Year 2 / Book 16: My Name Is Lucy Barton


16) My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

I’ll be honest with you: I’d never heard of Elizabeth Strout until this Christmas (or was it the Christmas before?) when I was reading those pre-Xmas ‘authors recommend their books of the year’ articles, and this book got mentioned more than any other. So excuse ignorance, but it turns out that Elizabeth Strout was known by lots of other better-read people (oh yes, and won the Pulitzer Prize)…and having read this, I can see why. It was long listed for the 2016 Booker Prize, and having stalled reading Eileen (which was shortlisted, and I’m really struggling with), I can’t understand why this didn’t make the shortlist instead.

On the surface, it is a simple tale of a successful female author recounting how her mother came to visit her for five days when she was in hospital, and details the conversations they had during that time. These dialogues are interspersed by flashbacks and insights into the author (Lucy Barton, of course) and her wider life. And it is simply and sparely written, with short chapters that don’t outstay their welcome, and the feeling as you read that every single word has been chosen carefully, and every sentence pruned and honed with great care.

Beneath this simplicity, the recollections start to weave into a plot with depth, complexity and a dark edge: in the judgement of others, in barely referenced misdeeds, in the required ruthlessness that powers achievement. For a short, concise novel, there are many layers to peel back, and I felt at the end that I had read far more than the less than 200 pages in the book – a whole life is in these pages and, more specifically, a whole mother-daughter relationship is captured effortlessly in the short exchanges over just a few days.

What do you emerge with? That you are slightly wiser, wisdom rubbing off from Strout; that you have insight into the realities of families, insight gained from Strout’s writing; and, perhaps, a renewed clarity on things in your own life. Can’t ask for more than that, right?

Read it.

Score: 9.5/10

BUY IT: My Name Is Lucy Barton

Year 2 / Book 15: The Dry

 15) The Dry by Jane Harper

 I heartily recommend reading Laura Wilson’s monthly crime/thrillers round up in the Guardian: a great route to finding authors and books you might otherwise not run across. I regularly read through, pick ones that sound interesting, add them to a Wish List for future reference, and then buy one when the price comes down….And that is how I found The Dry by Jane Harper.

It’s set in rural Australia in a drought-hit farmland where opportunity has dried up as well for pretty much everyone there. Aaron Falk, who left the town as a teenager, comes back for the funeral of an old friend, who is suspected of having killed his wife and kid before committing suicide. Falk doesn’t believe it and gets drawn into the investigation, along with a stubborn local constable. In doing so, we find out both more about his past, and how characters from that past have grown up (or not).

It’s very well done: the bleak backdrop of a town with no hope, where ‘pokies’ and booze are the only respite; the interweaving of an old crime with the new one; the emergence and re-emergence of characters and suspects from the past and present; and a neat plot which only veers into slight unbelievability right at the end.

That too rapid and neat denouement aside, this is a great read – hugely evocative and engrossing, and with surprising depth of emotion. Well worth a few hours of your reading time if you’re feeling parched of a good story.

Score: 7.5/10

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The Dry

Year 2 / Book 14: The Power


14) The Power by Naomi Alderman

Have you ever wondered what a world in which teenage girls and then women are the ones with the power and the strength? And what might become of society? Or felt a little burst of lightning between your finger tips? Well, wonder no more. Naomi Alderman’s near-future dystopia is a rollicking, fantastical ride into the heart of a society thrown upside down by the power being transferred between genders. It is hugely entertaining, with heavy doses of (not always that subtle) insight into the relationship between men & women, and the effect of that being inverted.

It’s brilliantly done, right from the off, with a well-drawn engaging list of characters whose lives begin to intersect: the girl escaping abusive foster parents; the daughter of a London gangster; the African video-journalist; the wife of an East European dictator; and the American politician (and her daughter). Their different journeys and narrative arcs swoop across the book effortlessly, and Alderman does a cracking job of keeping the pace high and the flow of ideas constant. There is more fizz here, more energy and crackle, than so many muted modern books which seem to retell the same stories with interchangeable romantic leads and landscapes.

At times, it veers close to the absurd, and the coincidences begin to pile up a bit by the end, but I forgave it most of that because I was caught up in the headlong rush and excitement. There is also a neat-ish framing which similarly inverts our authorial expectations and, again, of gender and power. Suffice to say that, if you’re in a book club, there will be *plenty* to talk about. Highly recommended.

Score: 9/10

BUY IT HERE! >> The Power

Year 2 / Book 13: A Thousand Cuts


13) A Thousand Cuts by Thomas Mogford

This is the fourth (or possibly fifth) Spike Sanguinetti mystery by Thomas Mogford, and I think this is one of the best. What raises them above the average or the norm for me is the setting on Gibraltar, which is a place I don’t know at all (apart from backward-looking Tory leaders suggesting that it could be the next Falklands War). It doesn’t come across well generally, as a home of tax avoidance and online gaming, but this thriller mines its history to good effect – with Spanish, German and Gibraltan history being woven into an interesting tale.

Sanguinetti is a lawyer and an engaging character: troubled, flawed, can’t-ignore-a-cause etc but he’s becoming more complex and layered with each episode in the series, and I enjoyed the depth to his characterisation this time. He seemed a bit two dimensional before, but a stable-ish relationship and a child, as well as his quirky father, have brought new facets to light, and I think this is where Mogford is beginning to shine. That, and a fast-paced, multi-layered plot which ratchets up as time goes on.

Recommended for a quick, good read – and do check out the earlier books in the series.

Score: 7/10

BUY IT HERE: A Thousand Cuts (A Spike Sanguinetti Mystery)

Year 2 / Book 12: Devices and Desires


12) Devices and Desires by PD James

Busy times tend to mean more crime in reading terms for me, and there are few better at the top of the game than PD James in her pomp. She is as quintessentially English as her main detective leading man, Adam Dalgleish – and incredibly adept at bringing villages, towns and hamlets and their residents to full and characterful life. In that way, and in the dexterity of her plotting and denouements, she is in a direct line from Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers.

This is particularly rich in bringing the coastal place of Larksoken to life, and manages to weave nuclear power, a serial killer, retirement, artists, cooks and radical activism into a heady broth that comes to the boil nicely in the last seventy or eighty pages. Before that, there is much to enjoy – the cold intelligence of the Mair siblings; the savvy smartness of Theresa, the child replacing her mother; the quiet observance of Dalgleish, who is not in charge of the investigations. And much more besides. Even as layers are added to layers, James still manages to keep the pages turning, which is no mean feat.

And the unknotting of the plotting (you’re welcome) is exquisitely done: right to the last few moments, I still had several contenders in the frame, and was convinced I knew who’d done it on a few different occasions. And Dalgleish is a wonderful creation – calm, insightful, suggestive, elegant and with a cool intelligence. Although he sits almost alongside the Marion plot and investigation here, but remains the primary influence on the book. Wonderful, distracting stuff.

Score: 7.5/10

BUY IT HERE! Devices and Desires (Inspector Adam Dalgliesh Book 8)

Year 2 / Book 11: Zeitoun


11) Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

I don’t really know where to start when talking about this book. For reasons that I hope become clear. The simple facts are that it is a non-fiction book by Dave Eggers (one of my favourite authors) on what happens to a family both pre- and post- Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. It focuses particularly on the central couple Kathy and Abdulrahman Zeitoun, their backgrounds, and the life they had built together.

It’s difficult to talk about the plot in any way without giving away or ruining what happens, but suffice to say that Abdulrahman stays in New Orleans while Kathy and their children evacuate. He then saves both animals and people with his canoe (long story) before he is arrested (unfairly) and the story subsequently spirals into a difficult-to-believe and difficult-to-read tale…which manages to be both about the suspicion of Islam, the shocking power of the military-police complex (or the Blackwater-Department of Homeland Security complex), the malfunctioning of the US justice system, the plain lack of humanity of officials and the occasional bright light in the gloom. And be a true story set in a ‘developed’ country in the 21st century.

It is brilliantly written, simply and sparely…and is hugely involving. Even minor characters are brought to life effortlessly. And there are some profoundly shocking details of what happened in New Orleans at that time that I had absolutely no idea about. And, to add to everything, all proceeds from the book go to the Zeitoun Foundation which gives grants to local projects in the city seeking to build cultural relationships, help those still suffering in relation to housing many years on, and to restore people’s lives.

It was such an engaging tale that I had to look up what had happened since online. And what had happened since was that the couple had separated and Abdulrahman had been imprisoned in relation to threats of violence. For me, this doesn’t take away from the story at the book’s heart, but indicates that what happened to him had had profound effects, amplifying whatever anger and frustration he already felt or exhibited. Which is speculative, of course: others think Eggers chose to ‘spin’ them as a happy robust couple and avoided uncomfortable truths. Either way, what glimmers of light there may have been at the end of the book have since been extinguished in more darkness.

Score: 8.5/10

BUY IT HERE! Zeitoun

Year 2 / Book 10: Sirens


10) Sirens by Joseph Knox

God bless the community book share at Acton Central. This is a recently released thriller with lots of favourable reviews, and I had mentally consigned it to the “wait till it comes out in paperback” list but then found an uncorrected authors proof at Acton station. If you work in publishing near there, thanks very much.

Anyway, Sirens is a dark crime thriller set in Manchester, and it is a suitably twisty, gnarled tale involving plenty of drugs, Mancunian Bloods and Crips, police at the edge of the law, politics and an unsolved case….all centred round the main character of Aidan Waits, who is sent in an undercover role in to the drug world of the city. He finds himself increasingly embroiled and invested in the lives of the women (the sirens of the title as much as the ones on police cars) and men he meets.

I enjoyed it. The first half is slower but very atmospheric and you get a real sense of Manchester as a place in all its variety. The second half ratchets up and the pages turned a lot faster in the last third of the book particularly. The plot is satisfyingly complex but that did also mean that some elements felt less real and likely than others – it took the author eight years to write and at times I wondered whether he was simply trying to get too much in. Could it have been pared down a little? Possibly, in a few places.

Overall, though, it’s a satisfyingly chunky read with plenty to get your readerly teeth into, and plenty to grip the attention. Knox will be worth watching as a crime writer in the years to come.

Score: 7/10

BUY IT HERE! Sirens (Aidan Waits)

Year 2 / Book 9: Men Explain Things To Me


9) Men Explain Things to Me & Other Essays by Rebecca Solnit

‘Mansplaining’ is one of those terms that has rapidly become known, used and accepted into language – largely because everyone instantly understands what it is and how often it happens. Apparently the first essay in this book by Rebecca Solnit was partly responsible for the term coming about – detailing as it does an episode in which a man tries to explain to her the gist of a book that she herself wrote, even though she and her friend had told him more than once. In doing so, he managed to combine both sexism (assuming a woman couldn’t have written this important book), arrogance (these women will want me to explain this to them, because they won’t know about it) and a profound inability to listen / hear women’s voices (literally and metaphorically).

[NB – I managed a minor version myself talking to my wife Katie about the book, until I realised I was effectively mansplaining about…er…mansplaining]

If anything though, the other essays are better – the one using Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s alleged sexual assault of a maid as a metaphor for what the IMF does to other countries is extremely powerful, while the essay on Virginia Woolf is both personal and illuminating. For people whose experience of Woolf is limited to being forced to read To The Lighthouse for GCSE English, the latter is a revelation, and Solnit is an excellently informed and insightful guide. She’s also funny and sharp as well as intelligent; in places, razor-sharp.

There is, simply, much to learn here, much to be angered by, and much to take away. Which, for a short book that is quick to read, is a pretty good return.

Score: 7.5/10
BUY IT HERE! Men Explain Things to Me: And Other Essays

Year 2 / Book 8: The Ghost Riders of Ordebec

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8) The Ghost Riders of Ordebec by Fred Vargas

I haven’t read a Fred Vargas novel for quite some time, but was fortunate to see this at our local station’s free community bookshelf, and grabbed it. Vargas is an excellent writer of quirky, original and often slightly mystical French crime thrillers – featuring the wonderful Commissaire Adamsberg and his two deputies, Danglard and Veyrenc. Adamsberg is a great creation, by turns flighty, frustrating and fanciful – but with in inner gut instinct and intuition for the truth and for right and wrong. He is unorthodox and rises above the standard clichés of detective with alcohol problems, broken-down marriage, and love of rock music. That makes the stories more interesting and intriguing than much of what passes for crime fiction at the moment.

In this book, a set of murders are being blamed on the ‘Ghost Riders’ who have been returning to kill evil people since the Middle Ages; and alongside this story, Adamsberg and his team are also trying to solve a suspicious arson-murder. The two plots interweave and play off each other nicely, and there are some moments of genuine tension and thrill amongst the interplay of dialogue and turns of phrase.

I can imagine this might not be everyone’s cup of tea – and that Adamsberg could be as infuriating to a reader as entertaining – but I’m a big fan: the plots, the historical detail, the character depiction and the conjuring of atmosphere all place Vargas’ work above her peers. This isn’t even her best, but it’s a cut above much of the police novels I’ve been ploughing through of late. There are 9 Adamsberg books (I think I’ve read 6 or 7) so plenty to get your teeth into if you fancy a sojourn into different parts of France with a ghostly murder or two – the Chalk Circle Man (the first) is particularly good, and I also liked her (non-Adamsberg) book The Three Evangelists.

Score: 8/10

>> BUY THE BOOK NOW!

Year 2 / Book 7: March Violets

29537798-_uy200_7) March Violets by Philip Kerr

It seemed like a strangely appropriate moment to read a novel set in mid 1930s Germany – can’t imagine why. So I returned to Philip Kerr’s great set of Bernie Gunther novels, a detective who is like Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe with a heavy side-dose of British sarcasm and quick-wittedness. This is the first of the entire series (and the trilogy known as Berlin Noir), which I probably should have started with but there you go.

This is great stuff – a taut and tightly-plotted thriller which grips and entertains right up until the last page. Gunther is working finding missing people (mostly Jews) but ends up with a case that leads him right into the centre of the Nazi hierarchy, caught between Goering & Himmler. There are some lovely touches, and plenty of twists – and enough historical detail to make the noir extremely black and dark. The later books I have read by him are slightly less contrived and have slightly more space and room (so events don’t pile up on each other in the same way). And the language and similes can occasionally be a bit much (would he really get away with talking like this to so many powerful, evil people?!)…

Overall, though, not a bad way to dip into 1936 Germany from a sideways angle: Kerr’s writing is never dull, and his laconic style really works for me. For those wondering, a ‘March Violet’ was a derisory term for someone who opportunistically joined the Nazi party after 1933, having previously been against them. Let’s hope it isn’t a term that comes back into use.

Score: 7/10

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