Eyejaybee says,"Let's give it a go!"

Discussão100 books in 2014 challenge

Entre no LibraryThing para poder publicar.

Eyejaybee says,"Let's give it a go!"

Este tópico está presentemente marcado como "inativo" —a última mensagem tem mais de 90 dias. Reative o tópico publicando uma resposta.

Editado: Dez 26, 2013, 4:18 am

Hi Everyone.

My name is James and I Live in London, England and work as a civil servant.

I really enjoyed the 100 book challenge in 2013 and am looking forward to some entertaining reading for 2014, too.

Best wishes to everyone for a happy Christmas and a peaceful 2014.


Editado: Dez 26, 2013, 4:20 am

Oops! Edited because I posted to the wrong thread.

Not a very good start - sorry about that.

Dez 26, 2013, 9:42 am

Welcome back! I always enjoy reading your thread.

Dez 26, 2013, 1:25 pm

Thanks, Jennifer.
Likewise, I always enjoy seeing what you have been reading and your reviews.

Dez 27, 2013, 2:36 am

Welcome back James! I'm looking forward to more recommendations from you in 2014.

Dez 27, 2013, 6:14 am

Hi Tania.

Likewise, I always enjoy reading your thread.

Jan 1, 2014, 3:49 pm

Off the mark! (I had started reading this a couple of days ago but only finished it earlier today.).

1. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. (Re-read)

I first read this novel eight or nine years ago, shortly after it was published, and was entranced by it them and re-reading it now, knowing what happens and how the novel works, I found it just as extraordinary.

It is very difficult to know where to start describing it. The book consists of six separate though related stories, arranged in a concentric structure, that leaves the reader unsure as to what is meant to be real and what was in the imagination of the characters.

The first story, recounted in chapters on and eleven, takes the form of a journal composed by Adam Ewing, an American lawyer travelling back from Polynesia to San Francisco. Ewing is a Christian and appalled at the godless behaviour of the ship's crew and officers, and has been more or less ostracised, finding relief only in the company of his friend Dr Goose. Before setting sail he goes exploring Chatham island and sees a Moriori slave being lashed by a Maori. Their eyes meet briefly, and the slave recognises pity for him and disgust at the spectacle in Ewing's eyes. After the homeward voyage begins, it transpires that the Moriori slave has escaped and stowed away in Ewing's cabin, throwing himself on the latter's mercy. Ewing gradually succumbs to an ailment, manifested through dizziness and fainting, which Goose diagnoses as the consequence of a virulent parasite, and which he starts to treat with a potion of his own devising. Ewing seems to suffer increasingly worse attacks as the voyage continues.

This section ends in mid-sentence.

The second story, taking chapters two and ten, is told through the medium of a series of letters sent in 1931 by Robert Frobisher, a prodigal, indigent young musician who aspires to be a great composer, to Rufus Sixsmith, his former gay lover. Cut off by his affluent and aristocratic family, and sent down from his Cambridge college, he flees his creditors to Belgium where he manages to inveigle his way into the household of ageing and ailing English composer Vyvyan Ayrs who lives with his ennobled Belgian wife Jocasta, taking up the role of amanuensis to the older man. Frobisher starts to work on a piece that he calls the "Cloud Atlas Sextet", in which he tries to capture an air that he seems to have heard before, though he can't tell when. Oddly, Ayrs also seems to know the piece. In between his work on the music Frobisher peruses the library in the house where he finds, and becomes captivated by, a copy of Adam Ewing's journal.

The third story (covering chapters three and nine) then kicks in, taking the form of a crime novel set in California in 1975 and featuring Luisa Rey, an investigative journalist who is looking into the furore surrounding the impending lauch of a nuclear power station constructed by Seaboard. Local environmentalists are protesting against the power plant and claim that critical reports have been suppressed. By chance Luisa has met Rufus Sixsmith when the lift that they were sharing ground to a halt during a power cut. Sixsmith had recently completed a report which identified a number of flaws with the power plant, but has not yet been able to publish it, and fears that Seaboard will attempt either to suppress the report or discredit him. Sixsmith is found dead in his hotel room where Luisa finds a bundle of Frobisher's letters which Sixsmith has treasured for the last forty years. While driving across a causeway from the power plant another car forces Luisa's VW Beetle off the road and into the sea.

The novel then moves to the fourth story (in chapters four and eight) which takes the form of a memoir by Timothy Cavendish, a literary agent. Having spent most of his career avoiding any semblance of success he suddenly finds himself making a mint from "Knuckle Sandwich", the ghost-written biography of an East London criminal. Unfortunately, this success brings its own difficulties and Cavendish has to flee London to escape the criminal's family who are anxious for their own cut of the profits. Among the random papers that he takes with him is the manuscript of the novel "Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery", which he finds entertaining and contemplates publishing when things calm down. Through a series of comic misunderstandings Cavendish ends up an inmate of a brutal retirement home near Hull.

We then move to the fifth story (chapters five and seven), set in the 22nd century in a dystopian society. This story is presented in the form of a lengthy interview by an official archivist of Somni-451, a "fabricant" (i.e. clone) who had been instrumental in sparking off a revolution against the totalitarian consumerist society in which she lives. At one stage Somni 451 describes how her happiest hour had been when she had watched the opening half of an antique film called "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish".

The sixth story, called Sloosha's Crossin' and Ev'rythin' After, which forms the central section of the novel. This is set in a post-apocalyptic future and is recounted by Zachry, a tribesman from what the reader gradually infers is Hawaii. His community scratches out a living through simple agriculture and hunting, but is troubled by attacks from violent neighbouring people called the Kona. Twice a year they are visited by the Prescients, members of a more advanced race who have retained their knowledge of science and technology. Zachry and his tribe have a simple faith which features a goddess-like figures called Somni, though little is known about her deeds or past.

David Mitchell weaves the connections and echoes between the six stories very deftly, creating a very rich tapestry, and the overall effect is astounding..

My only slight cavil is that the sections dealing with Somni-451 and Zachry's story are slightly longer than necessary, but the depth of the story ensures that the reader's attention doesn't flag.

This is one of my favourite books of all time.

Jan 1, 2014, 3:51 pm

I love that book.

Jan 1, 2014, 4:11 pm

I was surprised at how well the film worked - before I saw it I couldn't imagine how they would approach it, but it seemed to work fairly well though, as with nearly all films of great novels, it still didn't come close to the magic of the book.

Jan 2, 2014, 3:53 am

I agree, awesome book. Easily my best read of 2012 (I came to it late). Some people struggle to write convincingly in one voice, Mitchell manages to write successfully in 6 completely different voices. And the links between them are subtle, but there. I'm sure you could read all sorts into it - did you get more from it on a second reading?

Jan 2, 2014, 4:38 am

A great start to 2014! I loved it as well (even though I almost took it back to the shop to get another printing when that first section finished mid-sentence, I thought I had a dud copy).

Jan 2, 2014, 8:39 am

10 Hi Helen.

Yes, I certainly got more out of it from a second reading. there are echoes and clues about the connections all the way through that slipped by me the first time around.

Jan 2, 2014, 11:55 am

My online book group chose Cloud Atlas last year but I haven't given it a try yet. When some people describe it I think I'd love it, then someone else will talk about it and I'll get the opposite impression. I need more books from him like Black Swan Green!

Jan 2, 2014, 2:29 pm

I thought that Black Swan Green was marvellous. Very different from Cloud Atlas but equally brilliant.

Jan 2, 2014, 2:30 pm

We've got Black Swan green for our book club this year. So looking forward to that one, for sure.

Jan 3, 2014, 2:47 pm

Happy New Year Eyejaybee & good luck with your 2014 reading challenges. I look forward to following you.

Jan 3, 2014, 4:20 pm

Cheers, Belva.
Best wishes and happy reading for 2014 to you.

Jan 5, 2014, 7:14 am

Good to see you back again James. Looking forward to following your thread again this year.

Jan 5, 2014, 8:12 am

Thanks, Judy.

Likewise :)

Jan 5, 2014, 1:05 pm

2. A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder by Shamini Flint.

It took me a while to be convinced by this novel, but it won me over in the end. I had picked it up in a speculative mood at my local branch of Waterstone's where it was being promoted, and I was intrigued by the thought of a murder set in Malaysia having just read Anthony Burgess's Malayan Trilogy.

This book is the first volume in a series featuring Inspector Singh, who is actually on the Singaporean Police Force. In this book he is despatched to nearby Malaysia because Chelsea Kiew, a Singaporean citizen, has been arrested for the murder of her husband, Alan Lee. Lee was a controversial figure having been Chief Executive of a logging firm that had frequently been suspected of illegal practices, including the persecution of rain forest dwelling tribes in Borneo. Chesea Kiew is prominent in her own right having previously been a supermodel adored across south east Asia.

Lee had led a playboy's lifestyle, frequently being photographed enjoying Kuala Lumpur's night life with a succession of glamorous partners. This had led to the start of very messy divorce proceedings which had drawn fervent coverage in the local press.

Shortly after Chelsea's imprudent and widely-reported remark to the effect that she would rather kill her husband than let him gain custody of their children, Lee is indeed killed, and Chelsea is arrested.

Jan 5, 2014, 10:19 pm

I really should read these books. There isn't a lot of English fiction from Malaysia, and because I have visited there so many times (family) I think I would enjoy stories set there.

Jan 6, 2014, 5:14 pm

3. Skios by Michael Frayn.

Michael Frayn seems to be able to flit between literary genres at will, and he seems equally at home writing novels or for the stage. His previous works includes philosophical dramas such as Copenhagen and the farcical Noises Off, while his novels include Towards the End of the Morning (perhaps THE great novel about the Fleet Street heyday of journalism), Headlong (which brings the world of fine art into a comic modern day focus) and Spies, a marvellous rites of passage novel about young boys growing up against the backdrop of the Second World War.

With this latest novel he returns to the world of farce. Oliver Fox is down on his luck and has just flown into Skios where he hopes to spend a week with Georgie, a young woman whom he had first met just a few days earlier. However, just before his plane lands he receives a text message from Georgie to say that she had missed her plane and won't be arriving until the next day. Annoyed, he snatches what he thinks is his case from the luggage carousel and proceeds out into the terminal where he sees a very attractive woman holding a sign saying "Dr Norman Wilfred". Feeling he has nothing to lose he decides to try his luck and pretends to be Dr Wilfred, and he is whisked away to the Toppler Foundation where he learns that he is expected to deliver a keynote speech on "scientometrics" the following day. By an amazing coincidence he also realises that he had picked up the wrong suitcase and is now in possession of the hapless Dr Wilfred's clothes, too.

Meanwhile the real Dr Wilfred has found himself without luggage, and with no-one to meet him. Annoyed at the blow that fate seems to have dealt him, and further exasperated by the lack of support from any of the officials around the airport, he lurches out of the airport to find a solitary taxi who has been waiting for "Fox, Oliver", though he pronounces it as one word, "Phoxoliva". Wilfred tries to explain that he is meant to be going to the Toppler Foundation but the driver fails to understand, and assumes that he is indeed the passenger whom he had been commissioned to meet, and drives him off to the villa that Fox was due to stay at.

Wilfred and Fox then stumble through the next couple of days living each other's lives. In fact, shades of A Comedy of Errors, just sadly without the comedy.

All potentially amusing but rather clumsily handled. In fact, all the way through I had the feeling that Frayn had had the germ of an idea but hadn't put sufficient effort in to bring it to full fruition. The overwhelming thought that I had throughout the book was a wistful pondering of "what might have been".

Jan 7, 2014, 1:57 am

Shame it didn't work out, I was enjoying the description of the book.

Jan 7, 2014, 2:24 am

I have certainly enjoyed everything else of his that I have read.

Perhaps my expectations were a little too high. I am a great fan of P. G. Wodehouse and am used to his intricately and exquisitely plotted farces, and this fell well short of that.

Jan 10, 2014, 5:22 pm

4. 1927: One Summer by Bill Bryson.*

I have occasionally struggled to finish some of Bill Bryson's previous books. They are always very informative and well-written, clearly thoroughly researched, and often quite amusing. I have, however, generally encountered some indefinable difficulty with them, and found my enthusiasm tapering as I draw towards the close: the nearer I come to the finish, the more of a burden they become. It sometimes seems as though I am caught in a Zeno's arrow scenario in which before I can finish the book I will have to read half of what remains, and then half of what will b left after that, and then and then a further half of that reducing balance …

What is oddest of all about this is that I don't know why

It was the same, though admittedly to a lesser degree, with this book, though I did enjoy the first half. I raced through the early sections, lapping up the customary melange of obscure facts that Bryson offers up in great abundance. I did, however, reach a tipping point about three quarters of the way through, and from then on it became a struggle to plod on through to the end. I often feel find myself disappointed when thinking that I still have quite a lot of a book left to find that the publisher has included a few chapters of the next book by way of an appetiser. On this occasion the fact that there was a comprehensive bibliography that took up about forty pages came as a great relief - it felt like being let off school on a half holiday.

The central idea of the book is very well thought out. Rather than just setting out a straightforward account of Lindbergh's epochal flight from New York to Paris (which would have been gripping enough, after all), Bryson sets it within the context of what was happening in New York in 1927. He also throws in potted biographies of Lindbergh, Babe Ruth and Presidents Hoover and Coolidge along with histories of Prohibition, the Federal Reserve and American aviation (the latter being conspicuous by its paucity compared to flying achievements in Europe prior to Lindbergh's triumph).

This probably makes it all sound very interesting, which it certainly was, but somehow it still jarred slightly. Still, I now know a lot more than I did before.

Jan 11, 2014, 11:05 am

I think I understand what you mean about Bryson - I feel the same way. He starts off well, and then loses steam.

Jan 11, 2014, 3:48 pm

5. The Bat by Jo Nesbo.

I remain bemused by the immense popularity that Scandinavian crime novels have experienced around the world recently recently. I would have to concede that this is better than the others that I have tried - after all, I managed to persevere through to the end of this, which is more than I have achieved in any of my previous forays into the genre. I am not champing at the bit to try any more in the series, though.

What happened to the idea of employing empathetic characters and plausible plots? Or am I just revealing myself as a sad traditionalist!

Jan 14, 2014, 3:59 pm

>27 Eyejaybee::
If so you are in a large & good company James. The few Scandinavian crime novels I have read have all been very dark. That's not to say that I didn't like them but.............. I do believe that I am in your ball park.

Jan 14, 2014, 4:05 pm

6. The Late Monsieur Gallet by Georges Simenon.

Published in 1931, this was the third novel to feature Chief Inspector , and it is clear that Georges Simenon was still learning his art. The story lacks the faultless polish of his later works, though traces of acute observation skills are already present.

The book opens in the sweltering heat of August (which makes a change from the almost incessant rain that pervaded the first two novels in the series), with Maigret receiving the news of the death of a man in Sancerre. It transpires that the dead man he is Emile Gallet, and further investigation shows that he has been leading a double life for several years. His widow had believed that he was in Rouen, engaged in selling silverware for his employer. However, through the judicious questioning of the locals at Sancerre and the despatch of a few telegrams, Maigret establishes that Gallet had ceased to work for the company nearly twenty years earlier, and had been visiting Sancerre rther than Rouen regularly for more than a decade.

Guided partially by his own intuition, Maigret delves more deeply into the mysterious circumstances and unravels a devious plot. However, there is very little attempt to scratch beneath the surface of most of the characters (including Maigret himself), and the narrative felt oddly flat.

On reflection I am glad that I read this book, though I also recognise that if this had been the first Maigret novel that I had encountered, I would never have considered reading any more of them.

Jan 14, 2014, 4:08 pm

>28 rainpebble:
Hi Belva, I certainly find that I am becoming less patient with books as I get older - there are so many great books waiting to be read!

Jan 14, 2014, 4:50 pm

I totally agree James! And please believe me when I say that I DO invoke 'The Pearl Rule' when necessary. I am now 66 years of age and simply do not have the years left to be reading crap just so I finish the book. Life is way too short at my age. ;-)

Jan 14, 2014, 8:28 pm

I'm all for the "Pearl Rule"! Although I find books are usually of a very good quality, so it's more that I'm not enjoying something (usually something "worthy" that I'm reading because I feel I should :P) when I ditch a book.

Sandicrime is very black. That is rather its appeal (for me), but I can't read many of them in a row.

James, if I were to dip my reading toe into the Maigret novels, where should I start? I usually start with the first, but I'm thinking that may not be such a great idea here. :)

There was a BBC radio series called "Foreign Bodies" that did a great job looking into crime books from other (non-English) countries. Whet my appetite for all sorts of classic crime I'd never read, and Maigret was one of the fictional detectives covered. (I got my copies of the show through iTunes, as podcasts, if you want to look them up.)

Jan 15, 2014, 4:51 am

<32 Hi Tania, I'm not sure what is the best of the maigret stories as I have read so few in relation to the whole canon. However, I did read a couple last year that i enjoyed: Maigret has Scruples and Maigret in Society, and I remember enjoying Maigret at the Crossroads well over thirty years ago when I was about seventeen.

Simenon's President was also very good - it isn't a Maigret novel, but I found it a fascinating account of a former President looking back over his political life and still hoping that he might be called back to form a government.

Jan 15, 2014, 11:25 pm

Thanks James! I'll keep an eye open for them.

Jan 16, 2014, 5:28 am

I meant to say, Tania, that I heard a few of the 'Foreign Bodies' radio plays, too, and thought they were very well done. The BBC does crime fiction in the form of radio drama very well.

Great to listen too on long car journeys.

Jan 21, 2014, 12:14 am

<25 - You have deftly identified the reason I left 1927: One Summer on the shelf after spotting it at the library yesterday.

Jan 23, 2014, 1:31 pm

7. The Secret History by Donna Tartt.

Donna Tartt can scarcely be called prolific - last year saw the publication of her third novel The Goldfinch after a gap of ten years since its predecessor The Little Friend and twenty years after The Secret History. I read The Secret History shortly after its publication and thought it was extraordinary. Having just re-read it I think that "extraordinary" falls rather too short of the mark! After all, who would have thought that a novel about a group of students studying the Greek and Roman classics could be so gripping?

The story is narrated by Richard Papen, who recounts the events he experienced as a twenty year old student from a modest background in California who had enrolled in Hampden College, an exclusive institution in Vermont (apparently modelled upon Bennington College where Tartt herself studied during the 1980s). After a false start at his first college where he had started to study medicine, he embarks upon a humanities course but transfers to Classics, basically because he has become intrigued (almost to the point of obsession) with a small group of students who stand apart from the rest of the campus. This group consists of Henry, an extremely erudite, wealthy and rather aloof character who seldom seems aware of his immediate surroundings as he ponders aspects of Greek philosophy, Francis Abernethy, a flamboyant flanneur, twins Charles and Camilla McCaulay (as the book was published in 1992 there was no particular resonance of that pairing of names!) and the slightly dysfunctional Edmund Corcoran, known as Bunny. Together they study under the unorthodox and inspiring tutor, Julian Morrow, who encourages them to read widely and to immerse themselves in their subject. This encouragement to explore the classical world to the full proves unfortunate as an experiment to recapture the sensations of a Bacchanal go disastrously awry, and tensions within the group reach extreme levels.

Richard Papen is an immensely likeable character, and his financial struggles merely to survive among his generally affluent fellow students are depicted very plausibly. The individual member of the group, and their tutor, are very clearly drawn, and the internal conflicts are all too readily believed.

(Possible spoiler alert - I don't think this really constitutes a spoiler as it covers something that is referred to in the opening sentence of the Prologue of the book, but I thought I had better play safe and mention it.) The novel opens with Richard recalling the discovery of Bunny who "had been dead for several weeks", and it soon becomes clear how he had died, with the bulk of the novel left to cover the reasons why that had to happen. However, although the denouement comes at the start, the tension and excitement of the novel is maintained deftly, and the reader's attention never falters.

What I find most amazing about this novel is the fact that it was Tartt's debut, and that she was only nineteen when she started writing it. She manages to blend a huge amount of classical erudition with a tautly-crafted suspense novel with a great deftness of touch.

Jan 24, 2014, 7:28 am

Good review of The Secret History, I did like that one when I read it many years ago. Was FAR less impressed with The Little Friend.

Jan 24, 2014, 12:13 pm

Hi Tania.
i felt the same about The Little Friend. Having enjoyed The Secret History so much I allowed myself to be beguiled by the hype when The Little Friend was published and bought it straight away in hardback, only to find myself struggling to get through it.

I thought that The Goldfinch was excellent, though. A dazzling return to form.

Jan 24, 2014, 4:31 pm

#39. Alright you've convinced me, I'll read The Goldfinch !

Jan 25, 2014, 5:02 am

Sounds like we are all in agreement here. Perhaps I should get The Goldfinch too.

Jan 25, 2014, 7:44 am

Funnily enough, I read TLF first - Dad bought it for me for Xmas, and I plugged my way through it. Then some years later, a friend loaned me TSH and I realised what all the fuss was about.

Jan 26, 2014, 4:53 am

8. Old Filth by Jane Gardham.

This novel lays out the life story of the immaculately dressed Sir Edward Feathers from his birth in Malaya during the colonial period, through his career as a barrister and later a judge spent mainly in Hong Kong, and then his retirement and old age in Dorset.

Edward was known as "Old Filth", the name coming from the acronym FILTH (Failed in London, Try Hong Kong), and this certainly seems to have applied to Feathers. His birth was shrouded in tragedy as his mother died just three days later. Edward was brought up by the Malay servants of his colonial father who had virtually no contact with the boy. The boy is sent home to Britain to receive a "proper" education and finds himself lodging with a dubious family in Wales (where he was subjected to domestic abuse) before being sent off to a private preparatory school and then public school. While there he become very friendly with Pat Ingoldby, and spends his school vacations at Pat's home where he almost becomes part of the family. The Second World War intervenes, and having secured a deferred place in Oxford Edward wants to sign up. Following the war he embarks on an undistinguished career at the London Bar before deciding to head back east to carve out a life for himself.

The story is alternatively amusing and sad, and told with great gentleness. In Hong Kong Feathers becomes a great success, marrying Betty and falling into a bitter rivalry with a fellow lawyer named Veneering. This rivalry almost becomes the defining aspect of his career.

This well-written novel was certainly entertaining, and it kept my attention, though I felt that there was something missing (I can't say what, but I kept expecting something else to emerge to round the story off).

Jan 26, 2014, 7:29 am

After reading this one, I became a fan of Gardam. I really enjoy her quiet storytelling.

Jan 27, 2014, 6:31 pm

9. Dead Room Farce by Simon Brett.

This is the sixteenth outing for Charles Paris, Simon Brett's immensely likeable yet singularly unsuccessful actor who has developed a facility for unravelling the murders that seem to dog him wherever he might go. Throughout the previous tales we have become familiar with his drinking, and occasional philandering, from which he emrges as a man almost wholly lacking in any vestige of willpower.

As this volume opens Charles is enjoying a period of relative success. Not only has he been given a part in a touring production of a new farce, but he has also landed some additional work as a reader for the burgeoning audio-book market. Admittedly his part in the play is relatively minor, and he is disdainful of the play itself, but it is work and will help to stave off some of the more enterprising of his creditors, and help to bolster his all-too-fragile self-confidence. Similarly, the book that he is recording (a formulaic romance story with tow-dimensional characters and an utterly anodyne plot) might not ever be rated as great literature, and is not something that he would ever have dreamt of reading of his own volition, but it yield a fee, and Charles is buoyed up by the fact that, having arranged the work himself, he will not have to pay a cut to his agent. Things are better than they have been for quite some time, and Charles even begins to consider attempting (another) rapprochement with Frances, his estranged wife.

Needless to say, shortly into the work an untimely death occurs, and Charles sets to unravelling the truth behind it. In this case it is Mark Lear, a former BBC sound engineer with whom Charles had worked in "the good old days" when they were both younger and the BBC had plenty of cash. He is found dead in the small independent recording studio that he and his partner Lisa were running, and where Charles had been doing his book recording.

Simon Brett is a master of understated comedy. He has obviously worked in many aspects of the theatre and the sphere of television "light entertainment" and he exposes the pomposity and hypocrisy that is rife throughout the theatrical world. However, his light touch and the humour sprinkled throughout the book never detract from the integrity of the plot which is well thought out and very plausible.

Another strong theatrical whodunnit!

Fev 2, 2014, 1:03 pm

10. Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw.

This novel didn't really work for me. I thought that the basic premise was clever, and I found the early chapters appealing, but that initial appeal palled fairly quickly.

The story takes the form of five narratives relating the experiences of separate Malaysian émigrés who have relocated to Shanghai. These five include:
· a young woman struggling to make a life in the big city who thinks that her greatest chance for advancement lies in finding a wealthy man,;
· a member of an immensely rich family which has made its wealth through selling insurance and is now looking to cash in on the property boom in Shanghai as it becomes increasingly westernised;
· a successful pop star in his early twenties who, after having a meteoric career seems to have fallen foul of the tabloid papers that had previously eulogised his every act;
· a successful businesswoman who has created an extensive commercial empire but worries that she has sacrificed her private life; and
· a personal development guru who has developed a life plan that can make the most unlikely candidate become a billionaire.

Unfortunately, as the novel progresses each of these characters seemed to become more rather than less two-dimensional, and the plot simply seemed too contrived to be rally plausible.

Fev 2, 2014, 7:35 pm

That is a shame. It is a book I have had my eye on for a while. But I will probably still read it. It just sounds interesting, and it is Malaysian.

Fev 5, 2014, 9:21 am

11. A Reconstructed Corpse by Simon Brett.

Simon Brett’s character Simon Brett has experienced many avenues of a professional actor’s life but A Reconstructed Corpse finds him taking on the role of Martin Earnshaw, a property developer who has disappeared, believed to have fallen foul of criminally-inclined rivals near his home town of Brighton. However, Charles is not acting in a play or television drama but is undertaking the “role” for a real-life crime investigation programme (clearly modelled on BBC’s “Crimewatch”). This is a new low for Charles as he was selected more for his apparent resemblance to the man who has disappeared than for any acting expertise. There is, however, a positive side to things, as for various reasons the disappearance of Martin Earnshaw (or, more accurately, the plight of his immensely attractive wife) has captured the public’s imagination, and Charles’s appearance on the programme develops into a continuing role as the investigation into the disappearance gathers pace.

As with all of the books in this entertaining series, Simon Brett manages to retain the integrity and plausibility of his plot while offering a very entertaining portrayal of the jealousies and egos that are manifested in the production of any television series. Charles Paris seems an immensely sympathetic character – not especially gifted as an actor, and certainly flawed as a man. He remains sensitive to the conflicting personalities amongst whom he has to operate, and the reader feels for him throughout the vicissitudes he has to face.

Fev 5, 2014, 10:24 am

12. The Shining by Stephen King.

Intrigued by the media attention that attended the recent publication of Doctor Sleep which picks up the character of Danny Torrance, the troubled child with psychic powers at the heart of The Shining as he enters middle age, I decided to re-read The Shining. I had first read it back in 1980, while still a teenager, and remembered being struck by its power, though much of my recollection of it actually derived from the film which famously starred Jack Nicholson as Danny’s father Jack. I was rather a fan of King back then, early on in his prolific publishing career, though until I attempted to read his recent novel 22-11-63 I hadn’t dabbled with anything of his for years.

It was an interesting experience to revisit this book after so long. I was initially impressed by how well King lays the groundwork, describing the fracture that the Torrance family had faced as a consequence of Jack’s alcoholism (and the private torture that he suffered as he battled to stay off the booze). The introductory phase of the novel was far longer than I recalled, and Jack’s struggle against the demon drink, and the relentless internal dialogue he faces with his inner, dark self urging him to have a drink is very well crafted. I know that Stephen King has had his own issues with addiction, and they have clearly informed his portrayal of Jack Torrance’s gradual disintegration.

I did feel that the book hadn’t aged particularly well, though that might be more of a reflection of my own reactions becoming more jaded and cynical over the intervening years. It is still a frightening novel in places, though many aspects of it now seemed more laughable than anything else.

The principal conclusion that I arrived at having re-read The Shining was that I probably won’t bother with Doctor Sleep and shall let sleeping doctors lie.

Fev 7, 2014, 5:58 am

My bookgroup, after discussing The Shining went and saw the movie on the big screen a week or so later. It's quite different, but has some great visual moments, so I can see why it overwhelms your memory of the book at times. The audience had some giggles for some of the 1980s special effects, probably the same with some of the book aging as well. But for a first-time King read, I thought it was rather good. Flawed, but scary.

Fev 8, 2014, 4:45 pm

13. Night Without End by Alistair MacLean.

Alistair MacLean was phenomenally successful as a writer of adventure stories. Starting in the late 1950s and then continuing throughout the 1960s and 1970s, he published at least one novel each year, and they all sold in huge numbers. Many of them were made into films (often featuring screenplays used by MacLean himself), including The Guns of Navaraone (and its woeful sequel, Force 10 from Navarone), Where Eagles Dare, Puppet on A Chain, When Eight Bells Toll, Ice Station Zebra and The Satan Bug.

Night Without End was one of his earlier books and displays a lot of the characteristics that were to become MacLean's trademarks - a fast, driving plot, resolute and virtually indestructible lead characters, and an ice-bound setting. Another MacLean trait to which this book can lay claim is the almost complete absence of female characters.

The novel opens with an airliner crashing in the Arctic Circle, fortunately coming down close to a research base undertaking a project as part of the United Nations International Geophysical Year (IGY) research programme. Members of the research team battle through the dreadful conditions to find the wreckage, and are able to rescue the survivors. The pilot of the plane was among those who died, though the rescuers see that he had actually been shot. As the survivors are brought back to the research camp, an apparent accident befalls the radio set which provides the only link with the outside world …

I read, and enjoyed, nearly all of MacLean's novels in my early teens back in the mid-1970s, one after another in that almost obsessive way that adolescent boys strive to complete a set. I was, therefore, intrigued when I saw a copy of this book going very cheaply while I was in Scotland on holiday, and thought it would be fun to read it again.

Sadly, it has not aged well. Naturally, more than fifty years since it was first published, the context seems wholly unfamiliar now, but I was struck by how stilted the dialogue was, and how two-dimensional the characters all were. Not one character demonstrates any hint of emotion or sentiment, and even Mason, the narrator-hero, lacks any empathetic traits. He does capture the setting very well - he always manages to convey arctic scenes very deftly - but the novel now seems to lack cohesion and plausibility. Ah well, I won't make that mistake again!

Fev 9, 2014, 3:37 pm

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

This was the third time that I have read this book within the span of just a couple of years, yet I still found new aspects to marvel at. This is an amazing flight of fancy and is one of the most extraordinary books I have read.

The novel starts in spring 1984 and focuses on two separate characters, both of whom are approaching their thirtieth birthday, The chapters alternate between the two of them

We are introduced first to Aomame (pronounced "Ah-oh-mah-may", and apparently meaning "green peas"), a young woman travelling by taxi to an important appointment. As the novel opens the taxi has ground to a halt in heavy traffic on an elevated freeway. As the car sits gridlocked the radio starts to play Janacek's Sinfonietta. Aomame is surprised to find that in one part of her mind she instantly recognises the piece as the Sinfonietta, and is aware of certain facts about Janacek's life, even though she also knows that she has not heard the music before and did not know anything at all about its composer. Realising that the gridlock is unlikely to ease in the imminent future the cab-driver advises Aomame that she might be best advised to leave the cab and climb down a nearby emergency staircase, and proceed by underground train to her appointment. Aomame decides to follow this advice. This seemingly innocuous decision proves to be the trigger for some startling changes in her life and her perception of the world around her.

We then meet Tengo, close contemporary of Aomame. He makes a living by teaching mathematics a t a "cramming" school, though his great ambition is to become a successful writer. When we first encounter him he has had some minor success in having a few short stories published, and he writes a fake astrology column for a magazine under a suitably esoteric pseudonym. He also works as a screener for a writing competition, sifting through manuscripts submitted for consideration for a literary prize, similar to our Costa Prize. One of these manuscripts has been submitted by a seventeen year old girl and, though haltingly written, sets out a fascinating story involving life in a secret sect where strange, almost supernatural event seem to happen. Tengo is persuaded by one of his friends to re-write this story, retaining the original plot but rendering it into more stylish prose. Having met the girl who wrote the story and received her consent to go ahead with this scheme, Tengo takes the commission on, and completely overhauls the story.

Murakami alternates between Aomame and Tengo, and with each new chapter pulls the reader deeper and deeper into an utterly absorbing story, and effortlessly ensuring the total suspension of disbelief. Both the principal characters are immensely appealing, and the reader is engulfed in the novel right from the start.

Even as a re-read, this struck me as one of the finest and most entertaining novels I have read for a long time, and I am sure that I will find myself re-reading it yet again before very long.

Fev 11, 2014, 1:16 am

What a compelling review! I have added 1Q84 to my burgeoning wish list.

Fev 11, 2014, 4:24 pm

#53 Thanks, Teresa. I hope you enjoy it.

Fev 11, 2014, 4:25 pm

15. Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe.

Over recent years I have found myself wondering why John Cleese and Steve Martin seemed to stop being funny, or at what point did Paul McCartney's talent dry up. Alongside these perplexing questions I would like to know what happened to Tom Wolfe, who seems to offer an immense literary enigma.

How can one person write a novel as marvellous, engrossing and iconic as The Bonfire of the Vanities and follow it up, at a space of several years each time, with works as lamentable as A Man in Full, I Am Charlotte Simmons and, now, Back to Blood. The Bonfire of the Vanities caught the dynamic of the late 1980s with searing accuracy, hurling would-be Master of the Universe Sherman McCoy down from his Olympian life after literally taking a wrong turning in the Bronx. Like Thackeray's Vanity Fair, this was a novel without a hero through it abounded with victims, including McCoy who was ground down through the maws of a rotten criminal prosecution system after his car knocks down Henry Lamb, a young man from the Bronx who is left on a life support system. A rich cast of characters all pursue their separate agendas, each of which is handed masterfully by Wolfe, even though this was his first venture into writing fiction.

Twenty-five years and three novels on and Wolfe's grip seems to have loosened. He does, it is true, come up with an intriguing plot hook, with Nestor Camacho, a Cuban American police officer in Miami becoming involved in the arrest of a Cuban refugee desperate to seek asylum in the United States. His dramatic arrest is captured on live television, and Camacho initially basks in the adulation of his fellow officers, only to find himself ostracised within the Miami Cuban American community who consider that he has turned his back on his roots. Tensions mount and Nestor's life lurches from one crisis to the next.

Though he has a potentially very rich seam to mine, Wolfe never manages to secure the reader's empathy. In The Bonfire of the Vanities Sherman McCoy inhabits a world utterly removed from that of most of the readers, and he is an arrogant and spoiled character, but Wolfe was able to make the reader feel his frustration and disbelief as the campaign for "justice" take hold and the District Attorney, with a view to impending re-election campaign, allows himself to be carried along with flow. In this novel I found that I really wasn't interested in Nestor's plight.

Fev 11, 2014, 6:37 pm

Oh, I did love The Bonfire of the Vanities, but have never been interested in any of his other fiction. Sounds like with good reason!

And you've inspired me to find out where on earth I've managed to store my copy of 1Q84.

Fev 14, 2014, 5:29 pm

16. A History of the World by Andrew Marr.*

During the Council of Elrond in The Fellowship of the Ring, after Bilbo rather petulantly offers to set his cosy retirement aside and do his bit by taking the Ring to Mordor, Gandalf assuages his ire, saying, "We do not doubt that … you are making a valiant offer. But one beyond your strength, Bilbo." Perhaps it might have been better for all of us if some similarly astute wizard had been on hand to counsel Andrew Marr.

I had enjoyed his previous ventures in the field, A History of Modern Britain and The Making of Modern Britain but there he was operating on a far smaller field and negotiating with a much more manageable palette. Between them those two books (each similar in size to this latest offering) merely cover the twentieth century in Britain. To be fair, in the preface he concedes that "writing a history of the world is a ridiculous thing to do", and that encompassing such a subject in one volume is, like Bilbo, over ambitious.

He paints in broad strokes, and divides his chapters into general themes, and he certainly amasses an interesting hoard of facts. His journalistic background proves valuables, too, as he corrals them successfully, keeping the reader's interest without overburdening him with minutiae. Still, in one volume such a work can only ever aspire to scratch the surface, and Marr does well not to sink into a sea of platitudes.

Fev 15, 2014, 12:40 am

Great review Eyejaybee !

Fev 15, 2014, 2:17 am

I liked your take on The Shining second time around. But that is exactly why I won't reread it any time soon. I have such strong memories of that book when I read it (also) as a teenager that I don't want to lose the sense of dread I feel every time I think about it!

Fev 15, 2014, 5:56 am

>59 judylou: Hi Judy. It's rather ironic that the principal reason why I re-read The Shining was as preparation for reading Doctor Sleep, but the main consequence of having re-read it is my decision not to bother with Doctor Sleep at all.

>58 bryanoz: Thanks, Bryan

Fev 15, 2014, 6:45 am

17. The Collini Case by Ferdinand von Shirach.

This novel rather sold me the dummy.

It opened very well with a concise description of the murder in 2002 of Hans Meyer, an elderly German business magnate, in his suite in the prestigious Hotel Adlon in Berlin. After shooting Meyer four times the murderer placidly goes downstairs to Reception and asks the person behind the counter to call the police. He then sits quietly in the lounge until the officers arrive, and then gives himself up. Apart from identifying himself as Fabrizio Collini, an Italian who has lived in Germany for the last thirty-five years, he tells the officers nothing

Newly qualified advocate Caspar Leinen happens to be the duty lawyer for legal aid defence work when the case is called in, and duly attends the initial arraignment. However, once the legal process is set in motion Leinen is in for a shock as he realises he knew the victim very well, though not under that forename, and had been close to the Meyer family for his whole life. His client doesn't help at all as he steadfastly refuses to explain why he had murdered the old man.

Leinen starts digging, trying to find out what might have prompted his cleint to commit the murder, and what connection he might have ahd with the victim. Upt to this point the novel has been very well constructed, written in a spare but compelling tone, and von Shirach succeeds in building the tension. However, as soon as Leinen starts digging into the past the novel plummets into predictability. It also seems to race to a close, as though the writer had been set an immovable deadline, and had to bring the book to a close as quickly as possible.

I am glad I read it, and was impressed by the writer's style, though I feel that the plaudits scattered all over the cover were wholly removed from my own experience of the book.

Fev 15, 2014, 7:19 am

18. Cider with Roadies by Stuart Maconie.*

I have never really come across Stuart Maconie very often - he started writing for the New Musical Express after I stopped reading it regularly, and over the last twenty or thirty years I have very rarely listened to music radio, where he has carved out his own niche. I had seen him a few times in talking head role on music documentaries, and had always found him amusing, and had also noticed that his judgement on whatever artist was being discussed seemed close to my own.

Then I read his book, Pies and Prejudice: In Search of the North, which I enjoyed - in this he managed to eulogise many aspects of living in the northern part of England without falling into the easy option of simply slagging off those in the "poncey south". I also appreciated his wry, observant humour.

I was, therefore, looking forward to this music-based memoir, though I was also conscious that too often recently I have found myself disappointed after allowing myself high expectations. Happily, that was not the case here. This book is very amusing yet also informative. I think that Maconie is perhaps a couple of years older than I am, and I identified very closely with his own story, and could claim many shared perspectives. He grew up in Wigan, often seen as something as a backwater by people from the south of England, though it should be remembered that the Wigan Casino was voted the world's best nightclub during the Northern Soul era in the late 1970s (and that was up in competition with venues as widely-lauded as New York's Studio 54). I grew up in North Leicestershire which was then (and is now, to be honest) a bit of a musical backwater, too, with Kasabian the only local band to make it big in any worthwhile manner (well, I am NOT going to dwell on Showaddywaddy!), so I could appreciate his feeling that he was sometimes away from the main flow. Both of us encountered bands and artists that would become firm favourites through the medium of John Peel's show.

Maconie seemed to have had an early start to his music-listening career. One of his earliest memories was of hearing The Beatles on the radio, and he even went to see the Fab Four while still not more than a toddler when they played a gig in Wigan shortly after their first tour of America in 1964. in fact, they played two gigs - in those days bands generally did two shows each night! That is two more Beatles gigs than Loughborough can claim!

I was surprised to read that he had gone through a progressive rock phase early on. I … or, rather, "a friend of mine" … may have dwelt in Yesland or Camelville for a while too, before passing through punk and new wave to a clearer understanding of the multiplicity of rock and roll genres.

Maconie writes very engagingly and laconically, and when he pronounces judgement on musicians he does so from an informed perspective. He has been a professional journalist for many years now, and writes with an economy that does not impinge upon his message. I was particularly intrigued to learn that it was Maconie who started the now endemic urban myth that Bob Holness played saxophone on "Baker Street". Holness seemed to take this in good part - I once saw him asked about this in an interview. Staring straight at the camera Bob denied it, adding, with a wry grin, "… but I did play lead guitar on Layla!"

All in all this was a very enjoyable read, perhaps of particular interest to those born in the early 1960s.

Fev 15, 2014, 7:26 am

Nice review. I read Pies & Prejudice last year, and (as a southern softie) thought is amusing and instructive in a wry kind of way. I treated myself to a couple more of his works with My Christmas book token. I listen to him regularly on 6 music and really like his way with words. Must bump that slightly up the to read pile.

Fev 15, 2014, 4:27 pm

19. Heresy by S. J. Parris.

I found this book very disappointing. It could have been so good!

The basic premise is certainly enticing. Giordano Bruno is a prime example of the Renaissance Man - scientist, literary lion and a dab hand with a dagger should the need arise, he is also a former, or more accurately, a disgraced and unfrocked monk ho has pulled off the startling feat of being excommunicated by the Catholic church and deemed a heretic by the Calvinists. Having fled from his monastery to escape the Inquisition he wends his worried way through Europe, ending up in England. There he is recruited by Queen Elizabeth's feted spymaster Lord Walsingham.

All this sets a scene crying out for a rattling good story, and that is where Parris lets us down. The novel is far too long and moves with geological slowness - I have seen more action from the concrete cows that abound around Milton Keynes. When we first meet Bruno he is hiding in a monastic privy into which he throws the proscribed tome that he was reading. If I had had access to a suitably accommodating cludgie beyond risk of blockage I would have followed his example with this one!

Fev 16, 2014, 3:17 pm

20. Not Dead, Only Resting by Simon Brett.

This is an early episode in the casebook of down-at-heel actor Charles Paris, and is recounted with Simon Brett's customary humour. This time around the setting is less theatrical than in previous novels as Charles is in one of his lengthy periods of "resting", with no prospect of imminent employment anywhere on the horizon.

The story opens with Charles dining with Bartlemas and O'Rourke, a gay couple renowned in London's theatrical world for their eccentricity of dress, their obsession with Edmund Kean and William Macready, and their almost religious devotion to attending the first night of every new West End show. They are at Tryst, a fashionable restaurant run by O'Rourke's cousin Tristram Gowers, a former actor who had retired from the profession and tried his hand as a restaurateur, trading on the marvellous cooking skills of his partner, Yves Lafeu.

As it happens, this is the last night that the restaurant will be open for quite some time as Gowers and Lafeu are due to set off very early the following morning for their annual vacation of a month in Cahors, France. However, as the evening draws to a close they suddenly find themselves having a very public and vitriolic argument - this is not uncommon and has become one of the principal attractions for regular diners in the restaurant. The customers drift off assuming that this is just another lovers' tiff.

Meanwhile Charles has been given the offer of work through the actors' old boys network. Unfortunately it is not a decent acting job but, rather, the chance to earn some black economy cash as a decorator, working for a colleague from a past production who has opened up a sideline to get him through long periods of "resting". As luck would have it,, the flat that they will be decorating is that occupied by Gowers and Lafeu. We never find out, though, whether Charles is any better ant painting and decorating than he is at acting because no sooner have they entered the supposedly empty flat than they discovered the mutilated corpse of Yves Lafeu. The obvious implication is that the argument in the restaurant boiled over into physical rage, ad that Gowers murdered his partner before fleeing the country. O'Rourke is reluctant to accept that his cousin could have murdered Yves and, aware of Charles's past success in investigating murders, he pleads with him to delve into the case.

As usual, Brett delivers a very humorous and entertaining story, and Charles remains as empathetic as ever. Brett never allows the humour to compromise the plot which remains watertight. A recurring theme throughout the Charles paris novels is his penchant for adopting disguises based upon former roles from his career, though these always prompt him to recall the reviews the role in question drew - paradoxically he can also remember the poor or excoriating reviews verbatim, but can never once call to mind a positive comment.

This was very entertaining, if slightly dated in its attitudes (but, after all, it was written in 1984).

Fev 16, 2014, 4:58 pm

Good reviews, as always! And I learnt a new word: cludgie.

Fev 16, 2014, 5:03 pm

>66 wookiebender: A good Scottish word that my mother used occasionally to use!

Fev 18, 2014, 4:45 pm

21. Children of the Revolution by Peter Robinson.

I believe that when Dr Johnson coined the phrase, "a triumph of hope over experience", he was referring to the decision of a recently-widowed man to make a second marriage. I feel that I have recently shown similar optimism flying in the face of irksome precedent in deciding to read yet another book by Peter Robinson, though the disappointment of reality soon reasserted itself.

To be fair, I have in the past derived immense enjoyment from some of Robinson's previous novels, and would still rate some of the early episodes in what has now become the overly-protracted series featuring Chief Inspector Alan Banks as being among the best "police procedurals" that I have read. Banks himself was a well-drawn character: slightly flawed but broadly sympathetic, and utterly believable, as was his principal colleague, Detective Sergeant (latterly Inspector) Annie Cabott. The early plots were well constructed, and the books showed a welcome economy of expression.

Unfortunately, the commercial success that ensued from these well-crafted books has led to a desperate diminution of their quality - the plots stretch any vestige of credibility beyond breaking point, and the characters seem to have fallen into a mawkish self-parody. Intriguingly, the DCI Banks series seems to have described the opposite course to that pursued by Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus and Reginald's Hill's pairing of Dalziel and Pascoe, all of whom suffered a mindless mauling at the hands of television adaptation. The reverse is true of Banks, with the television version struggling to retain some dignity for the series.

So what of this particular novel? Well, someone dies, the police investigate and a murderer is identified. There - if he had tried a bit harder, Robinson could have pared it down to eleven words and saved us all a lot of time!

Fev 20, 2014, 5:39 pm

22. What Bloody Man is That? by Simon Brett.

Charles Paris is back, this time playing a selection of minor roles in a new production of Macbeth at the Pinero Theatre in Warminster which is being directed by his old friend, Gavin Scholes. Other members of the cast include: John B Murgatroyd, an itinerant actor whose career has been almost as devastatingly unsuccessful as Charles's; George Birkitt, a man who despite possessing little more than journeyman ability has encountered considerable commercial success through having played pedestrian roles in a selection of mindless situation comedies; Felicia Chatterton, an alluring yet intense actress whose career has been almost exclusively served in the RSC and who has to devote hours to think herself into her role; and Warnock Belvedere, an outrageous old ham who prides himself on being a theatrical "character" encompassing all the worst traits of old self-aggrandising stars without any compensatory talent.

Almost from the start Belvedere shows himself to be obnoxious, overriding the feelings of anyone else in the company and blatantly undermining the director. Within days of the company first coming together there is no-one whom he has not driven to utter fury. Consequently, there is an immense feeling of relief which politeness and propriety do little to hide, when he is found dead in the cellar of the theatre's bar, having seemingly fallen over and knocked himself out while simultaneously dislodging the CO2 hoses. Drunk and unconscious he succumbs to asphyxiation. This is put down as a dreadful accident, and just another manifestation of the dreadful luck that historically bedevils companies staging "the Scottish Play".

Predictably the body is discovered by Charles who, having overdone things in the bar earlier in the evening, had fallen asleep in his dressing room and found himself locked in the theatre. It is only gradually afterwards, as he struggles to reconstruct the events of the night, that Charles recognises vital clues that point to Belvedere's death as murder, and he also realises that the perpetrator must be another member of the theatre company.

Brett is always capable of weaving an intricate yet plausible plot, which he lightly peppers with humour. Charles Paris is always a sympathetic character - flawed (a virtual alcoholic and recalcitrant philanderer) yet essentially well-meaning, even to the point of frequent self-disgust. The conflicting ambitions and lifestyles of the different members of the theatrical company are also well constructed, and Brett clearly knows the theatrical milieu very well, and he is sufficiently conversant with the text and subtexts of Macbeth to throw in some convincing exegesis of the play's more obscure stretches.

Most entertaining on a number of levels!

Fev 23, 2014, 4:56 pm

23. The Hidden ManCharles Cumming

Over the last few years Charles Cumming has garnered a reputation as one of the leading British writers of spy fiction, and has even been widely feted as "the new John le Carre". Having read some of his recent novels, including The Trinity Six, and A Foreign Country I might be inclined to agree. If, however, I had read this book at the time it was first published I doubt whether I would ever have troubled to read any of his subsequent offerings.

The basic premise upon which the novel is based is the strained relationship between former spy, Christopher Keen, and his two sons Mark and Ben. Christopher walked out on his family and then went more than twenty years without seeing either of his sons. After meeting Mark he manages a slight rapprochement with Mark but Ben continues to refuse to see him. Christopher now works for a firm of consultants, advising businesses that are trying to establish bases in Russia, and as luck would have it, one of his clients is the company that Mark works for.

MI5 Meanwhile Christopher is approached by MI5 who see him as a useful source of intelligence about the Russian mafia, and they ask him to keep an eye on the progress of his son's employer whom they suspect of involvement in drug and/or people trafficking. Christopher is intrigued and, seeing a chance to strengthen his relationship with his son, he agrees.

All seems to be going well … until Christopher is suddenly murdered …

This all sounds enticing enough. Unfortunately, however, the plot progresses at a tortuously slow pace, and the characters are, frankly, utterly unbelievable. Cumming's later books were notable for the strength of their plotting and the plausibility and empathy of his characters, but it would appear that he was still learning his art with this book.

Fev 26, 2014, 5:47 pm

24. The Tooth Tattoo by Peter Lovesey.

The latest novel featuring the churlish Superintendent Peter Diamond represents a welcome return to top form for Peter Lovesey. The action is, as usual, set in Bath but this time centres around the intense circles of string quartets.

The body of a young Japanese woman is retrieved from the Avon, and she is identified by means of a tooth tattoo in the form of a musical note. Further investigation reveals that she was passionate about classical music and had formed an obsession about Staccati, a leading string quartet that has only recently begun performing again after replacing their virtuoso viola payer who had disappeared four years previously. As might be expected, all four members of Staccati have their own idiosyncrasies, and it is surprising that they have managed to stay together. However, when united for a performance they cohere with devastating impact.

Lovesey has obviously done a huge amount of research and imparts a wealth of information about the type of music that string quartets play, without ever seeming to lecture or harangue his readers. Even the surly, Diamond, who generally wears his philistinism as a badge of pride, briefly succumbs to the power of music, though his customary bad temper soon reasserts itself.

The plot moves through various twists, but never loses credibility, and, as usual, the city of Bath plays a huge role. I wonder whether Lovesey receives commission from the city's tourist board, and I am surprised that, given how photogenic the city is, these books have now made their way onto television.

Editado: Fev 27, 2014, 12:25 pm

I feel that I have recently shown similar optimism flying in the face of irksome precedent in deciding to read yet another book by Peter Robinson, though the disappointment of reality soon reasserted itself.

Lol. I will skip this, I think.

ETA: In contrast, the idea of a "new John le Carre" is appealing. Should I start with one of the two you mention?

Fev 27, 2014, 1:17 pm

>72 jfetting:. Cumming's A Spy by Nature and its sequel The Spanish Game were both very good, as were the other two I mentioned.

To call some the "new Le Carre" places quite a burden of expectation upon them, but he certainly seems to have something out of the ordinary.

Mar 2, 2014, 2:23 am

25. Star Trap by Simon Brett.

Star Trap is an early episodes in the investigations of Charles Paris, down-at-heel journeyman actor, and is set in 1975.

Charles is recruited to appear in Lumpkin!, a musical loosely based upon Oliver Goldsmith's classic play She Stoops to Conquer, which has been devised as a vehicle for Christopher Milton, the enormously popular star of one of the leading television comedy series of the time. Charles, however, has not won his role through the customary path of attending an audition and being deemed the most suitable actor for the part. He had been contacted by his urbane solicitor friend, Gerald Venables, one of the investors in the show, who has been concerned about some odd incidents which he thinks might be part of a greater plot to sabotage the musical. Knowing of Charles's success in solving a couple of previous theatrical mysteries, Gerald thinks that he might prove to be a helpful asset to the company management as their man on the inside.

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

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

Mar 4, 2014, 3:41 pm

26. Capital Punishment by Robert Wilson.

I am rather surprised that I didn't like this book more.

The story is founded on a strong plot building upon a promising start with the kidnap of Alyisha d'Cruz as she makes her way home after a boisterous evening out with her colleagues. The pickup seems to have been very well-planned and we gradually learn that Alyisha is the daughter of an Indian billionaire who is suspected of close connections with the Indian mafia that has sprung up in the hinterland of the burgeoning international success of the Bollywood industry.

Charles Boxer, former soldier and homicide detective who has established a reputation as a hostage negotiator is called in to intercede, and from that point the novel plummets into egregious implausibility.

All in all, rather a feeble story despite a very promising start.

Mar 7, 2014, 5:31 pm

27. Corporate Bodies by Simon Brett.

Charles Paris's acting career continues to slump, and roles are hard to find. He is, however, offered temporary respite when Will Parton, with whom he worked on an ill-fated television mystery series some years previously, recruits him to participate in a corporate PR film that he has been hired to make for Delmolleen, a leading health foods manufacturer.

Will Parton had hitherto been known as the writer of some moderately successful television series, though he secretly yearns to write at lest one serious, literary play. In the meantime, however, he is happy to pander to commercial success, and he has formed his own production company to try to garner some of the burgeoning corporate business.

When we first meet Charles, however, his part is far from glamorous, and he is seen driving a fork lift truck around the Delmolleen factory, occasionally stopping to deliver a suitably platitudinous message about "the Delmolleen family" to the camera. Needless to say, within a very brief period, someone suffers a dreadful accident, and Charles's suspicions are aroused.

For once Charles's investigations come up against the morass of company politics rather than the more usual farrago of actors' rivalries, . Though this is new ground, Brett handles it with his usual deftness, and the plot stands up to close scrutiny. Wholesome, plausible and very entertaining.

Mar 10, 2014, 7:25 pm

28. An Equal Music by Vikram Seth.

This is a marvellous novel on so many different planes.

Michael Home is a violinist whose life has been devoted to music . Ten years before the novel starts, in the late 1980s, he was an impoverished student at a conservatoire in Vienna where he mat and fell madly in love with Julia, a talented pianist. Everything seems set for them to stay together, marry and pursue their careers when Michael suddenly, but irreparably falls out with his tutor and, without notice, leaves both Vienna and Julia MacNichol. Almost immediately Michael realises his error, at least with regard to Julia, and he struggles to re-establish contact with her, but she has passed completely from his life.

Over the intervening years he has established himself as an accomplished violinist, taking occasional commissions to play in orchestras and smaller ensembles, and for the last six years has been second fiddle in the renowned Maggiore Quartet. Relations within the Quartet are not easy, and there are particular tensions with Piers, the first violinist who is an especially prickly character. Still, the Quartet moves from success to greater success, and has just been commissioned to undertake performance in Vienna and Venice, and to complete a recording for a specialist classical label. And then, from the top of a London bus that has been brought to a stop on Oxford Street, Michael glimpses Julia on top of a bus going in the other direction. He chases after her, even flagging down a taxi and pleading with the cab-driver to, "Follow that bus!", but seems to have lost her again.

They do, however, meet again, and Michael finds that Julia is now married, and has established herself as a revered solo pianist under her married name. Their friendship is rekindled, and Michael learns that Julia has a devastating secret.

While their relationship has been re-established the Quartet has become increasingly successful, and seems now to be on the verge of breaking through to the front rank of classical performers. Seth was himself in a long-term relationship with French violinist, Philippe Honore, himself a feted performer and sometime member of various high profile chamber music ensembles. The work is set through with detailed musical insights, though this never becomes oppressive, even to a dilettante such as myself. Indeed, the insight to the tensions within the quartet, and the occasional jealousies that the contrasting roles can engender, are fascinating. The different members of the quartet are clearly drawn: Piers, the highly-strung (no feeble pun intended), gay first violinist, wracked with paranoia and very defensive over his role as leader, Piers's sister Helen, the viola player, who is the peacemaker, and Billy, the intellectual cellist and technician, who develops the official briefing notes for the quartet's forays into any new piece. The relationship between the four is vibrant - constantly changing and as mutually nourishing when it works as it is draining when strained.

Seth also paints a sympathetic picture of the constant economic plight of the performers, most of whom are using borrowed instruments which leave them at the mercy of their benefactors. Michael's violin is actually owned by Mrs Formby, a rich old widow from his native Rochdale who took and early interest in him as a boy. We never learn how she came to own the Tononi violin which she has lent to Michael. He loves the violin almost more than life itself, and lives in constant fear that she will reclaim it, especially once he learns that her nephew (and closest living relative) has been dropping hints to her about his need to finance his daughters' education. Piers is in a similar quandary, and there is a marvellous scene at a musical auction house when Piers bids for a particularly lovely Rogeri violin.

I was entranced by the descriptions of the different pieces that the Quartet plays, with the performer's insight offering a totally different perspective to that of the occasional listener.

A beautiful book with some startling episodes that are entirely unexpected, yet also utterly believable. This is, by far, the finest novel about music that I have read.

Mar 14, 2014, 7:33 pm

29. The Madness of July by James Naughtie.

I had such high expectations for this book that I suppose I was just asking to be disappointed. Every morning I wake up to Radio 4's 'Today' programme on which James Naughtie is one of the regular presenters and I particularly enjoy his monthly Book Club show. In fact I really wanted to like this book, and I did try, but it just couldn't be done.

The book is a cold war spy story, and it is clear that Naughtie knows his turf, but it was written in a deliberately disjointed manner, which merely served to irritate the reader and came as a great surprise from someone whose career has revolved around journalism and explication. At no point do any of the characters participate in anything even vaguely resembling a real conversation, and the writer seems to revel in unnecessary obliquity.

Mar 16, 2014, 7:19 am

30. Nature Cure by Richard Mabey.

Rather too tedious and introspective for my taste.

As usual with Mabey, the insight into natural history was sharp and informative, but I found that there was too much wallowing and self-introspection, and kept wanting to give him a damn good shake!

Mar 16, 2014, 7:33 am

31. The Son by Philipp Meyer.

This novel embraces a huge family saga outlining their experiences from the early nineteenth century when they were beset by raids from neighboruing Mexican rustlers and Native American insurrection, carried through into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Despite the rave reviews I found it rather a struggle with altogether too much detail on the squalor, violence, rage and overriding despair. No doubt all very true to life as a representation of the pioneers' experience, but I get more than enough of all that at work.

I found myself wondering where all the beautiful writing so heavily eulogise in the reviews had gone - it all struck me as rather journeyman-like.

Mar 17, 2014, 6:13 pm

32. The Golden Egg by Donna Leon.

The early novels in this series were marvellous, combining well-structured plots with fascinating depictions of life in Venice and an empathetic and very appealing central character. Brunetti remains a very engaging and likeable detective, and Venice continues to feature almost as a supporting character, but Donna Leon seems to have lost the knack of creating, or at least sustaining, the reader's interest in her plot.

This novel surrounds the death of David, a deaf and dumb man who had 'worked' in a local launderatte, helping to fold and iron clothes, and occasionally make deliveries to nearby customers. He is found dead, after taking a subsantial overdose of tablets. The initial conclusion is that he committed suicide, or maybe even took the pills accidentally, believing that they were sweets. Egged on by his wife, Paola, Brunetti looks more deeply into the circumstances of the death and, as other incidents ensue, comes to believe that David was in fact murdered. Meanwhile, his awful boss, Vice-Quesore Patta, has Brunetti liaising with the local municipal law enforcement branch to pursue a minor chore at the behest of the city's mayor. In her earlier novels Ms Leon would have made both of these story lines sparkle in a way to entice the reader to race through the book, but now it became almost a burden.

Amazingly this was the twenty-second outing for Commissario Brunetti, but unless I encounter rave reviews of it, I doubt if I shall be spending much time on number twenty-three.

Mar 18, 2014, 2:48 am

I was browsing the library shelves for my next audiobook and spotted a Simon Brett on the shelf. Remembering your reviews of those are usually positive, I have picked it up. Narrated by the author, it's so far quite good. A certain number of sly asides and digs in there as well - it's got a sarcastic side.

Mar 21, 2014, 6:43 pm

33.The Magus by John Fowles.

When asked what he might do differently if he had the chance to live his life again, Woody Allen famously remarked that he probably wouldn't bother to read The Magus. I am not a particular fan of his but I think he was bang on the money with that judgement.

I am still pondering over this book and struggling to get my thoughts about it in some sort of order. It certainly has some merits and represents a great flight of fancy, but there was also something rather unpleasant about it. Part of that was, of course a consequence of the subject matter - was Maurice Conchis (the Magus himself) guilty of collaboration during the war (an especially thorny issue as the book was set in Greece in the early 1950s, when the emotional scars of the Second World War were still very tender).

I am glad I read it, but would hesitate to recommend it.

Mar 25, 2014, 6:49 pm

34. Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan.

I wasn't sure what to expect from this book but it proved to be a very serendipitous discovery. Finding myself in Waterstone's at Trafalgar Square with an unexpected book token burning a hole in my pocket (another serendipitous acquisition) I found myself being talked into buying this novel by Rachel, my favourite book barista par excellence.

She clearly knows her stuff, or at least knows her customers, as I found this book utterly engaging. Think of a melding of Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind and Douglas Coupland's Microserfs with a hint of the more tolerable end of Dan Brown and a soupcon of Bored of the Rings thrown in.

Clay Jannon, occasional website designer, finds himself out of work and desperate to find a job, any job, that will enable him to carry on living in San Francisco. He finds himself working the night shift in Mr Penumbra's small, 24 hour bookstore situated next to a dubious strip joint. Despite being open twenty-four hours each day, the bookstore seems to sell very few books, though Clay becomes aware of a parallel service with strange customers coming in peruse a room at the back of the store. It transpires that these customers are borrowing from a mysterious set of books, which Mr Penumbra warns Clay not to read. Predictably enough, he does soon sneak a look at one of these books but finds himself none the wiser - they appear to have been written in a strange code. Meanwhile Clay has been trying to drum up more trade for the store by niche advertising through Google. This turns up trumps when Kat, an aspiring programmer and data visualiser who happens to work for Google is passing by the store and receives a coupon on her phone. Falling for her immediately, Clay explains the nature of the secret lending society, and they resolve to investigate further, using access to the limitless resources that Google can offer.

They find themselves on a quest to solve the riddle of the Fellowhood of the Unbroken Spine, a secret society of latter-day literary Templars. This may all sound rather whimsical but the blending of hi-tech and bibliophilia is totally enchanting, and very amusing.

Mar 26, 2014, 5:04 pm

35. Capital by John Lanchester (again!).

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 two years ago, this was the fifth 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 address the scourge of 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 Road, a small street in south London where house prices, from a modest start over hundred years ago when the road was first built, have rocketed to well over a million pounds. Lanchester conjures up, and deftly manipulates, a rich and varied cast of characters including a successful merchant banker, a teenage Senegalese footballer brought over to play for one of the London Premiership clubs for a mere £20,000 per week, a Polish builder, a Hungarian au pair, a Pakistani family who own a corner shop abutting on Pepys Road, an old lady with a brain tumour and a Zimbabwean asylum seeker illegally working as a traffic warden.

As the novel opens, Roger Yount, the mercahnt banker, 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 been receiving similar cards, each 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 The novel offers a little bit of everything - tragedy in the demise of Petunia, the oldest resident of the street; romance depicted through the travails of Zbigniew; comedy as depicted by the grotesquely avaricious Arabella, recklessly spendthrift wife of Roger Yount; and crime and politics as seen through the experiences of the Kamal family.

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 - it seems to get even better with each re-reading.

Mar 30, 2014, 3:59 pm

36. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy.

I am still pondering over this and will post a review shortly.

Mar 30, 2014, 8:53 pm

Oh, you had some dud reads for a while there! Glad Mr Penumbra pulled you out of that crisis, though.

Mar 31, 2014, 3:48 am

Yes, I did have a bit of a run of less enjoyable books. Still, I suppose we all have those troughs now and again, and at least I have had a few great peaks, too.

Mar 31, 2014, 8:07 am

37. Murder in the Title by Simon Brett.

It is 1983 and Charles Paris' acting career seems to have hit a new low. As the novel opens we find him curled up in a cupboard on stage playing the part of a corpse in the revival of a tired old play which opens the new season for the Rugland Players' repertory company, based at the long-established Regency Theatre in the sleepy town of Rugland Spa. Charles's sole appearance in Leslie Blatt's corny old mystery, "The Message is Murder" entails him being discovered in Act One, Scene One, when one of the other characters opens the cupboard causing Charles, in the part of the now late Sir Reginald De Maux, to tumble to the flood, his chest pierced by am ornamental sword.

The auguries are not promising at all. "The Message is Murder" had been written by Blatt in the 1950s, and sought to ride on the coat tails of the prevalent murder mystery made popular by Agatha Christie and her numerous imitators. However, having opened in regional theatres it had been withdrawn long before completing its eventual move to London's West End, and had not been heard of since. The Theatre itself is in decline, and there have been campaigns within the town for its site to be redeveloped to allow for a new shopping mall, sports centre and other more popular amenities.

On the opening night, Charles takes the word corpse too much to heart. Having had rather too much to drink earlier in the day he finds himself unable to stop sniggering at the fatuous clichés that pepper the archaic script, and unfortunately dissolves into laughter as his body is discovered, leaving the corpse of Reginald De Maux still convulsing on stage. As a crucial aspect of the plot depends upon Sir Reginald having been dead for several hours by the time his body is found, this serves to undermine still further an already struggling production.

Things are little better the following night when Charles, driven by self-loathing and self-recrimination, arrives at the theatre late (and clearly drunk), well after the customary "Half", to find that someone else was set to take his place. In a bid to salvage what little dignity he can still dredge up he pleads to be allowed to go on, and eventually does so. While waiting to be discovered, he starts to doze and slumps forward, and at just that moment a sharp skewer is pushed through the back of his stage cupboard, exactly where he would have been if he had not dozed off. It is clear that there had been a deliberate attempt to murder someone, though was he the intended victim? Because of his late arrival the majority of people in the cast and stage crew had expected that someone else would have been there.

This novel has all the characteristics of the other volumes in this engaging series. Humour and wry observation abound, bolstered by Brett's clear love of the theatre as an institution. Charles continues to charm as a well-meaning, though far from flawless, protagonist, and the plot is gentle, yet soundly-constructed, offering up a very entertaining story.

Abr 1, 2014, 5:04 pm

38. Stranger on a Train: Daydreaming and Smoking Around America, with interruptions by Jenny Diski.*

As a rule I love reading books about train journeys. I have even managed to put up with Paul Theroux's ceaseless and venomous moaning (about anything … in fact, about everything) in his accounts of the various railway odysseys that he has undertaken. Friends even joke about whether my books about train journeys have dust anoraks instead of jackets.

I was, therefore, very pleased to find a copy of Jenny Diski's account of a journey by train around the edge of America, and even deferred starting it a couple of times so as to heighten the gratification. That may have proved a mistake.

Certainly her accounts of the actual journey were certainly interesting and enjoyable enough, but they were interspersed with a chaotic selection of memoirs of earlier stages of her life when she had been experiencing differing degrees of mental fragility. While many of these episodes were fascinating in themselves, I found the overall melange a little too overpowering, and the increasing frequency with which she took us back to yet another account of her grapple against neurosis came close to triggering some episodes of my own.

I was intrigued, however, by her account of the difficulties placed upon any rail traveller who smokes. My own smoking career is conspicuous by its sheer minimality: a few crafty gaspers when I was fourteen (that led to prodigious hacking, wheezing and shifting of phlegm, two or three drags on soggy joints as an undergraduate, and the occasional very noxious cigar at formal dinners nearly thirty years ago. I am, therefore, ill-equipped to understand the torment that Diski must have experienced while travelling on Amtrak as she seems to have been a smoker on an almost industrial scale. She writes with feeling about the stress of not being able to smoke, though I would have been interested to learn what she felt when she did smoke after an enforced break.

I think that the book might have been stronger if it had been about a hundred pages shorter, and with rather less of the psychiatric memoir, though I recognise that that might just be a reflection of my own mental fragility expressed as squeamishness

Abr 5, 2014, 6:18 pm

39. Right Ho, Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse.

I think that this novel is only really challenged by The Code of the Woosters for the honour of being the finest story about Bertie Wooster and Jeeves.

There are a lot of things one can say about P G Wodehouse's books - immature, very childish, total unworldly, lacking in any political or ecological conscience … It is difficult to challenge any of those judgements (and I should know because most of them have been applied, regularly, to me, too). However, I prefer to think of them as exquisite, beautifully written, faultlessly constructed, charming and ceaselessly entertaining. Sadly all too few of those epithets have ever been applied to me!

Right Ho, Jeeves is, to my mind, the apotheosis of Wodehouse's world. His plots are always full of Byzantine twists, his characters are usually hilarious, but in this novel he excelled his own extremely high standards and brought off a comedy classic.

There are two set pieces in particular (Gussie Fink-Nottle's address when presenting the prizes at Market Snodsbury School's Speech Day, and the stream of outrage from Anatole, the sublimely talented yet extremely temperamental French chef, when Gussie appears to be pulling faces at him through the skylight of his bedroom) which must rank among the finest examples of humorous writing. If one is prepared briefly to suspend disbelief and enter Wodehouse's world the rewards are enormous. This particular book was first published in 1934, but is already looking back to an unspecified Corinthian past, largely of Wodehouse's own imagining.
In this world, gentlemen always wear suits, and occasionally spats though never (in England, anyway) white mess jackets, or not, at least, if Jeeves has his way. They also never bandy a lady's name or break an engagement, no matter how disastrously they might view the prospect of nuptials. Bertie Wooster, though not the brightest chap ever to have ventured into metropolitan life, is a stickler for such correct behaviour, and frequently finds himself beset as a consequence.

Wodehouse's writing is a joy - always grammatically perfect, yet he is able to capture the different voices with clinical precision. Bertie rambles in a manner now reminiscent of Boris Johnson (though without the egregious narcissism) though, of course, in reality it is the other way round with Johnson trying to be like Wooster, but lacking the charm to pull it off while Jeeves favours a cultured orotundity of speech, peppered with a mixture of highly scholarly references to poetry and philosophy bathetically contrasted with allusions to his rather bizarre-sounding family. The plots are immensely intricate, to the extent that they make Agatha Christie's novel seem entirely transparent, but Wodehouse always ties up every loose end, no matter how impossible that might seem even just one or two chapters from the end of the book.

I have read this novel several times before, and am confident that I will read it several times again, as it never fails to cheer me up.

Abr 6, 2014, 3:21 pm

40. Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami.

A marvellous work of great imagination. I really enjoyed it, but am still thinking about it in detail and will post a proper review shortly.

Abr 6, 2014, 5:42 pm

41. Maigret and the Reluctant Witness by Georges Simenon.

This short novel, first published in 1959, opens with Chief Inspector Maigret feeling his age, and looking forward to hid retirement in a couple of years time. The weather is what the Scots would call "dreich" - a marvellously onomatopoeic word to which the French "il fait mauvais" would not come close to doing justice - and he is feeling rather out of sorts.

He is not the only one - I get them impression that Georgres Simenon himself was out of sorts in no small way when he wrote this. It is a petulant novel that seems to have been dashed off in a hurry - I wonder whether he found himself under a contractual obligation to deliver another novel within a certain period, and just rattled this one off without a second thought.

The crime in question is the murder of the managing director of a long﷓established family firm making biscuits that have now faded from favour. The murder occurs in his own home, in close proximity to the rest of his family, but no-one seems to have seen or heard anything, and the family close ranks ion a way suggesting some shared and ominous secret. Maigret finds himself unhappy to be dealing with new colleagues in the Prosecutor's Department, and spends most of the story sulking.

I had generally enjoyed working through the Maigret oeuvre, but if this is typical of the later works I may well just draw a veil over the venture and divert my attentions elsewhere.

Abr 7, 2014, 6:54 pm

42. Consider Phlebas by Iain Banks.

I saw this on the shelves of my local Oxfam shop and thinking how wonderful I had found so many of Banks's 'conventional' (i.e. not science fiction) books, and also remembering my own fondness for classic sci-fi as a youth, I snatched this up with great glee.

Sadly the glee evaporated very quickly. This was not the book for me. I found it totally impenetrable, and I am utterly bemused that the author of a novel simultaneously as enchanting, amusing, sensitive and mysterious as The Crow Road could also have written this.

I have decided to re-read an old favourite by P G Wodehouse next to cleanse my palette.

Abr 10, 2014, 5:40 pm

43. Joy in the Morning by P. G. Wodehouse.

Another delightful instalment from the chronicles of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves.

I won't bother to summarise the plot. For one thing, it is, as usual with Wodehouse's stories, incredibly complicated (though he always managed to resolve all the various threads), but also because when deconstructed it would simply sound very silly. Of course it IS all very silly, but Wodehouse binds it all together in the most enchanting and beguiling way. His use of language, liberally sprinkled with Jeeves's quotations from the classics, and his endearing and enduring characters make the suspension of disbelief very simple.

This particular book is one of the best in the Bertie Wooster and Jeeves series, and features a lot of the leading characters from the oeuvre: D'Arcy 'Stilton' Cheesewright, Lady Florence Cray, Edmund (the lethal boy scout) and Boko Fittleworth, and Bertie's fearsome Aunt Agatha (who is believed to wear barbed wire close to the skin) is hovering in the shadows.

Abr 11, 2014, 5:51 pm

44. Casanova's Chinese Restaurant by Anthony Powell.

I find it very difficult to explain the charm of Anthony Powell's autobiographical roman fleuve, A Dance to the Music of Time, though the attraction is undeniable. As with the previous volumes, very little actually happens, and we continue to next to nothing about Nick Jenkins, the narrator and clear avatar for Powell himself.

This particular instalment immerses us in the chaotic classical music community of pre-war London, and introduces the troubled genius of composer Hugh Moreland (apparently closely based upon English composer Constant Lambert, whose son Kit, incidentally, would later discover The Who in the early 1960s). Moreland will emerge as one of Jenkins's closest friends, though the initial impression of him is less positive. In addition to Moreland we also meet Moreland's wife Matilda, an aspiring actress and former mistress of business magnate Sir Magnus Donners (who has at various times been a patron of Moreland himself), the querulous critic Maclintick and his shrewish wife Audrey.

We are also treated to the return of some old friends, with cameo appearances by Mark Members and J G Quiggin (still locked in their rivalry, each vying for literary supremacy over the other) and a very humorous tour de force from Charles Stringham, now a mere shadow of his former resplendent self. The egregious Widmerpool is back, too, though in this volume he is more peripheral than in the preceding books, and his presence is restricted to a chance encounter in a hospital where he is being treated for "a slight nuisance with boils" followed by a luncheon engagement in which he treats Jenkins to an unintentionally humorous account of his recent encounter with the Prince of Wales and Mrs Simpson, shortly before his all-too-brief succession as Edward VIII, and Mrs Simpson.

I have recently been reading a lot of P G Wodehouse whose marvellously entertaining novels similarly evoke a now distant world in which all the principal characters live in a small sector of London bounded by Oxford Street to the north and The Mall to the south. Wodehouse's humour is direct - pure farce delivered in beautiful prose. Powell's humour is more subtle, and inextricably interlaced with a surging melancholy, but no less powerful or engaging.

Abr 13, 2014, 2:15 am

Some great books on your list this past couple of months. Capital, An Equal Music and The God of Small Things are high on my list of all time favourites. Thanks for reminding me of them.

Abr 13, 2014, 2:50 am

Hi Judy.
Yes, I have been enjoying a good reading year so far. A couple of duds but I have generally been very lucky.

Abr 14, 2014, 5:43 pm

45. The Racketeer by John Grisham.

I can never quite put my finger on why I don't like John Grisham's books. The plots are normally fairly tightly constructed and although he never fleshes out his characters with much in the way of personality or depth, they tend to behave in a fairly plausible way. There is certainly no pretence of attempt at frills - you get a straightforward, plot-driven story that takes the reader from A to B without much digression.

Somehow, though, I always feel that there is something missing. It must have been about ten years since i last read one of his books, and I wouldn't be surprised if a similar period elapses before I do so again. However, if or when I do choose to read another I am sure it will be similar to this - more than passable, but somehow lacking any particular flair to render it memorable.

Abr 15, 2014, 4:42 pm

46. May Week Was In June by Clive James*.

If I might borrow from football punditry, this was definitely a book of two halves. The early chapters detailing Clive James's time as an undergraduate at Cambridge during the 1960s are very entertaining. James had secured a place at Pembroke College to read English Literature and went up in about 1965. Having already secured a degree back home in Australia he was able to study for the Tripos in just two years, and he set about making sure that he enjoyed every moment of his time in Cambridge. His recollections of his time in the Footlights are highly amusing and include detailed insights into figures later famous in their own right such as Eric Idle (subsequently a mainstay of Monty Python's Flying Circus) and 'Romaine Rand' (a notably transparent avatar for James's fellow Australian, Germaine Greer).

James tells his tale with a pleasing lack of modesty, though he never subsides into rank bragging either. He certainly managed to keep an impressive number of plate spinning on different poles during his time as an undergraduate (working for the Footlights, writing poetry, reviewing films, reading Proust, slowly, in French and even briefly editing Granta were just a few of the stings to his bow), though these activities naturally threatened to impinge upon his academic responsibilities. He cartainly makes Cambridge in the mid-1960s sound a beguiling place.

The second part of the book, though, seems slightly dislocated and I found myself struggling to find the will to continue. It seemed to me as if he was including accounts of adventures (or perhaps misadventures) that befell him because he thinks that they could or should be funny, but lacked the physical or spiritual energy to apply the final gloss to make them so.

The positive certainly more than outweighed the negative but he did rather sell me the dummy with this one.

Abr 20, 2014, 5:09 pm

47. Dead Giveaway by Simon Brett.

This is one of the earlier outings for Simon Brett's down-at-heel actor Charles Paris and his career seems to be continuing its general downward spiral. As this novel opens he is at least in work, but the role is far from glamorous.
West End Television has secured the UK rights to the successful American TV game show Hats Off and, under the revised name of If the Cap Fits.

This offers Brett the opportunity for a searing satire of the world of game shows. The basic premise behind If the Cap Fits is that contestants drawn from the general public, and paired with celebrities, have to guess which of four representatives of different professions would wear which hat. Charles Paris is there as an actor, because for the wacky world of TV game shows, actors can be represented by Tudor bonnets. Of course, the actor in question has to be someone whom the public would be unlikely to recognise - in fact, a part made for Charles Paris.

Needless to say, before very long someone is dead, in questionable circumstances, and Charles finds himself delving more deeply for clues. In this case, the victim is Barrett Doran, the unwholesome host of the game show, and there is a large cohort of potential perpetrators.

Brett worked for several years as a television producer at the BBC and then in the commercial sector so he knows his material well, and he is able to focus his gaze on the world of game shows to great effect. As usual, the story is delivered in a humorous vein, though the plot remains sufficiently robust and watertight to stand up on its own merits.

Abr 21, 2014, 4:45 pm

48. The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng.

This is, quite simply, a breathtaking book, though I fear my description below will fail adequately to capture any of its beguiling mystique.

The basic plot concerns the return in the late 1980s of recently-retired judge, Yun Ling Teoh, one of only two women to have been appointed to the Malaysian Supreme Court Bench, to the region of the Cameron Highlands where she had grown up. A few weeks earlier she had been diagnosed as suffering from a particular form of aphasia which, she has been advised, is likely to cause her to lose all of her memories, and this prompted her to take early retirement. She wants to try to commit her story to paper wile she can still remember it.

We gradually learn that during the Second World War she had been imprisoned by the Japanese in an internment camp somewhere in the heart of Malaysia. Her elder sister, Yun Hong, had been imprisoned with her and had died in the camp. We subsequently discover that the mistreatment of the inmates of that camp had been on a particularly gruesome scale Yun Ling had been the only survivor from that camp. Yun Hong had died there.

As Yun Ling starts to record her memoirs, the action moves back to the period immediately following the end of the Second World War. Having returned to freedom Yun Ling returns to the area and stays with Magnus Pretorius, a South African veteran of the Boer War who had relocated to Malaya where he had built up an esteemed tea plantation and become a close friend of Yun Ling's family. Liberation from the Japanese Occupation was followed by a bloody struggle for independence, which would culminate in the transformation from British-ruled Malay to the Independent Malaysia. This was not a seamless or bloodless change, and cells of communist terrorists (referred to as CTs) are rife throughout the rain forest and commit a number of atrocities in the area where Yun Ling and the Pretorius family are living.

Shortly before the war began, Yun Ling and her family had made a brief visit to Japan where she and, to an even greater degree, her sister had fallen in love with the concept of the Japanese ceremonial garden. While they had been incarcerated the two girls had consoled themselves with dreams of the garden that they would create if they were ever released.

Back in the Cameron Highlands Yun Ling is introduced to Nakamura Aritomo, formerly the Head Gardener for Emperor Hirohito. Having fallen out with the Emperor he has been exiled to Malaya where he starts trying to create his own garden. Despite her initial revulsion for all things Japanese, Yun Ling comes to work alongside, and gradually befriends Aritomo, being enchanted by his philosophy of life.

This gives some of the basic context, but the author manages to weave a marvellous story that seems to operate flawlessly on so many levels while also offering a concise history of Malaya-Malaysia in the post-war and post-colonial period, and an insight into the philosophy of Japanese horticulture. The overall effect is utterly hypnotic.

Abr 22, 2014, 4:44 pm

49. As The Crow Flies by Damien Boyd.

This book proved to be a reasonable read, but it could have been so much better.,

The basic premise was sound enough: Detective Inspector Nick Dixon has transferred down to the Somerset force after a few years in the Met, and is generally enjoying the slower pace of life. However, he hears of the death of Jake Fayter, a close friend from his youth and with whom he had regularly gone mountaineering. Dixon is particularly surprised to learn that Fayter had died in a climbing accident on one of the challenging peaks around Cheddar Gorge. Further investigation uncovers some unpleasant truths about Jake Fayter.

Unfortunately, from seeming to have the workings of a sound novel safely in the palm of his hand, Damien Boyd lets it slip away. The characterisation is flimsy, and the dialogue lacks any hint of plausibility. I guessed the identity of the culprit very early on, and while I would like to think that this demonstrated my supreme intelligence and infallible skills of perception, I think that a more likely explanation was that it was simply lamentably predictable.

Still, on the plus side, I did get this novel free from the Kindle Store!

Abr 24, 2014, 11:19 am

50. A Crime In The Neighbourhood by Suzanne Berne.

This book was yet another of those entirely serendipitous discoveries. I picked it up by chance in my local Oxfam bookshop, having never heard of it or its author, and found myself sufficiently intrigued by the blurb to take a chance and buy it. As the old Guardian of the Grail in the Indiana Jones film might have said, 'I chose wisely'.

The story takes the part of the recollections, from a remove of twenty-five years of Marsha whose childhood had been passed in the safe and ordered suburbs of Washington DC. During the summer of 1972, the story dominating the national news is the very gradually snowballing chronicle of events emanating from the bungled break-in at the Watergate Centre. Closer to home, a young boy (and occasional playmate of Marsha) is abducted, abused and then murdered, leaving the neighbourhood stunned and frightened.

Marsha observes all of this, and carefully records her suspicions in her notebook. For her, despite the upheaval following the murder, exemplified by the local families' decision to form a Neighbourhood Watch group, and the relentless discussion of the latest revelations and accusations in the Watergate story, the most significant memories of that summer are focused nearer to home. Her father delivered his own bombshell by suddenly leaving the family home to run away with Ada, his sister in law and Marsha's aunt. Still, she religiously keeps recording her observations on all three evolving situations in her notebook, including her suspicions and

Suzanne Berne manages the various components of her story magnificently, and conveys the sense of the suburban community very delicately. Too many authors struggle to portray a child's responses to the events unfolding around them with any plausibility but Marsha's reactions to the things she sees and hears (and, more importantly, half-hears while lurking behind doors or under porches) are instantly credible.

All in all, a very enjoyable read. I am surprised that I haven't heard more of Suzanne Berne.

Editado: Abr 25, 2014, 4:11 pm

51. Murder Unprompted by Simon Brett.

For once Charles Paris is savouring the unaccustomed taste of relative success. Not only has he found some regular employment, but he has landed the second lead role in a new play which is playing in repertory theatre in Taunton, and there has even been talk of a possible transfer to the West End. He has even been thinking about attempting a rapprochement with his long﷓suffering wife, Frances.

Of course, for Charles this all seems too good to be true, and so it proves. The producer of the play finds his resources stretched to breaking point and needs to induce additional backers to support the production if the transfer to the West End is to become a reality. Sadly, those new investors place drastic conditions, including the introduction of some star names, before committing their additional support, leading to resentment and bitterness within the cast.

As the cast struggles to adapt to the enforced changes it becomes apparent that Michael Banks, the 'big name' parachuted in to the production with a view to drawing the West End crowds, has a problem. More drastic and innovative measures are required, and these culminate in drama of an unexpected variety on the first night in London. Charles, as usual, is on hand to investigate.

This book shows Simon Brett and Charles Brett at their best, mixing close insight into the tensions within an theatrical company with gentle satire of actors' vanities, while still delivering a plausible and watertight plot. All very entertaining.

Abr 27, 2014, 5:17 am

52. The Code of the Woosters by P. G. Wodehouse.

This stands alongside Right Ho, Jeeves as Wodehouse at his best, with Bertie Wooster finding himself up against it as never before while Jeeves rallies round to save 'the young master'. The novel is utterly idyllic.

Many of the old favourite characters make an appearance with Aunt Dahlia as ebullient and strident as ever while Gussie Fink-Nottle and Madeleine Bassett continue their feeble meandering through the world. We also meet some new characters who will develop into central figures in the Wooster oeuvre: Sir Watkyn Bassett (former magistrate and father of the simpering Madeleine), Roderick Spode, would-be leader of men, and Stephanie ("Stiffy") Byng, neice and ward of Sir Watkyn and the owner of Bartholomew, the redoubtable Aberdeen terrier.

Roderick Spode is an interesting character as he represents almost the only instance of Wodehouse indulging in political satire. Spode is an aspiring politician and is clearly modelled on Sir Oswald Mosley, leading a far-right group called 'The Saviours of Britain' who roam the streets wearing black shorts (yes, shorts rather than shirts, because, as Gussie Fink-Nottle explains to Bertie, 'by the time Spode formed his association, there were no shirts left'. He does, however, have a dark, zealously-guarded secret which will become central to the plot. He has also worshipped Madeleine and has sworn to punish anyone who in any way mars her happiness.

There are some classic set pieces here, on a par with Gussie's speech to the Market Snodsbury school from Right Ho, Jeeves, including bertie's first encounter with Sir Watkyn Bassett and Spode in an antique shop in the Brompton Road and Constable Oates's misadventure while cycling unaware of Bartholomew's proximity.

As is always the case with Wodehouse's novels, and particularly the adventures of Bertie and Jeeves, the plot is sinuous to the point of defeating summary. Suffice it to say that it revolves around a hideous silver cow creamer! The numerous twists are deftly managed, and all of the loose ends are resolved in full.

Pure entertainment from start to finish.

Abr 29, 2014, 3:56 pm

53. So Much Blood by Simon Brett.

One of the most intriguing aspects about reading a series of novels that features a continuing protagonist is the opportunity to see how the author allows the character to develop. Later on in the series Charles will metamorphose into an almost terminally unsuccessful bit part player, reduced to accepting the offer of almost any cameo role, regardless of the lack of dignity it might entail. In Murder In The Title he will play the part of a corpse discovered in a cupboard in the first scene of a traditional whodunnit, though he will subsequently sink even further down the thespian pecking order to represent a man who I believed to have been abducted in a reconstruction for a programme of the Crimewatch ilk in A Reconstructed Corpse.

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

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

This novel is engrossing, with affectionate (and accurate) descriptions of many favourite locations around Edinburgh, and captures the dynamism of the city during the Festival, neatly contrasting traditional theatrical ideals with the wealth of avant-gardism that has always been rife across the Fringe. There is less humour than pervades the later books in the series, but the theatrical insights are all there, and Charles is as self-effacing and vulnerable as ever.

Very enjoyable all round!

Maio 5, 2014, 5:16 am

54. Hung Parliament by Julian Critchley.

I first became aware of the Conservative MP Julian Critchley about twenty-five years ago when he used regularly to participate in Radio 4's Today programme as one of the 'three wise men'. Alongside Austin Mitchell (Labour MP for Grimsby) and Charles Kennedy (Liberal Democrat member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber) he offered oblique, and often ery amusing, comment on recent political news. The crux of their contribution was that all three of them were firmly fixed on their respective party's back bench, with limited expectation of career progression. This gave them greater scope for scurrilous comment, being unshackled by the tenet of shared responsibility that prevailed for the front bench representatives.

This formation was terminally curtailed by Charles Kennedy's subsequent election as leader of the Liberal Democrat party and Austin Mitchell's brief tenure in a junior ministerial post in Tony Blair's first administration. Critchley himself remained untainted by public office, though he was subsequently knighted for his contribution to public service.

I had enjoyed his volume of memoirs, A Bag of Boiled Sweets, though I had been struck be its strong undercurrent of bitterness. Since his preparatory school days he had been a close friend of Michael (now Lord Heseltine) and seemed almost to resent much of Heseltine's marked success in both politics and business. The book did, however, retain the mischievous humour so prevalent in his radio work with Mitchell and Kennedy. I was, therefore, looking forward to this novel, but found myself woefully disappointed.

The basic plot surrounds the murder within the confines of the Palace of Westminster of Emma Kerr, an up and coming young Tory MP who had traded on her physical attractions to secure precocious advancement within the party. Critchley does give some interesting portrayals of political types, and offers an early critique of the expenses mechanism which would, fifteen years after the novel's publication, cause such devastating difficulty for MPs across the political spectrum. He also includes cameo appearances from some fifty or sixty genuine MPs, which lends a great verisimilitude to the background and plot.

One would think from this that the auguries were all very promising. Sadly Critchley is lamentably deficient when it comes to plot. The novel leaps around with no coherence, and features far too many characters, most of whom blur into an inchoate mass of platitude and cliché. This book could so easily have been very entertaining but actually became rather a burden.

Maio 5, 2014, 6:23 am

55. The Dead Sit Round In A Ring by David Lawrence.

David Lawrence's first novel is set in the Harefield Estate, a lawless hinterland, within easy walking distance of the millionaires' playground of Holland Park, where every other flat seems to be a shebeen, brothel or crack factory. The Harefield really is a concrete jungle, and the police officers who have to cope with its fallout have to demonstrate a particular toughness themselves.

One of the toughest of these officers is Detective Sergeant Stella Mooney. She actually grew up on the Harefield, with a mother who spent most of her time seeking refuge in whatever drugs she could find while her father had decamped in her infancy. Somehow Stella escaped, as one of just three people from her school to get to university, but, having joined the police as a reaction to her upbringing, she now finds herself back on the fringe of the Harefield Estate.

Of course, as seems obligatory with fictional detectives nowadays, Stella has to contend with her own emotional baggage. Rather a cliché, of course, but in this instance Lawrence handles it marvellously. Stella's personal trauma is intense and awful, yet also utterly plausible, as are the measures she takes to counter it. I think she is a brilliantly-crafted and readily believable character.

The novel opens with the discovery of four dead bodies in a flat near the Harefield. Three of the corpses would appear to have been poisoned while the fourth has been stabbed with unusual precision and lack of fuss. Further investigation shows that the three people who were poisoned were siblings and members of an unorthodox religious group, while the man who was stabbed turns out to be Jimmy Stone, a minor criminal with a record for general hooliganism, with a particular taste for football- and race-related violence. He also seemed to be doing brisk business selling 'murderabilia' (items related to renowned murders).

As Stella delves into the victims' backgrounds she finds more and more evidence that Jimmy Stone had been involved with the Tanner family, local gangland bigwigs who run most of the guns, drugs and prostitution that abound on the Harefield. AMIP's biggest concern is that the murder of Jimmy Stone might merely be the opening shot that leads to an all out gang war as newcomers strive to oust the Tanners and take over their patch.

Lawrence writes with a spare, almost journalistic style, pared back and never over-indulgent. Violent events happen in the book but they are never laboured over, gratuitously. The plot is multi-faceted but develops very steadily and plausibly. While the conclusion comes as a surprise, all of the threads have been carefully arranged, and there are no loose ends.

Gruesome but compelling.

Maio 5, 2014, 4:34 pm

56. Savage Night by Allan Guthrie.

This book offered just two dramatic features: the plotting was a farce and the characterisation was a tragedy.

Since the success of Christopher Brookmyre's early novels featuring Jack Parlabane there has been a plethora of would-be imitators, of whom Allan Guthrie had hitherto been one of the more successful, who feel that an excess of squalor and a sprinkling of gallows humour is all that is needed to generate another 'Scottish Noir' winner. Sadly, I feel that a bit more is required, such as a coherent plot and at least one plausible character. I did look for them but I must have blinked and missed them.

Editado: Dez 17, 2019, 6:26 am

57. The Coffee Trader by David Liss.

David Liss deserves to be far better know. He has a great facility for balancing intricate and hypnotic plots with a wealth of historical detail, without losing the reader's interest. His debut A Conspiracy of Paper offered an intriguing insight into the early history of the London Stock Exchange, the development of the banking system and the Jewish community in London in the early eighteenth century while simultaneously delivering a compelling murder mystery investigated by the enigmatic Benjamin Weaver, a Jewish former boxing champion turned thief-taker. One of the key characteristics of A Conspiracy of Paper was the dexterity with which Liss managed his multi-facetted plot while drip-feeding an entertaining series of history lessons about the run up to the ominous bursting of the South Sea Bubble.

In The Coffee Trader Liss excels himself, moving the action fifty or sixty years earlier and citing his story in Amsterdam. The principal protagonist is Miguel Lienzo (who turns out to be Benjamin Weaver's uncle, though that is not significant to the plot), a Jewish merchant originally from Lisbon who has relocated to the more liberal society of late seventeenth century Amsterdam. Well, more liberal than the persecution that pertained in Lisbon where the Inquisition operated at will, but still straitened by modern standards. The Jewish community is self-regulating, and Lienzo has managed to alienate most of its senior members, and as the novel opens he finds himself contemplating virtual financial ruin.

He is summoned to meet Gertruid, a Dutch widow with whom he has had some dealings in the past, and she introduces him to coffee. Initially suspicious of this bitter-smelling, dark and unappealing liquid he soon finds himself a veritable coffee junkie, revelling in the clear-headed feeling this glorious beverage imbues. Lienzo and Gertruid begin to formulate a plan to import coffee from the Orient where the East India Company has established plantations. However, even as they develop their plans, Lienzo's enemies within the Jewish community move to thwart him.

Liss builds his plot up with great attention to detail, and paints very sympathetic characters in Lienzo and Gerturid, to such an extent that the readers is infuriated on their behalf. The prose is very clear, and Liss lends an air of light humour which renders all of the historical content even more accessible.

I had a nice, strong espresso to celebrate finishing this excellent book.

Maio 9, 2014, 1:38 am

My LibraryThing reviews are automatically posted to my Twitter account, and probably represent about 95% of my tweets.

This morning I saw that David Liss had read, and retweeted, my review of his novel The Coffee Trader (#111 above).

Maio 9, 2014, 3:16 am

>112 Eyejaybee: it sounds like an interesting read and from that review, I'll be picking something up by him if I see it. I wonder of the author also re-tweets unfavourable reviews? >;-)

Maio 9, 2014, 6:05 am

I was amazed that he picked up on it so quickly. It's not as if I have a huge list of followers on Twitter. When I last looked I had fewer than 20!

Maio 9, 2014, 8:24 pm

No surprise that review no 56 was not re-tweeted then! It is a good feeling to know that your thoughts on a book are important to the author.

Editado: Maio 12, 2014, 5:19 pm

58. The Gleam In The North by D. K. Broster.

This is the second volume in D K Broster's Jacobite trilogy, telling the story of Ewen Cameron, laird of Ardroy on the west coast of Scotland and a loyal supporter of the Jacobite cause. The first volume, The Flight of the Heron told of his involvement in the Jacobite insurrection following the landing at Glenfinnan of of Bonnie Prince Charlie, the feckless claimant to the British throne, and the subsequent Scottish invasion of England in 1745. Despite encountering very little organised resistance, the invaders travelled only as far south as Derby before losing momentum. Having returned north of the border, the Jacobite forces were suppressed by the standing British army, led by the Earl of Cumberland, and fought their final battle at Culloden Moor, a bleak tract of land a few miles south of Inverness, on 16 April 1745.

Following the defeat of the Jacobite army Cumberland's redcoats suppressed the local population with relentless cruelty, driving many of them into enforced emigration. Ewen Cameron himself escaped with his life but paid heavy fines and lost much of his former prosperity. As the second volume opens he is struggling to make a life for himself and his family, ruing the failure of the Jacobite rising, but largely reconciled to the fact that the old order will continue unchanged. However, at the end of a day of major family drama in which his elder son had contrived to push his younger brother into the deep loch, almost drowning him, Cameron is visited by his brother in law, Hector, who had signed up for the French Army following the rout at Culloden. He is, however, back in Scotland on a mission connected with the rebels' network, which still manages to distribute ever dwindling funds to rebel cells.

Despite his better judgement, Cameron finds himself being sucked back in to the Jacobite cause. This is a triumph of principle over rationale because in the months of the great campaign he had seen more than enough of Bonnie Prince Charlie himself to recognise his personal inadequacies and lack of fittedness for any position of power, although his belief in the legitimacy of the Jacobite claim remained undiminished.

The series of events that follow are a mixture of the farcical and the noble, yet all depicted with pellucid prose and an overwhelming plausibility. Cameron himself is all too fallible, but despite his constant wish to return to his home and family he forces himself to stay true to the cause, while all around him others fall by the moral wayside.

Broster obviously knew her locations very well and the scenery is beautifully described, and the bleak but splendid landscape almost becomes a character in its own right.

I am very surprised that these books aren't better known; they certainly deserve to be.

Editado: Maio 13, 2014, 5:06 pm

59. Situation Tragedy by Simon Brett.

This volume comes quite early on in the sequence of Simon Brett's novels featuring down at heel actor, turned sleuth, Charles Paris, and represented a bit of a lapse from the high quality of the rest of the series. For once the plot is rather flimsy, and came as a bit of a disappointment after I had recently read so many of the other instalments. However, even though it doesn't quite match up to some of its stronger counterparts 'Situation Tragedy' still manages to entertain.

As usual, Brett provides sharp, satirical insight into the world of the jobbing actor. In this outing, Charles Paris has landed a supporting role in The Strutters, a television situation comedy resonant with all the horrors that those two words convey to the thinking man or woman. While the cast relax in the bar at West End Television's centre after having recorded the pilot episode, strident Production Assistant Sadie Reynolds, who has already made a name for herself among the cast and crew as a consequence of her sharp tongue and relentless impatience, fall to her death from a fire escape staircase when the railing gives way. Initially dismissed as an accident, this proves to be merely the first of a series of fatal accidents.

Brett gives us a hilarious introduction to the vacuities of situation comedy writers, the self-aggrandising dreams of young directors and the brittle vanities of television actors. The plot may be a little weak this time, but the book is no less entertaining than ever.

Maio 15, 2014, 5:10 pm

60. Ratlines by Stuart Neville.

This was a chance acquisition, on the basis that the blurb on the back of the book gave an offbeat appeal. The story is set in Dublin in 1963 with the Irish government preparing for the imminent visit of President Kennedy, and features an intriguing mix of real and fictional characters. Albert Ryan is a lieutenant in the Irish Army, attached to its intelligence service. He is summoned to the office of the Minister of Justice, Charles Haughey, who advises him about a series of killings that have happened recently around the Republic. In each case the victim turns out to have been either a Nazi war criminal or a collaborator from one of the countries occupied by Germany during the War. Haughey is concerned that the murders constitute a threat to Otto Skorzeny, a former Colonel in the German Army who is now resident almost openly in Ireland, and commands considerable wealth and commensurate social standing.

Neville builds up the tension powerfully, and the plot fizzes along in an entertaining way, though it never quite aspire to any degree of plausibility. The depiction of Charles Haughey is interesting and unforgiving, and expunges any inclination that anyone might have had to see him as a figure of unassailable rectitude. Albert Ryan, the chief protagonist, is, however, a rather two dimensional figure, and not one that I expect to have the depth to sustain another fictional outing.

All in all, and enjoyable adventure story, but not much more.

Maio 20, 2014, 3:05 pm

61. Broken Silence by Danielle Ramsay.

This was a classic example of a novelist trying to pour a quart into a pint pot, and unfortunately the flimsy plot framework was washed away in the resultant spillage. The novel is set around Whitley Bay and West Monkseaton, which sounded promising, but alarms bells started to ring almost immediately.

For a start, the principal character ticked too many boxes on the Bumper Book of Detective Fiction Clichés'. Jack Brady has a serious drink problem, he was badly wounded in an undercover operation that went wrong, his wife has left him, he has an incompetent boss who resents him and an ambitious young Detective Sergeant who committed the lethal solecism of gaining a university education.

Actually, I could probably have coped with all that - after all, these have become almost obligatory characteristics for recent British police procedural fiction. This novel, however, also fell into the terminal trap of unnecessarily convoluted plotting, counterbalanced by one-dimensional characterisation.

But apart from that …

Maio 20, 2014, 4:08 pm

62. 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 21, 2014, 5:16 pm

63. The Last Call by George Wier.

I am 51 now and I suppose I really ought to know better! Once again I succumbed to the lure of the cheap offers in the Kindle Store and, like the reckless treasure hunter at the end of 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade', I chose poorly. Let's be honest, there is normally a reason why those books cost just 29 pence. This one was still a rip-off, even at that price!

A few years ago I stubbed my toe, breaking it, and spent several hours incapable of wrenching my mind away from the self-inflicted pain. Reading this novel was very reminiscent of that evening!

Feeble plot, implausible characters (particularly Bill Travis, the protagonist.narrator) and impenetrable prose.

Maio 23, 2014, 8:19 am

64. What You Don't Know by David Belbin

This could have been a far better novel than it actually was. The principal characters are Sarah bone and Nick Cane, eponymous character’s from Belbin’s previous novel Bone and Cane make an intriguing pair – she is an MP for a Nottingham constituency and has a junior ministerial post in the Home office following Labour’s landslide election victory in 1997 while he has just been released from a five year sentence for growing marijuana in the labyrinth of caves beneath his old house. They had briefly been a couple while at university some years before, and in the previous novel they had both become involved in the investigation into a brutal murder.

These circumstances all come together to tee the second novel up very nicely, and I was expecting to be duly engrossed, particularly as I am familiar with the areas of Nottingham and Westminster in which the action occurs. Sadly the engrossment was not to materialise. The story just never seemed to get going, and I was left waiting for excitement that remained conspicuous by its paucity.

Maio 26, 2014, 4:53 pm

65. The Masters by C. P. Snow.

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

Having briefly served as a Fellow of an Oxford College I have always enjoyed reading novels set in academia. My own short-lived Fellowship, at Oriel College, was during the mid-1980s, almost fifty years after the events in this novel were set, and The Masters is set in that other place, over in the fens. However, I could recognise so much of what happened in this book. The conversations between the Fellows, the orotundity of speech, the rigidity and formality of their manners … it all just seemed like yesterday!

I first read The Masters thirty years ago (probably to the month), as I ploughed through the whole of C P Snow's eleven volume semi-autobiographical novel sequence Strangers and Brothers. I remember from that first reading that I considered this novel, and indeed the sequence as a whole, as being curiously lacking in emotion. I enjoyed this volume more than the rest, but didn't really think of it again until five or six years later, when the Conservative Party went through its internal leadership selection process to appoint a successor to Margaret Thatcher after she was ousted in November 1990. It occurred to me then to re-read this novel, and I was amazed - it seemed to be a different book to the one I had read a few years earlier - it positively seethes with emotion.

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

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

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

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

Maio 28, 2014, 3:50 pm

66. I Murdered My Library by Linda Grant.

Despite that dramatic title, and the cover modelled on the green-jacketed vintage Penguin Crime series, this is not a murder story. It is, instead, a delightful mix of memoir, essay and, above all, a paean to books - owning them, reading them and even writing them.

I found it especially entertaining as it gradually became clear that Ms Grant lives, or at least formerly lived, near me. She lovingly describes the now defunct Prospero's Books shop down in Crouch End (-though she never names the locality, Prospero's was a well known landmark in North London), and she even makes an oblique reference to the marvellous Muswell Hill Bookshop which is, literally, just around the corner from where I live.

The book is loosely draped around an account of the quandary she found herself in when she had to move to a smaller apartment and finally admitted to herself that she simply had too many books. Now why does that sound familiar? She recounts the painful experience of deciding what books she can dispense with and which she simply has to keep.

Meanwhile she also describes her growing affection for her Kindle which, in addition to saving valuable shelf space, also allows her to enlarge the font to a manageable size. I certainly sympathised with, and recognised, her struggles to cope with seemingly ever-smaller print.

I haven't read any f her previous books but will certainly now be looking out for them. Her prose shows easy style and is readily accessible, and she writes with an engaging tone.

This was a chance buy, but one I was very satisfied with.

Editado: Jun 12, 2014, 3:36 pm

67. Queen Lucia by E. F. Benson.

I don't really understand why it took me so long to get around to reading this. All the reviews that I have read of this book, and indeed the whole sequence of stories, have been very positive, and it more than lived up to those plaudits.

Set in the fictional town of Riseholme, the stories seem reminiscent of P. G. Wodehouse's Blandings novels, but without the prize-winning pigs, and with a delicious undercurrent of malice thrown in.

Mrs Lucas, "Lucia", is self-appointed cultural and social queen of Riseholme, taking the lead in all major events that happen in the town. Her principal acolyte is George "Georgie" Pilling, until his affections are stolen by Olga Bracely, a successful opera singer who moves into Riseholme with her husband. Menawhile the immensely gullible Daisy Quantock stumbles from one fad to the next, to the delight of Lucia

The rivalries are beautifully constructed and immensely funny, and the snobberies are laid bare with great applomb. Very entertaining.

Maio 29, 2014, 5:25 am

I have just seen that another author has retweeted on of my LibraryThing reviews (I Murdered my Library by Linda Grant).

I am worried that I might be acquiring a reputation as a writers' sychophant!

Jun 1, 2014, 6:01 pm

68. An Englishman in Madrid by Eduardo Mendoza.

I bought this novel as a bit of a stab in the dark - I found myself with nothing else to read on a rainy day in Sheffield (Yes! It does rain in Sheffield!), and this was the only book that appealed from the rather meagre selection at W H Smith's on the Station.

At first I thought I was encountering that occasional serendipity we all occasionally experience when we pick up a book by chance and it turns out to be excellent. The first hundred pages or so were enthralling (they even made me forget the rain), but then the book seemed to run out of steam, and stumble into a quagmire.

Basically Anthony Whitelands is a widely renowned art expert, with a particular expertise in the works of Velasquez and his contemporaries. He is asked to visit a noble house in Madrid to inspect a selection of paintings and offer a valuation. It transpires that the owner, a Spanish aristocrat, is considering how he might manage to send portable wealth abroad with a view to getting his family out of Spain before the impending Civil War breaks out. Whitelands is not impressed with the three paintings that he is shown. Disappointed, the aristocrat shows him another work, which Whitelands is convinced is a Velasquez, though one for which there has been no mention in any of the historic records.

At this point the novel changes tack, with Whitelands being contacted by representatives of the British Embassy, officers of the Spanish Secret Services and members of the insurgent Falangists, all of whom suspect, but do not actually know, that Whitelands is involved in some conspiracy.

The context is very well drawn (at least, I think it is, though my knowledge of Spain in general and Madrid in particular is conspicuous by its paucity), but the plot becomes unnecessarily complicated, with new twists added with a dazzling regularity while the small ration of plausibility is spread thinner and thinner to the point of evaporation.

A sort of thinking man's Dan Brown fueled by paella, but washed down with Watneys Red Barrel.

Close, but no cigarillo!

Jun 4, 2014, 5:44 pm

69. Typhoon by Charles Cumming.

Joe Lennox seems to be the perfect spy. Having graduated from Oxford with a first class degree in Mandarin in the mid 1990s he is, almost as a matter of course, recruited into MI6. Equally predictably, he finds himself posted to Hong Kong in the run up to the handover of the colony back to Chinese rule in 1997. All in all, his career seems to be developing entirely as he and MI6 might have planned.

Shortly before the handover an aging Chinese man swims across the straits to land in Hong Kong. He is found by a British soldier from the Black Watch regiment who takes him into custody. This is no ordinary refugee, however. He speaks exceptionally good, idiomatic English and recognises the Black Watch insignia.

He is removed to a safe house for questioning, which is undertaken by Lennox, who establishes a rapport him. We learn that he is Professor Wang, and he gradually spins a story about potential insurrection in Western China where the Uighur Muslim community is showing signs of rising up against decades, or even centuries, of suppression by the Han Chinese. Wang seems able to offer a wealth of detail, and Lennox thinks that he may be on to a major espionage coup.

Lennox never gets to find out. While he is taking a break for sleep, Wang is spirited away by some of Lennox's MI6 colleagues, working in association with Miles Coolidge, senior CIA operative for that area. No explanation is forthcoming, and Lennox finds himself out in the cold.

Seven years later and the world, post-911 is completely different. Lennox is back in the Far East, now based in Shanghai, as is Coolidge.
Cumming spins a complicated tale but never lets the reader's attention flag. The plot is certainly on a par with le Carre at his finest. Cumming can't quite match le Carre's unique prose style, of course, but then who can? Lennox is an engaging and likeable character, and his relations with colleagues, counterparts from other agencies and also the 'civilian' bystanders whom he deals with are all plausible.

This was a very entertaining novel, and a worthy heir to le Carre's 'The Honourable Schoolboy'.

Jun 6, 2014, 6:43 pm

70. A Sting in the Tale by Dave Goulson.

This is a marvellous book - informative yet also immensely entertaining. Dave Gouslon, professor of Biology at the universities of Southampton and then Stirling, has had a lifelong fascination with most forms of wildlife, but bumblebees in particular.

I found the early chapters especially engaging, filled as they were with Goulson's recollections of his childhood. This was certainly unusual, with hours and hours spent dissecting the numerous examples of roadkill that he found on the nearby lanes, using scalpel and other tools from a kit that he had persuaded hi grandparents to give him … for his ninth birthday. By the time he was a couple of years older he had moved on to trying to stuff them, again using items from a kit that he had bought from a catalogue. I did occasionally find myself wondering whether I was reading the recollected episodes from the learning curve of a serial killer!

However, as far as I am aware (and at least as far as is discernible from the book) Goulson steered clear of such a career, opting instead for life as an academic specialising in entomology. The amount of information that he provides about insect life in general, and bumblebees in particular, is amazing, though the reader is never left struggling to absorb a soulless procession of facts. His prose is clear, accessible and amusing, and his subject matter is a treasure trove of fascination.

There is little about the bumblebee which is not extraordinary. The bumblebee's parthenogenetic reproductive cycle, its ability to navigate and home in on its nest, often from considerable distances away, its insistence upon flying in downright denial of the laws of aerodynamics and gravity, and its intricate communication system by which it notifies colleagues of the location of rich sources of pollen and nectar, are all redolent of something out of a science fiction novel. But in fact these attributes are all part and parcel of the bee which extends to some 25,000 different species. All of this comes, almost literally to fruition in an insect which is a masterful fertiliser of fruit, flowers, vegetables and grain on a global scale.

Blessed are the pollinators, and blessed is this book!

Jun 9, 2014, 5:43 pm

71. This Boy by Alan Johnson.

I have always enjoyed politicians' memoirs, and this must rank as one of the best I have read. I was particularly interested to read this book a Alan Johnson had, briefly, been Secretary of State in my Department. It's true that, throughout his short period in the Department for Education, he had been conspicuous principally by his virtual invisibility but I still thought that he might have some juicy morsel to dispense, with which to whet the salacious appetites of my fellow functionaries.

I am sure that he could offer such morsels in abundance, but there are none in this book, chiefly because it closes just after Johnson's marriage at the age of eighteen. The book does, however, offer a moving picture of his early struggles, growing up in poverty in West London in the 1950s. There has been a succession of gruelling 'misery memoirs' over recent years, most of which have left the reader feeling compassion depletion. This book is not like that at all. There are some awful incidents but the prevailing feeling is one of triumph over adversity.

It is also the story of two magnificent women: Johnson's mother, Lily, who worked herself into a tragically early grave in her efforts to keep the family afloat, despite her own poor health; and Linda, his elder sister who strove equally hard to try to reduce the burden on their mother and then, after Lily's death, to make sure that she and Alan could stay together and weren't consumed by the machinery of social care. Johnson's father, Steve, was absent for much of Johnson's childhood, and even before he abandoned the family home made little worthwhile contribution to their constant struggle against debt.

The Johnson family lived in what would now be called Notting Hill though in the 1950s it was also referred to as Notting Dale, or West Kensal, or North Kensington. Whatever the name, it was an area that would now be termed a pocket of deprivation, with much of the population being cooped up in tiny rental property owned by Peter Rachman. Johnson's father was a painter and decorator by trade, but was also an accomplished pianist and would regularly perform in local pubs. He was, however, also an inveterate gambler and drinker, and consequently was seldom able to contribute to meeting the family's weekly household bills. Lily, meanwhile, was holding down several jobs, working as a cleaner, waitress and kitchen hand, struggling to scrape together enough to feed and clothe Linda and Alan. The picture of 1950s West London is intriguing. The Johnson family lived in a 'play street' with no traffic, and much of their daily life was actually posed out in the road.

Notting Hill has become a byword for genteel and fashionable life, and exorbitant property prices, but this was not the case when Alan Johnson was growing up. The notorious Notting Hill riots of 1958 took place in the next street from the Johnsons' home, and shortly afterwards Lily witnessed the early stages of an alteration that would culminate in the race-motivated murdered of an African-Caribbean man outside the pub on the corner of their road. A few years later Alan Johnson took a job helping the local milkman, and his round included making deliveries to 10 Ruston Place which, until just a few years earlier, had, under its original name of 10 Rillington Place, been the scene of John Reginald Christie's brutal series of murders.

Johnson's writing style is simple and direct, tinged with a wry humour. Even though the basic tenet of his story is about his grim childhood, he doesn't labour the point, and his book is imbued with hope. All very entertaining.

Jun 9, 2014, 6:05 pm

72. Galveston by Nic Pizzolatto.

I was rather disappointed by this novel - I had heard great things about it from a selection of people with whose judgement I generally concur. In the event, however, I found it lacking in decent plot or plausible characterisation, and only managed to complete it under duress. i found the prose style rather inaccessible, too.

Quite frankly, I walked into that one, and there goes another eight quid I'll never see again!

Jun 12, 2014, 6:06 pm

73. The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker.

This book came close to being very good, though in the end it simply failed to deliver.

The basic premise was certainly very promising. It is summer 2008 and Marcus Goldman has just published his first novel to enormous acclaim. Gradually, however, Marcus finds his new wealth and life of ease hanging heavy on him. His publishing contract requires him to deliver a second novel very soon but he is stricken with writer's block. At a loss, he flees from New York and returns to Somerset, New Hampshire where he went to college and was taught to write by his mentor, and indeed hero, successful author and scion of American letters, Harry Quebert.

Marcus soon discovers that Harry has a secret. Thirty-three years previously Harry, though then already 34 years old, had had an affair with Nola, the fifteen year old daughter of the local pastor. Worse, she had subsequently disappeared, and Harry's subsequent life had been wracked with misery at her loss. Harry's reputation as a novelist had been based upon 'The Origin of Evil', the novel that he published in 1975. He now tells Marcus that this novel had been inspired by his affair with Nola.

As if this were not sufficiently deflating, some gardeners start work on Harry's garden, and uncover the corpse of a young woman, subsequently identified as Nola. Harry is duly arrested and remanded on bail. Marcus refuses to believe that his friend and mentor could be guilty of murder, and decides to investigate.

Working initially in competition with, and then alongside, the Federal investigator, Marcus starts to uncover a whole morass of uncomfortable truths about a number of the citizens of Somerset, a surprising number of whom are still living in the town.

So far, so good, and the first half of the novel proved very engrossing and compelling, though sadly it subsided into an unnecessarily overcomplicated morass of red herrings. I wonder whether the novelist himself lost track of who did what.

The characters are an odd bunch- there is not one female character who is even vaguely plausible, and all of the mothers depicted in the story and utterly deranged. Goldman himself is a particularly unpleasant character, though he is one of the more credible of the creations in the book.

Overall I think that this book would have benefited from some fairly ruthless application of the editor's blue pencil - I felt that it was probably about two hundred pages longer than it needed to be.

Jun 17, 2014, 5:13 pm

74. One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson.

Kate Atkinson seems to go from strength to strength, as does her regular protagonist, Jackson Brodie. There is no point burying the lead - I loved this book the first time I read it, and enjoyed it even more re-reading it now. In some ways it was like shooting fish in a barrel for me, featuring a host of aspects that might have been designed specifically to appeal to me: Edinburgh, the festival, a complex but very plausible plot, along with a very humorous parody of crime fiction itself.

The story opens with a vicious episode of road rage on the streets of Edinburgh which ends with one driver being beaten senseless by the man whose car had shunted into him. The crowds queuing to enter one of the venues for a show on the Fringe look on aghast, but all are frozen into inactivity and are incapable of intervening ... with one exception. Martin Canning is an unassuming and physically unimpressive man, but as he watches, horrified, while the beating continues, something in his mind snaps and he hurls his rucksack at the attacker. This breaks his flow and the interruption causes the attacker to withdraw. Martin Canning then accompanies the victim to hospital and stays with him for the rest of the day.

We gradually learn more about Martin Canning who, as Alex Blake, has been a very successful writer of crime novels in the 'cosy' mode. Little does he realise that he is about to be sucked into a plot that dwarfs the ones from his novels in its complexity and capacity to terrify.

Meanwhile Jackson Brodie, who also witnessed the attack, is in Edinburgh with his partner Julia Land, an aspiring (though not particularly talented) actress who has landed a part in a play being staged at one of the Fringe venues. Brodie has an interesting past - former soldier, former police inspector, and former private detective, he is now more or les retired after having inherited a huge fortune from one of his clients. He is, however, restless and struggles with his luxurious life.

While preparations for her play take up all of Julia's time he takes to exploring Edinburgh and, after some aimless wandering, ends up at Cramond, one of Edinburgh's affluent commuter overspill towns. He wanders across a causeway to an island in the Forth where he discovers the corpse of a beautiful woman. However, before he can summon help, or even secure the body, the turning tide sweeps in and pulls the corpse away, almost drowning Brodie into the bargain.

These are just two of the more prominent plot-lines, though there are several more, all of which are deftly handled, and resolved with a masterful denouement. Brodie is a brilliantly drawn character - far from flawless but overwhelmingly sympathetic. In fact, all of the characters are equally credible and engaging.

AND, there's even a cat!

Jun 20, 2014, 6:32 am

75. Don't Point That Thing At Me by Kyril Bonfiglioil.

I can't remember when I last read a book that I disliked as much as this paltry excuse for a novel.

The fatuousness of the plot was matched by the inanity of the characters and the inadequacy of the prose. The cover was adorned with critics' recommendations promising a humorous feast of a book but I found it about as funny as a bout of dysentery.

Jun 20, 2014, 11:22 pm

One Good Turn sounds great! putting it on my list.

Jun 22, 2014, 4:28 pm

76. Nothing Like The Night by David Lawrence.

This is the second novel to feature the engaging Detective Sergeant Stella Mooney from the Area Major Investigation Pool (AMIP), and it is just a good as its predecessor, 'The Dead Sit Round In A Ring'.. Her 'manor' includes the dreadful Harefield Estate which, under the appellation 'Fortress Harefield' has become a virtual no-go area for the police. Stella, however, knows the Harefield quite well - after all, she grew up there.

The novel opens with the discovery of the corpse of a beautiful woman who had worked in a dynamic and thrusting advertising agency. She is no longer beautiful when found, however, having been the victim of a frenzied attack and then lying undiscovered for eight days. Shortly afterwards another corpse is discovered, and the evidence suggests that the cause of death was identical. The evidence also suggests, unusually, that there were two perpetrators, and that one of them was a woman.

Meanwhile Mooney has enough problems of her own. She has been living with her partner, George, for six years and until recently everything had been fine. However, that was before who had met John Delaney, a freelance reporter, with whom she has gradually been falling increasingly deeply in love. The strains of the job have also been telling in her, and she is regularly visiting a psychotherapist, and too frequently seeking support form the odd shot of vodka. Don't worry, though, if this makes her sound like just another flawed detective, burdened with the normally clichéd suite of sorrows. Lawrence handles Stella's demons masterfully, and she never comes close to any police procedural stereotype.

As with the first novel, the depiction of the horrors of life on the Harefield Estate is grim yet also rather hypnotic. Every building on the estate seems to boast its own bordello, illegal distillery, armoury and drug warehouse, and life there is lived to a wholly alien set of rules and social mores.

This is a very entertaining and gripping story.

Jun 22, 2014, 5:30 pm

77. Ghost Train to the Eastern Star by Paul Theroux*

Although he had previously published a few novels, Paul Theroux really made his name as a writer with his travel book, 'The Great Railway Bazaar', which documented his journey by train in the early 1970s from London to Paris and then by the Orient Express through Eastern Europe to Turkey whence he departed through Southern Asia all the way to Japan, before returning via the Trans-Siberian Express. Of course, there have always been travel books, though Theroux broke new ground by concentrating on descriptions of his journey rather than the destinations. He always took a supply of decent reading with him, and his books often prove as valuable for their literary insights as for the revelations about the countries and places he visits.

'The Great Railway Bazaar was immensely well received, and set a template that Theroux was to revisit several times throughout the rest of his career. To my mind his travel writing has always eclipsed his novels and short stories. I remember more than thirty years ago hearing my Wilfred Massiah, my marvellous English teacher at school, reading the chapter from 'The Old Patagonian Express' in which Theroux attended a football match between El Salvador and Nicaragua which he describes in a manner similar to Dante's descent into the inner rings of Hell - perhaps not without reason as the previous occasion on which those two countries had met at football had ended in them going to war.

'The Ghost Train to the Eastern Star' recounts Theroux's experiences thirty-three years later when he tried to recreate the earlier journey through Europe and Asia. In the intervening period international politics had put their stamp on the globe, especially in the Middle East, which forced some diversions from the earlier route. His original journey had also been made before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the former USSR, and Theroux gives some interesting descriptions of life in 'the Stans', particularly Kyrgyrstan and Turkmenistan. Much, however, remains surprisingly unchanged over the intervening third of a century. Amritsar strikes him as very similar to his memories of being there for the first time, and he remains baffled, but impressed, at how India continues somehow to function as a democracy, rattling along on a bureaucracy that creaks and strains but somehow holds together.

Theroux has always been known for his petulance, and is seldom slow to criticise the countries through which he travels. That trait is to the fore here, though I think it might more ready be termed simple petulance, or even plain rudeness. I am losing count of the number of times that I have read his phrase, 'The toilet was unspeakable.' It occurred two or three times in this book which seems to be par for the Theroux course.

I felt at times that he was struggling with this book, and he occasionally laboured the point over his comparisons with the earlier journey. Still, it was an interesting book and I am glad I read it. I was left, though, as ever feeling that while I am glad I read his book, I am even more glad that I didn't have to meet the writer!

Jun 25, 2014, 5:51 pm

78. & Sons by David Gilbert.

This could have been an intriguing novel though it fell far short of the rabid plaudits strewn across the cover.

The novel is narrated by Philip Topping and starts with his father's funeral. The tribute is to be delivered by A N Dyer, the highly regarded and commercially very successful novelist who has lived a reclusive life for the last few decades, and is clearly modelled, at least in part, on J D Salinger.

The novel is essentially an exegesis of family relationships, and particularly those between fathers and their sons. Unfortunately it was all rather laboured, managing to cram in two hundred pages' worth of material into four hundred pages of scrawling prose, which left me bemoaning the fact that Dyer hadn't predeceased his friend, thus obviating the need for this ultimately tedious book.

Jun 27, 2014, 6:00 pm

79. Ajax Penumbra: 1969 by Robin Sloan.

How disappointing! I thought that 'Mr Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookshop' was one of the great, serendipitous discoveries of the year, and I was very keen to read this prequel. Unfortunately it fell woefully short of the calibre of the earlier book. Very feeble all round - there was such potential for a very engaging story, but Sloan just passed it up.

Jul 2, 2014, 5:54 pm

80. A Colder War by Charles Cumming.

I enjoyed this book but still felt rather let down by it. After Cumming's other recent wok I suppose i just allowed my expectations to be too high.

It certainly opens well with Kell, desperate to be rehabilitated into MI6 after having been the fall guy for embarrassing revelations about incidents of extraordinary rendition, being asked to investigate the sudden death of a senior MI6 officer. Arriving in Ankara he begins to piece together part of a beguiling story which suggests that there may be a prominent mole either in MI6 or the CIA. This was all very convincing, but I felt that Cumming took his eye off the ball, and the story subsided into a rather implausible holiday romance in the middle.

He pulled it together for the finale, but the overall impact was slightly impaired. I recently read Cumming's novel 'Typhoon' which i thought was masterful. This one received a lot of media attention, with the all too predictable comparisons to le Carre, but it failed to deliver in full.

Jul 6, 2014, 2:46 pm

81. Enough is Enough or The Emergency Government by Mark Lawson.

Publishers could seldom previously have dreamt of the free publicity that Heinemann received in the late 1980s when they attempted to publish Spycatcher, the memoirs of Peter Wright, formerly Assistant Director of MI5. The hype that followed on from the British Government's attempts to ban the book more or less guaranteed huge sales, and I remember feeling very smug reading my copy after having found it on sale quite openly at Collet's Bookshop on Charing Cross Road while the ban was supposedly still in place. As is so often the case with such overly-publicised books, 'Spycatcher' proved to be rather a disappointment.

The reverse scenario seemed to be in operation with Mark Lawson's marvellous novel 'Enough is Enough: The Emergency Government'. Even though I am a bit of a fan of Lawson, having always enjoyed his Front Row arts review programme on Radio 4 and been very impressed with his recent crime novel The Deaths, I had been wholly aware of the existence of this book until I came across a secondhand copy in my local Oxfam shop.

The reference to 'Spycatcher' is pertinent. The principal points of interest in Wright's otherwise rather tedious book were his claims that both Sir Roger Hollis (former Director General of MI5) and Sir Harold Wilson (Labour Prime Minister of Great Britain over four terms during the 1960s and 1970s) were Soviet agents. He also hints at plans by disgruntled senior offices within MI5 to destabilise Wilson's government, and possibly even overthrow it.

Lawson's novel, told from several different (and occasionally even conflicting) viewpoints focuses on Wilson's government in 1968 at a time when sterling is under severe pressure and the country is being bailed out by loans from the United States. The majority of the characters in the novel are historical, and we get the perspectives of Harold Wilson himself, Cecil King, Chairman of the International Publishing Corporation which published The Mirror, Hugh Cudlipp, editor of The Mirror, and Peter Wright who 'recruits' Bernard Storey, an aspiring but economically constricted young reporter at The Mirror. Storey is the only wholly fictional character among the protagonists in the book, and Wright uses him to try to discover what King, who makes no secret of his disappointment in Wilson's premiership and his wish for a revitalised government, is planning. There are marvellous vignettes of Roy Jenkins, Barbara Castle, Marcia Williams (Wilson's political secretary) and even Louis Mountbatten. Later on we see President Nixon, and have a brief encounter in 1976 with the then newly-appointed Director of the CIA, one George Bush, who seemed as linguistically-challenged as his son would later be.

The early chapters come across as slightly odd, but once beyond the first twenty pages or so the book became utterly enthralling.

Jul 11, 2014, 6:06 pm

82. Cold Kill by David Lawrence.

It is nearly Christmas but there is precious little to be happy about in and around the grim Harefield Estate in West London. The weather has turned icily cold and everyone seems to be in a hurry. The book opens with the discovery of the body of a young woman in the park. She has been hit a hammer and then garrotted. As if this was not all awful enough, this victim is merely the latest in a run of similar murders across West London, and the police have next to nothing to go on.

The case is being worked by AMIP (the Area Murder Investigation Pool), and the leading officer on the front line is Stella Mooney. She grew up on the Harefield Estate but somehow managed to escape to university and then on into the police force. Stella, like every fictional cop (and probably a lot of real ones) has a whole raft of personal problems of her own, though Lawrence portrays these far more credibly than so many other novelists.

All at once there is a big break in the case. A man contacts the police to confess. This is not unknown - people contact AMIP all the time with fake confessions. This time, however, the confessor, Robert Kimber, seems to know things that suggest he had been at the scene. He in arrested and detained for as long as the law allows without him being charged, but the police are unable to verify his story, and he is eventually released. Shortly thereafter another, similar murder occurs, and Kimber disappears.

Lawrence's particular gift in these novels (this is the third in the series) is the way he captures the horror of the crime-ridden estate. There is a basic acceptance of the most feral approach to life. Everything is on offer on the Harefield Estate. There are brothels, shebeens, gambling dens, stores of illegal arms and, everywhere, people making, selling and taking drugs. He doesn't glamorise any of it - indeed, he goes out of his way to make it sound dreadful.

The plot is very well developed and utterly (even frighteningly) plausible, and Stella Mooney is a marvellous creation

Jul 15, 2014, 4:58 pm

83. The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith.

I never really felt at home with this book. I certainly enjoyed its predecessor, and 'The Casual Vacancy' which J K Rowling published under her own name. I found this one slow to start, and actually felt rather relieved when I managed to finish it.

As with 'The Cuckoo Calling' the protagonist is amputee, near-celebrity war veteran Cormoran Strike who is still trying to make his way as a private detective, ably assisted by Robin, his much put-upon PA who is eager to get away from the office and make a constructive contribution to Strike's cases. Strike is retained by Leonora Quine to find her missing husband, failed novelist Owen, who had disappeared ten days earlier. As Strike delves more deeply it emerges that Quine's latest novel is a potentially libellous attack on a number of prominent figures within the publishing industry, including Quine's own publishing house. Passions are running high and everyone who has read the manuscript seems to have it in for Quine.

Sadly I felt that Galbraith-Rowling had lost her way a bit with this book. While I found its predecesor gripping, I found that I had no interest in the denouement of this story, and it did become a bit of a burden. Still, I am glad I finished it, but I shall be less eager in future to venture into Rowlingland.

Jul 15, 2014, 5:05 pm

84. 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.

Jul 17, 2014, 6:25 pm

85. The Hammer of God by Arthur C. Clarke.

This is one of Clarke's later works, and less well known than his classics from his vintage period during the late 1970s and through the 1980s but it ranks with his best. All his finest traits are on display - plausible and empathetic characters, a well-constructed plot and a scientific context that is technically viable yet also readily accessible to even the most scientifically ignorant (among the ranks of whom I immediately declare myself).

The novel is set in the late twenty-second century at a time when Earth has established colonies on Mars and beyond. Quite by chance, amateur astronomer Dr Angus Miller discovers a new asteroid moving through the far reaches of the solar system. Closer inspection shows that its path will put it on a collision course with Earth. Given its immense size it seems that the impact will be as catastrophic as that which caused the demise of the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago.

In recognition of its lethal potential the asteroid is name Kali, after the fierce, retributive Hindu goddess. Earth is not defenceless, though, and plans are brought into play to try to deflect Kali from its current course. Robert Singh, captain of the spaceship Goliath stationed at the Lagrange Point beyond Jupiter's orbit, is ordered to go to Kali, and attach a fission motor and huge supplies of fuel, with a view to nudging Kali off its current course. A deviation of even a few centimetres should be sufficient at that distance to push Kali far enough away from its lethal course and save the home planet.

This all sounds far too simple and straightforward, and there has to be a catch. Back on Earth religious fundamentalism rears its head, in the guise of Chrislam, a hybrid faith that had established a strong hold over millions of followers during the twenty-first century. Chrislamists see the threat posed by Kali as a divine sign - if it impacts with Earth and wreaks havoc, killing billions of people, then that will be the will of God, and his followers will join him in Heaven and enjoy his everlasting redemption. If, on the other hand, it passes safely by, then God will have intervened and shown his divine mercy.

Clarke gives us an engaging story embellished with touches of satire, comedy and emotion. All in all a heady mix, and Clarke shows how powerful and worthy science fiction can be, when crafted by a master.

Jul 20, 2014, 2:43 pm

86. When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson.

A superb tour de force from Kate Atkinson in which she offers the reader a wide selection of both immensely likeable and some utterly odious characters, all of whom are completely plausible.
In particular there is the simply marvellous Regina ("Reggie") Chase, sixteen years old, orphaned and plagued by a lawless brother yet still desperate to continue her studies of the Latin and Greek classics while utterly enamoured of the charming Dr Joanna Hunter for whose young she acts as nanny. But Dr Hunter has a dark secret - thirty years earlier she had been the sole survivor when a maniac, Andrew Decker, attacked her family killing her mother, her eight year old sister and her baby brother. As the story begins we learn that Decker is about to be released from prison.

Meanwhile Jackson Brodie is surreptitiously trying to establish whether his former lover's young son is actually his child. Having been briefly lost in the moors of North Yorkshire he boards the wrong train at Northallerton and ends up going towards Edinburgh rather than London as he had hoped. That journey will be brutally truncated as the train crashes while going through Musselburgh.

DI Louise Monroe, who had encountered Brodie in the past (as documented in Atkinson's equally scintillating previous novel "One Good Turn"), is about to re-enter the story, though since the two of them last met she has been married, though perhaps not as satisfactorily as she might hitherto have believed.

The plot is immensely intricate - the summary above barely scratches the surface - yet the denouement is entirely watertight. This is, as we have come to expect from Atkinson, a masterful and wholly enjoyable novel. She manages to meld the tragic, the heart-warming and the downright hilarious without ever compromising the narrative integrity.

Jul 24, 2014, 3:50 pm

87. Death of a Gossip by M C Beaton.

I don't know why I even bothered reading this Hamish Macbeth novel. The television series based on the books was ropey enough and at least it offered the consolation of the glorious scenery around Plockton. The book was simply dire - the plot was laboured and predictable and the characterisation was even worse: to say that the characters were two dimensional would be to flatter them.

I think that the book was supposed to be slightly humorous, but laugh? I never even started.

Jul 26, 2014, 2:46 pm

88. A Calamitous Chinese Killing by Shamini Flint.

I enjoyed 'A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder', the first book in this series featuring Inspector Singh from the Singaporean police force, and was looking forward to this latest episode. The premise behind the series is quite simple - prominent members of Singaporean society are killed in various locations all around the Far East, and Inspector Singh is despatched either to help the local force catch the culprit or, more frequently, to re-open a woefully inadequate investigation conducted by the police.

Inspector Singh is a likeable character who seeks refuge in his work from the predations of his terminally dissatisfied wife and the (not always unjustified) exasperation of his boss, Superintendent Chen. Built for comfort rather than speed, Inspector Singh prefers to think things through.

As this novel opens, Singh has recently returned from Mumbai where he had been attending a family wedding while also investigation a ruthless murder, and he is looking forward to a restful few days. No such luck. He is summoned by Chen who tells him about the recent death in Beijing of Justin Tan, teenage son of Susan Tan, First Secretary in the Singaporean Embassy in China. The Chinese police had investigated but seemed satisfied that Justin's death was simply the regrettable consequence of a street robbery that ad gone wrong. Susan Tan remains unconvinced and, after pulling strings in high places, she manages to have Singh assigned to the case.

As Singh delves more deeply it transpires that Justin was helping one of his professors at Beijing University, who had been campaigning to prevent property developers building over housing projects in the poorer areas of Beijing, forcing the current occupants into homelessness. Justin seems to have been probing too far and was murdered, both to keep him quiet and to send a message to anyone else who might have been tempted to join him.

The scenario is well developed, and Inspector Singh seems to be relishing a difficult challenge. However, at this point Shamini Flint seemed to lose control of things, and the story started to ramble unnecessarily. She did re-establish control in the last quarter and pulled the various threads together satisfactorily, though the characters of the various baddies throughout the book were rather two dimensional.

Jul 26, 2014, 4:22 pm

89. Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke.

Is Rendezvous with Rama the greatest science fiction novel ever written? It is certainly the best one that I have read, and its impact remains undiminished after several re-readings. Clarke's supremacy as a writer of science fiction lies in his ability to describe fantastic events, scenarios and phenomena in clear, accessible prose that enables even the scientific layman (such as myself) to appreciate the marvels he describes. He also has a gift for mingling the magical with the almost mundane, which always lends that extra verisimilitude to his books.

Rendezvous with Rama is set in 2130, and opens with the discovery of what appears to be a new asteroid trundling through the outer reaches of the solar system. This is, in itself, of little moment until astronomers notice that it appears to be perfectly symmetrical, and moving abnormally quickly. As every available resource is directed to studying this celestial visitor it becomes apparent that it is not a natural object at all but a huge cylinder, fifty kilometres long and thirty kilometres across. The human race has to come to terms with the fact that it is, at long last, bout to encounter another civilisation.

The manned solar survey vessel Endeavour, under Commander Bill Norton, is sent to study Rama, as it is the only ship close enough to do so during the brief period that Rama will spend in our solar system. Endeavour manages to rendezvous with Rama one month after the space ship first comes to Earth's attention, by which time the alien ship is already inside Venus' orbit. Norton and his crew find it surprisingly easy to gain entry to Rama through one of a series of triple airlocks. They soon come to realise that everything in Rama is done in threes.

Once inside they are faced with a vast internal landscape laid out across the internal surface of the cylinder, including a band around the centre of the craft which they soon recognise as ice. This is dubbed the Cylindrical Sea. One bonus is that the atmosphere within Rama is breathable, which facilitates wider exploration. Their time in Rama is limited as there is no way that the Endeavour could survive going too close to the sun, and will have to depart within about a month of landing there.

The nature and purpose of Rama, and the identity and home of its creators remain enigmatic throughout the book. Inside Rama, the atmosphere is discovered to be breathable. The astronauts discover several features, including "cities" (odd blocky shapes that look like buildings, and streets with shallow trenches in them, looking like trolley car tracks) that actually served as factories and seven massive cones at the southern end of Rama – believed to form part of the propulsion system.

Clarke maintains the reader's sense of awe throughout the book, partially because it is matched by that of the characters themselves as they continually discover new aspects of the wonders of Rama. Clarke also investigates the political and religious impact of this sudden manifestation of other civilised life elsewhere in the universe, with the colonies on Mercury, the Moon and Mars all having different responses to the presence of Rama. He even manages to throw in a fair amount of humour, and captures it all in just two hundred and fifty pages. An excellent novel, that is as compelling now as when I firt read it about thirty-five years ago.

Jul 27, 2014, 1:08 pm

90. Dead Room Farce by Simon Brett.

This is the sixteenth outing for Charles Paris, Simon Brett's immensely likeable yet singularly unsuccessful actor who has developed a facility for unravelling the murders that seem to dog him wherever he might go. Throughout the previous tales we have become familiar with his drinking, and occasional philandering, from which he emerges as a man almost wholly lacking in any vestige of willpower.

As this volume opens Charles is enjoying a period of relative success. Not only has he been given a part in a touring production of a new farce, but he has also landed some additional work as a reader for the burgeoning audio-book market. Admittedly his part in the play is relatively minor, and he is disdainful of the play itself, but it is work and will help to stave off some of the more enterprising of his creditors, and help to bolster his all-too-fragile self-confidence. Similarly, the book that he is recording (a formulaic romance story with tow-dimensional characters and an utterly anodyne plot) might not ever be rated as great literature, and is not something that he would ever have dreamt of reading of his own volition, but it yield a fee, and Charles is buoyed up by the fact that, having arranged the work himself, he will not have to pay a cut to his agent. Things are better than they have been for quite some time, and Charles even begins to consider attempting (another) rapprochement with Frances, his estranged wife.

Needless to say, shortly into the work an untimely death occurs, and Charles sets to unravelling the truth behind it. In this case it is Mark Lear, a former BBC sound engineer with whom Charles had worked in "the good old days" when they were both younger and the BBC had plenty of cash. He is found dead in the small independent recording studio that he and his partner Lisa were running, and where Charles had been doing his book recording.

Simon Brett is a master of understated comedy. He has obviously worked in many aspects of the theatre and the sphere of television "light entertainment" and he exposes the pomposity and hypocrisy that is rife throughout the theatrical world. However, his light touch and the humour sprinkled throughout the book never detract from the integrity of the plot which is well thought out and very plausible.

Another strong theatrical whodunnit!

Jul 28, 2014, 6:16 pm

Best science fiction novel ever? That is high praise. I've only read the 2001 books by Clarke (and enjoyed them) but maybe I should try more.

Ago 1, 2014, 7:04 pm

91. A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre.

This is a fascinating story and the most amazing aspect is that it is true. It has all the ingredients of the most intriguing spy fiction, and clearly offered much of the context of classics such as John le Carre's 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy' which features the intrepid quest behind the scenes to uncover the mole working at the heart of the British intelligence community.

Everyone now knows the name of Kim Philby, perhaps the most infamous of traitors, but it was only from reading this book that I appreciated the extent of his deception and, indeed, the crushing reluctance of many of those counter-espionage officers investigating him to believe that he might actually be guilty. Of course, knowing that Philby fled from Beirut to Moscow in January 1963, it is easy with the benefit of hindsight to add additional weight to the circumstantial evidence against counting against Philby. Yet viewed at any time that circumstantial evidence should have been sufficient to secure his isolation from anyone in the espionage community, even if it was deemed insufficient to warrant public prosecution.

Philby was suspected, and questioned intensely, following the sudden departure of his former associates Donald MacLean and Guy Burgess in 1951, but he kept his nerve and retained his freedom.

Macintyre's approach is an unusual one, emphasising Philby's thirty year friendship with fellow MI6 officer Nicholas Elliott. Throughout the period in which Philby was being most ferociously castigated Elliott remained loyal, adamantly defending his friend's patriotism and loyalty.

My one cavil about the book was Macintyre's writing style which slumped below prosaic to the point of mundanity. Written by anyone with a feel for words this would have been a rattling good read. As it was, the subject matter, and Macintyre's detailed research still give us a very gripping book.

Ago 2, 2014, 5:07 pm

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

This is one of the great spy novels, and is clearly modelled in no small degree on the story of Kim Philby, the 'Third Man' who not only tipped off Burgess and MacLean in 1951 and allowed them to escape before they could be arrested for leaking secrets, but then escaped himself in 1963 after his guilt had eventually been uncovered.

Set at the height of the Cold War it recounts the search for a 'mole' within the upper echelons of the Secret Service. George Smiley, 'an old spy in a hurry' is brought back from the involuntary retirement into which he had been pushed just a couple of years previously. He reluctantly accedes to be commissioned to investigate an allegation that one of the four officers at the head of MI6 might in fact be a long-established Russian spy.

'It's the oldest question of all, George. Who can spy on the spies? Who can smell out the fox without running with him?' This is the question put to Smiley by Oliver Lacon, 'Whitehall's head prefect' after he has explained the evidence that has finally convinced him of the existence of the mole. There are four suspects: Percy Alleline ('Tinker'), dour Scotsman and acting Chief of Service; Bill Haydon ('Tailor'), flamboyant wunderkind, alternately mentor and hero to the Service's younger generation of aspirants; Roy Bland ('Soldier'), would-be academic and ultimate self-seeking pragmatist; and Toby Esterhase ('Poor Man'), opportunistic Hungarian émigré desperate for promotion and convinced that no-one shows him the respect he deserves.

Control, the former head of the Service, had reached managed to reach this far before, acting entirely on his own, but as his health rapidly failed he embarked upon one wild last throw to flush the traitor out. This was the venture subsequently known as 'Operation Testify', alluded to throughout the book though the full extent of its disastrous nature is only revealed near the end.

The reverberations of Operation Testify echo through the Service for years afterwards. Control is forced into retirement and dies almost immediately. In the reorganisation that followed Smiley was also pushed into retirement. Alleline takes over, with Haydon as his deputy, and the new world order seem to have begun.

On the other side of the world, however, Ricki Tarr, a rough and ready member of the Service, accustomed to infiltrating gun-running gangs, meets Irina, a Russian agent in Hong Kong. Their affair is hectic and hasty, and she tells Tarr of the greatest secret that she knows: there is a Soviet mole, with the code name 'Gerald' in the highest echelons of the Service. She does not know many details but does have enough facts to convince Tarr that she is telling the truth. He passes the information back to the Circus, but receives no reply. However, Irina is almost immediately rounded up by her Soviet minders and shipped back to Russia.

Tarr goes underground and eventually makes his way back to London where he contacts Guillam, and through him Lacon. The witch hunt has begun. Smiley has to track them down through the paperwork, secured through deft chicanery by his one ally on the inside, the redoubtable Peter Guillam whose own career was truncated.

Le Carre offers none of the glamour and fantasy world cavortings of Ian Fleming's 'James Bond' novels. Smiley and his associates have to grapple with the shabby and entirely mundane underbelly of the espionage world, working back through the files, and eye-witness accounts of previous failed operations. There is absolutely no glamour or sparkle about the story at all, though that serves to boost its compelling nature.

It is also immensely redolent of the early 1970s. All the way through the book characters are freezing cold, huddled in their coats and struggling to generate any warmth at all. The enigmas and moral dilemmas, though, remain timeless.

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

Ago 6, 2014, 4:51 pm

93. Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner.

This was probably the most irritating book I have read this year, and if weren't for the fact that I had a train journey to complete and no other book to read, I would not have bothered to finish it.

Adam Gordon is, by his own admission, a fraud. Funded by a charitable foundation to undertake research in Madrid on the impact on the arts of the Spanish Civil War, he is actual following his own dream, which seems principally to revolve around attempts to be a poet. I found the first few pages vaguely amusing but by the time I reached Page 20 I was desperately hoping for a tangential shift whereby the Madrid Chapter of the Hell's Angels meted out the damn' good chain-whipping that Gordon so richly deserved.

This book will move with near-record speed from the shelf on the bookstore to my pile for consignment to the local charity shop.

Ago 7, 2014, 5:49 pm

94. Upstairs At The Party by Linda Grant.

I have always enjoyed reading novels about university life, and this is an especially good one. It follows the characters far beyond their time as students who meet during their first year at a university in Yorkshire (I think it is actually meant to be York itself) in the early 1970s.

The novel is narrated by Adele Ginsberg who, despite flunking her A Levels, had more or less blagged her way to university on the basis of a poem with which she had won a competition while still a schoolgirl back home in Liverpool. After winning the prize she sent a copy of the poem to beatnik guru, Allan Ginsberg (of 'Howl' fame) hinting at a family link between them. Ginsberg politely responded, maintaining the fiction that they were related. Adele uses the correspondence to secure a place at the new experimental university where liberalism holds sway and regulation is an alien concept.

Adele is already no stranger to tragedy and loss. A few years previously her father, whom she idolised, had committed suicide while on remand awaiting trial for fraud, having been running a low grade Ponzi scheme. University, though, seems a revelation and she quickly makes friends with Dora, a committed feminist, Rose, an ardent Communist and Gillian, a particularly nice girl redolent with bourgeois values. She also encounters the androgynous couple Evie and Stevie. They go everywhere together, and dress almost identically. As their first year passes the personalities of the various characters become more clear, though the greatest change occurs to Gillian. Having initially idolised Adele for her forthright lack of convention she falls under the sway of Rose and becomes deeply involved in far left politics around the campus. At her first lecture Adele meets and befriends Bobby, an openly gay and exuberant fellow student, whom she inducts into her group.

The party of the title is for Adele's birthday, and the tragic conclusion to the night of celebrations proves to be the scene of the defining moment of the story, though Grant deftly keeps us waiting for the eventual denouement. She also captures the different periods marvellously as she tracks the various students' subsequent careers. All in all a very entertaining book, and I shall definitely be looking for more by her.

Ago 7, 2014, 8:05 pm

Interesting to read The Spy Among Friends and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy together! Upstairs at the Party sounds interesting. I'll have to see if I can find an audio edition.

Editado: Ago 8, 2014, 3:32 am

Yes, I did find it intriguing to re-read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy being more informed about the Philby affair. It cast a deeper persepctive over it.

Ago 8, 2014, 6:15 pm

95. John Macnab by John Buchan.

This is one of my all-time favourite novels. Like so much of Buchan's prolific output, it might nowadays at first sight seem rather archaic, with characters romantically hankering after a Corinthian age largely of their own imagining, but it espouses simple values that effortlessly 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 dispiriting 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 brutal prescription to the beleaguered barrister is that Leithen should endeavour to steal a horse in a country where 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 also claims to be suffering from this disturbing listlessness, and Sir Archibald Roylance, general good chap about town, 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 salmon between certain dates and inviting the landowner to do their best to stop them.

They base themselves at Sir Archie's highland estate, and proceed to 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. Buchan has often been dismissed as writing stereotypical characters wholly lacking in political or social conscience. This novel triumphantly decries that: it positively rattles with social conscience, often dispensed from unexpected sources.

It also offers a heady mix of out and out adventure, humour, and even a love story. A little bit of everything, conveyed in Buchan's unerringly gifted prose.
A heart-warming paean to a better ordered time.

Ago 12, 2014, 5:56 pm

96. Stone Bruises by Simon Beckett.

This marked a departure from Beckett's previous novels which have featured forensic expert David Hunter. This novel opens with the narrator fleeing from something in a car which has almost run out of fuel. We only gradually learn where he is, and what he is running from. He abandons his car and starts to walk, struggling against the heat of the relentless midday sun. He finds a farmhouse where he manages to beg some refreshing water, but as he is leaving the farm estate he steps in a man trap.

Unable to extricate himself he gradually passes out. When he comes round he finds himself in a bed in a converted barn back at the farm. As he gradually recovers his strength he offers recollections of his previous life in London, slowly moving towards the reason for his frenzied escape.

Beckett manages the tension very effectively, keeping the reader engaged. I think I preferred the earlier books about Hunter, but this was still enjoyabl

Ago 12, 2014, 5:57 pm

97. I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes.

This book could have been so good. The plot premise was very clever, and the opening sequence worked very well. Even the principal characters seemed well constructed, but Hayes seemed to lack any understanding of plot structure. Having started the novel with a gruesome murder scene the narrator then spends the next three hundred pages ruminating on his past and going through ever more convoluted reminiscences of his past life and his involvement in the fight against terror over the previous twenty years.

It is not often that one can suggest that a book would be better if it had been three hundred pages shorter, but that seems to apply here!

Ago 15, 2014, 6:11 pm

98. The Professor of Truth by James Robertson.

When I first heard about this book I wasn't sure whether I would enjoy it. A novel based so closely upon the Lockerbie bombing and the protracted aftermath sounded rather too harrowing. It is, however, written by James Robertson, author of 'And The Land Lay Bare' (perhaps the definitive novel of Scotland in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries) and the strangely compelling 'Testament of Gideon Mack', so there was never any question about whether I would read it.

I am glad I did. The novel is a first person narrative from Dr Alan Tealing, an academic based at an unspecified Scottish university (though I am pretty sure it is meant to be Stirling) whose American wife and young daughter were among the victims of a terrorist atrocity that led to a passenger jet exploding over a town in southern Scotland twenty one years ago. Hence the inescapable associations with Lockerbie. As the novel opens the news of the death in prison of the man convicted of causing the explosion has just been announced. Tealing is devastated. Alone among all the bereaved, he has always been convinced that the conviction, secured largely upon the unsupported testimony of a minicab driver, was unsafe, and, to the consternation of the authorities, he had campaigned publicly for a retrial.

Shortly after the announcement is made Tealing is visited by a mysterious American called Niven, who claims to have been part of the secret service team that investigated the cause of the explosion. Niven explains that he is terminally ill and asks for a last interview with Tealing to try to discover why he has remained so adamant in his belief in the prisoner's innocence. Afterwards, as he prepares to leave, Niven passes Tealing a piece of paper with the new name and address of the witness whose evidence proved so pivotal in the trial.

The précis above may make the novel sound overpoweringly sombre. Certainly there are very few laughs, but the plot fairly fizzes along. Tealing is an overwhelmingly plausible character and the evident depth of Robertson's own research about Lockerbie is replicated in his character's monomania. This could so easily have fallen into tasteless recapitulation of all the emotive responses to the atrocity, but Robertson pulls it off masterfully.

And … there's a cat in it too!

Ago 15, 2014, 6:40 pm

99. Miss Mapp by E. F. Benson.

What a disappointment! I read 'Queen Lucia' earlier in the year and was entranced, and had looked forward to this book and the subsequent instalments in the series with great anticipation. This, however, proved to be lamentably wide of the mark.

I found myself lumbering through cloying prose peopled with stilted characters, and it proved to be an almost Herculean task to persevere through to the end. Still, that is not a mistake I shall make with any of the rest of the series. Let's just put it down to experience and try to move on to some thing worthwhile.

Ago 18, 2014, 5:20 pm

100. Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami.

I had been waiting for this book for quite some time, and even deferred reading it so that it would be not merely the 100th book I have read this year but also the 4000th book I have read since starting my list back on 1 January 1980. I have had my fingers burnt in the past, looking forward with gleeful anticipation to books which, in the event, have proved to be disappointing beyond measure. Still, I was pretty confident that Murakami would deliver, and he did, magnificently.

During his teenage years growing up in the city of Nagoya Tsukuru Tazaki became very friendly with four other youngsters (two men and two women), and they gradually all became inseparable. By coincidence, all of the other four had names which included a colour, and in occasional moments of depression Tsukuru wondered whether he was lacking in any natural brightness or vigour.

When the group come to go to university the other four all decide to stay in Nagoya, but Tsukuru had always dreamt of building railway stations, and went to study in Tokyo. When he returned home at the end of the first semester he is told by the others that they don't want to see him again, or have anything further to do with him. They offer no explanation and, though he is stunned by the announcement, Tsukuru accepts the situation.

Now, sixteen years later, Tsukuru is working as a railway engineer and has a beautiful girlfriend, Sara. He tells her about the abrupt cessation of his strong friendship with the other four, and she advises him to try to discover what had caused the abrupt severance.

As ever, Murakami, being a master at suspending his readers' disbelief, makes everything seem immensely plausible. Tsukuru is an odd but deeply empathetic character, with a charming lack of self-delusion.

Though the book lacks the excitement and the constant sense of a huge surprise just around the corner that peppered 1Q84, this book is no less gripping. My only disappointment was that it was over so soon. Ah well, I will just have to wait another four of five years for the next one!

Ago 21, 2014, 4:35 pm

101. Living Proof by John Harvey.

This is John Harvey and Resnick at their best!

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

Meanwhile a prostitute is attacking her male clients at various venues around the city. Eventually, as the police feared would be the case, a punter is murdered.

As always with Harvey's masterful series of Resnick novels, the plot is entirely plausible and the characters perfectly credible. The readers shares Resnick's weariness and the sheer despair of Lynn Kellog, his long-suffering DC. And, as usual, we are treated to sumptuous descriptions of the marvellous sandwiches that Resnick somehow always finds time to construct!

Ago 23, 2014, 4:33 am

102. OxCrimes

This book of short stories was compiled for a very good cause and included contributions from some excellent authors but it principally served to remind me why I so rarely read short stories. There were a couple of excellent examples, including Neil Gaiman's story about an aging Sherlock Holmes learning bee-keeping lore in the foothills of Tibet and Anthony Horowitz's cautionary tale about the perils of superloos, but most of the rest were merely serviceable.

Ago 23, 2014, 7:01 pm

103. The Yard by Alex Grecian.

Rather disappointing. This could have been an excellent novel, but somehow Alex Grecian never really seemed to get hold of it, and the plot and characters just slipped away.

It is set in 1889, when London is still bruised by the unsolved 'Jack the Ripper' murders. As the novel opens, newly promoted Inspector Day is summoned to Euston Square Station where an abandoned trunk has been found. The trunk contains a body, and not just any body but that of Inspector Little. He has been murdered and his lips have been sewn together. Day's investigations anre helped by Dr Kingsley, perhaps the earliest forensic scientist.

This could all have been so good! Sadly, the writer seemed to lack the ability to pull this all together in any convincing manner. There seems to be a prevailing fascination with crime stories set in bygone ages, but I worry that while the writers make huge efforts to ensure historic verisimilitude, researching their context fully, they forget the basics such as having a robust, credible plot, or creating characters who behave like people!

Ago 24, 2014, 3:01 pm

104. The Kindly Ones by Anthony Powell.

Re-reading this marvellous novel was immensely entertaining. This sixth volume of Powell's majestic Dance to the Music of Time sequence starts with a recapitulation of memories of Nick Jenkins's childhood, and in particular the suitably apocalyptic events that occurred in Stonehurst, the remote bungalow a few miles from Aldershot in which he grew up, on what proved to be the day on which Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated. We are reintroduced to General Conyers and Jenkins's meddlesome Uncle Giles, and also at last have some insight into Jenkins's family life. We also encounter Dr Trelawney, self-styled thaumaturge-cum-alchemist, whose presence in the neighbourhood cast pangs of fear into the young Jenkins's mind.

After a glimpse into Jenkins' childhood, with a brief but characteristically disruptive cameo from Uncle Giles, we are brought back to the months leading up to the Second World War, and the struggle to eke out an economic subsistence during an aesthetically unsympathetic time. Hugh Moreland plays a big role, as does the menacing Kenneth Widmerpool, as pompous and odious as ever.

In this particular volume General Conyers, old, venerable and seen by many as a relic from a bygone age suddenly establishes himself as one of the pivotal figures in the sequence. and is unmasked as an innovator and conduit for modern though.

Simply wonderful!

Ago 27, 2014, 6:32 pm

105. Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott.

Sir Walter Scott is credited with having invented the historical novel, and his Waverley series of books were the first critical and commercially successful stories to feature fictional characters alongside historical figures, and participating in actual events.

In Ivanhoe he revisited that formula, featuring a vivid cast of fictional characters interacting with King John and his Norman barons in England in 1194. The basic story is fairly straightforward, almost to the point of being predictable (though that might not have been the case in 1820): having been disowned and disinherited by his ferociously Saxon father for pledging loyalty to the Norman king, Richard I (of Lionheart fame), Wilfred of Ivanhoe leaves England to join the ill-fated Third Crusade where he covers himself in glory, battling valiantly against the Saracen. He returns to England, travelling in disguise to a major tournament in Ashby de la Zouch where, fighting incognito under the alias The Disinherited Knight, he emerges victorious on the first day after humiliating a host of proud but ineffectual Norman Barons. On the second day he fares almost as well, though the show is stolen by another anonymous knight clad in black armour who, having vanquished more Norman barons, disappears into the crowd, rather like the Lone Rnager leaving confusion in his wake as people ask, 'Who was that masked man?'

There are, however, a host of other complications to the plot, and Scott manages to keep the reader's attention firmly riveted to the book. He captures the feel of the Middle Ages, and even the plethora of details about the technicalities of armour, horseback warfare and estate management in the twelfth century fail to deflect the reader's interest. Given that this was published very early on in the history of the novel as a popular art form it seems surprisingly up to date. I had started reading it with a certain trepidation, and perhaps more from a sense of duty than with the expectation of much enjoyment, but it proved to be most entertaining.

Ago 31, 2014, 12:37 pm

106. Walk the Lines by Mark Mason*.

Over the last year or so I have taken to walking around London, completing staged routes such as the Capital Ring and London Loop, and have marvelled at the wealth of interesting sight and the variety of neighbourhoods. I am, however, a bit of a lightweight walker compared to Mark Mason who seems to think nothing of covering thirty five miles in a day. Nowadays I get tired just driving that far!

Mason lived in different parts of London during his twenties and thirties and, like so many of us, had always been enchanted by Harry Beck's famous (and constantly evolving) map of the Underground system. As a keen walker he gradually formulates the idea of walking the whole length of each of the lines, almost as an act of homage to the city. He is familiar with several of the areas that he walks through, though by dint of his research (aided by his 'geeky' friend Richard who might fairly be described as more than a little obsessive about the Underground) he is deeply informative about all of the localities he visits.

Taking the eleven London Underground lines in turn (he eschews the London Overground line as a mere pretender to the status) he follows their route at ground level, taking the opportunity to enlighten the reader with snippets of local history and miscellaneous arcana about the lines themselves. He is an entertaining narrator, and I found myself enchanted by his descriptions of his different journeys. He starts with the Victoria Line, embarking from Brixton and striding out northwards towards the river and beyond, reaching Walthamstow in the early evening, having covered nearly twenty miles.

He gives a humorous running commentary as he goes along, peppered with wry observations and social comment, though never to an intrusive degree. I am not sure which I found more entertaining: his descriptions of areas with which I was familiar (and regarding which I seemed to share a lot of his opinions) or his accounts of areas that I didn't know at all. I do know that I am tempted to revisit a lot of his journeys, though my walks will be rather more fragmented than his. Thirty-five miles in a day through London streets is perhaps rather more than I might aspire to, and I will also give his Circle Line pub crawl, featuring a drink at the nearest pub to each of the twenty-six stations, a miss, too.

All in all I found this highly entertaining. I hadn't encountered Mark Mason before, but will now certainly be looking for his novels.

Ago 31, 2014, 2:01 pm

Your review has forced me to put Ivanhoe on my to-read list, and Walk the Lines sounds very interesting. I like that kind of walking history/current observation mix.

Ago 31, 2014, 2:27 pm

I know what you mean about Ivanhoe, I started it expecting it to be a hard slog, but instead it zipped by full of dash and verve. The plot was a tinsy bit predictable in patches, but that was part of the fun, wondering how it was all going to resolve itself.

Walk the lines sounds like a fun read. I know someone who occasionally does the underground challenge (pass through every station on the network), but walking the network sounds like a good one to pass in his direction. It would certainly be healthier!

Ago 31, 2014, 2:30 pm


I hope you enjoy Ivanhoe, Meredith. It was so much more entertaining than I had anticipated.
Just before I started it I had visions that it might prove to be quite a challenge, but in fact I found it surprisingly gripping.

Set 2, 2014, 5:43 pm

107. The Murder Bag by Tony Parsons.

Tony Parsons was one of my heroes when I was a teenager in the 1970s. Along with Julie Burchill, whom he subsequently married, he was the high priest of rock journalism, delivering his weekly sermons through the columns of the New Musical Express, spreading word of the exciting new world of punk and new wave. He moved on from the rock pres towards mainstream journalism, and has had a weekly column in one national newspaper or another ever since. During that time he published various novels, though it was only with 'Man and Boy' that he achieved critical and commercial success.

As it happens, I didn't like 'Man and Boy'. I found it mawkish and rather nauseating, and I was, as a consequence, reluctant to try another of his other books. I did, however, hear a number of people whose judgement I generally trust praising 'The Murder Bag' and, seeing it on sale quite cheaply, I decided to take a punt on it.

That was a fortuitous choice. 'The Murder Bag' is a fantastic police procedural crime novel. The principal protagonist is Detective Constable Max Wolfe, formally on the Anti-Terrorist Squad (with whom he won the Queen's Police Medal). He is now part of a special murder investigation squad, based in the heart of London in Savile Row. On his first day in that role he is called to the scene of the particularly brutal murder of a merchant banker. The next day a homeless man is killed in exactly the same way. Further investigation shows firstly that the homeless man had come from a privileged background, and secondly that he had been at school with the first victim. The school in question is Potter's Field, a private boys school with exorbitant fees which numbers a selection of senior military and political figures among its alumni.

Max Wolfe is a very well drawn character - flawed, though not to the clichéd extent that now seems obligatory among TV detectives, and immensely plausible. The plot is soundly constructed too - sufficiently complex to keep the reader guessing, but never to the point of requiring a suspension of disbelief. Parson's prose is well tuned, too, racing along with the economy of expression that one would expect from a professional journalist.

Apparently DC Wolfe will be back in another book next year, and I am already looking forward to it.

Set 9, 2014, 6:12 pm

108. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell.

I am still trying to decide what I think of The Bone Clocks. Much of it - indeed, most of it - was marvellously entertaining, written with Mithchell's customary verve. I did, however, struggle to enjoy the rest of it, and as that might be said to be the crucial part , I suppose that it just didn't work for me.

Like the marvellous Cloud Atlas, this book features several different narratives delivered in the first person by a selection of different characters. The first is recounted by Holly Sykes, who leaves her home in Gravesend in 1984, aged 15, following a cataclysmic argument with her mother. The succeeding chapters are related by different characters who encounter Holly over the course of the next fifty or so years.

Most of these succeeding chapters are good, and some are excellent. My favourite section of Cloud Atlas, which had an almost concentric chapter structure, was 'The Ghastly Ordeal Of Timothy Cavendish' which recounted the travails visited upon an opportunist but seldom successful publishers. I found that 'Crispin Hershey's Lonely Planet' formed a close counterpart to this in the new novel, and I especially enjoyed the literary poisoned darts that Hershey/Mitchell throw out at some readily identifiable literary sacred cows of the present day.

There was, however, a more troubling side to the book. Throughout the novel there are reference to a struggle between The Horology and The Anchorites, two warring bands of people with their own respective brands of superpowers. The members of the Horology move from one carrier body to another, repeatedly inhabiting new forms and extending their lives over centuries or even, in the case of Esther Little, over millennia. The Anchorites also have paranormal abilities but their particular twist is to aspire towards eternal youth. These two groups are in perpetual combat, and episodes of their combat intrude into the otherwise 'normal' activities captured in the novel.

I am willing to accept the charge of being a hidebound traditionalist but I found this exceptionally annoying, and it detracted significantly from my enjoyment of the book. If I had wanted to read a science fiction story of that type I would have bought an Iain M Banks book and struggled to suspend my disbelief sufficiently. I would, however, at least have had some idea of what I was letting myself in for. I expected rather better of David Mitchell. To be fair, the good bits were exceptionally good, but the overall work just could have been much better.

Set 15, 2014, 7:08 pm

109. The Envoy by Edward Wilson.

Kit Fournier, the protagonist of Edward Wilson's excellent espionage novel, is the CIA's 'Head of Station' within the American Embassy in London in the 1950s. Britain is still riven with post-war austerity and is struggling to retain its self-image as an international power. Both America and the USSR have tested nuclear weapons, and Britain wants to join the club. America, however, is less keen on such a step and refuses to share the technology, preferring to use Britain as a fixed aircraft carrier for its own nuclear deterrent.

Fournier is essentially patriotic, fervently supporting America's interests though occasionally his conscience pains him. As the novel develops he launches his own operations to confound the Soviets, but also to try to distance his British counterparts.

Wilson expertly weaves historical figures into his novel, which is as intricate and elaborate as le Carre at his best. There are cameo appearances from John Profumo, John F Kennedy and Sir Dick White (at different times head of both MI5 and MI6). Real events are woven into the story, too, including the visit to Portsmouth of the Soviet destroyer Ordzhonikidze and the ill-fated expedition by veteran diver Buster Crabb to explore its hull looking for evidence of any super new technology.

The use of real characters and events helps to give a deep verisimilitude, and the plot is developed with great care. All told, a very successful and gripping novel.

Set 17, 2014, 6:00 pm

110. The Blunders of Our Governments by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe.*

Professor Anthony King and Sir Ivor Crewe have compiled a highly entertaining anthology of governmental incompetence over the three decades from Margaret Thatcher's arrival in Downing Street to the last general election in May 2010. They are also exemplary in their even-handedness: they do not adopt a partisan stance in their exposition of the array of blunders that they include in this selection, and they do concede that the cast of Ministers and Prime Ministers whom they describe did also achieve and lasting successes during their respective times in office. The blame is placed squarely on the shoulders of ministers' failure to undertake sufficient reviews during the initial formulation of policy. Officials (i.e. civil servants) are not blameless but they are assigned less of the responsibility than their ministerial overlords. 'Phew! That was close!

The opening section is devoted to a definition of what they consider constitutes a blunder, and this is then followed with a dispassionate explanation of how ten of the greatest blunders of that period came to pass. The third section various causes of these astounding blunders, while the final section considers how they might have been avoided.

The descriptions of the blunders are simultaneously amusing and enraging. Some of the woeful tales seem desperately reminiscent of some of the more outlandish episodes of 'Yes Minister', and have the reader sniggering along until he suddenly remembers that, as a beleaguered taxpayer, he had been paying for all of it.

The blunders under review are varied in their scope but frighteningly similar in their woeful waste of public money that might, if wiser councils had prevailed, have been utilised to far greater benefit. It is interesting to see how completely of these scandals had faded from memory, even though they had been the subject of huge public outrage at the time. Some of them remain more prominently in the memory than others (the poll tax fiasco during the early 1900s being a prime example), though the debacle of the Rural Payments Agency, presided over with imperious incompetence by Margaret Beckett had slipped my mind.

Very few Whitehall departments escape unscathed, and the Department for Education and Employment (forerunner of my own Department for Education) was guilty of one of the greater escapades - the ill-fated attempt to introduce individual learning accounts at the start of the current millennium.

The accounts are detailed without being at all inaccessible. One is left wishing that Ministers had been given a similar volume as a handbook of what might, so easily, go astray with even the best-intended policies.

Set 20, 2014, 9:49 am

111. Orfeo by Richard Powers.

I really didn't like this book! I think that the basic storyline was rather clever, but I found the author's style of writing very off-putting.

Peter Els, a retired music professor, is working on a series of microbiological experiments when his beloved pet dog dies. In the depths of his upset he accidentally places a call to emergency services which leads to a routine follow-up visit by the local police. In the post-9/11 culture of suspicion his experiments arouse the curiosity of the police, and Els, still distracted by the loss of his faithful pet, is unable to offer a coherent explanation of why he has been undertaking his experiments. The police in turn pass on their concerns and Els is visited by offers from the Department of Homeland Security.

The lead story is well developed and gripping, but it is continually obscured by flashbacks through Els's life which served only to detract from, rather than enhance, the impact of the novel, and I found them immensely irritating.

Set 21, 2014, 4:01 pm

112. The Valley of Bones by Anthony Powell.

This seventh volume of Anthony Powell's majestic semi-autobiographical roman fleuve opens with Nicholas Jenkins arriving in North Wales to join his regiment in the very early days of the Second World War. he has managed to secure a commission as a second lieutenant, and finds himself under the command of Rowland Gwatkin. Before the war Gwatkin had worked in a bank in Wales (most of the members of the 'other ranks' in the regiment were drawn from the same area where they had been miners) and he seems to have a romantic fascination with every aspect of army life, though he seldom demonstrates the skill to carry things through.

This is the first of three volumes of 'A Dance to the Music of Time' that cover the Second World War, and, taken together they constitute one of the finest accounts of that conflict. Jenkins does not see active service in any theatre of war, and spends much of his time engage in routine regimental duties, but this gives him a marvellous opportunity to exercise his laconic observation.

Among Jenkins's fellow subalterns are Idwal Kedward, an ambitious and capable young man endowed with extraordinarily blunt speech, and Bithel (we never learn his forename) a down at heel opportunist who is wholly out of his depth but desperate to perform as well as he can. Bithel's greatest problems arise from his occasional but ferocious drunkenness and the various myths he has promulgated about himself and his background (claims to be a brother of the officer of that name who secured a VC in the 1914-18 War, and to have played rugby for Wales in his youth are just two examples).

The character of Bithel is a prime example of Powell's dexterity at blending humour with an underlying melancholy (perhaps the emotion that most powerfully runs through the whole sequence). Steeped in inadequacy, Bithel somehow manages to overcome, or at least dodge the plethora of challenges that come his way.

As with most of the rest of the novels in this sequence, nothing much happens, but the book is utterly gripping. Another triumph.

Set 22, 2014, 5:39 pm

113. The Children Act by Ian McEwan.

This is a relatively short novel and Ian McEwan doesn't waste any time getting to the heart of the story. Fiona Maye is fifty-nine years old and, after a successful career as a barrister, is now a judge on the Family Circuit. Her husband Jack, to whom she has been married for thirty-five years, is an academic. As the novel opens Fiona is putting the finishing touches to her notes for a ruling due the following day in one of the cases over which she is presiding. Out of nowhere her husband makes a startling announcement that pitches their relationship into turmoil. While she is still recovering from her shock she receives a phone call from her clerk. She is the duty Judge and has been called upon to make a short-term ruling in the case of a seventeen year old boy who has a virulent form of leukaemia and needs urgent medical treatment, including a blood transfusion. He is, however, a devout Jehovah's Witness, as are his parents. An emergency court hearing is scheduled, and Fiona has to begin researching around the subject.

McEwan has clearly conducted his own extensive research, and cites a wide range of authorities and precedents, capturing the legal tone with compelling verisimilitude. Fiona's rulings read with marvellous clarity, and address the various cases with exemplary balance and fairness, which might well be explained by the reference to Lord Justice Ward in the 'Acknowledgements' at the end of the book.

The story is compelling and generally convincing though I did question some of the characters' reactions to the various events that befall them. The book is, however, written with McEwan's customary simplicity of style and is most enjoyable. He does seem to have hit mid-season form with his last five or six novels.

Set 27, 2014, 6:27 pm

114. A Most Wanted Man by John le Carre.

When the Berlin Wall came down and the Warsaw Pact crumbled I wondered how traditional espionage writers such as John le Carre would cope with the bedrock of their genre so completely excised. Le Carre seemed entirely unfazed and moved seamlessly to address issues arising from the emergence of the former Soviet republics and stresses in sub-Saharan Africa.

With 'A Most Wanted Man' he moves on to the 'war against terror' and the depredations wreaked by the international banking world. The novel is set in Hamburg several years into the war on terror. The principal protagonists here are Tommy Brue, an expatriate British banker running the family bank, Annabel Richter, a human rights lawyers striving to exorcise her guilt over being born into a welathy and prominent family, Issa Karpov, a Chechen Muslim emigre , and Gunther Bachman, world-weary intelligence officer in the German homeland security forces. Bachman has to contend almost as fiercely with his rival German security forces as he does with terrorist suspects because of the additional sensitivity about Islamist extremism in Hamburg as that was where the 9/11 terrorists trained. Although a pillar of rectitude himself, Brue knows that his father was less innocent having established a series of very dubious accounts known as Lipizzaners. The mysterious Issa, who has made his way to Hamburg from Russia via Sweden claims to be the son of one of the Lipizzaner clients. Annabel Richter and Gunther Bachman are both drawn to investigate further.

Le Carre manages the plot very deftly, particularly the tensions between the competing Germans security organisations. Richter is also very plausible - it might have been easy to fall into cliches with her liberal stance, but le Carre never makes that error.

My one slight cavil with the book was that it seemed to have been drawn out just a little bit too far.

Set 28, 2014, 5:14 pm

115. The Darkling Spy by Edward Wilson.

Nearly forty years ago my grandmother's response to watching 'The Sting' was, 'Och, well, I'm none the wiser!' which has passed down into family lore as a byword for utter bemusement.

That was how I felt reading this book. It certainly started well complementing Wilson's previous book 'The Envoy'. This is not exactly a sequel as it fits around the events in the earlier book, telling the story from a different perspective. It did, however, suddenly lurch from London to Pest in Hungary. I presume I must have blinked or something because I felt completely lost. None the wiser, in fact. I was reading it in e-book form so I wondered whether someone had deleted part of it in transit!

As with The Envoy, Wilson cleverly merged real events with his Byzantine plot, and the principal protagonist, William Catesby, is very sympathetic, battling against class prejudice as he works his way up the greasy pole of the secret service.

I am, however, not convinced overall that the story was sufficiently rewarding for the mental effort required.

Editado: Out 1, 2014, 5:43 pm

116. Head of State by Andrew Marr.

I believe that this is Andrew Marr's first novel - I hope it will be his last!

Marr is an enigmatic and engaging character, and he has been through some sinuous twists of fate over the last few years. Having had a long and successful character as a political journalist, including stints as editor of 'The Independent' and chief political correspondent for the BBC, he branched off into making his own television series and writing popular histories (though the last of these, a history of the world took simplicity and the broad brush to hitherto unplumbed levels), again with great success.

His recent BBC series on Scottish writers, timed to coincide with the Referendum was marvellous, particularly the episodes on Sir Walter Scott and Hugh MacDiarmid. His popularity and public image took a bit of a knock with the revelations of his extra-marital affair, though the outrage was more about the hypocrisy of a senior journalist imposing a super-injunction than from any moral perspective. Certainly there has been widespread pleasure at his return to health following his stroke, and he remains immensely, and deservedly, popular.

But now this! The most popular of entertainers must surely know that one can test one's public that little bit too far! I was expecting a political thriller on a par with Gavin Esler's 'A Scandalous Man' or Martin Sixsmith's 'Spin' but I was sold a dreadful dummy here. this was like looking forward to an episode of 'Have I Got New For You?' but finding that the guests are Glenda Jackson and Anne Robinson, and Stanly Johnson is chairing it.

Marr should certainly stick to non-fiction in future.

Out 5, 2014, 4:41 pm

117. Pattern Recognition by William Gibson.

Since I started listing them back in my rather autistic teens I have now read just over four thousand books, and this could very probably my favourite of them all.

There are other contenders for that title, of course: John Buchan's 'John Macnab', for its beautifully written amalgam of a rattling good adventure with its passionate evocation of an Elysian age largely of his own imagining; J. I. M. Stewart's superlative 'Young Pattullo' with its glorious portrayal of an Oxford that is simultaneously so reminiscent of, yet remote from, my own Oxford experience; and David Mitchell's 'Cloud Atlas' with its intricately concentric structure and mind-blowing melding of plotlines across ages.

There is also, of course, Anthony Powell's 'Dance to the Music of Time'. I tend to think of my life as falling into two distinct phases: that dull sepia-tone stretch of tedium and woe before I met my wife and the glorious 64 bit kaleidoscopic years that followed. I sometimes wonder, however, whether reading 'A Dance to the Music of Time' was a similarly significant watershed moment (well, scarcely a moment as there are twelve volumes). Still, as it occurs to me that Catherine might read this I had better scratch that last thought. Phew, that was close but I think I got away with it.

Anyway, I am rambling. William Gibson is probably best known for his cyberpunks novels, and in particular for 'Neuromancer' which really launched the genre. His cyberpunk works are set in a technology-ridden, post-apocalyptic near future with anarchy threatening all around. 'Pattern Recognition' is very different. Written in 2003 it is set in an unspecified but very close future in a world immediately recognisable to us.

It was also one of the first novels to engage meaningfully with the events of 11 September 2001. Gibson was about halfway through writing the novel when 9/11 happened. As Cayce Pollard, the novel's amazing protagonist, is from New York it was utterly implausible for her not to refer to such a cataclysmic event, and Gibson reworked the book to feature 9/11 in her back story in a very sensitive and moving manner.

Other aspects of the novel include an alarming dissection of the lupine mores of the world of advertising agencies where industrial espionage and intimidation are all grist to the copy mill. Gibson also invents an early form of viral advertising and throws in an immensely readable history of mechanical computing.

Gibson's writing is economic, even sometimes austere, but he has a great capacity for conveying his heroine's emotions. Cayce Pollard is one of the most empathetic and credible characters I have read.

Advertising consultant Cayce Pollard, renowned as a “coolhunter” because of her ability to assess the likely success of new logos and brand insignia though she actually reacts to branding and advertising as if to an allergen, arrives in London in August 2002. She has been retained by innovative new marketing consultants Blue Ant to judge the effectiveness of a proposed corporate logo for a major sportswear company. During the presentation, graphic designer Dorotea Benedetti acts towards Cayce in an especially hostile manner as she rejects the first proposal. After dinner with some Blue Ant employees, the company founder Hubertus Bigend offers Cayce a new contract: to uncover who is responsible for producing and distributing a series of anonymous, artistic film clips which have been released periodically in obscure backwaters of the internet. Cayce had already become obsessed with these clips (referred to by fellow fans just as “the footage”) and has been a leading participant in an online discussion forum theorizing on their provenance and meaning, setting, and other aspects. Wary of the risk of corrupting the artistic process and mystery of the clips, she reluctantly accepts.

A friend from the discussion group, who uses the handle Parkaboy, privately emails her saying a friend of a friend has discovered an encrypted watermark on one clip. They concoct a fake persona, a young woman named Keiko, to seduce the Japanese man who knows the watermark code. Cayce, along with an American computer security specialist, Boone Chu, hired to assist her, travels to Tokyo to meet the man and retrieve the watermark code. Two men attempt to steal the code but Cayce escapes and travels back to London. Boone travels to Columbus, Ohio to investigate the company that he believes created the watermark. Meanwhile, Blue Ant hires Dorotea who reveals that she was previously employed by a Russian lawyer whose clients have been investigating Cayce. The clients wanted Cayce to refuse the job of tracking the film clips and it was Dorotea's responsibility to ensure this.

Through a completely random encounter Cayce meets Voytek Biroshak and Ngemi; the former an artist using old ZX81 microcomputers as a sculpture medium, the latter a collector of rare technology (he mentions purchasing Stephen King's word processor, for example). Another collector, and sometime 'friend' of Ngemi's, Hobbs Baranov, is a retired cryptographer and mathematician with connections in the American National Security Agency. Cayce strikes a deal with him: she buys a Curta calculator for him and he finds the email address to which the watermark code was sent. Using this email address Cayce makes contact with Stella Volkova whose sister Nora is the maker of the film clips.

Cayce flies to Moscow to meet Stella in person and watch Nora work. Nora is brain damaged from an assassination attempt and can only express herself through film. At her hotel, Cayce is intercepted and drugged by Dorotea and wakes up in a mysterious prison facility. Cayce escapes; exhausted, disoriented and lost, she nearly collapses as Parkaboy, who upon Cayce's request was flown to Moscow, retrieves her and brings her to the prison where the film is processed. There Hubertus, Stella and Nora's uncle Andrei, and the latter's security employees are waiting for her. Over dinner with Cayce, the Russians reveal that they have been spying on her since she posted to a discussion forum speculating that the clips may be controlled by the Russian Mafia. They had let her track the clips to expose any security breaches in their distribution network. The Russians surrender all the information they had collected on her father’s disappearance and the book ends with Cayce coming to terms with his absence while in Paris with Parkaboy, whose real name is Peter Gilbert.

Out 5, 2014, 11:45 pm

Oh, Cayce Pollard is one of my favourite literary heroines. (And Dorotea one of my favourite villains!)

Out 10, 2014, 5:37 pm

118. Chaucer: 1340-1400 by Richard West.

I picked this book up by chance having heard the author speak about the great poet. I certainly enjoyed it though it is far from a traditional biography. The title almost tells it as it is, though perhaps the ordering should be different: 'The Times and a Little About the Life of Chaucer' might be more accurate.

It is readily apparent, however, that Richard West has read widely throughout the whole of Chaucer's oeuvre and not just the Coghill translation of 'The Canterbury Tales', and he also quotes extensively and adroitly from Boccaccio, Petrach and Virgil. He has also clearly researched deeply into the history of the fourteenth century ad offers up fascinating chapters on the Black Death and the Hundred Years Wars. Too often, though, I felt as if this was really just a straight, simple history book (and let's be honest there is absolutely nothing wrong with that), with a contrived link to Chaucer thrown in.

Still, it has led me to dig out my old copies of the original Middle English texts and recapture some of the magic that I enjoyed so much as a student.

Out 13, 2014, 4:52 pm

119. The Field of Blood by Denise Mina.

Paddy Meehan is a young Catholic girl growing up in an Irish family in Glasgow in 1981. She has managed to land a fairly job on the Scottish Daily News where she dreams of becoming a reporter in her own right. As winter draws in the population Glasgow is shocked by the cruel murder of a young babywhose mutilated body is discovered abandoned and abused in a poor slum area. Worse still, it transpires that the baby had been tortured and then killed by young boys.

While the murder seems to be an open-and-shut case, Paddy is convinced that there is more to the story than meets the eye. Delving through the newspaper's own clippings library she uncovers a similar crime from eight years ago, and starts to investigate further.

As the story of the murdered boy unfolds we are given flashbacks to the story of another Paddy Meehan, this one male, who had been imprisoned, erroneously, for the brutal murder of the wife of an Ayrshire businessman. Mina weaves the two narrative together very deftly, and offers up a very convincing and engaging story. Glasgow itself is an ever-present character with its air of menace and religious bigotry.

Very entertaining.

Out 16, 2014, 5:35 pm

120. The Soldier's Art by Anthony Powell.

This is the eighth instalment in the "Dance to the Music of Time" sequence, and the second set during the Second World War. As is the case with all of the novels in the sequence, Powell keeps the reader fully engaged even though very little actually happens. Nick Jenkins's war is not one of direct and exciting engagement with the enemy. For most of this book he remains based in Northern Ireland while the Division to which he is attached prepares for deployment overseas. Jenkins finds himself working as general dogsbody for the Deputy Assistant Advocate General (the DAAG), in the person of the odious and overwhelmingly ambitious Kenneth Widmerpool, now gazetted in the rank of major but desperate to go much higher. Hitherto Widmerpool has been an occasional character - 'a transient and embarrassed spectre' as Widmerpool's and Jenkins's former school master le Bas might have said - but in this volume he is a constant presence, and we can almost feel the torpor with which Jenkins's spirit is ground down as, between them, they plough through the volumes of mindless paperwork.

Much of Jenkins's time is spent observing the ceaseless machinations within the internal politics of the Division as Widmerpool strives for advancement and to outflank the almost equally odious Colonel Hogbourne-Johnson, a veteran officer who had seen service in the First World War and is never less than scathing of recently-drafted and generally ill-qualified junior officers. Hogbourne-Johnson earns Widmerpool's undying emnity following a splentetic outburst, provoked by an unavoidable traffic snarl-up during a regimental exercie. From that moment on, Widmerpool expend almost as much energy in trying to do Hogbourne-Johnson down as he does in pursuing his own advancement.

This novel sees the re-appearance of Stringham, who had been absent from the last two or three volumes. Here he appears as a Mess waiter serving Jenkins and Co at dinner. Now seemingly sober, he is even more deeply riven by melncholy than previously, though he accepts his lowly miltiary status with considerable equanimity. We also catch up with Bithel, the irredeemably shabby but immensely likeable Welsh Officer who had so narrowly avoided court martial in the previous volume.

Powell retains his light and sardonic touch throughout, though the background melancholia from the preceding volumes is never wholly absent.

Out 17, 2014, 8:49 am

Great reading and great reviews, as ever. I'm sorry you didn't like Miss Mapp - I thought that it was the funniest of the bunch and was glad when Benson moved Lucia and Georgie to that setting for the rest of the series (spoiler alert?).

I detest Widmerpool, but in a thoroughly enjoyable way, if that makes any sense. I was always glad to see him show up so that I could loathe him.

I completely agree about the new Murakami. Loved it. I'm reading Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World right now, and it makes the normal-ness of the new one stand out even more.

I am sad to hear that The Bone Clocks isn't as wonderful as Cloud Atlas, although I guess I shouldn't have expected it to be. Most books aren't.

Out 17, 2014, 12:52 pm

I will have to try Miss Mapp again. Everyone I know who has expressed an opinion agrees with your view, so perhaps i was just feeling unduly splenetic when I tried to read it.

I do know what you mean about Widmerpool - he is unutterably ghastly, and becomes more so as the sequence progresses, but there is something very entertaining about him. He is also frighteningly reminiscent of more than one of my past and present colleagues!

I think that The Bone Clocks is still good; it just didn't live up to my expectations which were probably unfeasibly high.

Out 20, 2014, 4:56 pm

121. Darkness, Darkness by John Harvey.

Detective inspector Charlie Resnick has seen fine service over the years, since he first appeared in 'Lonely Hearts' in 1989, solving a succession of murders in Nottingham in between consuming elaborately constructed sandwiches and upmarket coffee, looking after his menage of cat and listening to vintage jazz.

Resnick is not a dynamic man - years of loyal support for Notts County Football Club have worn the spark out of him - but he is awash with humanity, and it has always been clear that he really cared about the victims of the crimes he had to investigate.

This latest volume sees him in retirement but, like Ian Rankin's more bellicose retired inspector, John Rebus, he has returned to the outer reaches of the fold, helping out in a semi-official capacity in a lower rank. Of course, John Harvey has sold us the dummy a couple of times before, leading us to believe that both 'Last Rites' and then, some years later, 'Cold in Hand' would be Resnick's last outing.

Thirty years ago Resnick had been part of a team gathering intelligence on the activities related to the Miners' Strike which was then in full swing, leading to bitter encounters in may Nottinghamshire villages where many of the miners were still working. Back in the present day, a body is uncovered in Bledwell Vale, one of the villages in the north of the county where the divisions of the Miners' Strike had been felt most fiercely. The pathologist's report suggests that the body dates from that period, and Resnick is plunged back into his memories, many of which are less than happy.

As always, Resnick is immensely believable. This time, however, rather than leading the investigation he is almost the hired help, assigned to support Detective Inspector Catherine Njoroge, a rising star of CID who has had to contend with overcoming prejudice within the ranks against her on three counts - as a woman office, as someone of Ghanaian descent and as a graduate on the fast track to inspector. She is, however, a supremely capable detective. She may differ from Resnick in her investigative provenance, but she too has a great sensitivity, and the reader senses that in different circumstances they might have made a very powerful team.

Harvey captures the East Midland dialogue very ably - having grown up nearby I am almost embarrassed to see the local tongue caught on paper! The plot is very well constructed too, and the characterisation is spot on. Harvey, and Resnick, are both in mid-season form here. A sparkling addition to the Resnick canon, and a fine note on which to end.

If only it had referred in passing to Loughborough, as so many of the previous Resnick books do, it might have scored a five!

Out 20, 2014, 5:40 pm

122. The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett.

Although I have enjoyed a lot of his screenplays (and in particular his 'An Englishman Abroad' and 'A Question of Attribution'), I haven't generally been a fan of Alan Bennett's books and stories. I seem to be in a minority of one in having found his 'The Lady in the Van' tedious, squalid and wholly lacking in humour.

This latest novella has won me over completely, though. Quite often one encounters a scenario that offers a very funny idea that the writer fails to sustain, but Bennett delivers beautifully, humorously and poignantly.

It opens with a mobile library van being parked near the remoter hinterlands of the Buckingham Palace estate. The Queen, 'The Uncommon Reader' of the title, stumbles across it, having followed one of her errant corgis. Wandering in she meets the librarian and Norman, one of her own servants, who visits it every week. Finding herself in the mobile library, the Queen decides to take a book just to be polite. Because it is close to hand the librarian give her a novel by Ivy Compton Burnett, and the Queen takes it away. She isn't particularly impressed but brings it back the following week and takes away another book. This is more engaging and the Queen comes to realise how enjoyable it is to read. She quickly becomes addicted to reading and is soon hiding books in her handbag or the royal carriage s that she can optimise her reading time.

The story is very amusing but it also conveys the value of reading thoughtfully, and the huge sense of satisfaction that comes from completing an engaging book.


Out 23, 2014, 4:42 pm

Isn't it brilliant? The idea is inspiring, and is carried through to the quite unexpected conclusion. We read this for our book club last year and is one of the few books that met with unanimous approval (we're a fickle lot).

Out 23, 2014, 5:44 pm

Absolutely superb. Very funny yet also rather moving.

Out 24, 2014, 5:08 pm

123. Please, Mr Postman by Alan Johnson.

The second volume of Alan Johnson's engaging memoirs picks up right where its predecessor left off. Alan is whisked off on Christmas Eve, 1967, to spend the holiday in Watford with his sister Linda, the real heroine of the first volume, and her husband Mike. The new year was to bring a lot of change for him: not only would he turn eighteen but he would get married and start a new job as a postman, based at the Barnes sorting centre in west London.

The first volume of this autobiography, 'This Boy', was memorable for two extraordinary women: Johnson's mother, who worked herself into an early grave through her efforts to stave off poverty from her two children after their inadequate father absconded, and Linda, Johnson's elder sister who looked after him following their mother's death. Linda remains magnificent throughout this second volume, bringing up her own children and fostering four others. Still ravaged by tragedy, she carries on indomitably.

Yet Johnson himself emerges as an extraordinary figure, too. Self-effacing and driven by principle rather than political dogma. He came into politics gradually, having served his time as a postman on the daily rounds, and rising through the ranks of the Communications Workers' Union.

All in all, this is another uplifting work: simply written, but utterly engaging. I am looking forward to reading the next instalment as he draws closer to Westminster and, ultimately, his role in Tony Blair's and Gordon Brown's cabinets, where he would become established as the ultimate 'safe pair of hands', moved between departments to damp down potential crises.

Out 26, 2014, 3:27 pm

124. The Man Who Went Up In Smoke by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo.

This book came as rather a disappointment. I had read numerous critical appraisals of the series of ten novels by Swedish husband and wife team, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, featuring the reserved Inspector Martin Beck, and had also enjoyed the first instalment in the series, 'Roseanna'.

Here, however, Sjowall and Wahloo seemed to lose their way, being bogged down in laconic observations about the perceived quaintness of Budapest in the late 1960s, to the detriment of the plot development and characterisation. It is, of course, always difficult to establish to what extent any such shortcomings are the fault of the original book or inadequate translation. Such divination is, however, rather academic - I didn't enjoy the book and won't trouble myself with any of the others in the series.

Editado: Out 28, 2014, 5:34 pm

125. Down Into Darkness by David Lawrence.

As with his three previous novels set in a (hopefully) fictitious area of London near Holland Park, the proliferation of the most heinous crimes goes all but unchecked despite the heroic endeavours of Detective Sergeant Stella Mooney. She is by no means flawless herself, but she is an immensely sympathetic character, coping with the memories of her grim childhood on the sink estate she now helps to police and the reverberations of assorted personal tragedies. The crimes she encounters are hideous, and the author does nothing to lighten their horror, though their is nothing gratuitous about them.

In this book, West London is being stalked by a vicious serial killer (again), who selects his victims, kills them in very public settings and then writes a demeaning messages on their bodies ('DIRTY GIRL', 'FILTHY COWARD' ). Stella and her colleagues in the Area Major Investigation Pool are lumbered with the onerous task of investigating the murders from scratch.

As in the three previous novels we are given appalling insights into life on the Harefield Estate where brothels, stills, hidden casinos and illegal armouries abound. Such is the sense of evil pervading the estate that at one point Stella notices a large crowd forming in the centre and, based on her experiences growing up there, immediately knows that it can only mean a vicious dog-fight is being arranged. Nothing else could cut through the residents pervading apathy!

I hope he writes a further instalment.

Nov 10, 2014, 1:04 pm

126. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell.

I very rarely re-read books quite so quickly but I had waited so long for this to come out, and the response of most of my friends was so much more enthusiastic than mine, that I decided to see whether I had missed something. As it happens, my response is much the same. This is clearly very well written, but it still didn't live up to my (probably far too high) expectations.

Nov 13, 2014, 4:53 am

127. Pop Goes the Weasel by M. J. Arlidge.

This novel seems to follow on very closely from M J Arlidge's previous book, 'Eeny Meeny', and as I hadn't read that i was probably starting off at a slight disadvantage.

The basic story was quite gripping - someone is killing men who frequent Southampton's red light district, and then cutting out their hearts and posting them to either their wives or work colleagues. The investigation is led by Detective Inspector Helen Grace, who has more than the customary amounts of personal baggage including the fact that her own sister was a serial killer and that she herself regularly visits a dominator. There is also a slightly superfluous back story about Grace's nephew, Rob, whom she watches over and tries to steer away from a life of crime.

The story did keep rolling along but it was both unnecessarily long and unnecessarily squalid.

Nov 15, 2014, 1:15 pm

128. Bring Forth The Body by Simon Raven.

The ninth volume of Simon Raven's captivating 'Alms for Oblivion' sequence is just as gripping and entertaining as its predecessors. Most of the regular characters make an appearance though this time it is Captain Detterling (renowned as the only boy ever to make a double century in a match at the revered old school they all attended) who is at the forefront.

The body brought forth is that of Somerset Lloyd-James MP, the Machiavellian schemer whose naked ambition has been evident right from the first volume. In his mid forties, Lloyd-James would appear to have achieved considerable success: having previously been editor of a leading political and economic journal he had secured a safe Westminster seat, and is now (the novel in set in about 1972) a junior minister in the Commerce Department. He is, however, found dead in his bath, having apparently slit his own wrists.

Bemused that such an amoral and self-assured (I know, I know, a dirty word) character should have found himself reduced to such a pitch of despair, Detterling resolves to investigate further, to establish what might have brought him to this unexpected end. In this he is helped by Leonard Percival, long-serving officer in the Secret Service, to ensure that any scandal surrounding the death of a serving minister can be kept to a minimum. Though initially antipathetic towards each other, Detterling and Percival soon form an effective partnership, and they investigate the various avenues of Lloyd-James's life.

As ever, the story is full of salacious twists and turns, all delivered in Raven's masterful prose. The 'Alms for Oblivion' sequence has often been compared to either Anthony Powell's 'Dance to the Music of Time' or to C P Snow's 'Strangers and Brothers'. It lacks the gravity (though also some of the pomposity) of Snow's magnum opus, and can't match the deep-laid humour and observation of Powell's masterpiece, but it stands on a par with both for its sheer enjoyment quotient. All in all, very scurrilous, but very entertaining.

Nov 15, 2014, 8:50 pm

#197 Reread already ! I am very envious !

Nov 16, 2014, 3:21 pm

129. Blacklight Blue by Peter May.

My previous awareness of Peter May as a crime novelist rested solely on having read 'The Blackhouse' (the first of his trilogy set on the island of Lewis and Harris) and then run aground on its successor, 'The Lewis Man' (though that was more a consequence of alarming personal resonances within the plot
than any reflection on its standing as a novel).

He had, however, written a clutch of other novels including the series known as 'The China Thriilers' and a sequence featuring retired forensic expert Enzo Macleod. This particular book is the third of the Enzo Macleod novels, and it soon became evident that it followed on fairly closely from its predecessors, though this didn't pose any problem.

As the novel opens, we met Enzo Macleod on his way to an appointment with an oncological expert, from whom he receives a particularly gave prognosis. Almost immediately after this blow he learns that someone has attempted to murder his daughter. As if his week is not going poorly enough already, he soon finds himself arrested as prime suspect in the murder of a female acquaintance.

This may all sound rather implausible, but May carries it all off superbly. The novel fairly fizzes along, and the reader's attention never wanes. He doesn't expend much energy on developing his characters' personalities, but they are all perfectly credible.

I shall definitely be going back to read the earlier episodes in the sequence.

Nov 17, 2014, 1:06 pm

130. 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 Radulescu. Radulescu is no respecter of theatrical sacred cows, and sets about transforming the production into an avantgarde extravaganza, much to Charles's disgust. However, even Charles has grudgingly to concede that some of Radulescu's ideas, bizarre as they seem, do produce startling effects. 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.

Nov 17, 2014, 1:25 pm

131. Whisky Galore by Compton Mackenzie.

I see from the inscription on the flyleaf of my copy of this book that I bought it in August 1981. I have a recollection of having read it, and the story is familiar from having seen the film version, but I could not remember anything about the book itself. i read it again as I was going back to the Scottish Highlands, and thought it might be amusing.

Like the over eager knight at the end of 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade', I chose poorly. At the risk of being branded a heretic, this is quite simply an atrocious book, and represents one of those rare instances where the film is a great improvement on the original novel. This was like a pseudo-literary version of Harry Lauder, playing to the worst music hall stereotypes of Scotsmen.

I was going to say that can't remember when I last encountered such two dimensional characters, but actually that would not be true! I recall grappling with equally inadequate character in 'The Rival Monster', which was also written by Mackenzie. I imagine that if I were to see the film again I would find it hopelessly dated, but I think it would still retain some humour, a quality which is conspicuous by its paucity in the book.

Nov 18, 2014, 5:15 am

Ouch! But still, a number of excellent books seem to have preceded this one.

Nov 18, 2014, 12:26 pm

Yes. I have been very lucky this year. It seems as if everyone else in the group has had a great reading year, too.

Nov 22, 2014, 3:06 pm

132. A Week in Paris by Rachel Hore.

A little while ago a friend of mine encouraged me to read Rachel Hore's previous book, 'The Silent Tide'. I was a bit reluctant, foolishly imagining that I might find it too romantic for my taste. I couldn't have been more wrong - I found it a charming and riveting read, and I was very glad to have had it flagged up to me, as I would certainly otherwise have overlooked it.

I was, therefore, keen to read this, her latest offering, and I wasn't disappointed. Ms Hore seems to have a great facility for managing parallel stories. This time the narrative revolves around Fay Knox who, in 1961, visits Paris as a violinist with an orchestra that is due to perform three concerts. Shortly before she is due to travel her mother, Kitty, is taken ill and is admitted to hospital. When she learns that Fay will be going to Paris Kitty asks her to look in a trunk in her home, and to contact someone called 'Meremarry'. Enthralled by being in Paris, Fay does as her mother asks, and gradually uncovers aspects of her own past that she had been unaware of, apart from the odd, discomforting instance of déjà vu.

Meanwhile, a separate narrative unfolds, relating Kitty's own experiences shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War when she had been studying music at the Conservatoire as a promising pianist. During this time she stayed in a nunnery where the Abbess was Mère Marie. Shortly after arriving she meets Eugene Knox, an American doctor working at the American hospital in Paris, and they are soon engaged and then married. Their delight is curtailed, however, by events beyond their control as Hitler's Germany annexes the Sudetenland and then invades Poland. On 3rd September 1939, as Britain declares war on Germany following the invasion of Poland, Kitty's daughter Fay is born.

The dual narratives work very well and the plot grips the attention throughout, complemented by interesting insights into the historical context of the story. I certainly enjoyed reading this.

Editado: Nov 23, 2014, 12:13 pm

133. Power Trip by Damian McBride*.

Damian McBride spent a decade at the heart of Gordon Brown's caucus, during the latter years of his time as Chancellor and then through most of his tenure as Prime Minister. The prevailing public image is of someone who was Machiavellian, brutal, thuggish at times and, above all, someone whom it was best not to cross. This memoir does nothing to dispel that perception, and he puts his hand up to be guilty as charged for many of those accusations.

The book gives a fascinating insight into how 'Team Brown' operated, and the close relationship between Gordon Brown and 'the two Eds' (Balls and Miliband). Brown towers over every aspect of the story, and while it is by no means a hagiography, McBride seems at far greater pains to protect Brown's image than his own. He is also remarkably sanguine about the dirty tricks email fiasco that led to his own disgrace and departure from the Brown caucus.

I was intrigued to read an insider's account of events that I had followed so closely at the time they unfolded, and was left feeling that Downing Street must be an awfully difficult place for all who operate there, senior politicians, civil servants and advisers alike.

I also enjoyed reading about McBride's relationship with Balshen Izzet, his girlfriend throughout much of the period covered in the book, as I had briefly encountered her in my own work at what was then the Department for Children Schools and Families. (Ed Balls, when Secretary of State at that Department, participated in an outdoors 'cook off' with TV chef Phil Vickery on an arctic day at Covent Garden in December 2009 to promote his cookery book aimed at primary school children, and Balshen and I were the departmental officials in attendance.) She would later act as 'getaway driver' helping McBride to escape the hordes of press representative gathered outside his flat when the story of his disgrace broke.

This book hasn't improved my opinion of McBride, but I was impressed by the honesty of his confessions, and gripped by the unfolding stories which read as well as a political thriller.

Nov 23, 2014, 3:33 pm

134. A Dark and Twisted Tide by Sharon Bolton.

For some reason, that I can't quite identify, I just didn't like this novel.

Constable Lacey Flint lives in a boat moored in a creek off the Thames, regularly swims in the river, and works on it as part of the Metropolitan Police Marine Unit. As the novel opens she is swimming early one morning, before her shift, and she finds a dead body. Closer inspection shows that it had been wrapped in a shroud and tied to a pier joist. It is only later that Lacey realises that it wasn't there when she first set out on her swim, the inference being that the murderer had wanted her to discover it and had, in fact, been following Lacey's own movements.

I think that one of the reasons that I never properly came to terms with the book was that there just seemed to be too much going on. Sub-plots proliferate, but rather than adding depth and verisimilitude to the main story I found that they just clogged up proceedings. To be fair, the book seemed well-written, and gripped my attention. I just felt slightly disappointed that such a heady mix of plot ingredients and feisty characters never quite gelled into a cohesive book.

Nov 25, 2014, 3:17 pm

135. The Various Haunts of Men by Susan hill.

I found this book rather laboured.

The plot was fine but the novel moved at a turgid, almost glacial pace. That needn't be a negative characteristic if the author is offering us perfectly drawn characters and beautiful prose. In this instance, however, neither of those characteristics were on hand to rescue this book from being simply rather dull.

In fact, I can hardly summon the mental energy to attempt to say much more about it. Some people disappear and Detective Chief Inspector Simon Serailler investigates.

Nov 26, 2014, 1:52 am

Noooooooo! I love the Simon Serailler books!! I think we must be reading different books here. :)

Nov 26, 2014, 10:21 am

I'm sorry Wookie. I wish I had been reading a different book.

Nov 27, 2014, 6:05 pm


Nov 28, 2014, 5:19 pm

136. Extraordinary People by Peter May.

This is the first volume in Peter May's series of novels featuring half-Italian, half-Scottish, Enzo Macleod. Enzo is a difficult character, generally considered as hot-headed, petulant and truculent by most people who encounter him. He also has a complicated family, having two daughters from different relationships. The younger of the, Sophie, dotes on him while the elder, estranged Kirsty purports to loathe him and refuses to see him.

Having trained as a forensic scientist and worked with the Metropolitan Police, Enzo now lives in the French town of Cahors and lectures in biology at the University of Toulouse. He has not entirely relinquished his former life and makes a bet with the local governor that he can solve seven 'cold cases' involving murders around France solely by using his forensic investigative skills.

The first murder that he starts to investigate is that of Jacques Gaillard, former adviser to the government and renowned film critic and bon viveur (sorry, I don't know the French term for such people!), who had disappeared tend year previously. With the assistance of Roger Raffin, an insalubrious reporter for one of the French national newspapers, Enzo becomes enmeshed in a tril that leads him all over France.

At times the book seems reminiscent of a Dan Brown story, as Enzo and Raffin decipher arcane clues, with tantalising references to the Knights Templar. The plot never loses plausibility, though, and the story is never less than gripping, and I also enjoyed the descriptions of the investigator's journeys around France.

A rattling good thriller.

Dez 7, 2014, 11:46 am

137. Amnesia by Peter Carey.

It had been a long time since I last read a book by Peter Carey and it will be even longer before I read another. It seems difficult to believe that the author of such marvellous novels as 'Oscar and Lucinda' or 'The Illywhacker' could also have produced the trial by ordeal that this book represented. I think Heracles was let off lightly though reading this did sometimes feel like cleaning the Augean Stables with a broken pitchfork.

I readily acknowledge that, like all too many Britons, I am lamentably ignorant of Australian history, and the publisher's blurb for 'Amnesia' sounded very enticing. The reader is promised a tantalising combination of a contemporary plot based around an up-to-the-minute digital crime that sparks an international terrorism alert, with more than a nod towards the plights of Edward Snowden or Julian Assange, and a recapitulation of darker elements of twentieth century Australian history involving largely-suppressed stories of clashes with America.

As the novel opens, Felix Moore, a left-leaning political journalist is about to be found guilty of libel, resulting in the imposition of punitive damages and a requirement that all copies of his offending book should be destroyed. Returning home he finds that his publisher has already sent several cases of his book to his house, for him to arrange destruction. Not thinking clearly Moore decides to burn the guilty works but, owing to his terminal lack of practicability, he also manages to burn down much of his house. His wife does not take this well and departs back to her family, leaving him to fend for himself. Apparent salvation comes from one of his lifelong friends, Woody Townes, an immensely rich property developer, who commissions Moore to write a biography of Gaby Ballieux. She has just been identified as responsible for the release of a computer worm which resulted in electronically controlled prisons across Australia releasing their inmates. The impact spread far beyond Australia, however, as many of the prisons affected were run by an American firm, and the worm compromised its systems back home, resulting in the release of many American criminals too. Ballieux is immediately branded an international terrorist and the USA demands her extradition to face trial on potentially capital charges. Townes believes that the prompt publication of an engaging biography of Ballieux might help to crystallise a sufficiently vocal campaign to prevent her extradition.

This scenarios certainly sounds promising, and in the hands of the Carey of the 1980s would have led to a compelling and engaging book that one might have struggled to put down. Sadly, though, the gripping prose and fluid plotting of 'Oscar and Lucinda' seems to have evaporated. Carey's unyielding current style seems to have pounded any semblance of enjoyment out of the book leaving an unfocused, inchoate shambles I would welcome a dose of amnesia to excise the memory of this book from my mind.

Dez 8, 2014, 5:05 pm

138. The Military Philosophers by Anthony Powell.

Another dose of magic from The Master!.

This is the ninth volume of Anthony Powell's glorious largely autobiographical novel sequence 'A Dance to the Music of Time' and opens in 1942 with laid back narrator Nicholas Jenkins working as a caption in the army in Whitehall on liaison duty with the Free Poles. All of the surviving principal characters from the sequence are here on display, not least the monstrous Kenneth Widmerpool whose relentless machinations and tireless have ambitions have carried him to a significant niche in the convoluted hierarchies of Cabinet Office. Jenkins has escaped from Widmerpool's immediate circle, operating now among the immensely more civilised and sympathetic company of the intellectual David Pennistone who brings consideration of the history of philosophy to play in even the most straightforward of official transactions.

Although Jenkins does not get to participate in any direct action in the traditional sense of the word, his military career is far from incident free, and he has to trace a carefully-plotted path to avoid inflaming the delicate sensitivities of the various Allied and Neutral Powers with whose representatives he has to deal.

Powell also offers us fascinating cameo appearances from Field Marshall Montgomery and Allanbrokke, together with finely-drawn depictions of the tedium of red-tape laden administration. The final section of the novel includes a beautiful narration of the service at St Paul's Cathedral to commemorate the victory.

This was the first volume in which the humour seems to outweigh the melancholia, which might explain why it is, I think, my favourite instalment in the whole sequence: there can be little dispute that the three war novels ('The Valley of Bones', 'The Soldier's Art' and this one) form the strongest group within the twelve. They also represent the finest war novels that I have read, for all their lack of direct military engagement.

Editado: Dez 17, 2014, 2:00 am

139. Confronting the Classics by Mary Beard.

A few months ago I chanced to remark to a fellow official in the Department for Education as we queued at the coffee stall in Sanctuary Buildings that I now felt that Latin was the most useful subject that I had learned in school. I hadn't realised that the former Secretary of State, Michael Gove, was standing right behind me, so I was unprepared for the sudden fusillade of questions that he levelled at me, wanting to know where and when I had learned it, and why I had found it so helpful. To the great amusement of my colleague he led me off to one of the nearby tables and grilled me with his customary zest.

Having subsequently studied English and maths in two discrete dalliances in higher education, I was able to explain how my understanding of grammar owed far more to the relentless (and largely unacknowledged) exertions of Mr Stone, my Latin master for three years at Loughborough Grammar School, than to any of my English teachers or lecturers. Similarly, my (perhaps ill-judged) foray into postgraduate study of philology could not have extended much beyond the starting grid without the head start in etymology that familiarity with Latin facilitates. Similarly, the habits of deconstruction and rational processing that are such a prerequisite (I'm sorry but I couldn't recall the Latin for 'sine qua non' …) instilled a certain mindset that proved invaluable when studying the arcana of mathematics.

All this, of course, proved to be terrific grist to Mr Gove's mill, though the impact proved short-lived, and did not stop him rejecting some of my draft letters in the most peremptory manner later that same day.

Still, that is all merely preamble to give some vague context to why my eye was caught in Waterstone's recently by the sight of this intriguing volume by Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge. This book is really more of an anthology of various reviews and articles that Professor Beard had published in various periodicals over the last few years (and the civil servant in me was especially impressed by the shameless recycling of previous work for a new market - we do that all the time!), but they demonstrate a great cohesion, fizzing with enthusiasm for her subject and conveyed with an enviable lucidity of thought.

She addresses a wealth of aspects of classical study, and renders the subject immediately accessible without ever patronising her 'civilian' readers. She briefly recapitulates Greek and Roman colonial expansion, the history of philosophy and, to a considerable extent, the philosophy of history. She manages to debunk Cicero - largely viewed today as a great orator and statesman, though Professor Beard suggests that that impression is mainly a consequence of his successful career as a dedicated self-publicist. She also suggests that Shakespeare's representation of the assassination of Caesar might have been closer to the truth than was known at the time. Consideration of contemporary accounts shows that the murder on the Ides of march was almost farcical in its incompetence, similar to the near debacle of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo 1,958 years later.

All too often we seem to feel that an non-fiction work can be either academically rigorous or entertaining and accessible. In this book Professor Beard deftly demonstrates that those characteristics need not be mutually exclusive.

Dez 12, 2014, 12:49 am

I like the sound of Mary Beard! I've never cared for Cicero. I always wanted to learn latin, but there was never an opportunity in school. How disarming to be questioned by Gove though (granting my only familiarity with the man is via Mock the Week and Have I Got News for You)! I find it very hard to stop feeling that his name is a language mistake...

Dez 12, 2014, 5:06 am

There are so many potential pronunciation options, too. Does the word rhyme with 'love' or 'prove' instead of 'hove'?

I know that teachers generally felt a marked aversion to him, but he was certainly always very charming with officials. I am surprised that he has never bated down the campaign line of 'putting the Gove in GOVErnment'

Dez 12, 2014, 11:24 am

Ha, if I were him I would not have resisted that campaign line. If you can't have a silly slogan then what's even the point?

Dez 12, 2014, 3:08 pm

140. And Now The Shipping Forecast by Peter Jefferson.*

What a disappointment!

I have been listening to the BBC Shipping Forecast off and on for more than forty years, frequently lulled to sleep in the early hours of the morning by its mantra-like incantation. What could be better, then, than a history of the Shipping Forecast, written by one of the radio announcers who regularly read it out, night after night, across a couple of decades? Well, lots of things, actually, including virtually all of the one hundred and forty other books that I have read this year for a start.

Much of the content is exactly what I was looking for - a potted history of how the Shipping Forecast came into being, and a chronicle of how the various shipping areas that it includes have changed over the year. The problem, however, rests in Peter Jefferson's prose style. At best this book struggled to soar to the heights of the vapid, but for much of the time it slumped into the depths of irritation. Jefferson will insist upon trying to be funny, but never once comes within a mile of pulling it off, leaving the reader feeling that same complicit embarrassment that we have probably all felt when someone we love or admire makes a complete tool of themselves in public: watching one's father dancing at a friend's wedding to a current hit song, perhaps, or being caught watching anything with Bruce Forsyth.

I was left feeling relieved that Jefferson merely had to read out the announcements on Radio 4, and wasn't trusted to write them. The process of dumbing down of that national institution would, otherwise, no doubt be even further along its hideous path.

Dez 12, 2014, 3:23 pm

Oh no! I almost never manage to listen to the shipping forecast, but it's one of those institutions I feel we'd all be poorer without. I like books that reference it though. Might give that one a miss...

Dez 15, 2014, 5:58 pm

141. The Critic by Peter May.

Enzo Macleod is an unusual character. Coming from a mixed Scottish-Italian background he had formerly served as a highly qualified and respected forensic scientist in Glasgow before decamping to France where he now lectures in biology at the university of Toulouse. His personal life is complicated and he has two daughters (both predictably beautiful, feisty and drawn to men whom Enzo distrusts) by different mothers.

In the previous (first) novel in this series ('Extraordinary People') Enzo had solved a famous cold case, one of seven detailed in a book by journalist Roger Raffin. Following on from that success Enzo now turns his attention to the murder of world-renowned wine critic Gil Petty who had been found dead in the grounds of a vineyard in the Gaillac region. Peter May clearly does a lot of research for his books, and in this one he manages to convey a huge amount of information about the history and techniques of commercial wine production, though he handles his material deftly, and never lets the stream of facts detract from the flow of the narrative.

I felt that this was, perhaps, a little weaker than the previous novel, but it still held my attention closely and very enjoyable.

Dez 17, 2014, 12:29 am

Ah, another Latin scholar! Although I hardly remember anything now, sadly. I reckon it gives me a good edge in crossword puzzles, and was great when I briefly dipped my toe in anatomy while at Uni. And, yes, it was the only place I ever learned grammar, because it's not formally taught in school anymore.

Dez 18, 2014, 1:11 pm

142. The Unknown Unknown by Mark Forsyth.*

Having had the misfortune to read Mark Forsyth's 'Etymologicon' I formed the opinion that he was rather smug, and steeped in unjustified self-regard, all too eager to demonstrate his alleged wit. He may, of course, actually be a really nice bloke.

Having read this latest work, however, I see no reason to change my initial opinion. He manages to take two or three thousand words to say that we don't know what we don't know, and that perhaps we should not judge a book by its cover. I would aver that this book would emerge rather more favourably if judgement were restricted to its cover. All rather trite and self satisfied.

Dez 18, 2014, 5:15 pm

143. The History of England, Volume 1: Foundation by Peter Ackroyd.*

Peter Ackroyd must e in the running for consideration as our greatest living man of letters. While his prose style is very different from that of John Buchan, he has that same adroitness and mastery of different fields, moving effortlessly from novels to literary criticism to biography to history, with a fair sprinkling of journalism thrown in. Where does he find the time?

With this book he has embarked upon a detailed history of England, and this volume takes us from the earliest formation of prehistoric tribes through the Roman, Saxon, Danish and then Norman invasions to the death of Henry VII, first monarch of the Tudor dynasty and the last king to leave a budget surplus. Ackroyd doesn't give us anything startlingly new, but his account is beautifully written, and holds the reader's attention throughout. He intersperses some general observations about particular aspects of life (developments in health care, a brief history of children's toys, an analysis of eating and drinking habits) between his meatier chapters on the passage of great events. Ackroyd is particularly impressive in his recounting of the Wars of the Roses, which he summarises with great clarity.

I would be interested to know how much primary research he undertook himself, or whether he has woven his book from a variety of other historians' works. The matter is purely academic, however, because the finished product is so well written, clear and comprehensive. I wish that history books had been as appealing as this when I was back at school.

Dez 20, 2014, 4:49 pm

144. Fragrant Harbour by John Lanchester.

John Lanchester has, I believe, written four novels to date, all markedly different from each other in tone, and three of them ('The Debt to Pleasure', 'Capital' and this one) would all rank among my all time favourites.

'Fragrant Harbour' is a superb novel spanning seventy years in the history of Hong Kong, told through the differing perspectives of four principal characters who each recount their own story.

Tom Stewart's narrative forms the backbone of the novel and tells the story of a young man, born in Kent in 1913, who decides to try his luck in Hong Kong. While on the voyage he meets two Eurasian nuns (Sisters Benedicta and Maria) and various British men en route to pursue careers in the Far East. Following an argument between one of the other passengers and Sister Maria, a wager is held to test whether Tom can be taught the rudiments of Cantonese within the time span of the voyage. This is to prove immensely useful for him when he lands in Hong Kong and gradually determines to spend the rest of his life there. His idyll is interrupted by the onset of the Second World War and the Japanese invasion. Tom survives, and returns to Hong Kong where he becomes a prosperous hotelier.

Meanwhile Sister Maria has been working for the various Catholic missions spread throughout the colony and also in mainland China. Her path continues to cross with that of Tom.

The third character to provide a narrative is Dawn Stone, an ambitious British journalist who comes out to Hong Kong shortly before it returned to Chinese rule. She begins by investigating the origins of the wealth of the richest members of Hong Kong society, working on the premise that with such billionaires the interesting question is where the first millions come from (- the latter wealth is easy to generate in relatively open and legal ways, but how did they get their start-up capital?).

The fourth narrative is that of Matthew Ho, a thrusting young entrepreneur who makes a cameo appearance early on when he sits next top Dawn Stone on her first flight to the colony.

I recognise that this description might make it all sound rather cumbersome, not to say predictable. Lanchester, however, is a master storyteller and he succeeds in uniting all the various threads of the story with seamless ease, and evokes the reader's sympathy for all of his principal characters. He also manages to impart a huge amount about the history of Hong Kong, though this never impairs the flow of the novel.

Dez 20, 2014, 7:51 pm

Nice to hear that Lanchester is such a reliable writer! I've had Capital on my list for a while.

Dez 23, 2014, 6:08 pm

145. Exile by Denise Mina.

This was a tough read. The plot is soundly constructed but the subject matter is challenging, to say the least. The protagonist is Maureen O'Donnell, who first appeared in Mina's previous novel, 'Garenthill' (which I haven't read). Her history is very troubled, having been systematically abused by her father (and subsequently ostracised by her mother), and then had her partner murdered . As this novel opens she is working in The Place of Safety, a sanctuary for battered wives in Glasgow. Ann Harris, one of the residents of the hostel, goes missing and is subsequently found dead in London, her battered corpse having been dumped in the Thames.

The prime suspect is, understandably enough, her husband, though Maureen finds it difficult to believe that he had ever beaten her, let alone killed her. Convinced of the husband's innocence she starts to investigate further, uncovering Ann's secret life involving drug addiction fuelled by prostitution and crime. Mina threads the story together very capably, and the plot and characterisation all seem plausible.

Sadly I feel that I am probably just a little too squeamish and found it all rather overpowering. Mina offers no concession at all to the reader's sensitivities, and I felt overwhelmed by the unremitting rage, despair, substance abuse and general squalor, and I get quite enough of all that in the office!

Dez 27, 2014, 5:31 pm

146. Biggles Learns to Fly by Captain W. E. Johns.

I can't think why I never read any of the Biggles books when I was a boy. I was, after all, a voracious reader from an early age and devoured book after book from very on at primary school I do recall that a lot of my friends read the Biggles books and talked about them, but I have no recollection whatever of having done so myself. Most of the games that my friends and I played seemed to revolve around the war stories that were so prevalent on television in the late 1960s and early 1970s, escaping from Colditz or otherwise battling serried ranks of Nazis around North Leicestershire. Later on as I moved through grammar school my reading progressed (plumetted?) to Alistair McLean and Sven Hassel, largely retaining the Second World War motif, but still no Biggles!

I found it particularly enjoyable, therefore, finally to become acquainted with him now. Though not the first book to feature James Bigglesworth, this covers his first entry into the Royal Flying Corps, precursor to the Royal Air Force, where, having faked his application papers to join the action ahead of his eighteenth birthday, he starts to learn to fly biplanes, going on missions across The Line (the parallel ranges of barbed wire separating the two forces across northern France.

Captain W E Johns presumably based these stories on his own experiences, that must have been quite terrifying. He does not, however, labour on the grim and relentless loss of life among the pilots. He doesn't glorify the war, either, and while the Germans were clearly the enemy, there is very little concerted vilification of them. Biggles had a job to do, and did it to the best of his ability, and that was that.

Captain Johns certainly knew what boys wanted to read, and he serves up well constructed plots that fairly fizz along. They are not timeless literary masterpieces, but they are entertaining and engaging books. I would certainly have devoured them pretty eagerly forty years ago.

Dez 29, 2014, 6:26 pm

147. H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald.*

Over the years I have caught glimpses of various hunting birds - the occasional osprey and several eagles, including golden ones, up in the Scottish Highlands, and, just a few months ago near Coulsdon I came across a kestrel that had just brought down a wood pigeon. Most incongruously, though, was a sighting just a couple of hundred metres from the Houses of Parliament. Having parked in the courtyard of 'GOGGS', the Treasury building that overlooks Parliament Square on a very foggy morning I became aware of footsteps approaching, and out of the mist loomed a stern-faced man with his right arm raised. Resting on his fist was a beady eyed falcon viewing everything within its compass (me most definitely included) with utter disdain. This was the building's avian management contractor paying his regular visit to scare away the grubby hordes of pigeons that bedevilled the premises. I am fairly certain, though, that I have never seen a goshawk. Judging by Helen Macdonald's marvellous book even the most fleeting glimpse of a goshawk would be burned into ones memory for ever.

This book might more accurately have been called 'G is for Goshawk' for although Macdonald offers a potted history of the broad ambit of falconry, it is with goshawks that she is principally concerned. Wracked with grief at the sudden death of her father she seeks therapy through buying a young goshawk, whom she names Mabel, and undertaking to train it. All hawks, it seems, are troublesome creatures, and training them is a battle of wills that stretches bird and falconer to their very limits. Macdonald's goshawk is certainly no exception and she describes her struggle to bend Mabel to her will.

The descriptions of the bird's appearance, and its movements (whether in outbursts of furious temper or, later, its graceful flights launched from Macdonald's fist, are masterful, almost hypnotic. Once fully trained, the partnership between hawk and hawker is as close as that between shepherd and sheepdog, though executed with infinitely more grace.

The book is, however, far more than a simple account of Macdonald's experiences training the goshawk to do her bidding. She gives us a detailed history of the falconer's art, a deep insight into the natural history of the hawk family, and a dazzling biography of T H White, now best known for his works 'The Sword in the Stone' and 'The Once and Future King' which did so much to crystallise the public's understanding of, and fascination with, the Arthurian legend. Macdonald's interest in White is, however, prompted by another of his books, the less well known account of his own attempts to train a goshawk. This chronicle, simple called 'The Goshawk' captured MacDonald's imagination as a girl, and ultimately inspired her to acquire and train her own bird. White's experience with his own goshawk, like so much else within his tortured life, was not a happy one, and the book is, by all accounts, a difficult and tortuous read. That is far from being the case with Macdonald's wonderful work which also serves to show that even the deepest grief can, gradually, eventually, be overcome.

Dez 30, 2014, 4:53 pm

148. The North by Paul Morley.*

I first became aware of Paul Morley as a regular talking head on documentaries about rock music, and gradually came to recognise that his opinions generally coincided with my own. He tended to speak to the camera with commitment and authority, and he has continued in that vein here.

This book encompasses a variety of tones. Perhaps principally a selection of his own memoirs, focusing on growing up in Reddish, in the close hinterland of Stockport, he also offers an enlightening history of the north of England (with particular regard to Cheshire, Lancashire and the Greater Manchester area) and an engaging series of annals offering brief vignettes for most years, reminiscent of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, but with the startling distinction that the years are treated in reverse order. As we extend further into Morley's own life we are taken further back in to the history of the region.

All of these interlaced narratives are charmingly written, mixing (suitably Northern) self-effacing memories with a rich vein of facts across a broad ambit of subjects. Very entertaining and very informative.

Dez 31, 2014, 7:13 pm

Happy New Year, James!

I'd read about H is for Hawk just the other day, too. I also loved The Goshawk as a child (I stil have my copy somewhere), so it's of great interest.

Jan 1, 2015, 2:32 am

H is for Hawk is certainly a lovely book. I am now looking forward to finding the T H White book.