Wednesday, 20 November 2019

Jorn Lier Horst - The Cabin

Rating: 1/5

Very disappointing

I am in a small minority, it seems, because I really couldn’t get on with The Cabin and eventually gave up before I finished it, which is a very rare thing for me.

The Cabin is a Norwegian police procedural and the first of the series that I have read (and the last, I suspect). A prominent politician dies and Wisting is sent to investigate what is left in the man’s holiday cabin, which leads to a dark, twisty story relating to some older cases. The trouble is that the storytelling just seemed plodding and tedious to me, with lots of detail which could have been interesting but read like a boring litany, some clumsily signalled Significant Events which the police don’t immediately spot even though it’s made pretty obvious to the reader, and so on – and the prose is lamentable in places. I don’t know how much of this is due to the author and how much to the translator, but the effect is pretty ghastly. In just the first few pages I picked out some terribly clunky writing like “’Let’s sit down,’ he said, gesturing with his hand,” some horribly stale usages like “This promised to be an investigation on a totally different level from what he was used to,” and some positively unforgivable, crashing clichés like “Amalie usually chattered nineteen to the dozen.”

It got no better and I’m afraid it became too much for me after a while. I’m very surprised to have such an unfavourable response to an author who was admired by Marcel Berlins and I am sorry to be so critical, but the truth is that I found The Cabin so poorly written that I couldn’t get through it.

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

Sunday, 17 November 2019

Jeffrey Bernard - Low Life

Rating: 4/5

Very good - in small doses

Jeffrey Bernard’s writings are by turns hilarious, acerbic, self-excoriating, bitter and very sad. I had read only a little of him before now and I’m very glad to have a chance to read more, but it’s a mixed experience for me.

This is a collection of Bernard’s weekly columns for the Spectator which he wrote for about twenty years from 1975 almost until his death from the effects of alcohol abuse. Many of them recount anecdotes of his chaotic life and of the fellow drinkers and other “low life” with whom he associated. The writing is brilliant: it is poised, elegant, witty and (certainly about himself) uncompromisingly frank. There are some genuine laugh-out-loud moments and plenty of amusing ones, but there is also a fundamental bleakness under the devil-may-care facade which, in quantity, became quite hard to take. As one might expect, his attitudes, especially toward women, are anything but enlightened and even making allowances for the prevailing views of the period the sexism and misogyny are pretty repellent at times. Set against this is his refusal to have anything to do with pomposity and pretentiousness, and his skewering of them can be very enjoyable.

This is definitely a book to dip into. I can see the appeal of one of these articles per week (or less, because he was frequently and famously “unwell”); too many together left me feeling a bit desolate and rather soiled. The collection has many redeeming features, including the sheer excellence of the prose, but for me needs to be handled with a little care.

(My thanks to Duckworth Books for an ARC via NetGalley.)

Saturday, 16 November 2019

John le Carré - Agent Running In The Field

Rating: 4/5

Very good, but not his best

John le Carré is still a master storyteller and this is a fine, gripping read although it doesn’t have the depth and complexity of some of his greatest books.

Nat, a spy near the end of his career, gets wind of a major Russian operation to recruit a British agent...and even that is probably a bit of a spoiler. More plot details certainly would be, but the heart of this book is principally about attitudes to Brexit and Trump and their effect on Britain. It is fair to say that le Carré approves of neither Brexit nor Trump, so this certainly isn’t a balanced analysis. One character especially gives some very hard-hitting and extreme opinions about things which, although relevant to the story, are pretty strong stuff (to the point of clumsiness in places), so ardent Trump supporters and Leave supporters may find the book hard to swallow.

Personally, I found the story well developed and completely gripping from about half way. I don’t think the characterisation or real complexity which made le Carré so brilliant are quite there this time, possibly because he is so immersed in the issues. There is also a surprisingly sentimental ending which I found a little hard to believe, but it’s still a very well constructed story and a very enjoyable read. Recommended.

Friday, 8 November 2019

Salley Vickers - Grandmothers

Rating: 4/5

Not one of Vickers' best

I enjoyed Grandmothers, but I did have reservations.

Salley Vickers tells the story of three quite different characters who are grandmothers (strictly, two are grandmothers and one is a good friend who fulfils the role) who don’t know each other at the beginning of the book. They each have a close relationship with and often take care of one grandchild, and their stories develop over one year, during which they overlap and interact. Vickers uses this structure to explore those relationships, to examine their effect on and importance to both the grandmothers and the children and to give her views on a variety of topics, some neatly, some rather clumsily.

Vickers, as always, paints intimate and compassionate portraits of her subjects, both adult and child. They are strong, thoughtful and insightful pictures by and large. (The men are peripheral and largely act as cyphers for male failings, but this is a book about the women and the children they relate to and the focus is rightly on them). She writes very well, of course, and I found the book an easy and quite involving read much of the time, but there was a lot of familiar ground: slightly lost women finding fulfilment and new delight in life, the significance of art, especially religious art and angels, the importance of great religious buildings and so on don’t have quite the freshness and emotional impact they did when I first read Miss Garnet’s Angel and The Cleaner of Chartres, for example. There is quite a lot of quotation and cultural reference which I felt verged on showing off, and I found the ending, which is intended to be moving, rather sentimental and twee. Vickers also goes a bit over the top in her prose occasionally. For example, a character is reminiscing while boarding a train:
“Her mind arabesqued – as she begged the man whose aisle seat was next to the window seat that her ticket proclaimed hers to excuse her – to how they had dined...” That’s a bit rich for me, and although it only happened a few times, I think Salley Vickers is better than that.

Overall, this is a recommendable read, but in spite of some very good things about it, I don’t think it’s one of Salley Vickers’ best. 3.5 stars, rounded up to 4.

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

Tuesday, 5 November 2019

James Crumley - The Last Good Kiss

Rating: 4/5

Compelling and very well written

The Last Good Kiss is still a very good novel after 40 years.

C.W. Sughrue is an ex-army man turned to private detective work. It’s not glamorous and, as in this case, often involves finding runaway husbands. Sughrue is on the trail of Abraham Traherne, a well known writer, and becomes bound up in both his rather tangled life and in looking for the daughter of a woman he meets while looking for Traherne. It’s a convoluted but comprehensible plot, there’s a good deal of violence, quite astonishing amounts of drinking and quite a lot of inexplicit sex, but also some quieter, more contemplative passages so the whole thing seemed very well structured and paced to me.

The real strengths of the book are Crumley’s excellently painted characters, his wonderful evocations of different parts of the USA from the seediest bars and clubs to the magnificent landscapes, and the very fine prose he uses to describe them. Sughrue’s narrative voice is tough and world-weary, but he also has a strong moral sense (even if he can’t always follow it) and it is excellently done. I found it involving and very convincing and while it may not be an absolute classic of the genre, it’s very good and I can recommend it warmly.

Friday, 1 November 2019

Graeme Macrae Burnet - His Bloody Project

Rating: 3/5


I’m afraid I didn’t get on nearly as well with His Bloody Project as many people did and in the end I was disappointed in it.

There are good things about the book: the narrative voice is well done and largely convincing, Graeme Macrae Burnet paints a compelling picture of the hardship and repression of mid-19th-Century crofting life, the landscape is beautifully evoked and so on. However, I found that the slowness which at times seemed almost self-indulgent combined with an unremitting bleakness made it a tough, almost turgid read. I enjoyed the first hundred pages or so, but began to get very bogged down and eventually just slogged my way to the finish.

The quality of the writing and the atmosphere make this worthy of three stars, but for me it was a disappointment.

Wednesday, 30 October 2019

M.C. Beaton - Agatha Raisin: Beating About The Bush

Rating: 2/5

Not for me

I’m afraid Agatha Raisin and I didn’t get on. This was my first Agatha Raisin and, in spite of all the praise this series has garnered, it will probably be my last.

The plot, for the record, concerns Agatha and her detective partner Toni investigating industrial espionage at a local factory, where all kinds of Odd Things seem to be going on and someone is Out To Get Them. It’s mildly amusing in places, but I found most of the humour clunky and overdone, the characters so caricatured and over-explained as to be tedious clichés rather than witty parodies and the whole thing a bit of a bore, really. After some judicious skimming I didn’t feel I had missed much and I was quite glad to get to the end.

So, it definitely wasn’t for me. Plenty of others, including people whose judgement I respect greatly, find Agatha Raisin very amusing, but personally I can’t recommend Beating About The Bush.

(My thanks to Little, Brown for an ARC via NetGalley.)