Eyejaybee is willing to give it a go.

Discussão100 Books in 2013 Challenge

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Eyejaybee is willing to give it a go.

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Dez 22, 2012, 7:26 am

Hello everybody. Best wishes for Christmas and the New Year.

I was fortunate enough to have a very good reading year during 2012 (160 books so far), largely because my job changed slightly and I found myself having much more reading time as I commuted to and from the office. I am looking forward to reading some more great books during 2013, and also to drawing inspiration from all your lists.

Best wishes,


Editado: Dez 22, 2012, 7:35 am

Dez 22, 2012, 10:01 pm

Hi James, happy reading in 2013!

Dez 23, 2012, 3:53 pm

Thanks, Judy. And the same to you :)

Dez 23, 2012, 10:07 pm

Best wishes for your challenge!

Be careful though...your balloon is awfully close to those electric wires... ;)

Jan 1, 2013, 3:19 am

Oh, commuting is the best for getting reading done. Some days I particularly appreciate traffic snarls, so. Can squeeze in a few more pages. :) looking forward to following along with your reading this year!

Jan 1, 2013, 7:04 am

Hi Tania.

I have lost count of the number of times I have missed my stop because i have been too engrossed!

Best wishes for 2013! :)

Jan 1, 2013, 5:00 pm

Off the Mark!

1. Cambridge Blue by Alison Bruce.

This is the first novel in a series featuring the slightly autistic Detective Constable Gary Goodhew, newly appointed to Cambridge CID. Goodhew is keen, very intelligent and capable of inspired insight, but he is also incapable of resisting his sudden tangential urges, which causes untold angst to Detective Inspector Marks, his querulous boss.
The depiction of Cambridge is very accurate but, interestingly, does not revolve around the colleges or other more "touristy" aspects of the city. The plot was engaging though stretched credibility at time. However, all in all I enjoyed this book and look forward to reading the other in the sequence.

Jan 3, 2013, 2:20 pm

2. Partners in Crime by Stuart MacBride.

Mmm ... I really worry that MacBride has lost his way. I thought that the early novels featuring the hapless Detective Sergeant Logan MacRae and the marvellous foul-mouthed lesbian DI Roberta Steel were excellent, offering a gleeful combination of gritty crime and hilarious. Sadly the stories in this collection are a disappointment. The plots are weak (beyond even the most generous bounds of plausibility) and the characters were very subdued.
But apart from that ...

Jan 3, 2013, 2:37 pm

3. The Hundred-Year-Old Man who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson.

This book stands as a clear example of why one should not leap to conclusions - indeed, why one should not judge a book by its cover. I really only started to read this book because i was given it as a Christmas present, and did not have any great expectations about it. I could not have been more wrong!
This novel is excellent - engaging, entertaining and downright enjoyable. It starts with the Hundred-Year-Old Man of the title escaping from the retirement home in which he had been living in order to avoid the big party scheduled for later that afternoon to celebrate his attainment of his century.. The novel recounts the adventures that befall him and the group of unusual characters with whom he becomes entangled.
Those adventures are very humorous in their own right, but interspersed between these events are episodes from his long and eventful life during which he met a wide selection of world leaders in increasingly bizarre and laughable circumstances.
My only cavil was that the end was perhaps drawn out a little too much, but I doubt if I will read a funnier book throughout the rest of the year.

Jan 3, 2013, 5:34 pm

I keep seeing wonderful things about The Hundred-Year-Old-Man... I guess I'll finally have to add it to my list.

Jan 3, 2013, 6:24 pm

Eyejaybee I agree with your review of the Hundred Year Old Man, hope I am that with it at 100, however given my rate of mental struggle at 53 it isn't looking likely !

Jan 3, 2013, 7:41 pm

I have that book on my reader. I have also heard lots of good stuff about it. Another one I really want to read soon.

Jan 3, 2013, 8:23 pm

I've got The One Hundred Year Old Man out from the library, and was warned that there was a queue behind me. :) It'll be next to be read.

Jan 4, 2013, 8:04 am

i really enjoyed it and experienced that additional pleasure because m,y expectations had really been rather low. it is one of those books that seems totally different to anything I have read before.

Jan 4, 2013, 8:46 am

4. The Power-House by John Buchan

Not among Buchan's finest work but still a very enjoyable example of his early "shockers". This book is also notable for introducing Edward (later Sir Edward) Leithen, perhaps the closest of Buchan's characters to a self portrait.
The story opens in 1913 with Charles Pitt-Heron,one of Leithen's acquaintances, disappearing from London without notice but apparently in great terror for his life.
Another mutual acquaintance, Tommy Doloraine, goes off after Pitt-heron intent upon finding him and returning him to London society. Left in London Leithen, who splits his time between a flourishing career at the Bar and the Houses of parliament where he is a newly-returned MP, starts looking into Pitt-Heron's affairs calling upon his wide network of contacts. By dint of coincidence (never very far away throughout Buchan's canon) he comes into contact with Andrew Lumley, a reclusive millionaire philanthropist who has recently had dealings of a covert nature with Pitt-Heron. Over what Leithen describes as "a light dinner" (before going on to describe the four sumptuous courses!) Lumley expounds his belief in the fragility of civilisation, citing what was to be come one of the most-quoted of Buchan's line: "You think that a wall as solid as the earth separates civilisation from barbarism. I tell you the division is a thread, a sheet of glass." That fragility and potential vulnerability of the civilised world became a recurrent theme throughout his later works.
Predicatbly, Lumley emerges as the leading figure in a network bent upon wreakling just that collapse of civilisation and a return to virtual barbarism, and only Leithen is able to stand in his way.
This might all sound rather too whimsical, and certainly there is none of the gritty realism to which we have become accustomed today. however, leithen is a finely-drawn character and a man on great resource, and he sets himself to oppose Lumley and to do what he can to rescue his friend Pitt-Heron.
The novel is prophetic in many ways - not least in identifying the future financial power of the then slumbering giant that was China - and is written with Buchan's customary beautiful prose.

Jan 5, 2013, 3:08 pm

5. The Sabre Squadron by Simon Raven.

In this third volume of the "Alms for Oblivion" sequence Raven manages to mix his customary rumbustiousness with more sensitive issues such as Germans coming to terms with how to interact with the members of the occupying Allied armies and confronting guilt over the Holocaust.
Fragile mathematician Daniel Mond, earmarked for a Fellowship at Cambridge's Lancaster College, is working in the University Library at Gottingen where he is grappling with the matrical studies of the late Professor Dortmund. Dortmund's papers have only become accessible following the end of the war and were, anyway, composed in a tightly formed encryption for which there is no key. Despite everyone with whom he has any contact advsisng him to desist, Mond stubbornly applies himself to the dissection of the Dortmund papers and gradually makes headway, uncovering a wholly new branch of maths with potential implications for the understanding (and possibly control) of the movements of tiny particles under duress (with the unspoken application to atomic weaponry lurking behind every page).
He briefly becomes friendly with an American student, Earle Restarick, who appears to be working on aspects of modern history, though is never seen to be doing any work. For a historian Restarick seems to take an uncanny interest in Mond's progress, while constantly advising him to leave off. When these attempts to persuade Mond fail, Restarick briefly disappears, ostensibly visiting colleagues elsewhere in occupied Germany, and when he returns to Gottingen he is notably distant towards Mond.
Meanwhile Mond has fallen in with some of the British soldiers based at the local barracks, including the occasionally petulant Captain Fielding Gray, with whom he becomes very friendly.
Raven's customary prose is evident throughout, and this rather odd story readily holds the reader's interest.

Jan 5, 2013, 6:03 pm

At this rate you'll be onto your second 125 by June!

Jan 6, 2013, 7:47 am

I have just been making the most of still being on leave. Sadly I am back in the office tomorrow so reading time will almost evaporate!

Jan 7, 2013, 4:44 pm

6. The Siren by Alison Bruce.

Another sound Cambridge-based crime story featuring DC Gary Goodhew, who seems to be even more at odds with most of his colleagues than was the case in Bruce's previous novel, "Cambridge Blue".
It starts with Kimberly Guyver hearing an item on the news about the recovery of a body in a car that had crashed off a coastal road in Spain. As soon as the identity of the corpse is given she is terrified and urgently contacts her best friend, Rachel, asking her to look after her young son Riley while she starts to make arrangements to move as quickly, and as far away, as possible.
However, her friend's house is burned down within a few hours, and Riley disappears. By chance, DC Goodhew is in the proximity of the burning house and arrives on the scene where he meets Kimberly, distraught about the fate of Riley.
As the novel develops we find out about various episodes in Kimberly's and Rachel's pasts, and the net of suspects spreads wider.
The book is not without flaws - having spent so much of its predecessor building up the potential rift between DCs Goodhew and Kincaide, the latter seems inexplicably absent throughout most of this book. It is also very poorly edited, with frequent misspellings (particularly of definitely which appears as "definately" at least five times.
Still, I enjoyed the book and am looking forward to the next in the sequence.

Editado: Jan 8, 2013, 4:31 pm

7. Christmas is Murder by Val McDermid.

Rather insubstantial, though entertaining.
I'm not a huge fan of short stories, but even allowing for that inherent prejudice I think that the stories in this collection were rather flimsy. Certainly not up to McDermid's normal high standards.

Jan 10, 2013, 1:36 pm

8. Safe House by Chris Ewan.

This book proved to be one of those occasional examples of serendipity. I have to admit that I knew nothing about it and bought it from the kindle Store primarily because it only cost 20p! I certainly got far more than my money's worth!
apart from anything else, I was most intrigued by the setting. The action takes place on the Isle of Man (about which I know virtually nothing) and the principal protagonist is Rob Hale who nakes his living as a plumber but has aspirations as a motorcyclist and regularly competes in the island's prestigious TT Race. As the novel opens he is on his way to a remote cottage where he has been summoned to address a problem with the central heating system. While grappling with an ancient and neglected boiler he meets Lena, who seems to be staying there with two men. She seems very restless and when hale has to leave to collect some additional parts persuades him to come back with her motorbike to take her for a ride. She makes it sound almost as if she is escaping from the two men. Hale complies, and they duly set off, but an accident befalls them very quickly. When he regains consciousness Hale finds himself in hospital with not trace anywhere of Lena, and the various medics treating him deny any knowledge of her.
At this point we learn that just a few weeks previously Hale's sister Laura (hitherto unmentioned) had committed suicide by driving over a local cliff. And then Hale meets Rebecca, a private detective apparently retained by his parents to investigate Laura's death. She agrees to look into the curcumstances surrounding Hale's accident.
Ewan keeps the tension high throughout the book, frequent changing the narrative perspective. The plot is sinuous but plausible, and the characters are all perfectly credible.
Certainly a very fortuitous discovery, and I shall be looking for more of Ewan's books.

Jan 10, 2013, 6:04 pm

I haven't come across this author before. The book sounds interesting.

Jan 13, 2013, 10:49 am

9. Bright Young Things by Scarlett Thomas.

I have found all of Scarlett Thomas's recent novels thoroughly engaging and would rate "Our Tragic Universe" as one of my all-time favourites. Consequently I had very high hopes for "Bright Young Things".
My initial response was mild disappointment as she took us through introductory pen portraits of the six characters, but once the story got properly under way these were completely dispelled.
The six characters are indeed all bright young things but they are all drifting through their hitherto entirely separate lives, finding themselves notably unfulfilled. Each individually responds to an advert in the "Situations Vacant" section of the Guardian asking for "Bright Young Things" and attends an interview in Edinburgh. The next thing they know they are all on an unidentified small island, with an empty house stocked with enough food and supplies for several days, but no explanation as to how they got there or what they are expected to do.
The novel was originally published more than ten years ago, before the plethora of the "Big Brother" type of reality television programmes, so the participants are ompletely unaware of what might be happening to them or how they should react towards each other.
As usual with Thomas there are some hilarious stories and a refreshing frankness in the characters' attitudes to sex and relationships in particular and life in general. She explores the contrasting backgrounds and expectations of life of the six characters expertly and combines them adroitly to provoke some dazzling exchanges.

Jan 13, 2013, 6:14 pm

Another one to add to the wishlist.

Jan 14, 2013, 6:09 am

Bother, I shouldn't have resisted Our Tragic Universe at the library yesterday. I did like The End of Mr Y but thought it might have been a fluke. Good to hear it wasn't!

Jan 14, 2013, 4:08 pm

26 I enjoyed The End of Mr Y but was a little put off by the ending. However I felt that Our Tragic Universe was simply wonderful - in fact I re-read it within a year. The main character Meg is such an amazing figure.

Jan 14, 2013, 4:42 pm

10. England, Their England by A. G. Macdonell

What a pleasure it was to re-read this wonderful novel.

The basic premise is that Donald Cameron, having been wounded towards the end of the First World War, inherits a modest estate from his late father, but only on condition that he stays out of his native Scotland for at least eleven months of every year until he reaches the age of fifty. Forced to relocate to London, Donald undertakes a study of the English as a race, having previously been warned that their two most important national traits were the sacrosanct nature of team spirit, and a reverence for Lord Nelson.

As he wanders through English life Donald is nonplussed by the English whom he rapidly identifies as a race wracked by internal conflict - the most courteous, kind and charming people can, without any warning, occasionally (and more or less without warning) demonstrate the most heinous meanness, cruelty and spite, to be followed by the most painful remorse and generous amends.
Author MacDonell obviously loves the English as his character Donald, whom he treats to a serious of hilarious experiences. The chapter devoted to the village cricket match in which a bewildered Donald participates has been frequently anthologised elsewhere, and is to my mind the finest and funniest writing about the game ever. Even people with no love for the game can seldom fail to be won over by the glorious chapter in which he evokes a Corinthian spirit and rural idyll that possibly never existed and was certainly long gone by 1933 when McDonnell wrote this. In another chapter Donald is taken to an exclusive golf course where he meets an old comrade from back home in Buchan who has carved out a niche as the club professional, a role which he plays to the maximum adopting the role of curmudgeonly Jock, much to the delight of the posh member s who congratulate themselves on knowing how to deal with "a real character". Needless to say, Cameron, with his hickory-shafted clubs, emerges victorious against the suburbanites despite their expensive clubs and fashionable accessories, though equally true to form they all pay up without hesitation or regret.

Later in the year he goes to the annual "varsity rugby match" at Twickenham, one of the great social events of the year. As it happens the match takes place in the midst of regular London pea-souper, so no-one can see a thing. However, everyone has a jolly good time regardless, and a huge amount of wine is still consumed.

Light-heaterd throughout, there are enough unexpected twists to prevent the novel form falling into predictability, and MacDonell's prose is beautifully crafted.

Well worth reading!

Jan 14, 2013, 4:49 pm

England, Their England sounds like a lot of fun, both for me and as a ready gift for my dad.

Jan 14, 2013, 9:50 pm

Oh, it does sound very fun! The library has a copy too, apparently...

Jan 15, 2013, 2:55 pm

I remember our English teacher at school reading the chapter about the cricket match to us, probably nearly forty years ago, and it has always stuck with me.

Jan 16, 2013, 3:58 pm

11. Huntingtower by John Buchan

A classic slice of traditional adventure fiction by one of the great masters of the genre. The hero of this novel (set in the early 1920s) and its two successors is retired grocer Dickson McCunn who decides to mark his retirement from the respectable world of grocery by going for a walking holiday in Southwest Scotland, in the hope of encountering some scent of romantic ideal. As luck would have it he becomes embroiled in a Bolshevik plot to exploit a former Russian princess and divest her of her family jewels.
In his travails McCunn is helped by long-time Buchan regular, Sir Archibald Roylance (though in this particular novel he is more heavily clothed in obtuseness than usual), a would-be free-verse poet John Heritage and the hardy Gorbals Die-Hards, a street gang from the poorer reaches of Glasgow who have been given an opportunity to escape the roughness of the backstreets of Glasgow to commune with nature.
Beautifully written and exquisitely plotted, this is Buchan near his best.

Jan 18, 2013, 4:41 pm

12. The Shadow of the Serpent by David Ashton.

"Inspector McLevy of the Detective" is a striking addition to the cast of Edinburgh crime fighters, and he shares a lot of the "thrawn" nature of Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus. However, McLevy plies his investigative career in Victorian Edinburgh, a city of dark closes and alleys, particularly in Leith which is where McLevy's patch lies. A thriving port, Leith has a lurid and vibrant night life catering to the needs and desires of foreign and domestic sailors and dockers.
The novel opens with the discovery of a brutally murdered corpse - a working girl who has been felled with an axe. The lugubrious McLevy is one of the first officers on the scene, accompanied by the long-suffering Constable Mulholland, and the sheer brutality of the attacks lends then additional vigour in their determination to identify and capture the culprit.
McLevy is reminded of a similarly ghastly murder some thirty years ago , when he was a new constable accompanying his mentor, Sergeant Cameron, and we are given several flashbacks to earlier phases of McLevy's life and career. The first suspect is the victim's ponce (or "pounce" as the Leith vernacular has it), a characteristically unwholesome wretch. However, subsequent evidence suggests that the killer might actually be a gentleman.
At the same time, former Prime Minister William Gladstone is in Edinburgh making speeches for the imminent general election in which he will be standing for the Midlothian constituency. Amazingly, a solid body of circumstantial evidence starts to emerge connecting Gladstone to the crime, and McLevy is determined to challenge him.
Meanwhile Gladstone's successor as Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli (now ennobled as Lord Beaconsfield) is on the Isle of Wight, staying at Osborne House with Queen Victoria, united in their hatred of Gladstone and their fear that he might secure a return to power.
Ashton manages these various threads adeptly, and weaves an innovative and engaging story out of them, with a skilful denouement.
All in all a very welcome addition to the Edinburgh crime noir oeuvre.

Jan 21, 2013, 4:06 pm

13. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes.

This is a short but beautifully crafted novel, well worthy of the Man Booker prize that it won in 2011.
It is narrated by Tony Webster who starts by recollecting the latter years of his schooldays in the 1960s at a prestigious London independent school (presumably modelled closely on City of London School which Barnes attended). Tony had two close friends with whom he had formed a gauche clique, affecting an intellectual detachment rather beyond their mental capacity. However, a new boy, Adrian, joins the school during their time in the sixth form and is soon adopted as guru by the other boys. They all complete their school careers fairly successfully, with Adrian winning a scholarship to Cambriedge with Tony secures a place at Bristol where he reads history.
During his time at Bristol Tony meets and falls for Veronica, a girl from a socially more elevated family from Surrey. Their relationship develops slowly, and is never wholly comfortable. Indeed, it gradually peters out. Shortly afterwards Tony receives a letter from Adrian bearing the news that he and Veronica are now a couple. We are told that, deeply angry and hurt, Tony wrote a letter back, expressing his views of how Adrian and Veronica have behaved.. We learn that he went on to meet, and subsequently marry Margaret with whom he has a daughter, Susie. Tony and Margaret are now divorced but still on relatively amicable terms.
At this point the first chapter or section of the novel closes. As the second section opens, back in the current day, Tony himself receives a letter, this one from a solicitor, which sets him thinking once again about those long lost days.
It would be difficult to classify this novel - there is no fast action but it does have elements of a thriller in the way that Barnes controls how much we learn about Veronica and Adrian, and even Tony. Tautly, but elegantly written, it holds its readers attention through to the very last word.

Editado: Jan 22, 2013, 1:51 am

Nice review. I do agree with your thoughts on this novel which I read a while back, but still remember fondly!

edited to change our to your!

Jan 21, 2013, 6:06 pm

Great review, I agree !

Jan 22, 2013, 3:41 pm

@35 and 36.

Thanks, Judy, Bryan.

I found it a very moving novel and am in that slightly ambiguous state of being so pleased that I read it while simultaneously a little bereft because I have finished it.

Jan 23, 2013, 8:00 am

I really enjoyed Sense of an Ending, very cleverly put together.

Editado: Jan 28, 2013, 4:43 pm

14. 1Q84 - Books 1 and 2 by Haruki Murakami

An amazing novel. I started with some trepidation as I have occasionally struggled with Murakami in the past. However, I was completely captivated by this novel within a few pages, and certainly well before the end of the first chapter.

The novel is set in 1984 and focuses on two separate characters, both aged around thirty, living in Tokyo. We are first introduced to Aomame (pronounced Ah-oh-mah-may), a young woman travelling in the back of a luxurious taxi on an elevated freeway. As the taxi dries along Janacek's Sinfonietta comes on the radio. Although she hasn't heard the piece before Aomame suddenly realises that she knows the work, and the history of its Czech composer. Finding the traffic gridlocked she decides to leave the cab and descend to ground level by means of a conveniently-situated emergency staircase. From that point on everything in her life starts to change.

Meanwhile Tengo, Aomame's contemporary, is excited by a manuscript he has just read. Although his principal occupation is as a maths teacher in a Tokyo cramming school, his great ambition is to be a writer. As the book opens Tengo has had some minor success in having a few short stories published, and he also writes a fake astrology column for a magazine. In addition to this he also works as a screener for a literary competition, sifting through manuscripts submitted for consideration for a literary prize, similar to our Costa Prize.

One of the entries has been submitted by a seventeen year old girl and though haltingly written it sets out a fascinating story involving life in a secret sect where strange, almost supernatural events seem to happen.

Murakami devotes alternative chapters to Aomame's and Tengo's stories between Aomame and Tengo, and with each new chapter pulls the reader deeper and deeper into an utterly absorbing story, and effortlessly ensures total suspension of disbelief.

This was actually the second time I have read this novel, and though it was less than a year since the first time I still found its impact astounding.

Jan 28, 2013, 5:24 pm

I agree again ! Great review on a brilliant read, have you read book 3 yet ?

Jan 28, 2013, 5:33 pm

Yes - I loved that, too.

I will read that again in a couple of weeks or so.

Jan 28, 2013, 5:59 pm

I am still waiting to read IQ84. I have had it for a while now, but keep putting it off for some reason (perhaps because of its size). I will really have to try harder to read it soon.

Jan 28, 2013, 6:59 pm

It is certainly a massive tome. I read it in the hardback edition which wasn't always convenient when crammed into overcrowded public transport during the London rush hour.
I think it is my favourite of his books - I was utterly consumed by it, even second time around.

Jan 29, 2013, 2:12 pm

15. The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis.

A decidedly unpleasant novel - I felt that I needed a shower after reading this.
Published in 1973 this book recounts Charles Highway's attempts to sleep with an older woman, the Racherl of the title, before his twentieth birthday. Great scope there, of course, for a touching and amusing "coming of age" novel, but Amis characteristically eschews this opportunity, choosing instead to delve and revel in the seamier side. Occasionally amusing, and we all know that Amis fils can write, but all in all a rather sordid expense of spirit in a waste of shame on the reader's part at least, even if not the writer's.

Jan 29, 2013, 2:28 pm

16. Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo.

This novel tells of a day in the life of Eric Packer, a 28 year old mufti-billionaire, who decides to drive (or, rather, be driven in his colossal white stretch limousine) across New York for a haircut. Packer lives in an immense 48 room apartment which has its own cinema, swimming pool and every other conceivable accessory, and the limousine at his disposal seem almost equally well-appointed, weighed down with multiple computer screens, banquettes, televisions and the capacity for a mini operating theatre.

However, Packer has chosen the wrong day to try to cross the city - the President is in town, complete with Security Service motorcade, and a fabled dead rapper's funeral draws thousands of mourners. To compound the gridlock an anti-capitalism riot kicks off in Manhattan.

This books resounds with DeLillo's prose which somehow manages simultaneously to be both stark and almost poetic. The city itself is the real hero of the book and DeLillo's descriptions of the urban architecture are engrossing. However, too often it tapers into authorial self-indulgence, and for much of the book I simply felt that I couldn't care less about Eric Packer.

I think that I am glad I read it, but I would hesitate to recommend it to anyone else.

Jan 29, 2013, 6:02 pm

I saw that movie not so long ago. It was interesting . . . I think I might like the book better. I am a bit of a fan of DeLillo.

Jan 29, 2013, 6:23 pm

I hadn't realised until earlier this evening that there even was a film - I shall definitely look out for it.

Jan 29, 2013, 9:49 pm

I think I too am scared by the size of 1Q84, although the reviews and comments have all been highly encouraging.

Jan 30, 2013, 1:39 pm

>48 wookiebender: Here's the lovely thing about reading 'chunkers' as ebooks: you have less conception of how large they are. :D

Jan 30, 2013, 4:31 pm

@49 True, though it can also be disheartening when you're wading through a huge tome on a Kindle and the percentage guide doesn't seem to move from one hour to the next :)

Jan 30, 2013, 7:16 pm

LOL! I'm trying to not be afraid of chunksters this year - currently halfway through Anna Karenina (a re-read), and hoping to get to Les Miserables after it. (And interspersing these with a fair number of shorter books.) Hopefully 1Q84 will fit in this year somewhere, if I ever finish Les Miserables! And where did I put my copy of Moby Dick...

Jan 31, 2013, 4:41 pm

17. The Winter's tale by William Shakespeare.

It was more than thirty years since I had read this, one of the slightly less will-known of Shakespeare's plays. back then I was reading it slightly under duress as it was one of the set texts in my BA English course, and in my petulant way I took against it. That, I now appreciate, was a demonstration of poor judgement, though I take some comfort from knowing that I was not alone in this.

Perhaps fittingly, the earliest surviving text for this play in the 1623 Folio edition, though we know from other contemporary records that it was performed in 1611. The point about the Folio edition is that that collection represented the first attempt to classify Shakespeare's plays, and within the Folio this play was placed at the end of the more obviously comic plays. For, although there are some amusing scenes, and although the last two acts are much lighter in tone, there are some very dark undertones throughout the play.

Now best known for the legendary stage direction, "Exit, pursued by a bear", the play displays some very bleak themes, certainly very far removed from those that one would associate with comedy, even Shakespearean comedy!

The play opens with Leontes, King of Sicilia, expounding upon how marvellous it has been for Polixenes, King of Bohemia, to be visiting, and beseeching him to stay a bit longer. Polixenes declines, pleading responsibilities of state. Leontes then asks Hermione, his wife, to help to persuade the reluctant Polixenes. As a true gentleman, Polixenes feels unable to deny Hermione, and agrees to stay for a little longer. At some point a hitherto hidden canker the "green-eyed monster" from Othello (probably written some eight years previously) erupts and Leontes's mind is contorted with a sudden jealousy, seeing Polixenes's decision to stay as proof of an affair with Hermione. Although his courtiers (including Camillo , his lifelong counsellor) argue on her behalf, Leontes becomes increasingly convinced of his wife's infidelity. So, not too many laughs there, then!

Shakespeare tended to respect the Aristotlean unities (time, place and action) but here he really cuts loose. Not only does he allow sixteen years to pass in the blinking of an eye between acts; he also allows for a complete transformation of Leontes's character. But so what? The play works - as always, the richness of the language allows the reader completely to suspend their disbelief.

Not his finest work, but far from his weakest (which isn't exactly weak anyway!).

Jan 31, 2013, 5:47 pm

It must be about 15 - 20 years ago that I bought a set of some of Shakespeare's works to keep in the car for when I was sitting watching the kids at tennis / swimming / gymnastics / soccer / horseriding / netball / cricket / dance / etc / etc / lessons over the years. I remember enjoying The Winter's Tale a lot. I really should get those books out again one day.

Jan 31, 2013, 5:56 pm

I have been meaning to read the whole canon again for a long time, but have never managed to get around to it. Hopefully I shall manage it this year.

Fev 1, 2013, 2:15 pm

18. John Macnab by John Buchan.

This is one of my all-time favourite novels. Like so much of Buchan's prolific out put, it might nowadays seem rather archaic, romantically conjuring a Corinthian age that probably never existed, but it sespouses simple values that could stand the test of any time.

The novel opens on a summer day in the mid-1920s with Sir Edward Leithen, accomplished barrister and MP, visiting his doctor seeking a remedy for a dispiritng lethargy or ennui that has recently befallen him. His doctor is unable to identify any physical source of Leithen's discomfort and recalls the bane of the intellectual community in the Middle Ages who were plagued with tedium vitae. His suggestion for a rememdy is that Leithen should endeavour to steal a horse in a country where horse-rustling is a capital crime.

Later that evening Leithen dines in his club and meets an old friend John Palliser-Yates, an eminent banker, who has been similarly smitten. When the two of them are joined for a glass of restorative brandy by Charles, Lord Lamancha, Cabinet Minister and general grandee, who is also suffering from this disturbing listlessness, and Sir Archibald Roylance, general good chap. the four of them hit upon the idea of issuing a poacher's challenge, writing to three landowners and stating that they will bag a deer or slamon between certain dates and inviting the landowner to do their best to stop them. They will base themselves at Sir Archie's highland estate, and challenge three of his neighbours. Seeing a half-empty bottle of John Macnab whisky on a neighbouring table they choose that name as their soubriquet.

As always with John Buchan's works the prose is beautiful - clear and sonorous - and his love of the Scottish landscape comes shining through. Though i have no love of hunting, the descriptions of the stalking manoeuvres are described in close, though never overwhelming details, and the characters all appear entirely plausible.

A heart-warming paen to a better ordered time.

Fev 2, 2013, 5:15 am

I keep meaning to give Buchanan a try, although I will probably start with The Thirty Nine Steps.

Fev 2, 2013, 2:36 pm

56 Hi Claire. I hope you enjoy The 39 Steps. I loved it when I first read it when I was 12, and I have read it many times since - a classic adventure story. The book is different from all of the various film versions of it.

Fev 2, 2013, 3:23 pm

19. Cocaine Nights by J. G. Ballard.

Charlie Prentice flies in to Gibraltar en route to the Spanish resort of Estrella de Mar where, catering to the various demands of a large ex-pat British community, his brother Frank has until recently been running a lively country club. However, Charlie learns that Frank is now in prison accused of having started a fire in which five people were killed. Worse, while Charlie is anxious to protest his brother's innocence he is appalled to hear that his brother has confessed to the crime, even though most of the evidence against his is largely circumstantial. Charlie starts to look around the resort in a bid to try to understand how Frank might have come to be in this position.

Priding itself on being very different from some of the down-market Costa Brava or Costa del Sol resorts, Estrella de Mar is actually rather a sinister place for all its self-consciously arty pretensions. most strikingly, there doesn't seem to be even one person for whom the reader might feel any empathy.

Ballard takes us under the veneer of respectability covering the ex-pat community and we encounter drug dealings, infidelity and pornography, as well as dubious psychiatrists and ruthless property developers.

The novel is not without its faults - it is occasionally disjointed, and it does sometimes stretch the reader's credibility. However, Ballard maintains the tension excellently - throughout the novel the reader has no idea where the resolution might lie.

Fev 2, 2013, 10:30 pm

Oh, I loved Buchan's The Thirty Nine Steps when I was a youngster. I have a number of his other books from that time (some still unread), I wonder if John McNab is among them...

And I must try Ballard again. I've not had the best experiences with his books as yet, but I keep on thinking *one* must appeal...

Fev 3, 2013, 4:39 am

Great review, Ballard is definately an acquired taste!

Tania have you tried Empire of The Sun? Its a it different I think from his other books.

Fev 3, 2013, 5:59 am

I've read Crash which was completely revolting, and Empire of the Sun which left me pretty cold at the time, but some scenes have stuck in my memory. In a good way. :)

Fev 3, 2013, 6:16 am

I must admit that I do generally prefer to have at least one character whom I can view with even slightly positive feelings. I am glad that i read "Cocaine Nights" but it hasn't left me eagerly seeking out more of his books.

Fev 3, 2013, 6:25 am

I've got Cocaine Nights on the shelves, so chances are I'll read that one before any others of his. :) But I can't see myself tracking down any of his others, I don't care *how* many books he has on the 1001 list....

Fev 3, 2013, 6:28 am

I find it helps when they all come to a bad end :)

Fev 4, 2013, 1:01 pm

20. The Rich Pay Late by Simon Raven.

Raven's deliciously scurrilously roman fleuve continues...

This is the fourth instalment and, once again, Fielding gray (Raven's own avatar) is conspicuous by his absence. In this voume, set in the brief run up to the ill-fated British intervention in Suez in 1956, the central figure is Somerset Lloyd-James, as ambitious and penny-pinching as ever, who thinks that he is weaving an intricate web of deception that will yiled him substantial financial gains along with influence and favour. His ultimate aim is to be offered a safe Conservative constituency, and he considers that the most convenient route to realisng that is to court favour among senior Tories through his editorship of "Strix", a well-regarded politico-financial journal. Lloyd-James develops grandiose ideas about how he might negotiate the sale of the journal netting quick gains for Lord Philby, its disinterested proprietor, with a hefty share coming to himslef as a sort of finder's fee.

To make such a sale he must also find a buyer, and he considers that the rising advertising firm of Salinger and Holbrook might be just the prospective investor he needs. Somerset begins his plotting and at first all seems to go well.

Salinger and Holbrook are two very different characters - Donal Salinger is an easy going, privately wealthy fellow from the fringes of high society (and aspirations for furher elveation) who is happy to let the firm potter on, doing decent work and well-regarded; however, his business partner, Jude Holbrook, is altogether different. he is desperately ambitious and is very eager to purchase "Strix" with a view to bending it to his own atavistic devices. Holbrook's single-minded drive is all-engrossing, and his Machiavellian approach is reminiscent of that of Shakespeare's Richard III, and no-one is allowed to stand in his way.

There a re some wonderful ephemeral characters: Tom Llewellyn, a rather hyperborean academic who produces pellucid political analysis on the rare occasions that he is sober, but who can sink without warning into vitriolic drunken outbursts; Tessie Buttcok, hotel proprietor to the fallen (and occasionally not far from amatuer madam); and Jessica Salinger, former good-time girl, now desperate to become reputable and sedate.

Raven's own prose is as worthy as Llewellyn's and he marshalls his material deftly, never losing the reader's interest.

All in all, very different from Anthony Powell's delightful "Dance to the Music of Time" sequence, but no less worthy of the reader's attention.

Fev 5, 2013, 4:15 pm

21. Going Dutch: How England Plundered Holland's Glory* by Lisa Jardine.

In this entertaining study of British history from the late seventeenth century Professor Jardine analyses he steps that brought about the Glorious Revolution which saw James II deposed in favour of his daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange. While everyone remembers the failed Spanish Armada of 1588, the far larger and more effective Dutch invasion fleet that set out against Britain exactly one hundred years later tends to be overlooked in the communal shared memory of history (at least in Britain!).

However, although Britain was either openly at war with, or at least in a state of muted belligerence towards, Holland throughout much of the 1670s and 1680s, there was a flourishing exchange of cultural endeavour, and even the open correspondence about scientific and technological advances (even though many of them were of military value). This was, after all, a golden age for science, which saw the launch of the Royal Society under the patronage of Charles II.

This is territory that Professor Jardine has already richly harvested in her biographies of Wren and Hooke, and "Ingenious Pursuits", her history of the Scientific Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment. She writes with a great clarity that lets her immense enthusiasm shine through. Of course, it is not at all surprising that she should show such zest for the pursuit of knowledge - after all, her father was Professor Jacob Bronowski. However, her particular gift is the ability to convey that enthusiasm to her readers, even those without a strong scientific grounding themselves.

Fev 7, 2013, 12:57 pm

22. The Dancing Floor by John Buchan.

I found this an enjoyable novel though it is far from Buchan’s finest. Once again the principal character is Sir Edward Leithen (perhaps of all his characters the one who most closely resembled Buchan himself) who, having made his name and fortune as an accomplished barrister, became an MP, serving as Attorney General.

The novel takes the form of reminiscences from Leithen recounted over glasses of port across several evenings in his gentleman’s club, and tell of the strange adventures that befell Vernon Milburne, a young companion of his who had been orphaned at a young age and subsequently gone on to became a renowned classicist.

Every spring Milburne found himself having the same dream, full of alarming yet unspecified presentiment. In the dream he found himself sleeping in a strange large house, aware of some threatening presence that was searching for him. Each year the presence came a bit nearer, coming one room closer in the large labyrinthine house. Milburne becomes convinced that the eventual arrival in his own room of this phantom presence will unleash dramatic forces within his real life.

Life moves on, and Milburne continues to have the dream each year, and the presence continues to come one room closer each time. Even the intervention of World War One, in which both Leithen and Milburne serve with credit, each being invalided out, fails to break the sequence of dreams. However, in the meantime both Leithen and Milburne separately encounter the bizarre and exotic Kore Arabin, only child or the dissolute and rakish Shelley Arabin. Kore has inherited her father’s estate in Greece but now finds herself beset with local disputes that owe more to the darker side of Greek mythology than twentieth century life.

This is one of Buchan’s more fanciful (and, to my mind, less successful) novels, owing more than a little to J G Frasier’s then recently-published “The Golden Bough” which awoke hitherto unrecognised affinities with primordial legend across British society. Still, even if it doesn’t pass muster alongside such glorious works as “John Macnab”, this book is as beautifully written as ever, with Buchan’s trademark pellucid prose and simple yet immensely plausible characterisation. Perhaps this time, though, the sense of yearning for a better, more idealistic age leaves the reader with a slightly stronger sense of melancholy than is the case with Buchan’s more boisterous books.

Editado: Fev 10, 2013, 4:35 pm

23. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Before reading this marvellous, comprehensive yet eminently accessible biography I was lamentably ignorant about the life of Abraham Lincoln - I knew that he was tall and that he was assassinated (Oops! Sorry if that spoils the ending for anyone!), but very little else. Professor Goodwin's excellent book has certainly remedied that.

The "Team of Rivals" to which the title alludes was the four leading contenders (Lincoln, William Seward, Edward Bates and Salmon Chase) for the Republican nomination for the 1860 Presidential election. It was a great testament to Lincoln's personal charisma that he was able to secure the cooperation of the three people whom he defeated to secure that nomination, and then to induce them to serve in his Cabinet. Professor Goodwin details the prior history of all four rivals, and we see the whole panoply of class and family prosperity laid out. Perhaps the only things they shared in common were their growing hatred of slavery and their heavy baggage of personal tragedy ... and their sheer determination to improve (themsleves and their people).

She also offers a concise, yet still appalling, history of slavery within the United States. One aspect of my previous ignorance of the details of Lincoln's life was reflected in my subscription to the general canonisation of him. I was, therefore, surprised to find that while Lincoln abhorred the practice of slavery, he was less emphatic in his acknowledgement of freed slaves' rights for absolutely equal treatment. For instance, as late as 1860 he was still unconvinced of the appropriateness of African-Americans serving as jurors. Indeed, within the Team of Rivals it was William Seward who took the lead on seeking untrammelled equality of rights.

Professor Goodwin covers the Civil War with great clarity, evoking the horror of a nation torn in two but never clogging the reader's attention with unnecessary detail. Similarly, her coverage of the passage of the key legislation through the two Houses is handled sensitively, and the potentially dry material relating to political process is handled in a lively way.

I wish that more biographies managed to achieve Professor Goodwin's adept combination of scholarly depth and clarity of expression.

Fev 12, 2013, 5:40 pm

24. HHhH by Laurent Binet.

This is an intriguing book, falling somewhere between novel, biography and historical text book. Essentially it tells of the attempt by two Czech agents, who had been trained in espionage techniques in London, to assassinate leading Nazi Reinhard Heydrich. Laurent Binet painstakingly prepares his ground, taking us through Heydrich's life story set in the context of the rise of Hitler's Nazis from obscure, marginalised extremists to unassailable government, with some fascinating lessons in espionage technique thrown in along the way.

The bizarre title is actually an acronym that became popular in Germany during the late 1930s and early 1940s, standing for "Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich" (meaning "Himmler's brain is called Heydrich", a public acknowledgement that Heydrich was the brain behind much of the success ascribed to Himmler). The unconventionality doesn't stop with the title - the book has no page numbers which I found oddly disconcerting, though I can't explain why that should be so.

However, the story is told very well, and the reader's attention is engaged and then retained right from the start, despite much of the content dealing with ghastly details about the Final Solution.

Overall this is a very impressive debut.

Fev 17, 2013, 7:21 am

25. Vanished Kingdoms* by Norman Davies.

Norman Davies has hit upon an interesting idea and addresses a frequently overlooked area of European history but somehow he seemed never quite to reach out and grasp the reader's undivided attention.

His basic premise is that there have been many nations that have featured prominently, if fleetingly, at various stages of European history, but have subsequently vanished from the public perception. Among the more engaging chapters that Professor Davies offers are Tolosa (home of the Visigoths in what is now south west France), Burgundia (of which several markedly different iterations have emerged at different times), and these demonstrate his comprehensive research. However, i found that these chapters were in the minority, and the completion of this book almost became a demonstration of Zeno's Arrow principle whereby I would first have to complete half of the remaining pages, and then half of the next remainder and so forth.

Still I managed it somehow, and while I suppose I am a wiser and better-informed person as a consequence, I feel a need to read something a bit more readily rewarding.

Editado: Fev 17, 2013, 3:44 pm

26. Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas.

I remember attending a lecture several years ago on Horacian Liberty and clarity of thought, one of a series on perspectives on the Renaissance. The crux of this was the writer's responsibility to his or her readers, and the need to encapsulate even the most complex theories in clear, simple language. This marvellous novel is an evocation of that principle.

"Our Tragic Universe" represents Scarlett Thomas at her exquisite best, and the book's protagonist Meg Carpenter is simply astounding: articulate, widely-read, humorous, tender, considerate and immensely empathetic. From that introduction one might assume that Meg Carpenter, like Emma Woodhouse, has it all. However, while she can lay unchallenged claims to be handsome and clever, when the novel opens she is very far from rich, does not have a comfortable home and can find little in her life with which to sustain a happy disposition.

She lives in Dartmouth with her boyfriend Christopher, a graceless inadequate who makes no viable contribution to their relationship. He does unpaid work on a series of voluntary local heritage projects while Meg supports the pair of them by her occasional journalism and writing young adult fiction (under a male pseudonym). As the novel opens Meg is writing a review of a new pseudo-scientific work on the possibility of alternative and parallel universes.
This gives Thomas the opportunity to offer through Meg her detailed yet enthralling exegesis of a number of scientific and quasi-scientific theories. She has a remarkable facility for conveying in-depth scientific ideas in a manner that is immediately accessible; she also seems capable of for rendering aspects of everyday life memorable without distilling them into kitchen sink drama.

However, Meg doesn't let herself be dragged down by her disappointing domestic circumstances, and continually strives to rise above them, engaging with her wide circle of friends in the area. Her conversations with those friends are deliciously enlightening. I know that this may all make the novel sound very pious and dull - nothing could be further from the truth.

Over the last thirty or so years I have read nearly four thousand books, and this one is certainly in the top ten!

Fev 17, 2013, 6:05 pm

Top ten out of four thousand !!!, straight on the 'Reading Soon' pile, thanks !

Editado: Fev 17, 2013, 7:36 pm

That sounds very intriguing. I'm heading to the library website now to check if it is available.

. . . and it is!

Fev 19, 2013, 3:38 am

...the completion of this book almost became a demonstration of Zeno's Arrow principle whereby I would first have to complete half of the remaining pages, and then half of the next remainder and so forth.

Oh, that just made my day. :)

I did enjoy Scarlett Thomas' The End of Mr Y, will have to check Our Tragic Universe out too.

Fev 21, 2013, 9:31 am

27. A Question of Upbringing by Anthony Powell.

This is the opening volume in Anthony Powell's celebrated twelve novel, largely autobiographical sequence "A Dance to the Music of Time", recounted by Nicholas Jenkins, a barely disguised cipher for Powell himself.

Let me first declare an interest. I have read this sequence many times before, and have been writing (for what seems like several years) a detailed analysis of it and other "romans fleuves" (including Proust's "A la recherche du temps perdu", C. P. Snow's "Strangers and Brothers" and Simon Raven's "Alms for Oblivion"), so I am rather biased.

The first thing to say is that this is not a novel in which much actually happens, though the portrayals of characters and the observations of their interactions are acute and highly entertaining. "A Question of Upbringing" introduces us to Jenkins himself (though one of the most striking aspects of the whole sequence is how relatively little we ever seem to learn about Jenkins/Powell) along with several characters who will feature throughout the rest of the canon.

It opens in the early 1920s with Jenkins attending a school (clearly Eton, though never formally identified as such) where his closest confreres are Charles Stringham and Peter Templer, with whom Jenkins strikes up close bonds. Stringham, who comes from a wealthy but broken home, leaves the school early on in the book, going off to East Africa to spend some time with his estranged father. Jenkins and Templer remain at the school a bit longer until Templer also departs. Other notable characters to whom we are introduced in this section include Le Bas, a querulous yet also long-suffering schoolmaster with aesthetic aspirations, and Widmerpool, a slightly older pupil than Jenkins and his friends, who is notable principally for his lack of conformity.

As the story moves on we join Jenkins on a visit to Templer's home where he is introduced to Jean, Templer's sister, with whom he promptly falls in (unrequited) love and Sunny Farebrother, a seemingly down-at-heel ex-soldier who is trying to carve out a career in The City. After leaving Templer's home Jenkins spends a few weeks in France, ostensibly to learn the language, and re-encounters Widmerpool with whom he develops a stronger acquaintance than had been possible at school. Finally he moves on to Oxford where he studies history. Here we meet Sillery, a politically active don, Mark Members, a self-appointed aesthete, and Quiggin, a "professional" northerner with highy radical views. Stringham reappears, back from his Kenyan sojourn.

The summary above completely fails to do justice to the beauty of the writing (the first four pages are among the most marvellous excerpts of prose I have encountered), the acute observation of the interaction of people of different classes, and the muted humour. This novel also sets the slightly melancholic tone that underpins much of the sequence, though Powell never allows this to become oppressive. A beautiful opening to an engrossing sequence.

Editado: Fev 21, 2013, 4:20 pm

28. The Gap In The Curtain by John Buchan.

Not one of Buchan's better offerings. The basic scenario was very interesting: Sir Edward Leithen is feeling jaded as a consequence of a long and frantic Parliamentary term running alongside a particularly onerous spell at the Bar. To relax he joins a house-party in the country where he meets some intriguing fellow guests and the leading Scandinavian scientist (and recent Nobel Laureate) Professor Moe. Intrigued by Moe's sheer presence and charisma Leithen reluctantly agrees to participate in an experiment in which Moe hopes to demonstrate how, under certain circumstances, some people might be able accurately to foresee parts of the future.

The experiment requires Leithen and various other house guests to study each day's copy of The Times in great detail and to focus particularly on one aspect of it (in Leithen's case the Law Reports). Professor Moe is convinced that if the participants focus sufficiently strongly then, with the aid of a special drug that he has devised, they will be able to catch a glimpse of the corresponding entry in the newspaper a year in the future.

Alarmingly, two of Leithen's fellow guinea pigs imagine reading their own obituaries in that future edition of the paper. They and Leithen are then left to wonder whether they might be able to change that apparent destiny.

Buchan's prose is as clear and stylish as ever but I felt that this novel never quite took off. The nod towards science fiction takes Buchan into an area with which he is not comfortable, and the story fails to develop his customary level of cohesion.

Fev 22, 2013, 7:29 am

Oh, I never picked the school in A Question of Upbringing as Eton! Maybe because I'm not English...? Looking forward to the next book, better get to it soon.

Editado: Fev 22, 2013, 10:34 am

29. Thinking in Numbers by Daniel Tammet.*

This was, without let or hindrance, without qualification or hint of doubt, the most fatuous book that I have read all year.

marketed as an analysis of the ways in which mathematics affects all our lives, this is in fact a series of mindless essays based around contrived and extremely tenuous connections. Tammet seems to find huge significance in the fact that he is one of nine children in his family, there are nine months in the years whose names do not start with a J and that, until Pluto's recent demotion, there were nine planets in our solar system. Scarcely Trismegistian in its cosmological impact, and i hope you will forgive me for being entirely underwhelmed!

I was also struck by how poorly written this book was, to the extent that i was amazed that any publisher would countenance having it on their lists. Indeed, I would have been surprised to see any of these essays making it into the average school magazine. I have been trying to find something positive to say about it but am really rather stumped. ... Oh, yes, the cover was a nice shade of blue. That's really all I can manage!

Fev 22, 2013, 11:58 pm

Haha, so that one's not going on the list!

Fev 23, 2013, 12:29 am

On the plus side, your review did teach me a new word today (Trismegistian) so that's a plus. Possibly not in the book's favour, though. :)

Fev 23, 2013, 5:32 am

>80 wookiebender:. Sorry, Tania. I think I have Trismegistus on the brain at the moment. I have been doing a lot of work recently on Renaissance cosmology and the astronomical/astrological context against which Shakespeare and his contemporaries worked. It can become slightly obsessive after a while.

Fev 23, 2013, 5:38 am

Whoa. I've spent the last two weeks changing ecommerce websites to be multilingual and kvetching about poor project management.

Want to swap jobs? :}

(The coding was rather fun. But I'm not convinced it made me a more rounded human being.)

Fev 23, 2013, 6:44 am

Errrr ... Perhaps I'll pass on the job swap opportunity :) That sounds way too high-powered for me. Writing this comment via my BlackBerry represents the limit of my technological engagement!

Still, judging by your reading list you are clearly very rounded already.

Fev 24, 2013, 5:04 am

Oh, I think *anyone* can (and should!) kvetch about poor project management. :)

And I don't think I can call myself rounded until I finally tackle a Dickens, grow to like George Elliot, and read some Russian classics (apart from Anna Karenina).

Hm, I have a very 19th century view of "must read" books.

Fev 24, 2013, 5:12 am

I constantly feel that I really ought to read War and Peace or Anna Karenina but I have a limitless capacity to keep putting them off "for a little while".

Fev 24, 2013, 5:47 am

I'm halfway through a re-read of Anna Karenina (got a bit sidetracked somewhere...) and I do think it's a great story, well told. I did try War and Peace but got bogged down after the great opening. (My Mum reckons it's much more fun to skip the "war bits", and she's a 19th century literature nut. :)

Fev 24, 2013, 8:53 am

I hope you like A Dance to the Music of Time! Nick is one of my literary crushes; we never learn too much about him, but what we do learn I adore. And Widmerpool is horrible.

Editado: Fev 24, 2013, 12:40 pm

30. Capital by John Lanchester.

I read this novel as soon as it was published earlier this year, and when I reviewed it then I forecast that I would re-read it fairly soon, though I didn't expect to do so quite so soon - in fact, I can't remember ever re-reading a book so quickly. However, this fine book stood up to such close scrutiny without let or hindrance, and I am reinforced in my earlier judgement of it as one of my favourite novels.

The novel starts 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 they were 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 nearly 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 of his neighbours have received similar cards, each of them bearing a picture of their respective houses. At first they all assume that this is 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. His building work is excellent, and always completed on time to a high standard, and as soon as one job finishes he finds another one waiting for him.

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 goes 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.

There was a lot of hype surrounding this novel, but to my mind it has fully lived up to expectations. I am sure I will be re-reading this book again in the not-too-distant future.

Fev 24, 2013, 12:44 pm


Hi Jennifer, I am a committed fan of A Dance to the Music of Time and agree with what you say about Nick - it is amazing how little one discovers about him even though he is the narrator.
I enjoyed Powell's Journals (various volumes) and his memoirs too - originally published in four separate books but collected in a more manageable single volume as To Keep the Ball Rolling. These are fascinating, though as with the novel sequence, they keep the narrator largely out of the centre of the story!

Fev 24, 2013, 12:46 pm


Tania, I shall definitely take on one or other of War and Peace or Anna Karenina this year (though both might be too big a pledge!).

Fev 24, 2013, 4:15 pm

I think one of the things I like so much about Powell and the series as a whole is how well he handles Nick-as-narrator. In a way (a big way, I think) Nick is just a framing device to present the different incidents that occur during the passage of time. And it works perfectly! We like Nick (and I his story and nothing about him detracts from the real story. Even the bits we'd like to know more about. He falls in love in, like, a sentence. And the miscarriage is mentioned briefly and then boom! On to the story. Other authors try this, but badly, and I find myself thinking "This story would be great if Powell was telling it and the damn narrator and his/her pointless story would just get out of the way".

I will have to look up his journals. They sound delightful.

Fev 24, 2013, 4:37 pm

I agree with you about Nick's framing role - his character is just a vehicle giving some form of cohesion to the miscellaneous events that he observes.

Sadly Powell only kept a journal for the latter portion of his life. From what I understand, after he completed The Fisher King (in the mid 1980s) he suffered a form of writer's block, and struggled to write any more extended fiction. He started to write up a journal as an attempt at a cure.

I would have loved to have read a journal giving an insight into his thoughts as he was writing {A Dance to the Music of Time.

About fifteen years ago Channel 4, one of the TV stations here in Britain, made a four-part dramatisation of the whole sequence, lasting about eight hours in total, which worked fairly well. There were a few anomalies with some episodes (such as the sojourn at La Grenadiere) omitted, and some minor characters conflated (and Quiggin was portrayed in far too jovial a manner), but on the whole it worked pretty well. Simon Russell Beale played Widmerpool and was quite superb - suitably odious throughout!

Fev 26, 2013, 4:36 pm

31. Dark Winter by David Mark.

My knowledge of Hull, a formerly bustling fishing port on the Humber Estuary, is limited - I made a couple of very brief visits more than thirty years ago, principally for the purpose of driving over the graceful Humber Bridge. I would have to say that David Mark's grim novel is not exactly going to send me scurrying back - throughout the book, set in the run up to Christmas, one can almost feel the piercing cold that relentlessly grips the city.

The plot revolves around a series of particularly brutal murders that are investigated by Detective Sergeant Aector (a Gaelic forename) McEvoy, raised in the Scottish Highlands and come to rest in Hull. This is the first novel in what promises to be an intriguing series, and McEvoy already has a fair amount of baggage behind him. There are passing references to estrangement from his father, a crofter in the Western Isles, and also to incident the previous year in which McEvoy uncovered corruption among his CID colleagues which led to a the demise of senior officers and his own ostracisation.

He takes comfort in his blissful marriage to Roisin, formerly part of a travelling community, and their three year old son Finlay. McEvoy is out with Finlay as the novel opens, with the two of them waiting in a city centre cafe for Roisin, when all at once they hear some screaming from the nearby Hull Cathedral. McEvoy momentarily forgets his paternal duties and runs towards the incident, only to be knocked to the floor by a fleeing man who, it transpires, has just killed a choir girl. This is merely the first of a serious of increasingly brutal and beguiling murders

McEvoy is an engaging character - flawed, but not wrecked, and essentially empathetic in his treatment of his family, fellow officers, and even suspects. Unusual, but without the irritating quirkiness of far too many fictional detectives these days. I am looking forward to future instalments.

Fev 27, 2013, 5:36 am

Bother. Caught that book bullet, I'll be picking it up at the library this weekend.

Fev 27, 2013, 3:26 pm

Oo I have Capital on my TBR..

Mar 4, 2013, 3:38 pm

32. Good Bait by John Harvey.

In his latest novel John Harvey shows a reassuring return to form.

In his famous series featuring Charlie Resnick, the long-suffering, jazz- and cat-loving Detective Inspector based in Nottingham, Harvey showed his deftness at managing multiple plot lines. Here he takes that to a new pitch with one of the most intricate and involved plots that I have read recently, though the quality of his prose, and the intrinsic plausibility of his characters are such that the reader's attention doesn't wane.

In Good Bait there are two separate storylines unfolding. Firstly the investigation, led by DCI Karen Shields, into the murder of a young Moldovan man whose corpse is found frozen into one of the ponds on Hampstead Heath. Meanwhile, DI Trevor Cordon, reduced to marking time in Newlyn in Cornwall, is approached by a face from the past when a degenerate figure from his past asks for help tracing her daughter. He finds himself dragged into an uncompromising subculture of drugs and violence as he tries to help.

As the story proceeds we see more deeply into the mire of people trafficking and drug smuggling, though, as always with Harvey, there is a marvellous jazz-based soundtrack to ease some of the pain.

The plot resolution is deft, and Shields emerges as a fine character in her own right after her earlier cameos in some of the Resnick books. I look forward to reading more about her.

Editado: Mar 5, 2013, 3:28 pm

33. The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino.

I had never heard of this book when I came across it in Waterstone's and, feeling unwarrantedly flush I decided to take a punt on it, swayed by the publisher's blurb. For once (as I have rather poor form in this field) I think I chose wisely.

Please note that my review does contain some minor spoilers (though certainly not the ultimate denouement.).

Yasuko Hanoaka is a divorced mother who now works in an upmarket sandwich bar, though earlier she had been a hostess in a couple of lively nightclubs. As the novel opens, her neighbour, Tetsuyi Ishigami, is walking to his work as a maths tutor at a cramming college for academically challenged pupils, and, as he always does, takes a detour to visit Yasuko's shop, principally for the chance to gaze at her. She is aware of him but does not pay him any attention.

However, this day will prove to be different because later on another customer whom she recognises call in to the shop. This visitor is less welcome as it turns out to be Yasuko's estranged former husband, Shinji Togashi, whom she had divorced because of his drunken violence. They had not met for some years, and Yasuko soon recognises that Togashi has not changed and that he is likely to be there to scrounge for money.

She manages to persuade him to leave the store, but he turns up later at the flat she now shares with her young daughter. Trouble ensues, and escalates, culminating in the sudden death of Togashi. Ishigami, who lives next door, hears the struggle and comes round to investigate, finding Yasuko and her daughter in shock, stunned by what has happened and perplexed as to how to react. Ishigami takes charge and arranges for the disposal of the body.

We then move on a couple of weeks by which time the police have found an unidentified corpse and set about trying to unravel the mystery of who the dead man was, and how he came to be there. The investigation is led by Kusanagi, an inspector of the local police, with help from his intelligent civilian friend Yukawa who, as it happens, had been at university with Ishigami. Yukawa, an associate professor of physics at the Imperial University, starts his own investigation which runs in parallel with that pursued by the police, and their paths continually cross.

The plot is never less than utterly plausible, and the characterisation is clever, with Yukawa cast almost as a Japanese version of Mycroft Holmes, seldom straying from his comfortable base while managing to unravel the trail of clues that he identifies to the bemusement of the police.

All in all, very enjoyable.

Mar 7, 2013, 6:07 am

Ah, I've been eyeing off The Devotion of Suspect X in the bookshops, thanks for the review!

Mar 7, 2013, 10:53 am

That does sound quite good. I'll have to see if there's an audio edition.

Mar 7, 2013, 5:13 pm

34. Castle Gay by John Buchan.

"Castle Gay" is the second of the novels featuring retired Glaswegian grocer Dickson McCunn along with Dougal Crombie and Jaikie Galt, erstwhile member of the Gorbals Die-Hards though both of them have now embarked on respectable careers.

This novel picks up seven or eight years after the events detailed in "Huntingtower", in which Dickson and the Gorbals Die-hards saved a Russian princess from a Bolshevik plot. Since then, Dougal Crombie, having been semi-adopted by Dickson McCunn and his wife, has completed his education and started working as a journalist on one of the many newspapers owned and edited by Thomas Carlisle Craw, a shadowy figure fabled for his obsession with maintaining his privacy. In recent years Craw has taken an increasingly dogmatic line in his editorial columns, and has perhaps over-reached himself with a series of articles criticising the actions of radicals in Evallonia, an East European state not dissimilar to Ruritania. Almost everything that Dougal most loathes is embodied in the person of Craw. Meanwhile, "Wee Jaikie" has secured a place at Cambridge University where he has revealed a supreme talent for rugby, and, in a marvellous opening chapter, scores the winning try for Scotland in an unprecedented defeat of the touring Australian team.

As Dougal and Jaikie are about to embark upon a walking tour in Galloway, Craw finds himself kidnapped in Glasgow, though, bizarrely, this proves to be a case of mistaken identity. However, even more coincidentally, Craw's house is under siege by a group of Evallonian rebels, enraged by Craw's ardent and sustained criticism of their cause, who are determined to kidnap him with a view to teahing him a lasting lesson while simultaneously securing a huge ransom with which to fund their revolutionary activities.

Buchan introduces us to a varied cast of characters ranging from Thomas Carlyle Craw, newspaper magnate, Alison Westwater (a close counterpart to Janet Raden from "John Macnab" as the last remnant of a once-great-but-now-humbled aristocratic line still eager to cast in her lot with the side of righteousness) and Mastrovin, international anarchist at large.

The plot, as ever with Buchan, depends perhaps too heavily on fortuitous coincidence, but the pace never slackens, and the reader's attention is assured throughout. And, as usual with Buchan, this is all delivered in his customary exquisite prose.

Mar 8, 2013, 4:30 pm

35. Upon a Dark Night by Peter Lovesey.

Peter Lovesey has sustained a long and celebrated career through well-crafted detective stories in which he has managed to combine watertight plotting with colourful characters and a deft lightness of touch. He doesn't attempt to offer the gritty realism of Rankin or McDermid, but he also avoids falling for the cloying cosiness that bedevils so much of the crime genre.

Having written two highly successful series of light-hearted novels set in nineteenth century London, one sequence featuring Sergeant Cribb, a heavily moustached lugubrious Detective, and another in which obscure mysteries were resolved through the wit and willpower of "Bertie" (eldest son of Queen Victoria and subsequently King Edward VII), he decided to take on a more contemporary context in the early 1990s.

His new character, inroduced in The Last Detective was Peter Diamond, querulous Superintendent of the Murder Quad in Bath, and he featured with great aplomb in subsequent outings including "Diamond Solitaire" and the excellent Bloodhounds which poked gentle fun at the whole mystery novel genre and its often too enthusiastic adherents.

Upon a Dark Night opens with Diamond, as querulous as ever, concerned that he might be a victim of his own success and that the stress of struggling to find sufficiently taxing work to fill his days has contributed to a bout of hypertension. As even the least sensitive reader can foretell, such hubris is merely the tempting of providence, and all at once he finds himself with three cases to investigate - an apparent suicide of an elderly farmer, the mysterious dumping of a woman with complete amnesia at one of the city's hospitals, and the fatal fall from the roof of the glorious Regency Crescent of a young German woman..

This Diamond is certainly flawed - he is rude, sexist and frequently impatient, particularly towards his colleagues (his constant disdain towards Chief Inspector Wigfull are particularly enjoyable), but he is also capable of extraordinary acts of empathy.

This novel doesn't quite match up to Lovesey at his absolute best (for which try Bloodhounds, The Vault or The Circle) but I certainly enjoyed it.

Mar 11, 2013, 6:43 pm

36. Loyalties by Raymond Williams.

An intriguing exploration of personal loyalty, focusing on a mixed group of characters. The novel opens in a Welsh Welsh mining community in 1936, with a group of visiting committed socialists from Cambridge giving lectures to local miners and union members about the situation in Spain (drifting gradually but irresistibly towards civil war). Among the students are Georgi Wilkes and Norman Braose, together with Norman's sister Emma. On this particular day the miners are joined by Nesta Pritchard, with whom Norma immediately falls in love.

As the novel moves forward we follow different characters heading off to fight for the International Brigade in Spain, and then against the Nazis during World War II. Peace brings different challenges with the nationalisation of the coal industry. Meanwhile Georgi, Norman and Emma rise within the Labour Party and start to achieve positions of relative power. However, individual agendas start to draw them apart, and personal ambition has to compete with ties of love and affection.

The story is cleverly crafted though perhaps unnecessarily long. Williams' own political beliefs emerge quite clearly, and one is certainly left wondering to what extent his own life was blighted by personal treachery.

All in all this seemed a sound novel though it is also a pale challenger to James Robertson's And The Land Lay Still when it comes to portraying a national political odyssey though the annals of family life.

Mar 14, 2013, 7:57 pm

37. The Gaudy by J. I. M. Stewart.

Simply marvellous. Written with effortless grace, this novel is a beautiful paean to Oxford and the academic life, though it doesn't refrain from sending up the pomposity and internecine plotting of the dons. This is the first of a series of five novels which, to my mind, represent the finest roman fleuve in an academic setting.

The novel opens with Oxford alumnus Duncan Pattullo returning to his old college, probably either in the late 1960s or possibly the early 1970s, for the first time in more than twenty years since graduating to attend a Gaudy (a celebratory dinner for old members). Right from the start he is overwhelmed with nostalgia, put up in his old rooms and almost immediately bumping into his old tutor. The nostalgia is slightly discomforting, though he soon encounters Tony Mumford, perhaps his closest friend from student days though, oddly, they have never met during the intervening twenty years. Mumford has been very successful and, having made a fortune in the City and pursued a career in politics which has taken him into the House of Lords, on the day of the Gaudy he is appointed to the Cabinet. However, he has an ulterior motive in coming back to the college as it transpires that his son, Ivo (possessed of an unrivalled lack of grace) is struggling to pass the end of year exams, and his future in the college hangs delicately in the balance.

Pattullo also encounters Gavin Moggridge, an unremarkable student who had inadvertently embarked on a career of dazzling adventure entirely unexpected of, or even by, him, and Cyril Bedworth, a dim student, who two decades before had had viewed Pattullo and Mumford with untrammelled admiration. Throughout the formal dinner Pattullo's attention wavers between the present day and his undergraduate days (and even his earlier schooldays in Edinburgh), and his perceptions are constantly re-defined.

The portraits of Albert Talbert, the aging tutor whose grasp on the world around is as lacking in acuity as his name is lacking in euphony, and Edward Pococke, the extraordinarily urbane Provost of the College, are finely drawn yet never succumb to cliche. Plot, the careworn scout on Pattullo's old staircase, and Nick Junkin, the engaging though slightly mentally dislocated undergraduate who now occupies Pattullo's old rooms are so credible that I feel I know them.

Stewart was a noted academic himself, producing several detailed analyses of early twentieth century literature, and, under the pseudonym Michael Innes, was only of the most deft exponents of the "cosy", gentleman detective genre. Yet the sequence that this novel opens was surely the crowning glory of his fruitful career.

Mar 16, 2013, 5:16 pm

38. The Explorer by James Smythe.

This is an intriguing science fiction novel, with shades of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It begins with Cormac Easton recounting how he came to be the last survivor of the crew of Ishiguro. The Ishiguro's expedition had seemed fairly simple: hurtling from Earth into deep space for the specific purpose of travelling further than any previous space expedition, and then returning. What could be simpler?

Sadly, if predictably, it proved to be rather less straightforward than that. Unlike his colleagues Easton was not a career astronaut but a journalist, commissioned with chronicling the expedition with a view to reviving public excitement about space exploration. The Ishiguro represented the pinnacle of technological attainment, and it was programmed to speed out from Earth as far and fast as possible before turning when half of its fuel had been consumed. The crew were put into hibernation-like suspension for the early part of the journey, and scheduled to wake as the Ishiguro approached apogee. However, it was at that stage that things started to go wrong. The crew's captain was due to be roused first to make the ship ready for the emergence of his colleagues, but tragically he never awoke. The other emerged from their suspension to find that he had died . This proves merely to be the first of a series of disasters which culminates with Cormac being the last sentient member on board. It is at that point that he starts to notice something strange about the computer readouts …

Smythe builds the scenario very deftly and the reader empathises completely with the predicament that Cormac faces. I used to read a lot of science fiction when I was younger but have tended to give it a wide berth over recent decades (though I don't really know why that is the case). However, this book reminded me of what I was missing, and I am sure I will be returning to the genre again more often.

Mar 20, 2013, 9:07 pm

39. Cop to Corpse by Peter Lovesey.

A return to mid-season form for Peter Lovesey following last year's weak offering "Stagestruck".

The novel opens with uniformed constable Harry Tasker being shot dead as he completes his city centre beat in the early hours of Sunday morning. There have already been two brutal, unprovoked murders of uniformed police officers in the area, so passions are riding high. Lovesey's no-nonsense detective, Superintendent Peter Diamond, who heads the local Manvers Street nick (the station at which PC Tasker was based) takes over the investigation, only to find himself fighting a turf war over jurisdiction with Chief Superintendent Jack Gull from the Regional Serial Crimes Unit.

Lovesey weaves a tight and compelling plot and, as usual, takes the opportunity to impart much of his extensive local knowledge. Diamond is as brash as ever, though such is the extent of Gull's gung-ho approach that Diamond appears almost a paragon of sensitivity.

Meanwhile the reader is allowed to read a blog posted by Ishtar, adopted pseudonym of a local woman who, along with her two best friends, uncover the apparently sinister behaviour of a man masquerading as a Mr John Smith who seems to be up to something involving regular clandestine flights to Amsterdam.

Mar 23, 2013, 7:11 pm

40. The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins.

I seem to be going through a phase of re-reading books, and this is certainly one of my favourites - indeed, probably my favourite "classic".

First published in 1868, it is certainly notable for its innovative approach to story telling. Nowadays we are familiar with novels written from more than one character's perspective, but I imagine that such an approach was probably very daring back in the 1860s. Collins handles this device, which could so easily have backfired, with great deftness, and the reader gleans a deep insight into the various characters as the successive narratives unfold.

The "Moonstone" of the title is a diamond stolen from the head of a revered statue in a Hindu temple by John Herncastle, a British Officer serving in India. Over the following years stories about the lost jewel abounded, along with a growing belief that the stone might be cursed. Having subsided into illness Herncastle bequeathed the jewel to his niece Rachel Verinder, to be given to her on her eighteenth birthday.

The Moonstone is to be delivered to Rachel by her cousin Franklin Blake, formerly a great favourite of the Verinder family, who has been travelling the world for the last few years. He arranges to visit the Verinder household in Yorkshire, arriving a few days ahead of Rachel's birthday. On the day that he is expected three itinerant Indian "jugglers" turn up and perform some odd tricks in the neighbourhood, and seem to be "casing" the Verinder house. Franklin Blake arrives a little earlier and, after consulting with Betteredge (the butler and wryly sage narrator of the opening section of the story), departs to the nearby town in order to lodge the jewel in its strongroom. Before he goes he bumps in to Rosanna Spearman, one of the domestic servants in the Verinder household. We subsequently learn that she had previously been in prison after having turned to crime to escape a life of deep deprivation down in London. Mr Verinder, aware of this background but also swayed by good reports of Rosanna's reform, had employed her some months previously. In that chance encounter with Franklin Blake Rosanna immediately falls madly in love with him.

The day of the birthday arrives, and various other friends and relatives attend a special dinner. Rachel, who had known nothing about the Moonstone, is delighted by her special birthday present, and cannot be dissuaded from wearing it at the dinner table. Almost inevitably, the jewel is stolen from Rachel's room that night. Rachel herself is clearly disturbed by its loss and starts to behave in an uncharacteristically aggressive and bad-tempered manner. It soon becomes evident that she is particularly angry towards Franklin Blake.

The local Superintendent of police is called in but achieves little. Meanwhile, Franklin Blake has communicated by telegraph with his father, an MP in London, who commissions the lugubrious Sergeant Cuff to travel up to take over the investigation. Cuff is generally credited as the first great detective in English literature and he certainly comes across as an awesome character. Like so many of his modern day successors, he has his oddities and his querulous side. In Cuff's case it is gardening, and particularly the rearing of roses, that dominates his thoughts away from his job.

Cuff becomes convinced that Rachel Verinder herself is involved in the loss of the diamond, and speculates that she might somehow have incurred extensive debts, and then recruited Rosanna to help conceal the diamond and then smuggle it out of the house and down to London where it could be pawned or otherwise converted into much needed cash.

Various other misadventures befall the characters, and one year on the mystery has not yet been resolved. It is at this point that, in what was to became a tradition in whodunnit stories, the scene is recreated, and a startling yet also convincing denouement is achieved.

Collins was a close friend of Charles Dickens, and they collaborated on various publications. In The Moonstone, however, Collins displayed a fluidity and clarity of prose that Dickens never achieves. His satirical touch is light but more telling because of that. Nearly one hundred and fifty years on this novel remains fresh, accessible and immensely enjoyable.

Editado: Mar 26, 2013, 4:56 pm

41. The Fall by Simon Mawer.

Why isn't Simon Mawer better known?

In the last twelve months I must have read about 160 books, including three by Mawer, each of which would easily qualify in the top ten among that selection. First there was The Glass Room, quite hypnotic in its recounting of the Second World War through the vehicle of a fantastic house in Czechoslovakia. Then there was The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, a spellbinding tale about a young English woman who was parachuted behind the German lines in France to help the resistance. Shades of William Boyd's Restless and Sebastian Faulks's Charlotte Gray, but probably even better written than either of them.

With The Fall he has ploughed a very different furrow, but with equally entrancing effect. The book opens with the description of a lone middle-aged mountaineer attempting to cross a forbidding overhanging outcrop of rock, and then plummeting to his death. The climber is James "Jamie" Matthewson, a celebrated mountaineer and son of another, Guy Matthewson, who had died attempting to conquer Kanchenjunga. Because of his prominent status within climbing circles Jamie's death makes the radio news where it is heard by Rob Dewar, art gallery proprietor and former boyhood friend of Matthewson, then driving through the West Midlands on his way back home to London. Stunned at the sudden death of his former friend, on a whim Rob decides to drive to Jamie's home in North Wales.

Mawer then takes us through a series of flashbacks in which we see Rob and Jamie meeting and becoming friendly. We also discover that the two boys' mothers had known each other during the war, and we see contrasting portraits of their two fathers. As the two boys grow through their teens Jamie shows precocious talent as a climber. Rob follows him, but lacks some of the creative flair of his friend, though he does fulfill an important role as the voice of reason.

The descriptions of the climbing are engaging without being overladen with technicalities. I assume that Mawer himself must be an accomplished climber, but he deftly avoids the trap of letting a personal interest intrude to the extent of alienating the non-specialist reader. His characters are also utterly plausible, and essentially empathetic.

This is an adroitly crafted novel with a gripping plot that deserves to be more widely known and read.

Mar 26, 2013, 5:00 pm

Mawer's books do sound fascinating. I'll have to add him to my lists.

Mar 27, 2013, 7:19 am

I'm bumping The Glass Room higher up Mt TBR. (I think it was shortlisted for the Booker, which is when I bought it, *mumble* years ago.)

Mar 27, 2013, 7:53 am

Yes - he has had a few books that have been either long- or short-listed for the Booker, but he doesn't seem ever to have received the wideer recognition that he merits.

Mar 28, 2013, 7:40 pm

I also have The Glass Room languishing on shelf. I'm not sure why I keep putting that one off. But I will try harder!

Mar 29, 2013, 7:59 am

42. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson.

I have always admired Kate Atkinson's novels, and would count her series featuring the laconic Jackson Brodie, and in particular When Will There be Good News among my favourites. I was, therefore, excited when I heard about the imminent publication of Life After Life and have eagerly looked forward to reading it. I did have a momentary hesitation - too often in the past I have eagerly awaited a favourite author's latest offering only to be disappointed.

That was certainly not the case here. Atkinson has delivered once again, and this latest book is simply marvellous. More sombre that her recent novels this book addresses the question of "what if?" It opens with Sylvie Todd in labour during the depths of winter in 1910, awaiting the arrival of her doctor who has been delayed by the dreadful travelling conditions. The birth proceeds with the housemaid Bridget in attendance, and tragedy seems to be hovering in the wings when the doctor finally arrives on the scene. Baby Ursula battles death from the moment of her birth but is revived and thereafter flourishes. However, her ordeal seems to have imbued with a frequently disarming gift (?) for déjà vu.

Indeed, we are given several contrasting versions of Ursula's life, and the lives of those around her, focusing alternatively on her immediate family but also on the wider world stage.

Ursula is a finely drawn character, as are the rest of her family: her easy going father Hugh, her pragmatic though often snobbish mother Sylvie, her beastly brother Maurice (destined for a career as a senior civil servant), her lovely sister Pamela who represents a sort of sanity litmus test through the bulk of the novel, and her shy brother Teddy. Weaving in and out throughout the different versions of the story we also meet Isabel (Izzy), Ursula's vivacious aunt who enjoys living on the edge.

There are moments of deep tragedy counterbalanced by Atkinson's great facility for humour. This is a marvellous book which is already calling out to be re-read.

Mar 29, 2013, 9:29 am

I admit, I've never heard of Simon Mawer but now I want to read The Fall. Great review!

Mar 29, 2013, 8:37 pm

Good review of Life After Life. Makes me want to get a copy even quicker now.

Mar 30, 2013, 3:34 am

I am now in that rather ambivalent state over Life After Life: delighted that I read it while simultaneously sad that I finished it.

Mar 30, 2013, 8:16 pm

Someone should coin a word for that state of being.

Editado: Mar 31, 2013, 4:47 am


Abr 2, 2013, 6:41 am

Oh BOTHER. I had a voucher to spend at the bookshop and spent it yesterday but for some STUPID reason I passed by Life After Life. Seriously kicking myself now.

Abr 2, 2013, 8:17 am

It was certainly very different in tone from her recent books about Jackson Brodie, but very enjoyable.

Editado: Abr 2, 2013, 4:47 pm

My LibraryThing.com account is linked to my Facebook and Twitter accounts, and when I review a book a link is automatically posted to both of those accounts (though without any hashtag or other reference.

I was very impressed, therefore, to see that my recent review of Simon Mawer's novel The Fall was retweeted by Simon Mawer himself!

Edited to revise a typo.

Abr 2, 2013, 7:00 pm


Abr 2, 2013, 7:16 pm

Well done! How exciting!

Abr 3, 2013, 3:18 am

Oh congrats, that's very cool

Abr 3, 2013, 8:48 am

That is awesome! Congratulations!

Abr 3, 2013, 2:29 pm

It shows that LibraryThing reviews potentially have a wider readership than I had imagined.

A few days after I posted the review on Library Thing I started following various writers, including Simon Mawer, on Twitter. I suppose he may have seen that he had a new follwower and idly looked through my recent tweets. As I don't tweet at all other than the automatic Library Thing review notifications the link to my review of The Fall would have been most recent entry on the list.

Abr 5, 2013, 5:59 pm

43. Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd.

This was the second time that very I have read this very enjoyable novel. Though not, quite soaring up to the stratospheric heights of William Boyd's previous novel Restless nor as flawless as Any Human Heart, this was still utterly engrossing, and demonstrated an intimate knowledge of the various reaches of the Thames. Indeed, the plot proved almost as sinuous as the river itself.

The novel opens with Adam Kindred, a leading academic climatologist, emerging from an interview for an appointment at one of the leading London universities and going for a meal in a nearby restaurant. There he finds himself sitting next to Dr Philip Wang, a pharmacologist engaged in the quest for a cure for asthma. They chat briefly and then Wang departs. However, Adam notices that he has dropped a file of papers. Finding Wang's business card in the file he phones him, and arranges to take the forgotten papers around to the nearby flat Wang is staying in. When he arrives there he finds the door already open and, walking in he find that Wang is on the point of death having just been stabbed. Adam then notices that the flat has also been ransacked. Hearing a noise outside he flees, but not before he foolishly attempts to remove withdraw the knife that is still stuck in Wang's side, thus leaving his fingerprints behind.

From that point on Adam finds himself leading the life of a fugitive, pursued by the police but also by the actual murderer. Having nowehere to turn he takes to living rough, and displays considerable ingenuity in carving out a new life on the streets of London. Menawhile the actual murderer is hunting him down, anxious to retrieve the file that Adam was still holding when he fled Wang's flat.

Meanwhile we are introduced to Ingram Fryzer, CEO of Calenture-Deutz, the pharmaceutical firm for which Wang had been working. Fryzer has his own problems as he finds that he is suffering from sudden short-lived but intense pains while he also fleetingly, and gradually more frequently, loses control of his vocabulary.

Ranging from the affluence of Chelsea to pockets of extreme deprivation in the East End, and taking in a range of uber-businessmen, contract killers, new age evangelists, prostitutes and police officers the plot constantly changes direction but never falters.This book definitely rewards the reader!

Abr 5, 2013, 6:28 pm

44. The House of Rumour by Jake Arnott.

A departure from Arnott's previous milieu of retro crime set in gangland London, this novel moves into global conspiracy theory territory. The action moves around from the burgeoning science fiction community in early 1940s California, where Larry Zagorski is struggling to make a living by publishing space adventure stories, through wartime London and Germany up to the current day where the obituary of a senior MI5 official making alluringly oblique references to a near scandal involving transvestite prostitutes. Well, that always works for me!

The story takes the form of separate narratives from a range of different characters and chronicles the actions of a lurid cast, including many historic figures such as Ian Fleming, aspiring MI5 officer and subsequently creator of James Bond, near legendary thaumaturge Aleister Crowley, cult science fiction novelist Robert Heinlein and L Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology and the concept of dianetics. However, most prominent among the real people featuring in the novel is Hitler's crony, Reichsmarshall Rudolph Hess, captured by the Allies after his bizarre solo flight to Scotland and subsequently imprisoned in Spandau until his suicide in 1987.

Arnott has always been adept and conjuring engrossing plots, and here he weaves his conspiracy theory with subtlety and conviction. There are interesting sidebars, too - Larry Zagorski's ex-wife winds up in Jonestown where she succumbs to the mass suicide which left hundreds dead.

Occasionally I felt that Arnott might be succumbing to his own ingenuity where the integrity of the plot wavered under the weight of its own complexity, but overall this was an engaging and engrossing read.

Abr 6, 2013, 12:36 pm

45. The Yips by Nicola Barker.

Unutterably dreadful. I am so annoyed at having squandered valuable time and money on this book that I can't summon the mental energy to write a proper review.

Abr 6, 2013, 1:12 pm

46. Close to the Bone by Stuart MacBride.

I think I am going to give up on Stuart MacBride. I have certainly tried, and I definitely enjoyed the early novels and I think that DI (in fact, now DCI) Steel, the querulous, ribald lesbian whose hilarious obscene rants have been one of the highlights of recent Scottish crime fiction) remains a hugely entertaining character. However, amusing though her constant foul-mouthed rants might be, the books need something more to sustain the reader's interest.

Sadly this novel lacked it, and I found it all too disjointed to bother with.

Abr 7, 2013, 3:20 am

Wow, you really didn't like The Yips. I borrowed it from the library a while back but returned it unread when I ran out of time. Perhaps I won't bother to reborrow it now.

Abr 9, 2013, 3:05 pm

47. Young Pattullo by J. I. M. Stewart.

Quite simply, this is my favourite novel ... EVER.

It is actually the second book in a sequence of five A Staircase in Surrey which chronicles Duncan Pattullo's experiences at, and relationship with, an imaginary Oxford college. In the first novel, The Gaudy} Pattullo, a successful playwright, returns to Oxford for the first time in more than twenty years to attend a celebratory old boys' dinner at the college. During this visit he meets some of his contemporaries and, after inadvertently becoming embroiled in resolving an unsavoury episode involving the son of his closest friend from students days, he finds himself being offered the opportunity to take up a Fellowship in Modern European Drama.

For this second instalment Stewart takes us back to Pattullo's first year as an undergraduate. in 1945 or 1946 Raised in Edinburgh and educated at what is clearly meant to be Fettes young Duncan Pattullo had never initially entertained the dream of going to Oxford. However, fate, in the form of his unorthodox father intervened with dramatic consequences. Lachlan Pattullo is an accomplished artist, generally specialising in landscapes, though not above accepting commissions for portraits. One recent such commission had required him to paint Professor McKechnie, a dreary though capable academic at Edinburgh University. McKechnie is a sombre and quiet man except upon the subject of his son Ranald, a schoolmate of Duncan's. Fed up of hearing the ceaseless eulogies about Ranald and his imminent departure on a scholarship to Oxford, Lachlan arranges for Duncan to have a shot at the John Ruskin Scholarship, which he successfully bags. Stewart gives us a lovely cameo in which young Pattullo first encounters the gathering of rather upper class English alumni of the more accomplished public schools, but without resorting to crass stereotyping - all of the boys seem immensely plausible.

Duncan is beset with all of the regular dilemmas and challenges of growing up, though it is clear that he immediately falls in love with everything about Oxford. He soon becomes friendly with the fellow residents on the staircase in Surrey quadrangle where his rooms are located, notably Tony Mumford (who would later evolve in Lord Marchpayne, Cabinet member), Gavin Moggridge and Cyril Bedworth. There are scenes of high comedy mixed with others of great sensitivity.

Stewart's masterful cameos are not just restricted to Pattullo's fellow students. Edward Pococke, Provost of the College, is a picture of urbanity and tends towards courteous litotes, while Duncan's two personal tutors, the permanently distracted Albert Talbert and the mage-like J B Timbermill, are particulrly finely drawn. The latter, who teaches Duncan the wonders of Anglo-Saxon and Middle English literature (my own chosen area of specialisation as an undergraduate) is clearly modelled on J R R Tolkien.

Alongside the beautiful depiction of Oxford in the 1940s Stewart also gives an insight into Duncan's far from conventional homelife which includes a slightly mad uncle, the self-styled laird of Glencorry whose Highland retreat Duncan visits at length.

I have often wondered why this novel means so much to me, and I have never quite put my finger on it. Still, I have read it many times already, and I look forward to reading it many time more!

Abr 10, 2013, 12:05 pm

48. The Burning Sky by Jack Ludlow.

A totally fatuous novel. I might, possibly, have enjoyed this when I was twelve years old ... though, actually, I would hope that even then I had the discernment to demand a coherent plot, plausible characters and some command of the English language from my reading fare. This failed to deliver on all three of those criteria.

Abr 11, 2013, 8:24 am

Some good reads, but also some some awful dross it seems! I've been eyeing off the new Jake Arnott (loved his The Long Firm), I'll have to get it sooner rather than later.

Abr 11, 2013, 5:37 pm

49. The Sixth Lamentation by William Brodrick.

I had heard a lot about this novel and several of my friends had recommended it (indeed, a couple positively raved about it). I was, therefore, rather disappointed. While the basic plot about an alleged war criminal seeking sanctuary in an old monastery was promising, I just couldn't make myself interested in any of the characters.

Abr 15, 2013, 6:05 pm

50. Dead Like You by Peter James.

I am starting to feel rather bored with Peter James and his protagonist Roy Grace. Of course, Grace himself is a fairly engaging character (though perhaps just a little too good to be true) but the plots in this series of nvels are becoming increasingly implausible, and the continuing back story about the disappearance ten years ago of Grace's wife is descending into sheer farce.

This this latest episode in the Grace saga see Gaia, a megastar (clearly modelled on Madonna) returning to her home town on Brighton to star in a film based around the love affair between King George IV and Mrs Fitzherbert. She is stalked by crazed fans and by a failed screenwriter sworn to revenge because he is convinced that his masterful script has been stolen.

As always with Peter James, the police procedural aspects of the story are very well researched and convincing, but the unnecessarily convoluted plot and the fallible characterisation leave the reader incapable of summoning much interest.


Abr 17, 2013, 4:54 pm

51. A Memorial Service by J. I. M. Stewart.

I found re-reading this novel particularly moving. This is the third volume in Stewart's masterful sequence A Staircase in Surrey and it opens with Duncan Pattullo embarking on a new career as a Fellow of his old Oxford College. I had the great good fortune to enjoy a brief tenure as a Fellow of an Oxford College during the early/mid 1980s, perhaps ten or fifteen years after this novel is set, and despite that slight time lag I felt that I could recognise almost everything that Pattullo encounters. Certainly the relationships between the different tenants of the staircase struck all too poignant a chord with me.

After all, Stewart himself was an accomplished academic, publishing a series of highly regarded works on late nineteenth/early twentieth century English literature (with particular emphasis on Conrad), so he knew what he was talking about.

The plot revolves around an academic wrangle over a manuscript donated to the College by Lord Blunderville, one of its more celebrated alumni who had eventually risen to be Prime Minister at some unspecified spell between the World Wars. In the preceding volume, Young Pattullo, set during Duncan's time as an undergraduate, we happened to be present when Christopher Cressey, an aloof history don, made away with the book in question, seemingly with the former Prime Minister's blessing. More than twenty years on Cressey still has the manuscript, and the College is now striving to recover it using whatever means are available to it. Duncan is bemused, wondering why so much consternation should arise from the fate of this small book.

Meanwhile the loutish Ivo Mumford, son of Duncan's closest friend from his own student days, is struggling to retain his place in the College having completely fluffed his exams while revelling in the rowdy exploits of the Uffington Club, an exclusive clique of wealthy rowdies (presumably modelled on an early incarnation of David Cameron's Bullingdon Club). Duncan invites the wretched Ivo to launch with a view to trying to encourage him to greater application to his books. These advances are roundly snubbed, though Ivo does tell Duncan that he has been working with a friend to develop a new University magazine by the name of Priapus. Duncan is understandably concerned!

However, the plot, though engaging, is almost superfluous to the glory of the book. Stewart captures the eternal contradictions that bedevil almost every aspect of life in academic Oxford. The College basks in its centuries-long history and proudly defends its traditions, yet is also alive to the changing demands of its undergraduates in times of changing social mores. Personal animosities flourish between the Fellows, yet they are capable of immense sensitivity to the plight of their undergraduates.

Though far shorter than Anthony Powell's beautiful A Dance to the Music of Time, there are great similarities, not least in the use of hilarious scenes underpinned with waves of melancholy. Indeed, one of the leading character, Cyril Bedworth, has made a career on critical appraisal of Anthony Powell's novels.

Eternally enchanting - I could happily re-read this series every year.

Abr 21, 2013, 5:03 am

I may have to keep that one in mind for when I finish A Dance to the Music of Time!

Abr 21, 2013, 5:14 am

Tania, I first encountered Stewart's A Staircase in Surrey sequence shortly after I first red A Dance to the Music of Time (I was on a bit of a roman fleuve kick!) and found a lot of similarities. Over all I think that there id far more depth to Powell's work, but then he does expand over twelve volumes. Stewart's sequence looks at a far shorter spell within the narrator's life, but we learn far more about his character.
I particularly enjoyed the depiction of academia and the professional rivalries and idiosyncrasies of the dons, and Stewart has a very deft hand with humour, without ever compromising his sensitive treatments of various dons' and students' plights.

Abr 23, 2013, 5:16 pm

52. Ladysmith by Giles Foden.

I am feeling slightly ambivalent about this book. After struggling to get into it, I eventually became engaged with it, and am glad that I read it. It has certainly enhanced my knowledge of the Boer War, an era of British History of which I am woefully ignorant. It is set around the prolonged siege of Ladysmith in which the Boers beset the British held town for nearly five months.
Foden picks out a handful of characters, including intriguing (presumably factually-based) cameo appearances by Winston Churchill and Mohandas Gandhi, and interlaces his plot around them. The complexities that this throws up are well handled. The first character whom we meet is Kiernan, and Irish Republican on the run from the British authorities with his two infant daughters (Bella and Jane) in tow. In the prologue we find him emigrating in the early 1880s to South Africa in search of a new life beyond the reach of the law, with the aid of Republican funding. The story then moves to Ladysmith in 1899 where British troops are massing, but fearing encirclement by the Boer forces under General Joubert. Kiernan is now the owner of one of the town's leading hotels where Bella and Jan both work behind the bar.We are then introduced to Tom Barnes, a British soldier who is smitten with Bella.
Meanwhile, reinforcements are on the way to help the beleaguered British garrison, and a warship laden with troops steams for the Cape. On board, alongside the troops, are a selection of war correspondents including Nevinson, an actual war correspondent renowned as one of the forerunners in that profession. Another notable among the accredited journalists is Winston Churchill.
Back in South Africa we meet Mhule, a Zulu who had been indentured to work in goldmines but who is now fleeing with his wife Nandi and son Wellington, for refuge from the advancing Boers. Mhule becomes separated from his family and ends up being wounded and captured by Boers, but is lucky enough to come under the wing of Dr. Sterckx,
Foden lays out a vivid series of characters (I have barely scratched the surface), and their stories are all interlaced with each other. However, I felt that the book lacked much overall direction - having worked so hard to set the context and introduce the cast, it is as if he just lost interest!

Abr 24, 2013, 5:39 pm

53. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.

I expect that I am going to find myself in a minority of one, here, but I did not like this book, and couldn't bring myself to find the slightest interest in any of the characters.
It is funny how one's tastes can change. Until a few years ago I used to devour American crime fiction. I'm not sure what happened or where the difficulty arose but nowadays I can scarcely force myself to finish one. This was not the novel destined to reverse that trend.

Abr 24, 2013, 7:09 pm

You are so right about how tastes change. When I think about what I have read over the years I am amazed that I would never even think about picking up some of those books now. Interesting.

Abr 24, 2013, 8:42 pm

Sorry you didn't like Gone Girl, I was hooked for that one.

I used to read a lot more classics. Now I need books that I can read quickly, I don't have the attention span. Is this modern living sapping my attention? Or parenthood? (I'm hoping the latter, because one day they will move out and then I can spend all afternoon reading agin! ;)

Abr 24, 2013, 10:36 pm

It is probably both wookie, but it is definitely parenthood!

Abr 26, 2013, 3:37 pm

54. Protobiography by William Boyd.

A selection of beautifully-written essays recounting episodes from William Boyd's childhood. He was born in the 1950s in Ghana where his father worked as a doctor. His early memories tell of his childhood days near Accra before he was despatched to public school back "home" in Britain. Boyd's reminiscences of public school accord very closely with his film "Good and Bad at Games" which captivated audiences back in the early days of Channel 4.

As with everything Boyd writes, these episodes are delivered in his crisp, flowing prose (I think that he is incapable of writing an ugly sentence!) and although very little happens, the reader feels utterly satisfied: in fact, I think that I would feel better even just for reading one of Boyd' shopping lists!

Abr 27, 2013, 3:46 pm

55. The Madonna of the Astrolabe by J. I. M. Stewart.

This is possibly the weakest volume of Stewart's marvellous five novel sequence "A Staircase ion Surrey", but it is still pretty damn' good.
It picks up pretty well straight after the end of "A Memorial Service", with Duncan Pattullo finding himself in the third term of his first year as a Fellow of his old Oxford college. His aging mentor (and distant relative) Arnold Lempriere is concerned about the state of the College's historic and imposing tower, and it gradually becomes apparent that extensive and unavoidably expensive restoration work will be required, beyond the College's current means. Meanwhile the likeable Nick Junkin has been soliciting support among the Fellows for the Dramatic Society to be allowed to stage Marlowe's "Tamburlaine the Great" in the quadrangle.
Meanwhile Pattullo is rather distracted by the sudden reappearance in his life of his former wife, the beautiful but rather ghastly Penny, who seems bent on strewing mischief in her wake. And then an Old master is discovered in a lumber room under the tower depicting the Madonna and Child, the latter of whom is clutching an astrolabe. Could this be salvation for the College?
Stewart handles his characters with dexterity and affection, steering them through the rapids and pitfalls (hey, I can mix metaphors with the best of them!) of this short (just eight weeks) but hectic final term. Duncan Pattullo is sensitive and always plausible and the humour is intelligent and engaging. I wish i had had tutors like that when I was an undergraduate!

Maio 1, 2013, 9:21 am

56. Friends in Low Places by Simon Raven.

Raven's deliciously scurrilous Roman fleuve continues, with the action moving into the late 1950s. It opens in the small French town of Menton with noted sponger Mark Lewson languishing with the voracious widow Angela Tuck. Lewson, always a realist, recognises that their liaison is entering its final phase. Having "borrowed" some money from Angela's purse he risks a final fling at the casino in the hope of generating some working capital. With harsh predictability this venture fails, and Lewson is only rescued from acute embarrassment (and probable arrest) by the intervention of the sinister Max de Freville.

De Freville has been a long-term professional gamester, managing casinos and special gambling parties throughout Europe. He is,however, subject to a form of "tedium vitae" and has retreated to Menton where he indulges a bizarre relationship with Mrs Tuck. Although totally platonic, theirs is a mutually sustaining relationship, and de Freville is eager to ensure that Lewson does not exploit Angela too fiercely. One self-prescribed remedy for de Freville's pervasive ennui has been his attempts to manipulate a network of acquaintances and retainers, sitting back at the centre of his web watching their exploits from afar. With this in mind he tips Lewson off about a compromising letter currently held by another of his acquaintances which, in the the right (or wrong) could seriously embarrass the British Government over its involvement in the failed Suez Canal conflict of 1956.

Meanwhile, Somerset Lloyd-James, the Machiavellian editor of political magazine Strix, is still desperately ambitious and is eager to secure the Conservative candidacy for the safe constituency of Bishop's Cross, whose incumbent has announced his intention to step down at the next election. There are four other contenders for the nomination including the accomplished (yet painfully self-righteous) Peter Morrison, who had resigned three years earlier over Suez.

Lewson is soon in touch with Lloyd-James, and negotiates a satisfactory deal whereby Lloyd-James comes into possession of the letter, and wastes no time in using it to force certain Tory Grandees to pull strings on his behalf.

Meanwhile (a key word when trying to explain the intricate plots of any of Raven's novels), Sir Edwin Turbot, foremost among current Tory grandees, is in some mental disarray as his eldest daugher, Patricia, prepares to marry Tom Llewellyn, a gifted Socialist journalist and academic. Though diametrically opposed politically, Turbot respects Llewellyn's understanding of the prevailing political landscape, and comes around to agreeing with Tom's view that Morrison would be the wisest choice as Tory candidate for Bishop's Cross, at least until Lloyd-James starts flapping the Lewson letter about.

Raven manages all these separate threads of plot (and there are far more than I could even contemplate trying to encompass in this brief review) with his customary aplomb, and keeps the reader guessing throughout. His own alter ego, Fielding Gray, is also back, now reincarnated as a novelist and journalist after his military career met an untimely end following his sever wounding (and disfigurement) in Malta.

Altogether as enjoyable as ever!

Maio 1, 2013, 5:13 pm

57. Vermeer's Hat by Timothy Brook.*

An intriguing slant on history, Timothy Brook tells of how he first became acquainted with the works of Vermeer as a teenager touring around Holland. He selects five of the artist's paintings, along with three other works by Vermeer's contemporaries, and looks at various items depicted therein. He investigates these items more closely to show how, though they may seem commonplace, they also betoken the extraordinary trade and commercial networks that had already been formed around the world by the mid-seventeenth century. On the way he throws in potted histories of the European colonisation of the St. Lawrence Seaway and the development of trade between Europe and Japan and China.

Occasionally rather contrived, on balance this proved an engaging book

Maio 3, 2013, 3:54 pm

58. 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 this is perhaps the best of them all.

As the novel opens things seem to be going 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 seems well on the way towards a rapprochement with his former wife Frances from whom he had been separated for several years, principally as a consequence of his drinking and philandering. Always a committed fan of Shakespeare's work, 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 when Gavin Scholes, the benign but almost totally unimaginative director is taken ill, and is replaced with the radical, Romanian "enfant terrible" Alexandru Radilescu. Radilescu is no respecter of theatrical sacred cows, and sets about transforming the production into an avant-garde extravaganza, much to Charles's disgust. However, even Charles has grudgingly to concede tht some of Radilescu's ideas, bizarre as they seem, do produce startling effects. But then more mishaps start to happen, culminating in the sudden death of one 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 a tightly constructed plot, 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.

Highly entertaining and informative.

Maio 4, 2013, 4:31 pm

59. The Long-Legged Fly by James Sallis.

Lew Griffin is an engaging protagonist: an African-American private investigator living in New Orleans and delving into the seamier side of life. This first outing for the character is handled in an interesting way - rather than following one plot line from start to finish the book is really a series of separate episodes, some of which reach a conclusion while others do not. However, while such a description may sound rather off-putting, the book has its own internal cohesion and I found it a very satisfying read..

Maio 6, 2013, 12:50 pm

60. Antwerp by Nick Royle.

This came close to being a good book, but fell short on a couple of counts. The basic idea was very clever, with the bodies of murdered prostitutes turning up in streets around the city's red light area where Johnny Vos, American independent director is making a film based upon the bleak paintings of Paul Delvaux. Each of the bodies has been mutilated and has been dumped with a copy of Harry Kumel, a leading figure in the Belgian cinema noir community.

Meanwhile Frank Warren, a British film journalist comes to Antwerp to interview Vos. Warren's girlfriend Sian comes out later to be with him, but after joining him at an uncomfortable meeting with Vos she subsequently disappears.

Royle sets the scene very well, and gives a marvellous depiction of Antwerp, but unfortunately his style is not up to the demands of the story. He keeps switching between different characters' perspectives in a way that becomes simply irritating, inculcating an annoying disjointedness about the book.

Maio 8, 2013, 4:40 pm

61. The Judas Boy by Simon Raven.

Raven's scurrilous roman fleuve continues into its sixth volume, and he keeps the momentum admirably. Fielding Gray is back in the foreground, having been persuaded to return to Cyprus, scene of his disfigurement several years earlier while he was serving in the Army. Now he has been asked by Tom Llewellyn to investigate allegations that the rising in Cyprus had actually been managed ad manipulated by operatives from the CIA.

The author has clearly researched his background well, and the political context seems entirely plausible (to me, anyway!). However, the context is less important that the principal plot, in which Raven excels. Fielding Gray, an eminently empathetic character, is tested both physically and morally at different stages of the story, and the reader feels for him. Meanwhile Marquis Canteloupe and Somerset Lloyd James are plotting in their inimitable way, determined to ensure that Fielding's investigations go awry.

Unlike the rest of the sequence this novel would probably not stand up on its own, but within the context of the series it works very well.

Maio 12, 2013, 1:30 pm

62. A Delicate Truth by John le Carre.

There has been a lot of media attention recently on John le Carre to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of his classic espionage novel "The Spy Who Came In From the Cold" which was later filmed with Richard Burton giving a marvellous performance as Alec Leamas. Fifty years on and le Carre has lost none of his touch, and his latest book shows that casual mastery of plot, character and political context that has marked all of his finest work.

The book opens with a senior if unexceptional Civil Servant in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) being asked to go to Gibraltar under cover (as "Paul Anderson"), and to act as direct contact for maverick New Labour Minister, Fergus Quinn, who has been prevailed upon to become more directly involved in operational matters than can ever be prudent. Having languished in boredom for a couple of days, Paul is suddenly called upon to act, and becomes embroiled at the sharp end of a stakeout of a prime suspect in the War Against Terror.

We then move back to London where Toby Bell, aspiring fast streamer within the FCO, recently appointed Private Secretary to Quinn, is contemplating risking his career, and possibly his freedom, by indulging in his own act of espionage by secretly recording one of Quinn's meetings. Quinn has been his own man, and contrary to prevailing practice has striven to exclude officials in general, and Bell in particular, from most of his meetings, and Bell has come to resent it. He vacillates over a whole weekend, "letting I dare not wait upon I would, like the poor cat i' th'adage", but as we know from the start he must, he does indeed screw his courage to the sticking point and makes the clandestine recording.

When he comes to listen to his secret recording Bell is appalled by what he hears, and finds himself plunged into the depths of conspiracy theorising. And then he finds himself transferred to a posting in Beirut with next to no notice. When he returns to Lodon three years later he finds that Quinn has moved on as part of the ceaseless tide of ministerial appointment that raises some while drawing others down. Bell starts to believe that his recklessness of three years before might have come to nothing, and that he can continue the pursuit of his career without further cause for concern.

And then "Paul" writes him a note ...

Le Carre obviously knows his material inside out, and this novel is as resonant as any of his canon with that unique prose style. The plot is watertight and, above all, utterly plausible. All of the characters her portrays are completely credible, and, sadly, I doubt whether many people nowadays would struggle too hard to believe that the government could behave in such a cavalier and disingenuous manner. Another winner.

Maio 14, 2013, 5:07 pm

63. Places Where They Sing by Simon Raven.

This is the seventh volume in Raven's Alms for Oblivion series, and possibly the weakest so far. I suppose that part of the problem was that, paradoxically, it simply seemed more dated than its predecessors. Most of the familiar characters at least merit a mention through Fielding Gray, Somerset Lloyd James and Captain Detterling make only the briefest of cameo appearances.

The novel is set in Lancaster College, Cambridge, during the heady days of student protest in the late 1960s, and revolves around the College's treatment of a sudden windfall of £250,000 (then a huge sum). Very fwe of the principal characters in this volume invite any empathetic response.

The Provost, Robert Constable, is an egregious character, wrapped up in consideration of his own self-importance, taking time to note down in detail all his decisions and the rationale behind them, in readiness for his retirement when he plans to produce exhaustive memoirs. The protestors are all portrayed most unsympathetically, and even Tom Llewellyn, previously one of the more likeable character, comes across as self-centred and unnecessarily remote. The only character who strikes the reader as of any worth is Hetta Frith, girlfriend of star student Hugh Balliston.

Having read the sequence before I know that this book merely represents a temporary blip, and that normal service will soon be resumed,but I had forgotten quite how disappointing this one was.

Bring back Fielding Gray!

Maio 18, 2013, 8:15 am

64. Perilous Question: The Drama of the Great Reform Bill 1832 by Lady Antonia Fraser.*

Once Again Lady Antoni Fraser has produced a fine informative yet eminently accessible book. Having studied this period during my A Levels more than thirty years ago I was intrigued to see how she would handle this material. The answer is that she brought it all vividly to life!

On the face of it, a history of the passage of the Great Reform Act on 1832 might sound a somewhat arid subject, but Lady Antonia weaves a fascinating story from the dry proceedings. Constitutional reform was certainly badly needed at the start of the 1830s. While infamous rotten boroughs such as Old Sarum (deserted since 1217) returned two MPs to Westminster, flourishing industrial cities such as Birmingham and Manchester, with populations numbered in tens of thousands, were unrepresented. The ballot for those lucky few who were enfranchised was public, and often the subject of severe intimidation at the hands of landlords and employers.

This situation had pertained for centuries, with little inclination within those on the inside to change anything. However, 1830 saw both another revolution in France, with Louis Phillipe being crowned "King of the French" in an early experiment with constitutional monarchy, and the death of King George IV, succeeded by William IV. The juxtaposition of these two significant developments acted as a catalyst to change.

As had happened following the first French Revolution in July 1789, fears of similar unrest sweeping across the Channel bedevilled English politicians, and there was indeed a spate of rural uprising, taking the form of the Captain Swing raids, with landlords seeing their property laid waste by masked rioters. The English stiff upper lip would not encompass florid demands for "Liberté, Egalité or Fraternité", but a cohesive campaign for reform did emerge.

Lady Antonia's portrayal of the principal protagonists - Lord Grey (Whig Prime Minister), the Duke of Wellington (Tory leader and confirmed Anti-Reformist), and the King himself - are clearly drawn, and she deftly elicits empathy for all their conflicting views.

Of course, looking back from a twenty-first century perspective with far greater (if still far from ideal) constitutional parity it is difficult to see what all the fuss was about. After all, though there was frequent reference to "Universal Suffrage", at the time no-one, women included, made any attempt to have this term taken to include representation for women. Such an idea was simply laughable in 1932. But even though the franchise was widened a little bit, it still remained alarming narrow, and those few who were lucky enough to be allowed to enter suddenly became stalwart opponents against any further relaxation! Yes, the worst excess of the rotten boroughs were adressed, but the path to a state even vaguely resembling universal suffrage would still be a long time coming.

I would be very keen to read Lady Antonia's musings on the subsequent Reform movements, too!

Maio 18, 2013, 11:19 pm

Some good reading happening here, as usual! I'm looking forward to the new le Carre in particular.

Maio 19, 2013, 2:20 pm

65. Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver.

I was surprised at how much I disliked this novel. I had previously read two novels by Barbara Kingsolver: "Lacuna" which I thought was very good, and "The Poisonwood Bible" which was one of the most beautiful and powerful novels that I have ever read. Consequently, having read the fulsome reviews of this book I was looking forward to another literary feast.

What a disappointment! I found it well nigh impossible to summon any vestige of empathy for any of the characters and found the whole book steeped in drudgery.


Maio 20, 2013, 9:12 am

Great review of the Fraser book. I love her work and hadn't heard of this one, so I'll have to find a copy.

Maio 22, 2013, 5:11 pm

66. Legacy by Alan Judd.

The critic's comments quoted on the cover of this spy thriller compared the writer with John le Carre. That seems rather overblown. This was a workmanlike, if slightly tedious novel, and didn't come within a country mile of emulating the delicate characterisation and subtle plotting that are always at the core of le Carre's masterpieces.

Charles Thoroughgood, the protagonist of this novel, is a likeable enough, but totally wooden - it is almost impossible to imagine him as an officer in MI6. We learn that his previous career had been as a soldier, ultimately in the SAS - that defies belief, too. This is very much the book equivalent of an old B movie.

Maio 27, 2013, 3:26 pm

67. 1Q84 - Book 3 by Haruki Murakami.

When I first tried to read this book, for reasons that I now completely fail to understand I was not impressed - in fact I remember saying that I found this final volume disappointing and had wished that Murakami had left the story at the end of Volume Two.

I don't know what sort of mid-life crisis I was experiencing then but I could not have misjudged this marvellous book more egregiously. This third volume is simply fantastic, in all senses if that so heavily overused word.

The characters of both Aomame and Tengo are simply charming, and the plot that Murakami weaves is utterly enchanting. I am so glad that I tried to read this lovely book again, and am now worried about what other misjudgements I might have made (though I think i will stand by my disdain for Nicola barker's "The Yips"!)

I see that Penguin's paperback edition now groups all three books in one volume, which probably makes more sense - I would recommend that anyone reading 1Q84 should try to take in all three books together.

Maio 28, 2013, 7:43 am

Argh, *when* am I going to find time to read 1Q84??? I do have a copy somewhere at least (the omnibus edition).

Jun 1, 2013, 5:52 am

What wookie said. I want to read it, but it is just so big!

Jun 1, 2013, 1:48 pm

< 160/161 I certainly agree about its size being daunting. In fact, I read Books 1 and 2 in one hardback volume which was really a little too large to hold comfortably, particularly while commuting on the underground!

Jun 1, 2013, 1:49 pm

68. All Tomorrow's Parties by William Gibson.

I think that William Gibson is a marvellous writer, and one who has never really received the mainstream credit that his books deserve. This concluding volume of his "Bridge" trilogy may just fall short of the high standards set by its predecessors (Virtual Light and Idoru) but it still manages to be a very enjoyable book, showcasing many of Gibson's recurring themes: dystopian collapse in the not too distant future, social fragmentation and the proliferation of ghastly reality television programmes.

The story picks up shortly after the end of Idoru with Laney battling against illness to analyse the vast flow of information across the internet, searching for evidence of "nodal" seismic shift. As a child Laney had been brought up in care homes and had, without his knowledge at the time, been dosed with an experimental psychotic drug which has left him with almost clairvoyant powers to discern, and even predict, world-changing trends. He becomes increasing convinced that Harwood, a billionaire PR maestro, is about to provoke a major seismic shift in the world of information flow, with potentially catastrophic consequences for everyone else.

The action is focused on the Golden Gate Bridge which, following earthquakes a few years before has become a vertical shanty town, with makeshift dwellings and a bohemian community all of its own. Into this seething locale come Berry Rydell (formerly a cop but now a private security guard for hire, and Chevette Washington, erstwhile courier but now adrift, hiding from a violent ex-partner,, unaware that things are about to kick off in the most chaotic manner. Meanwhile an awesomely efficient hit-man is operating on the Bridge, dispatching anyone who might get in Harwood's way.

Gibson weaves the various threads together very deftly, and the climax is unexpected but very satisfying.

Jun 2, 2013, 10:06 am

69. The Case of the Pig in the Evening Suit by R. R. Gall.

Well! To quote Charlie Sheen as Bud Fox in "Wall Street" while Darryl Hannah is showing him some of Gordon Gekko's more notable art acquisitions, "I really took a bath on this one!"

I bought this book because it is set in Dumfries, a town that I know well and which has significant family associations. However, although it only cost me 99p from the Kindle Store I still feel that I was egregiously overcharged!

There are two further books in this sequence but I am confident that neither of them will be troubling my Kindle.

Jun 2, 2013, 4:30 pm

70. The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier.

I am very grateful to Fuzzi for reminding me abut this marvellous novel. It is more than forty years since I last read it, though it was one of my favourites as a child. I What a delight re-reading it proved to be.

The book tells of the travails of the Balicki family from Warsaw. The father, Joseph, headmaster of a local school, is imprisoned by the Nazis after someone reports him for turning the photograph of Hitler that he had been required to hang in his classroom to face the wall. Shortly afterwards his wife, Magrit, is also interned, leaving their three children (Ruth, Edek and Bronia) to fend for themselves.

After a couple of years Joseph manages to escape from his prison and returns to Warsaw to look for his family. He finds the family home reduced to rubble. Aghast he delves down to see if he can unearth any trace of the family but all he finds is a paper knife, in the shape of an elaborate small silver sword that he had given to his wife several years earlier. While staring in disgust at the remains of the house he becomes aware that he is being watched by a young boy, Jan, clutching a cat while. After a brief conversation (during which the young boy successfully picks Joseph's pockets) Joseph hands over the silver sword to Jan in return for a promise that he will do whatever he can to find a trace of Magrit or the children. Jan stows the sword away in a wooden box in which he keeps all of his dearest treasures (which include, among other things, the shrivelled body of a dead lizard). Joseph explores the remaining streets of the community searching for clues as to what might have happened to his family. Finding no trace he decides to head for Switzerland (where Magrit came from), in the belief that she would have tried to flee there to escape their oppressors.

Meanwhile the three children have been fending for themselves until Edek is arrested by the Nazis for smuggling food to be sold through the black market. Ruth starts running an informal school to try to teach some of the Polish children, and eventually Jan comes to join them - by now his cat has gone, to be replaced by Jimpy, a cockerel. By chance the three children find that Jan has the silver sword which they immediately recognise. Jan explains how he came by it, adding that Joseph had told him about his plans to seek his family in Switzerland. The story then deals with the children's exploits firstly to locate Edek, and then to try to cross Poland and then Germany to try to reach Switzerland.

The book is now recognised as a children's classic, though on its publication in 1956 there was a lot of criticism suggesting that the novel dealt with subjects too serious for younger readers. This seems odd nowadays - after all, Serraillier weaves a very sound plot and his characters are finely drawn. Even though the context may now seem very remote to today's children, surely this is exactly the sort of books that they should be reading. It holds up excellently for an adult audience, too.

Jun 5, 2013, 7:57 am

Hurrah for William Gibson! I've never read The Silver Sword, sounds like I'm missing out..

Jun 5, 2013, 5:45 pm

71. The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana by Umberto Eco.

As is always the case with Umberto Eco's books, this novel is intriguing and challenging, and requires considerable effort from the reader, though it does offer extensive rewards in return for that commitment.

Essentially it recounts the experiences of Yambo, a seller of antiquarian books, who, as the novel opens, has suffered a serious stroke and,as a consequence, has lost his autobiographical memory. However, while he can remember nothing of his early life, he does remember, in considerable (almost exhaustive0 detail every book that he has ever read.

Having been released from hospital he and his family attempt to find something with which to trigger the return of his memory. To that end his wife sends him of to his childhood home (still owned by the family and used as a summer retreat). While there he delves through a veritable treasure trove of artefacts stored in the capacious attics. He gradually starts to reconstruct a framework for his childhood and adolescence, set against the inner turnoil suffered by italy as the experiment with fascism under Mussolini proved to have been a terrible mistake. And then he finds something quite exceptional at the bottom of a hitherto overlooked casket ... and triggers a further "episode".

The book is beautifully illustrated with pictures of comics, records and journals from the 1930s and 1940s, and Eco uses these as a hook on which to hang a beguiling social and political history of Italy during the build up to, and immediate aftermath of, the Second World War.

Unfortunately I felt that it went on for rather too long, and I gradually lost any empathy for Yambo and his plight.

Jun 7, 2013, 4:43 pm

72. Meet Me in Malmo by Torquil MacLeod.

I have recently found myself in a minority of just one recently in that I have been unable to get enthusiastic about the recent wave of Scandinavaian crime novels that have taken Britain by storm. Indeed, despite making several strenuous efforts I have never found the strength of spirit to manage to finish a Steig Larsson or Jo Nesbo book. I was, therefore, rather dubious about this twist on the formula (though set in Malmo the book is written by a British writer - perhaps the first time that i have actually encountered a genuine Torquil!).
Told largely from the viewpoint of Ewan Strachan, a journalist working on a low circulation local paper in Newcastle who is invited over to Malmo to interview Mick Roslyn, whom he had known in their student days in Durham twenty-five years earlier. Roslyn has now become a successful film director within Sweden.

Things don't exactly go to plan, and when Ewan arrives at Roslyn's flat he finds the body of Roslyn's beautiful wife, clearly only recently murdered. The noel then becomes apolice procedural, told largely from the perspective of Inspector Anita Sundstrom, who is sorely tried by the chauvinism and obtuseness of her predominantly male colleagues.

The unusual setting and unorthodox narrative technique make for an interesting novel and I found myself gripped by the story.

Jun 8, 2013, 5:49 pm

73. The Scandal of Christine Keeler and John Profumo* by Lord Denning.

Fifty years ago this week John Profumo resigned from his post as Secretary of State for War in Harold McMillan's already ailing government.. The basic story is well known: Profumo had met the young Christine Keeler at a house party at Cliveden, ancestral home of the Astor family and site of many political weekends at which prominent members of the Conservative government led by McMillan would gather to relax. Keeler had been living in the flat of society osteopath, Dr Stephen Ward, a rather strange character who moved on the fringes of the Cliveden set and was aware of their occasionally lively parties. Christine Keeler was young, beautiful and available, and within a short time of their first meeting she was engaged in a brief affair with Profumo.

However, unknown to Profumo, she was also having occasional liaisons with Sergei Ivanov, a Soviet naval attache on the staff at the Russian Embassy. Naturally it was not long before such a juicy situation came to the attention of the press and the Whitehall rumour mill. Profumo was questioned by several of his fellow members of Governemnt but constantly denied that he and Christine had ever been more than just good friends, even going to the lengths of making a personal statement to that effect before the House of Commons .

Of course, as we all now know, he subsequently had to confess that he had had an affair, and his resignation and removal from public life followed on, inevitably.

This book is the report of the official enquiry headed by Lord Denning, and it covers in great detail the events leading up to the resignation, considering the roles of Profumo, Christine Keeler, Stephen Ward, the police, the press and the security services. However, while it might be an official report it is far from dry. Lord Denning has a lively style (if surprisingly ungrammatical in places) and the pace never flags. All in all, a very enjoyable, and also very informative, book.

Jun 10, 2013, 3:41 pm

74. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie.

I see from the flyleaf of this book tat i bought it at the age of thirteen, on a visit to York with my parents in the long, hot summer of 1976. At that time I was obsessed with Agatha Christie's books, and just read them one after another all the way through the school holidays. This particular episode in the Hercule Poirot canon is now regarded as rather a classic, and the solution to the murder was particularly innovative (Don't worry, I won't give anything away!).

Reading it again, thirty seven years later, it still works. Of course, this time I knew in advance who the murderer was, and armed with that foreknowledge I could see that all of the necessary clues are there. As usual, there is an acute social observation here (though I am fairly confident that I was utterly oblivious to this when I read the book as a boy), and the class strata are rigidly delineated. Still, the plot is watertight and the characters fairly plausible (within the wonderful world of Christie's village life, anyway), and nearly ninety years after it was first published it remains an engaging and engrossing story.

I am pretty sure that i will be re-reading several more of Dame Agatha's works over the coming months.

Jun 11, 2013, 10:57 am

I just read this too! Isn't it fun? I'll need to re-read it to pick up the clues later

Jun 11, 2013, 3:50 pm

75. The St Valentine's Day Massacre by Tim Coates.*

On 14 February 1929 seven members of "Bugs" Moran's gang were stooped by two men in police uniform in what appeared to be an ordinary raid. The uniformed officers asked the men to line up facing a wall with their arms raised. At that point four more men cam in bearing machine guns and virtually ripped the gangsters apart with a hail of bullets. This was the infamous St Valentine's Day Massacre.

The police investigated but no arrests were made. Intriguingly the FBI did not become involved at this stage, principally as there was no evidence that the assailants had crossed a state border.

Roll on nearly six years, and in January 1935 (by which time the disastrous Prohibition period had ended) Byron Bolton is arrested in connection with a kidnapping. Having been tried and convicted he is then reported in the Chicago press as having admitted to being one of the six participants in the St Valentine's Day Massacre, and naming his fellow killers. The response of the FBI was to deny that Bolton had made such a confession.

This book does not seek to investigate the accuracy or otherwise of Bolton's alleged confession. Instead, it reproduces the various newspaper articles along with extracts from the FBI files, released under the American Freedom of Information legislation. This gives a fascinating insight into the FBI's methodology and into some of the idiosyncrasies of FBI Director, J Edgar Hoover.

Jun 14, 2013, 7:10 pm

76. Stamboul Train by Graham Greene.

Published in 1932 this was Graham Greene's first major commercial success, and capitalised on the growing obsession with the glamour associated with continental rail travel that would later bring us Agatha Christie's "Murder On the Orient Express".

This is not Greene at his best - the novel is rather disjointed, and the characters are rather too stereotypical for twenty-first century tastes. It remains, however, an enjoyable read, and offer an intriguing contrast with the more polished Greene that we encounter in the later novels.

Jun 16, 2013, 12:34 am

Oh, I also read Roger Ackroyd as a teenager, and re-read it recentlyish. Agatha Christie can be great fun, and that one probably is her best.

Editado: Jun 16, 2013, 4:42 pm

77. Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty

What a marvellous novel.

I do need to declare a slight interest: I knew Louise Doughty at Leeds University some thirty years ago - we were both in the same intake into the English Department, and also lived in the same hall of residence. However, I am pretty confident that while that slight connection may have prompted me to buy the book as soon as possible after its publication, it hasn't impacted at all upon my judgement of the book.

The novel is narrated in retrospect by Yvonne Carmichael, a very successful academic scientist who has become a leading geneticist. As the novel opens she is recalling how she had been giving evidence at Portcullis House to a House of Commons Select Committee. Having completed her evidence she meets and falls in conversation with a strange man, who offers to show her a crypt below the House of Parliament.

From this unlikely opening she starts an affair with the man, who impresses her with his passion for secrecy. They meet again in a selection of different venues, including the Apple Tree Yard of the title. Much of the narrative takes the form of Yvonne writing letters on her computer knowing that she will never send them (she doesn't know her lover's name, let alone his email or house address!). Early on in their affair he gives her an unregistered mobile phone and insists that she should only contact him by that. Because of all of this secrecy Yvonne begins to wonder whether her lover is a spy.

Shortly after their liaison in Apple Tree Yard something dreadful happens. Doughty captures this marvellously - her descriptions of the aftermath struck me as utterly plausible. The nature of the narrative changes at this point, and we learn far more about Yvonne's past life, her husband and her family whom, hitherto, have only been the subject of passing references.

Beautifully written and immaculately plotted - quite definitely one of the finest novels I have read this year.

Well done Louise!

Jun 18, 2013, 4:45 pm

78. The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks.

When Iain Banks died last week at the age of 59 after losing his fight against cancer, one of the many glowing obituaries referred to him as "two of our finest modern novelists", recognition of his considerable success under the name Iain Banks that was matched under his science fiction persona as Iain M Banks (I can't bring myself to call the addition of one initial a pseudonym!).

The Wasp Factory was his first published novel under either tag, and it certainly catapulted him into the literary spotlight. I remember reading it back in 1985 when it first appeared in paperback, and being amazed by it. Nearly thirty years on, even though I remembered the shattering denouement, it still managed to astound me.

There are many way to describe this book - "unpleasant", "vicious", "sickening" and "gratuitous" would all pass muster, and none are exaggerations. However, I would rather suggest "dazzling", "innovative", "engrossing" and "hypnotic". It is, though, fair to say that The Wasp Factory is most definitely not a book for those of a nervous or squeamish disposition.

The book is a first person narrative recounted by Frank Cauldhame, a teenage boy living on an island just off the east coast of Scotland. Frank makes early, oblique references to a disability that he has suffered, though we only learn the details towards the end of the book. By then we have also been exposed to Frank's immersion in bizarre rituals, and his penchant for building (and then destroying) dams, and the low value that he places upon animal life. We also learn that his elder brother Eric has been confined in a secure mental hospital but, as the book opens, he escapes, and Frank assumes that he will be making his way home.

This all sounds remarkably sombre, to the point of depressing, but Banks tells the story in a very humourous vein, and despite his "issues" as we might now say, Frank is a particularly engaging narrator who readily secures the reader's empathy.

All in all a startling debut, and one that set him off to a successful and sustained career.

Jun 19, 2013, 5:46 pm

79. Shakespeare's Restless World by Neil MacGregor.

Neil MaqcGregor is probably best known to the non-specialist (a group within which I definitely include myself) for his inspirational series"A History of the World in 100 Objects", charting a history of human achievement as measured through one hundred artifacts held at the British Museum.

In this book MacGregor looks at twenty objects retrieved from Shakespeare's London, and analyses the perspective that they offer on the Bard's works. I felt that with a couple of these depictions he perhaps strained the reader's credibility but he never lost the reader's interest. The penultimate chapter, "The Theatres of Cruelty" , was particularly engrossing (if also somewhat repulsive), focusing on the cruelty endemic throughout Shakespeare's plays (and indeed those of his close contemporaries).

His prose is beautifully clear, and his arguments always lucid, and this book works as both a scholarly and a layman's level. Most significantly, it has inspired me to read the whole canon again.

Jun 19, 2013, 7:40 pm

Hmm...interesting....thanks for the review !

Jun 20, 2013, 4:45 am

Great review of The Wasp Factory, I am going to reread it next month and looking forward to it.

and Shakespeare's Restless World just sounds fascinating, going to keep my eyes open for that one!

Jun 21, 2013, 8:22 am

I was going to pick up The Wasp Factory sooner rather than later, thanks for the good review to inspire me further.

A workmate was reading A History of the World in 100 Objects over summer, it did look good.

Jun 22, 2013, 2:09 pm

80. Truth Like The Sun by Jim Lynch.

This proved to be one of those serendipitous discoveries when a work colleague of mine chanced to mention it in passing while describing another book that he had recently read.

The book is set in Seattle, past and present with chapters alternating between 1962 when the World Fair was bringing the city to worldwide attention and 2001 when Roger Morgan, who had been the driving force behind the success of the Fair, decides to run for the office of Mayor. Helen Gulanos, an ambitious and talented journalist, had been assigned to a fairly lame feature preparing for the fortieth anniversary of the Fair, and by chance happens to be present at Roger's birthday party when he almost spontaneously announces his decision to run for election.

As the story moves on we flit back and forth between 1962 and 2001 and see some of Roger's own doubts about undercurrents of corruption sloshing around between the carapace of self-satisfied celebration of the success of the Fair. Roger meets various celebrities (with intriguing cameos from Lyndon B Johnson, media legend Ed Sullivan, astronaut John Glenn and even Elvis), many of whom complain about the sleaze engulfing the city. Roger, hitherto unaware of it, delves around the seedier areas of the city and does indeed find rampant abuses - gambling dens, vice houses and a police force where bribery and rake-off was the rule rather than the exception. He also grows increasingly concerned about the activities of Malcolm Turner, an aspiring property developer, who seems always to be ahead of the field when it comes to buying up sites that will grew in value as a consequence of the success of the Fair.

Meanwhile, in 2001, Helen Gulanos encounters, and finds herself charmed by, Roger Morgan. Since piloting the World Fair to success he has built a reputation as the man who knows more about the city than anyone else, even though he has never held any local office. It has, though, never been clear quite what he has done for a living. Helen and her colleagues start reviewing his past to try to discover more about the man, and what might be driving his sudden wish to take office at an age when most of his contemporaries are enjoying their retirement.

In the meantime, the incumbent Mayor participates in a televised debate against Roger and tries to patronise him and finds himself totally outflanked, and as a consequence Roger's campaign gains considerable momentum.

Absolutely fascinating - certainly the best American novel that I have read for a while.

Jun 25, 2013, 3:32 pm

81. Tragedy at Law by Cyril Hare.

One of the finest traditional whodunnits that I have read!

Set on the Southern Assize Court Circuit 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 Horace Rumpole) and Justice Barber. Steeped in pomposity 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 particularly awkward for the victim as he is a feted classical pianist.

Meanwhile the Judge has been receiving anonymous and threatening letters, and we learn that Heppenstall, a former acquaintance to whom the Judge had delivered a particularly stiff sentence and who swore to seek bitter revenge, is now out of prison on licence and has been seen loitering in the vicinity.

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 manages his plot masterfully, with a deft lightness of touch. One feels great empathy for Pettigrew, and shudders at the occasional loathsomeness of Barber.

Lovingly crafted and beautifully written - a very jolly summer read!

Jun 28, 2013, 5:46 pm

82. Road Closed by Leigh Russell.

I don't know why I bothered and wish I hadn't.

In fact, it would have been far better if Leigh Russell hadn't bothered either!

Jun 28, 2013, 6:26 pm

83. A Buyer's Market by Anthony Powell.

The second volume of 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 recollections his earliest encounters with Mr Deacon, who had been a friend of his parents, which in turn lead him to recall one of Deacon's paintings, "The Boyhood of Cyrus", which had ung in the hall of a house where he had attended dances. This brings us back 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.

He is, however, in love (or at least he thinks he may be ... ) with Barbara Goring, a slightly noisy, hyperactive girl who plays a prominent part in the world of society dances and balls. Jenkins participates in the fringes of this world where he encouters Widmerpool, last seen four or five years ago in France where 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 with 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 of 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.

Jun 29, 2013, 4:17 am

82. Great review.

Jun 29, 2013, 11:07 am

Thanks, Judy.

I just love Powell's Dance to the Music of Time. I have been toying with the idea of writing about it for quite some time but never seem to get around to it.

Editado: Jun 29, 2013, 12:27 pm

84. NW by Zadie Smith.

I looked forward so eagerly to reading this book, led on by my on recollectios of "White Teeth" and "On Beauty" the rave reviews in all the papers, that I was probably bound to be disappointed. And I was!

Early on in the book one of the principal characters, Leah Hanwell indulges in an inner soliloquy which culminates in her telling herself "I AM SO FULL OF EMPATHY" (her capitals, not mine). Sadly, she's on her own there. I tried, I really did, but I couldn't find a shred of empathy for any of the characters in this book.

There has been an annoying trend recently for publishers to append the first few chapters of the writer's next novel to the end of paperback books, as a sort of taster. I generally find that annoying because one thinks one has another fifty pages or so to go - enough to tide one over on the journey home from work, only to find that it actually ends five pages later, giving way to the opening pages of a totally different book and leaving one high and dry but bookless for the rest of one's commute. Sadly I started to hope that this book was blocked out with about 120 pages of ephemeral padding but no such luck! My hopes that a tsunami might flatten Willesden (just in the book, of course - not in real life ... though, now I come to think of it ...) or that a serial killer might take out all the protagonists in one swift bloodfest. Quite frankly 120 pages of blurb would have come as a relief!

Jul 1, 2013, 5:40 pm

85. The Sunday Macaroni Club by Steve Lopez.

An interesting novel set amid the political shenanigans around local elections in Philadelphia, set against the backdrop of fear following a leakage from a local chemical plant.

Assistant DA Lisa Savitch has recently moved down to Philadelphia after her personal and professional lives in her native Boston collided in a rather horrendous way. Being new to the city she is assigned to a far-reaching investigation of local political corruptions, centred around former Senator (and ex-con) Augie Sangiamino, renowned for his role as a fixer. In alternating chapters Savitch's investigation is contrasted with the chicanery behind Sangiamino's latest campaign to try to elevate two cronies to local office.

The format works fairly well though the novel is far too long for this device to be sustained effectively. The denouement is clever, but I really felt that I had lost interest by the time I limped through to the end.

Editado: Jul 3, 2013, 6:35 pm

86. What We Talk About When We Talk About the Tube: The District Line by John Lanchester*.

If I were to summarise this book as a brief account of the District Line (i.e. the green one!) on the London Underground I could just imagine my friends rolling their eyes thinking that this time I really had fallen headlong into a midlife crisis.

However, this book is written by John Lanchester and I imagine that even his cheque book stubs or old shopping lists are written with an elegance that ensnares the reader's attention. Well, this particular reader's attention, anyway! It opens with a description of a journey on the 4.53 a/m. train from Upminster, the first train of the day across the whole network. Everyone who lives in London, or has visited there for even the briefest period, will have travelled on an underground train, but Lanchester makes this everyday act full of fascination, and subjects it to detailed analysis.

For instance, one might expect that the the very first train of the day might be almost empty. Far from it - by the time the train has passed a couple of stops down the line it is already full to bursting? Are these red-eye tube passengers eager bankers en route to another killing on the exchange floor? No, not at all. In fact, this train is full of office cleaners, struggling in at an ungodly hour to clean up the offices ready for the bankers who traipse in a couple of hours later.

I must admit that I had always tended to use the terms "underground" and "tube" as utterly synonymous. In another intriguing chapter Lanchester has set me straight on that point. There is a clear distinction between the two terms, though I don't like spoilers so I shall leave it for the reader to divine.

Lanchester goes on to explain how the Underground lines have impacted upon the demographics of the city itself, leading to a clearly mapped migration of wealth within the city. Though this work is primarily part of the new Penguin series of small books on each of the London Underground lines, it also stands as a valuable adjunct to Lanchester's novel Capital" and Whoops! his analysis of the circumstances leading to the banking crisis of 2008.

Jul 4, 2013, 5:06 am

That's sounds fascinating :) I have Capital on the tbr so once I have tried that I may move onto this next,

Jul 7, 2013, 4:54 pm

87. Laughing Boy by Stuart Pawson.

You always know where you are with Stuart Pawson: strong, plausible plots and empathetic characters. He doesn't rely upon quirky idiosyncrasies to carry the story and his main protagonist, Detective Inspector Charlie Priest, is immensely likeable.

In this eighth outing Priest thinks he might be up against a serial killer, responsible for at least three murders in and around Heckley, the imaginary Yorkshire town where the series is set. As if this wasn't worrying enough it seems that the victims are being selected entirely at random.

Priest finds himself summoned down to New Scotland Yard where he is advised that there might actually be a further three victims from a couple of years ago, all around Greater London. Priest and his team carry on their investigation against mounting odds.

The resolution is very well-constructed, and the clues and pointers are all there. In fact, my only cavill against this novel was Pawson's major solecism in stating that the town of Loughborough, where one character lives, is in Nottinghamshire. As a Loughburian and proud Leicestershire man it was almost a struggle to carry on reading!

But that was the only flaw. I don't think that this was Pawson's best book but that still leaves great scope for it to be rather better than the average crime novel, which this certainly was.

Jul 9, 2013, 5:10 pm

88. The Girl in Berlin by Elizabeth Wilson.

This is a gem of an espionage novel, reminiscent of early le Carre.

The principal protagonist is Jack McGovern, a Detective Inspector in Special Branch. While he enjoys the work he has is conscious of the rift it causes between him and his father, a Communist and former leader of industrial action in Glasgow's docks.

The novel is set in 1951 and opens with the news that Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean have disappeared, and are believed to have fled to the Soviet Union to escape being unmasked as spies. One of the characters works in the Courtauld Institute and we are given an excellent vignette of the Institute's director, Dr Anthony Blunt, as he is hounded by reporters eager to know if he had been involved. This was intriguing given that Blunt wasn't formally unveiled as one of the Cambridge spies until the late 1970s, though apparently there had always been some suspicions about him.

Colin Harris, a British socialist who had emigrated to East Germany pays a visit to London and meets up with former friends who are surprised to learn that he is engaged (Harris had previously been known as a committed homosexual). McGovern is asked to investigate Harris to see what he is really after. It transpires that Harris had been prosecuted for and, indeed, convicted of murder, subsequently being acquitted after an appeal. Meanwhile Konrad Eberhardt, an eminent German scientist who had fled to Britain in 1938, is murdered, having been seen with Harris at the funeral of an eminent socialist activist. McGovern has to determine whether this was merely coincidence, especially since rumours begin to circulate that Eberhardt was about to publish his memoirs. Other rumours suggest that, far from fleeing the Nazi regime, he had been a closer sympathiser of Hitler.

The ploy has labyrinthine twists, though these never seem superfluous. The characters are vivid and believable, and I look forward to reading more by Elizabeth Wilson.

Jul 10, 2013, 12:45 pm

89. A Comedian Dies by Simon Brett.

Simon Brett's Charles Paris novels are very entertaining: light-hearted, but always well-constructed with watertight plots, and the clues to the solution are always there, even if the reader does not always pick up on them as they go through the book.

As this novel opens, Charles Paris, the down at heel actor and occasional roue, finds himself going through one of his recurring rapprochements with his sometime wife Frances as they spend a week together in Hunstanton. With the weather poor they find themselves attnding a variety matinee in the pier theatre. The fare on offer is ather bland, but one of the acts, Bill Peaky, is tipped for future stardom and has already secured a certain fanbase from occasional television appearances. However, his career is truncated in the most brutal fashion when he is electrocuted on stage as a consequence of a faulty connection on the stage sound system.

As usual, Charles Paris suspects that there is more to this than simple mischance, and becomes involved in one of his amateur investigations. As usual, he suspects virtually everone in turn before eventually discovering the actual culprit. This may all sound rtather bland and predictable, but Brett writes in an appealing manner, and the insights into different aspects of the theatrical and televison worlds are always enjoyable.

Jul 10, 2013, 12:50 pm

I'd never heard of The Girl in Berlin and now I must read it. Great review!

Jul 14, 2013, 4:20 am

90. Mendel's Dwarf by Simon Mawer.

I remember first encountering the work of Gregor Mendel in my biology O Level course in about 1979. Our teacher, Doctor Phillips, was apparently a noted authority on lepidoptera, and had published many well-received papers on the subject. However, I fear that he may have found the GCE syllabus stultifyingly unchallenging, as a consequence of which his lessons to my class of sixteen year old boys were notable for their dryness. He touched on Mendel's work analysing the passage of characteristics through generations of sweet peas, which led to the identification of dominant and recessive genes, but it never came alive in my mind.

I understand that Simon Mawer was also once a biology teacher, and in this novel he makes the whole subject come alive. In effect the book is really two stories - a biography of Gregor Mendel himself interspersed with episodes from the fictional life of Dr Benedict Lambert, a noted geneticist, distantly related to Mendel, who also happens to be an achondroplastic dwarf.

To be honest I didn't like the character Lambert very much - there was something decidedly unpleasant about him - but his story is compelling, with Mawer's trademark elegant prose, and the interweaving of the two threads works very well.

Editado: Jul 14, 2013, 3:06 pm

91. The Dead Side of the Mike by Simon Brett.

Actor-sleuth Charles Paris is back again, this time investigating the apparent suicide of an assistant producer at the BBC's Broadcasting House.

As the novel opens Charles is in one of the bars of Broadcasting House having just completed the recording of a programme about the poet Swinburne and, being too slow to offer up an excuse to be left out, finds himself co-opted onto a Committee to try to overhaul the BBC's approach to cross cultural broadcasting. Bored beyond redemption Charles dozes, being suddenly snapped into wakefulness when he hears himself being asked to chair a sub-committee. Aghast, he desperately needs a drink, and saunters off, only to find the still warm corpse of the assistant producer. When a second death occurs, this time of a vague acquaintance of the dead girl, and once again appearing like suicide, Charles is convinced that there is more to the story and starts delving further.

The plot is solid, though, I think it is fair to say, rather dated, and might seem rather odd to younger readers. However, as always with the Charles Paris books, it is immensely entertaining.

Jul 20, 2013, 6:44 am

92. The Tourist by Olen Steinhauer.

I picked this book up just by chance, thought that the publisher's blurb made it sound interesting and decided to try it. What a fortune decision! Stephen King is quoted on the cover as saying that this is the best spy thriller that he has read that wasn't written by John le Carre. I doubt whether I would go quite that far, but it was certainly an engrossing story, and the plot kept twisting and writhing in different directions all the way through.

The principal character is Milo Weaver who, as the book opens is a "Tourist" (in effect a roving CIA agent with considerable licence to use any black ops means that he deems fit) working on a case in Venice, trying to track down an American Embassy official (and CIA operative) who has absconded with £3 million dollars. Having tracked him down to the palazzo of a former Soviet oligarch, Milo is himself shot. Inauspiciously, this happens on the morning of 11 September 2001.

Six years later Milo has more or less retired as a Tourist and is living a relatively placid life with his wife, Tina (encountered on the same day that he was shot), and precocious child Stephanie, but is called out of this sedate existence with the news that an international assassin (known as "The Tiger"), whom he had been trailing for years, had been arrested for a minor misdemeanour in one of the Southern states. Milo arrives at the police station where The Tiger is being held and gets to interview him. It is immediately apparent that The Tiger is very ill - ib fact he is in the later stages of HIV because, bizarrely, having been raised as a Christian Scientist, he would not take medication. (This was certainly one of the less plausible aspects of the story!)

He starts to tell Milo everything, and it emerges that he had deliberately engineered his arrest so that he could make this belated confession. He also alleges that he had himself been a contract agent for the CIA, and that many of his "hits" had been at the Agency's request. he also intimates that there are moles within the senior ranks of the Agency. His confessions are cut short when he dies in mid sentence. The rest of the book covers Milo's tribulations as he investigates the Tiger's claims.

This may all sound rather fanciful, and i am conscious that I may have made it seem rather trivial. However, the book is anything but trivial or fanciful, and the tension is kept at great tautness. Milo is an engaging character and has all sorts of personal issues, many of which impact significantly upon the plot. I certainly enjoyed it and will look eagerly for the rest of the series.

Jul 21, 2013, 5:48 am

93. The Joy of x: A Guided Tour of Math, from One to Infinity by Steven Strogatz

There is a widespread belief that people can either understand mathematics readily or simply have no idea about it at all - that there is no middle ground. This appealing book seeks to dispel that myth, and to show how much fun can be had with mathematics and even simple arithmetical puzzles.

I consider myself fairly adept at mathematics, and was fortunate enough to have had some very good maths teachers from an early age which helped to consolidate whatever natural aptitude I might have had. Right from the age of four my fellow classmates and I in the little village school we attended would have to chant our tables for an hour in the morning, and we were introduced to the joys of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division very shortly thereafter. I now work for the Department for Education for England where one of the recent Ministers had a similar introduction to the basics of calculation which had led him to develop a minor obsession with long division. His position gave him the opportunity to meet several senior figures from the Science Community (meetings on which I was occasionally privileged to sit in), including Sir Paul Nurse, President of The Royal Society (the world's oldest Scientific Association), all of whom he would quiz about their first introductions to long division.

Steven Strogatz demonstrates how easily subjects such as long division might be broached, and shows some useful pointers to didactic methods that might soften the blow for both pupil and teacher. He also shows how readily we lose our grip on logic when faced with relatively simple arithmetical problems, particularly when posed through words rather than numbers, and he devotes a couple of short chapters to deconstructing some of the old fashioned problems that i certainly remember being set more than forty years ago, of the "If it takes one man half an hour to ..." variety.

All in all a most enjoyable, diverting and informative book.

Editado: Jul 23, 2013, 5:36 pm

94. Murder in Malmo by Torquil MacLeod.

Although the plot is independent of its predecessor, this novel starts very soon after the conclusion of "Meet Me In Malmo" in which we were introduced to Anita Sundstrom, the engaging Detective Inspector from the Swedish police force. Ewan Strachan is still in jail following his arrest in traumatic circumstances at the end of "Meet Me In Malmo" and Sundstrom has only just returned to work.

She has picked a difficult time for her return to duty, coinciding with the unusual murder of an advertising executive while a gunman is on the loose shooting members of Sweden's immigrant communities at random. To cap it all, there is a series of art robberies, all of works by Pelle Munk. Then a banker is murdered in his own car, with a facile attempt to disguise it as suicide, though this doesn't fool the police even for a moment. Sundstrom goes through his briefcase and finds some unexpected DVDs, and it suddenly appears that there may be a political motive with its roots in Sweden's darker history.

I enjoyed the earlier book and was pleased to see that this second outing maintained the high quality. Sundstrom is an interesting character - sufficiently flawed to be empathetic, without (as so often happens) being quirky to the point of cliche. I am looking forward to the third volume now ... and I also think I would like to visit Malmo.

Jul 24, 2013, 4:06 pm

95. 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 always with "A Dance to the Music of Time" there is relatively little action but through Powell's customary 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 book opens with Nicholas Jenkins (about whom we learn as little as we have managed to eke from 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 tea 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. This is news to the reader - although the novel is often described as an 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 Jenkins himself 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 at the Ritz. At the latter event we are treated to the re-emergence of both Widmerpool, absent for the rest of the book, and Charles Stringham. Widmerpool may have been absent for the greater part of the book but he makes up for this when he does finally appear. His intervention in the final chapter is characteristically bizarre, and provokes considerable mirth among many of his fellow guests, but the thirst for power and advancement is still as pressing as ever.

"Wryly observed and beautifully written" is starting to sound like a bit of a mantra when it comes to Powell, but the reason phrases become clichés is because they are true.

Jul 28, 2013, 8:31 am

96. Shooting Elvis by Stuart Pawson.

Another solid performance from Staurt Pawson, once more featuring the very Likeable Detective Inspector Charlie Priest.

The book opens with the discovery of the body of Alfred Armitage, an old man who had been found electrocuted in his own home. The initial assumption is that he has committed suicide, but there are certain oddities that cause the police to look a little more deeply into Mr Armitage's past. It turns out that since the death of his wife a few years earlier he had taken to drinking heavily and had been prone to the occasional bigoted rant about the state of the country and his beliefs about the root of the problems. Just another pub bore, really (and I am all too familiar with them from the puib i used to frequent in Highgate!). However, despite the fairly modest circumstances of his small house and dowdy clothing, it transpires that he had over £340,000 in the bank.

Priest and his team start to delve further until another murder occurs, this time of a lowlife character who had been a player in Heckley's criminal fringe. This murder has all the trappings of a vigilante's campaign, with the body strung up in a humiliating pose. Are the murders connected? And, if so, how?

Pawson's books are always based in plausibility and the detective work to unravel these crimes is solid rather than spectacular. However, the effect is always pleasing, and this proves to be another creditable addition to the oeuvre.

Jul 30, 2013, 5:06 pm

97. A History of the World in Twelve maps by Jeffrey Brotton*.

Neil MacGregor's recent project "A History of the World in 100 Objects", in which he catalogued a compelling perspective on world history through one hundred artefacts in the British Museum, has spawned a whole new approach. Professor Brotton adapts it here to spin a fascinating history of, among other things, science, faith, colonial exploitation and propaganda hanging his story on a selection of maps from different eras, places and races.

The formula works very well. Professor Brotton recounts his exhaustive (and occasionally even a little exhausting) research and describes not just the world conveyed by the various maps that he considers but also the historic and political contexts against which they were created.

Cartographic mores have certainly changed. Nowadays we expect that the top of a map will always be the north. That is now an absolute given, to the extent that we rarely even need to be told of the fat. However, Muslim maps of the tenth and eleventh centuries tended to have the south at the top, while maps created in the European Christian tradition up until the early stages of the Renaissance .would always have the east at the top. Perhaps this influenced Tolkien because I am sure that I remember the dwarves in "The Hobbit" use a map of the Iron mountain that has the east to the top.

Brotton considers an engaging selection of maps ranging from a small clay tablet, found in Babylon, which is the world's oldest surviving map, through the mappamundi at Hereford Cathedral, via medieval maps of Kore and eastern China to the revolutionary Peters projection of which eighty millions copies have been sold since it first appeared in 1973. He finishes up with a run through digital maps and the gps revolution.

I did wonder, occasionally, whether Brotton just didn't know when to stop. He draws intriguing comparisons and raises some interesting questions, but he does labour his point unnecessarily at times and although, overall, I enjoyed the book there was also a sense almost of relief when I could finally put it away.

Jul 31, 2013, 5:35 pm

98. Kandak: Fighting with Afghans by Patrick Hennessey.*

I hadn't particularly wanted to read this book - a colleague had bought it and kept offering it to me along with his glowing recommendation. Eventually, just to be polite, I accepted it but had no intention of reading it, and planned simply to keep it for a few days and then hand it back saying that i simply wouldn't have the time to get around to it. However, as luck would have it, a couple of days later I left for work in a great hurry, forgetting that i had almost finished the book I was reading, and that there would certainly not be enough of it left to tide me over both commuting journeys that day. Monsoon-like rain was falling when I came to leave the office, dissuading me from my normal casual saunter to the local bookshop so I had to resort to this book, hitherto unregarded in a corner of my desk.

Well, how fortunate was I? This is an enthralling book, and I am very glad that I came to read it, however fortuitous that outcome might have been.

It is, basically, a series of reminiscences from Hennessey who served in the Grenadier Guards and completed various tours of service in Afghanistan, and recounted some of his experiences in his previous book, "The Junior Officers' Reading Club". This book focuses particularly on his role as a mentor to the Afghan National Army which is increasingly taking over the responsibility for maintaining the peace as the British and American forces withdraw.

There are the predictable contrasts when the ex-Sandhurst Hennessey finds himself grappling with liaison with a ragged, ill-equipped and frequently ill-disciplined bands of Afghan "warriors" (rather than mere soldiers). However, Hennessey soon came to cherish his role and his respect, and indeed affection, for his Afghan charges soon shines through.

Hennessey writes lucidly and has a great facility for stirring the reader's empathy. His accounts of the various Afghan troops with whom he worked , and with whom he shared a number of hair-raising are insightful and never patronising, and his descriptions of the Afghan terrain or the terrors to be faced down during night patrols have a forceful immediacy.

Editado: Ago 8, 2013, 7:16 am

99. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Perhaps more than any other book I have ever read, this marvellous novel leads up to its final sentence. There are lots of novels with memorable or poignant final sentences, but the whole crux of "The Great Gatsby resides in the final four paragraphs, and, in particular, in the closing sentence, "And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

At the simplest level this is a love story. Gatsby as a young and impoverished man meets, and falls deeply in love with, Daisy Fay, but is posted to Europe as America becomes involved in the First World War. Now, in 1922 Gatsby is immensely wealthy, and buys a huge mansion in New Jersey just across the sound from the house where Daisy now lives with her husband Tom Buchanan. Nick Carraway, the beautifully understated narrator of the novel first encounters Gatsby staring out across the sound. What Nick doesn't realise is that Gatsby is transfixed by the view, staring at a bright green light at the end of the Buchanans' jetty, which he sees as a token of his unfading love for Daisy.

Throughout the summer Gatsby holds a series of wild parties to which everyone in the neighbourhood seems to come. Gatsby takes little part in these revelries, and only later do we discover that he doesn't like parties at all, and only hosted them in the vague hope that Daisy might eventually chance to come along to one of them. The parties are certainly uproarious affairs, and it comes as a bit of a shock to remember that they were happening against the backdrop of America's misplaced experiment with Prohibition. Champagne and spirits flow with great abandon.

Throughout the novel Gatsby remains an enigma - no-one seems to know who he is, or where he came from. Conflicting speculations abound, with some characters asserting, vehemently, that he is a German spy while others aver, equally rigorously, that he belongs to one of Europe's older royal houses. Gatsby himself is scarcely to be believed, telling Nick Carraway at different times that he had inherited his money from an immensely wealthy family, only later to describe how he had had to struggle when he started in business because he lacked any capital or inheritance. He quickly adapts his story, but already the cracks are there for doubters to probe.

Carraway goes through a range of emotion reactions towards Gatsby, at different times admiring him, liking him despising him, though in the end admiration shines through. "Gatsby turned out all right in the end".

The other characters are finely drawn, too. Tom Buchanan is simply odious: a racist, arrogant thug who is shielded from the realities of life by his huge wealth. Daisy, Buchanan's wife and the great obsessive love of Gatsby's life isn't faultless, either. She is a slightly ephemeral character, and we see more of her through Gatsby's recollections or Jordan Baker's tales of their shared youth than we really learn from our encounters with the woman herself. On balance she and Tom are well suited to each other: "They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made. . . ."

Gatsby has clearly had some dubious connections (or "gonnegtions" as Meyer Wolfsheim, one of his cronies would say). Indeed, there is a chilling paradoxical footnote for later wrtiers. Wolfsheim, the stereotypical rendition of a Jewish gangster, makes a big point about the shell company he uses to launder the proceeds of his villainy. What now seems bizarre to us is that he calls this company the "Swastika Holding Company". Of course, the novel was published in 1925 and set in 1922 and that symbol had not yet acquired its later chilling associations. It is merely fortuitous that a Jewish character should choose to adopt it.

All of this makes the book sound somewhat chaotic. Not a bit of it. The novel flows with great pace, and Firtzgerald's prose has an almost hypnotic effect. Is it The Great American Novel? I don't know. However, I do know that it is A Great American Novel, and that's enough for me.

{Edited to correct some fairly appalling typos.}

Ago 4, 2013, 4:37 am

Made it!!!!

100. The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot by Robert Macfarlane.

Robert Macfarlane has produced a marvelous and haunting book. Macfarlane is a Fellow of Emmanual College, Cambridge, and he is well known for his scholarly introductions to a wide range of works. He is, however, also a keen (obsessive?) walker and climber, and has walked literally thousands of miles all around the world.

In this book he is particularly interested in exploring ancient ways, old paths that have existed for centuries. He starts with the Icknield Way, apparently Britain's oldest surviving route which extends from West Norfolk down to Dorset, running for part of its way along the Ridgeway (and there are many who believe that they are both parts of the same ancient route). Macfarlane likes to start early, often sleeping out in the open and starting to walk as soon as he wakes (in the summer often around 4.00 a.m. once the skylarks start their raucous early chorus), and will often walk more than thirty miles in a day. He clearly loves the country, and his descriptions of the flora and fauna are detailed and affectionate. However, his greatest interest seems to be in the geology of his routes about which he is immensely informative without ever losing the reader's interest of seeming to proselytise.

One of the joys of this book is the light he sheds on old routes, some of which remain in use while others have been all but lost. One of the routes he follows is described as the deadliest path in England and actually involves walking across Maplin Sands off the Essex coast, across sea to the island of Foulness, and this can only be done when the tide is out. As with Morecambe Bay, scene of a tragedy several years ago when a troop of bonded labour cockle pickers were drowned, the tide at Foulness comes in with terrific pace, faster than a man can run, so constant attention to times, tide maps and conditions is essential. The walk is known as "The Broomway" because of a series of high brooms planted along the course to show where the safe land is. Macfarlane and a friend completed the path and he gives a beautiful description of the interplay between the land, the sea and the indeterminate margin where one morphs into the other.

He doesn't just consider walking, though. Some of the most ancient routes were across the sea, and before the advent of decent roads (What did the Romans ever do for us ....) the quickest way to travel was generally by sea, using the network of tides and currents that surround the country. Two chapters are devoted to voyages from Stornoway following ancient trade routes throughout the Hebrides.

He also recounts a walk from Blair Atholl to Tomintoul en route to attend the funeral of his grandfather, also an ardent walker and about whom Macfarlane offers a moving memoir. I know the area he depicts in this walk, but will look at it in a wholly different way from now on.

Other walks include a wander through disputed areas in Palestine, the Camino in Spain and around the sacred peak of Mount Kailash in Tibet . The final chapter is a brief but poignant biography of Edward Thomas, the Welsh poet who died in World War One, and who had devoted much of his life to walking, and writing about it.

All in all a very striking book - in fact it seemed like several books in one.

Ago 4, 2013, 9:29 am

Your 100th book sounds really lovely (and congrats!), and also like an excellent Christmas gift for my dad (and I am a slightly mad person who starts Christmas shopping in August).

Ago 4, 2013, 1:07 pm

I found it so different from anything else I have read recently: fascinating, informative but also just very enjoyable. Definitely a pleasing way to bring up the century.

Ago 5, 2013, 4:42 am

Congrats! & I keep picking The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot up but I might actually purchase it next time :)

Ago 5, 2013, 10:38 am

I had looked at it a few times before i finally succumbed. I am glad that I did now :)

Ago 6, 2013, 5:15 pm

101. The Geneva Trap by Stella Rimington.

Another efficient novel from Stella Rimington, former head of MI5, once again featuring her immensely plausible and likeable protagonist Liz Carlyle.

This novel is up to Rimington's normal high standard and boasts a plot featuring numerous twists and red herrings, and the action moves from Geneva to Marseilles, which significant interventions from MI5 and MI6 in London. Is there really a mole in the higher reaches of Operation Clarity, which governs the development of a new remote control system for drone missions? If so, for whom is he working? Rimington obviously knows the background to these issues in intimate detail, and gives a roller-coaster novel with frequent twists and turns but in which the plot and characters are always believable. Not as substantial or engrossing as John le Carre's book, but no less entertaining for all that.

Ago 8, 2013, 8:42 pm

Past the 100 mark already! Congratulations!!

Ago 9, 2013, 12:56 am

Thanks, Judy.
I have been very lucky this year to have slightly more time than usual and to have had some great books to read.

Editado: Set 2, 2013, 4:57 pm

102. In the Kingdom of Men by Kim Barnes.

I hadn't heard anything about this book before I spotted it in the huge Waterstone's store in Piccadilly, but thought it sounded interesting and decided to take a chance on it as part of a "buy one, get one half price" offer. What a lucky choice!

It started out with a description of the early life of Virginia (known as "Gin" - the narrator) in which she lost both parents in fairly quick succession while she was still a child in the early 1960s. She was then adopted by an aunt who also quickly died and ended up with her harsh, obsessively pious lay-preacher grandfather who proceeded to bring her up under terms of total repression (rather like Stephen King's Carrie, just without the telekinesis). I must admit that by the end of the first twenty pages I wondered what I was letting myself in for, and was considering leaving it and writing it off as a bad lot.

However, I am so glad that I persisted. Once she managed to escape from her virtual (though not exactly virtuous) servitude in Shawnee, Oklahoma, Gin shines through as a fantastic character. Having eloped with Mason MacPhee, sometime college boy and basketball scholarship winner, she comes into her own. Mason does the right thing, and takes her to Texas where he finds work in the rapidly spawning oil fields. From there he is spotted as a potentially valuable drill foreman, and is given the opportunity to sign on for the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco) and go out to Saudi Arabia where the company operates in partnership with the House of Faud, the Saudi Royal Family. Mason and Gin find themselves set up in relative luxury in the American employees' compound in Abqaiq, with Mason embarking on long shifts at a drilling platform (two weeks on, one week off).

Barnes depicts the culture shock excellently, with Gin struggling to come to terms with the rigidity of life and the restrictions that apply to all women in Saudi Arabia, even the wives of the American workers. Restrictions are relaxed within the compound but apply as soon as she steps outside. She quickly becomes friendly with Ruthie, the very liberal and unrestrained wife of Lucky, one of the foremen. Ruthie is amazed at how naive and repressed Gin is, and makes it her mission to try to make her more sophisticated. In one episode Ruthie and Gin go into Dharhan, the nearest large settlement where they fall foul of the "mutaween" (the Moslem "virtue police") who chase them through the streets threatening to beat them. The attitudes of the mutaween are alarmingly similar to the views of Gin's grandfather.

Life in the compound is potentially luxurious, and far more comfortable thanh anything that Gin has previously dreamt of, let alone experienced for herself. However, it all leaves her rather restless, as does the sensitivity of dealing with servants - their house comes complete with Yash, a Hindu houseboy who had previously lived in India and then Britain where he received a university education, and Faris, a Moslem gardener.

Gin is eager to try to become fully integrated with her new world, and much of the beauty of the book lies in her attempts to become friendly with Yash and Faris along with Abdullah (a general factotum for Aramco) much to the consternation of her neighbours who prefer to maintain the rigid segregation. Meanwhile Mason emerges as a defender of the rights and interests of the Arab workers who make up the greater part of the Aramco workforce, but who receive mere pittances compared to their American overseers.

All in all this was a fascinating read, with an engaging central character, and I am very glad that something mad me stop and pick it up.

Ago 9, 2013, 9:35 am

Wow, In the Kingdom of Men sounds wonderful. Definitely adding it to my list.

Ago 9, 2013, 3:01 pm

@214 Hi Meredith. It's great when you come across a marvellous book like that wholly by chance :)

Editado: Ago 9, 2013, 6:22 pm

103. Jennifer Government by Max Barry.

Well, I suppose some people might find this amusing, but I simply found it irritating.

The basic premise had a kernel of humour, but not enough to sustain a whole novel. This might have worked as a short (preferably very short) story, but extended to full novel length it just fell flat. It was rather like watching a school's end of year revue which just seems to go on and on forever, with the performers rocking with laughter at the cliquey in-jokes while the members of the audience try to look polite while hoping for the fire alarm to go off, calling an early halt to proceedings.

Ago 9, 2013, 10:30 pm

216 - That one fell somewhat flat for me too, and I didn't like the ending. I found his book Company really excellent though.

Ago 10, 2013, 12:49 am

Cheers, Meredith.
I shall look for that one and give him another chance.

Ago 10, 2013, 1:55 am

Oh dear, I generally rather enjoy Max Barry! Sorry Jennifer Government didn't work for you.

And congratulations on reaching (and surpassing!) 100!

I'm about to look up book #97, sounds like a good one for my mum....

Ago 14, 2013, 4:42 pm

104. A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks.

This is a powerful contemporary novel set in London from a master of literary fiction.

Structured like a thriller, A Week in December takes place over the course of a single week at the end of 2008. Set in London, it brings together an intriguing cast of characters whose lives seem to run on parallel lines but, as gradually becomes clear, are intricately related. The central anti-hero, John Veals, is a shadily successful and boundlessly ambitious Dickensian character who is trading billions. The tentacles of Veals’ influence encompass newspaper columnists, MPs, businessmen, footballers, a female tube driver, a Scottish convert to Islam, a disaffected teenager, and a care worker, whose different perspectives build up a tale of love, family and money as the story builds to its powerful climax. All of the characters are utterly believable, and finely drawn, and Faulks displays complete mastery in the manner in which he interleaves their stories.

At times hilarious, yet also strewn with undercurrents of melancholic resignation, this novel also offers some poignant insights. The most striking of these was Gabriel Northwood's passionate lament over the failure of the education system, and the sad descent from a halcyon age when children were taught from a belief that it was simply good to have a wide base of knowledge rather than to equip them to take on jobs that might no longer be there by the time they leave school.

Ago 17, 2013, 5:39 pm

105. Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death by James Runcie.

Well, James Runcie certainly sold me the dummy here. The first story in this collection was very well written, with a tightly developed plot and a particularly engaging protagonist in the shape of Canon Sidney Chambers who shows great sensitivity to the widow of the victim.

However, the subsequent stories marked a great falling off and descent into simplistic trivia. I enjoyed the period descriptions of Cambridge in the 1950s, but the charm of those vignettes did not suffice to compensate for facile stories and implausible characters. I doubt if further volumes in this series will be cluttering my Kindle any time soon.

Ago 18, 2013, 4:14 pm

106. The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914* by Christopher Clark

This is a compelling and comprehensive account of the origins of the First World War.

I imagine that we all learned at school that the war was caused by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo by Gavrilo Princip. That certainly acted as the catalyst ("The shot that was heard all around the world" ...), but the political tinder had already been laid and would, doubtless, have sparked into fire sooner or later even without that assassination.

Clark gives histories of political developments over the previous forty years in all of the countries of Eastern Europe, setting the context for all of the conflicting tensions that were besetting the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the deep-rooted mistrust between Republican France and the monarchies of Germany Russia and Britain, whose kings happened all to be cousins and grandchildren of Queen Victoria.

All four of those countries had been pursuing ardent colonial ventures, and had already come close to conflict at various points around the world. A complex network of treaties (many with secret, conditional clauses) had kept the world functioning in relative peace for a while, but the clock was already ticking down to all out conflict.

Clark's book is fascinating, and goes into exhaustive detail (with more than 2,000 footnotes!), but never loses the reader's complete attention. The issues he addresses are complicated and extensive, but he explains them with great clarity.

Ago 20, 2013, 5:26 pm

107. Helsinki Homicide: Nothing But The Truth by Jarrko Sipila.

If you have ever wondered why there has not been a surge in international sales of Finnish crime stories to match the recent successes from Scandinavia, the reason, if this novel is anything to go by, might be that they are simply not very good.

Actually I feel rather proud of my perseverance in pressing on to the end, but that was because I was on a long train journey and, owing to lack of preparation, I had nothing else to read.

Editado: Ago 21, 2013, 6:10 pm

108. Capital by John Lanchester.

These days I frequently find myself re-reading books, and there are some favourites that I have read too often to keep count any more. This is very rapidly becoming one of those. Although it was only published about eighteen months ago, this was the fourth time I have read it, and I am pretty sure that it won't be 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 Islamic fundamentalism. There are many more similarities, though 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 they were 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 over 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 of his neighbours have received similar cards, each of them bearing a picture of their respective houses. At first they all assume that this is 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. But gradually things start to get nasty ...

In the meantime Zbigniew, a Polish builder, has been making a decent living from the street. His building work is excellent, and always completed on time to a high standard, and as soon as one job finishes he finds another one waiting for him.

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 goes 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.

Lanchester's previous novels, The Debt to Pleasure and Fragrant Harbour were already among my favourites (the latter particularly so), but Capital utterly eclipses them

Ago 22, 2013, 4:28 pm

109. Come Like Shadows by Simon Raven.

I think it would have been fascinating to meet Simon Raven! Fielding Gray, his fictional alter ego, is a rather unpleasant yet also very engaging character - even when he is behaving in the most abysmally selfish manner the reader remains on his side - so it would be interesting to know to what extent he mirrors his creator.

In this eighth volume of the deliciously salacious roman fleuve "Alms For Oblivion" we come across Fielding working as scriptwriter, on a temporary but an exorbitant weekly salary, for an artistic rendering of The Odyssey being filmed in Corfu. Personal relationships within the cast and film crew are characteristically tense and Fielding rapidly secures the sexual favours of Elena, one of the starlets from the Greek chorus, who mistakenly believes that Fielding will ensure that she gets extra script lines. Predictably enough Fielding soon tires of Elena and moves on, engrossed with the thought of seducing her fellow actor Sasha Grimes, despite being warned off by the film's director. Meanwhile, Fielding is involved in intricate negotiations to ensure that as little of his pay is subject to UK tax as possible.

So, everything seems to be going swimmingly - always a dangerous time for Fielding who seems cursed with an inability to let things lie. On this occasion his greed and his demands for ever higher recompense lead the film's producer to lash out, with startling and unforeseen consequences.

As always with Raven, the plot races along at a breakneck speed in his usual clear prose. Possibly slightly dated now (it was written in 1972 and set in 1970) it still grips the reader and is just great fun.

Ago 24, 2013, 11:21 pm

Oh, I'm beginning to think that I am a very bad person for still not having read Capital...

Ago 26, 2013, 4:23 pm

110. At Lady Molly's by Anthony Powell.

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

Taken at the most basic level the novel really only relates 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 drinks party to celebrate an engagement and Sunday lunch in a gentlemen's club), 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 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 was keen to try his hand at writing, but unsure of the best material with which to work.

Jenkins' 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.

Read it and enjoy!

Ago 26, 2013, 4:45 pm

111. Maigret in Society by Georges Simenon.

An exquisite little novel featuring the ineffable Chief Inspector Maigret.

It opens with Maigret being summoned to meet an official in the Quai d'Orsay, headquarters of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. There he is briefed by a pushy young official who introduces him to the dour old housekeeper of a former ambassador. That morning she had discovered the dead body of her employer, apparently shot four times in what seemed to be a classic "locked room" mystery.,

It transpires that the housekeeper had looked after the ambassador for several decades, and had presided over his household with a watchful eye. Though obviously devastated by the death of her employer she seems strangely taciturn, and Maigret struggles to get a cogent word out of her.

Further inspection of the ambassador's home reveal literally thousands of letters from a woman with whom he had been in love for more than fifty years. They had met as teenagers but, as she came from a very prominent family ("with relatives in every court in Europe"), they had been separated when she was forced into an arranged marriage to consolidate her family's position. They had continued to correspond throughout the rest of their separate lives. By a great coincidence it turns out that her husband, to whom she had always remained faithful, had himself died in an accident over the previous weekend, potentially leaving the widow and the ambassador free to marry after the passage of a suitable period of formal mourning.

Against this context Maigret struggles to find any slight fingerhold to enable him to get a grip on the investigation, using his customary clarity of thought and profound understanding of the human condition. The denouement is surprising, yet also wholly plausible and satisfying.

And all this in just 130 pages!

Ago 27, 2013, 3:35 pm

@224/226 me too & it's on my tbr pile. I have no excuse about not reading Capital at all.

Ago 27, 2013, 3:52 pm

@226/229 Absolutely no excuse needed. I worry about recommending a novel so positively because everyone reacts to each book differently.

Somehow Capital just seems just seems to have struck a particular chord with me.

Editado: Ago 27, 2013, 6:52 pm

112. There's No Escape by Ian Serraillier.

I think it must be more than forty years since I first read this marvellous adventure story. I remember that I loved it back then, but I hadn't thought about it for years until Fuzzi reviewed Serraillier's other classic story "The Silver Sword" (thanks, Fuzzi), which I had also loved as a child. I re-read that, and loved it: it certainly worked as well in adulthood as it had when I was a child - in fact I probably found it even more moving.

This novel has also retained its magic, and I think that it if weren't for the illustrations and the fact that it was published by Puffin rather than in the mainstream Penguin series, there would be no reason to think of this as being specifically a children's story. Set in the 1950s in a fictitious area of eastern Europe torn by war (similar to what would happen to the Balkans forty years later) it tells of how Peter Howarth parachutes into the conflict to try to bring out a beleaguered scientist who has been working on significant developments of radar technology. , crucial to Britain's defence strategies.

Seraillier weaves a deft plot, full of twists and turns, that never veers from the plausible and credible, and keeps the excitement at fever pitch throughout. I found it very reminiscent of John Buchan (another great favourite from my childhood and early adolescence whose books I have been revisiting recently): clear, well-crafted prose, engaging characters and good, solid excitement. Very enjoyable :)

Ago 28, 2013, 10:57 am


re 10 : The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared ... sounds intriging.

re 170: I really need to start reading the entire Hercule Poirot series sometime, I greatly enjoyed the series when it was on Mystery on PBS. And seeing The Mousetrap years ago (I know it's a different dectective but still Agatha Christie), when I went to London, sparked my interest all over again, I just got sidetracked along the way.

re 202: A History of the World in Twelve maps sounds interesting, i may have to add it to my pile TBR. I've been enthralled by maps since i was young. Read The Island of Lost Maps which was interesting in it's own way last year.

So many books out there, not all ones that I am inclined to read, but so many I was not even aware of, in some ways I miss the days of working at a bookstore and seeing the new books come in, though I don't miss the troublesome customers or the push to sell membership cards at all.

Ago 29, 2013, 5:18 pm

Hello Strphen,

I keep meaning to get around to reading The Islamd of Lodt Msps. Hopefully I will get there soon :)

Editado: Ago 31, 2013, 1:16 pm

113. The Jazz Bird by Craig Holden.

This novel is almost the obverse side of "The Great Gatsby, though with a far more intense scrutiny of the violence and seediness of racketeering during Prohibition"!

Like "James Gatz", George Remus comes from humble origins but sticks around, working from an early age to help to support his family. He starts out working in his uncle's pharmacy and works so well that he subsequently buys him out, and goes on to establish a chain of other stores. Once he is financially secure he pays his way through law school and starts to practise as a defence attorney.

Fast forward to the Prohibition era. Using a little-known loophole Remus is able to secure huge supplies of alcohol and builds up a wide network around Cincinnati feeding the demands of a suddenly and reluctantly dry population. He then meets Imogene, beautiful daughter of his bent lawyer. She falls in love with him immediately. He is more aloof, but does gradually fall under her spell. Eventually they marry, having negotiated various hurdles (not the least of which is her husband, severely wounded in the First World War and now confined to a private medical home ).

The novel actually opens in 1926 with Remus killing Imogene. The bulk of the book is actually about his trial, in which he puts forward a defence of insanity, with flashbacks letting the reader see how things came about. The Public Prosecutor is Charlie Taft, son of the former President and Chief Justice, who is driven by a growing (almost obsessive) empathy for the victim.

The plot is very taut, and Holden keeps the reader engaged throughout. Very impressive.

Set 2, 2013, 4:30 pm

114. An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo by Richard Davenport-Hines.*

It is now fifty years since John Profumo resigned both as a government Minister and as MP for Stratford upon Avon as a consequence of his involvement with Christine Keeler. His resignation had become unavoidable, not so much because he had had extra-marital sex with Keeler but because he had earlier made a personal statement to the House of Commons denying that he had done so. That is probably the only aspect of the "received" version of the story that is beyond dispute.

Profumo's position in the Government was as Minister for War, and his dalliance with Keeler occurred during the months culminating in the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the world came to the brink of nuclear war. What weakened Profumo's position further was the revelation that, during her affair with Profumo, Keeler had also been sleeping with Yevgeni Ivanov. Just a year earlier Tam Galbraith, one of the Civil Admiralty Lords, had had to resign because of public suspicion of impropriety behind letters that he had sent to John Vassall, an official in the Admiralty who was subsequently convicted of espionage. Against that context the perception that a Minister of State might be sharing a mistress with a Soviet military attache was unacceptably damaging.

The role of villain of the piece, however, fell not to Profumo, nor even to Keeler, but to Stephen Ward who was publicly vilified as a procurer of prostitues and a pimp of the most unwholesome variety. Following Profumo's resignation Ward was prosecuted for living off immoral earnings. Lord Denning's official report into the "Profumo Affair" (which was certainly an engaging and fascinating read in itself) went out if its way to pillory Ward and poison his reputation. Ward was never convicted - shortly before the end of the trial he took an overdose, dying in agiony in hospital three days later.

Davenport-Hines has revisited the affair, and in his deeply-researched book he paints a clear context against which all the events took plae. He also challenges the popular understanding of what actually did happen. Ask anyone about the Profumo Affair and they will say that one of the key factors was Keeler sleeping with Ivnov, but the only evidence that this ever happened was a sloppily written newspaper article by Keeler, already known as a compulsive liar, for which she was paid £1,000, (a huge fortune in 1962). Ivanov himself was never questioned about Keeler, and throughout the investigations of goings-on no-one else ever referred to Ibvanov sleeping with Keeler.

The portrayal of Ward as a procurer and pimp is also very questionable. It is clear that he was an unwholesome character, but it is equally clear that the police case against him was manufactured from start to finish, and the fact that he was prosecuted at all was an utter miscarriage of justice.

Davenport-Hines shows very clearly how the Profumo Affair rocked British society. The Press used the fraying of the Establishment to secure its seemingly impregnable position which was only slightly challenged by the recent Leveson Inquiry. Concerted campaigns by the Daily Mirror and the Daily Express (then a left-wing leaning paper) certainly perverted the course of justice by compromising Ward's defence.

I found this book most enjoyable and enlightening. I can't say whether the truth lies with Denning's version of with Davenport-Hines's reappraisal, but I do know that a good dose of scandal never goes amiss.

Editado: Set 4, 2013, 6:06 pm

115. The Potter's Hand by A. N. Wilson.*

This was rather an odd book encompassing a biography of Josiah Wedgwood within a novel set against the American War of Independence in which Tom, Wedgwood's nephew sets off from New York to the lands of the Cherokees to buy some of their splendid white clay to fuel Wedgwood's dreams of expansion. It was certainly very informative and I imagine it represented hundreds of hours of deep research.

I was definitely impressed to discover that Wedgwood was grandfather of Charles Darwin (the novel opens with Erasmus Darwin, father of Charles, supervising the gruesome amputation by fret saw of one of Wedgwood's legs), and also numbered composer Ralph Vaughan Williams and notable historian C V Wedgwood among his descendants.

As one might expect from A N Wilson, this book is beautifully written, and rattles along with plenty of hilarious episodes intermingled with passages of great sensitivity. However, I never felt entirely comfortable with it, and think it might have been wiser to stick to conventional biography (of which, of course, Wilson has shown himself a master). Perhaps I'm just being capricious - after all, prior to reading this book I think that everything I knew about Josiah Wedgwood might have been accommodated on the back of a postage stamp. Now, though, I feel I know altogether too much!

Set 5, 2013, 6:00 pm

116. Alex by Pierre Lemaitre.

I had read a lot of rave reviews about this book and was looking forward to an engaging and enthralling read. In the event I was very disappointed. This is just another squalid police procedural featuring yet another maladjusted Inspector.

Set 8, 2013, 1:17 am

#223 *giggle*

#224 I also loved Capital and gave it 5 stars. I'm not a rereader, so I will not match your rereadings, but I can understand why this would be a great contender for rereading! It really had a bit of everything.

#237 Me too.

Set 9, 2013, 5:52 pm

117. Maigret has Scruples by Georges Simenon.

Another well crafted story from Georges Simenon. It opens with Maigret and his colleagues in a state of torpor in the first week of the New year. No-one seems to have any energy or drive, and even the criminals seem to be suffering from post-Christmas inertia. In the midst of this Maigret is visited by Xavier Marton, head salesman from one of Paris's leading toy stores. It takes M. Marton (an expert (perhaps even a connoisseur) of electric trains) a long time to tell his story, but it eventually transpires turns out that he is convinced that his wife is trying to kill him. He even produces a wrap of paper containing a hazardous chemical preparation that he has found hidden in his house. However, at this point Maigret is summoned away to speak to the Chief of Police on another matter, and when he returns to his office M. Marton has gone.

The plot thinkens when maigret is visited shortly afterwards by Mme Marton, Xavier's wife, who tells a similar story to her husband. Maigret is left to wonder which, if either, is telling the truth.

As always, the plot is well thought through, and the story is beautifully written (or, translated by a writer with a flair for gripping prose. There is relatively little exciting action,but the tension develops inexorably. More than fifty years on from its original publication this book has scarcely dated at all.

Set 13, 2013, 3:48 pm

118. Bloodhounds by Peter Lovesey.

This is Lovesey at his magnificent best, and he manages to combine a gripping murder story with an analysis of the different genres of crime fiction.

As the novel opens, Lovesey's permanently irascible Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond has just arrested a bank clerk who has just confessed to the murder of his branch manager, so he is feeling pretty smug. Meanwhile Shirley-Ann Miller decides to go along to a meeting of the Bloodhounds, a group who meet weekly to discuss crime fiction. There are only six other members but it soon appears that they have wide-ranging and passionate ideas about what constitutes the ideal crime novel. Some favour gritty, modern realism while others prefer the traditional whodunnit, particularly the "locked room". One is obsessed with Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose" (and why not?).

Lovesey uses the differing opinions of the Bloodhounds to illustrate the contrasting genres of crime fiction which he does in an informative but also immensely entertaining way. And then one of the Bloodhounds finds himself inexplicably in possession of the world's most expensive postage stamp, stolen earlier that week. This is merely the start of a series of events that will end in the murder of two of the members and the investigation of the rest. Lovesey weaves his own intricate "Locked room" mystery, and embeds it soundly within a robust police procedural, and adds further grist to the Diamond canon.

Most enjoyable.

Set 13, 2013, 5:51 pm

119. The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier.

I find that each novel by Tracy Chevalier seems to be even better than the last one, and, let's face it, she started from a very high level. She seems to have a particular facility for weaving glorious, engaging and engrossing stories from subject matter that one might not immediately view as particularly exciting..

In her latest novel the protagonist is Honor Bright, a young Quaker woman from Bridport, Devon, who travels out to Ohio with her sister Grace who is engaged to be married to a former neighbour who had emigrated to set up a draper's shop. Honor is plagued with dreadful sea-sickness throughout her Atlantic crossing, and then suffers the shock of seeing her sister contract, then very soon die from, yellow fever. Distraught, and still unwell herself, Honor spends a week recovering at the house of Belle Mills, a local milliner with whom she develops a lasting friendship. It is here that we learn of Honor's considerable skills at sewing quilts, a fundamental talent for any Quaker woman.

Meanwhile Honor has sparked the interest of Donovan, Belle's half-brother. Donovan's life revolves around the sinister heart of the novel. The action all takes place in northern Ohio which in 1850 was part of the route followed by escaping slaves heading for the total freedom on offer if they can cross into Canada. Honor finds herself participating in "the Underground Railroad", an ad hoc network of people helping the escapes to evade recapture. Donovan is a bounty hunter specialising in catching them and returning them to their "owners". Honor's fellow Quakers find themselves in a quandary - they abhor the existence of slavery but they are also bound by the law and risk losing their livelihoods for open collusion.

Honor's life is far from easy, and Chevalier gives a moving picture of her struggles to become accepted in the community. We get a close insight into nineteenth century life on a farm, and also of the rituals of Quaker life (including quilts), though this is never allowed to intrude into the novel. At the end of each chapter we find a letter from Honor and addressed either to her parents or to "Biddy", her best friend from back home in England which allows Chevalier to advance the story.

The blending of the characters, the historical context, an engaging plot and Chevalier's trademark beautiful prose makes this a glorious novel. One of the finest I have read this year.

Set 14, 2013, 7:33 am

Oh, I didn't realise Tracy Chevalier had a new book out! Not that I've read her last book yet, sigh. (If only I could do without sleep...)

Set 14, 2013, 7:57 am

I think she is fantastic. Each of her books covers a completely different field but she always manages to hook the reader's attention. I raced through The Last Runaway because I was utterly engrossed, but I was also conscious of that feeling of not really wanting to finish it because I was enjoying it so much.

Set 19, 2013, 11:33 am

120. Pilgrim Soul by Gordon Ferris.

Gordon Ferris has emerged as a writer of engaging fiction over the last two or three years and has developed two principal protagonists, each featuring in their own series of novels set in the immeidate aftermath of the Second World War. "Truth, Dare, Kill" and "The Unquiet Heart" have featured Danny McRae, former Detective Sergeant from Glasgow CID, now relocated to post-War London where he is trying to make his way as a private detective. Meanwhile "The Hanging Shed" and "Bitter Water" have featured Douglas Brodie, also formerly of Glasgow CID and now working as a crime reporter on a leading local paper (could it possibly, by any chance be supposed to be "The Herald", I wonder!?), but also venturing into the world of private detection. In this gripping novel we learn that they had previously worked together and been friendly, and they are reunited.

This novel is certainly gripping, even if it dwells on horrific aftermaths of the war. In January 1947, during a particularly bleak and cold winter, Brodie is commissioned to investigate a series of recent burglaries of the homes of Jewish families in and around Glasgow's run-down Gorbals area. It immediately becomes apparent that it is no coincidence that the victims are all Jewish; they are being deliberatly targeted. The local police seem scarcely interested, and Brodie decides to take the case on. Meanwhile, his barrister partner Samantha is called upon to assist the prosecution in the latest wave of trials of war criminals in Hamburg. We also learn that Brodie, during his war service, had been present at the liberation of some of the concentration camps, and had led the initial questioning of the Nazi war criminals responsible for the despicable acts perpetrated therein. Their two investigations become increasingly enmeshed as it emerges that one of the "rat lines" that assisted Nazi war criminals to escape justice was channeling them through Scotland. As a further complication, there is ferment within the Jewish community over the role of the British Army in, as they see it, delaying their access to the new state of Israel.

The plot is grim but watertight, and the characterisation is compelling. Brodie is a likeable character, not least because he is flawed. he drinks too much, and he is occasionally incapable of reining in his temper. Passions are raised as vigilantes end up clashing with police.

All in all a very enjoyable read.

Editado: Set 24, 2013, 5:28 am

121. The Deaths by Mark Lawson.

I always enjoy listening to Mark Lawson's "Front Row" programme on BBC Radio 4, and was looking forward very eagerly to reading this novel, though, as always in such circumstances, there was a slight fear that I might prove disappointed. However, Lawson definitely delivers in spades with this finely crafted novel about life in Middle England during the recent economic downturn and the Government's austerity measures.

The novel is based around four families living in a village in the commuter belt of Buckinghamshire. Self styled as The Eight the four couples occupy the four largest houses in their village and come to create their own social circle. However, despite their closeness, a degree of stratification is already evident as the novel opens. At the pinnacle of the inner society stand the Dunsters, Max and Jenno, who posiiton is supported by Dunster Manor, the family firm that Max in herited and which makes high class diaries and calendars and similar products popular around the world. Next in line come the Crossens, Jonny and Libby. Jonny, son of a now ennobled Tory Minister from the Thatcher and Major administrations, is a very successful barrister while Libby sits as a local magistrate and also features in countless local communities. Tom Rutherford is Chief Executive of his own security firm while his wife Emily is a local doctor. The fourth couple is made up of Natasha ("Tash") and Simon Lonsdale. Tash owns a catering company while Simon is a senior executive in a PR firm which is currently struggling to rehabilitate the image of a failed bank. All four couple have children who go to school together, and almost all of their socialising seems to be conducted within the clique.

Alternating chapters of the story show the discovery of a brutal mass murder in which one of the families is killed by the husband/father who then shoots himself. The other chapters show the lead up to this awful crisis, and Lawson handles this deftly, sowing clues that could apply to any of the families.
It was very reminiscent of John Lanchester's Capital (one of my favourite novels ever), with the scene transplanted from South London to rural Buckinghamshire, and Lawson makes telling observations about the state of the nation.

All in all I found it very enjoyable.

Set 28, 2013, 6:24 pm

122. The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling.

I was very surprised at just how good this novel was. I had put off reading it for quite a while having been wary of the hype that surrounded J K Rowling's first novel for adults (the phrase "adult novel" sounds rather infelicitous!), and only grudgingly started to read it after several friends had remarked upon how good it was.

The novel opens with the death on his wedding anniversary of Barry Fairweather, a member of the local parish council for Pagford, a small town in the south west of England (his demise creating the casual vacancy of the title). Fairweather had been a popular and dynamic figure within the local community, and is sorely missed. He had also been a liberal bulwark against the tides of reactionary thought predominating among his fellow councillors.

Rowling gives a very plausible description of a small rural town and the tensions that arise over seemingly trivial disputes. She also captures the social stratification very well, and the strained relationships between and within the town's most prominent families. These strained family relationships extend to the children, and Rowling gives excellent portrayals of the teenage angst suffered by the sons and daughters of the different combative families.

The burning issue that faces the parish council is whether it should agree to an electoral boundary change which would have the effect of removing The Fields, a local sink estate away from its control. The late Barry Fairweather was himself a former resident of the Fields, and he had campaigned vigorously for it to remain under the control of Pagford rather than letting it be ceded to Yarvill, the neighbouring city.

As an election is called to replace Barry on the council. And then libellous posts start appearing on the council's website, signed "The Ghost of Barry Fairweather".

The book contains a bit of everything - satire, humour, the burning pangs of teenage love and also deep tragedy and despair. All in all, a very impressive, entertaining and engrossing novel.

Set 29, 2013, 4:24 pm

123. A Decent Interval by Simon Brett.

Charles Paris is back! After a break of several years during which he has concentrated on his Fethering series of novels (with alliterative titles such as "The Body on the Beach" and "Murder in the Museum"), Simon Brett has returned to Charles Paris, the down-at-heel and rather mediocre journeyman actor who is, to my mind, his finest creation.

In this outing Charles lands a part (well, two parts, actually) in a production of Hamlet which is scheduled for a tour of provincial theatres around England before a hopefully triumphant run in London's West End. Charles is gratified to have the roles of The Ghost and the First Gravedigger, and is looking forward to an enjoyable spell of work. The title role is, however, to be taken by Jared Root, recent winner of a reality TV singing competition (clearly modelled on the X Factor) while Ophelia is to be played by Katrina Selsy who had landed the part as her prize for winning a similar television competition.

It soon becomes clear that Jared Root can't act at all, while Katrina Selsey has delusions of stardom way beyond her as yet untested talent. Just before the opening night in Marlborough, first stop on the provincial run of the production, part of the stage set falls down, seriously wounding Root. And then Katrina Selsey dies under strange circumstances. Charles decides to investigate.

The Charles Paris novels are always amusing, filled with Brett's insight into the trials and tribulations of an actor's life (exacerbated by Charles's relentless drinking). This latest in the series is well up to standard, and proved most enjoyable.

Out 3, 2013, 5:42 pm

124. An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris.

I imagine we have all heard about the Dreyfus Affair, the subject matter of Robert Harris's latest novel but I must admit that I was lamentably ignorant of the finer details.

Alfred Dreyfus, a wealthy Jewish officer in the French army was convicted of treason in 1894 and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil's Island, an inhospitable prison island a few miles off the coast of French Guyana. Before being deported he was subjected to a numbing ceremony of public degradation in which the insignia of his rank were ripped off his uniform in front of a baying crowd of thousands, many of whom were screaming "Death to the Jew".

One of the witnesses to that ceremony was Marie-Georges Picquart, then a major in the army, charged with reporting back to General Mercier, one of the Chief's of Staff in the Ministry of War. Picquart knew Dreyfus, having taught him at the military academy and then supervised him during his induction into the General Staff. Shortly after this Picquart is promoted to Colonel and appointed to supervise one the counter-espionage section of the Intelligence Division. While there Picquart is required to review Dreyfus's correspondence with his family, which prompts him to look into the details of the alleged treason.

Picquart gradually become convinced that the evidence against Dreyfus is at best circumstantial and, more probably, the consequence of a deliberate ploy motivated by Anti-Semitic prejudice and envy of Dreyfus's wealth. Meanwhile he amasses evidence of the identity of the actual traitor.

Even though one knows the denouement Harris keeps the reader engaged. The novel is deeply researched and the relationships between the characters are entirely plausible, helping the story to race along. The cast of peripheral characters is impressive with Picquart consorting with Emile Zola and future Prime Minister Clemenceau. Very enjoyable and informative.

Out 3, 2013, 10:54 pm

The Deaths sounds very interesting. Wishlisted.

Out 6, 2013, 5:05 pm

125. Solo by William Boyd.

When I was about 13 or 14 I read Ian Fleming's James Bond novels quite avidly, even though they were by then already rather dated and, at least to an adolescent's boy's taste, rather anodyne compared with the films that they had spawned. However, as one of my old drinking buddies was a huge fan of them I tried to re-read a couple of them just a few years back and found them very hard going, almost to the point of being utterly impenetrable.

However, ever since reading his first novel, "A Good Man in Africa", I have been, and avowedly remain, a huge fan of William Boyd, whom I consider incapable of writing an inelegant sentence. I was, therefore, intrigued to hear that he had accepted a commission from the Fleming Estate to write the latest "official" James Bond story.

Boyd's recent novels have followed espionage-related themes, though operating on a far more elevated plane than Fleming's shockers, but he rises to the challenge of continuing Bond's career with great gusto. The book is set in 1969, and opens on Bond's 45th birthday. To celebrate he books the day off and arranges to spend the previous night in The Dorchester Hotel. We get chapter and verse on his meals, even down to the number of eggs scrambled for his breakfast, though this attention to detail isn't at all intrusive. Having met a beautiful woman in the hotel lift, he then heads off for a day of intense self-indulgence for his birthday, including a test drive of the legendary Jensen FF. This all works very well, and Boyd paints an appealing picture of the swinging sixties in west London.

Indeed, the plot only really gets properly started some four or five chapters in when Bond eventually makes it to his office and is briefed by M for his mission which is, basically, to go to West Africa and bring an end to a vicious post-colonial civil war that is besetting the state of Zanzarim.. Bond is flown out to Africa masquerading as a reporter for a French news agency. The story proceeds true to the tried and tested James Bond model.

I think this was an interesting experiment but I am not sure that it worked - basically William Boyd is just too good a writer and it seems a dreadful waste to have his ability reined in to match the weaker template set by Fleming. Still, I did enjoy it, and I might even try some of the originals again.

Out 6, 2013, 5:26 pm

126. The Loch of the Green Corrie by Andrew Greig.

This book was so nearly very good, but sadly it subsided into morbid self-obsession.

Andrew Greig has published a few novels (including "The Return of John Macnab", which would certainly rank among my fifty favourite novels) along with several volumes of verse, and it was his work as a poet that brought him to the attention of elderly Scottish poet Norman MacCaig. At a meeting not long before MacCaig's death Greig promised to fish at the Loch of the Green Corrie, a site in Assynt (the far North West of Scotland). This book details the expedition that Greig and two of his friends undertook to make good that promise.

Greig's prose is generally lucid and incisive (presumably as a consequence of his talent as a poet), and when he is describing the landscape of Assynt the book is enchanting, as it also is when he talks about (and extensively quotes from) MacCaig's poems. However, too much of the book dwells on torrid episodes from Greig's own past, and to my mind these mar the flow of the book.

I am glad that I read this, but I would hesitate to recommend it to anyone who does not have my own love of the Highlands, Read his "The Return of John Macnab" or even John Buchan's original "John Macnab" instead.

Out 9, 2013, 4:53 pm

127. Expo 58 by Jonathan Coe.

In 1958 Thomas Foley, a mid ranking Civil Servant in his early thirties, is asked to go to Belgium to be part of the British delegation to the World Fair being held in Brussels. At first he is reluctant to leave his wife Sylvia and their new born baby Gill, but as soon as he arrives in Brussels and sees the Atomium, freshly-minted centrepiece of the World Fair and symbol of a scientific and technological revolution just around the corner, he is utterly entranced.

Thomas quickly finds himself immersed in a new routine supervising The Britannia - a pub created on the World Fair campus designed to represent everything British - and makes friends among the fellow delegates. However, he is also unable to shake off the attention of Radford and Wayne, two hilariously-depicted secret agents who are concerned about the abundant opportunities for international espionage that the fair provides.

Not quite up to the high standard of his earlier novel "The Rotters Club" this was still very enjoyable. The edition that I read was specially prepared for Waterstone's and included a note on how Coe came to write it which referred to an earlier novel and short story in which distant relatives of Thomas had already appeared and hinted that further associated books might follow in the future. I hope so!

Out 13, 2013, 6:13 pm

128. Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein.

What an amazing book - probably the finest World War Two novel I have read.

This book takes the form or two parallel narratives: one written (we eventually learn) by Julie, an aristocratic British Special Operations Executive (SOE) officer who has been captured by the Nazis and is being interrogated by the Gestapo and the other by Maddie, the prisoner's best friend who has managed to be come accepted as a pilot.

The prisoner's narrative is particularly engaging, comprising her experiences during the war as a whole as well as the recent escapades that had led to her current predicament. her narrative seems to alternate between rage or disdain towards her captors and fond reminiscence of her friendship with Maddie. As you read on it becomes increasingly enchanting.

Maddie's narrative is equally absorbing and complements the other half of the story, and drawing the reader's attention to some crushing ironies. Growing up in the North of England and learning from an early age how to attend to motorbike engines, she had come to qualify as a pilot, and had spent much of the war delivering planes and ferrying other pilots around the country, and had succumbed to the glamour of Julie and her family.

Alternately funny and then deeply sad, the book is never less than enchanting throughout.

Out 13, 2013, 7:50 pm

Definitely looking for Code Name Verity now.

Out 13, 2013, 11:43 pm

Ditto! (And still looking for Capital...)

Out 14, 2013, 5:33 am

" probably the finest World War Two novel I have read" and on the wishlist it goes!

Out 15, 2013, 4:41 pm

129. The Jewels of Paradise by Donna Leon.

Taking a break from her series of crime novels featuring the long-suffering and inordinately patient Commissario Guido Brunetti Donna Leon has ventured into the more litereary end of Dan Brown territory, taking the reader through a brief history of Baroque music and revisiting the life of composer, bishop and diplomat Agostino Steffani.

Her protagonist in this stand-alone novel is Catherina Pellegrini, an accomplished musicologist with expertise in the Baroque period. She is commissioned to return to her native Venice to review the contents of two large recently discovered chests, identified as having belonged to the late Steffani who died in 1728. Two rather shady modern day Venetians have also been identified as having joint claim on the Steffani estate.

We are then treated to an intriguing recapitulation of Steffani's life, from early mutilation as a castrato through his career as a leading chorister and then a composer in his own right while he also amassed a number of posts within the Catholic Church, complemented by diplomatic missions for various eighteenth century notables.

Leon has clearly equalled her character in the depth of her research, and she conveys huge amounts of information about the life and times of Steffani, without ever making the reader feel put upon. Meanwhile she also manages to build the tension as Catherina's investigations proceed.

All in all I found this a welcome break from the Brunetti series which I felt was beginning to feel slightly stale.

Out 16, 2013, 5:56 am

My book group just voted for Code Name Verity based on your review. No pressure. :)

Out 16, 2013, 8:00 am

Gosh! Really on the spot now. I hope you and the group enjoy it - otherwise I shall have to continue reviewing under a pseudonym! :)

Out 17, 2013, 5:34 pm

130. A History of Capitalism According to the Jubilee Line by John O'Farrell.

Having read a couple of John O'Farrell's previous books I was confident that I would enjoy his contribution to the Penguin series of short observations on the London Underground. O'Farrell was commissioned to write about the Jubilee Line (the "silver one") which runs from Stanmore, out in North West London through the West End before extending out through Docklands before terminating at Stratford in the East End.

Unlike John Lanchester, who gave considerable detail in his history of the District Line (the "green one"), O'Farrell devotes most of his book to recounting a nightmare he had about a journey along the Jubilee Line which was truncated owing to the collapse of western capitalism and floods driven by the melting polar caps. This pain of this dreadful journey is exacerbated by the unexpected appearance of the politically diametrically opposed philosophers Roger Scriuton and Noam Chomsky, who end up resolving their differences through the medium of their fists. Shortly after this O'Farrell is joined by his own particular bete noir, Margaret Thatcher herself, though bizarrely she is in an unwontedly remorseful mood.

O'Farrell is well known for his own left-of-centre views but he offers a surprisingly even-handed exegesis of the arguments for and against private enterprise running national infrastructure.

All in all I found this very amusing and entertaining.

Out 17, 2013, 5:50 pm

I've been such a fool not to look up O'Farrell's other books! Definitely putting that on my list.

Out 18, 2013, 4:48 pm

131. Dominion by C J Sansom.

I am still trying to work out why I bothered! After all, I have struggled to plough my way through each of Sansom's previous novels so I don't know why I imagined that this would be significantly different. For the record, it wasn't.

Perhaps I am being rather harsh. The plot premise was certainly very promising. Winston Churchill became Prime Minister on 9 May 1940 following a meeting with his immediate predecessor, Neville Chamberlain, and fellow Tory grandee Lord Halifax. In this novel, that meeting concludes differently, with Halifax becoming Prime Minister, signing a peace treaty and ceding suzerainty of Britain to Nazi Germany. The action then moves on to 1952 where Churchill has gone underground leading a British Resistance movement against the collaborationist regime. Yes, we're in Fatherland territory!

However, Sansom seems to have an incurable tendency towards turgidity and he still seems incapable of creating a character who can evoke any empathy at all.

Out 20, 2013, 4:14 pm

132. Three Brothers by Peter Ackroyd.

Peter Ackroyd must be one of the most prolific writers around at the moment. he has written a host of literary biographies, several books about London, a score of novels and he is currently writing a multi-volume series on the History of England. Where does he find the time? If this novel is anything to go by, he isn't sacrificing quality in favour of quantity.

Though I enjoyed "Hawksmoor" and "Chatterton" more than twenty years ago, I have struggled with many of his previous novels. However, having read some favourable reviews in the literary press I decided to have a punt on this one, and was certainly rewarded.

No prizes for guessing that it tells the story of three brothers, though interesting all three are born at the same time on the same date in three successive years, though this does not serve to render them particularly close. While they are still very young their mother just disappears, leaving them to be brought up by their laconic father, Philip who, as a novelist manque, drifts through life working for years as a night watchman before becoming a long distance lorry driver.

The three boys follow different paths at school. Harry, the eldest, is a popular and capable boy, who leaves to take up a post as messenger for the local newspaper, and being a n opportunist, gradually works his way up to become a reporter. Daniel, the middle of the three, is an academic prodigy who works hard and secures a scholarship to Cambridge where he stays on to complete postgraduate courses before becoming a Fellow of his college. Sam, the youngest, just drifts through life, largely disengaged from the world around him.

Although the three boys go along completely different paths, their lives prove to be connected through a network of mutual friends and colleagues, and Ackroyd weaves a sinuous web of skullduggery, corruption, blackmail and violece, set against the shifting political context of Britain in the 1960s and 1970s.

Very engaging!

Editado: Out 21, 2013, 5:07 pm

133. A Northern Line Minute by William Leith.

Like many people who live in London I prefer not to use the Underground, though sometimes it is unavoidable. When i do have to resort to travelling by Tube it is normally the northern Line that I find myself on, so I was particularly interested to see what William Leith had to say about it.

Leith makes it clear from the start of this short book (another in the Penguin series about the various London Underground Lines) that he is a nervous underground passenger , and it emerges that he had actually gone several years without travelling on the Tube. For the journey that he describes ion this book he forces himself to board the train, unsure whether he can smell something burning or whether he is imagining it. As the journey continues he becomes more convinced that there is something wrong. His anxiety isn't assuaged by the fleeting memories that come, uninvited, into his mind, all of them recounting a traumatic episode from his earlier life that was associated, to a greater or lesser degree, with a station on the Northern Line. He captures the sense of paranoia that every Norther Line habitue occasionally feels, and I certainly recognised a lot of his neuroses - I almost wish I hadn't read this.!

Out 21, 2013, 5:47 pm

134. Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein.

Another gripping novel from Elizabeth Wein, one again focusing on the work of female pilots during the Second World War.

The principal character of this book is Rose Justice, a young American woman ho has been working flying planes around Britain. Shortly after the D Day invasions she finds herself flying some luminaries to Paris. There she is scheduled to collect a spitfire to be flown back to Britain where it will be refitted as a reconnaissance plane. However, on her journey back she spots, and successfully deflects, a V1 bomb that had been launched against Paris. However, her diversion to tackle the V1 has disastrous consequences as it takes her beyond the front line, and while she si struggling to reorient herself she finds herself by two German jet-powered fighter planes.

Like Wein's previous novels, this is peopled with some very engaging characters, and Rose's plight is described in grim, but never sensationalist, detail.

Nov 3, 2013, 1:10 pm

135. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.

There have been very few recent novels whose publication has been heralded with so much media attention. As surely everyone knows this is Donna Tartt's first novel in ten years and only her third in a span of twenty years. I remember similar press coverage when its predecessor, "The Little Friend" was published ten years ago. I duly went out within days of the initial publication date and bought it in hardback, agog to read it, only to find myself awash with disappointment. After the mastery of her debut, "The Secret History", the second book struck me as simply dire, and I struggled even to finish it.

Still, I have never been very good at learning from past experience, and once again, within days (possibly even hours) of the publication date I had downloaded it on to my Kindle, and started fretting to finish the books I was already reading, eager to embark on whatever "The Goldfinch" had to offer.

And it has a lot to offer. It is a long book (Tartt doesn't seem to do short) but utterly engrossing. It is narrated by Theodore (Theo) Decker whom we first encounter in a state of feverish misery in a freezing hotel in Amsterdam over the Christmas period. It is clear that something pretty drastic has happened, though it will take a further seven hundred pages for us to understand what that might be. He starts going back over his life, starting at the age of thirteen and an outing he took with his mother from their New York apartment moving uptown to wander around a museum which includes Carel Fabritius's "The Goldfinch", a haunting painting, one of very few to survive the explosion of the Delft gunpowder magazine in October 1654, which killed the artist and destroyed most of his works. On that particular morning Decker accompanies his mother to the museum slightly reluctantly: he had been suspended from school on the previous day, and his mother's museum visit was primarily a means of passing some time before she went to a meeting with Theo's headteacher. However, while they are in the Museum, and while Theo is gazing at "The Goldfinch" a terrorist bomb explodes. Theo's mother is killed and, in the mayhem following the carnage, Theo makes a decision that will reverberate throughout the rest of his life.

Tartt treats us to insights into life among the wealthiest level of New York society, contrasting it sharply with life in the hinterland of Las Vegas where Theo's morally and socially inadequate father winds up. While there Theo meets Boris, a schoolmate whose father is a Russian oil engineer, flitting all over the globe and barely staying anywhere for more than a few months at a time. He and Theo become firm friends, finding mutual support against the vicissitudes of life in Las Vegas.

Later on, Theo comes back to New York where he lives and later works with Hobie, an expert furniture restorer but lamentable businessman. As he grows older Theo comes to take over the business side, turning things around though occasionally straying from a path of unassailable rectitude, and establishing the business on a very sound financial footing. But all this time he has a secret ...

Tartt maintains the tension and holds the reader's attention throughout. Theo isn't a particularly pleasant character but the reader stays with him right to the end. I'm not sure if this is quite up to the same standard as "The Secret History" but it comes very, very close.

Nov 4, 2013, 5:00 pm

136. Devil May Care by Sebastian Faulks.

Sebastian Faulks is widely accepted as one of our leading literary novelists, and regular listeners of BBC Radio 4's "The Write Stuff" will be familiar with his great ability to mimic other writers' styles. In this "authorised" addition to the James Bond canon he clearly mimic's Ian Fleming's style, though I imagine it must have been difficult for an author as fine as Faulks to lower himself to that extent.

I recently read William Boyd's contribution to the Bond oeuvre and although that also fell beyond Boyd's normal high standards, it was still more coherent as a book than Faulks' offering. I was decidedly disappointed by this novel - it just seemed too much like Fleming's originals which, to be fair, I enjoyed when I was fourteen Still, I enjoyed 10cc and Queen then too, though I am glad to be able to say that I have grown out of them now.

Nov 4, 2013, 9:17 pm

Glad The Goldfinch is a good read; I agree, The Little Friend was dire and I was going to stay well away from The Goldfinch until I'd heard it was an improvement.

Nov 5, 2013, 11:31 am

In this "authorised" addition to the James Bond canon he clearly mimic's Ian Fleming's style, though I imagine it must have been difficult for an author as fine as Faulks to lower himself to that extent.

LOL. So true.

Nov 6, 2013, 2:55 pm

137. Heartbreak Hotel by Deborah Moggach.

I wasn't really sure whether I wanted to read this book, suspecting that it might be rather too simpering for my taste. Not a bit of it! It is very amusing and very shrewdly observed, and proved very enjoyable.

Aging actor Russell "Buffy" Buffery has had quite an involved amatory career with three ex-wives and various other partners behind him, along with a host of children and stepchildren. As the novel opens he has just lerned that he has inherited an ailing bed and breakfast home from one of his old flames.

The house is situated in Knockton, a town just inside Wales and despite his initial misgivings Buffy is taken with the town and decides to move there and take on the B&D, trying to make it a going concern. This proves more difficult than he had expected until he hits upon a novel twist - he will run courses for people recently emerging from marriages or relationships, teaching them how to cope with aspects of household management that had previously been their partner's domain.

This is all managed very deftly, and is far more amusing and engaging than my brief synopsis above would suggest.

Nov 10, 2013, 4:13 pm

138. First Frost by James Henry.

I have read nearly one hundred and forty books so far this year, and this one slips effortlessly into the bottom ten.

I am not sure what disappointed me most - was it the facile characterisation or the incoherent plotting? One thing I am sure of is that I won't be reading any more of this series.

Nov 10, 2013, 4:34 pm

139. The Blue Riband: The Piccadilly Line by Peter York.*

Peter York's contribution to the Penguin series of short books about the London Underground lines is enchanting.

He doesn't attempt to describe or even comment upon every stop on the line (there are more than fifty of them, after all) but he does offer some startling insights into the different focal points of the line. I would have liked to have know more about him because many of his observations seem based upon his attempts to buy properties in many of the areas that he described. He has also garnered intriguing insights into London's financial world, in particular the private hedge funds centred around Mayfair and St James's.

As a line the Piccadilly certainly covers some varied territory - high spots include Knightsbridge, South Kensington, Green Park and Russell Square, and Peter York has an ample stock of anecdotes about them all. One had the feeling that this small pocket-friendly book could quite easily have been expanded into a full-sized work without risk of depleting York's fund of stories.

This little book pulled off the difficult trick of being both informative and entertaining.

Nov 11, 2013, 12:45 am

... this one slips effortlessly into the bottom ten

Ouch. I take it you have read other Henry James novels? (You do seem very well read.)

I'm enjoying the reviews of the London Underground books. I know Londoners aren't very fond of it (or at least act that way), but I thought it was a great public transport system when I was there *mumble* years ago.

And it didn't slow down when it rained. Honestly, you'd think Sydney trains were scared of getting wet or something. Yeesh. Always a disaster on public transport in wet weather (she says, looking out the window at the constant rain gloomily).

Nov 11, 2013, 2:41 am

#273. Hi Wookie

I have read some Henry James (though not as much as I should have), but this was James Henry (actually the forenames of a writing partnership who have come together to write more novels in the Inspector Frost canon which has been popular on television here, following the death of Frost's Creator R D Wingfield a couple of years ago). I enjoyed the TV series and the first few books though I felt that Wingfield lost his way latterly.

I agree with you about the Underground - I have only recently resumed using it regularly and most of the time it is great. We only stop to notice it when there are problems and just take it for granted the rest of the time. I used to get up earlier and took the bus - a slower journey though it had the benefit of giving me more reading time!

Nov 13, 2013, 3:28 pm

140. Jeeves and the Wedding Bells by Sebastian Faulks.

I recently read Sebastian Faulks's novel "Devil May Care" which represented his contribution to the "official" James Bond canon and was generally unimpressed. This homage to P. G. Wodehouse is far more impressive though I felt it still fell rather flat, and failed to capture the magic of the original.

Bertie is on good form throughout though Jeeves makes relatively little contribution to the proceedings, and the plot, such as it was, seemed very weak. I worry that anyone reading this without having read the originals (classics such as "Right Ho, Jeeves" and "The Code of the Woosters" leap to mind) might be put off trying them.

Nov 16, 2013, 4:47 am

141. 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 Morse who subsided almost into 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 version), and even Sherlock Holmes seemed rather tired and despairing by the time 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 say, 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 a few books ago (Exit Music had seemed to be his swan song, with the action taking place in his 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, though 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.

Nov 18, 2013, 4:59 pm

142. The Ex-Wives by Deborah Moggach.

Russell Buffery (known to one and all as "Buffy") is an actor just entering his sixties and the offers of work are starting to dry up. Never reluctant to wallow in self-pity he looks back upon his life and in particular his trail of broken marriages and relationships. With three ex-wives and a complex network of children and step-children behind him he is unsure what the future will hold. Things start to look up, however, when he encounters the lovely young Celeste at his local pharmacy (though as he has gone there on a quest for suppositories their initial meetings lacks some of the romantic glamour of "Brief Encounter". However, as they come to know each other better it seems that Celeste has developed a dogged curiosity about Buffy's ex-wives and proceeds to meet them all.

Buffy's ex-wives are quite a mixed bag. The most recently estranged is Penny, suave, sophisticated and successful in her career as a journalist who can seemingly craft a newspaper or magazine column out of virtually nothing, Celeste tracks her down to the Soho cafe where she always breakfasts and undertakes to help her with one of her current assignments. Then she locates the permanently distracted and artistic Jacquette, now living with psychoanalyst Leon, whose patient she had formerly been. Celeste manages to win her trust and romises to "sit "for her. Then she goes looking for Popsi, Buffy's first wife. Meanwhile Buffy continues to drift through his life, wondering how he might manage to capture Celeste's affections.

All this sounds potential depressing but Deborah Moggach manages it all very deftly with a keenly-observed humour that never drowns out the touching nature of the story.

All very enjoyable.

Nov 19, 2013, 3:03 pm

143. The Tears of Autumn by Charles McCarry.

Having heard nothing but resplendent plaudits for this novel I found myself very disappointed - someone definitely sold me the dummy here!

Paul Christopher is a jaded American intelligence officer working all over the globe under the cover of freelance journalism. As the novel opens he is in Vietnam in October 1963 where he is running a couple of agents, though he fears that one of them is about to be unmasked by the Vietnamese secret police. He swiftly leaves Vietnam to return to Europe, checking in with his handler in Paris where he learns of the assassination of the Vietnamese President. Three weeks later he is in Congo, about to fly out when he learns of the assassination of President Kennedy.

All this is fair enough, and McCarry builds the atmosphere successfully. However, simply by resorting to his well-honed intuition Christopher is able to work out who was really behind the assassination and how (though the reader doesn't learn the fruits of his musings), and the rest of the book is devoted to his attempts to prove it and to convince his superiors.

I might have found all this perfectly adequate when I was about twelve but, cynic that I am, i need something a little more substantial these days.

Editado: Nov 21, 2013, 5:19 pm

144. Time for a Tiger by Anthony Burgess.

I didn't really know what to expect from this novel. I have read several books by Anthony Burgess who was notably prolific as a writer, and while I have enjoyed many of them I have also struggled with others.

This was his first novel, drawing heavily upon his own experiences as a teacher employed by the British Colonial Service in what was then the Federated Malay States during the 1950s. The principal characters are Abel "Nabby" Adams, an alcoholic member of the Colonial Police Force working in the vehicle pool and Vincent Crabbe, a liberal teacher in one of the colonial schools who is battling against the exigencies of an overbearing and opinionated headmaster.

Nabby Adams is an awesome creation, drinking on an almost industrial scale, and always insisting that his beer is warm. The only curb on his drinking is his lack of money - everywhere he goes he sees yet another restless creditor, and as the novel opens he is already under threat of disciplinary action as his debts come to the attention of his employers. Yet somehow he manages to struggle on, downing beers before breakfast and (literally) stumbling through life from day to day.

Victor Crabbe is a more abstemious proposition, even to the point of lugubriousness. He is wracked by guilt for the death of his first wife (who died in a car crash while he had been driving) and for the frequent unhappiness of his beautiful second wife. However, he is a conscientious teacher and is eager to improve the lot of his pupils who are drawn from all elements of the multiracial community in Malaya, even to the point of challenging the headmaster about his over-authoritarian punishments for minor infractions.

Between these two disparate poles Burgess weaves a subtle but plausible plot, and paints a fascinating picture revealing the multiple layers of society in post-war Malaya. This is the first volume of a trilogy of novels (known collectively as The Long Day Wanes and I am now looking forward very keenly to tackling the next two volumes.

Nov 24, 2013, 1:42 pm

145. Earthbound by Paul Morley.

Paul Morley manages to cram an awful lot into this this small book celebrating London Underground's Bakerloo Line. Morley first encountered the London Underground in his teens, having moved down to London from Manchester to take up a job writing for the New Musical Express in the late 1970s, coinciding with the upsurge of punk and new wave music. As it happens, Morley managed to catch the fianl days of the "old" Bakerloo Line (i.e. before half of it was hived off to form the Jubilee Line), and he bemoans the way in which the old line had to retain the very old rolling stock (dating from the 1930s, and looking like it) while the Jubilee Line was given the benefit of newer (not exactly new, as they dated form the 1960s) carriages, and saw its stations given at least an attempt at a facelift.

As with several of the other books in this series, a description of the line is offered, but is used principally as a hook for enticing insights into the writer's life, and Morley gives us a real treat, with a brief history of the personal stereo (from his first Walkman, brought back from Japan by his girlfriend at a time when they were absolutely unknown in Britain, through to the iPod and MP3 players.

As one would expect, he also writes eloquently about the music he would listen to while travelling the few stops along the Line from Swiss Cottage or Finchley Road (now, of course, to be found on the usurping Jubilee Line) into the city centre), including a detailed history of the experimental rock band Can (whom I had never heard of before).

As it happens, despite having lived in London for thirty years now I have very few experiences of travlling on the Bakerloo Line, apart form the odd jaunt from Embankment to Paddington when rushing to get a train out West, but having enjoyed this informative and engaging little book I shall make a point of travelling on it much more often.

Nov 25, 2013, 4:49 am

D'oh, Henry James != James Henry! Of course. :)

Oh, just finished Code Name Verity this afternoon and it was excellent. Thanks for the recommendation.

I've got a couple of Charles McCarry novels around, I have heard good things. Maybe his earlier books were better?

Nov 25, 2013, 7:04 am

Hi Wookie. I'm glad you enjoyed Code Name Verity. I felt a bit nervous when I heard your group had selected it.

I wonder if I was just in the wrong mood for Charles McCarry's Tears of Autumn - everyone else I know who has read it, or indeed any of his other books, has been very positive.

Nov 27, 2013, 4:54 am

146. Heads and Straights: The Circle Line by Lucy Wadham.

Although this volume represents the Circle Line in the recent Penguin series commemorating the London Underground it scarcely rates a mention. In fact, I can't recall any specific reference to "the Circle Line" throughout . At one stage near the end of the book we learn that Lucy regularly travelled from Gloucester Road to King's Cross, and there are regular references to Sloane Square, but that is about as far as it goes. That omission, however, does not detract from the attraction of the book which tells of Lucy Wadham's experience growing up during the late 1970s in an affluent background in Chelsea, just around the corner from the Kings Road.

While the family was affluent, it was not without its problems, and one of the rime focuses of the book is the reckless and relentless experimenting with drugs of her elder sisters, culminating in Florence (always known as "Fly) becoming addicted to heroin. We are introduced to Eileen, Lucy's maternal grandmother, who had an amazing story which included knowing Virginia Woolf, running a commercial stable, living in Kenya, marrying three times and then taking a Bosnian toy-boy for the last thirty years of her life.

One does feel for Wadham's parents, having their house overrun by their Bohemian daughters' friends and submerged under the scent of their copious drug abuse, though they seem not to have been too bothered, and the overall picture is one of a chaotic but supportive group.

I found it enchanting.

Nov 28, 2013, 4:40 am

147. Natural Causes by James Oswald.

At times I struggled with this novel which seemed rather disjointed, though the plot was sufficiently compelling for me to persevere through to the end (which is quite a tribute in itself these days as I have become increasingly ruthless about ditching books recently).

I found it rather chaotic, and it seemed too heavily reliant upon detective story cliches with Inspector McLean (the principal character) enduring a difficult relationship with his immediate but incompetent superior (Chief Inspector Duguid, known to one and all as "Dagwood"). McLean is, almost predictably, rather a maverick. In this particular instance his difference from the pack derives from the relative affluence of his upbringing - orphaned at four he was raised by his indomitable and wealthy grandmother.

The plot is definitely incoherent and fanciful. The novel opens with the discovery of the murder of a wealthy Edinburgh luminary who had contacts at the highest level of society and officialdom. Almost immediately afterwards builders converting an old property in Edinburgh uncover a corpse in a hidden room, with six of its body parts concealed in recesses in the wall, along with inscriptions. Closer analysis shows that the murder probably took place about sixty years ago. Then there is another murder in the ranks of Edinburgh's higher society, and McLean, who has been "relegated" to investigating the old case, spots links between the historic murder and the current series of killings.

McLean's grandmother has been comatose for almost eighteen months following a severe stroke, and suddenly dies. This brings McLean into contact with Jonas Carstairs, her solicitor, who is, himself, promptly murdered in a style reminiscent of the earlier two killings.

I found the basic plot intriguing, though perhaps on the verges of becoming too fanciful for my prosaic tastes, but the book is drawn out unnecessarily and there are too many needless complications. I also found the characters rather poorly drawn and felt absolutely no empathy with McLean.

I did persevere through to the end, and found some of the story enjoyable, but I doubt that i shall trouble to read any subsequent novels in the series.

Nov 30, 2013, 2:58 pm

148. The Enemy in the Blanket by Anthony Burgess.

This novel continues Anthony Burgess's Malayan Trilogy, "The Long Day Wanes" and picks up the story from the close of its predecessor "Time for a Tiger" with Victor Crabbe and his wife Fenella landing in the state of Dahaga where Victor is to take up the position of principal at the local school.

Things get off to a rocky start with Crabbe's arrival being resented by Jaganathan, vice-principal of the school who had expected to be promoted and sees Crabbe's appointment as symptomatic of the manner in which Tamils are overlooked in favour of less capable European rivals. There is also considerable froideur between the Crabbes arising from an anonymous letter to Fenella informing her of her husband's only recently terminated affair with a local woman. Things go from bad to worse when they are not met at the airport, though they do eventually meet Talbot, the British Council chief for their area, Talbot is a disappoiitned poet who seems to be permanently hungry. Talbot's wife is disaffected by their lot but seems cheered by the arrival of two new British neighbours. Victor also meets Rupert Hardman, an old friend from university days, who is on his uppers, struggling to find work as a solicitor and contemplating a loveless marriage to a wealthy local woman, though this would entail his adoption of Islam.

Burgess lived in Malaya throughout the period depicted in the novel and was well aware of the tensions between the different ethnic groups, and this is conveyed marvellously through the relationships between the various characters, none of whom is entirely empathetic, though all of them are utterly believable.

I don't want to see too much more about the plot for fear of inadvertently letting slip the odd spoiler, but I am certainly eager to read the final instalment to see how the various plotlines are resolved.

Dez 2, 2013, 4:34 pm

149. Pietr the Latvian by Georges Simenon.

Penguin Books has undertaken to publish each of Georges Simenon's Maigret novels in a new translation, with a new one coming out each month. Published in 1931 this was the first novel in the series, and, sadly it shows. If i had read this when it first came out i don't think that i would have bothered to read any subsequent instalments.

Unfortunately this novel was just too disjointed,and the character of Maigret was just too frenetic, and I found myself rather disappointed. Fortunately I know how good the series became later on, so I will persevere with the next few volumes at least.

Dez 7, 2013, 4:44 pm

150 The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton.

I may find myself in a fairly small minority here but I found this novel rather a disappointment after all the hype it received after it was awarded this year's Booker Prize. Yes, it is an intriguing mystery but I felt that far too much effort went into complying with the self-imposed formatting devices, and style was allowed to win out over substance.. The characterisations are regulated by astrological charts, and the word count in each of the sections is exactly half of that in the preceding section. All very clever, maybe, but I prefer to feel that a book's vocabulary has been selected to meet the exigencies of plot, style and character rather to satisfy numerological quirk, although if we are looking from a quantitative rather than qualitative perspective I think that it might have benefited from being perhaps 400 pages shorter!

To be fair, the plot is intriguing, and I was initially sucked in to the story, which unfolds by stages, with a different character taking the lead in narrating each chapter. Boiled down to its essential ingredients Walter Moody, newly arrived in a small New Zealand town at the centre of that country's gold rush. Walking into the lounge of the hotel where he has put up he encounters twelve leading figures of the town who had gathered in private to discuss a complex series of crimes that have occurred in and around the town. Moody's arrival in the bar is initially unwelcome but the locals unbend and start narrating, in turn, the series of events that have so unnerved them.

I don't mind long books, or complex books, nor even long AND complex books, but I resent feeling that I am simply being asked along to pay homage to the writer's cleverness,however indisputable that cleverness might be!

Dez 10, 2013, 3:53 pm

151. The Silent Tide by Rachel Hore.

I am very grateful to my friend Rhiannon (and I don't often saying that!) for persuading me to read this book. It is certainly not the sort of work that I would normally have looked at twice if I had come across it in a bookshop as I would,no doubt, have dismissed it as "chick lit").. Well that just goes to show that one can't, or at least shouldn't, judge a book by its cover!

The novel moves between contemporary London where Emily Gordon works on the editorial staff of Parchment, a literary publisher and the late 1940s where Isabel Barber has fled the tedium of her home life in Kent for "The Smoke", pitching up unannounced at her Aunt Penelope's house asking to be put up for a few nights. Penelope (not one to be confined by orthodox rules) complies, and through her circle of acquaintances Isabel is introduced to the fringes of London's literary world, finding a low-paid job at the publishing house McKinnon and Holt. Through her diligence and patience Isabel becomes established at the publisher and shows a considerable flair for reviewing manuscripts. Before long she encounters Hugh Morton, an aspiring novelist whose first novel is to be published by McKinnon and Holt.. Isabel's guidance on the female perspective proves invaluable and she and Hugh fall in love, and eventually marry.

Meanwhile, back in the present day, Emily finds herself working on a project with Joel Richards who has been commissioned to write a biography of Hugh Morton, scheduled to coincide with the broadcast of a new television adaptation of "The Silent Tide", Morton's masterpiece. Her interest in the project is spurred when she starts to receive old manuscripts and notes that were clearly written by Isabel. there is no indication of where they are coming from, but they appear to be genuine and show a different perspective on Isabel's marriage to Hugh from that emerging in Joel's biography.

The plot develops seamlessly and completely credibly, and the characters are also totally believable, coming together to make a very entertaining and enjoyable novel.

Editado: Dez 13, 2013, 4:09 pm

152. A Good Parcel of English Soil: The Metropolitan Line by Richard Mabey*.

This charming and informative little book is another in the Penguin series issued to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the opening of the London Underground. This particular volume covers the Metropolitan Line (the purplish/claretish one – I’m a simple country boy and am not very strong on my intermediates shades!) which stretches out from the city centre out into Buckinghamshire and the Chilterns.

Like a few others in the series, it does not confine itself to simple regurgitation of basic facts about the line. Indeed, the line itself plays a relatively small part in the book. Instead Mabey concentrates on the impact that the development of the line had on the area that was to become known as Metroland: after all, Mabey has made a notable career out of writing and broadcasting about the symbiotic relationship between society and nature. He offers and informed, though never overwhelming, depiction of the changes that settlement brought, and an intriguing insight into the consequences of encroachment by residential and industrial estates into scrubland.

I first encountered the term “Metroland” when reading Julian Barnes’s marvellous novel of that name, and was naïve enough to imagine that he had coined the term. Then I discovered the television programme that Sir John Betjeman made under that title for the BBC back in the early 1970s (coming shortly after his appointment as Poet Laureate). However, the term predates even that, and was used by the railway company itself to conjure up an Elysian image that awaited would-be dwellers in the hinterlands that the line would open up for commuters who chose to move to the outer reaches of Middlesex and beyond.

Mabey describes his own boyhood in those suburban areas, and his forays into the unkempt lands just beyond the newly settled areas. Surprisingly, when revisiting them several decades later, there is much that remained unchanged, though one positive development is the resurgence in the area of the red kite, reintroduced into the area by the RSPB and now soundly re-established as a regular part of the local fauna.
I have never really used the metropolitan line much apart from the occasional jaunt to a concert at Wembley Stadium, but I now feel tempted to strike out to Amersham or Rickmansworth (“Ricky” as Metrolanders apparently call it) over the weekend.

Dez 15, 2013, 2:49 pm

153. The Red House Mystery by A. A. Milne.

Well I fell for this one hook line and sinker!

If it hadn't been for the fact that I was on a train and had nothing else to read I wouldn't have been able to summon the strength of spirit to finish this. I still think it proved to be in a waste of shame, though.

Dez 15, 2013, 3:51 pm

Milne would not have liked that - he hated the fact he was best known for his bear stories and not his "proper" writings. Not that I've read anything else by him - and on that report might not bother...

Dez 15, 2013, 3:53 pm

154. The 32 Stops by Danny Dorling.*

This is another enthralling volume from Penguin's series on London's Underground lines. Danny Dorling offers up a series of vignettes of local life set in the area immediately surrounding each station on the Central Line (the bright red one from the map), and then compares various aspects of the socio-economic data from the census. This provides a fascinating insight into the manner in which adjacent communities differ, and how life expectancy can vary markedly between two communities that are just a couple of miles apart,.

Dorling looks at a wide range of comparators such as GCSE results, lie expectancy and average income as well as a selection of health-based statistics. My description of this is probably doing the book a dreadful disservice as it probably sounds very dry, but the book is actually completely engrossing. I would welcome the same sort of analysis across some of the other lines, and maybe of the wards and boroughs that the M25 passes through I accept that I am a bit of a geek!

Dez 15, 2013, 4:04 pm

< 291 Hi Helen. i
I must say I was dreadfully disapointed with The Red House Mystery. I have read, and enjoyed, a lot of the classic "locked room" mysteries from that period and had been looking forward to a bit of a treat with that one.

Dez 15, 2013, 4:37 pm

155. The Cuckoo Calling by Robert Galbraith.

This book has been the subject of a lot of hype arising from the apparently accidental leak of the fact that "Robert Galbraith" is a pseudonym of J K Rowling.

I had deliberately deferred reading The Casual Vacancy, her first book for adults, though when I eventually got around to reading it I found it utterly engrossing, and very enjoyable. I had the same experience with The Cuckoo Calling.

The novel opens with the death, apparently by suicide, of Lula Landry, a supermodel who seemed to have the world at her feet: undeniable beauty, multi-million pound fashion endorsements, luxurious and exclusive apartment and rock star boyfriend. No-one can quite understand why she might have done it, but everyone seems to accept that it was suicide: just another celebrity pushed over the edge by the pressures attendant with her high profile lifestyle. Everyone, that is, apart from her brother, John Bristow, who hires a private detective to look investigate her death.

We then learn that Lula's life had not been a bed of roses. She and John had both been adopted by the Bristow, a wealthy couple who had been unable to have children of their own. There had been a third adopted child, Charlie, but he had died while still a child (indeed, it emerges that Lula had been adopted following Charlie's death, as a form of consolation for their Mrs Bristow). In her late teens already a modelling sensation, Lula had conducted investigations and tracked down her natural mother who turned out to be an alcoholic and some time prostitute who had had three children taken into care and passed on for adoption. Upon finding that her daughter was a successful model she immediately sold her story to the tabloid press, thereby contributing to the perpetual hounding that Lula suffered at the hands of the paparazzi. To add to her woes, Lula had had a series of drug-related incidents and her boyfriend, Evan Duffield, was widely known as a heroin addict

If Lula was damaged goods, so too is the detective whom John Bristow retains to look into the case. Cormoran Strike is the illegitimate, and largely disowned, son of John Rokeby, a successful rock star whose career stretches back twenty or thirty years. Strike had secured a place at Oxford but following the death through heroin overdose of his mother he chose instead to join the army where he ended up on the Special Investigation Bureau of the Military Police. On service in Afghanistan he was caught in a roadside explosion and lost part of his leg. Now back in civilian life he has established a practice on the fringes of Soho, but is struggling to keep afloat, and has just been dumped by his fiancée.

That is the context and it does all sound rather grim. However, Galbraith/ Rowling handles all of this with a lightness of touch that never derides the awful tragedies that the characters have suffered but ensures that the story fizzes along quite merrily. The plot is very well constructed (and it certainly fooled me) and the characters are all very clearly and plausibly drawn. I hope that this turns out to be the first in a series because I think that Cormoran Strike could prove to be a long-running success.

Dez 16, 2013, 4:10 pm

156. Stoner by John Williams.

I am still mulling over what I thought about this novel. it was certainly very well written though I found it rather depressing.

Proper review to follow soon.

Dez 21, 2013, 6:08 pm

157. Mountains of the Mind by Robert Macfarlane.

Robert Macfarlane has a great ability to convey his passions without proselytising, and without ever boring readers who don't feel the same degree of obsession. Earlier in the year I read, and was entranced by, his beautiful exploration of ancients routes that have survived into the modern day, "The Old Ways". I had wondered if my enjoyment of that book was, in part at least, driven by my own burgeoning interest in walking as a pastime. However, my enjoyment of this book is not in any way a reflection of any passion for mountaineering of my own - on those rare occasions when I make the mistake of walking from the basement canteen at work up to my fifth floor office, I find myself wheezing and gasping for breath, imagining I am about to start coughing up blood. I might not be quite as feeble as Proust, who claimed to be suffering vertigo after the journey from Versailles to Paris (a route which, over the space of several miles, described a difference in altitude of just 89 metres), but I am not about to break out the ropes and pitons or don any crampons any time too soon. (It does occur to me, though, that if I were regularly to carry an ice axe in open view, I might not be troubled by quite so many nutters when I travel on the Tube.)

I do like looking at mountains, though, and that attraction of the peak-bestrewn wilds for the town dweller is another aspect that Macfarlane covers in depth. The idea that mountaineers climb mountains simply because they are there is now almost a given in modern thought, but this has only been the case for a relatively short portion of the human experience. Up until the late seventeenth century mountains were merely seen as obstacles to trade routes to be climbed only when there was no viable alternative route for merchants to circumvent them. The eighteenth century saw a gradual change that accelerated into the nineteenth century, when the vogue for bagging peaks really began. Macfarlane catalogues these developments with awe at the courage or recklessness of Victorian adventurers setting off with no equipment, seldom even bothering to don more appropriate boots. Nowadays the outdoor activity equipment industry is worth billions.

Macfarlane's own love of mountains and mountaineering arose from his holiday visits to his grandparents in the Scottish Highlands. He read old accounts of mountaineering expeditions in his grandfathers extensive library, and he went up various Monroes, picking up different rock as he went. His interest in the geology of the mountains is as enticing as his stories about climbing them.

He also gives a fascinating concise history of the geology of the major mountain ranges, along with an analysis of changing views of how (and when) the mountains were formed. Once again he handles an area susceptible to technical overload with great adroitness.

The book is peppered with recollections of Macfarlane's own mountaineering experiences, often alarmingly self-deprecating in tone, though it is clear that he is an accomplished climber. He offers appealing accounts of some of the great climbing expeditions, too,including the legendary Mallory who made three attempts upon Everest in 1921, 1922 and 1924,, meeting his death on the final one.

This was a very entertaining read for a vicarious adventurer such as myself, though I imagine that those more actively involved in mountaineering might also find it very enjoyable.

Dez 22, 2013, 11:27 am

158. Beds in the East by Anthony Burgess.

This book marked a rather a disappointing end to Anthony Burgess's Malayan Trilogy after its two entertaining predecessors, Time for a Tiger and The Enemy in the Blanket.

Victor Crabbe is still there, now divorced from his second wife, the gorgeous Fenella, and serving as Education Officer for the governing administration. In that capacity he has found a protege, the graceless, surly and ungrateful Robert Loo, who despite his personal deficiencies shows clear signs of considerable talent, maybe even genius, as a composer. Her, of course, we are straying into turf with which Burgess was familiar. Now renowned as one of the leading literary authors of his generation he was also an accomplished composer himself. Unfortunately, Crabbe's encouragement for Robert is grievously misinterpreted by onlookers, and vicious though unfounded rumours abound.

Meanwhile, as Malaya draws closer to independence racial tensions between the indigenous Malays and the Indian, Tamil and Muslim communities are stretched to breaking point. The long day of western colonial rule is indeed waning, but there is little certainty as to what will happen when the final withdrawal takes place.

Burgess handles all of this deftly but somehow he forgot that accurately observed context is seldom enough to sustain a novel and that a plausible plot and empathetic characters are also essential. I had hoped to be able to write about a triumphant conclusion to an engaging saga but I feel that someone, somewhere, sold me a dummy with this book.

Dez 22, 2013, 11:29 am

159. The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane.*

This is another engrossing paean to the remote stretches of the world. In his other books, The Old Ways and Mountains of the Mind Robert Macfarlane has shown his passion (obsession?) for walking or climbing in some of the world's most secluded and inaccessible areas, and this book offers more of the same.

His prose has an admirable clarity and conciseness which matches the stark landscapes he portrays, and although he conveys considerable amounts of very technical information (covering the geological composition of the landscape, and lots of aspects of mountaineering) he never loses the reader's attention, even for readers as previously ill-informed on these subjects as I am.

Here he also offers historical perspective on the yearning for solitude in some of the world's least hospitable locations, with a brief history of the peregrini, lone monks who would take to sea in rudderless and oarless boats to be taken wherever fate of the will of God might take them. Macfarlane travels out to a remote storm-tossed island of the Scottish coast to experience the peregrini's life for a few days.

Dez 22, 2013, 4:06 pm

I'm glad to know that Robert Macfarlane's other books are excellent. I bought The Old Ways for my dad for Christmas after seeing your review and now I'm even more convinced he'll enjoy it.

Dez 22, 2013, 6:02 pm

@299 I hope he enjoys it, Meredith.
Best wishes for Christmas to you, and happy reading for 2014

Dez 23, 2013, 5:20 am

I still havent had a chance to read Robert Macfarlane, I really need to rectify that next year!

Dez 24, 2013, 3:39 pm

160. The Passage by Justin Cronin.

An interesting idea, but not really my sort of book.

Dez 27, 2013, 12:26 pm

161. Hamlet, Revenge by Michael Innes.

It's funny how the memory can completely sell you the dummy. I know that I have read this before - I can remember discussing it with my A Level English teacher more than thirty years ago, with particular reference to the extent to which a knowledge of Hamlet and several other plays in the canon helped the appreciation of the is novel. However, i could remember nothing about the book itself beyond the fact that a murder occurs during the staging of a production of "Hamlet" in a stately home.

I had been looking forward to re-reading this for quite some time and set it aside as a sort of Christmas treat. After all, under his real name of J. I. M. Stewart, Michael Innes wrote some excellent novels, including what is perhaps my absolute favourite book EVER, Young Pattullo (second volume of his masterful "A Staircase in Surrey" series).

Sadly, though, I found that this treat quickly degenerated into a chore: facile characterisation and a needlessly tortuous plot served to detract from any enjoyment of this so-called classic of the genre.

Dez 27, 2013, 12:46 pm

162. Missing in Malmo by Torquil Macleod.

This is the third outing for Macleod's feisty Swedish police inspector, Anita Sundstrom, and it is another success.

British heir-hunter Graeme Todd has been tracking down the prospective legatees of the intestacy of an elderly widow from Cumbria, and his investigations take him to Malmo, where he takes the opportunity to follow the Wallander trail, like many another recent tourist. All well and good, until he goes missing. At this stage Anita is called in and starts to try to pick up the trail.

Meanwhile her own ex-husband, Bjorn, returns to Malmo and seeks her help to try and trace his most recent paramour, Greta Johansson, the latest in a long line of students whom he has seduced.

Before long both Graeme and Greta are found dead and, with Bjorn being fingered as prime suspect in Greta's murder, Anita is up against it.

Macleod writes in a very simple but engaging style, and keeps the tension without compromising either the plot's or the characters' plausibility