Year 3 / Book 2: If I Die In A Combat Zone

2) If I Die In A Combat Zone by Tim O’Brien

Many years ago, for reasons that are unclear to me, I bought a book called In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien which I thought was great (I must have been a teenager at the time) but I don’t think I really understood the backdrop to the novel which was the author’s experiences in Vietnam. Being on holiday in Vietnam, and having just visited the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, I sat down to read his first book, If I Die In A Combat Zone, which is a memoir of his experience of being drafted to serve in Vietnam and his experiences as an infantry soldier in the country. When you realise that the ending of the sentence of the title is If I Die In A Combat Zone….box me up and send me home, then you know this isn’t going to be a laugh a minute.

What I found most interesting was the fact that O’Brien disagreed with the war from the start, going as far as to challenge his seniors and to develop a fairly detailed escape plan (via Sweden), but that some sense of obligation, of following the norm and of what was right and wrong prevented him from pursuing them and trying to get out of the war altogether. He finds a like-minded soul during training (who also likes books, poetry, reading and has a broadly ‘liberal’ sensibility) and they keep each other sane during the nonsensical testosterone of the Fort where they learn how to bayonet and fire guns and polish their shoes.

It is the war scenes which linger, of course. The sheer futility of the exercises and the complete randomness of who gets killed or injured (and how it happens): there is nothing to suggest that being smarter, stronger, more aware or a ‘better’ soldier in any way helps. There is evidence of courage (something O’Brien goes into as a concept in some depth) but as much evidence of cowardice; there are examples of bravery and also thoughtless stupidity. What underpins it all is the constant relentless stomach-churning fear of not knowing if your next step in the mud, in the rice paddy, will be your last – O’Brien categorises all the different types of booby trap and mine here, which felt all too real as I’d just seen them all in the museum. Absolutely terrifying to think that you walk miles towards a target that might not be there, for a goal that is unclear, led by people with no real idea, and might tread on one of these at any moment. People die – good people, bad people, stupid people, smart people, but mostly people in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I’ve watched quite a few Vietnam films (Full Metal Jacket, Born on the Fourth of July, Good Morning Vietnam etc) but this book has an immediacy and a power to it that few of them can truly capture. Futility becomes normality, and death and injury become such a part of life as to be treated like walking out to buy the paper. Such are the things that war do to men, I suppose. What is extraordinary is that O’Brien experiences all this while absolutely disagreeing with the nature of the war and completely understanding both the horror and the pointlessness of it (he arrives in a similar area about a year and a half after the My Lai massacre); this adds an extra layer of poignancy and despair to the different experiences and examples he documents.

It’s the best book on war I’ve read since, I guess, Dispatches by Michael Herr back at university, or the peerless Catch-22. Reading it makes me want to revisit not only these, but also In the Lake of the Woods, which I would now read afresh with a greater level of understanding and, I hope, a little more insight.

Score: 8/10

BUY IT NOWIf I Die in a Combat Zone (Harper Perennial Modern Classics)


Year 3 / Book 1: What the World Will Look Like When the Water Leaves Us

1) What the World Will Look Like When the Water Leaves Us by Laura van den Berg

First book of 2018 and it’s an excellent book of short stories from this American writer. My wife Katie bought me her more recent book of short stories about a year ago (Isle of Youth) which was fabulous, so I ordered this (her first book of stories) and her most recent novel (Find Me, which I’m yet to get to). This was not easy to get, as it’s not in print in the UK, I think – at least I couldn’t find it online in the UK, so this one winged its way from the US of A.

I really enjoyed it: there is a loose connecting theme of water (and water-based monsters) running through the stories, but there’s also huge variety as well. As with the best short stories (for me, anything by Lorrie Moore and Yiyun Li, or a Geoff Dyer episode), these involve and engage and stay with you. In fact, one of the early ones about a young woman raising her brother, working in a dead-end job, and the younger brother exploring a hole in the road is quite stunning, and incredibly memorable. Another, about a woman naturalist meeting a couple obsessed by the Loch Ness monster manages to be troubling and moving. And the title story, about a mother and daughter taking different paths as they grow apart, is evocative and believable.

In all, great stuff – amazing that this is van den Berg’s first set of stories and, while it doesn’t quite reach the high points of Isle of Youth for me, it’s still some of the best short story writing around. Lorrie Moore is the benchmark for me; these aren’t quite as well achieved, and they don’t have the same cutting edge of wit and humour that Moore often has, but they have a different mix of elements: they feel younger, darker and stranger than Moore’s stories. What they have in common is a sense of melancholia underlying things; marriages are ending, children are disowning their parents, and things are complicated and sad. A bit like real life then.

Highly recommended if you can get a copy. I’m looking forward to van den Berg’s first novel, which is sitting alongside Yiyun Li’s Kinder than Solitude. I have high hopes for both.

Score: 8/10

BUY IT NOW:What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us

Year 2 / Book 53: Home Fire

53) Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

A bonus book sneaking under the wire that I finished on New Year’s Eve. Looking back at the year’s reading, I can see that I’ve done better on gender split this year (28 male authored books, 25 female authored books) but well over half are crime, detective or police thrillers. So am aiming for a bit more non-fiction and literary fiction in year 3.

This book fits the bill of the latter, as it’s been heavily recommended in all the ‘end of year’ round-up lists of best books of 2017, and it’s easy to see why. It’s a riveting tale of three siblings (an elder sister and twin brother and sister) who are Muslims living in the UK (and also America). In different ways, they get embroiled in a whole range of political and personal issues and the two clash consistently. Not least because both sisters take a shine to Eamon (or Ayman) who happens to be the son of the new, first ever Muslim Home Secretary. Oh yes.

It’s very cleverly done, and builds to what seems like an inexorable and inevitable climax – I don’t want to give too much away; unfortunately, I’d read that it was a retelling of a classic Greek tragedy, and if you know anything about Greek tragedies then you know someone (possible everyone) is going to die. So I won’t go into too much detail in the plot; suffice to say that it feels incredibly current, live, challenging and insightful…but also has moments of great lyricism. A prescient and compelling book to end 2017 with, and one that accurately reflects our times. Highly recommended.

Score: 8.5/10


Year 2 / Book 52: Eleven Days

52) Eleven Days by Stav Sherez

Yay, book 52 – book a week for a year done with a few days to spare (and a couple of long train journeys to read on still). And a good one to hit the 52 mark on, as well. I read the first Carrigan and Miller book by Stav Sherez earlier in the year, A Dark Redemption, and really enjoyed it. So I was looking forward to reading the next two, and had kept them back in a kind of delayed reading gratification kind of way. This, the second in the series, is thoroughly excellent as well.

It is set in London again, and revolves around the burning down of a convent in St Peter’s Square, killing ten nuns in the process. From there the plot expands and weaves in and out in lots of different trails and directions, with Carrigan and Miller’s instincts at times leading them in divergent paths. Those paths lead to a Catholic Church hiding things, Peruvian activism in the 1960s and 1970s, a dysfunctional upper-class London family, and an Eastern European drugs gang. When I write that down, I wonder quite how it works, but I think the variety is partly why: the reader is quite unsure which area is going to prove the one that holds the answers.

There are plenty of neat twists, nice detail, and interesting back story to get your teeth into, and it moves page-turningly along with gusto. Carrigan and Miller are as likeable as ever, and growing in depth and colour as the series moves along – there is a bit of standard ‘will they, won’t they’ about it, but largely their interplay is more interesting than that. The same is true of the book as a whole: there’s a lot of elements here which could be clichéd here in other hands, but Sherez keeps it fresh, dynamic and interesting. I can’t wait to read the third instalment in the series, and if you haven’t read these yet (and especially if you’re a Londoner), you should get cracking. Great stuff.

Score: 8.5/10

BUY IT NOW: Eleven Days (Carrigan & Miller Book 2)

Year 2 / Book 51: Resurrection Bay

51) Resurrection Bay by Emma Viskic

There are few ways left, one would think, of making a detective unique given how many crime thrillers there are around and how many with different quirks, tics and particular characteristics (jazz, drink, ex-wives, comedy partners, etc). Emma Viskic has hit on something new though with her main protagonist, Caleb Zelic (or at least new to me): in that he is deaf. Now, of course, that alone won’t make a great book or main character, but this isn’t a box-ticking exercise; instead, it’s one that grows our understanding of what being deaf or partially deaf must be like, as well as ‘using’ his ability to miss parts of sentences or misread things to help with the plot.

Caleb’s deafness aside, this is a rich thriller: rich in detail about the grimy side of Melbourne, rich in characters drawn with humour and empathy, rich with fear and tension, and rich on detail about everything from race to drug use. It’s extraordinary that this is Viskic’s debut, really, as it’s brilliantly put together with parts of it reading like a film script as we are dragged propulsively and viscerally through the situations that Caleb finds himself in: just about avoiding death on several occasions. Apparently, she learned Australian sign language herself to better understand the character’s abilities and limitations and to make the book feel more real: it worked. But so does her natural gift for character and dialogue.

This won almost every prize going for Australian crime and thriller writers, and it’s easy to see why. Not quite my favourite thriller of the year, but definitely up there and I’ll be looking out for the next book when it’s released in the UK next year.

Score: 8.5/10
BUY IT NOW: Resurrection Bay (Pushkin Vertigo)

Year 2 / Book 50: Defectors

50) Defectors by Joseph Kanon

This was another recommendation by Laura Wilson in the Guardian from her reliable crime fiction round-up. And she’s reliable because generally the books she recommends are on-the-money, and this is no exception. It revolves around a publisher (Simon) going to see his brother (Frank) who defected from the US to Russia some years before: ostensibly he is going to talk about publishing his story (which is being allowed by the KGB for propaganda purposes) but as you might expect he is soon helping him with something else entirely.

It’s not the most believable of tales, but it’s hugely enjoyable – and gives some light to what life for the defectors might have been like afterwards (though whether they all hung out in the same compound of dachas seems unlikely). Well-known defectors like Philby, Maclean and Burgess rub shoulders with fictional ones as the story deepens and becomes more complicated. It unspools nicely as the story takes us from Moscow’s churches and convents through to St Petersburg and dark waters off Estonia and Finland.

The ending is preposterous, and the traps and double (triple?) crosses become a bit tiresome after a while, but it’s entertaining stuff and zips past at a fast rate as it ratchets up towards the denouement. For lovers of KGB-type spy thrillers with a twist of Le Carre, this will do more than well enough on the commute or beach.

Score: 7/10

BUY IT NOW: Defectors

Year 2 / Book 49: The Long Drop

49) The Long Drop by Denise Mina

This has been recommended in lots of places as one of the best crime novels of the year, and I have to say it lives up to that billing. It has a cleverly structured plot that kind of unwinds slowly, gradually encompassing more characters and viewpoints, with the ground shifting underneath the reader’s feet. It concerns the strange and mercurial Peter Manuel and his connection (or not) to the killing of William Watt’s family; Watt himself may or may not be implicated in the murders. Both are entwined with larger criminal networks in Glasgow which are darker and more powerful than either.

The novel is at its best when Watt & Manuel are touring round the backstreet bars and dives of Glasgow, testing each other out, daring each other to drink, to tell and to give themselves away. They build up a one-night friendship or camerarderie which is so strained as to be tension-inducing, and feels constantly that it is on the verge of spirallingout of control and into the lives of others. The courtroom scenes that follow are almost as well-drawn, with the sense of spectacle clear to all.

Overall, this is top stuff: Glasgow has never felt darker and more dangerous, and all of the characters feel fully rounded, if largely unlikeable and untrustworthy.The plot almost feels secondary to the relationships and the swirling atmosphere of menace, but it pushes along nonetheless to a suitably grim finale. A fab read.

Score: 8/10
BUY IT NOW: The Long Drop

Year 2 / Book 46-48: Scandi thrillers x 3

Book reviews are running behind the reading at this point, but we are all set to hit a book a week for the year again, just about. I’m grouping these three together under ‘Icelandic / frozen North’ for obvious reasons…

46) The Shadow District by Arnaldur Indridason
I’ve read almost everything by Indridason in the past and enjoyed those with Erlendur as the protagonist especially. That series tailed off a bit for me from the earlier books, and The Shadow District is a completely new departure into the past, with a wartime / present-day time-jumping narrative and some new main detectives. It felt to me as a reader that Indridason is enjoying this much more and has his mojo back: it’s a clever plot revolving around crimes in Reykjavik in wartime when American soldiers were cavorting with young Icelandic girls. The characters are great too, particularly Konrad who is one of those people who has ‘retired’ but can’t really retire – but all come to life vividly and are well drawn and believable, even those back 70 years in time. There’s also a surprising amount of emotional heft and modern Icelandic history included here too. Although not quite up to the standard of those early dark Reykjavik novels, this looks to be a good series in the offing: I’ll be looking out for the next instalment.

Score: 7/10

BUY IT NOW: The Shadow District

47) Midnight Sun by Jo Nesbo
A bit similarly to Indridason, I feel that Nesbo’s books have tailed off in quality in the last couple. Still entertaining, but a bit over-complex and out-thinking themselves – and Harry Hole has sort of gone through being every detective cliche to feeling like he’s fresh again back to being a cliche. Anyway, I picked up the much slimmer Midnight Sun at Acton Central’s trusty community bookshelf, and I didn’t regret it. It has the urgency and pace of Nesbo’s earlier novels but also, like Indridason’s foray into the wartime, Nesbo seems to be relishing a totally new tale with new characters. It’s an involving story of a man drawn into drug dealing which gradually escalates until he is on the run from Oslo’s drug kingpin, The Fisherman (presumably he gets his hooks into you etc…). He heads north and that takes him to an isolated community, a strange religion, a cabin in the woods and (obvs) a beautiful woman. It’s a lovely sweep of a tale which carried me over the finish line of its deeply implausible ending. And you can knock it off in a couple of hours..which you certainly couldn’t say about The Thirst (the last Nesbo I ploughed through). Slight and ephemeral but a fun, filmic read nonetheless.

Score: 7/10
BUY IT NOW: Midnight Sun: Blood on Snow 2

48) Snare by Lilja Sigurdardottir
This was an impulsive Kindle download to add to the thrillers piling up (virtually) in the depths of my iPad. Anyway, a good cover and a seeming personal obsession with Icelandic crime led me to dive in and it was really worth it. The plot revolves around a woman (Sonja) who is a drug mule and her escalating attempts to free herself from the trade; alongside this, she is in a relationship with Agla who is herself embroiled in a scandal connected to Iceland’s financial collapse; finally, there is a customs official Bragi due to retire with a wife with Alzheimer’s being poorly treated in a care home. The three strands weave together effectively to the finale, and it’s high tempo, high tension stuff all the way. Sonja, in particular, is brilliantly portrayed and eminently believable, despite the less believable plot elements – I was completely on her side throughout. It’s a smart, sharp and sexy read, and I’m not in the slightest bit surprised that it’s been snapped up by a film production studio: I can completely imagine it on the big screen. But for now it works brilliantly as a fast-paced thriller to read. Recommended.

Score: 8/10
BUY IT NOW: Snare (Reykjavik Noir)

Year 2 / Book 45: Night School

45) Night School by Lee Child

There are times when only Jack Reacher will do. As the blurb on the back of the book says, “Men want to be him. Women want to be with him.” And who can argue? Probably the best-selling book hero putting aside that child-wizard, this is the 345th (estimate) book featuring the enigmatic, taciturn and charismatic Reacher. The books featuring him are the quintessential page-turners: short sentences, every chapter with a minor or major cliffhanger, characters you rapidly invest in and a plot that propels forward with increasing pace.

This was one of the more enjoyable of the recent bunch – set in Germany with a throwback to American influence and activities in Berlin, with a dash of international terrorism, and a few sprinklings of clandestine spy activity. Stir in a bit of love interest, and it’s all very satisfying and entertaining fare. Even comforting, in that loose ends are neatly tied up and the bad guys almost always get their karmic comeuppance.

Recently, I listened to a podcast episode from the series ‘In the Studio’, in which an interviewer sits in with an artist as they start to make or write their work. In this instance, the interviewer sat in with Lee Child as he started to write the next Jack Reacher book – I found it surprisingly interesting: the thought given to small words, to turns of phrase, the town names that evoke a certain feeling and so forth. Anyone thinking that the author just bangs these out on automatic would do well to have a listen. A lot of craft and thought and design goes into those clipped lines, and it was interesting to hear how personal thoughts and experiences inform the theme and story of the next book.

Of course, it is undemanding, but pretty reliable and this one felt very much like a return to form after the last couple. You could do worse than picking it up in a charity shop near you (where it will inevitably be) and escaping into the adventure, and putting yourself into the capable hands of Jack Reacher. He, and Lee Child, will see you right.

Score: 7/10

BUY IT NOW: Night School: (Jack Reacher 21)

Year 2 / Book 44: The Unquiet Dead

44) The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Khan

I intended this to be a light read, a bit of new police procedural writing to get me through the week. I was interested by the story being set in Canada (makes a nice change from the backstreets of London/an American city) and the writer and protagonist being Muslim which is, in short, fairly rare in the crime fiction genre. What I hadn’t been prepared for was the depth that this novel would have, and how affecting it would be; because it is not a light bit of standard crime, but a police story which circles and then becomes entwined with the story of Srebrenica and war crimes in the Balkans.

The plot revolves around the death of Christopher Drayton who we find out relatively early is actually a war criminal called Drazen Krstic, who committed atrocities in Srebrenica and surrounding towns against Bosnian Muslims. Esa Khattak, the main detective, is called in precisely because of his identity as a Muslim detective and his understanding of that community, something which isn’t immediately obvious to his sidekick / assistant Rachel Getty (in one of the few traditional police/crime-lit tropes, they have a bit of chemistry and tension between them). She is dealing with her own family disappearance, in this case her brother who has long since left the family home, which is an involving sub-plot.

As the book goes on, the plot becomes increasingly about what happened in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, and there are letters (based on real testimony) and details of survival and death (also based on real examples) which build both a detailed picture, but also an increasing sense of horror and emotion and an understanding of possible motivation, as well as questioning what ‘justice’ really looks like. If one looks at Khan’s biography, you can find she has a PhD in International Human Rights Law, with a specialisation in military intervention and war crimes in the Balkans. It is fair to say that this is the first police procedural I’ve read where the notes at the end contain testimony from the International Criminal Tribunal on Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague.

It is, as a result, a hugely powerful read. The plot becomes a little far-fetched as things progress (one too many coincidences, one too many changed names) but it is incredibly moving. What I was unprepared for was that, although this book was written in 2015, I only read it this past week: in which the verdict from the ICTY on Ratko Mladic was set to be announced.So it was that I found myself watching things I had just read as ‘fiction’ in the book featured in a report on Newsnight: a man who had pretended to be dead amongst hundreds of men being shot, in order to then escape through the woods; a school used as an execution centre, as buses pulled up to it; a Dutch UN compound becoming a safe haven for all too few. So yes, a good book, an involving story, and an emotional read. But much more importantly, a reminder and an education about things that happened less than 25 years ago.

Score: 8/10

BUY IT NOW: The Unquiet Dead (Detective Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty Mysteries)