Monday, 16 July 2018

M.R.C. Kasasian - Betty Church and the Suffolk Vampire


Rating: 2/5

Review:
Not for me


I didn't get on well with this book, I'm afraid.  It's the first Kasasian I have read and may well be the last.

Set in 1939, Sgt. Betty Church has lost half her left arm and is promoted to inspector  and sent to her home town in Suffolk to get her out of the way.  Suffolk has never admitted female police officers so…well, you can probably guess the welcome she receives.   There is a lot of local "colour" and lots of improbable murders happen, but I never had the sense of any sort of developing, involving story.

Part of the problem is that although Betty is a fairly engaging narrator and her feminism and toughness are fine qualities, the other characters are a parade of annoyingly pantomimic stereotypes: the unspeakably sexist, vulgar, incompetent, drunken, halitosis-ridden fellow-inspector, for example, or Dido, who combines all the worst aspects of Madeleine Bassett and Violet Elizabeth Bott, but without the brilliant comedic touch of either.  She became unreadably annoying very quickly – which is a real problem in an almost incessant presence.   This, coupled with the sense of just wading through descriptions with little narrative drive, meant that The Suffolk Vampire became a chore for me.  I stuck it out for about half the book, but couldn't face 400-odd pages of this stuff and skimmed most of the rest.

Plainly, Kasasian's books have been popular, but this really wasn't for me.  It's decently written, but I found it tedious and unfunny and can't recommend it.

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Patrick O'Brian - The Surgeon's Mate


Rating: 5/5

Review:
The seventh in a brilliant series


This is now my third time reading through this brilliant series and I am reminded again how beautifully written and how wonderfully, addictively enjoyable they are.

In The Surgeon's Mate, Jack's affairs ashore are in a tangle (to say the least) and Stephen helps both practically and by requesting that Jack be the captain commanding a tricky intelligence mission in the Baltic.  The subsequent action and thoughtful developments are, as always, thrilling and engrossing.

 Patrick O'Brian is steeped in the period of the early 19th Century and his knowledge of the language, manners, politics, social mores and naval matters of the time is deep and wide. Combined with a magnificent gift for both prose and storytelling, it makes something very special indeed. The books are so perfectly paced, with some calmer, quieter but still engrossing passages and some quite thrilling action sequences. O'Brian's handling of language is masterly, with the dialogue being especially brilliant, but also things like the way his sentences become shorter and more staccato in the action passages, making them heart-poundingly exciting. There are also laugh-out-loud moments and an overall sense of sheer involvement and pleasure in reading.

I cannot recommend these books too highly. They are that rare thing; fine literature which are also books which I can't wait to read more of. Wonderful stuff.

Friday, 13 July 2018

Patrick O'Brian - The Fortune of War


Rating: 5/5

Review:
The sixth in a brilliant series


This is now my third time reading through this brilliant series and I am reminded again how beautifully written and how wonderfully, addictively enjoyable they are.

In The Fortune Of War, Jack's fortunes are anything but favourable and on a voyage home from the East Indies meets with all sorts of vicissitudes.  There are some griping and fascinating episodes with the usual engrossing stuff about Steven's natural philosophy and work as a secret agent as well as some thrilling battle action.  In short, it's a classic O'Brian –than which there is little higher praise.

Patrick O'Brian is steeped in the period of the early 19th Century and his knowledge of the language, manners, politics, social mores and naval matters of the time is deep and wide. Combined with a magnificent gift for both prose and storytelling, it makes something very special indeed. The books are so perfectly paced, with some calmer, quieter but still engrossing passages and some quite thrilling action sequences. O'Brian's handling of language is masterly, with the dialogue being especially brilliant, but also things like the way his sentences become shorter and more staccato in the action passages, making them heart-poundingly exciting. There are also laugh-out-loud moments and an overall sense of sheer involvement and pleasure in reading.

I cannot recommend these books too highly. They are that rare thing; fine literature which are also books which I can't wait to read more of. Wonderful stuff.

Monday, 9 July 2018

Tim Winton - The Shepherd's Hut


Rating: 5/5

Review:
Outstandingly good


I thought that The Shepherd's Hut was quite outstanding. 

The story is narrated by Jaxie Clackton, a rough, rebellious adolescent in a small, isolated town in Western Australia.  He is regularly viciously beaten by his father until Jaxie returns home one day to find him dead.  Fearing that his own tough reputation and the way his father treated him will lead people to suspect him of the killing, he takes off into the bush on foot, heading toward the girl he loves who is many hundreds of miles away.  We get the story of Jaxie's hard journey and troubles and of his meeting with an odd, isolated old man in a shepherds hut in the middle of nowhere.

It may not sound that alluring, but it's absolutely terrific.  Jaxie's narrative voice is brilliantly done (be warned that the language is appropriate to a very rough teenage boy!), the sense of place in the deserted saltlands of Western Australia is phenomenally evocative and I found the story utterly gripping.  It has quietly perceptive things to say about men, resilience, pig-headedness, love and many other things and it will stay with me for a very long time.

I loved everything about this book, including Jaxie's colourful language (of an almost dead phone, for example: "By now there probably wasn't a bee's pube of battery left anyway.") and the genuine humanity and understanding among the harshness and brutality.  As a couple of examples: "Son, I used to scoff at all the notions people got about the sun and moon.  Primitive people, I mean.  With all their worshipping and fearing.  But the longer I'm out here.  Well, it knocks the scoffing out of a fella."  Or Jaxie's adolescent realisation that, "It's a dangerous feeling getting noticed, being wanted.  Getting seen deep and proper…"  And I especially loved the way some things weren't neatly tied up but left unknown as they so often are in life, and that the book ends on a note of hope and aspiration rather than resolution, because that's the real point of the story.

The Shepherd's Hut is one of the best, most involving books I've read this year.  I'd be delighted to see it nominated for the Man Booker (although it may be too readable for that) and I can recommend it very warmly indeed.

(My thanks to Picador for an ARC via NetGalley.)

Saturday, 7 July 2018

Harlan Coben - Home


Rating: 4/5

Review:
Enjoyable nonsense


I enjoyed Home.  It is the first of Harlan Coben's books I have read and the latest in a major series involving Myron Bolitar, but works fine as a stand-alone novel.

Home begins very arrestingly, as Myron's friend Win sees a missing boy in London for whom he has been looking for ten years.  There is a very tense and violent scene and the hunt is then on for the boy and his friend who disappeared at the same time.  A twisty plot follows as Myron and Win investigate, the original kidnapping and the boys' families come under scrutiny and the identity of one of the boys is questioned.

It's nonsense, but it's very enjoyable nonsense.  There are plenty of fantastical elements in Home: Win's almost limitless wealth and influence, his near-superhuman deadliness, the appalling, Bond-villainesque criminal mastermind…you name it.  Nonetheless, Coben writes very well and the dialogue in particular is great, so I found Home very pleasantly addictive.  I could have done without the knowing asides addressed to the reader, but they certainly didn't spoil my enjoyment.

Home is superior, if slightly silly, entertainment with flashes of humour and which doesn't take itself too seriously.  I'll certainly look out for more.

Friday, 6 July 2018

Patrick O'Brian - Desolation Island


Rating: 5/5

Review:
The fifth in a brilliant series

This is now my third time reading through this brilliant series and I am reminded again how beautifully written and how wonderfully, addictively enjoyable they are.

In The Mauritius Command, Jack is finding shore-bound domestic life somewhat less blissful than he had anticipated, but through Steven's machinations is given command of a squadron to fight in the Indian Ocean where French warships are playing havoc with the Company's trade. As always, there is a gripping, varied narrative and some thoughtfully drawn characters – especially the capricious and enigmatic Lord Clonfert, whom I found a real source of interest and subtlety in this episode.

Patrick O'Brian is steeped in the period of the early 19th Century and his knowledge of the language, manners, politics, social mores and naval matters of the time is deep and wide. Combined with a magnificent gift for both prose and storytelling, it makes something very special indeed. The books are so perfectly paced, with some calmer, quieter but still engrossing passages and some quite thrilling action sequences. O'Brian's handling of language is masterly, with the dialogue being especially brilliant, but also things like the way his sentences become shorter and more staccato in the action passages, making them heart-poundingly exciting. There are also laugh-out-loud moments and an overall sense of sheer involvement and pleasure in reading.

I cannot recommend these books too highly. They are that rare thing; fine literature which are also books which I can't wait to read more of. Wonderful stuff.

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Ali Smith - Girl Meets Boy



Rating: 4/5

Review:
A good re-telling 

Ali Smith's work has been a bit of a mixed bag for me, but I enjoyed Girl Meets Boy.  Parts of it are quite brilliant and other sections not so good, but as a whole it was well done, I thought.  It is also commendably concise, packing a lot into relatively few pages.

Smith takes Ovid's myth of Iphis and re-sets it in 2007 in Inverness. She uses the structure to write beautifully about sexual identity and attitudes toward it, the role and treatment of women in the world, and about the behaviour of global corporations.  In the eleven years since its original publication it has dated a bit and some of the points she makes, while still shockingly valid today, seem rather laboured and heavy-handed.  At its best, though, this is a thrilling and sometimes disturbing read; for example, there is a sex scene which contains almost nothing explicitly sexual but is astonishingly powerful and evocative, and the scene in the pub where two boorish, "laddish" men offhandedly and unthinkingly demean the young woman with them is chillingly recognisable.

Ali Smith can sometimes lose me by going over the top with her flights of fantastical prose, however brilliantly written, and that did happen a couple of times in Girl Meets Boy.  Also, at times it seemed rather like one of Richard Curtis's more sentimentally message-hammering scripts, but none of that spoiled the book for me and I can recommend it.

(My thanks to Canongate for an ARC via NetGalley.)