a wide selection of old myths. One volume included tales from ancient Egypt, and the antics of their strange gods with those human bodies topped by animals’ or birds’ heads; another recounted the Norse legends, and the grim adventures that befell the people and gods of Middle Earth. The ones I liked best, however, were those about the Greek legends, and in particular, Green’s retelling of the Trojan War, in which wily Odysseus and his friend Diomedes contributed just as much to the success as the physical might of Ajax, or the harsh valour of Achilles. I read them over and over again, and thought I knew everything about the Greeks’ ten-year campaign to avenge Paris’s abduction of the beautiful Helen.

Of course, I knew of The Iliad and The Odyssey, composed (according to legend) by the blind minstrel Homer, which stand at the fountainhead of Western literature. It came as quite a surprise, however, when I finally came to read The Iliad to discover that it didn’t relate the whole ten years of the Trojan War, and all the ins and outs of that dreadful conflict. It is, instead, restricted to a period of about eight weeks, towards the end of the war (although, of course, the protagonists did not know that), and focuses primarily on the bitter dispute between Achilles, unrivalled hero of the Greeks, and Agamemnon, overall leader of the Greek forces and brother of Menelaus, from whom Paris had abducted Helen.

That dispute hinged round two young noble women (Briseis and Chryseis) whom the Greeks seized from one of the cities near Troy that they had sacked. Briseis, was given to Achilles, while Chryseis was delivered to Agamemnon. Chryseis was the daughter of a senior priest of Apollo, and her father came to plead with Agamemnon for her release, offering a large ransom in return. Agamemnon, notable for his pride, anger and utter lack of wisdom or humanity, scorned Chryseis’s father, sending him away empty handed. The priest scurries away, praying to Apollo, whom he addresses by various titles, including the apparently innocuous title ‘Lord of Mice’. Seeing his priest treated with such disdain, Apollo vents his rage. We quickly learn that the epithet, ‘Lord of Mice’ refers to his ability to send plague, which was spread throughout the ancient world by rodents. The Greek camp is soon overrun with a virulent plague, which renders far worse casualties than the Trojans had achieved. After consulting various oracles, the wiser Greek leaders persuade Agamemnon to send Chryseis back to her father, and offer huge sacrifices to appease Apollo. He grudgingly does so, but then insists upon seizing Briseis from Achilles to replace her. This so angers Achilles that (‘sulking in his tent’) he withdraws his men from the campaign. Without the ferocious Achilles and his loyal Myrmidons, the Greeks falter on the battlefield, and lose much of the ground they had so painstakingly won over the previous nine years.

Pat Barker’s second novel revisiting this ancient story focuses primarily on Briseis, and tells the story of the aftermath of the fall of Troy from the women’s perspective, picking up from her previous book, The Silence of the Girls. Briseis, had been a princess in her own realm (a city state that fell within the overall domain of Troy), but was captured when her city was sacked by the Greeks, and dragged back to their camp. Terrified, and unsure whether she will even survive the first night, she finds herself given to Achilles. In the Roger Lancelyn Green version that I read as a boy, it was merely stated that she was passed to him as a maidservant. Barker shuns any such euphemism, and makes it abundantly clear that Briseis’s future will be as a sexual plaything of Achilles, on call whenever required. Barker’s Briseis is a great character. Caught in a dreadful predicament, she remains strong and resourceful, emerging with far more dignity than her cruel and petulant captors.

Where Barker excels is in taking a story with which her readers are already familiar, and successfully reversing the perspective while retaining all the immediacy and draw of the plot. Anyone familiar with the story of Troy knows what is about to happen, and how the different fates of the principal characters will play out. Despite that, the reader is hooked immediately, and drawn in to Briseis’s story. The book races along, driven by Barker’s clear prose.

The book is a dazzling success.

feb. 25, 2022, 5:59 am

16. Hearing Secret Harmonies by Anthony Powell.

This novel brings Anthony Powell's majestic twelve volume sequence, 'A Dance to the Music of Time' to a triumphant close. The sequence is clearly largely autobiographical, with narrator Nick Jenkins's life closely mirroring much of Powell's own, although, once again, despite the first-person narration, we learn precious little about the writer. His observations of his friends and acquaintances remain as acute and diverting as ever, although Jenkins himself remains an enigma.

We are now in the 1960s, and Jenkins is living in semi-retirement in Somerset, largely disengaged from his former literary endeavours. Kenneth (now Lord) Widmerpool is as odious as ever, although his immersion within a pseudo-religious cult definitely comes as a surprise. His character has come a long way from the opening volume, A Question of Upbringing, in which he seemed a peripheral character, notably principally for his apparent oddness, and inability to conform, despite his own wish not to stand out. Since then he has been, in turns, a solicitor, a competent business fixer, a successful military administrator, a politician, and, latterly, a self-imposed authority, expressing his forthright views through the editorial columns of newspapers of the newly-minted medium of television.

By the time this novel opens, Widmerpool has just returned from a stint in America where he had garnered some prominence as an advocate of the counterculture, and has re-established himself in the public view as ‘Ken’ Widmerpool. Appointed as the Chancellor of one of the newly-chartered universities, he makes regular public appearances espousing his radical views on educational reform.

Meanwhile, a new character emerges at the start of the book. Scorpio ‘Scorp’ Murtlock is a sinister figure with an unbridled capacity to wreak havoc wherever he goes. He has established himself as the leader of a faux religious community, with whom he travels around in a horse-drawn gypsy carriage. As an early advocate of New Age mysticism, they travel around ancient Druidic sites, and participate in arcane rituals. Murtlock is, however, ambitious for power and influence, and is also determined to become acquainted with Widmerpool for his own nefarious purposes.

As with all of its predecessors, there is relatively little action in the novel. Powell treats us to his customary set pieces, including a marvellous depiction of a literary prize dinner, in which a disordered Widmperool inadvertently steals the show. A lot of the surviving old favourites are here: J G Quiggin, Mark Members, Matilda Donners, Norman Chandler and even, fleetingly, Bithel, who had featured so humorously in "The Valley of Bones".

I think it would be fair to say that this is not the strongest novel in the sequence, although that still leaves considerable scope for it to be a fine novel. It must, anyway, be difficult to bring such a magnum opus to a satisfying conclusion. Powell maintains his mastery of the plot, effortlessly tying up a huge selection of long-running loose ends. I enjoyed re-reading this novel, and indeed the whole sequence, for the umpteenth time, though, as always, I felt saddened to have completed it.

feb. 25, 2022, 10:17 am

17. A Series of Murders by Simon Brett.

Down at heel actor Charles Paris is surprised, and gratified, to be selected for a role in a new television detective series. He is play Sergeant Clump, a rather ponderous country policeman who acts as the slow-witted foil to Stanislas Braid, a charismatic amateur sleuth in the mould of Sherlock Holmes. It is not a taxing role, and not one that will significantly enhance Charles’s CV, but it is paid work, and likely to run for quite a while, with an initial run of six episodes.

The programmes are based on the works of W T Wintergreen, a now elderly novelist who had ceased writing several decades ago. The books are all set in that period beloved of the so-called cosy mysteries, in a rather anodyne version of the 1930. Rather than simply accepting the fee for the rights to the stories and leaving the television production company to get on with things, Miss Wintergreen and her sister regularly attend the set. Unfortunately, rather than being happy to see her characters brought to life on the screen, miss Wintergreen is appalled at how the tone of the stories is tweaked beyond recognition to accommodate the more mundane tastes of a contemporary television audience. There are significant tensions in the cast, too. The star of the show is Russell Bentley, a man with a vastly inflated sense of his own abilities and importance, which extends to an apparent inability to remember the names of his fellow actors.

All too soon a real murder occurs, with the actor playing Christina, Stanislas Braid’s beloved daughter, being crushed in what initially appears to be a dreadful accident on the set. As other mishaps befall the production, Charles begins to suspect foul play, and commences his own investigation.

As always in this very entertaining series, Simon Brett deftly mixes humour with a robust and plausible plot, while also taking the opportunity to demonstrate much of the fatuousness that underlies a lot of commercial television programming. Charles is an endearing character – far from perfect, he is a heavy drinker and incurable philanderer, although his crushing self-awareness of these faults renders him very empathetic.

març 10, 2022, 9:42 am

18. Magpie by Elizabeth Day.

This novel opens with a section narrated by Marisa, explaining her relationship with Jake. We soon learn that she had moved in with him not long before, is madly in love with him, and is now expecting their first baby. Marisa is self-employed, and writes and illustrates customised story books commissioned by parents to feature stylised pictures of their children. This requires her to work from home while Jake leaves each day to do his work in a city bank. Some of his deals go awry, as a consequence of which, they decide that they need to take in a lodger. The advent of Kate into the household seems to change their lives completely …or does it?

I don’t want to say much more abut the plot of the book for fear of inadvertently casting spoilers. Suffice to say that there are several sinuous twists.

I have read very mixed reviews of the book. A lot seem to feel that it requires too great a suspension of disbelief. I understand that viewpoint, but I felt that Elizabeth Day’s powers of characterisation and her ability to convey dialogue were sufficiently strong to keep me reading. I had read and enjoyed a couple of her previous novels, and found Paradise City especially effective. This is not quite in that league, but I did find it gripping, and was drawn into it right from the start.

març 11, 2022, 12:01 pm

19. The Locked Room by Elly Griffiths.

One of my great discoveries last year was the wonderful series of novels by Elly Griffiths featuring Dr Ruth Galloway, Head of the Archaeology Department at the University of North Norfolk, based in King’s Lynn. I read thirteen of them last year, along with six novels in her other sequence featuring Edgar Stephens and Max Mephisto, but came wanting more, and found myself eagerly waiting the publication of this latest instalment. I have been especially struck by the way that Elly Griffiths seems so prolific, seeming to publishing a new book in one or other of her series, without at all compromising the quality.

I am pleased to say it didn’t disappoint at all, and displayed the high calibre of the rest of the sequence.. Ruth’s life continues to be complicated, as she strives to balance the demands of her work with her role as single parent to daughter Kate (who is rapidly developing into a finely drawn character in her own right), and her complicated private life.

Another factor is the work she does to help the local police force, who draw upon her forensic archaeology skills whenever old bodies are discovered (which seems to be a regular occurrence).

I don’t propose to say too much more about this book – my review would fail to do it anything like justice. It is as enjoyable and entertaining as all of its predecessors: reading it left me with that dilemma of enjoyable books whereby I was simultaneously keen to see what happened, while reluctant to finish it too quickly.

Now I just have to face the wait for the next volume.

març 11, 2022, 12:14 pm

20. O How The Wheel Becomes it by Anthony Powell.

I have been a huge admirer of Anthony Powell’s wonderful novel sequence A Dance to the Music of Time. Indeed, for many years I intended to write a series work about it, and may still do so. After all, I have read the whole sequence more than twenty times.

I have, however, been a bit ambivalent about Powell’s other novels. He wrote five novels before the Second World War and I suspect, without the wonderful Dance to the Music of Time sequence. They might well have been largely overlooked nowadays. There are some fine moments, but not enough, in my view, to render them especially memorable.

He wrote a further two novels after completing the sequence: this one, and The Fisher king. As with the first five books, I fear they struggle to match the glory of his greater work. This novel followed the tribulations of a critic who finds that an old novel by a former friend, or at least acquaintance, has been ‘rediscovered’ and may be given a new lease of life. There are some very amusing scenes and lines, but, even though it is a very short book, weighing in at a mere 150 pages of fairly large print, it was rather turgid overall.

març 11, 2022, 12:35 pm

21. Cruel and Unusual by Patricia Cornwell.

Patricia Cornwell’s early novels featuring Dr Klay Scarpetta, Chief Medical Examiner for the State of Virginia, were great commercial and critical successes. They combined detailed insight into forensic procedures with well-constructed plots and highly plausible characters. This was the first on them that I read, shortly after it was published in the early 1990s, and I was sufficiently impressed to go back and read the preceding volumes in the series, and then to await its successors.

With the benefit of hindsight, I view this as perhaps the last of the good books in the series – hereafter, I think that the quirks of some of the characters began to predominate, to the detriment of the books as a whole.

Reading it again nearly thirty years later, this still seems a good plausible novel – even the advances in the various avenues of technology that feature don’t detract from the impact of the novel.

Editat: març 11, 2022, 12:41 pm

22. Perfidious Albion by Sam Byers.

This novel seemed to start so well, but, after making great progress I found myself having the reader’s equivalent of a marathon runner hitting the wall, and I lost all my impetus and even will to finish.

It is set Edmundsbury, an unremarkable town in the east of England, at an unspecified time in the near future. Life in post-Brexit Britain is grim, and society seems to have been fractured. Right wing political groups are gaining currency, and shady conglomerates seem to have established far greater control of the social infrastructure of the country. One group, ‘England Always’, which is led by aspiring politico Hugo Bennington, is prominent in the cry for a restoration of traditional English (notably not ‘British’) values. Other groups are more alarming in their adoption of illegal intimidation, reminiscent of the groups that sailed in the wake of the National Front during the 1970s and 1980s.

In Edmundsbury itself, a failing housing estate has been largely cleared of its former residents, with just a few stalwarts resisting the allure of inducements to decamp to allow for redevelopment. They find themselves subject to increasingly menacing cycles of intimidation, reminiscent of the ‘winklers’ deployed by Rachman and other voracious property developers in London during the 1960s and 1970s.

Robert Townsend, a columnist for a blog website, has picked up on this, and has written several pieces about it, drawing a torrent of comments from his readers. Some of these are supportive of his stance, while the majority reflect increasingly violent condemnation of him on a personal level. One regular commentator in particular seems to revel in attacking Robert’s views, becoming increasingly personally vituperative.

Meanwhile Jess, Robert’s girlfriend, is researching the growth of internet misogyny and hate, of which she herself has been a victim. She is particularly dismissive of many of Robert’s columnist colleagues, and is not above sneering at Robert himself for what she perceives as his manifest hypocrisy and lack of intellectual or moral substance. We quickly learn that Jess has a number of alternative interest identities, some of which she uses for surprising purposes.

Meanwhile, at a local technical park, staff at a data management firm seem to be going through a protracted personality disintegration.

Byers sets his context very capably, and the disintegration of society and the growth of a culture driven by impatience and the ever nearer proximity of rage are all too frighteningly plausible. I struggled, however, with the tone of the novel. There was too much sneering, and the protracted exploration of philosophical paradox became quite overpowering. Like so many recent novels, this would have benefited from some brutal editing, and would have been a much better book if it had ended up being one hundred pages shorter.

març 11, 2022, 12:52 pm

23 Mystery of the Midnight Rider by Carolyn Keene.

I remember how much I enjoyed the Hardy Boy adventures as a boy, and have been delighted to be able to read these books (which I have always thought of as the girls’ equivalents, although I acknowledge that such gender stereotyping is probably woefully outdated) with my young goddaughter, who is just embarking on the adventure of reading for herself.

Nancy Drew is a great character – very wholesome and well-intentioned, without ever seeming unduly prudish, and there is a pleasing slice of humour to keep adult reading companions engaged.

març 14, 2022, 12:23 pm

24. Billy Summers by Stephen King.

I first encountered Stephen King while I was still at school, having been given a copy of The Stand shortly after it first came out in paperback. I loved it and went back to read his earlier books, and then eagerly awaited the next new one. I did, however, gradually find that my appetite for the supernatural abated, and I think that the last of King’s horror books that I read was probably Pet Semetary or Cujo. I read a couple of the books that he published as Richard Bachman, but then went for several years without ever coming back to his books.

I was tempted back when I hear that he had written some ‘straight’ crime books, and certainly enjoyed Mr Mercedes and its two successors, although as that series started to stray towards the supernatural, I turned my back again.

This book is another ‘straight’ crime book, and I thought it was wonderful. The title character is a decorated army veteran who had served as a sniper in the US army in Iraq, suffering some grim experiences in Fallujah, Having been discharged, his skills as a sniper had led to him becoming a hitman for organised crime groups. It is in this capacity that he finds himself be retained again, being set up in a house and office with a plausible cover story as he awaits the advent of his latest target. The cover story has him working as a writer working to complete a book for an eager publisher.

Although he has never aspired to write before, Billy finds himself being sucked more deeply into the cover, and he starts to write the story of his life. This becomes an increasingly important part of his life, and he finds that he is always keen to return to his writing. Meanwhile, unlike with any of his previous jobs, he finds himself troubled by his cover role, coming genuinely to like the people among whom he lives and works.

I enjoyed this book. It demonstrates all of king’s effortless ability to render smalltown life with a dazzling plausibility. The characters all show great depth and a strong sense of authenticity, and their motives are all readily believable. The plot is watertight too, and excellently crafted. I think this is a successful writer at the top of his game.

març 15, 2022, 7:02 am

25. The Body farm by Patricia Cornwell.

I have enjoyed rereading Patricia Cornwell’s novels featuring Dr Kay Scarpetta, nearly thirty years after I read them for the first time. This was an interesting one as I think it marked the point at which, first time around, I started tio feel that Cornwell was possible losing her grip.

I had found her four previous novels to be very good, with a pleasing blend of cleverly-constructed plots peopled by plausible and often empathetic characters. While this was still a strong novel, the plot was neither as believable nor as watertight as in the earlier books.

As the novel opens, Dr Scarpetta is at Quantico, FBI headquarters, having just commenced a role as a consultant to the Bureau, working alongside the suave, sophisticated Special Agent Benton Wesley and the significantly less polished Police Captain Pete Marino as part of the ViCAP (Violent Criminal Apprehension Programme). They meet for a case conference to discuss the discovery of the body of a young girl, from whose body strips of flesh have been removed. This is reminiscent of a recent case that the three of them had worked in which the perpetrator was identified, but not arrested. They believe that he may have struck again. The investigation proceeds, with leads being inconclusive.

Meanwhile, Dr Scarpetta’s niece, Lucy Farinelli, who has emerged through the earlier books as a technological wizard, has been inducted into formal training at Quantico, and is working on certain classified projects. However, while Scarpetta and Co are away investigating this latest murder, Lucy’s behaviour becomes erratic, and various allegations are made against her, leading to her suspension.

I felt that Cornwell failed to make the various threads of this hydra-headed plot cohere, and the behaviour of the main protagonists degenerates into the frankly unbelievable. That was my judgement when I first read this book, and it remains the same now.

març 16, 2022, 6:34 am

26. The Paris Apartment by Lucy Foley.

I suspect all of us have experienced that delicious serendipity of picking a book up more or less by chance and finding that it is both engrossing and entertaining. I discovered lucy Foley’s book in just such a way. I found myself faced with an unexpected long train journey ahead of me and, knowing that I had almost finished the book I was currently reading, I resorted to the small shop at the station to see if I could find some form of Red Cross parcel to tide me over. The selection of books on offer was conspicuous by its paucity, but it did include a copy of Lucy Foley’s The Hunting Party, the cover of which was strewn with the sort of sensationalist encomia that would normally put me off completely. Reluctantly seeing it a faut de mieux option I bought it, expecting to find it at odds with my normal taste.

Well, I was completely wrong, and within a few pages I was absolutely hooked. It offered an intriguing suspense story, offered from several different characters’ perspective and full of surprising plot twists. As a consequence, I read her next novel, The Guest List, which I found equally entertaining,

The Paris Apartment follows a similar format, with the story revealed in narratives from various characters, and there is a copious offering of tangential plot twists. The story is well put together, and the reader quickly builds up an empathy for Jess, the lead protagonist, who has fled from her chaotic life in Brighton to spend some time with her half-brother Benjamin, who has recently moved into a chic apartment in a building in one of the smarter areas of Paris. When she arrives there, however, there is no sign of Benjamin, and she finds that the other inhabitants of the building are far from welcoming of this English stranger.

Jess is certainly a great character – resourceful and stalwart, and showing a great capacity to rebound from the numerous adversities that life has thrown her way. However, I was less convinced by any of the other characters. Similarly, I found the plot slightly less coherent than those of her previous books. I felt almost as if the writer was more concerned with surprising the reader than in developing a strong story.

But despite those slight misgivings, I still enjoyed the book, and its grip was such that I kept reading far later than I should have done. If I had read this one first, I would still have been keen to find any other books that Ms Foley had written. It simply lacked a little of the stellar impact of the earlier two.

març 22, 2022, 11:42 am

27. A Killing in November by Simon Mason.

I bought this book largely on the basis of a couple of highly favourable reviews I read in the newspapers, which flagged it up for a fresh take on the police procedural novel. Of course, one has heard that about several books before: sometimes deservedly; sometimes less so.

On this occasion the reviews that I read were spot on. It revolves around a murder in Barnabas Hall, one of Oxford’s oldest colleges, with the victim found in the Provost’s lodgings. The first policeman on the scene is Detective Inspector Ryan Wilkins. Although he had grown up in one of the poorer areas of the city, this is his first day on duty, having just been transferred in from the Wiltshire Constabulary. His attendance there is a mistake. The call should have gone to his near namesake, Detective Inspector Raymond ‘Ray’ Wilkins, Ray could not be more different from Ryan. He is African-Caribbean, from a prosperous West London suburb, and is a graduate from one of Oxford’s colleges (although not Barnabas Hall). The clash of cultures between a streetwise copper who has made it despite, rather than because of, his origins with someone who has been picked up for the fast track and has already acquired the support of senior officers is fairly standard, but Mason puts some additional twists on it.

The plot is also strong, and stands up on its own right, rather than simply as a vehicle for the contrast between the two Inspector Wilkins. Although this has only just been published in hardback, the edition I read also featured the first two chapters from the next instalment, to which I am already eagerly looking forward.

març 22, 2022, 1:07 pm

28. The Lost by Simon Beckett.

I have enjoyed most of Simon Beckett’s previous books, and especially those following the cases of the pathologist, Dr David Hunter, whose expertise had been called on to help in numerous murder investigations. Hunter is a very empathetic character, and one who has suffered rather more than his fair share of trauma over the years.

This latest book is the first in a new series, the protagonist of which is Detective Sergeant Jonah Colley, who is currently working with the firearms division of the Metropolitan Police. Like Dr Hunter, DS Colley is no stranger to tragedy. Ten years earlier his son had gone missing, and had never been found.

As this novel opens, Jonah is in the pub with colleagues after duty on a Friday night when he receives a call from Gavin, a fellow police officer and former close friend. He is surprised because he hadn’t had any contact with Gavin for a long time. However, Gavin is in a state of panic, and asks for help. Jonah asks for directions and head out.

Gavin directs him to a deserted dock in London’s east end. There is no sign of Gavin, but Jonah finds three people wrapped in thick polythene. As he attempts to rescue one of them, he is attacked himself. The next thing he knows, he is waking up in hospital with severe injuries to one of his legs. He is also being interviewed by other police officers who clearly view him as a suspect rather than a victim.

This was a well constructed story. Colley is less immediately empathetic than Dr David Hunter, but he is very plausible. I hope that we haven’t yet seen the last of Dr Hunter, but am certainly keen to see this new series develop.

març 24, 2022, 5:08 am

29. About the Author by John Colapinto.

I have always been a great fan of meta-fiction, especially if there is a strong crime-based plot wound into it. I don’t know why novels about writing novels should be so appealing, but they always are.

This is a particularly fine example, and one that reminded me of The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz which I picked up by chance fairly recently and thoroughly enjoyed. In that, without giving away too much of an intricate plot, a writer who has one successful book under his belt but has struggled to follow it with anything of consequence ends up delivering creative writing classes at a university summer school. One summer he encounters a particularly unpleasant student who boasts about having developed a marvellous plot that he is simply biding his time to write. On a drunken evening he describes the plot to the teacher who, basically, steals it.

In this book there is a slightly different twist in that Cal Cunningham, the protagonist, has his heart set upon being a writer but can’t overcome his procrastinatory nature sufficiently actually to sit down and write. In the meantime, he is living high on the hog in New York, and recounting his exploits to his rather tame and unassuming flatmate. Little does he realise that his flatmate is himself writing reams of text, in which he commits excerpts from Cal’s life to paper in what becomes an amazing novel. Cal discovers this by chance, on the same day that the flatmate dies.

Feeling that this was really his story anyway, Cal decides to steal the story, retyping it and passing it off as his own. It is published to stratospheric critical acclaim and secures immense commercial success, with the film rights being bought for a huge sum. This success does not bring the undiluted joy for which Cal had hoped. He is still unable to bring himself to start another book, and as his wealth and comfort accrue, he feels increasingly vulnerable to exposure. He feels he has done everything to cover his tracks, but he is wrong.

Colapinto handles the material excellently. I was sucked into the story right from the start, and bought into it entirely. Cal is a well-drawn character. Although he is a fraud and a rampant opportunist, the reader feels his frustration and outrage as various risks arise.

març 24, 2022, 7:11 am

30. Tragedy at Law b y Cyril Hare.

My first job after graduating from university saw me joining the Civil Service (for the first of three separate careers as a humble functionary), and being assigned to Bloomsbury Tax Office. Despite its name, the office was neither situated in, nor presided over, Bloomsbury. Instead, it was located in a particularly shabby office on the corner of Euston Road and Melton Street (reminiscent of one of the more rundown buildings that housed the peripheral branches of the intelligence services in John le Carré’s books) and covered the Inns of Court. As a consequence, the overwhelming majority of its taxpayers were either barristers or solicitors, spanning both the knights of the legal profession in the form of immensely successful QCs whose exploits featured regularly in the Times Law Reports, and also the waifs and strays of the Bar, perpetually struggling to survive from one dock brief to the next, often going months without ever seeing the inside of a court, or receiving even a sniff of a client. I found the traditions of the Bar and its archaic working practices mystifying, yet also utterly captivating, and I have nurtured a fascination for them ever since, and have always loved any literature that touches on the intricacies and vagaries of the legal world.

This book sates that appetite comprehensively, offering a glorious perspective on the pomposities of the Southern Assize Court Circuit. Set in October 1939, as the country gradually subsided into war but before the subsequent privations became apparent, this novel tells of the tribulations of Frank Pettigrew, a down-at-heel barrister (perhaps an early forerunner of John Mortimer's Rumpole) and Mr Justice Barber. Shrouded in pomposity, as in an armour of triple steel, the Judge stumbles through the proceedings, dependent upon the ministrations of his youthful and far more intelligent wife to preserve him from embarrassment. To add a little savour the reader subsequently discovers that before she married the Judge Lady Barber had previously been engaged to Pettigrew.

However, Lady Barber is not on hand to prevent her husband from deciding to drive home after a lawyers' mess dinner in the blackout and knocking over a stranger who suffers damage to his hand and may have to lose a finger. Distressing enough for anyone, this injury is especially awkward for this particular victim as he is a fêted classical pianist. Meanwhile the Judge has been receiving threatening but anonymous letters.

The pianist consults his own lawyers who threaten to sue the Judge if a satisfactory settlement cannot be reached out of court. This would, of course, signal the end of his career on the Bench. With all these elements Cyril Hare concocts a fairly heady brew, which eventually culminates with the murder of the Judge outside the Central Criminal Court. Hare, himself a successful barrister, manages his plot masterfully, with a deft lightness of touch. One feels great empathy for Pettigrew, and shudders at the occasional loathsomeness of Barber.

This blend of traditional whodunit and ‘legal procedural’ is an all-round success and reads as well today as it did on its original publication more than seventy years ago.

març 24, 2022, 7:49 am

31. Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan.

This is a very gripping political and legal thriller.

The scandal of the title refers to an affair between James Whitehouse, a Conservative Mp and junior minister and one of his research staff. The novel opens with the news of the affair breaking. Whitehouse’s wife is expecting him to return home on a Friday evening in time to get changed and then head out to a dinner party. Instead, he turns up late, and has to tell her that the following morning’s newspaper’s will be carrying stories about the affair.

The seriousness of his position intensifies when the researcher alleges that, after he had ended the relationship, in a subsequent encounter he raped her. The bulk of the book covers the progress of the subsequent trial, with flashbacks from various characters.

Sarah Vaughan’s management of the plot is excellent. The story develops, following various sinuous twists but always remaining highly plausible. It also allows for a stark exploration of the attitudes of entitlement among strata of society, and an almost wilful inability to see things from another person’s perspective.

The descriptions of Westminster and the byways of parliament with which I am familiar through my job as parliamentary clerk for my Civil Service department, are spot on. That verisimilitude lends strength to other aspects of the plot.

I don’t want to say much more about the story for fear of inadvertent spoilers. It is, however, utterly engrossing and highly convincing.

març 24, 2022, 7:53 am

32. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.

I have read this book a couple of times before (and am fairly confident I will read it again before very long) as it just seems to get better with each new reading. Of course, if one knows anything about it at all, it has an additional poignancy just now, with much of the world still caught up in some degree of lockdown following the devastation wreaked by Covid-19.

I can scarcely remember my first encounter with the post-apocalyptic road story genre. Perhaps it was the BBC television series 'Survivors' which initially enthralled before merely irritating viewers during the late 1970s. Cormac McCarthy restored some class to the genre with 'The Road', but it has been to Emily St John Mandel to bring it to its apotheosis with her masterpiece, Station Eleven.

The basic scenario is simple, but chilling. As the novel opens, fêted actor Arthur Leander is performing in the title role of 'King Lear' in the Elgin Theatre, Toronto, when he suddenly collapses and, despite the sustained ministrations of Jeevan, who had been in the audience and who yearns to become a paramedic, dies on stage. Arthur is not the only person dying unexpectedly in Toronto that evening. Earlier in the day a plane had landed from Eastern Europe, packed with passengers unaware that they were carrying Georgian Flu. As snow starts to fall, the emergency rooms at the city's hospitals are rapidly filling up with patients in the deeper throes of desperate illness, and the epidemic has already taken hold. The spread and impact of the disease is unstoppable, and within a few days hundreds of millions of people around the world are dead, and the fragile foundations of the infrastructure of cohesive civilisation are crumbling.

The action then moves on twenty years and focuses on Kirsten Raymonde who is part of a band of survivors who move around the Great Lakes area of North America. There is no society left. All that remains are scattered gatherings of survivors. There is no electricity, and what fuel that remains has gone stale and cannot be used. There is certainly no imposed authority - each settlement has established its own discrete laws and is focused solely on its own survival. Some of these communities are worse than others, but there are some common factors throughout: outsiders are unwelcome and viewed with suspicion.

Of course, much of the above description must sound like fairly customary post-apocalyptic fodder. Emily Mandel’s stroke of genius, that sets this book so far above others in the genre, resides in her decision to make Kirsten's band of survivors so different. The group calls itself ‘The Travelling Symphony' and comprises a selection of musicians and actors who have taken to performing some of the more popular works of classical music and performing Shakespeare's plays. Their motto, taken from an episode of 'Star Trek: Voyager' is 'Because survival is insufficient'. We subsequently learn that Kirsten had been one of a group of young girls who had actually been in the production of 'King Lear' featuring Arthur Leander.

In fact, in many ways Arthur Leander is the hub around which the whole novel revolves. Although he dies within the first few pages, Mandel fills in much of his life as remembered by other key characters. The story flashes back at various stages to illuminate the earlier life of some of the characters, and Mandel interlaces the story with terrific dexterity. Her language is amazing, too. She manages to combine a ferocious clarity with moments of startling beauty. The title of the novel is a reference to a comic series featured in two books that are among Kirsten's most prized possessions from before the collapse of society caused by the pandemic. There is a complex and moving back story involving these comics which lend a spellbinding further dimension to the novel.

març 24, 2022, 8:09 am

33. Once Upon a Thriller by Carolyn Keene.

This was another book that I enjoyed reading along with my goddaughter. I know that the Nancy Drew books have developed into a massive franchise, with a team of writers contributing to the composite persona of Carolyn Keene. Well, there is nothing wrong with that to my mind.

As with the other books in the series, the story is sufficiently exciting to keep younger readers gripped, and although everything is entirely wholesome, the book is not reduced to the merely anodyne.

In this case, Nancy and her friends visit a local resort to spend a restful weekend away. Nancy is keen to make some progress with the mystery books she is reading, hoping to take a break from real investigations. Unfortunately, she once again finds herself dragged into a mystifying set of circumstances, this time arising from what appears to be a series of crimes mimicking those from a famous writer’s series of crime fiction. I enjoyed it, and so did my goddaughter.

març 24, 2022, 8:20 am

S'ha suprimit aquest usuari en ser considerat brossa.

març 29, 2022, 5:06 am

34. Living Proof by John Harvey.

This book represents John Harvey and Detective inspector Charlie Resnick at their best!

As usual the action takes place in Nottingham (and I particularly enjoyed the occasional references to Loughborough!), and the beleaguered Resnick is up against it once again. A local festival is celebrating crime fiction and some classic noir films. Popular American author Cathy Jordan, responsible for the immensely successful series of garish and violent thrillers featuring feisty private investigator Annie Q Jones is the star attraction. However, she has been receiving threatening letters, and the festival organisers approach the police to offer additional security.

Meanwhile a prostitute is attacking her male clients at various venues around the city. These attacks are escalating in their seriousness and, eventually, as the police feared would be the case, a punter is murdered.

As always with Harvey's masterful series of Resnick novels, the plot is entirely plausible and the characters perfectly credible. The readers share Resnick's weariness and the sheer despair of Lynn Kellog, his long-suffering Detective Constable. And, as usual, we are treated to sumptuous descriptions of the marvellous sandwiches that Resnick somehow always finds time to construct, and which he invariably manages to spill down his tie.

abr. 8, 2022, 5:19 am

35. Before the Fall by Noah Hawley.

This was an intriguing novel that I picked up in Waterstones a couple of years ago, and then forgot about.

A private jet flies from Martha’s Vineyard back towards New York one Sunday evening. It is owned by the head of a major television news network, known for its aggressive reporting and forthright views. His wife and two children had been holidaying at Martha’s Vineyard and he had flown out to join them, and they were now all returning back to the city. They offer to take a couple of acquaintances, one of whom is a successful banker. The broadcaster’s wife had also extended an invitation to a local artist whom she had met at a food market, and who was due in the city to discuss a forthcoming exhibition with his gallery contact.

Along with the seven passengers there are two pilots, a cabin crew assistant, and a security guard. The latter is there because the broadcaster had been the subject of various threats, and we soon learn that his daughter had been kidnapped for a few days several years earlier. Less than twenty minutes into the flight the plane vanishes from air traffic control’s radars. We don’t initially learn what has happened – the first we know of the incident is when the artist suddenly regains consciousness to find he is in the sea. He soon realises that the young son of the broadcaster is nearby, and through an extraordinary feat of strength, courage and resilience, he manages to swim to safety, taking the boy with him. They are the only survivors.

This sparks a hullaballoo within the media, with the artist initially heralded as a hero. The boy, still an infant, is suddenly the heir to a massive fortune, and arrangements are swiftly made for his care and upbringing. However, as more facts emerge about the other occupants of the plane, and the artist, the mood of the media starts to change, and the artist finds himself under unaccustomed and extreme scrutiny.

Noah Hawley manages this complicated story adeptly, releasing information about the various characters through a drip feed. We don’t discover until the end of the book what caused the plane to fall out of the sky. We gradually learn about the broadcaster’s history and his political affiliations, which might explain why he could have been the victim of a deliberate act of terrorism. Meanwhile, we also see into the past of his banker acquaintance, who is far from occupying a position of unassailable rectitude. There are tensions, too, between some of the cabin crew, while the security guard has seen action around the world, and is not without his own bitter enemies sworn to vengeance.

The tension is maintained right through to the final pages. Hawley captures the different characters’ voices very capably, too, especially that of the artist.

abr. 8, 2022, 10:31 am

36. The Waiter by Ajay Chowdhury.

Kamil Rahman is not a particularly good waiter. As the novel opens, he is struggling to fold napkins into helmet shapes to adorn the Bengali restaurant in Brick Lane where he has been working for the last few weeks. His job there is a temporary arrangement. His real calling was as a policeman, and back home in Kolkata he had risen to the rank of Sub Inspector, aided perhaps by deference to his father who is now retired but had been Commissioner.

He is called upon to lead the investigation into one of the highest profile cases the city has seen in recent years when a leading Bollywood star is found murdered in his luxurious hotel suite. Rahman makes progress in the case but instead of receiving the anticipated praise, he incurs the wrath of the Deputy Commissioner who appointed him to the case. It becomes clear that an early result is required, and the speed with which the case is resolved is more important than finding the actual culprit. When Rahman’s investigation implicates prominent figures in Kolkata society, he finds himself first threatened, and then framed, hustled out of the police force and threatened.

He flees to Britain where family connections offer him stopgap employment in the restaurant, where he struggles to adjust to his drastically revised lifestyle. However, while helping with the catering for a private party held by a wealthy businessman (who also happens to be both a family friend and financial backer of the restaurant), held at a massive house on the Bishop’s Avenue (just down the road from my locale of Muswell Hill, although, unaccountably, the author fails to mention that key aspect), he finds himself drawn into another murder investigation.

That synopsis may make it all sound rather frenetic, but that is a false impression. The story moves between the present day in London and Rahman’s experiences in Kolkata a few months earlier. Chowdhury manages the parallel unfolding of the plots very smoothly. The characters are amusing, but very plausible. I am hoping that this will proves to be the first in a series.

abr. 8, 2022, 10:44 am

37. Sabotage at Willow Woods by Crolyn Keene.

Nancy Drew is back, with her loyal sidekicks George and Bess. This time they find themselves in nearby town where Carrie Kim, cousin of George, is running for election to the local council, pledging to improve the local college’s sports facilities as one of the mainstays of her campaign. This is not universally popular: many students feel that the sporting community within the college already receive disproportionately large levels of support while more cerebral aspects of life are neglected. Other people object to the potential environmental impacts of what Carrie Kim proposes.

As Carrie Kim’s campaign starts to gain momentum, her fundraising events are subject to various acts of sabotage, some of which cause some of her financial backers to withdraw their support. Ace investigator Nancy decides to investigate further, going under cover in an eco-campaigners’ group.

As always with these stories, the plot is fairly light-hearted, and the characters are very wholesome. My goddaughter, with whom I have been reading the series, is enchanted with them, which is good enough for me.

abr. 11, 2022, 10:08 am

38. Reputation by Sarah Vaughan.

Earlier this year I read and enjoyed Sarah Vaughan’s novel Anatomy of a Scandal, which revolved around the trial of an established male MP (indeed, as the book opens he was a junior Minister) for rape. I am eagerly awaiting the Netflix dramatization which is due for broadcast very shortly.

With Reputation, we are in similar territory, although the principal protagonist is a female MP who is an Opposition backbencher. This novel opens with her scoring a success in having a government Bill amended to include provisions for which she had campaigned following the tragic death of one of her constituents. Not everyone is happy, however, and she finds herself subjected to extreme abuse through the various tentacles of social media. Sadly this scenario is all too believable. Sarah Vaughan points out in an Author’s note ant the end of the book that the senior Tory MP Sir David Amess had been killed at a constituency surgery while she was working on the novel, and as I write this review, I have just held that the person charged with his murder has been found guilty. British political life has gone through some serious changes for the worse in recent years, and there seems no likelihood of any dilution of the hatred that abounds, capable of being sparked by the slightest incident.

In this case, Emma Webster finds herself on trial for murder after a political correspondent for one of the country’s most popular tabloids is found severely injured at the foot of the staircase in her house. Emma and the journalist had worked together on the campaign that she led to have the government Bill amended, and their relationship had developed from there. However, having experienced the support that the press can give to am MP’s campaign, Emma had also become all too aware of the potentially intrusive and destructive nature of press interest once reporters sense the proximity a salacious story. Just such a story was lurking in Emma’s family situation, and she was anxious to protect her daughter from being drawn into public scrutiny. Meanwhile, she finds herself becoming increasingly subject to vicious attacks through social media, and oppressed by a particularly obsessed constituent who feels he has grounds for grievance.

Sarah Vaughan maintains the suspense very capably, with Emma seemingly beset from all sides. The narrative focuses primarily on Emma, but some chapters focus on, or are recounted by, other characters including her teenage daughter, the current wife of her former husband (Emma’s marriage had imploded under the additional stress attendant upon becoming an MP, especially as she had won her seat unexpectedly, having stood to gain experience to strengthen her position for a subsequent campaign in a more ‘winnable’ constituency).

The characters, and their respective motivations, are all very believable, and the overall impact is very powerful. I can also envisage this translating effectively to television.

abr. 13, 2022, 5:02 am

39. White City by Kevin Power.

This was a powerful and intriguing story, following Ben, the son of a prominent Irish banker who has led a life on entitlement and indulgence, until outside forces start to dismantle his life. It is told through his recollections during a spell in rehab, looking back over the preceding months.

After attending an expensive and exclusive private school, he had passed on to university to study English. Thereafter, despite a fairly mediocre degree, he had enrolled as a postgraduate, working on a thesis about the early works of James Joyce. This had, in fact, been cover for a life of extraordinary ease but no focus, funded by a generous monthly allowance from his father. This comes to an abrupt end when his father is arrested, accused of having misappropriated around six hundred million Euros. With his father’s assets frozen, Ben finds his life of luxury is over. He does, however, fall on his feet, taking up with a beautiful aspiring actress called Clio. This coincides with his descent into a life of intense hedonism, leading to his increasing dependence on drugs.

It is while he is sinking to the deepest of these depths that he encounters someone from his old school who appears to have been immensely successful in the intervening period, working in the obscure avenues of international banking. He persuades Ben to join him and a handful of other fellows from the same school, in a property development venture in Serbia where they envisage the potential to make a commercial killing as a consequence of a loophole in the legislation. Ben is initially hesitant, but lured by what appears to be limitless access to money. The novel then moves between Serbia and Dublin, with the bankers’ experiences as they meet their very shady Serbian counterparts interspersed with flashbacks to events in Dublin just before Ben flew out to Serbia.

The plot is very carefully managed, with surprising revelations emerging throughout. This was one of those strange novels without any particularly appealing characters – even Ben is far from sympathetic, willing, by his own admission, to trick or abandon those who have tried to help him. That does not detract from the novel’s appeal however, and I found myself completely immersed and engaged in it right from the start.

abr. 13, 2022, 7:54 am

40. The Devil's Bargain by Stella Rimington.

I suppose that it would be difficult to think of a stronger provenance for a writer of spy thrillers than to have been Director General of MI5, as Stella Rimington was. Indeed, she was the first woman in that role, and the first holder of it to be publicly acknowledged as such. After publishing a volume of memoirs (extensively filleted to avoid releasing material too sensitive for the public conscience, although no less interesting for all that), she wrote a highly entertaining series of novels featuring Liz Carlyle, an empathetic and capable (although reassuringly far from infallible) Intelligence Officer. These clearly benefitted from Dame Stella’s inside knowledge (although I am sure that MI5 will have evolved significantly since her day), but avoided becoming bogged down in procedural verisimilitude. Her latest novel introduces a new protagonist, Manon Tyler, who is an analyst working for the CIA, about to be posted to the London Embassy.

The novel opens ack in the throes of the Cold War when a Bulgarian ship docks at Heysham in Lancashire. One of the crew disembarks, ostensibly to spend a night ashore, but he never returns. His departure is witnessed by Harry Bristow, a detective sergeant assigned to Special Branch. He should have followed up the young man’s disappearance, but for reasons of his own he failed to do so at the time.

Bristow encounters the fugitive many years later and finds that he has done well, establishing himself in business with a chain of kitchen design outlets throughout the North West of England, and, after a stint as a local councillor, is newly returned to Parliament as MP for Liverpool North.

Stella Rimington weaves the plot sinuously, but deftly, and the action moves quickly. As always, her characters are very plausible and empathetic. Manon in particular is very engaging, and is reminiscent in her way of Liz Carlyle in the early phases of her career. I was intrigued by Rimington’s decision to focus the novel on a CIA officer, which should lend an intriguing perspective to any further novels in what I hope is to become another series.

abr. 13, 2022, 11:51 am

>51 Eyejaybee: didn't know she had started a new series, I've read several of her Liz Carlyle books and enjoyed them. She's in her late 80s now, so hope she still has plenty of writing energies left.

abr. 27, 2022, 11:28 am

41. A Shadow Intelligence by Oliver Harris.

Elliot Kane is a senior MI6 officer who, as the novel opens, has been engaged at the sharp end of an operation in Saudi Arabia that has just been compromised, with his agent arrested and imprisoned. Kane himself only just escapes from the agent’s house in time, where he had been endeavouring either to recover, or failing that, destroy, any incriminating documentation. He returns to London, to face an uncomfortable debriefing.

While adjusting to London life again, he receives, through complex back channels, an email from another of his field agents, warning him that he is in danger. Alarming under any circumstances, this is all the more striking as the agent in question had died several months previously. Kane realises that the email was actually from his former partner, Joanna, who happened also to be the previous handler of that particular agent, and who had helped establish the secret communication protocols. It is more than six months since Kane had had any contact with Joanna, and she now seems to have disappeared completely.

Placed on the intelligence community’s equivalent of ‘gardening leave’, Kane starts to investigate what might have happened to Joanna, which involves going over her most recent operations. These had focused on her explorations of psyops (her particular field of expertise), which had led her to an operation in Kazakhstan, where various western oil companies were competing for lucrative contracts as the country endeavoured to secure foreign exchange, and escape from its former complete dependency on Russia.

Oliver Harris sets the scenario very capably, and I found the background material about Kazakhstan utterly engrossing. (To be honest, before reading this book, everything I knew about Kazakhstan might comfortably have been written on the back of a stamp!). Sadly, I found that his plot became far too convoluted, and sinuous to the point of impenetrability. That might, of course, merely be a judgement on my own intellectual faculties, but as each new plot tangent arose, I found myself becoming increasingly punch drunk.

abr. 27, 2022, 11:32 am

42. Sicken and So Die by Simon Brett.

Simon Brett's series of novels featuring down at heel actor Charles Paris have all been entertaining, and I think that this might be the best one of all

As the novel opens things seem to be going unusually well for Charles Paris. Not only has he landed the desirable role of Sir Toby Belch in a new production of Twelfth Night, but he also thinks he may be well on the way towards a lasting rapprochement with his former wife, Frances, from whom he had been separated for several years, principally because of his drinking and philandering.

Always a committed fan of Shakespeare's canon, Charles has longed to play the part of Toby Belch, and is looking forward to delivering a traditional performance straight out of the old school. Obviously, this is all too good to last, and things start to go awry almost immediately after rehearsals begin, when Gavin Scholes, the benign but almost constitutionally unimaginative director, is taken ill. When it emerges that Scholes’s ailment is serious, the production company replaces him with the radical, Romanian enfant terrible, Alexandru Radulescu.

Radulescu is no respecter of theatrical sacred cows, and immediately sets about transforming the production into an avant-garde extravaganza, much to Charles's disgust. However, even Charles has grudgingly to concede that some of Radulescu's ideas, bizarre as they seem, do produce startling effects. Soon, however, more mishaps start to happen, culminating in the sudden death of one member of the cast.

Brett has sustained a highly successful career as a novelist and writer of comedy series for both television and radio, and this novel shows him at his best. The wry humour never detracts from his tightly constructed plots, and his depiction of the thespian peccadilloes of the cast amuse the reader but never reduce the story to farce. He clearly knows his Shakespeare, too, and the novel offers intriguing insights into the various relationships between characters in the play. All in all, a highly entertaining and informative jaunt through the theatrical world.

abr. 28, 2022, 9:09 am

43. Edith and Kim by Charlotte Philby.

I really wanted to enjoy this book. The various reviews I had read in the press were very positive, and having had a lifelong interest in espionage, a novel recounting a significant relationship in the life of Kim Philby, written by his granddaughter seemed especially appealing. I also like what i have seen and read about Charlotte Philby herself.

Sadly, however, I found it very heavy going, and struggled to complete it. I would say that this is really one for the purists only.

maig 6, 2022, 9:19 am

44. The Crocodile Hunter by Gerald Seymour.

Jonas Merrick has worked for MI5 for decades, always following a fixed routine, arriving at and departing from the office at the same times every day, and avoiding any attention from his colleagues. This all changes on his last day before retirement. Dreading the imminent ordeal of a presentation, he ducks out of the office and goes for a walk, ending up in one of the park areas near the Houses of parliament. There his years of silent dedication to his work come to fruition, and he recognises the lonely figure seated on a bench as one of the potential radicalised targets whom his department had been tracking. Merrick accosts the man, and his actions avert a terrorist outrage.

As a consequence, he is asked to stay on beyond his scheduled retirement and to analyse high risk participants in jihadi campaigns overseas. This leads him to focus his attention on Cameron Jilkes, a young man who had grown up in Canterbury but had departed to join Islamist extremists engaged in military action in Syria. Various intelligence leads suggest that a new terrorist action is planned, and Merrick is watching for any possible suspects returning from radicalising experiences overseas.

The novel then follows various separate threads, including that of Jilkes’s return to the UK, and that of a couple of pensioners who had chosen to supplement their dwindling income by agreeing to act as couriers, bringing a concealed weapon back from their driving holiday in Germany. Seymour manages these separate story lines very capably, building the tension throughout. His characters are very empathetic and plausible too.

I was less keen on his writing style, which almost drove me to give up on the book at various points, but I am glad I persevered to the end.

maig 11, 2022, 6:44 am

45. Paris Spring by James Naughtie.

James Naughtie is best known as the former host of BBC Radio 4’s flagship Today programme. Since retiring from that role, he has undertaken several other commissions for the BBC, but has also found time to write two novels drawing on his experiences as a journalist.

This book is set in Paris in 1968, against the backdrop of growing unrest around the world, with violent demonstrations against the Vietnam War staged in America and also in London, outside the US Embassy. Meanwhile, agitators were active in France, inciting increasingly violent far left wing demonstrations and riots, that would become known as 'les evenments', and gained the name of the ‘Paris Spring’. Against this background, Will Flemyng is based in the British Embassy in Paris where he fulfils the role of MI6 Deputy Head of Station, supporting his highly capable, but clearly ill, boss, Freddy Craven.

Flemyng is not a conventional spook. He comes from a wealthy Scottish family that owns an estate in Perthshire, but his younger brother (for reasons that are never made entirely clear) works for the CIA. As the novel opens, Flemyng is approached on the Metro by a strange character who seems ware of his actual role, rather than the diplomatic cover under which he generally passes. This approach becomes additionally sinister as the man seems aware of Flemyng’s brother’s role, too, and refers to his position in a threatening manner.

Meanwhile, journalists are massing in Paris from all around the world. One of these catches Flemyng’s eye, but is found dead shortly after their encounter, having been murdered in the picturesque Pere Lachaise cemetery. As her contact with Flemyng had been fairly public, the Embassy is drawn into the police investigation of the murder. Against this developing scenario, one of Flemyng’s colleagues is convinced that the Service is harbouring a highly-placed East German mole.

Clearly all of the ingredients for a fine espionage are in place, and the book held my attention very closely … for the first three quarters of the novel. Towards the end, somehow the book seemed to undergo a transformation, and I found it very difficult to summon sufficient mental energy or engagement to persevere to the end.

I found this a disappointment as I have always liked listening to Naughtie in his role as a journalist/broadcaster, and had desperately wanted to like the book. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised, however, as I recall similar difficulties with his previous novel, The Madness of July.

Editat: maig 23, 2022, 12:11 pm

46. Sea of Tranquillity by Emily St John Mandel.

In format this wonderful novel reminded me a bit of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (another wonderful novel) – it adopts a similar almost concentric structure, with sections from different time periods.

At its most basic level, it is a science fiction story, with a character travelling back from the future to iron out slight anomalies in the flow of time that had been identified at different points in the past. However, that description is woefully inadequate, as that thread is merely one of the gems that the novel offers.

Another marvellous aspect is the story of Olive, a future novelist born on the moon, but visiting Earth as part of the promotional activity that arises when one of her novels is made into a blockbuster film. While she is travelling to major venues around twenty-third century Earth, she reads about the outbreak of a new, extremely virulent disease. Missing her husband and daughter, she cuts short her tour to return to the moon, hoping to avoid being caught in a global lockdown. Emily St John Mandel has presumably been caught up in her own promotional tours, especially after the phenomenal success of her novel Station Eleven, itself subsequently turned into a major television series. Her depiction of the impact of a global … indeed, galactic pandemic is all too familiar to current day readers as the world gradually emerges from the shadow of Covid 19.

The Glass Hotel featured a cameo appearance by Miranda, who had drawn the comic series from which Station Eleven took its name. Similarly, Vincent, the principal figure of The Glass Hotel is mentioned here, one of the characters having been in her circle during her association with the Ponzi scheme financier.

This novel is yet another great success for Emily St John Mandel. Her ability to create immensely believable character is matched by her deftness at constructing marvellous plots and scenarios for them to populate.

maig 23, 2022, 12:17 pm

47. Dead Lions by Mick Herron.

Jackson Lamb is back, just as grotesque, crass and generally objectionable as he was in Slow Horses, the first volume in this hugely enjoyable series. He is still presiding over Slough House, the bin end of internal exile to which compromised or incompetent MI5 agents, disdainfully referred to as the ‘slow horses’, are consigned.

On a wet night in Oxford, during an episode of total chaos on the national rail network, a former dogsbody of the Service from Cold War days, of even lower status than the slow horses under Lamb’s tutelage, is found dead on a replacement bus service. Though never previously noted for his interest in, or even acknowledgement of, junior colleagues, Lamb is intrigued by this death, convinced that there is more to it than meets the eye. He evens deigns to send some of the slow horses to look into the death further. Meanwhile, one of the young hopefuls back at Regent Park, operational head office of the Service, is engaged in buttering up the latest Russian oligarch, helping him to host a business summit in a towering building clearly meant to be The Shard.

Herron is adroit at entwining several different stories, weaving them into a compelling and engrossing novel. His characterisation is also impeccable, rendering a host of entirely plausible and largely empathetic characters, each with their own idiosyncrasies. He is also adept at misdirection, constantly selling the reader the dummy and leading him up any number of blind alleys. His plots are as sturdy and watertight as John le Carre’s, though they are sprinkled with a grim gallows humour. Jackson Lamb is as dishevelled as George Smiley yet also as coarse as Reginald Hill’s Superintendent Dalziel – a heady mix indeed.

Editat: juny 12, 2022, 3:35 am

48. In a House of Lies by Ian Rankin.

John Rebus may eventually have retired, after returning to work on the Cold Case Team, but he has not noticeably mellowed at all. Ian Rankin originally made a point of ageing his curmudgeonly protagonist in real time, taking him from being forty years old on his first appearance in Knots and Crosses in 1987 to his initial (and largely enforced) retirement from the police force at the age of sixty in 2007, as detailed in Exit Music. Since then, however, Rankin seems to have allowed the ageing process to slow down, and Rebus seems still to be in his mid-sixties as this new novel opens. He has, however, been diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD – as one character remarks, trust him to have a condition with ‘COP’ in its name), and has finally (almost unimaginably) given up smoking.

Of course, retirement does not stop him from taking an interest in the doings of his former colleagues. When an old corpse is recovered from a car that had been dumped in Poretoun Woods, on the fringes of the capital, he is particularly intrigued, and is quick to contact his former protégée Siobhan Clarke, now herself a Detective Inspector. The dead person is eventually identified as a private investigator who had disappeared twelve years ago. At that time, he had been retained by a film producer to investigate the affairs of a local property magnate with whom the producer was competing in a bid to buy Poretoun Woods.

At the time of the disappearance the investigator’s family had lodged numerous complaints against the police, ranging from accusations of incompetence and apathy through to outright corruption. Because of that, the discovery of the corpse draws additional public interest beyond what might have been expected, and the investigator’s family whips up a media storm to demand an inquiry. We soon learn that Rebus himself had worked on the original investigation, with an assortment of incompetent colleagues who each had their own secret vice to hide. Being under a cloud was, of course, Rebus’s default setting, but back in the present day, Siobhan Clarke has also had her own brush with disciplinary action. If not exactly vindicated, she has at least emerged with the equivalent of a ‘not proven’ verdict, but the two officers who investigated her seem also to loom large over the present case, not least because they too had been involved in the original investigation twelve years ago.

Rankin has always been dextrous at maintaining several storylines, but this novel has his most complex plot yet. Indeed, perhaps the ageing process has not been as gentle with me in recent years as it has with Rebus, because I did wonder at times whether Rankin was making it as interlaced as possible simply for the sake of it. All the customary features are present – Rebus is as ‘thrawn’ as ever although perhaps Siobhan Clarke is a little less patient than in the past. Rebus’s bête noir, Morris Gerald “Big Ger” Cafferty is present, as beguiling and menacing as ever, and relative new boy, Malcolm Fox (formerly of the Complaints Division) is there too.

The mixture works, although I wonder how many more novels Rankin can wring from these ingredients before the quality starts to fall away. I can think of several writers of long detective novel series that outlived their sell by dates - Peter Robinson and Patricia Cornwell being clear examples to my mind of writers whom I previously admired but whose recent books have lurched from one embarrassment to another, eroding their former reputation a little further with each new outing. Still, I consider that Rankin is a far better writer than either of them, even at their best, so I hope he has sufficient insight to know when he ought to bring down the curtain.

Editat: juny 12, 2022, 3:38 am

49. Before the Dawn by Jake Woodhouse.

I am generally wary about coming to a series of novels part way through, preferring to start from the beginning. Of course, jumping in midway can sometimes prove advantageous. After all, I doubt whether I would have bothered to read subsequent instalments in the chronicles of Dalziell and Pascoe if I had started reading that sequence with A Clubbable Woman, the first book in the series, as I found it very weak and unappealing. Fortunately I had leapt in with A Killing Kindness and Exit Lines, which were sufficiently good to make me want to go back to the beginning. In fact, I had a similar escape with Ian Rankin’s books featuring Detective inspector John Rebus. While far better than A Clubbable Woman, I doubt if his first book, Knots and Crosses was sufficiently good to encourage me to read the following books in the canon, and I would, as a consequence, have missed out on some excellent novels,

Before the Dawn is the third novel to feature Dutch copper, Detective Inspector Jaap Rykel, and we soon learn that in previous instalments he had been through the mill, suffering injury and loss of family. While the Netherlands setting may be new, we are in familiar territory, with Rykel being a bit of a maverick and enjoying/enduring a strained relationship with authority in general and his boss in particular.

As the novel opens, Rykel and his boss are present when a suspected serial killer is arrested, although owing to an oversight, the felon is not searched sufficiently rigorously, and is able to draw a gun and shoot himself, in front of the press who had gathered following a tip-off about the arrest from Rykel’s boss. As if this were not embarrassing enough, shortly afterwards another corpse is found showing exactly the same pattern of wounds as identified in the earlier killings, and the first felon has a watertight alibi.

Jake Woodhouse drives the story forward with great verve. He doesn’t delve too deeply into his character’s emotional lives, but they are far from two dimensional. The plot is hectic, with lots of twists, but never strays beyond the plausible.

Editat: juny 12, 2022, 3:40 am

50. Bad Actors by Mick Herron.

Jackson Lamb and his ‘slow horses’ (or most of them) are back, and as chaotic and desperate as ever. So, too, is Diana Taverners, the Machiavellian First Desk at MI5, as ever beset by the far-reaching repercussions of some of her own machinations. These tribulations are exacerbated by the plotting of the Prime Minister’s senior special adviser, who wants to bring MI5 under direct control from Downing Street.

In other news, a former senior figure from Russian intelligence from before the fall of the Berlin Wall, appears in London, and seems to be deliberately avoiding the normal measure taken by such characters to avoid detection. Meanwhile, another prominent figure from the world of political advisers and thinktanks has gone missing, and all the parties mentioned above seem desperate to find her. I rather wish I lived in a society where I felt that all the political scheming and intrigue was too extreme to be believable, but sadly I find it all too plausible.

As ever, Mick Herron weaves an enthralling story liberally strewn with hilarious one-liners and some genuinely funny slapstick scenes, although he never allows the comic element to compromise the integrity of the plot. Jackson Lamb is as odious (while simultaneously likeable) as ever, and the slow horses remain as inadvertently dysfunctional as only they can be.

Eight novels and three novellas in, and this engaging series shows no sign of losing momentum.

Editat: juny 12, 2022, 3:41 am

51. Pantheon by Sam Bourne.

I don’t propose to say too much about this book having already wasted enough time and mental energy reading it.

I normally love books set in and around universities, but this one rather sold me the dummy, and after initial immersion in Oxford in the early days of the Second World War it subsided into a rather tedious story about entirely uninteresting characters.

juny 8, 2022, 10:33 am

52. A Good Girl's Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson.

For her A level journalism assignment, Pippa Fitz-Amobi decides to review the disappearance five years ago of Andie Bell, a girl from her school in the small Buckinghamshire town of Kilton. Andie had never been found, and in the immediate aftermath of her disappearance, suspicion had fallen upon her boyfriend Sal. Emotions ran high while the search for Andie continued, culminating in Sal being found dead in local woods, with a general presumption that this was suicide provoked by his guilt over Andie’s fate. In the intervening period Sal’s family, who still live in the area, have been ostracised within the town. Five years on, the story remains a subject of immense sensitivity around the town, and everyone seems to accept the ‘official’ version, that Sal killed Andie, and hid her body so effectively that it has never been recovered.

Everyone, that is, except Pippa. Though a few years younger than them, she knew both Sal and Andie, and refuses to believe that Sal might have been responsible. This prompts her to undertake an investigation, reviewing the available evidence and going through all the available facts with a fine toothcomb, helped by some of her schoolfriends, and Ravi, Sal’s brother.

I found it a very appealing book. Although it is apparently aimed primarily at a young adult audience, I felt it stood up in its own right, and didn’t hold back from addressing serious issues, including drug abuse and the use of Rohypnol. While reading it I was struck several times by echoes of the first ‘Serial’ podcast, and found the format very engaging, with its mix of straight narrative and extracts from Pippa’s notes and transcripts of her interviews.

There is always a risk with this sort of book that the protagonist comes across as too self-righteous and always correct. Ms Jackson deftly dodges that bullet: Pip is a highly engaging, character, but far from faultless.

All in all, I found this very entertaining, and I am looking forward to reading the other books in the series.

Editat: juny 12, 2022, 3:44 am

53. Capital by John Lanchester.

As I grow older, I seem to find myself re-reading a lot of books, and there are some favourites that I have read almost too often to keep count any more. This novel is very rapidly becoming one of those. I think that this was the fourth time I have read it, and I am pretty sure that it will not be very long before I turn to it again.

In many ways it is similar to another recent favourite of mine, A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks. Both feature the world of banking in the immediate run up to the international financial crisis of 2008, and both touch on aspects of Islamic fundamentalism. There are many more similarities, although there are also considerable differences, and both books stand as fabulous tours de force by novelists at the peak of their game.

Capital opens in late 2007 and revolves around Pepys Street, a small road in south London where house prices, from a modest start over hundred years ago when the road was first built, have rocketed to well over a million pounds. The residents are a mixed bunch and include Roger Yount, a merchant banker with Pinker Lloyd, one of the more successful trading houses in the City, his spendthrift wife Arabella, Freddy Kamo, a highly talented seventeen year old footballer who has just been brought over from his native Senegal to play for one of the London Premiership teams at £20,000 per week and Petunia Howe, an elderly widow who was born in the street more than eighty years ago and has lived there ever since.

As the novel opens, Roger Yount is desperate to find out how large his bonus for that year will be - he is hoping for at least one million pounds and, in fact, can't imagine how he will manage to make ends meet with anything less. On his way to the office he finds a card has been pushed through his letter box bearing a picture of his own front door with the logo "We want what you have". It turns out that all his neighbours have received similar cards, each of them bearing a picture of their respective houses. At first, they all assume that this is merely a marketing gimmick by a local estate agency, but the cards keep coming, followed by DVDs showing footage of the street taken at different times of the day, but never with anyone in shot. And then things start to get nasty ...

In the meantime, Zbigniew, a Polish builder, has been making a decent living from the street. The quality of his building work is excellent, and his jobs are always completed on time to a high standard. Consequently, as soon as he finishes one project, he is quickly snapped up by another household with a new task to take on.

In fact, everyone seems to be getting on with life very happily until Petunia collapses in the local newsagent's shop, and then everything seems to start to unravel.

There are some fantastic set pieces - the scene where Roger is called in to see his boss to hear about his bonus, and Freddy's first appearance in a Premiership match stand out particularly, though there are dozens of other beautifully crafted vignettes. Similarly, the characters, including some of the less central figures, are beautifully drawn, including a shadowy anonymous street artist, clearly modelled on Banksy, and Quentina, a Zimbabwean asylum seeker who is illegally employed as a traffic warden.

The author spent a long time researching the financial background for this novel, as a consequence of which he was able to write Whoops: Why Everyone Owes Everyone, and No-one Can Pay, a fascinating analysis of how the banking crisis occurred, written with great clarity. Two of Lanchester's previous novels, The Debt to Pleasure and Fragrant Harbour were already among my favourites (the latter particularly so), but I think that Capital utterly eclipses them.

Editat: juny 12, 2022, 3:45 am

54. The Weather in Iceland by David Profumo.

An intriguing alternative view of the future - this novel was published in 1993 and was set a few years ahead of that date at a time shortly after the dismantling of the British monarchy and its replacement with a totalitarian, military-backed republic.

However, that context is almost incidental as the meat of the story concerns the reminiscences of the narrator, now residing in self-imposed exile in Switzerland under the name of Dr Richard Slyde. He had, however, formerly revelled in the titles of Marquess of Brompton before becoming Duke of London.

Born with a platinum spoon in his mouth, Richard was raised on the munificent Spellbrook estate, attended Eton and passed on to scholarly success at Cambridge. However, his sharpest memories are of the amazing products of the various Spellbrook orchards and the exploits of the estate's African gamekeeper. This offers Profumo (yes, son of THE Profumo) the opportunity to lament the loss of the short-lived fruit seasons of a few generations ago, to be replaced with the availability all year round of anodyne modern copies of older, sharper-tasting breeds. However, he never gives the sense that he is proselytizing, though he does open the door on an encyclopaedic knowledge of the vast range of fruits available.

He also manages to throw in an intriguing potted history of barbed wire - not a subject about which I had ever previously wanted to know more, though now I am glad that I do!

Essentially the novel is about loss - the fragmentation of the narrator's family is mirrored by the break-up of the Spellbrook estate, and then, indeed, the United Kingdom itself.

I first read this novel shortly after its publication and was enthralled and captivated then. Having read it again, following a chance conversation about it in the pub, I am even more taken with it, and re-reading it in no way diminished the magic. I am just surprised that it isn’t better known, as I feel it merits recognition as a modern classic.

Editat: juny 12, 2022, 3:47 am

55. We Are Bellingcat by Eliot Higgins.

I had been largely unaware of the work, or even, indeed, the existence of Bellingcat until I read in the press of their research into the Novichok poisonings of Alexei Navalny and then the Skripals in Salisbury.

This account of the origins and growth of Bellingcat is fascinating. One of the reviewer’s comments splashed across the cover of the book says that it ‘reads like a thriller’, and that is no exaggeration.

Belllingcat was founded by Eliot Higgins. Working in a job that did not engage him fully, he started following news stories and in particular YouTube clips about events in the Syrian Civil War. Higgins found that by dextrous use of applications such as Google Earth, he could pinpoint the locations of some of the clips that were being published. From these he was able to validate or challenge many of the claims being made in social media. He expanded his findings into a blog, which in turn put him in contact with other fact checkers, and developed a network of likeminded associates who could review and geolocate the site of apparent atrocities. From this start, the work of Bellingcat developed into an independent fact checking agency, always making a point of using open-source material to ensure transparency.

Higgins is frank and modest about the manner in which he worked, which adds to the charm of the story. His work has not always been popular, and he has received many threats, which he takes as validation of the importance of his work, and the veracity of his reporting. There is always a risk that such a work might descend into self-justification or self-righteousness, but Higgins avoids such traps. This account is a fine exemplar of the transparency and clarity that Bellingcat espouse.

Editat: juny 12, 2022, 3:48 am

56. A Parliamentary Affair by Edwina Currie.

I have always tried to avoid falling into the trap of blind prejudice about books, but sometimes one should merely go with one’s initial gut reaction. I had anticipated that this book would be dreadful, but in a moment of weakness I decided that I should not surrender to literary snobbery, but should instead give it a chance, on the basis that I have had some wonderfully serendipitous discoveries in the past.

Well that was a waste of time and effort. This book was pure drivel, with no cliché knowingly overlooked. As a consequence of my job I spend a lot of time in Parliament, and found that Ms Currie’s descriptions of it were rather slipshod, too, even though, as a Parliamentarian of long standing herself, she must have known better.

I now know better – in future give any books by her a wide berth!

juny 9, 2022, 6:48 am

>68 Eyejaybee: I read this back in the 90s as a bit of a guilty pleasure when the author was still a national figure!

Editat: juny 14, 2022, 3:49 pm

57. Good Girl, Bad Blood by Holly Jackson.

It is a few months on from the conclusion of Pippa Fitz-Amobi’s investigation that exposed the truth behind the disappearance and of Andie Bell and the apparent suicide of her boyfriend Sal in the small Buckinghamshire town of Kilton. Following the stress and danger that arose from that investigation, Pippa has sworn to steer clear of any similar activities, and now wants just to concentrate on her schoolwork and try to secure a place at Cambridge University.

However, her exposure of the failings of the police investigation, and the clearing of Sal’s name, have garnered a lot of attention for Pippa. Her podcast about the affair has attracted a wide following, although it has also exposed her to the viciousness of internet trolls. She is, therefore, reluctant when a friend asks her to help to find out what has happened to his elder brother, who seems to have gone missing. As the missing person is an adult, the police show little interest in investigating the apparent disappearance at this early stage. He has, after all, had a couple of temporary absences in the past. Pippa sees how concerned her friend is, and agrees to use her podcast to put the message out about the disappearance, and gradually becomes drawn back into a full investigation.

As with the previous book, Holly Jackson presents this story excellently, capturing the feel of a podcast, and slipping in all sorts of nots and documents in between chapters. Like A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder, this book has been marketed as a young adult story, but I found it perfectly satisfying reading it as an adult with a long history of reading hard bitten crime novels. After all, while the writing is highly accessible, Jackson doesn’t pull back from addressing serious issues, and the story includes references to kidnapping, murder, sexual assault and rape, and gun crime, along with recounted episodes from a trial of a character from the previous book who was prosecuted for date rap.

Once again, a very entertaining book, that has left me keen to read the next instalment in the series.

Editat: juny 14, 2022, 3:46 pm

58. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carre.

This is one of the great spy novels, and is clearly modelled in no small degree on the story of Kim Philby, the 'Third Man' who not only tipped off Burgess and MacLean in 1951 and allowed them to escape before they could be arrested for leaking secrets, but then escaped himself in 1963 after his guilt had eventually been uncovered. Set at the height of the Cold War it recounts the search for a 'mole' within the upper echelons of the Secret Service.

George Smiley, 'an old spy in a hurry' is brought back from the involuntary retirement into which he had been pushed just a couple of years previously. He reluctantly accedes to be commissioned to investigate an allegation that one of the four officers at the head of MI6 might in fact be a long-established Russian spy. 'It's the oldest question of all, George. Who can spy on the spies? Who can smell out the fox without running with him?' This is the question put to Smiley by Oliver Lacon, 'Whitehall's head prefect', after he has explained the evidence that has finally convinced him of the existence of the mole. There is a poignant undercurrent to all of this because Smiley’s enforced retirement had come about because he had raised the same concerns about the possibility of a highly placed mole, but his claims had been dismissed as a manifestation of sour grapes after his own position had suffered following a restructuring of the Intelligence Service.

There are four suspects: Percy Alleline ('Tinker'), dour Scotsman and acting Chief of Service; Bill Haydon ('Tailor'), flamboyant wunderkind, alternately mentor and hero to the Service's younger generation of aspirants; Roy Bland ('Soldier'), would-be academic and ultimate self-seeking pragmatist; and Toby Esterhase ('Poor Man'), opportunistic Hungarian émigré desperate for promotion and convinced that no-one shows him the respect he deserves. Control, the former head of the Service, had managed to reach this far before, acting entirely on his own, but as his health rapidly failed he embarked upon one wild last throw to flush the traitor out. This was the venture subsequently known as 'Operation Testify', alluded to throughout the book though the full extent of its disastrous nature is only revealed near the end.

The reverberations of Operation Testify echo through the Service for years afterwards. Control is forced into retirement and dies almost immediately. In the reorganisation that followed Smiley was also pushed into retirement. Alleline takes over, with Haydon as his deputy, and the new world order seems to have begun. On the other side of the world, however, Ricki Tarr, a rough and ready member of the Service, accustomed to infiltrating gun-running gangs, meets Irina, a Russian agent in Hong Kong. Their affair is hectic and hasty, and she tells Tarr of the greatest secret that she knows: there is a Soviet mole, with the code name 'Gerald' in the highest echelons of the Service. She does not know many details but does have enough facts to convince Tarr that she is telling the truth. He passes the information back to the Circus, but receives no reply. However, Irina is almost immediately rounded up by her Soviet minders and shipped back to Russia. Tarr goes underground and eventually makes his way back to London where he contacts Guillam, and through him Lacon. The witch hunt has begun. Smiley has to track them down through the paperwork, secured through deft chicanery by his one ally on the inside, the redoubtable Peter Guillam whose own career was truncated.

Le Carre offers none of the glamour and fantasy world cavortings of Ian Fleming's 'James Bond' novels. Smiley and his associates have to grapple with the shabby and entirely mundane underbelly of the espionage world, working back through the files, and eye-witness accounts of previous failed operations. There is absolutely no glamour or sparkle about the story at all, though that serves to boost its compelling nature. It is also immensely redolent of the early 1970s. All the way through the book characters are freezing cold, huddled in their coats and struggling to generate any warmth at all. The enigmas and moral dilemmas, though, remain timeless.

This is a fascinating and engaging novel, that improves with every re-reading. The excellent BBC television series captured the feel of the novel very well, although the book (as is so often the case) is even better. Don't bother with the Gary Oldman film though - I haven't seen such a dreadful screen adaptation of an excellent book since they butchered The Bonfire of the Vanities.

juny 14, 2022, 9:34 am

>71 Eyejaybee: I really want to be able to like this novel - I tried it at the time of Le Carre's passing in late 2020 but just could not get into it, despite liking spy novels as a genre.

juny 15, 2022, 9:17 am

59. Walking the Great North Line* by Robert Twigger.

This was a dreadful disappointment, and quite definitely the worst book I have suffered so far this year. That was frustrating because the potential for it to be a good book was so strong.

I had expected intriguing accounts of the countryside and historical locations that the author's route took him to, but instead there were some desperately unsuccessful attempts at a sort of laddish humour. Well I laughed until I stopped.

I can’t summon the mental energy required to say any more.

juny 15, 2022, 9:36 am

60. From Potter's Field by Patricia Cornwell.

This was the sixth instalment in the series featuring Dr Kay Scarpetta, Chief Medical Examiner for the Commonwealth of Virginia, and may have marked the beginning of the decline. The early books in the series had all been excellent, and I remember eagerly awaiting the publication of each new addition to the canon. However, I remember first time around feeling that this one was a little weaker than its predecessors, and that maybe Patricia Cornwell was starting to try to pin gold from straw.

This was also the third novel to revolve around the gross misdeeds of Temple Gault, a psychopath whose ingenuity blended with sheer taste for evil had first appeared in Cruel and Unusual, and then again in The Body Farm.

Many of the customary elements of a Cornwell novel are in place – Marino seems as jaundiced and bigoted as ever, although Kay’s niece Lucy Farinelli is slightly less obnoxious than expected.

The book opens with a murder in Central Park in the snow in the run up to Christmas. The police are unable to identify the female victim, but the way that the body has been left betrays many of the signature traits associated with Gault. His involvement is rapidly concerned when more of his self-aggrandising twists are also found.

This time the science played a smaller part than in the previous books, and I wonder if this was one reason why it felt more flimsy than its predecessors. In the earlier books, one of the appealing characteristics had been the deployment of the writer’s considerable knowledge of forensic science.

It was still enjoyable, even for a second time nearly thirty years on, but the appeal of the earlier books, which were rightly universally acclaimed, had started to fade.

juny 23, 2022, 2:21 pm

61. Their Little Secret by Mark Billingham.

I have often thought that Mark Billingham’s protagonist, Detective Inspector Tom Thorne, has a lot in common with Sir Ian Rankin’s John Rebus. They are both highly experienced and know their respective patches well, have had a chequered relationship with authority figures and are viewed by their colleagues as very grumpy (or ‘thrawn’ in the case of Rebus). There are, of course, some difference – Thorne prefers the mournful end of the Country and Western spectrum to the vintage rock in which Rebus takes refuge. In recent years, Thorne has also acquired a female work partner, DI Tanner, who offers a counterweight to his occasionally maverick approach to investigation. While their relationship is less charged than that between Rebus and Siobhan Clarke, it does offer a usual pivot for plot twists.

This story starts off with Thorne attending the scene of a suicide on the London Underground. While the death seems to be fairly straightforward, Thorne follows up by contacting the dead woman’s family and becomes intrigued about the man with whom she had been involved, and whose actions had driven her to such a desperate act. He initially comes up against a brick wall – the man has disappeared, presumably moving on to search for a new ‘mark’ and there is the added difficulty of developing a sufficiently robust case.

That is not the end of the story, however, as the suspect’s DNA is subsequently recovered from the body of a young man found murdered in Marqate. What meagre evidence that is available from local CCTV footage suggests that the killer was not working alone, and that his accomplice may have been a woman. This provokes a challenging investigation that will throw up some unexpected results.

Tanner and Thorne, like Rebus and Clarke, are a powerful investigative team, and their respective strengths and weaknesses complement each other effectively. As always, Billingham captures the reader’s attention straight from the start. His characters, no matter how evil, are always highly credible, and his plots are soundly constructed.

Editat: jul. 5, 2022, 7:31 am

62. Murder Before Evensong by The Reverend Richard Coles.

There has been a flurry of celebrities entering the murder mystery genre in recent years, with mixed degrees of success. Richard Osman certainly nailed it with his two novels (The Thursday Murder Club and The Man Who Died Twice) which have been runaway best sellers combining viable plots and charming characters, set against a ‘cosy’ background reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s works. The Reverend Richard Coles, who has certainly had a portfolio career so far, encompassing roles as a member of a successful band in the 1980s, a long spell as an ordained vicar in the Church of England, and latterly as a reality television star, participating in MasterChef and Strictly Come Dancing among others.

I suppose, therefore, that it was inevitable that he might try his hand at writing a novel, and he has also come close to mailing it. I found it a bit of a slow burner, with athe opening chapters setting the scene occasionally veering off towards the ponderous, but once the murder had occurred, it all fizzed along very merrily.

He is very good at characters, and I particularly enjoyed the slightly strained relationship between the protagonist, Canon Daniel Clement, rector of the local church in Champton, and his brother, a famous actor who is on his way to becoming a ‘national treasure’ as a consequence of his role in a popular soap opera. I also enjoyed Coles’s portrayal of village life with its priorities that might seem wholly alien to city dwellers. There are shades of Gabriel Chevalier’s Clochemerle in the opening chapters when Daniel suggests that the Parish Church Committee might consider the installation of a lavatory inside the church. It seems that such a scandalous suggestion had never previous been uttered, and the Committee is riven.

The murder, when it is discovered, is handled artfully, and further divisions within the village, even deeper than those threatened by ‘Toiletgate’ emerge. Taken all together, this is a very accomplished and enjoyable book, and I am hopeful that it might turn out merely to be the first in a series.

Editat: jul. 5, 2022, 11:03 am

63. As Good As Dead by Holly Jackson.

I thoroughly enjoyed Holly Jackson’s previous two novels featuring Pippa Fitz-Amobi (A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder and Good Girl, Bad Blood). Although they were both marketed as being Young Adult fiction, I found that they stood comparison with general crime fiction. They are cleverly formatted, reflecting the podcasts that Pippa ultimately delivers when the stories are resolved.

This third book retains the excitement of its two predecessors, but I felt it worked less well. I wonder whether that was perhaps my fault, for reading it rather too soon after I had finished the other two. Whatever the reasons, I felt that this didn’t engage me as closely as the other two. Pip and her friends are still well drawn characters, and her interactions with friends and foes alike are highly plausible. Unfortunately, I found that the plot itself was weaker, and seemed that little bit too contrived to retain my attention in the way that the other two books had.

It is important to stress that the comments above should not be taken to mean that I didn’t enjoy the book – I certainly did, I just felt that it didn’t quite match up to the rest of the sequence. I will be interested to see whether Holly Jackson persists with Pip as a character, or embarks on some standalone books. Either way, I look forward to reading them.

jul. 6, 2022, 9:35 am

64. The Foot Soldiers by Gerald Seymour.

Jonas Merrick, the querulous MI5 counter-intelligence analyst, made his first appearance last year in The Crocodile Hunter, in which he dodged his imminent retirement by singlehandedly foiling an attempt to bomb the Houses of Parliament, and then coordinated the operation to foil a further Jihadi plot while scarcely venturing his office. Indeed, many of the officers who take on the active aspects of the operations that his research spawned slightingly referred to him as ‘The Eternal Flame’ because he never went out.

A year on and he is still in post, as surly and graceless as ever. A midranking Russian intelligence officer has approached British embassy officials in Denmark advising them that he wishes to defect, and hinting at considerable amounts of valuable intel that he could make available. Having assessed the likely value of his potential contraband information, MI6 are unconvinced, and also suspect that he may be a plant. While they continue to conduct initial assessment, two attempts are made on his life. This rings alarms bells because the attacks seem to have been driven by the leak of valuable information held within MI6 itself. An investigation is required to consider whether there is a mole, and to neutralise them before any further damage can be done. At this point, enter Merrick, delegated to conduct a series of interviews of all those MI6 officers at Vauxhall Cross who might have had access to the information in question.

After the greater part of a career being despised by his own colleagues, Merrick is unconcerned by the prospect of their MI6 counterparts also despising him, and he makes no attempt to make an awkward situation any more comfortable. Meanwhile, in an operation reminiscent of recent state-sponsored attacks overseas, two assassins are sent by the GRU to eliminate the would-be traitor as quickly as possible.

As with The Crocodile Hunter, I thought that the kernel of the story was very gripping. Unfortunately, once again I found the writer’s style difficult to penetrate. Having been brought up on the effortless purple prose of John le Carré, this proved less readily digestible fare, and I was tempted to jump ship at several points throughout. To be fair to the book, I should point out that the plot was sufficiently engrossing to keep me reading to the end, but it was a close-run thing.

jul. 8, 2022, 7:32 am

65. A Necessary Evil by Abir Mukherjee.

This is an excellent novel, combining a robust plot with immensely plausible characters, with a heavy dose of historical background of India in the 1920s thrown in. It also marks the return of Captain Sam Wyndham and his Harrow-educated colleague, ‘Surrender-Not’ Banerjee, who first appeared in A Rising Man.

Wyndham and Banerjee find themselves being driven in the Rolls Royce of the heir to the throne of Sambalpore, one of the princedoms within the Raj system whose wealth had been based on rich diamond deposits. As it happens, the prince had been at Harrow with ‘Surrender-Not’, and is expected to succeed his father to the throne fairly soon, with a broad expectation that he will continue an enlightened regime, utilising the province’s wealth to improve the life of the subjects. Such specualtions prove irrelevant, however, when the prince is assassinated. Wyndham and Banerjee pursue the assailant, but are initially unable to apprehend him. They do catch up with him the following day, following up anonymously provided clues, but the assassin shoots himself before he can be arrested. Further leads point to Sambalpore itself, and as a consequence, Wyndham and Banerjee find themselves despatched there to pursue their investigations, and find a wide range of potential suspects.

I have to profess to being lamentably ignorant of Indian history, and the panoply of religious beliefs, which play some part in the story. Abir Mukherjee manages these elements deftly, being hugely informative while never letting the transfer of knowledge compromise the flow of the story.

jul. 27, 2022, 10:47 am

66. The Murder Book by Mark Billingham.

Detective Inspectors Tom Thorne and Nicola tanner make a great investigative pair – Tanner tends to operate by the book, observing protocol and obeying rules, while Tom Thorne has more or less based his career on cutting corners, following intuition and seldom being afraid of challenging authority. They complement each other effectively, but also often get on each other’s nerves, which lends the book some of its air of verisimilitude – after all, I know that I have several colleagues whom I respect overall, but whose idiosyncrasies (whether in following or forswearing strict procedural guidance) sometimes irritate me beyond measure.

This latest instalment of their series opens with Thorne ruing the death of a woman who had been driven to suicide by the actions of a conman, who seems to have disappeared without trace. He is convinced that there is a lot more to be uncovered, but there are no leads, and with a coroner’s verdict of suicide, officially there is no case. His frustration is eased slightly when his squad receives news of a murder in Margate in which the forensic evidence throws up a link to the suicide. As he and Tanner delve further, Thorne starts to receive what appear to be personal messages, and he finds himself reviewing some of his most trying former cases.

Billingham is a great story teller, and always convinces the reader to suspend any disbelief. I think this is because his principal characters are so believable. Thorne is flawed – not only does he break the rules, as mentioned above, but he has personal issues: he is sulky and bad tempered, and often difficult to work, let alone live, with. Tanner, too, is aware of her own shortcomings, and the constraints of her own personality.

Billingham’s writing style is great, too. His prose is direct, and clear, and draws the reader in. Having picked the book up, I found I was plunged into the story immediately, and was sixty pages in without seeming to have stopped for breath. He has also, wisely in my view, allowed his characters to age in real time, which adds a further patina of credibility. The Tom Thorne in this book is a long way from the detective who investigated the Sleepyhead case some twenty years ago, but there is a clear and plausible path from then to now.

jul. 28, 2022, 6:09 am

67. Smoke and Ashes by Abir Mukherjee.

Abir Mukherjee’s series of novels featuring Captain Sam Wyndham and his Harrow-educated investigative partner, Sergeant ‘Surrender-Not’ Banerjee, in 1920s India goes from strength to strength. This book opens with Captain Wyndham being roused in the opium den he has visited and warned to flee as a police raid is under way. As he escapes over the Calcutta rooftops, he finds a disfigured corpse. Unable to risk waiting to pry further, he flees back home. Imagine his surprise, then, when another murder victim is found bearing the same wounds as the body that Wyndham had more or less stumbled over the previous evening, although owing to the circumstances, he is unable to mention the first case.

Wyndham and Banerjee begin their investigation, but find that they are hampered by the political background as Calcutta grinds to a halt as a consequence of demonstrations led by Mahatma Gandhi and his party. Mukherjee carefully weaves in convincing and compelling historical context, as the British administration awaits a visit by the Prince of Wales (later, briefly, King Edward VIII). Sergeant Banerjee is particularly troubled as one of Gandhi’s leading deputies is his own uncle.

Mukherjee does an excellent job combining robust crime stories with what seems to be sound historical context, conjuring a period about which I was previously lamentably ignorant. The plot fairly rattles along, too, and I found myself completely absorbed by the book, and am now eager for the next instalment.

jul. 28, 2022, 7:34 am

68. Let it Bleed by Ian Rankin.

This was one of the first of Sir Ian Rankin’s Rebus books to engage with politics – a setting that he would revisit several times in novels such as Set in Darkness and The Naming of the Dead among others.

It opens with a frantic car chase out towards the Forth Road Bridge. Rebus’s boss, Chief Inspector Lauderdale is driving, and is fired up with a desire to catch the objects of the chase before they can make it into Fife, and hence into another force’s jurisdiction. The chase does end on the Edinburgh side of the bridge, but in unexpected circumstances.

Meanwhile, a man who has recently been released from prison attends a constituents’ surgery conducted by a local councillor, also with very dramatic and unforeseen circumstances. Rebus is called on to investigate, and finds himself plunged into a morass of intrigue, kidnapping and murder, and involving a varied cast of characters including senior policemen, prominent civil servants, leading businessmen and foreign diplomats.

This may sound like a rather heady mix, but Rankin manages all the various threads with his customary deftness, leaving a rock-solid plot peopled by immensely plausible characters. It is easy to see how Rebus has become such a well-established and popular character.

jul. 29, 2022, 11:27 am

69. Murder in Mustique by Anne Glenconner.

Lady Anne Glenconner probably knows more about Mustique than most people (and everyone knows more about it than me). She and her husband, Colin Tennant (later the Third Baron Glenconner) bought the island in 1958, and initiated the construction of luxury villas, leading to the island becoming a valued retreat for the rich and famous. Lady Glenconner served for a long time as lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret, who herself owned one of the Mustique villas.

This novel recounts the murder of a young socialite from a hugely wealthy American banking family, last seen swimming out towards a huge Russian-owned yacht moored in the harbour. Meanwhile, various odd incidents have been reported across the normally peaceful island, each of which is accompanied by the discovery of a lump of white coral with voodooesque designs scratched in the surface. To heighten the tension, all the inhabitants of the island are alarmed to hear reports of a hurricane drawing close.

Sadly, the book doesn’t live up to the potential for a gripping thriller that this scenario might suggest. The story is split between first person narrative from Lady Vee (clearly closely modelled on Lady Glenconner herself) who has just arrived back on the island to prepare a huge birthday party for her adopted daughter, and third person accounts of some of the local police officer’s investigations.

I enjoyed the setting, but found the story itself simply tedious. There were no strong or appealing characters, and everyone was simply two dimensional.

ag. 1, 2022, 8:35 am

70. This is Shakespeare by Emma Smith.

Emma Smith is one of the leading contemporary Shakespearean scholars, and this book is drawn from a series of her Oxford lectures, which also formed the basis of a very successful podcast.

The book includes her thoughts on twenty of the plays, and offer a welcome mix of erudition with accessibility. Her scholastic insights are powerful, but offered up in a readily understood manner. It is clear that she wants an understanding of Shakespeare and his work to be universal, and not the preserve of a small academic clique. I was also struck by her understanding of theatricality – she understands how the plays work as acts of theatre, and not simply as text on the paper.

Along with James Shapiro, she has made a huge contribution to bring Shakespearean scholarship to a wider audience.

ag. 1, 2022, 9:09 am

71. April in Spain by John Banville.

John Banville has had a long and successful career as a writer of literary fiction, both under his own name (winning the booker Prize a few years back for The Sea) and as Benjamin Black, under which he has written a series of historical crime novels set in Dublin in the 1950s and 1960s featuring the lugubrious pathologist, Dr Quirke.

In this novel, Quirke and his wife have gone on holiday to Spain, and are enjoying a welcome break for the tension of life at home. This serenity is rocked when Quirke is convinced that he has recognised an Irish woman who he was convinced had died a few years ago. He mentions his to his daughter in a phone call back home. She speaks to a senior policeman whom she had encountered in a previous case, and an informal investigation is set in motion. This gathers force as the woman who had been presumed dead had been a member of one of Ireland foremost political families.

The book is very well written, as everything by Banville always is, but the there is an overwhelming gloominess about the story. No one’s flaws or weaknesses are overlooked, and melancholia emerges as the dominant human condition.

ag. 1, 2022, 9:19 am

72. The Masters by C. P. Snow.

This is one of my favourite novels ... ever!

I began my working life with a brief spell as a (very) Junior Fellow of an Oxford College and as a consequence I have always enjoyed reading novels set in academia. My own short-lived Fellowship, at Oriel College, was during the mid-1980s, almost fifty years after the events in this novel took place, and ‘The Masters’ is, of course, set in that other place, over in the fens. I could, however, recognise so much of what happened in this book. The conversations between the Fellows, the orotundity of speech, the rigidity and formality of their manners … it all just seemed like yesterday!

I first read ‘The Masters’ more than thirty years ago, while in my final year as an undergraduate, as I ploughed through the whole of C P Snow's eleven volume semi-autobiographical novel sequence ‘Strangers and Brothers’. I remember from that first reading that I considered this novel, and indeed the sequence as a whole, as being singularly lacking in emotion. While I clearly recall having enjoyed this volume more than the rest, I didn't really think of it again until five or six years later, when the Conservative Party went through its internal leadership selection process to appoint a successor to Margaret Thatcher after she was ousted in November 1990.

Out of the blue something prompted me to re-read this novel, and I was amazed: it seemed to be a different book to the one I had read just a few years earlier and I found that it positively seethes with emotion.

The book was written in the 1950s but is set in 1937 in an unnamed Cambridge College (generally believed to be King's, where Snow himself had been a Fellow before the war). Like the rest of the sequence it is narrated by Lewis Eliot, a barrister who had at that time been a Fellow of the College for about three years, though he still also maintained up his private practice in London. Eliot has had his own personal turmoil in the past and had decided to pursue the field of academic law for a while as a form of emotional rehabilitation.

The novel opens with the news that Vernon Royce, the Master of the College, has just been diagnosed as terminally ill, and is expected to die within the next few months. The remaining Fellows have to elect a successor from among themselves, and it soon emerges that there are only two candidates likely to draw any viable support: Dr Redvers Crawford, an eminent physiologist, and Dr Paul Jago, an English scholar scarcely known beyond the walls of the College, but viewed as having great insight into people and known for the ambition of his ideas. Crawford is to the left of centre politically while Jago is a true-blue reactionary.

Snow captures the different personalities, and animosities, marvellously. There are bitter rivalries, jealousies and conflicting aspirations, all of which prey upon the Fellows and render the forthcoming election particularly sensitive. Among the Fellows there is a wide range of scholarly accomplishment. Some have achieved success and recognition far beyond the ivory tower while others have lost their way after a promising start. The portrayal of the Senior Fellow, Professor M H L Gay, is particularly effective. He is a medievalist, renowned and honoured around the world for his success in translating the Icelandic sagas, and never tires of reminding his fellow Fellows about his honorary degrees.

The tension mounts as the old Master's health gradually fails, and the election draws closer. Snow's dissection of the emotions of a tight-knit group of colleagues and the relations they have to maintain is utterly engaging, and grips the reader with the same compulsion as the best spy or mystery stories. Since re-reading it in 1990 I seem to read it again every two or three years, and the conclusion and the various twists still contrive to surprise me.

ag. 1, 2022, 9:26 am

73. Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas.

I was going to start by suggesting that Scarlett Thomas must be an extraordinary person if the protagonists of her novels are even remotely drawn upon her own character. Such an assertion is, however, probably superfluous as the simple fact of having written novels as engaging and thought provoking as PopCo, The End of Mister Y and Our Tragic Universe attests to talent beyond the ordinary. In Megan Carpenter, the narrator of Our Tragic Universe, Scarlett Thomas has excelled herself.

Megan is struggling to make a living from pieces of occasional journalism and writing teenage fiction under a pseudonym. Hers is a simple lifestyle complicated by the need to support her appalling and utterly inadequate boyfriend, Christopher, who spends his time engaged on voluntary work on a local heritage project. As the novel opens Megan has been reading 'The Science of Living Forever' a faux-scientific work by Kelsey Newman, a new-age charlatan who believes that the universe, which is really a computer, will for one fleeting moment become so dense and compacted as to be able to simulate a new universe that will never end, and in which everyone will live forever in infinite incarnations. Not surprisingly, in her review Megan unbends herself at some length, debunking the hapless Newman while offering a pellucid and enthralling exegesis of a number of scientific and quasi-scientific theories.

I remember attending a lecture several years ago on the concept of Horacian Liberty and the need for clarity of expression and thought, one of a series of talks on perspectives on the Renaissance. The crux of that particular address was the writer's responsibility to his or her readers, and the obligation to encapsulate even the most complex of theories in clear, simple language. This marvellous novel is a 400-page evocation of that principle. At different points within the book Megan Carpenter offers us an engaging exploration of the relationship between art and science, while also exposing the fallacious origins of many prevalent misconceptions about physics and chemistry. I can imagine people's eyes rolling now, wondering whether Ms Thomas's novel is just a hollow sounding board for her own pet likes and dislikes. I can reassure you, however, that the plot is solid, plausible and (most importantly) entirely (and instantly) gripping. I found myself caught in an insoluble dichotomy: I could not put this book down, but I was, simultaneously, reluctant to finish it

'Our Tragic Universe' is Ms Thomas at her exquisite best and Megan Carpenter is a simply astounding character: articulate, widely-read, tender, considerate and immensely empathetic.

Over the last thirty or so years I have read more than four thousand books, and would, without hesitation, place this in the top ten.

It also happens to be sumptuously presented by the Canongate Press.

ag. 2, 2022, 6:07 am

74, Dark Vineyard by Martin Walker.

This book marked the welcome return of Bruno Courrèges, head of police in the small town of St. Denis ion the Dordogne region of France. Bruno is not a native of St Denis but has nevertheless been accepted as a local (as a village boy myself, I know how difficult it can be to secure such acceptance). He certainly makes a big contribution to the general wellbeing of the community, teaching children to play rugby and tennis, while helping out with his neighbours boar hunts or wine making, and himself preparing palatable terrines and patés. There ois some bleakness in his past – before retreating to St Denis he had served as a soldier, and seen grim action as part of the French element of UN forces trying to impose and then maintain peace in the fragmenting former Yugoslavia.

Alongside his other contributions to communal life, Bruno is also a close ally and friend of the town’s mayor, who advises him of an approach from the head of a huge American wine company which could result in the creation of a lot of jobs for the town. It is not straightforward, and is likely to cause controversy, but the mayor is essentially supportive. Bruno is more hesitant, seeing potential pitfalls. Meanwhile, a local scientific research station is the subject of an arson attack following hints that it might be involved in testing genetically modified crops. Local eco-protesters swarm to the area, stretching meagre police and gendarmerie resources to their limit. And then there is a suspicious death.

Martin Walker manages the various threads to the story with great dexterity. Characters find themselves caught up in several different plotlines, and their motives appear to fluctuate. The characters are well drawn, and the relationships between the different villagers seem wholly authentic to this village boy’s eyes. I am not familiar with the area, but am now desperate to visit as these books are like an enticing tourist guide, with a strong plot thrown in. A very heady mix!

ag. 16, 2022, 5:18 am

75. Death in the East by Abir Mukherjee.

Captain Sam Wyndham has at last conceded that his opium addiction is starting to run out of control, and is beginning to affect his work. He has, therefore, agreed to attempt a cure, going into an early version of rehab in a remote monastery in Assam. He is sceptical about how effective this might be, but has reached such a pitch of despair that he is willing to attempt anything. As he arrives at the railway station near the monastery, he glimpses someone that is vaguely familiar. This is not merely unexpected, but utterly bizarre, as he had believed that the person whom he is sure he has recognised had died years ago, before the First World War.

Sam goes through a painful rehabilitation which, mercifully, the author skates over fairly lightly. His fellow patients (inmates?) are a mixed bunch, including several Europeans. One of them, who is nearing the end of his spell there and who is deemed to be virtually cured, goes missing one evening and does not return. His body is found a couple of days later several miles away. As the senior monk officiating over the retreat is aware of Wyndham’s profession, he asks him to conduct a brief review of the death to see if any explanation can be found. Wyndham is convinced that he has been murdered. Meanwhile, as the final stage of his rehab, Wyndham is asked to complete his stay at the house of a local surveyor. The surveyor introduces Wyndham into what passes for a social circle there, in which he once again meets the sinister spectre from his pasty.

Mukherjee delivers the story excellently. He excels at striking a heady blend between convincing and engrossing plots and strong historical and geographical context. The book is set in the 1920s, during the period in which Mahatma Gandhi’s campaign for Indian independence is gaining serious traction. Even Wyndham, who has not always been the most self-aware of characters, realises that some degree of change in the way that Indian society and government is organised is unavoidable.

This is another very welcome addition to a strong series.

ag. 16, 2022, 6:02 am

76. The Venetian Game by Philip Gwynne Jones.

Nathan Sutherland is the United Kingdom’s Honorary Consul in Venice. This is not normally an onerous position, which is fair enough as it is not one for which he receives any payment. His role is to be on hand to act as intermediary between the Italian authorities and any British citizens (usually tourists) who might have run into trouble, or dispense simple advice about the locality. In the event that a major issue arises, he would refer the matter to colleagues higher up the diplomatic food chain.

Nathan earns his living by translating documents between English and Italian. Since the documents in question tend to be rather mundane, such as operating manuals for washing machines, he is eminently distractable. However, more distraction than he might have wished for ensues after a caller during his ‘surgery’ hours offers him a large sum of money to store a mystery package in the consulate safe for a short period. Nathan flatly refuses but soon finds himself drawn into the intrigues when his refusal is deftly sidestepped, and the package comes into his possession anyway. As a consequence, Nathan finds himself pitched into the criminal fringes of the art world.

The plot is well constructed and entertaining, but I found the principal appeal of this book lay in its descriptions of Venice, and in the immensely likeable characters. It reminded me of the series of novels set in the world of art crime by Iain Pears – all very light-hearted and entertaining/. I look forward to reading the following books in the series.

ag. 16, 2022, 6:34 am

77. On the Cusp by David Kynaston.*

David Kynaston identifies a brief period in 1962 as the cusp between the post war period and the Swinging Sixties, identifying the nexus as coming with the release of the Beatles’ first single and the release of Dr No, the first James Bond film starring Sean Connery.

I found this an interesting approach, but the book itself seemed very chaotic, consisting of not much more than a list of reports from local newspapers around the country. I felt that Kynaston managed to overplay a potentially interesting take on recent history to the extent that he actually made the book feel almost oppressive.

I have read a lot of books covering this period of history (of particular interest to me as I was born in 1963), but felt that despite my high expectations based on having read some of his previous books, this was rather a let down.

Editat: ag. 16, 2022, 7:43 am

78. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.

I am not sure that anything I can say will add any value to the wealth of critical comment already available for this classic novel. I first read it towards the end of the last millennium (to lend an appropriately archaic feel) as one of the set books for my English Literature O level (the predecessor of what we would today call GCSEs). I was fortunate to enjoy the support of some excellent English teachers throughout my time at school, yet even their attentive ministrations failed to save this book from falling prey to the fate of most works that are encountered as compulsory reading. As a fifteen-year-old I found it very tedious and longwinded, and could not then imagine I might ever read it again for pleasure.

To be fair, I think that tedious and longwinded are not always unfair when applied to Dickens, and would cite either Barnaby Rudge (surely there is an initial D missing from that surname) or Our Mutual Friend as evidence for the prosecution. (Indeed, it is quite a feat on Dickens’ part to make tedious a novel that starts so promisingly, with bodies being dragged from the Thames late at night.)

They are not, however, fair for A Tale of Two Cities. Going off at another tangent, I have been struggling to think of another book which has such famous first AND last sentences: there are plenty that can offer one or the other, but few that manage both. The story is, of course, well known, so I won’t waste everyone’s time with a synopsis of the plot.

There are some excellent characters: Jarvis Lorry, the serious solicitor who has given his professional life in service of Tellson’s Bank is a paragon of probity, always clad in various shades of brown. Not a man overburdened with humour, and perhaps not one with whom one might wish to be closeted on a long journey (although that fate befalls various people throughout the book). Jerry Cruncher is a hardy perennial from the Dickens stable: a Cockney, salt of the earth type, vaguely reminiscent of Silas Wegg, though better served in the leg department, or less chirpy Sam Weller, who is always on hand to do Mr Lorry’s or Tellson’s bidding, but who has a dark secret. C J Stryver, the pompous, overbearing barrister is brilliantly drawn, hyperinflated with his own self-importance and clothed in obtuseness as in armour of triple steel. Paradoxically, the more central figures seem less substantial. Charles Darnay (another man with a secret) is rather two dimensional, and the reader almost wishes that his lookalike, the diffident and dissolute lawyer Sidney Carton, whose nocturnal efforts keep legal Stryver’s practice afloat, but with precious little acknowledgement of that debt) had won Lucie Manette’s love.

Like most of Dickens’ novels, this was published in weekly or fortnightly instalments, a fact reflected in the peaks and troughs of action throughout, as the writer carefully regulated the flow to leave sufficiently gripping cliff-hangers. Dickens was a master at conflicting tone. The chapter in which Jerry Cruncher’s sun follows his father on a nocturnal expedition, expecting to see him go fishing, is hilarious, although the mirth is in sharp juxtaposition with a chapter of huge sadness.

This is a novel that repays reading for pleasure. It is also a more manageable length for modern taste than some of his heftier tomes. I read it in the excellent Penguin Classics edition which offers extensive background notes throughout the story, and an introduction full of insight (possibly aimed more at informing a re-reading, than for someone coming to the story for the first time.

ag. 16, 2022, 9:25 am

>92 Eyejaybee: This has always been one of my very favourite Dickens novels too. At the opposite extreme, I found Little Dorrit and especially Dombey and Son the most tedious.

ag. 16, 2022, 9:26 am

>91 Eyejaybee: I enjoyed the first of his books on post-war British social history covering the period of the Attlee government but have not got round to reading the subsequent volumes.

ag. 16, 2022, 10:10 am

79. Black Diamond by Martin Walker.

I think that Bruno Courrèges must be one of the most likeable of recent crime fiction protagonists. He is local Chief of Police in St Denis, a small commune in the Dordogne region, and has established himself as a key member of the local community, helping out the largely volunteer local fire brigade, teaching the children of the village how to play rugby and tennis, and even filling in as Santa Claus for the annual Christmas party.

His life has not always been so idyllic, and he had been raised in local authority care as an orphan. Embarking upon adult life, he had enlisted in the French Army and served two tours as part of the UN peace keeping force in what was formerly Yugoslavia. Having left the army he joined the police and found himself stationed in St Denis where he worked hard to become accepted as a key part of the local community. As a man of many parts, he has taught himself to cook local recipes, and also devotes much of his time to hunting the requisite wildlife, and also growing much of the requisite fruit and vegetables, as well as his own small crop of vines. Always eager to learn, he has also immersed himself in local lore about the mystical truffle, and has had great success training his dog to mind valuable specimens.

Truffles play an important role in the local economy, and Bruno is called in to investigate apparent irregularities in the truffle harvest in one of the neighbouring villages, about which some of the higher profile customers, including prominent Parisian restaurants, have started to claim. It appears that weaker strains of truffles have been substituted for the genuine article, threatening the local product’s reputation. Meanwhile, there have been several instances of members of the local Vietnamese community being attacked by Chinese assailants.

Having been an eminent journalist, Martin Walker knows how to tell a tale. He also knows how to impart information about which his reader might previously have been lamentably ignorant (well, this reader certainly was), without alienating them, or making them feel brow beaten. He conveys his love of the local region, its traditions, and the values by which the local residents navigate through life. Yet he also manages to combine this rural idyll with an engrossing plot, encompassing much of recent French history, and up to the minute trends in international organised crime.

This is a series that is going from strength to strength!

ag. 30, 2022, 11:23 am

80. Elektra by Jennifer Saint.

There has been a flurry of modern retellings of stories from the ancient Greek myths, often from a feminist perspective, and this is a spectacular addition to that oeuvre.

It follows the story of Agamemnon’s family, and their experiences throughout the Trojan War. As in The Iliad and The Odyssey, Agamemnon comes across as extremely arrogant, and driven primarily … perhaps even solely … by consideration of his status as leader of the Greek forces. He is so obsessed with leading the campaign to recover Helen that he will let nothing stand in his way. Various characters have remarked upon the curse of the House of Atreus, of which Agamemnon and his brother Menelaus are the latest generation, but the two of them fail to heed the warnings.

Chapters alternate between different characters, mainly featuring the contrasting musings of Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife (and twin sister of Helen), and her second daughter Elektra, with occasional chapters related by Cassandra, daughter of King Priam of Troy, who has been cursed with the power of prophecy exacerbated by no one ever heeding her warnings.

Although the outcome is known in advance for anyone familiar with the Greek originals, Jennifer Saint’s rendition of the story is fresh and sharp, and grips the reader from the start. The characters are very clearly drawn, and their conflicting views smartly aligned. This is very powerful writing, bring a fresh and appealing slant to one of the oldest stories in Western literature.

ag. 31, 2022, 10:08 am

81. O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker.

I am sorry to say that I had never heard of this novel until I read a short article about it in The Guardian newspaper by Maggie O’Farrell, who also wrote the introduction to the recently re-released edition that I read.

As a novel it defies easy categorisation, combining elements of history, nature and almost Gothic horror as it tells the life of Janet, a challenging young woman who seemed to spend her life at odds with everyone whom she encountered. As a loner, despite four siblings, she found her greatest refuge in books, of which she was a precocious and prodigious reader. The book also offers an intriguing insight into life in Scotland in the early years after the Second World War. Janet’s family are fairly affluent by normal standards, living in a large house in the Highlands. While there may be sufficient financial resource, there is little in the way of society. The local population are far from welcoming of anyone, and quickly develop deep-rooted suspicions of everyone up at ’The Big House’ (or, more probably, ‘The Big Hoose’).

There is a strong feeling of melancholy, not least because we learn in the first few sentences that Janet will be murdered while still a teenager. The book is not, however, the story of her life. It is more a series of hilarious snapshots as she grows up, She is also far from a wholly sympathetic character – she is selfish, often heartless and sometimes downright cruel. She is never boring, though, and the book is almost hypnotic, ensnaring the reader from the first page.

I am confused as to why it is not better known, and how it had faded from the public consciousness. It definitely deserves to be better known.

Editat: ag. 31, 2022, 5:57 pm

>97 Eyejaybee: This looks to be right up my street, so I've located a copy and plan to read it soon. Your description brings to mind Barbara Comyns' Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead and Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

set. 1, 2022, 3:57 am

>98 pamelad: Thanks for the recommendations. i shall look out for both of those books.

set. 2, 2022, 5:06 am

82. Vengeance in Venice by Philip Gwynne Thomas.

Nathan Sutherland, the UK’s Honorary Consul in Venice, is a very engaging character. As the title would suggest, his role as Honorary Consul is unpaid, and generally involves holding ‘surgeries’ for just a few hours each week, at which he offers help to British subjects, most of whom are tourists who have encountered minor problems. He makes his living as a translator, although this is often a source of drudgery as, rather than the scintillating novels that he might have dreamt of working on, he normally ends up translating instruction manuals for electrical appliances.

Although there is no salary, his role as Honorary Consul does bring certain compensations, including invitations to many of the opening parties for the various displays at the prestigious Biennale Art Festival. As the novel opens, he is attending one such event to launch an exhibition by reclusive British artist Paul Considine, whose latest installation involves startling sculptures made from glass. As the party draws to a close, one of the more eminent critics, who has already indicated his dislike of Considine’s latest work, suffers a bizarre accident and is killed. Shortly afterwards a further attack occurs, and this time Nathan himself is involved, sustaining minor injuries alongside Considine’s agent, who is more seriously wounded.

Thereafter the plot follows a sinuous path, offering up numerous potential perpetrators. Jones clearly knows (and loves) Venice, and the setting is captured evocatively. I have read several crime novels set in Venice – the works of Donna Leon and Michael Dibdin leap to mind – but none of them have painted such a joyful picture of life in the city. There is a lightness of touch that makes the books a joy to read, without compromising the rigour of the plot.

oct. 3, 2022, 9:55 am

83. The Last Party by Clare Mackintosh.

This is an example of book buying serendipity. Having seen a book that I had wanted to buy for a while, I noticed that it was on a ‘Buy two, get one for half price’ offer. Consequently, seeing a stack of copies of this book, and being persuaded by the blurb on the back, I took a punt on it. I chose wisely, as it is an excellent novel.

Detective Constable Ffion Morgan lives in Cwn Coed , village in north Wales near the English border, which passes through a nearby lake. Early on New Year’s Day, Ffion is called on duty as a body has been found floating on the lake. It tuns out to be that of Rhys Lloyd. He had grown up in the village and had gone on to achieve huge international success as a singer. He had returned to the area and had been a leading participator in the development of a luxury resort on the English side of the lake. This development has sparked anger in the Welsh community. It becomes apparent that Lloyd had been murdered. Ffion finds herself working closely with Leo Brady, her counterpart from the Cheshire constabulary, whom she had encountered recently in an off-duty setting.

Clare Mackintosh handles the plot dextrously, capturing the tensions between the two neighbouring forces (jurisdiction for the case is unclear, with the body having been found in the no man’s land between the two areas), and the various conflicting emotions of Lloyd’s neighbours, and the various members of the local community. I found I was sucked into the story right from the first page. This was very entertaining, and I hope it proves merely to be the first in a series.

oct. 4, 2022, 11:18 am

84. The Twist of a Knife by Anthony Horowitz.

Anthony Horowitz has had a long and successful career as a writer of novels, plays for the theatre and television screenplays. He has also been commissioned by the literary executors of Arthur Conan Doyle and Ian Fleming to write new instalments in both the Sherlock Holmes and James Bond canons, which he achieved very successfully. Indeed, I thought that, as with William Boyd, his first James Bond novel, Trigger Mortis, was far better written than the original books.

In his recent novels he has recently been experimenting with the format of the crime story, also with great success. In Magpie Murders and Moonflower Murders he toyed with the traditional ‘cosy’ whodunnit in the manner of Agatha Christie, in each case producing a novel within the novel, supposedly written by one of his characters.

This latest novel is the fourth to feature Horowitz himself as a character, working alongside former policeman Daniel Hawthorne who now works as an occasional consultant for the Met. The book opens with Horowitz advising Hawthorne that he wants to draw their partnership to a close, which the detective is not happy with. Later that day, Horowitz attends attending the opening night of a play that he has written. There is a subdued opening night party afterwards into which one of the leading critics intrudes. Shortly after her departure one of the cast members is sent a link to the critic’s review, which is particularly bitter and negative. The following morning that critic is found dead, having been stabbed at her home. Horowitz finds himself the police’s principal subject, and he is arrested and detained overnight. Bemused by the turn of events, Horowitz feels his only resort is to contact Hawthorne and seek his help.

Horowitz is excellent at this sort of metafiction, and the relationship between him and Daniel Hawthorne is finely drawn temporarily released on a technicality, Horowitz and Hawthorne have a brief window of opportunity to conduct their own investigation, and hopefully clear the author’s name. The plot moves swiftly, but never strains the reader’s credibility. The book is also excellently presented, with lovely endpapers in the hardback edition.

oct. 5, 2022, 12:02 pm

85. 1989 by Val McDermid.

Val McDermid has been one of our most prolific crime novelists, and has now published more than forty books, including four series focusing on different protagonists. However, she has not allowed the sheer volume of her output to compromise its quality, and she is known for her watertight plots, finely drawn characters, and empathetic lead protagonists.

This novel is the second in a new series, following Alison (“Allie”) Burns. In the earlier instalment, 1979, she was introduced as a young reporter on a Glasgow-based newspaper. McDermid’s own career also featured a period as a crime reporter, and her insights into the chauvinistic attitudes proliferating throughout the press corps in the late 1970s emerged very clearly. Things had not improved significantly over the next ten years.

As this novel opens, Allie has moved down to Manchester, where she manages the northern crime desk of a daily paper in the stable of a press baron (hints of Robert Maxwell!). The press baron is immensely wealthy, but strapped for ready cash, and hits upon the idea of ‘borrowing’ significant sums from his employees’ pension fund, coercing his daughter, who heads one wing of his publishing empire, to go along with his scheme.

Against this background, and in the short term context of the Lockerbie aeroplane bombing and the Kegworth crash (I had forgotten how close in time those dreadful events were to each other), Allie finds herself embroiled in a complex plot, too complicated to summarise clearly here.

I enjoyed this novel, but I did wonder if it lived up to the high standards I have come to expect from Val McDermid. The historical context is very sharply conveyed, and Allie and her close colleagues are as plausible as McDermid’s protagonists generally are. However, some of the other characters struck me as rather more cliched than I would have expected. I hope that the next instalment in this series is as strong as the first one.

oct. 6, 2022, 5:09 am

86. The Ink Black Heart by Robert Galbraith.

The sixth outing for investigatory partnership Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott is another great success. It is a huge book, and manages to encompass several subplots beyond the engrossing main story. It comes in at 1,012 pages of fairly small type, but it never seems to flag. I have read a lot of very long books recently (although none quite as long as thins), but have generally felt that they might quite easily have been one or two hundred pages shorter without significantly marring the overall effect. Not so with this book, which was so engrossing that I never really noticed the size (except while trying to read it in bed, when its sheer weight made it difficult to hold one handed).

Given the scale of the book, and its interlaced plots I am not sure how pithy a synopsis I can offer. Basically the book revolves around the murder of Edie Ledwell in Highgate Cemetery. With her former boyfriend, Edie had created a series of macabre cartoons set in the cemetery which had gone on to become a YouTube sensation. Indeed, such was their popularity that an online game had been created based around the cartoon characters, which had led some followers to become obsessed. When plans for a film based around the cartoon are mooted, some fans take against Edie, believing she has sold out. She is persecuted by trolls online, with frequent threats against her life, while other people post details of her address and pictures of her home. Shortly before she is killed, she visited the offices of Strike and Ellacott with a view to commissioning them to investigate who is behind the internet abuse. As digital investigations were not their speciality, Robin recommended that she try a different firm. Shortly afterwards she was murdered.

Obviously, there are some highly personal elements here for Robert Galbraith (who, as we all know, is actually J K Rowling), who has herself been the victim of sustained trolling following her expression of opinions that some people deemed transphobic. One of the especial; Ly clever aspects of the book is the way she renders lengthy Twitter threads in which hatred for Edie Ledwell is conveyed in increasingly violet terms. She also reproduces supposed exchanges through the chat facility in the game based on Edie’s characters, which is ‘managed’ by someone known only as ‘Anomie’. These are presumably influenced by the opprobrium to which Rowling herself has been subject.

Being a middle-aged man (well that’s my story and I am, sticking to it), I have never read the Harry Potter books, but if they were written with even a fraction of the skill that Rowling has deployed in this series, I can readily understand how they reached such a large fanbase. This is the sixth book to feature Strike and Ellacott, and while I think it would work perfectly well as a stand-alone book for people not yet familiar with the scenario, the characters have developed an extremely strong verisimilitude over the sequence as a whole.

This is certainly one of the best books I have read in what has already been a very strong year.

oct. 6, 2022, 9:31 am

87. Nobody Walks by Mick Herron.

Mick Herron is best known for the excellent Slow Horses series of novels that follow the exploits of Jackson Lamb and the assortment of failed spies, consigned to a form of internal exile in Slough House, a crumbling outpost of the intelligence service near the Barbican.

This novel inhabits the same milieu, with walk on appearances by some of the more peripheral characters from the Slow Horses books, although there is only one oblique reference to Jackson Lamb himself. The novel follows Tom Bettany, a former member of the Intelligence services who has retired and moved on. He now works in an abattoir in Marseille, and has set aside almost every vestige of his former life. He has a mobile phone, but it is an old one (far from smart) and he is not always able to keep it charged. One morning he does recharge it and finds he has a voicemail message, telling him of the death of his son, from whom he had been estranged for several years.

He returns to London and tries to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death. It appears that his son had worked for a prominent designer of computer games. He had fallen to his death from a balcony outside his flat while under the influence of a strong dose of a new strain of marijuana that has recently been circulating throughout east London. Tom’s attempts to try to reconstruct his son’s day to day existence meet with various obstacles, and attract attention from elements of organised crime as well as the senior ranks of the intelligence service.

This book is very elaborately plotted, as is customary with Mick Herron. It lacks the humour of the Slow Horses books, but does provide interesting insights into the Number One Desk office, Ingrid Tierney, and also explains how J M Coe came to wind up in Slough House.

oct. 7, 2022, 11:21 am

88. The Bullet That Missed by Richard Osman.

Yet another hugely entertaining novel from Richard Osman, featuring the popular Thursday Murder Club. The Club is formed of four residents in a sheltered housing development who meet each week to review, and hopefully solve, recent murders. They are a mixed bunch: Ron was formerly a union firebrand, Ibrahim was a very laid-back psychiatrist, Joyce had been a homemaker, while Elizabeth had worked in a senior role in an unspecified branch of the intelligence services, and still seems to have some valuable contacts.

This time they are looking into the disappearance (and presumed death) of television journalist Bethany Waites, who had gone missing some ten years before while engaged on an investigation. Meanwhile, Elizabeth and her husband are kidnapped, and Elizabeth is given a challenging dilemma.

Osman deploys the same lightness of touch that was evident in his first two books, and the plot is fairly watertight. The characters are all well drawn, and they complement each other excellently. I don’t know how much longer Richard Osman can maintain this approach, but the attraction has certainly not yet palled for me.

oct. 12, 2022, 4:55 am

89. Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin.

It must be difficult for a writer who creates a popular and successful character to avoid letting them become stale. That fate certainly befell Colin Dexter's Chief Inspector Morse who subsided into what almost seemed self-parody in the later novels in the canon (though at least the later Morse books avoided the mawkish failings of the final instalments of the television series), and even Sherlock Holmes seemed rather tired and despairing by the time Sir Arthur Conan Doyle churned out His Last Bow.

Ian Rankin seems so far to have avoided these pitfalls. In this novel John Rebus makes his nineteenth outing and is, as my mother might have said, as "thrawn" as ever. One explanation for Rankin's success where many others has failed is that he has always had his character age in real time. Consequently, he had to face retirement several books ago (Exit Music had seemed to be his swan song, with the action taking place in Rebus’s final week on the Lothian and Borders force). However, possibly mirroring the plethora of "cold case" review dramas currently crowding the television schedules, in Standing In Another Man's Grave, Rebus returned from retirement to help review an old case in the light of newly uncovered evidence.

In Saints of the Shadow Bible he has managed to find his way back onto the mainstream force, though now demoted to Detective Sergeant while his former protegee Siobhan Clarke is now an Inspector and his superior at the Gayfield Square station. As the novel opens the two of them are inspecting the wreckage of a car which had crashed on a seemingly open and deserted stretch of road between Edinburgh and Livingston. As always with Rebus novels, the seemingly innocuous accident is not quite what it seems, although Rebus and Clarke are themselves initially baffled as to why they suspect something more dubious lying behind it.

Meanwhile Inspector Malcolm Fox, the new lead character that Rankin created in the immediate aftermath of Rebus's retirement, is investigating alleged malfeasance at Summerhall Police Station thirty years ago. That was Rebus's first station as a detective, and while there he had been inducted into the self-styled "Saints of the Shadow Bible", a group of CID officers who seldom allowed the regulations and rules of engagement to get in the way of their own mission to keep the streets clean.

As ever with Rankin, the plot (well, plots - there are several sub-stories competing for the reader's attention) is tightly constructed and the tensions between the characters is very plausible. The book does have the customary Rankinesque dialogue - readers new to Rankin might be better advised to start on one of his earlier cases - but that adds to, rather than detracts from, the effect.

oct. 12, 2022, 5:14 am

90. Stone Blind by Natalie Haynes.

I was a little disappointed with this book. I had loved Natalie Haynes’s previous novels: The Amber Fury is one of my all-time favourites, and her A Thousand Ships is a masterful reworking of the story of the Trojan War. Consequently I had very high hopes for this book, which offers a reinterpretation of the story of Medusa, known as the Gorgon. Popular understanding of the Gorgons has them depicted as horrifically ugly, indeed to such an extent that any mortal who saw their faces would be turned to stone.

In this book, Natalie Haynes sets out some of the personal history of the Gorgons and of Perseus, whose family history was far from straightforward. Haynes’s classical erudition is unquestioned, as is her ability to weave a new marvel out of a suitable old story. I just wonder whether in this instance she chose the right story on which to lavish her skills. I found this novel quite heavy going, which I have never experienced before with her books, and now slightly regret having splashed out to buy it in hardback.

oct. 12, 2022, 5:51 am

91. Marple by Various Authors.

I first encountered Agatha Christie’s books when I was about twelve or thirteen, when I started working my way through the canon with that level almost of morbid obsession that teenage boys can bring to the idea of completing a set of anything. I don’t think I managed to read all of her books, but I did make my way through more than fifty of them.

Back then, I now recognise that I was simply reading the story line, and didn’t appreciate the wealth of social comment that lies in the stories. Agatha Christie was not an earnest campaigner for social change in the manner of Dickens, but there is a lot of tongue in cheek comment there, readily apparent to my now (hopefully) more mature judgement. As a boy, I always slightly preferred the Poirot stories over those featuring Miss Marple, although I now see that there is something more realistic in the latter. I also enjoyed the BBC Radio 4 dramatisations over the years featuring June Whitfield as Miss Marple.

This book contains twelve short stories by established contemporary female crime fiction writers, all adding their own respective twists to the character’s approach to solving the crimes that seem to occur wherever she might go. I suppose that I should declare a prejudice here and own up that I am not a great fan of short stories – I generally find them disappointing, and over recent years have generally avoided the format wherever I can. The stories are a very mixed bunch. Some of them are excellent (I especially enjoyed the offerings from Elly Griffiths, Val McDermid and Natalie Haynes), but some of the others (and one set in New York in particular) struck me as rather woeful – I would have thought that some of the writers might feel ashamed to see their stories alongside others that are so much better.

I don’t really see what the point of this collection was. I doubt if it will increase the already wide readership that the Miss Marple books enjoy, as it is only likely to appeal to people who are already adherents.

oct. 12, 2022, 7:31 am

92. Lessons by Ian McEwan.

It is interesting to see how novelists develop over the course of their career. In an uncharacteristically progressive move for such a conservative institution, my school had its own paperback bookshop which was managed by members of the Sixth Form, including me for a brief period. An obvious benefit was the opportunity to browse through the stock, but I was also grateful for the access to promotional material from the various publishers whose books we sold. That was how I first became acquainted with the name of Ian McEwan, whom Picador were promoting as one of their coming young writers.

Having started with a couple of collections of short stories (First Love, Last Rites and In Between the Sheets), in which the preponderance of what seemed unconventional sex particularly caught our teenage boys’ attention, McEwan moved on to novels, starting with The Cement Garden. These led to him being included in Granta’s ‘Best of Young British Writers’ list published in 1983. Now, almost forty years on, Ian McEwan is one of the grand old men of British … indeed, world literature.

This latest novel, considerably longer than most of his recent books, which might fairly almost have been deemed novellas and weighing in at around 500 pages. I don’t know to what extent it might be based on McEwan’s own life – it certainly covers a similar period, with Roland Baines, the protagonist, being born in the late 1940s, and living through worries about the Cuban Missile Crisis as he entered his teens, and then rejoicing in the fall of the Berlin Wall, and then learning to adapt to a post-Brexit world. The plot is far too involved to offer a decent synopsis here, but essentially it follows the Roland’s life, and allows him (or McEwan himself) to offer various observations on what befalls him.

I found it an excellent book – one of the best novels I have read this year, and I was caught up in it right from the start. Roland Baines is far from perfect as a character, and occasionally behaves badly, but he is essentially an empathetic figure. McEwan also captures the feel of the different times at which parts of the book are set with great sensitivity.

I might also add a note of personal significance for myself. I started keeping a formal list of the books that I read on 1 January 1980, and this book was number 5,000. I am glad that this milestone was achieved with such an excellent book.

oct. 12, 2022, 10:09 am

93. Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell.

The two great artistic passions of my life have been books and music (particularly rock music), and it has long been a source of some bemusement that so few novels have successfully managed to engage both. There are lots of books with characters who clearly love their music, or that are littered with musical allusions, but I haven’t come across many that the career of a singer or a band. Indeed, when I read Taylor Jenkins Reid’s marvellous Daisy Jones and The Six a couple of years ago, I wondered if it was the first good novel that I had read which successfully evoked the world of a working band.

I was, therefore, delighted, when I learned that David Mitchell’s latest novel was to be just such a book. Rock music played a significant role in the background of his earlier novel, The Bone Clocks, and his ability to craft a powerful story is beyond question.

The Utopia Avenue of the title is the name of a band formed in the mid-1960s, and subject to arrange of different influences. The band members are drawn from very different backgrounds … Bank Manager’s daughter, Elf Holloway, has had some success on the folk scene, and a song that she had written had been a major hit for an American singer just a couple of years earlier. Dutch-born but English educated Jasper de Zoete is a guitar maestro, whose instrumental pyrotechnics ably complement the accomplished, if more prosaic, bass-playing of Dean Moss, who had grown up on the rough side of the tracks in Gravesend. Peter ‘Griff’ Griffin, from Hull, is a professional Northerner, hewn from the ‘You can always tell a Yorkshireman, but you can’t tell him much’ school, and has made a name for himself as a great jazz drummer.

Four discrete characters, and four diverse routes into the music world. They might well have carried on along their separate routes if they had not been spotted by ex-apt Canadian Levon Frankland, who has just established his own management company and is eager for a new act to promote. London is buzzing. The Beatles have just redefined popular music, having released Sgt pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, kicking off the summer of love and endorsing psychedelia. The time is ripe for a new band, and the air is heavy with optimism.

Of course, nothing is quite that straightforward. All four of them … well, five of them, as Levon is as fundamental to the band’s success as the musicians … have their respective personal and emotional baggage. Elf has just split up from … well, been dumped by, her Australian boyfriend and musical partner; Jasper is highly intelligent but socially dysfunctional, with a history of inadequately-diagnosed mental health issues; Dean has overcome personal tragedy, having lost his mother at a young age and become alienated from his abusive father, and has no concept of monogamy; Griff is perhaps the most down to earth member of the band, and broadly satisfied with his lot, despite occasional chips on his shoulders about perceived southerners’ privilege and sense of entitlement; Levon is gay, which has led to him being completely estranged from his straight-laced Canadian family.

While all four of the musicians are initially dubious about Levon’s vision of them as a band, they do experiment playing together, and find that there is, after all, an indefinable musical bond that brings them together.

Of course, with this being a David Mitchell book, their musical bond is not the only indefinable element. There are also a lot of pleasing allusions to characters and events from other books. Dean Moss’s early musical experiences include attending gigs at the Captain Marlow pub in Gravesend, which twenty years later will be home to the disaffected fifteen year old Holly Sykes, whose abrupt departure from home kicks off the feast of weirdness that is The Bone Clocks. Similarly, reminiscences of whose literary life form such a rich platter within The Bone Clocks is encountered as the five year old son of one of Dean’s amatory encounters. Suave, self-opinionated, and self-aggrandising critic, Felix Finch, who appears peripherally in both The Bone Clocks and Cloud Atlas turns up at an after-gig party, and Luisa Rey looms large and welcome, too.

There are cameo appearances from a huge range of real figures, too. The band are entranced by Jimi Hendrix, and meet the various Beatles at different stages of their own rise to fame. Jasper keeps bumping into am elfin figure with different-coloured eyes who is desperate to make a name for himself, but struggles to succeed. His name, then, is David Jones, although he will achieve that yearned for success after changing his name to David Bowie.

I am still a, little uncertain about my overall response, however. I enjoyed the book, as I was confident I would, but I can’t help feeling that something … I don’t know what … was missing. I think that I somehow expected a little more of the literary pyrotechnics that normally attend a David Mitchell book. I acknowledge that this is probably unfair – if anyone else had written this book, I would probably be awarding five stars without a moment’s hesitation, but now I am havering simply because I expected that little bit more. Still, it is beautifully presented, too, with a lovely psychedelic cover, so, what the hell, I am going to give it five stars anyway. That is what Crispin Hershey and Felix Finch would have done, and if it is good enough for them, it is more than good enough for me!

oct. 12, 2022, 10:26 am

94. The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell.

This was an intriguing book, although it never quite came together as effectively as I hoped.

Flitting between the present day and twenty five years ago, it is essentially the story of the disintegration of a family, told through several alternating perspectives. On her twenty-fifth birthday, Libby receives a letter from a solicitor, advising her that she has inherited an immensely valuable property on London’s prestigious Cheyne Walk in Chelsea. This is not all that she learns, however. She also finds that there are several secrets in her family’s past, and that not all of them have yet been resolved.

I liked the sense of suspense that Jewell generates, although I found that the plot was just a little bit too convoluted for my taste.

oct. 12, 2022, 10:39 am

95. Anthem by Noah Hawley.

This was a chilling book, based upon an unpleasant (yet intriguing) premise. Written during the height of the COVID pandemic, it is set in contemporary America, that is wracked with tragedy as teenagers suddenly start committing suicide, in huge numbers. A common thread is discovered when it is noted that many of them are leaving a note that simply says ‘A11’.

From there the novel proceeds to deep dystopian themes revolving around bad pharma, excessive government surveillance, and teenagers’ growing sense of disenfranchisement across the world.

I have a dystopian and generally bleak approach to life myself, so this book might have been right up my street, but in fact I didn’t like it at all. I felt that the scenario was clumsily over-contrived, and the writing style was not conducive to easy reading. I had picked this book up because I had greatly enjoyed Hawley’s earlier novel, Before the Fall, but this was entirely different.

oct. 12, 2022, 10:54 am

96. A Buyer's Market by Anthony Powell.

The second volume of Anthony Powell's epic roman fleuve opens with the narrator, Nick Jenkins, presumably in middle age or beyond, looking through the wares on offer at a downmarket auction and recognising four paintings by E Bosworth Deacon. Jenkins then recollects his earliest encounters with Mr Deacon, who had been a friend of his parents, which in turn leads him to recall one of Deacon's paintings, ‘The Boyhood of Cyrus’, which had hung in the hall of a house where he had attended dances. This enables us to return to "real time" in the novel sequence.

Jenkins is now in his early twenties (probably around 1926/27) and is living in a shabby set of rooms in Shepherd Market, a slightly run-down area of London close to the smart neighbourhood of Mayfair. He mentions, more or less in passing, that he is working for a firm that publishes art books ... and that is about all we find out about his day-to-day life. This is a standard Powell/Jenkins trick: although the sequence follows Jenkins’ recollections over twelve volumes, the reader learns next to nothing about him.

Jenkins is, (or at least thinks he may be) in love with Barbara Goring, a slightly noisy, hyperactive girl who plays a prominent part in the world of society dances and balls on whose fringes Jenkins exists. It is in just such a ball that Jenkins once again encounters Widmerpool, last seen four or five years ago in France when he and Jenkins sent a summer at La Grenadiere where they were trying, with limited success, to learn French. Widmerpool is now moving forward, establishing himself as a solicitor but he expresses designs to enter into the world of business.

After an eventful evening at a society ball, Widmerpool and Jenkins find themselves walking through the back streets of Piccadilly when they literally bump into Mr Deacon who, with his gamine companion Gypsy Jones, has been selling pacifist newspapers at Victoria Station. What seems a mere chance encounter sets off reverberations that will resound through the remaining volumes of this immense, elaborate and enchanting saga. We are also treated to the welcome reappearance of some characters from the previous volume (including Uncle Giles, who has always been one of my favourites!)

Powell's style is always understated, and it is, perhaps, only on a re-reading that the true intricacy of the sequence becomes evident. The books are not full of incident, but they are richly stowed with acute observation and a laconic, sardonic encapsulation of the hopes and fears of the decades between the wars. The humour is exquisite, but there remains an undercurrent of melancholia.

oct. 12, 2022, 12:34 pm

97. Bleeding Heart Yard by Elly Griffiths.

Elly Griffiths must be one of our most productive crime fiction writers, regularly publishing two books each year, without ever letting that level of output to compromise the quality of her novels. They always feel lovingly crafted rather than churned out, which is sadly the epithet so often unthinkingly applied to the output of prolific authors. She already has two well-established series, one following Dr Ruth Galloway, senior lecturer in archaeology at the University of North Norfolk, while the other follows stage magician Max Mephisto and Detective Superintendent Edgar Stephens as they unravel mysteries in Brighton during the 1950s and 1960s.

However, Ms Griffiths has also embarked on another equally engaging series, of which this is the third instalment, following the cases of (now) Detective Inspector Harbinder Kaur. In her first two exploits she had been back in her native Sussex, but Harbinder has secured promotion and moved up to serve in the Met, based in West London. Still eager to establish herself in her new role, and not yet feeling properly established in London, she finds herself leading the investigation into the death of a prominent right-wing politician who has died in unusual circumstances while attending a reunion at his old school. To make things more difficult, one of Harbinder’s Detective Sergeants was a fellow pupil of the dead man and had also been at the reunion.

It had clearly been a notable cohort of pupils in that year. The dead man’s friends back then had included pupils who would go on to become a leading actress, a successful rock star, the future headteacher of that very school, and another (Lib-Dem) MP. As Harbinder and the rest of her now-depleted team start to investigate, they uncover undercurrents of strong feelings left over from schooldays. And then another of the group is found dead in Bleeding Heart Yard.

There are various strands of investigation which, as always, Elly Griffiths manages with great dexterity. She excels at creating characters that provoke fellow feeling – that is as true of Ruth Galloway and Edgar Stephens (and especially Emma Holmes) as it is of Harbinder. These are all characters whom I would be delighted to meet.

oct. 12, 2022, 3:34 pm

>110 Eyejaybee: congratulations on book #5000 Ian; or 5005, I guess now after all these reviews.

oct. 12, 2022, 4:49 pm

>110 Eyejaybee: Adding my congratulations on your first 5000 books.

oct. 13, 2022, 1:35 am

>116 john257hopper: >117 pamelad:. Thanks, John, Pam,

It has taken nearly 43 years to complete the first five thousand, so I am not sure if I will manage the second batch, but I will enjoy having a go!

oct. 13, 2022, 5:39 am

>118 Eyejaybee: I started recording my reading in July 1997, so just over 25 years ago, and am on book #2286 currently.

oct. 14, 2022, 1:10 am

>119 john257hopper: You must have amassed an impressive tally before you started the list, too.

oct. 14, 2022, 10:13 am

For the few years before 1997 I was occupied with other things, though I read a lot as a child, teenager and student of course. Hard to know a total number of books read for one's life, for any of us, I guess.

oct. 17, 2022, 7:41 am

98. The Venetian Masquerade by Philip Gwynne Jones.

I came across this wonderful series of novels by Philip Gwynne Jones entirely by chance, but have found it highly addictive. Nathan Sutherland is a marvellous protagonist – highly empathetic, and utterly believable – and lives in Venice where he works as a translator, but also fills the office of the United Kingdom’s Honorary Consul. This last, unpaid role involves providing support to British residents or tourists, and usually entails helping visitors who have had their wallets stolen or lost their passports. Occasionally, however, he finds himself dragged into some more complicated business.

This novel, however, starts slightly differently with Nathan joining a couple of friends on atrip to the cemetery island of San Michele on All Souls’ Day. As a consequence, he happens to be present when some workmen inadvertently unearth what proves to be an empty coffin. As the supposed occupant had been a British citizen, Nathan has to review Consulate records to try to unravel the mystery.

Philip Gwynne Jones is masterful at conveying the sights and atmosphere of the various Venetian locations as the story takes the reader all around the city. He is also an excellent PR representative for his adopted city as I am now desperate to visit Venice. He is not just a master of atmosphere, however, and his plots are always unusual but perfectly plausible. His characters are well drawn, too. Nathan is excellent as the well-intentioned but slightly clumsy Consul, while his partner Federica is perfectly charming. Pride of place to my mind, however, goes to Gramsci, the surly and demanding cat with whom Nathan shares his home – one of the finest fictional cats I have encountered.

oct. 17, 2022, 8:25 am

99. The Romantic by William Boyd.

I was disappointed by this book. This is not because it is not a good book in itself, but my expectations of a new novel by William Boyd are probably just too high, and every now and again even he will not quite meet them.

This is another ‘whole life’ novel (Boyd’s fourth after The New Confessions, Any Human Heart, and Sweet Caress), this time recounting the life of Cashel Greville Ross, born in Ireland in 1799. Cashel had an unconventional childhood, initially brought up by an aunt in a cottage on the estate of a long-established landed family, before being moved to Oxford. After a fraught family scene, he enlisted in the army (initially enrolled as a drummer), and found himself fighting Napoleon in the ‘Hundred Days’. Cashel is wounded in what would become known as the Battle of Waterloo, after which he is repatriated, and reconciled with his family. Boyd then uses Cashel as a vehicle in which he takes us through much of the nineteenth century, with Cashel encountering many prominent figures a la mode de Zelig.

I found the book generally entertaining, although I was occasionally left wonder why Boyd had really bothered, leading me even to think why I was bothering to persist. I had never experienced that with a William Boyd book before – indeed, I have gone on record in the past suggesting that I would expect that even his shopping lists or notes to the milkman would repay the reader’s interest. Perhaps I just came to the book at the wrong time, or in the wrong mood, and while it was still enjoyable, it did not provide the literary pyrotechnics that I had so keenly awaited.

oct. 17, 2022, 9:38 am

100. The Atlas Six by Olivie Blake.

I struggled with this book. I liked the basic premise, with six highly capable practitioners of magic vying to gain entry to a select fellowship, but found the individual characters, and the writing style, exceptionally annoying.

I also readily acknowledge that as a jaded civil servant nearing the age of sixty, I am probably a long way outside the expected circle of readership, although my far younger niece also found the tone and style irritating.

It is rather disappointing that I should bring up my century for 2022 with one of the books I have enjoyed least so far this the year.

oct. 17, 2022, 11:25 am

Congratulations on your century, Ian :)

oct. 20, 2022, 11:44 am

101. The Crowded Grave by Martin Walker,

Martin Walker’s series of novels about Bruno Courrêges, head of the police in the small Dordogne town of St Denis, is proving to be one of my greatest recent discoveries, and this latest (fourth) instalment does not disappoint.

Bruno is greatly loved in the community. In addition to his role as policeman, he also runs rugby and tennis training sessions for the neighbourhood’s youngsters, makes his own wine, and joins expeditions hunting for wild boar. However, I think the key to his popularity is his pragmatic approach. While he is eager to uphold law and order, he is also keen to try to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes avoiding the deployment of the machinery of law when perpetrators of small offences are identified.

In this novel, archaeologists looking for evidence of early hominids of the Cro-Magnon period find the remains of what appears to be a family from the Cro-Magnon period. They arrange for press conferences to share the news of their discovery which they believe will set the archaeological and anthropological communities alight. In a nearby grave they also uncover another skeleton. Unfortunately for them, this separate body is clearly of much more recent vintage as it is still wearing a Swatch. Further investigation reveals that the person had died with a gunshot wound to the head. Meanwhile, a couple of local farms are subject to what appear to be ecoterrorist attacks.

Bruno sets the formal investigation in motion, although he has a lot on his plate. A summit between the French Minister for the Interior and his Spanish counterpart has been arranged, and St Denis had been chosen as the venue. This requires close liaison between the French and Spanish security forces, and Bruno is sequestered to help with arrangements, sharing his local knowledge. These arrangements are particularly fraught as there has recently been a resurgence of activity involving the Basque separatist group ETA, which is perceived as a significant threat to the summit.

This certainly gives the novel enough potential for a gripping storyline, although Walker also adds Bruno’s personal life into the mix. As the novel opens, he is loosely involved with Pamela, a British expat who runs a local stable, but he is still desolate over his previous relationship with Isabel, who has returned to Paris where she works for the security forces. These factors will also play their part as the story unfolds.

As always, Walker manages the plot very dextrously. There are several different strands here, all of which are plausibly developed, and intertwined. His characters are well observed and eminently believable.

Four novels in, I am enjoying this series immensely, and looking forward to working my way through the remaining instalments.

oct. 21, 2022, 4:53 am

>126 Eyejaybee: hmm....sounds intriguing, Ian.

oct. 22, 2022, 12:12 am

Congratulations on passing 100!

oct. 22, 2022, 1:57 am

>128 pamelad: Thanks, Pam. It has been a pretty good reading year.

oct. 24, 2022, 8:49 am

102. Reconstruction by Mick Herron.

One of my happiest discoveries in recent years has been the series of novels by Mick Herron featuring the ‘Slow Horses’, a group of MI5 officers who have suffered major setbacks in their career resulting in their assignment to work in Slough House near the barbican under the management of Jackson Lamb, a grotesque figure whose behaviour and relentless stream of diatribes would make Reginald Hill’s jaundiced Superintendent Andy Dalziel appear a paragon of “tofu-eating wokery”.

Herron has now produced seven or eight novels in the Slow Horses series, and has seen them secure huge sales, and transfer to Apple TV, where the role of Lamb was adeptly taken on by Gary Oldman. (Before seeing the TV version, I found it difficult to imagine Oldman as Lamb, but he does hit the mark excellently.) However, before achieving such success, he had already written several novels previously, including a series featuring unconventional private detective Zoe Boehm and a couple of standalone books. Reconstruction is one of the latter, although it is indirectly linked to the Slow horses through the character of ‘Bad Sam Collins’ who features peripherally in the series, and more directly here.

It opens with an attempt by two MI5 officers to arrest a suspect character on the fringes of Oxford going awry. The suspect evades apprehension, and one of the officers is hit by a car. On the run, the fugitive (now armed after retrieving the weapon held by the felled officer) takes refuge in a nearby nursery, taking the manager, two young boys and his father as hostages. Bad Sam Collins is not impressed!

I would love to be able to say that this novel presaged the future success of the Slow Horses. Unfortunately, I fear that that would be to mislead people. Indeed, if I had read this novel first, I might not have bothered to pick up another Mick Herron book. While it is not a bad novel, it lacks the humour and the clever plotting of Herron’s later work.

oct. 24, 2022, 12:10 pm

103. A Heart Full of Headstones by Ian Rankin.

Former Detective Inspector John Rebus is back, but facing an unprecedented challenge. As the twenty-third novel in the series opens, Rebus (now retired and suffering from COPD) is in court for a criminal trial. While that may seem a familiar enough scenario for him, this time he is in the dock, and his prospects look bleak.

From that opening the story moves back a little way back into the past, with a serving police from Edinburgh’s Tynecastle police station under investigation for allegations of domestic violence. Knowing how grim a time a former police officer is likely to have if sent to prison, the officer claims that his behaviour had been influenced by PTSD suffered as a consequence of what he had witnessed during his time at Tynecastle, about which all sorts of complaints had been made in the past. In a bid to try to limit the potential damage that such testimony might make if aired in court, the upper echelons at Police Scotland (*the newly created national constabulary covering the whole of the country) have assigned Detective Inspector Fox, formerly of ‘The Complaints’ (as the internal affairs department is known throughout the force), to investigate allegations of corruption at Tynecastle.

Fox is never reluctant to investigate the misdeeds of fellow officers, particularly when there is the additional spur of potential promotion if he can secure a positive outcome. The officers in Tynecastle are aware of his reputation, and band together to offer a concerted defence, checking on with former colleagues who have now retired. Of course, who should turn out to have worked there in the past but Rebus himself, although he was never part of the more corrupt inner circle.

Meanwhile, firmer gangland supremo Maurice Gerald (‘Big Ger’) Cafferty, confined to a wheelchair following a shooting a year or so previously, has asked Rebus to try to find someone who had fled from Edinburgh some years ago, after having been found to have ripped Cafferty off. Rebus cannot work out Cafferty’s motives, but out of interest agrees to do some delving. The deeper he digs, the closer the two storylines seem to become.

Ian Rankin has taken the reader into similar territory before, most notably in Saints of the Shadow Bible where similar allegations about rogue police officers taking the law into their own hands had been made. This book offers a slightly different perspective on the issue, and further insights into Rebus’s past as a junior detective.

As always with Rankin and Rebus, the tension is maintained throughout, and several different plotlines are carefully interlaced. I felt that this did not quite match up to its most recent predecessor, A Song for the Dark Times, but then that was one of the strongest individual instalments in the sequence. This is certainly a strong addition to the set

nov. 3, 2022, 10:35 am

104. Venetian Gothic by Philip Gwynne Jones.

Nathan Sutherland, professional translator and the United Kingdom’s Honorary (for which read ‘unpaid’) Consul in Venice, is a very likeable character, but seems to have an unfortunate knack of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and becoming embroiled in bizarre murder mysteries. As this novel opens, he is accompanying Dario, his good friend, drinking partner and fellow connoisseur of progressive rock, to San Michele, the cemetery island off the Venetian coast to share his observation of All Souls’ Day. While there, they witness an unfortunate accident following some workmen’s attempts to renovate one of the older graves. As they watch, a coffin falls apart after being moved too suddenly, and it is immediately apparent that it is empty. Consideration of the gravestone shows that it should have contained the remains of a young British boy who had drowned forty years ago.

This sparks off an unusual investigation for Nathan who finds himself beset by a tenacious journalist who has been researching the family of the dead (but missing) boy. He is then visited in his semi-official capacity by a young British tourist with a complaint about having been fooled into paying to stay at what turns out to be a non-existent hotel. While commiserating with him, but explaining that there is very little he can do as Honorary Consul, Nathan discovers that the young man has been conducting his own investigations of San Michele and some of the deserted islands off the Dead Lagoon, looking for clues about the missing boy. Nathan dismisses this as an odd coincidence until the young man is found dead, and then the journalist disappears.

This may all seem very sombre, but the tone is light throughout, and the book is liberally strewn with delightful descriptions of the glorious Venetian sights, and with descriptions of the wonderful meals that Nathan throws together for himself and his artistic girlfriend Federica. I sometimes wonder whether the books in this series have been commissioned by the Venice Tourist Board – with each new instalment, my desire to go there increases yet further.

Philip Gwynne Jones manages to deliver sound plots, amusing and empathetic characters, and wonderful scenery each time. I used to enjoy Donna Leon’s series of novels also set in Venice and featuring Commissario Brunetti, although they gradually became weighed down by a sense of their own self-importance (and despite now extending almost to twenty volumes, no one seems to age). So far, Philip Gwynne Jones’s books have avoided that fate, and the joyful blend of lightness of touch and plausible plotting have kept me eager to come back for more.

nov. 3, 2022, 11:52 am

105. The Devil's Cave by Martin Walker.

Chef de Police Bruno Courreges is back in another tale of murder and intrigue from St Denis in the Dordogne. I must say that for such an idyllic-seeming village, there is an alarmingly high instance of murder. That does not make the location seem any less appealing – with each new book that I read by Martin Walker, my yen to visit the Dordogne grows ever stronger, and I guess I will just take my chances.

Bruno is an empathetic character. Although not from St Denis originally, his enthusiastic and pragmatic approach to the demands of his job have made him very popular, and trusted, among the local community, and it is certainly striking that compared to the protagonists of the numerous other crime novels I have read recently, he seems to spend almost as much time trying to find reasons to avoid arresting minor miscreants as he does investigating more serious crime.

I always enjoy Walker’s accounts of the role of local policing in the Dordogne. Unlike my home city of London, where the Met holds sway over all aspects of police work (maintaining public order, and preventing or investigating crime), Bruno has to tread a fine jurisdictional line, careful not to provoke trouble with the local gendarmerie (a sort of equivalent to the American National Guard).

This latest case starts when the body of a beautiful woman is found floating in a punt down the river into the village of St Denis. When it is eventually recovered (a process not without an element of farce), it becomes clear that the woman had been murdered. There are also indications suggesting that she may have been subjected to occult rites. Meanwhile, the village is split by news of a planned luxury building development. The promoters claim it will bring great fortune to the village, creating local jobs, providing additional leisure amenities, and boosting the municipal tax yield. However, Bruno is not convinced, and his doubts are strengthened after discussions with his counterparts in one of the neighbouring towns that was still paying off debts incurred by a similar project by the same developers that had gone wrong.

As always, Martin Walker manages these separate plot strands very capably, bringing the story to a satisfying conclusion.

nov. 3, 2022, 12:06 pm

106. A Loyal Traitor by Tim Glister.

I enjoyed Tim Glister’s first novel, Red Corona, which introduced the character of Richard Knox, an established officer in the higher ranks of MIO5 in London in the early 1960s. At that time, the Cold War seemed to be at its height, with the Berlin Wall having recently been constructed, and the world somehow navigating a way through the Cuban missiles crisis.

This book is set a few years later. Knox is still at MI5, where he is one of the most senior figures. He is rocked when confronted with a character from his past, whom he had believed to have been dead for several years. An unnecessarily complicated and essentially unsatisfying plot ensues.

I found this novel very disappointing. The characters were poorly drawn – I think that to call them two-dimensional might be to lavish too much praise – the plot was risible, and the writing style was halting. Apart from that, it was not too bad!

nov. 3, 2022, 12:17 pm

107. The Acceptance World by Anthony Powell.

This is the third volume in Powell's immense roman fleuve, A Dance to The Music of Time, and we have moved on to the early 1930s. (Though never explicitly stated, I assume that this volume is set around 1932 or 1933, based upon the oblique references to Mussolini and the hunger marches to London.) As in all volumes of this deliciously sprawling chronicle, there is relatively little action, but through Powell's customarily delicate admixture, a few social set pieces are worked up to a potent melange of wry observation, outright humour and the odd undercurrent of melancholia.

The Acceptance World opens with Nicholas Jenkins (about whom we learn little more in this book than we have struggled to eke out of the previous two volumes) visiting the Ufford Hotel in Bayswater for tea with his Uncle Giles, always rather a lost soul meandering through life with no aim or hope. As they finish their cheerless meal, they are joined by one of Giles's fellow guests at the hotel, the esoteric-looking Myra Erdleigh. She is certainly more flamboyant that most of Uncle Giles's acquaintances, and Jenkins is initially drawn to her. It turns out that she has rather a reputation as a fortune teller, and is persuaded to ‘put out the cards’ for both Nick and his uncle. She seems to divine some aspects of Jenkins's life including the fact that he had recently had a novel published (which had hitherto been unrevealed to the reader). Although A Dance to The Music of Time is often described as a largely autobiographical sequence, and is narrated by the character of Jenkins, we learn next to nothing about him. Mrs Erdleigh mentions a woman with whom Jenkins will become close, and also refers to a struggle involving one old man and two younger ones which will cause him considerable angst. This sets the scene for much of what will follow throughout the rest of the book.

We are then treated to description of a dinner at the Ritz, a weekend away in the country and then an Old Etonians' reunion dinner, also held at the Ritz. At the latter event we are treated to the re-emergence of both Widmerpool, who has been absent for the rest of the book, and Charles Stringham, who was last briefly seen during the previous volume when he had taken Jenkins, who had encountered him entirely by chance, to a party in Mayfair.

Widmerpool may have been absent for the greater part of the book, but he makes up for this when he does finally appear. His unexpected intervention in the final chapter, is characteristically bizarre, and provokes considerable mirth among many of his fellow guests, but reveals the first signs of his relentless thirst for power and advancement.

'Wryly observed and beautifully written' seems to be becoming a bit of a mantra in my reviews of Powell’s magnus opus, but, after all, the reason phrases become clichés is because they are true.

nov. 3, 2022, 5:29 pm

>135 Eyejaybee: Ian, it's impressive how you manage to find something new to say each time you review this series I know you have read many times before.

nov. 4, 2022, 7:39 am

108. The Late Train to Gypsy Hill by Alan Johnson.

I have enjoyed Alan Johnson’s various volumes of memoirs – I had a particular personal interest because he had, briefly, been Secretary of State at the Department for Children, Schools and Families (now the Department for Education) while I worked there. It would be fair to say that throughout his short period in the Department, he had been conspicuous principally by his virtual invisibility, but I had still thought that he might have some juicy morsel to dispense, with which to whet the salacious appetites of my fellow functionaries.

Those memoirs certainly told an amazing story – especially the first volume, This Boy, and his journey from desperate, poverty-stricken childhood in the post war years in what is now affluent Notting Hill, but was then run-down Notting Dale, to serving in the Cabinet is utterly life-affirming.

This is his first novel, and he has taken to the format very confidently, weaving an exciting and engrossing story about infighting between Russian and Ukrainian gangsters across London. It veers more towards the light-hearted end of the crime genre, but does not allow that to compromise the plot. His protagonist, Gary Nelson, is charming in his lack of heroic pretension (although that does not prevent him displaying considerable courage and integrity throughout), and it is all too plausible that he should fall so heavily for the alluringly beautiful woman whom he sees on his commuter train each morning.

This was a thoroughly entertaining novel, and I am looking forward to the next in the series.

nov. 4, 2022, 7:47 am

S'ha suprimit aquest usuari en ser considerat brossa.

nov. 11, 2022, 5:40 am

109. Babel by R. F. Kuang.

I am not sure where to start with this novel, which I found utterly enthralling. Every now and again one comes across a novel which is so different to anything one has read before, and which strikes such a powerful chord, that one is actually pulled up short by it. This was definitely such a book for me. What somehow makes it even more marvellous was that I came upon it largely by chance. I had been making my customary post payday bookhaul at Daunt Books in Marylebone, and was queuing to pay when I heard the woman at the counter discussing it with another customer. I hadn’t heard of it, or noticed the impressive pile of copies at the counter, but she made it sound so enticing that, weak willed as I always am at the suggestion of a new book, I succumbed and quickly added it to my stash. A serendipitous and rewarding decision.

In terms of genre, it is, I suppose, a work of fantasy or mild science fiction, offering an alternative version of nineteenth century history. In the world of this book, much of the British Empire has been established and maintained through the manipulation of the magical properties of silver, which when engraved with certain words, releases amazing powers. The words to be engraved are etymologically linked matched pairs of words from current English and their philological cognates ... What! Is that not clear enough?

Well it might prove to be too longwinded for me to try to explain her, and I am, a bit of a philology nerd myself. R F Kuang, however, explains it all admirably, and while I am not overly fond of fantasy works, among which I suppose this marvellous novel might most closely be grouped, I found no trouble at all in suspending any shred of disbelief.

The book has so much to offer. Along with some finely drawn characters, it gives the reader a fascinating insight into the growth and development of language, with a series of painless lessons into social and imperial history of the nineteenth century.

Robin Swift, as the principal protagonist comes to be known, is born in Canton in the 1820s and is orphaned at the age of ten when his impoverished mother succumbs to plague. Robin had never known who his father was, but discovers that he has been supported by an English professor, who takes hm on as a ward, moving him to England and supporting him throughout a private education designed to secure him a place at Oxford University. All that his guardian asks is that Robin work as hard as he can to learn the various languages prescribed by the professor. Robin duly secures a place at the prestigious University College, Oxford, and a scholarship attend the world-renowned Royal Institute of Translation. The Institute, known as Babel, is the heart of the silver production that has powered Britain’s Industrial Revolution and supported the growth of the Empire’.

At the Institute, Robin befriends three other students who have also shown exceptional skill at the acquisition of other languages, and they form a close-knit group. This all sounds fairly jolly so far, but there are darker undercurrents in play. Robin’s clear Chinese heritage has occasionally resulted in him being marked out for instances of discrimination and racial slurs. Even so, his experience has not been as bad as that of two of the other member s of the group, Ramy and Victoire. Ramy is from India while Victoire is from Haiti, and they are both subjected to clear racism of the vilest nature, while Victoire also has to combat the rampant gender discrimination of the time, which did not look kindly at women seeking an academic career. The fourth member of the group is Letty, daughter of an English admiral who has had to bear the weight of his disappointment that she had not been born male.

Their work revolves around mastering the art of translation. This is not merely the rendering of classic works of literature into English, but discovering closely related pairs of words between two languages that might be used to imbue the silver bars with new properties that could be harnessed in ever new ways.

R F Kuang is clearly a very deft linguist herself, and has studied the spread of languages, and their historical growth. I too spent much of my own time as a student and aspiring academic delving into the philology and spread of the Indo-European languages (especially the North Germanic ones), and finding wonder in the semantic shift that such studies revealed. I was pleased to see that one of Kuang’s characters recounted the history of the word ‘Knight’ that I remember expounding to my students. Yet, despite her mastery of difficult subjects, she applies it with a light touch, and the book does not become mired in the technicalities of linguistics which (apparently) some people occasionally find challenging.

The story is well plotted, and conveys a vivid sense of nineteenth century England, and the cloistered atmosphere of academia. The book does not shy away from uncomfortable subjects. Robin comes to see his hitherto privileged life since the death of his mother in different terms, and there are powerful arguments highlighting the horrors of the slavery, and also some of the hypocrisy that followed its formal abolition, where the practice remained but hidden with more comfortable nomenclature. It also casts a disdainful perspective on the horrors of British imperialism. Unfortunately, it is difficult to construct any cogent defence.

My one tiny cavil about the book is a typological one – there are frequent enlightening footnotes, but the asterisks that indicate them are, to my aging eyes, often scarcely noticeable.

nov. 11, 2022, 3:03 pm

>139 Eyejaybee: sounds intriguing, Ian. Rather similar to Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials in creating a fantasy parallel to the real world with clear similarities and magical differences.

nov. 21, 2022, 11:40 am

110. Desert Star by Michael Connelly.

Hieronymus ‘Harry’ Bosch has spent most of his life investigating crime in Los Angeles, both as a detective for LAP and thereafter in a private capacity. Now nearing, or maybe slightly beyond, the age of seventy, he may be a bit slower physically, but his determination for justice remains undimmed. Towards the end of the Dark Hours, the previous novel in this sequence, Bosch had planned to go into partnership as private investigators with his considerably younger sometime colleague, Detective Renee Ballard, who had become so disaffected with the many failings of LAPD. At the end of that novel, however, she had been enticed to remain on the force, and had been installed as head of a new cold case unit, which has been established by the department at the behest of a prominent local politician.

In this capacity, Ballard has recruited Bosch to help out as a volunteer, along with a handful of colleagues, most of whom are also retired from careers in different aspects of law enforcement. Ballard has identified one case as a priority as it involves the murder several years before of the sister of the politician who ad campaigned for the establishment of the Unit. Bosch is assigned various tasks, but is also keen to work on another case that Ballard has drawn from the archives. This was the murder of a whole family which Bosch had investigated while still on the force. When he learns that new DNA evidence may have been uncovered, he is keen to pursue the lead,

Connelly lets the narrative unfold with his customary dexterity. Before becoming a novelist he worked as a journalist, covering the crime beat. The skills he acquired in that career are evident in his novels, where the story is offered with great clarity and directness. I try to encourage members of my own team, which among other things deals with ministerial correspondence to follow the drafter’s ABC; accuracy, brevity and clarity, and it is clear that Connelly abides by the same rule.

Bosch is a well-crafted character. He has now featured in nearly thirty novels, during which he has aged in real time, which lends great verisimilitude to the stories. His motto is that, ‘Everyone counts, or nobody counts’, and this drives his keenness to investigate every crime that he can. Ballard is hewn from similar stock, and has clearly been influenced by Bosch during their few encounters in previous cases.

This is another very sound, and very welcome, addition to the Bosch canon.

nov. 21, 2022, 11:56 am

111. Standing by the Wall by Mick Herron.

Mick Herron has created a wonderful world in which various MI5 officers who have run aground in their career end up in the Service equivalent of internal exile, banished to work in Slough House. Because of the name of their base, those unfortunates to whom that fate befalls are known as the Service’s ‘Slow horses’, and as if their humiliation were not punishment enough, they have to work for the monstrous Jackson Lamb – think of Reginald Hill’s Superintendent Dalziel but without all the tenderness and effeteness!

In this novella, standing slightly aside from the main sequence of the novels, Jackson lamb has received a Christmas Card made up of a photograph from the past, which pricks his curiosity, and prompts him to stir some of the Slow Horses into work.

I was a little disappointed with this novella, which seemed unusually insubstantial. Herron has produced additional novellas before which have yielded valuable additional insight into the machinations behind the scenes at Slough House. It was difficult to see how this added to the oeuvre.

nov. 23, 2022, 10:30 am

112. One of Our Ministers is Missing by Alan Johnson.

Since his retirement from front line politics, Alan Johnson has gone a considerable way towards acquiring ‘national treasure’ status, partially as a consequence of his memoirs, published in three volumes, which show a great triumph over considerable early adversity, and from his pragmatic and open approach, and his self-deprecating sense of humour.

This is his second novel and sees the return of Assistant deputy Commissioner Louise Mangan, who had featured in his previous crime story, The Late Train to Gypsy Hill. She is called upon to liaise with Greek counterparts after Lord Bellingham, wealthy property developer but also junior Foreign Office Minister, goes missing on the island of Crete, where he owns a property. The story unfolds mainly on Crete, although Louise is also engaged in supervising security for the visit of a prominent Turkish writer who has been very vocal in his opposition to, and criticism of, the government of Erdogan.

Johnson’s own ministerial career included a brief stint as home Secretary, and he clearly draws on insights culled from those days in his portrayal of the working relationships (and especially the jealousies and resentments) between officers in the top echelons of the metropolitan Police Service.

This is a light-hearted yet still plausible novel, and highly entertaining.

des. 2, 2022, 9:48 am

113. Cause of Death by Patricia Cornwell.

Kay Scarpetta returns for her seventh outing, and finds herself called out on New Year’s Eve to a naval base where the body of a diver has been found deep in a harbour used as a parking lot for old naval vessels awaiting decommissioning. She has been covering for one of her regional deputies who has returned to their native Britain following the death of their mother. Because of the nature of the site, naval officers are officiating at the locus, and she finds the local police decidedly unhelpful and obstructive.

It turns out that she knows the dead person, as they had been a journalist and had frequently dealt with her office. While many of her relations with the media had been difficult, with a tendency to misrepresent her and her work, this journalist had been reliable and conscientious in his reporting.

The naval officers are keen to have the death signed off as an unfortunate drowning, but Dr Scarpetta is not convinced. Her autopsy reveals that he had in fact been murdered, and that cyanide had been introduced into his air supply. This revelation is not welcomed, and she finds herself subjected to personal and official attacks. As usual, she finds herself working closely with her exceptionally irritating niece Lucy, the jaded senior Homicide Detective, Pete Marino, and leading FBI profiler Benton Wesley. Readers of the previous books in this series will be aware of the complications that dealing with all of them can entail. Oh, and there is a local cult-driven commune that has been making ever more threatening pronouncements, and they seem to be involved somehow in the journalists’ death.

While the storyline is fairly gripping, I think that Patricia Cornwell might well have jumped her personal shark here, taking what had been a robust, engaging and essentially plausible series and leading it into more fanciful, and deeply unbelievable waters. It was still an entertaining novel, but vastly removed from the excellent books with which the series opened.

des. 2, 2022, 10:00 am

114. Murder on the Christmas Express by Alexandra Benedict.

I don’t propose to say much about this book, having already wasted more than enough valuable time reading it.

Basically, no fatuous cliché was knowingly overlooked, and I don’t know why I bothered with it. I wish Alexandra Benedict hadn’t bothered with it either.

des. 5, 2022, 10:15 am

115. The Snake Tattoo by Linda Barnes.

The 1990s was a great period for American crime fiction, with the emergence of a band of strong, independent and resourceful female private investigators such as Sarah Paretsky’s V I Warshawski, and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone. Another member of that group, although one who seemed to draw less recognition than her counterparts, was Carlotta Carlyle, the tall, flame-headed, guitar playing protagonist of an entertaining series of novels by Linda Barnes.

Based in Boston, Carlotta is, like many of her fictional PIs, a former cop. One of the pitfalls of the private sector is that the work doesn’t always flow smoothly, so to help make ends meet, Carlotta can often be found on the night shift driving a cab, which also gives her access to unconventional sources of information. She has also maintained friendships with several of her former colleagues on the local force, although one of the reasons she had quit was the all too prevalent spectre of corruption, and the influence of local politics.

After a relatively lean period, she suddenly finds herself with two cases to follow. One is brought to her by a former colleague who has been suspended following allegations tat he beat up a suspect arrested after an altercation in a bar. The other is to find a teenaged girl who seems to have run away from home and her exclusive private school.

The stories are related in the first person by Carlotta, and she has an engaging style. The action moves at a brisk pace, peppered with Carlotta’s wry observations on the city around her and the shady characters whom she encounters. The plots are well constructed, and watertight. There are no frills, just clear, concise storytelling.

des. 5, 2022, 10:20 am

116. 1979 by Val McDermid.

Val McDermid has been one of our most prolific crime novelists, and has now published more than forty books, including four series focusing on different protagonists. However, she has not allowed the sheer volume of her output to compromise its quality, and she is known for her watertight plots, finely drawn characters, and empathetic lead protagonists.

This novel marks the start of a new series, following Alison (“Allie”) Burns, a young reporter on a Glasgow-based newspaper. McDermid’s career also featured a period as a crime reporter, and her insights into the chauvinistic attitudes proliferating throughout the press corps in the late 1970s emerges very clearly. As the novel opens, Allie is on a train travelling back to Glasgow after her visit home for Christmas. She notices that a fellow passenger is Danny Sullivan, one of her colleagues from the paper. Having previously only had a nodding acquaintance, following an unusual incident on the journey, they become friends, and end up working together on a couple of major stories: one arising out of an investigation that Danny had been following in his own time for months, and the other from a lead and suspicion that Allie had allowed to ferment for a while.

I was just sixteen back in 1979, but remember it very clearly. Now it is most frequently thought of as following the ‘winter of discontent’ when the government, led by Jim Callaghan, was beset with strikes across much of the country, unemployment started to rise, and the economy was still fragile after the bailouts from the IMF. McDermid captures the feel of the time admirably, with casual references to the popular hits of the time, and the stilted fare available on television (just three channels back then, of course).

One of the big stories brewing at that time was the referendum in Scotland over the possibility of devolution. The Scottish National Party at that time had nine MPs in Westminster. While this is a mere fraction of their current parliamentary presence, at that time it marked the peak of their success, and was enough of a cabal to prove significant when the party withdrew its support for Callaghan’s government after the result of the referendum was announced.

The two principal journalistic stories develop powerfully as the novel progresses, and Allie in particular emerges as a very empathetic character I won’t say much more for fear of inadvertent spoilers, but I was very impressed with the book as a whole, and am looking forward to the next episodes in the series.

des. 5, 2022, 10:22 am


des. 7, 2022, 5:22 am

117. At Lady Molly's by Anthony Powell.

In this, the fourth volume of A Dance to the Music of Time, Powell comes close to his most magnificent best!

Taken at the most basic level the novel really only recounts three or four set piece occasions (drinks at an aristocratic house in Kensington, a weekend spent in a country cottage within a landed estate, a Sunday lunch in a gentlemen's club and a drinks party to celebrate an engagement), but from such relatively modest material Powell weaves a glorious tapestry of social observation, wry humour and political commentary.

I have lost count of the number of times that I have read this novel (and, indeed, the whole sequence) yet still I found new facets to wonder at. As ever, though, one learns next to nothing about the detail of the narrator's life. At one point, Nick Jenkins remarks, "I was then at that stage of life when one has published a couple of novels ..." The last that we had heard of this aspect of his life was in the preceding volume The Acceptance World when he professed himself keen to try his hand at writing, but unsure of the best material with which to work.

Jenkins's bête-noire, the loathsome yet beguiling Kenneth Widmerpool, is absent for the greater part of this novel but he does eventually make his customary mark, bursting upon the haut monde scene with the announcement of his engagement to fast-living socialite, the Honourable Mildred Blaides. New territory for our Kenneth, and the reader is intrigued to know how he will take to the domestic lifestyle. Meanwhile Nick Jenkins has his own amatory thunderbolt moment.

While I have always enjoyed the earlier books, I recall that on my first reading of the sequence as a whole, it was with this volume that it all suddenly came alive for me. Nick Jenkins’s observations of the world seem particularly wry, and other characters have suddenly started taking more notice of him.

des. 7, 2022, 5:53 am

118. Rush of Blood by Mark Billingham.

Throughout this novel I had been thinking that it is the only one of what now must be around twenty written by Mark Billingham that I have read that doesn’t feature Detective inspector Tom Thorne. However, he did then make a very fleeting and peripheral appearance.

The book is, however, significantly different from most of Billingham’s other works, although it displays their the high quality and gripping nature. The story starts in Florida, with three British couples meeting at a resort while on their respective holidays. Finding that thay all liuve relatively close to each other in the hinterland of south London, they form a group and find themselves spending much of the vacation together. They have a great time, with the only slight fly in the ointment being the disappearance on their last day of a young girl who had been staying near the resort, and whom they had encountered briefly during their stay. Search parties are formed but no trace of her has been found by the time the six Brits depart,

Back in home and away from the idyllic resort lifestyle, the daily routine seems a little dull, and one couple decides to invite the other four around for dinner, to recapture some of the holiday glow. They have a pleasant enough evening, until conversation turns to the missing girl, which understandably casts a pall over the evening. Still, they agree to meet up again soon. And then another girl goes missing back in Britain.

As always, Billingham builds the tension deftly, and it soon becomes evident that each of the six people has something to hide, and that none of them had been entirely honest in the stories they offered to the Florida Police when the first girl had gone missing. The narrative switches focus between each of the six of them, all of whom have areas of their life that they wish to keep hidden from the wider world, and some even from their partners. The denouement is carefully managed, and Billingham keeps the suspense tight right up to the closing pages.

des. 8, 2022, 12:34 pm

119. Death and the Oxford Box by veronica Stallwood.

As a lifelong habitué of crime fiction I have generally found myself coming down more frequently on the gritty, ‘noir’ side of the genre rather than the so-called ‘cosy’ aspect. As with any such preference, there are of course many exceptions, and this book is certainly one of them. Kate Ivory, Veronica Stallwood’s charming protagonist, is a delightful character, and I look forward to further encounters as I progress through this series.

Indeed, while the basic scenario against which the crimes are perpetrated was not entirely plausible. I did find Kate herself a very believable character. An Oxford setting always helps, too, and in this case there is a light sprinkling of university life that accorded with my own memories.

The plot is fairly involved, and perhaps not readily susceptible to synopsis, so I won’t venture to say much more about it. The writing style, however, is as engaging as the character of Kate. I am just surprised that these novels are not more widely known.

des. 15, 2022, 9:23 am

120. The Venetian Legacy by Philip Gwynne Jones.

The fifth book in this charming and entertaining series opens with Nathan Sutherland, Honorary British Consul in Venice, preparing for his wedding to long time partner, art restorer Federica Ravagnan. The nuptials proceed smoothly, but Nathan spots his new mother-in-law talking to a stranger, and appearing rather shaken.

It turns out that the stranger is a solicitor, and that he is now is now working in the practice that had been run by his father in partnership with Federica’s estranged, and now dead, father. He had been entrusted to pass a letter on to Federica on the occasion of her wedding. The letter advises her that she has inherited her father’s former cottage on the island of Pellestrina. Federica remembers happy childhood holidays there, visiting her grandparents, but had assumed that the cottage had been disposed of by her father following his estrangement from the family.

Coming unexpectedly into this legacy, Federica and Nathan decide to go to the cottage for a brief honeymoon, although this also entails taking Gramsci, Nathan’s grumpy, almost dysfunctional cat with them. It is Gramsci who inadvertently uncovers the first mystery in the cottage, when he finds and harries a loose floorboard in the cottage’s bedroom. Nathan investigates further and finds a gun, and a package of photographs. Disconcerted, he takes the weapon to the local office of the carabinieri, where he is questioned about the gun’s history. Shortly afterwards, the solicitor who had informed them of Federica’s legacy is found murdered.

Philip Gwynne Jones weaves a very deft plot involving historic crimes with contemporary consequences. Nathan and Federica are inadvertently embroiled in a dangerous situation. Members of long-established rival gangs clearly believe that Federica and Nathan are holding something valuable that they are searching for.

Venice and its close hinterland always loom large in Jones’s books, and he strews a wealth of insights into the city’s history and topography, while never compromising the integrity of his plots. As a cat lover myself, I also enjoy the depiction of the frightful Gramsci, who is fast becoming my favourite fictional cat.

des. 21, 2022, 7:46 am

121. Oxford Exit by Veronica Stallwood.

As I grow older, I find that an increasingly large proportion of my reading matter seems to be crime fiction, and I am always eagerly looking out for engaging new protagonists. Veronica Stallwood certainly seems to have delivered the goods in Kate Ivory (with a hint of metafiction, as the character is herself a novelist). The novels are set in Oxford, too, which is always a boon as far as I am concerned. That makes me all the more surprised that I hadn’t read these books, set and published in the 1990s, earlier.

I first encountered Kate Ivory in Death and the Oxford Box, in which her participation in a scheme to help a friend recover some property from her estranged husband led to her involvement in the investigation of a brutal murder. Kate emerged from that with flying colours, and I was glad to take up with her again. In this book, she has been asked by her rather oleaginous former semi-boyfriend (the relationship is absolutely ripe for inclusion in what Facebook used to cover with, ‘It’s complicated’) to help investigate the apparent theft of valuable books from the libraries of various colleges and other august institutions around Oxford. As she sets about her explorations, she learns that an assistant employed at one of the libraries involved had been killed, with her unsolved murder deemed by one and all to have been the dreadful but random act of a lunatic. As Kate’s investigations into the book disappearances continue, she comes to suspect that the murder may be connected. This is a novel very much of its time, and the details that the writer and Kate provide about the databases being used now seem quaintly archaic. Fortunately, they do not intrude to any extent that detracts from the joy of the novel.

Stallwood writes with an enjoyably light touch, and as a character Kate is a very likeable (although a large proportion of the people whom she encounters throughout the book find it surprisingly easy to dislike her). For once in a novel set so determinedly in Oxford, academic life is largely excluded, and this is a welcome approach. From the very nature of her investigation, Kate cannot avoid some involvement with the gown, but she is very much on the side of the town.

To offer much more in the way of synopsis would be to risk strewing inadvertent spoilers, which I am reluctant to do. The plot is well devised, and advances through the medium of a journal written by the criminal. This is a familiar literary device, and can sometimes seem too contrived, but in this instance is given the twist of showing different literary styles, as its writer is attending a creative writing course, and adapts their style to reflect the steer of the latest tutorial.

des. 28, 2022, 10:09 am

122. The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh.

I first read this striking novel around twenty years ago, shortly after the paperback edition was first released. I decided to reread it because Louise Welsh has now published a further novel featuring the protagonist Rilke. Despite having read more than two thousand books since I first finished it, some scenes remained very clear in my mind, although the resolution of the plot had not.

Rilke is a charismatic figure, being notably tall and thin, and preferring dark faux-Goth suits. He is lead auctioneer, and Assistant Manager, of one of the coming auction houses in Glasgow, and has an extensive network of questionable contacts, some of whom have a flexible relationship with the law. Rilke is approached by the elderly sister of a recently deceased wealthy businessman. She wants Rilke to clear her brother’s house, and dispose of the contents, as quickly as possible. Knowing that his auction house is in urgent need of money, Rilke agrees to a very short timetable for the clearance, and starts reviewing the contents. In the businessman’s study, hidden away in the converted attic of the house, Rilke comes across a valuable collection of pornographic literature, which he recognises as of considerable value to collectors of the genre. However, he also finds a collection of photographs which clearly feature the businessman himself in what appears to be a scene in which a young woman has been tortured and probably killed. Rilke is therefore left in a quandary – should he proceed with the sale and ignore the photos, or report them to the police and lose the profitable sale. Rilke actually opts for a third choice, and decides to use his network of dubious contacts to try to investigate for himself, aware that the clock is ticking towards the deadline for clearance that he agreed with the dead man’s sister.

This takes the reader on an intriguing journey through the Glasgow underworld, as Rilke seeks to find out whether the horrible photographs are genuine, and if so, who might have been responsible for them. It turns out, however, that other people have picked up on the reports of the death of the businessman, and are conducting their own search for the pictures that Rilke has removed, which they consider as valuable criminal assets.

Twenty years on this novel remained sharp and well-constructed. I had forgotten how well written it was (especially given that it was Welsh’s debut novel), strewn with clever literary allusions that elevate the book from its squalid subject matter. I am, therefore, looking forward to the new book, although with a slight trepidation about how much more sordid some of the context might prove to be.

des. 30, 2022, 10:09 am

123. Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens.

I was given this book as a sort of joke Christmas present by someone who has always been amused by my passion for crime fiction, whether of the traditional, vintage or ‘cosy variety, or of the more hard-bitten realistic genre. I was, however, immediately smitten by it.

Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong, respectively the President and Secretary of the Secret Detective Agency, are pupils in the third form (what might now be termed Year 9) at Deepdean School in 1934. Daisy is one of the darlings of the school: beautiful, wealthy and both the daughter and niece of powerful establishment figures, her life has been one of ease and entitlement. Hazel is from Hong Kong, and has been sent to such a prestigious school as a consequence of her father’s desire to outdo one of his business rivals in the lavish provision he can offer his daughter.

As an Asian pupil, Hazel is exposed to racism, both overt and covert, from pupils and teachers, but this diminishes when she is accepted as a close confidante of Daisy. Having become close friends, and sharing each other’s trove of ‘golden age’ crime fiction, they become obsessed with the idea that they might be good at solving crimes, and form their agency. As the novel opens, their only investigation so far has been into the case of Lavinia’s missing tie. As this proved to have ben misplaced rather than stolen, their crime-fighting experience is limited, although that is about to change.

Having forgotten her pullover, Hazel returns to the school gym one evening, just before dinner and finds the body of one of the teachers. Shocked, and unsure what to do, she rushes to find Daisy, who she is sure will know how to deal with the issue. By the time they return to the gym, just a few minutes later, the body has gone. This sets the scene for the girls’ adventure that follows.

I found the story delightful, and thoroughly enjoyed the various adventures that the girls go through before the denouement. The plot moves forward briskly, and the relationship between Hazel (who narrates proceedings) and the more bossy Daisy is excellently captured.

I know that some readers have been concerned about the author’s treatment of some of the attitudes in the book, and how a young adult readership (at which the books clearly aimed) might respond. She clearly decries the racism, which I fear would have been endemic and long-established in most levels of British society in the 1930s. She gives Hazel various speeches in which she makes clear how abhorrent the attitudes were, and how hurtful for those who were the object of such views. I am confident that any sensitive reader, of any age, would clearly see how we should respond to them. I a certainly keen to move on to the next in the series, and have no qualms about sharing the book with my young niece and goddaughter.