Tuesday, 11 June 2019

Peter Heller - The River

Rating: 5/5

Exceptionally good

I thought The River was exceptionally good. It’s an excellently written, truly gripping thriller.

The story is of two friends who set off on a wilderness trip in Northern Canada, down a remote river by canoe. They are very competent, well preapared and fit, but the threat of a huge approaching forest fire emerges in the distance, and then sinister events begin to emerge concerning a couple they meet. It’s a simple tale in a way, slightly reminiscent of Deliverance or tales of wilderness survival, but it is far more than that. Peter Heller writes brilliantly of the joy and beauty of the natural world his characters inhabit, he evokes their friendship beautifully and the tension builds remorselessly without ever becoming melodramatic. Some passages (about peril on the river or about the fire, for example) are overwhelmingly powerful and he really does manage to take you into the heart of the experience.

It’s not a long book at under 300 pages, and is all the better for it, I think. There’s nothing wasted and it goes to the heart of what Heller is trying to tell us – about the land, about the fragility of human life, about friendship and other things. I thought it was an excellent book; it’s a thoroughly engrossing story, beautifully told and with important things to say. Very warmly recommended.

Monday, 10 June 2019

Stuart MacBride - Cold Granite

Rating: 4/5

Well written and atmospheric

I enjoyed Cold Granite, but I did have my reservations.

I have come very late to this series; this is the first Stuart MacBride I have read and overall I’m impressed. He writes very well and creates good characters and very realistic dialogue. He is especially good on the setting, and I cold almost feel the chill and wet of the Aberdeen winter seeping into my bones.

The story is quite well done, of child deaths and the hunt for the killer. It’s grim stuff which MacBride doesn’t flinch from, so there are some very dark, graphic scenes but they are never gratuitously grisly. There are some pretty obvious clues and red herrings, but it’s just about plausible until the inevitable Cornered Killer Climax, which I found rather silly and laboured. And I have to say that at nearly 500 pages the book is too long; tightening it up to nearer 350 pages would have improved it a lot.

Despite my reservations, I thought this was well written and atmospheric enough to encourage me to read more in the series. I won’t be rushing to get hold of them, but I’ll definitely persist and I can recommend this as a good starter.

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

Thursday, 6 June 2019

Matt Morgan - Critical

Rating: 3/5


I’m afraid I struggled a bit with Critical. Matt Morgan is plainly a good man and a very good doctor, but although the book has a noble aim and deals with important medical and human subjects, I found it difficult to relate to.

I should say first that I can understand all the very enthusiastic reviews form others. There is a lot of very interesting information here about a fascinating topic and I did learn a good deal. However, I had two main problems with the book. The first is that I found its tone a bit patronising in places. I know that it is difficult sometimes to convey complex medical and scientific ideas to non-medics like me, but there really is no need to sound as though you’re addressing a five-year-old, and I did bridle fairly often at the almost childish tone.

My second problem is (and I’m sorry to say this) that Matt Morgan simply isn’t a very good writer. He tries to bring the human stories of his patients to life for us, but they read like a bad novel, full of cliché (“a seventeen year old with the world at his feet,” for example) and over-florid writing which I’m afraid had the opposite effect on me than was intended, in that I couldn’t relate to the stories at all.

It seems churlish to criticise a book on such a subject and with a worthy motive, but the truth is that I was disappointed and although others have plainly enjoyed it very much, I can only give Critical a very qualified recommendation.

(My thanks to Simon and Schuster for an ARC via NetGalley.)

Wednesday, 5 June 2019

Kate Atkinson - Started Early, Took My Dog

Rating: 4/5

Good, but not Atkinson's best

I have enjoyed all of Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series, but this one perhaps a little less than its predecessors.

As always, Atkinson uses the detective plot largely as a device on which to hang her brilliant character portraits (or case studies). This time, Jackson has been hired to find the real origins of a woman in New Zealand who was adopted in the mid 1970s in Leeds shortly before her adoptive parents emigrated. He becomes involved in a story of ancient malfeasance and murder, tangled up with a present-day imbroglio involving elderly police officers, an abducted child and – almost wholly irrelevantly – and old actress who is succumbing to Alzheimers.

The writing is excellent, of course, and the character studies are again penetrating and exceptionally well drawn. The attitudes of the 1970s are very well portrayed. The continuing arc of Jackson’s story runs through the book as a couple of loose ends from When Will There Be Good News are pursued, of not always tied up. This time, though, the plot wasn’t really sufficiently well done for me and often proved a distraction rather than an asset. There are several characters who feature in the present day and in flashback to 1975 who weren’t sufficiently well-distinguished and became a rather confusing blur to me, and the reliance on coincidence bordered on the absurd at times.

Although Started Early, Took My Dog may not be Kate Atkinson’s best, it is still a good book and significantly better than the vast slew of quite-good thrillers around at the moment and I am still very much looking forward to the next one.

(My thanks to Random House for an ARC via NetGalley.)

Friday, 31 May 2019

Virginia Reeves - The Behaviour Of Love

Rating: 4/5

Engaging and thoughtful

I enjoyed The Behaviour Of Love. Virginia Reeves is a fine writer and she creates a profound portrait of her two principal characters here.

This isn’t an easy book to review because the real meat of it comes in the second half and to reveal what happens would be a huge spoiler. Principally, though, this is a very intimate portrait of a marriage, of two rather different people and of love under strain. Set in the 1970s, we follow Ed and Laura Malinowski as Ed, a psychologist, becomes head of an institution in Montana for people with a variety of mental health issues, including – shockingly to a modern reader – epilepsy. Ed is a passionate and compassionate doctor, which leads him to overwork and neglect his wife and family. He is also charismatic, attractive and sexually somewhat promiscuous which leads to other problems, including in his relationship with a pretty young patient. Laura, a talented artist, finds herself isolated and neglected but determined to make a life she finds fulfilling. As the book shows us episodes over about 10 years we see how things work out (or don’t) for both Ed and Laura, with sections told from both their points of view.

It’s very well done, with the 70s background of casual sexism and widespread lack of understanding of and sympathy for metal health also very well drawn. Reeves writes very well and I found her characters engaging (if not always likeable) and very convincing.

I thought Work Like Any Other was exceptionally good. The Behaviour of Love is good, too, but perhaps not in quite the same league. Nonetheless, I can recommend it as an engaging and rewarding read.

(My thanks to Simon and Schuster for an ARC via NetGalley.)

Thursday, 30 May 2019

Victor Canning - Mr. Finchley Takes The Road

Rating: 3/5

A little too much of a good thing

I enjoyed the first of this trilogy (Mr Finchley Discovers His England) but I have run into diminishing returns in the later two books.

In Mr Finchley Takes The Road, the engaging and ultimately redoubtable Mr F. has a dramatic change in domestic circumstances and tours Kent in a horse-drawn caravan. It’s fine in its way and if you’ve read Mr Finchley Discovers His England you’ll know pretty much what to expect: loving descriptions of the English countryside, amusing and eccentric characters, malfeasance vanquished...and so on. It’s enjoyable, gentle stuff and an easy read, but for me one book of it was sufficient, so while there’s nothing wrong with this one, it all felt a little familiar and it didn’t quite hold my interest.

Other readers plainly don’t agree and found Mr Finchley Takes The Road as enjoyable as the first two books so don’t let me put you off, but personally I can only give it a rather qualified recommendation.

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

Monday, 27 May 2019

Trevor Eve - Lomita For Ever

Rating: 2/5

Original but hard going

I am not surprised to see that people seem either to have loved or hated Lomita For Ever. In some ways, I did both; there’s a lot that’s good about it in that it has an original style and deals with some tough issues pretty well, but in the end I couldn’t really get on with it.

The book deals with Ever (short for Everett) whose mind seems to be coming apart following the death of his father and some shocking revelations leading to his separation from his wife and son. Frankly, for a good deal of the book, it’s not easy to say what the plot is; Ever has revenge of a kind in mind on someone whom he thinks destroyed his father but meets the very aged but still beautiful Lomita which throws everything into turmoil.

It’s an odd plot written in an odd style, and it was the style which eventually threw me out of the book. It is original and in some ways brilliant, but it’s also very hard to understand at times and began to get unbearably mannered. As a small but typical example, Chapter 13 begins:
“The firing range.
Did not require ear defenders with the Maxim 9...”
That weird fragmentation of sentences happens a lot and while it is atmospheric, it got me down in the end, especially when it made it very hard to know who had said what. I quite enjoyed the first 20% or so, slogged through another few chapters and then began to skim, I’m afraid.

On the one hand I admire Trevor Eve for his originality and courageous avoidance of a generic celebrity-author’s thriller, but on the other the book became a real chore after a while. Others have plainly enjoyed this far more than I did and you may too, but personally I can’t recommend it.

(My thanks to Unbound Digital for an ARC via NetGalley.)