A blog of books I've been reading, and what I've thought of them. I KNOW I don't read enough etc. Don't make me feel any more guilty about it than I already do.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Ian Rankin - "Blood Hunt"

Over the Christmas holidays in England, I stumbled across Pa Rhino's secret stash of Ian Rankins. No-one loves a thriller as much as yours truly and I'd heard great things about this author, particularly his Inspector Rebus series, so I decided to give him a whirl. Unfortunately I got a little bit distracted by the black and red gloss of the cover and failed to read the small print (my italics). If I HAD, I would have seen that a) this was Ian Rankin writing as "Jack Harvey" and b) that the hero wasn't Rebus at all but a former SAS man called Gordon Reece. They're always ex-SAS, have you noticed that? Tough, disciplined but flawed. Everyman and Superman in camouflage pants. It's a genre all of its own. Thank goodness Rankin is a decent enough writer and, as far as I can tell, NOT ex-SAS himself because at least we're spared the reams of endless prep detail that passes for plot in some of these novels (thank you Andy McNab). You know what I mean, all that packing a plastic bottle to pee in while on surveillance duty and endless paragraphs about yomping for miles in the nude. Here's the story: Reece's penniless (natch) freelance hack brother mysteriously commits suicide near San Diego while investigating links between agrichemicals and - wait for it - Mad Cow disease. Still with me? Reece, now running a sort of weekend soldier Outward Bound course in Scotland, heads off to the U.S. to get to the bottom of it all and along the way, bumps heads with an old SAS teammate. Luckily, Rankin is about as interested in the agrichemicals storyline as I was and, after one very dry chapter, soon lets it peter out to become more of a Renaissance revenge drama between former squadron mates. But the tale is not without its flaws. We're told that Reece suffers from a pink "killing mist" that has to be kept under control using medication. Until about three-quarters of the way through the novel where, even though he hasn't had his meds for quite a while, all references to it disappear despite the fact he's killing people left, right and centre. What was all that about then? The baddies aren't really bad enough. The author tells us this himself (I suspect this is because he isn't convinced about the agrichemicals storyline either) and nothing really happens to stop them wreaking their chemical mischief. But whatever, I can even let that pass. What is slightly more difficult to forgive is the appearance in the final pages of a Native American on a killing mission in the Scottish Highlands. Apart from some hackneyed stuff about him sniffing the wind and being good at following a trail, he appears to serve no purpose whatsoever, and unlike the others who all come to a sticky end, he merely gets bored of the whole business and walks away. Walks away where? What's a Native American going to do in Scotland? Baffling. That said, I did actually rather enjoy the whole thing. Rankin may not be a plotting genius but he's good at keeping the story rolling along and the writing's good enough that you don't find yourself cringeing too often. Anyway, I've now started on the Rebus series (set in Edinburgh but no Native Americans spotted yet) so I'll keep you posted.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Ian McEwan - "Saturday"

This is the first McEwan I've ever read - yes, I know, shame on me - and I thought it was very good indeed. The clever part, obviously, is his ability to create a world that draws the reader in with just enough universal reference points, while twisting it to a unique perspective - in this case, that of a neurosurgeon. Now as most of my medical knowledge has been acquired from television, I've no idea if a neurosurgeon really does see the world in this way or not. The important thing is that McEwan makes it seem plausible that he would. In the same way that he makes what is, frankly, an utterly preposterous plot seem plausible. The characters are pretty well done too, with possibly the exception of Perowne's wife - too fuzzy - and the mad poet grandfather with a chateau in France (I didn't buy him for a minute). One criticism I have is that the whole thing runs out of steam a bit towards the end. He does a marvellous job of setting the scene and building the tension but, even though the events, particularly the hostage scene, are pretty dramatic, I found myself saying "Oooh, is that it, then?". Baxter, the villain of the piece, also has a touch of caricature about him, a little too much Eastenders, if you see what I mean. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed it and raced through the thing (NO, I haven't been reading it since my last post in September 2006, arf!). Plus, thanks to the thoughtful Mr. McEwan, you can actually follow the recipe for bouillabaise-stylee fish stew that Henry makes in the book. What next, teach yourself neurosurgery? :-)

Sunday, September 17, 2006

I. Edwards-Jones - "Fashion Babylon"

Of course I enjoyed this - how could I not? The constant lure of another juicy tidbit of gossip keeps you turning the pages and you DO actually learn things about the fashion business - such as how much department stores rake off up-and-coming designers for stocking their clothes. But the pretence of maintaining any kind of plot is paper-thin. The only character that is fleshed out in slightly more detail is Alexander. Mimi the stylist and Lydia the model are little more than cardboard cut-outs. Plus, all the stuff about organising a fashion show really isn't that interesting. I have to say that after reading this, I'd be less tempted to read any of Imogen's other "Babylon" books, but I'm not going to be churlish about it, it IS perfect holiday reading, but much less fiction than journalism, written in that slightly breathy tabloid style, which promises much but ultimately leaves you wondering: "Is that all there is?" Favourite anecdote: Tom Ford ringing his PR to shout, re: Victoria Beckham, "You have to get that woman out of my clothes!"

Mikael Niemi - "Popular Music"

This book was orginally recommended to me a couple of years ago by a French friend. Of course, it's not really about music at all - apart from as a soundtrack to a young man's reminiscences about his childhood in the wilds of northern Sweden. A sort of Nordic Nick Hornby. What was weird was that I found an awful lot I could relate to here. Growing up in a small mining community in the Midlands, I can still remember winters where we had to wade through waist-high snow drifts to get to school and fog that was so thick, you really couldn't see more than a couple of feet in front of you. And spending all summer playing in the woods and on Shillitoe's farm, wandering around the countrside for miles, climbing stiles, dodging cows etc. It's so far removed from the way I live now, and even the way society is now, that I sometimes wonder if I imagined it. And yet the details are really clear, in a way that, for example, my recollections of the first year of university aren't. Anyway, the fact that I could identify to an extent with the author meant we were off to a good start. Then there's the wonderful Nordic quality to it all - that raw, harsh way of life, bound up inextricably with the elements. The long winters and the short summers. And I love the fact that there's a reference to (Abba's Benny Andersson's band) the Hep Stars in there. There's an innocence to it all, and a slightly melancholy nostalgia for a slower, simpler time. And bags of humour too. Grandad's birthday, which turns into a mammoth drinking binge, is wonderfully funny, as is the kids' drinking competition in the disused factory. I found it amusing, poignant and well-observed and I'd quite like to check out other books by the author. Which is always a good sign, isn't it?

Monday, July 03, 2006

A. McCall Smith - "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency"

A book that has been hailed as a "smash hit" and already spawned a whole series of novels is always a bit off-putting. Because, if you're anything like me, your first instinct is to want to find fault with it, to point out that the Emperor isn't wearing any clothes. I'd seen the Alexander McCall Smith series in WH Smith's for well over a year, admired the cover art (don't ask me why but cover art is very important to me), helped other people find them in the store and even bought one for a friend's birthday. Even after all that, it took me many months to actually get round to buying one for myself, and then, of course, it lay on my bookshelves for a good three months - untouched. When I actually got around to reading the first chapter, all my worst fears were confirmed. The setting, the pared-down writing style, the "ethnic" angle, the slightly folksy tone - it all seemed horribly familiar, with so many similarities to all that South American literature I read in the 80s. Precious Ramotswe setting up her own detective agency (how quaint!) with the proceeds from the sale of her father's cattle (ditto), the bush tea, her first case - a pleasant enough piece of whimsy and competently executed but really nothing special. And then I read the second chapter, which turns out to be her father's story. And that's when it pulled me in. Because McCall Smith suddenly switches away from the quirky and twee to a grittier voice that isn't afraid to tackle the issues of the country's colonial past and the hardship that accompanied it. And this bittersweetness continues throughout the book, surfacing in Precious's failed marriage, the death of her child, her slightly bitter views on men in general. The light hand which the author mixes the different styles is probably what impressed me the most, because at no time does he sink into proselytism. I also liked his ability to keep things simple - the cases that Precious investigates aren't particularly complex - it's her common sense that solves most of the "mysteries". But there's an overall upbeat tone that is infectious and the reader can't help but smile when Precious accepts garage owner J. L. B. Matekoni's proposal of marriage at the end.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Alan Hollinghurst - "The Line of Beauty"""

"Well, he loved meeting you," he said. "Aah..." Sophie purred, as if to say that people usually did enjoy that. I loved it. It's all so arch, so London, so Thatcher era, so Kensington. The narrator, Nick Guest, is wonderfully done. A curious mixture of admiration, envy and longing for the glittering London life, while pretending to keep a cynical distance. His hosts, the Fedden family, are also very well written, with Hollinghurst capturing brilliantly that slightly stagey aura of the upper classes and their terrible self-awareness of family traditions and heritage. Some of the other characters don't work quite as well: Wani, Nick's wealthy Lebanese lover, never has me convinced for a moment that he's a real person and it isn't really explained what Nick sees in him. I did expect the whole AIDS/gay topic to be a much more central theme. Somehow the novel is much more of a comedy of manners than I would have expected - i'm thinking here of the set pieces such as Toby's 21st birthday and "The Lady's" visit to the Fedden home.The result is very amusing, ginving ample opportunity for some deft character sketches, but less involving than the other Hollinghurst novels I've read. That shouldn't detract, however, from the wonderful style and the author's ear for a "bon mot". Highly recommended (particularly if you were there - it made me very nostalgic).

Monday, January 30, 2006

C.S. Lewis - "The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe"

I originally bought this to read again before seeing the film. As a child, I adored the Narnia books. I clearly remember buying the whole boxed set from the Penguin Book Club at school (along with the Moomins, Dr. Doolittle and Gerald Durrell's "My Family and Other Animals" series) and loving the fact that it was a proper series, designed to be read in a specific order and with its own lore and history. As always when it comes to a childhood favourite, I was slightly apprehensive about tackling them as an adult. The experience was much faster this time round (three hours on the Eurostar and it was all over) but just as satisfying. There are two things I love about this kind of literature: the fact that the children are much more grown-up than I would ever have been at that age (and, therefore, deserving of my admiration), and the descriptions of wonderful "nursery meals" full of sandwiches and cakes and all manner of delicious goodies. I don't fully understand why either should appeal to children particularly, but they do and it's a recipe that's still being used very successfully today, notably by JK Rowling. The plot was a little not thinner exactly but maybe simpler and more linear than I remembered, but then again, this is kind of the first book in the series and we're discovering Narnia at the same breakneck pace as the children. A lot of people here in France (where the books aren't as well-known) criticized the overtly Christian morals promoted by the book, but I think that's a bit of a red herring. Morality is a feature in nearly all literature and to dismiss these stories as Christian propaganda is like dismissing Harry Potter as an apology for the Wicca religion. The trouble is now I've reread one, I want to reread them all, so I'm hoping they're going to republish the whole series, which I shall thumb my way through while eating piles of hot buttered toast and battenburg cake :-)

Friday, December 30, 2005

"The Man Who Smiled" by Henning Mankell

When I first discovered Mankell ("The Dogs of Riga") I genuinely found these Inspector Wallander mysteries to be a rip-roaring read, full of Nordic melancholia and wind-whipped landscapes. Now those in the know have deemed him to be the Next Big Thing in crime writing and the BBC have started filming the books, while I am becoming more dissatisfied with each one I read. I know I've accused him of this before, but there's a distinct whiff of the production line about the more recent Wallander novels. Henning is good at building suspense but the plot never really seems to go anywhere - there's even a part where he himself admits nothing is happening!! He really skimps on the minor characters (all we're told about the main "villain" is that he's tanned, smiles a lot and wears well-cut suits) which definitely wasn't the case in the earlier books. I mean, I know detective novels aren't supposed to be Dickens but come on.. Even the motive for the crime is never properly explained, we're just told that the two solicitors found out "things they weren't happy with" in the dealings of a billionaire industrialist - errr alright then. And he's tried to mix in so many different elements - body part smuggling, local council fraud, big business (Nokia gets a name-check) - that he doesn't have time to develop any of them properly. As always, the characters of the various police officers are well-drawn, but that's no use if they only exist alongside paper cut-outs. And even then, I'm not sure how much knowledge gained from the other books I'm bringing to the party. Frankly disappointing. For more info about Mankell, check out his official website here.