"For Books are not absolutely dead things, but doe contain a potencie of life in them to be as active as that soule was whose progeny they are; nay they do preserve as in a violl the purest efficacie and extraction of that living intellect that bred them." - John Milton
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.
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
(My thanks to
Duckworth Books for an ARC via NetGalley.)
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
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.
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:
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
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.
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.
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.
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.)