Second half of 2016
Rumer Godden: The Battle of the Villa Fiorita (1963) is an undemanding but sensitive and dramatic story, rather charmingly dated in a way which enhances its appeal. Linwood Barclay: No Safe House (2014) has the good pace and good characters expected from this writer, but I was not quite so engaged with this story. Lotte and Soren Hammer: The Girl in the Ice (2010) translated by Paul Norlen (2015) suffers from a clumsy and unimaginative translation, which lets down the plot and characterisation. Arne Dahl: Europa Blues (2001) translated by Alice Menzies (2015) has an intriguing plot but the detailing of the police team characters is a little overdone, sometimes silly, and the translation draws uncomfortable attention to itself every now and then. Jo Nesbo: Blood on Snow (2015) translated by Neil Smith is a change from his detective Harry Hole series. This story is told by the perpetrator, and the extent of the police involvement is limited to distant sirens from time to time, always just a fraction too late, until the end, which we won’t spoil here. Lisa Marklund: Without A Trace (2013) translated by Neil Smith (2015) is a well-rounded good read.
Overcoming the challenge posed by an unappealing central character Joyce Carol Oates: Jack of Spades (2015) entertains while never slipping from the highest standards of writing. John Burnside: The Dumb House (1997) did not appeal. Robert Goddard: The Ways of the World (2013) is a good read. Karin Fossum: The Drowned Boy (2013) translated by Kari Dickson (2015) is well crafted, well written, and the translation clever and polished, but I didn’t like it. Another go at this author, Karin Fossum: In the Darkness (1995), finds an acceptable but not outstanding thriller. Lee Child: Never Go Back (2013) is not quite as gripping as some of his productions. Anne Holt: Dead Joker (1999) translated by Anne Bruce (2015) has convincing characters and settings, and the translation feels natural. Charles Cumming: Typhoon (2008) is the best I have read of his stories so far, a satisfyingly intricate plot that does not threaten credibility, visual details carrying the conversations along, the plot developing conversation by conversation, and the bonus of some interesting educative material about Hong Kong.
First half of 2016
Deirdre Madden: Authenticity (2002) is written with a skilled elegance and convincing redolent detail, but for me rather too intense an agenda to succeed as a rewarding read, or even to entertain. I was drawn to read on to the end but then felt released rather than left with material to reflect on, for which I had hoped. An excellent medical crime drama, Tess Gerritsen: Bloodstream (1998) provides taut suspense and a convincing and interesting plot played out with sensitive characterisation. I loved the exquisite collection of short stories, Jay McInerney: The Last Bachelor (2009), each one a different delight, glossy but earthy, wistful but funny, subtle but sharp, and above all full of human understanding. The writing is perfect.
Anita Shreve: Fortune’s Rocks (1999) is a very fine book. In the heat of the summer at the edge of the sea when the bounds of normal life are loosened the author sets in motion a powerfully emotional drama measured out in terms of all of the senses, a heady and giddy confusion of high and low motives, delicately spun. Joseph Hansen: Fadeout (1970), the first of a series of crime thrillers featuring private investigator Dave Brandstetter is most promising, with convincing plotting and characters and top form writing.
Mary Higgins Clark: The Melody Lingers On (2015), good solid financial crime with sensitive character depiction. Val McDermid: The Grave Tattoo (2006) Rather a different sort of body found in the hills, triggering a literary slant to the crime investigation, the heroine, far from the brooding Nordic or scarred veteran, is the nicest person ever, brimming with kindness, but the thriller thrills and the writing, as always with this author, is of a quality higher than the genre needs. Jo Nesbo: Police (2013) translated by Don Bartlett, an intense 518 pages of multiple victims and multiple locations, with a varying pace that gives the time to develop characters and relationship, but requires concentration. As ever with Don Bartlett you don’t feel that you’re reading a translation. Good thrillers: Tom Rob Smith: The Farm (2014) and Lee Child: Personal (2014).
John le Carre: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) re-reading this one after many years it more than stands the test of time. Alafair Burke: If You Were Here (2013), no, not my cup of tea. Penelope Lively: Family Album (2009), wonderful, wonderful writer. Sebastian Barry: The Secret Scripture (2008) (Man Booker shortlist), another fine work from this perfect writer.
John le Carre: A Murder of Quality (1962), now quite dated this story takes on an additional historic dimension in its reflection of a particular middle class culture, as well as the snobbery that amusingly underlies all of le Carre’s work. Torkil Damhaug: Medusa (2007) translated by Robert Ferguson (2015). Well written although maybe a little too neatly contrived, but good translating because I forgot it wasn’t in the original language. Linwood Barclay: Broken Promise (2015), a good thriller. Colm Toibin: The Testament of Mary (2012) (Man Booker Shortlist) – I was surprised that this did not work at all for me, given my admiration for this author.
A treat to read the poetry of Andrew Motion: The Customs House (2012) and to enjoy its clarity and visual sensations. In Deirdre Madden: The Birds of the Innocent Wood (1988) an undated time in the recent past is described with a precise prose that exquisitely reflects the elegance and structure of a traditional social setting, almost an Austen-like connection between the setting and the writing and the characters, so fully rendered with few but purposeful details, the narrative at first seeming to play out in in a sober traditional direction then doubling backwards and forwards and disclosing its treasures in the spaces thereby lit up. Charles Cumming: The Hidden Man (2003) intrigues as an updated spy thriller, with plausible characters and dialogue, and has much to be appreciated by way of detail. Alain de Botton: Essays in Love (1993) is a good read that manages to be both light and thoughtful at the same time. An autobiographical novel, Esther Freud: Hideous Kinky (1992), creates layers of expression through the endlessly fascinating filter of the knowing adult returning to the innocent but fiercely observant child. There is a sweetly quiet and moving portrait of old age in Kent Haruf: Our Souls At Night (2015).
Good crime thrillers: Lee Child: Nothing To Lose (2008); Jeff Abbott: The Inside Man (2014); Carin Gerhardsen: The Last Lullaby (2010) translated from Swedish by Paul Norlen 2015; Tom Wood: Better Off Dead (2014) carefully written with its dramatic moments fully realised in cleverly visual detail, fights described in an oddly engaging analytical style, so much so that one is eagerly looking out for the next one, and there are many, but a tacked-on ending was difficult to follow, although did not affect the resolution of a satisfying thriller; flawless plotting and characters, clear and expressive language, particularly dialogue, are to be found in Val McDermid: Splinter The Silence (2015) and A Place of Execution (1999); Peter May: Blow Back (2011) excels at an expressive atmosphere; Ann Cleeves: White Nights (2008) skilfully produces a classic, well constructed, Shetland crime, getting right inside the characters, emotions and landscape; Lee Child: Worth Dying For (2010) rather violent but reliably taut and clear plotting.
Summer relaxation with a batch of good crime thrillers: Karin Alvtegen: Sacrifice (2005) ably translated by Steven T Murray; Lee Child: Persuader (2003); Linwood Barclay: No Time for Goodbye (2007). A couple of misses: Torquil Macleod: Meet me in Malmo (2010); and Jussi Adler-Olsen: Guilt (2010) tr Martin Aitken (2014). The former had something that made me persevere to the end, but was really rather pedestrian. When the title and setting are Nordic it raises expectations associated with this geographical genre. The latter, as with the last one of his that I tried, has a number of irritations, so I will not read any more of this author.
James Ellroy: Perfidia (2014) is the War and Peace of modern crime fiction. Over 700 pages of dense and riveting close-up and overview, this work is full and satisfying. Although I did not brazen it out to the end I appreciated the ambition and the execution.
In a more literary mood, moved by the reliable, though not predictable, Colm Toibim: Nora Webster (2014). Janice Galloway: Jellyfish (2015) is strangely ill-edited, including typos. Agreeably challenged by the poetry of Geoffrey Hill (born 1932) – dense and satisfying, like a good gym workout. Re-reading with the greatest of pleasure and respect the short stories of Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) which I first read at too young an age to be able to plumb the depths, which perhaps I never will, but that’s the attraction.
I don’t know why I had waited so long to try Lee Child. I tore through Die Trying (1998) and A Wanted Man (2012) with great enjoyment, appreciating the quality of the writing as much as the thrills of the plots and the challenging characters. Quieter moments were spent reading the poetry of Seamus Heaney and Ian Hamilton, both delving so powerfully into the reality of life.
Another good Nordic thriller, Jussi Adler-Olsen: Redemption (2009) translated by Martin Aitken in 2013. Back to the 17th century for the amazing Aphra Benn: The Lover’s Watch. Such effervescence from Francoise Sagan: Bonjour Tristesse (1958). Another very competent thriller from Frances Fyfield: Casting the First Stone (2013). Very taken with Hakan Nesser: The Weeping Girl (2000) translated by Laurie Thompson in 2013. Not engaged by Robert Harris: Archangel (1998). John Grindrod: Concretophia (2013) is an energetic and thoughtful tour of postwar English architecture which provides many insights. I like the poetry of John Burnside but could not get into his novel A Summer of Drowning (2011).
Virginia Woolf: Mrs Dalloway (1925) is a perfect novel, glorying in its narrative’s butterfly freedom to roam within the tight lines of the streets of central London, the constant movement of the characters underlining the fleeting captured changes in their feelings from moment to moment. Jo Nesbo: The Son (2014), finely translated by Charlotte Barslund, provides 645 pages of dark and complex Norwegian crime solving, a marathon of twists and turns right up to the end. Non-fiction alert: rereading the deeply wonderful Gerard W. Hughes: God of Surprises (1985) as a Lenten exercise is rewarding on so many levels.
Michele Roberts: Ignorance (2012) renders an intense and wistful, poetry in everyday details, a joy to read. Charles Cumming: The Trinity Six (2011) is a jolly romping spy story but some editing infelicities caused mild irritation. In her convent school classic story Kate O’Brien: The Land of Spices (1941) conveys intense actuality of feelings with an astonishing freshness and directness. Revisiting T.S. Eliot: The Waste Land (1922), a bold and convincing vision that repays each successive reading. Sebastian Barry: On Canaan’s Side (2011) creates an unforgettable and vivid world. Here is a great storyteller who understands how little needs to be said in order to engage the reader.
Aminatta Foreman: The Hired Man (2013) has been the best possible start to the reading year. I will be reading this one again, for its beautiful precision and depth of feeling. Arne Dahl: Bad Blood (1998, English translation 2013) is a Swedish noir thriller that is a little too noir and the authorial voice a little too irritating, so I will not try this writer again. Much more promising was Anne Holt: Blind Goddess (1993, translated by Tom Geddes 2012) the first in a series of Norwegian crime stories with an interesting legal element. Nina Stibbe: Love Nina (2013) (non-fiction) has dry but warm comedy on every page, lots of fun.
Two very good books selected serendipitously together made for some thoughtful reflections n the ways in which the past affects the present – Sue Gee: Coming Home (2013) and Jane Gardam: Old Filth (2004). Sue Gee carefully unrolls the lives of two people who came together in India in 1947 and returned to England to begin a long married family life coloured by their Indian experiences. Only at the end did I realise that this story is based on Sue Gee’s own parents’ story, created out of her mother’s diaries and her father’s tape-recorded memories, together with her own recollections from childhood, overlaid with her own conclusions. She writes quietly and movingly and with a firm, steady, pace that creates a drama of its own. Her characters are dealt hands which they never give up striving to make work. Jane Gardam’s story is of a British Raj orphan who returns to England to be educated, and returns again in retirement. The book implies that we must accept the existence of the tragedies that are outside our choice but the creation of our own response to fate is in our own hands, however hampered they may have become, and the author explores this positive thought with insights lightened with irony.