Year 2 / Book 35: The Thirst

35) The Thirst by Jo Nesbo

I’m mid-way through a book on the Booker longlist and a business book based on scientific research…but there are times when you just have to reach for some Scandinavian crime: pure, instant escapism. Jo Nesbo is the publisher-acclaimed Scandi noir king, and a massive bestseller with his series of Harry Hole novels. This, The Thirst, is the latest and we are on classic, fairly familiar, serial killer territory.

It’s a bit bagggy in places: there’s always that feeling that as a writer becomes more famous, their editor(s) become less keen to tell them in no uncertain terms where they should cut, re-order and re-write. [This is known as the ‘Rowling effect’]. So The Thirst is pretty massive and sags as much in the middle as my bag did when carrying it round.  It is also, even by the standards of the genre, preposterous – vampirism, metal teeth, tattoos, blood, moles, 30 year crushes, buying bars, and a ridiculous ending are entertaining, but even as someone having read all his previous books, I struggled to suspend disbelief.

The characters fare a bit better – Harry is Harry, but Oleg (his step-son) is becoming more interesting, and Katrine Bratt is arguably the central figure for large chunks of the book, taking on the leadership role of the team and developing into someone a bit more three-dimensional. Others are a bit archetypal, but most are a bit more than plot-device cardboard.

It passed the time, and took my mind off work…so in that sense mission accomplished. And, especially as you get to the last 75 pages, the pace picks up and you want badly to know if your guesses (of which I had many) have been correct. However, it certainly wouldn’t be the place I would start: other earlier Hole novels are much more coherent, and some of the shorter non-Hole novels (Headhunters, The Son) are better, wittier and sharper. One to take on holiday – and leave behind.

Score: 5.5/10

BUY THIS:  The Thirst: Harry Hole 11


Year 2 / Book 34: A Beautiful Young Wife

34) A Beautiful Young Wife by Tommy Wieringa

Tommy Wieringa is a Dutch writer, and this slim novel(la) is the first I’ve read by him: I can’t remember where I ran across his name but he’s been on the Wish List for months, and I took the plunge a few weeks back. And I’m very glad I did. It’s a wonderful little read, and not a little heartbreaking. It is the short story told in clear, spare prose of a husband detailing the (spoiler alert) breakdown of his marriage and life, partly as the result of a child and his own imperfections.

Edward, the protagonist, is an eminent virologist and is very successful – he sees and falls in love with a beautiful blonde called Ruth who becomes his wife in short order. From the start, the cracks appear – from differences of opinion about science, morality and capitalism – and Edward soon slips off into mistakes and infidelity to prop up his insecure masculinity.

What follows is disconcerting, depressing and utterly believable in equal measure – and done with precision, but also an empathy and understanding for all the people involved. It is a short, honest narrative that spirals but also reveals a huge amount as it goes. And the translation is brilliant in its unobtrusiveness.

Highly recommended; I will be seeking out his other work.

Score: 9/10

BUY IT NOW:  A Beautiful Young Wife

Year 2 / Book 33: Missing, Presumed

33) Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner

This came highly recommended, although I think it was last year’s thriller / police procedural of choice (there’s now a follow-up on the market as well). For obvious reasons, I won’t go too much into the plot, but it starts with a young woman disappearing, and that is the thread that binds the novel together; those under suspicion include members of her family, friends, loved ones, the criminal fraternity, local odd-balls and so on. 

First things first, Steiner has a real talent for character and dialogue: I really like the main police character (Manon Bradshaw) and there are plenty of very funny moments of dialogue amongst her and the team, and in some of the situations she finds herself in (primarily as a result of the latest dating scenario). Other characters could be paper-thin caricatures in other hands, but felt human and rounded, even if sketched quickly or newly introduced. This aptitude for likeable characters and snappy, realistic dialogue is at the heart of what I really enjoyed in the book as a whole.

What I enjoyed less was the plot and narrative momentum. Steiner has publicly stated (it’s in the ‘Book Club’ notes at the back) that she wanted to find a middle ground between a more character-driven literary novel and  a more plot-driven police procedural. Unfortunately, for me, it rather started and ended with the latter (plot-driven) with the more character-driven elements in the centre of the book. This made it a bit uneven: the pace dropped noticeably, and there was no progress made (of even tangential nature) on the case for what felt like 100 pages or more. And though I like the characters, they weren’t so engaging that I was more interested in their love lives, family scenarios and broader economic challenges than finding out what actually happened. In a sense, I think Steiner was aiming at a wholly integrated character-and-plot combo, bringing something fresh to the police procedural / crime thriller. But instead, she starts off in fairly standard fashion, setting up expectations (at least in this reader) that are then not met….and nor is the character-driven part as interesting or engaging as it needs to be.

A personal opinion, obviously, and it has been extremely successful…so what do I know?! I like the main character enough to give the next one a go at some point, but I hope it holds together a bit more as a whole, instead of being less than the sum of its parts.

Score: 7/10

BUY IT NOW: Missing, Presumed (A Manon Bradshaw Thriller)

Year 2 / Book 32: The Fact of a Body

32) The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

In my search for new books to read and to expand my repertoire (left to my own devices, I might only be reading about Icelandic detectives with a drink problem), I’ve taken to listening to book podcasts, asking lots of friends for suggestions but also reading round-ups and prize lists. So summer is great: because every paper does those ‘here is what all the writers are suggesting you read’ articles; while some of them recommend their friends’ books and others go pretentious (“the only true accompaniment for the beach is re-reading Tolstoy and early Turgenev”), I watch out for books that pop up in several different people’s selections. And that is a roundabout way of telling you how I found myself reading about a legal intern’s memoir-cum-mystery, The Fact of A Body. [Weirdly, for a book in hardback with such strong recommendations, it is 99p on Kindle in their summer sale which I find bizarre…]

It is a fascinating and troubling read, combining the author’s experience interning at a firm that tries to help people get off death row with a gradually revealed exploration of her family’s own dysfunction and dark secrets. The case she is assigned to (child killer Ricky Langley) has echoes of what lies in the past of her own family: which is child abuse. Suffice to say that this isn’t a light read.

But it is a fascinating one – for me, actually, the story of her own family is the one that affected and stayed with me more. She evokes the fear she felt in a truly chilling way, and how her family chose to deal with it is, in its own way, equally chilling. It’s powerful stuff, brought to life by a truly talented writer.

The parallel tale, of Ricky Langley, starts off with similar power but rather fades as the novel goes on. There is no great insight or further revelation of substance, so for me this side of the story kind of trailed off just as the other grew in interest. By the end, the Langley case almost seems a prop for her to talk about her own demons and what she has been through: there’s nothing wrong with that, per se, but it does make the book slightly uneven as it goes on. 

That said, I’d really recommend it: it’s completely gripping from the start, and amongst the excellently structured narrative(s) there are many small moments on the way of enlightenment or insight. It challenged my thinking and assumptions, and it made me think deeply about how stories are used: in law, in families, in our lives. If a book can be wonderfully troubling and magnificently uncomfortable, this is it.

Score: 8/10

BUY IT NOW: The Fact of a Body: A Gripping True Crime Murder Investigation 

Year 2 / Book 31: Black Water Lilies

31) Black Water Lilies by Michel Bussi

This book came weighted with a lot of chat on the front cover: “Ends with one of the most reverberating shocks in modern fiction” says the Sunday Times. “A dazzling, unexpected and haunting masterpiece” says the Daily Mail. It’s a bit unfair, really, on both the book and the reader for it to be freighted with all this baggage up front: my expectations were raised, and I was hoping for one of the best thrillers I’d read this year. I didn’t get that: I did get an engaging set of characters, an interesting-ish (if preposterous) plot, and a twist that was mildly surprising.

It is set in Giverny and Monet and painting is the thread that ties the plot and characters together; Bussi is adept at drawing characters, even if some of them sail a little close to caricature, and the pages flip by rapidly. The plot is centred around a beautiful teacher, a reclusive old woman and a talented young girl artist – and several deaths. It is clever without being particularly likeable, which meant that even whilst enjoying the flights of fancy and the whimsy of characters or an aspect of the plot, I was a bit detached throughout. 

This may be the challenge of a novel based so evidently on a single clever idea – in retrospect it all feels constructed for the final payoff, rather than for the journey and engagement on the way there. Perhaps it would have been different without the signposting of the twist on the way in: which was a bit like someone going “watch out for the big reveal” as you walk into the cinema to see the Sixth Sense or The Crying Game. 

For dedicated Monet enthusiasts and thriller twist-lovers only. And only 99p on Kindle at the moment…

Score: 6/10

BUY IT NOW: Black Water Lilies: A stunning, twisty murder mystery

Year 2 / Book 30: White Sands

30) White Sands by Geoff Dyer

Geoff Dyer is recognised for being a bit uncategorisable, which makes describing his books a little tricky to say the least. Suffice to say that he is one of my favourite writers and that he walks along the tightrope between non-fiction and fiction in his books. This collection, his latest, is a series of vignettes or stories from his travels, notably the ‘land sculptures’ that can be found in the USA, but also Tahiti and locations in the UK. It is wonderful.

Wonderful for the mix of snarky, cutting humour (there’s a great rant about trustafarian rich kids at one point that ends with a valedictory “fuck you, motherfucker”), curiosity about the world, and poignant insights. Few writers can shift between these different perspectives and tones with such effortlessness or so unclunkily. He skewers the world brilliantly and regularly throughout the book: both in the sense of lining up things you wouldn’t expect next to each other, and in finding the exact right point to add pressure or focus.

The one that has particularly stayed with me is the trip to Tahiti which is a magnificent take-down of the corporatisation of beautiful islands, of the gap between myth and reality, and of his own descent mirroring other artists. It is also, at times, laugh-out loud funny. And also, at other times, bleakly insightful: “The devastating scale and frequency of my disappointment (‘ I am down, but not yet defeated,’ Gauguin snivel-boasted) was proof of how much I still expected and wanted from the world, of what high hopes I still had of it. When I am no longer capable of disappointment the romance will be gone: I may as well be dead.”

Later, when visiting philosopher’s houses in Los Angeles, he finds truth in others’ words: ” ‘Those with “something to fall back on” invariably fall back on it,’ writes David Mamet. ‘They intended to all along. That is why they provided themselves with it. But those with no alternative see the world differently.’) “

So if you want learning, if you want to ‘see’ places of the world you haven’t been to, if you want to laugh, if you want to cry, if you want to not know what is real, if you want to read one of Britain’s best writers, you should grab a copy of this. Or, if not this, then Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi or Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered.

Score: 9/10

BUY IT HERE: White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World

Year 2 / Book 29: The Ballad of Peckham Rye

29) The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark

My experience of Muriel Spark had been limited to the Prime of Miss Jean Brodie before this, so thanks to Gen for sending this little gem through. It’s a slim, sharp novel featuring a mischievous Scotsman, Dougal Douglas (or possibly Douglas Dougal) causing havoc amongst the lives of Peckham residents, most notably those at one of its local firms – the exciting-as-it-sounds textile firm of Meadows, Meade and Grindley. Imagine a sort of bleak, lifeless Mad Men office in South London in the 1950s and 60s and you are just about there.

It’s a fascinating read – Spark seems to be at once attempting to critique the drudgery of working class (and middle class) life in Peckham, to comment on the inter-relationship between arts and industry (Douglas is theoretically taken on to bridge the gap between the two), and also to set a devilish, supernatural tale in a simple London setting. It just about manages to hold all three strands together, woven by the caustic nature of the writing and the inexorable manoeuvring of the plot – by the end, there are deaths, injuries and cancelled weddings amongst much else.Crucially, of course, it is also very funny – there are some lovely incisive damning cuts of humour, and some fabulous dialogue amongst the participants (“My life’s so rotten”; “And it’s not even over yet” etc). And underneath the humour is a nagging sense of a dark, comic malevolence from Dougal Douglas who is a tricksy, whimsical but also nasty character who inflicts nothing but misery on everyone he comes across. The fact that he ‘escapes’ Peckham to move on to the next place tells its own story.

There’s not an indulgent word here, and I personally love Spark’s sharpness and wit; it won’t be to everyone’s taste, but if you want a short slice of fantastical-meets-kitchen sink drama, then you could do a lot worse: you’ll laugh a lot too.

Score: 8/10

BUY IT NOW;The Ballad of Peckham Rye (Penguin Modern Classics)

Year 2 / Book 28: Dead at Daybreak

28) Dead At Daybreak by Deon Meyer

Deon Meyer is a great South African thriller writer: one of those who consistently rises above the ‘genre’ of police procedural and standard crime thriller to create memorable, involving characters, complex plots and insight to the country they are based in. In this instance, Dead At Daybreak doesn’t feature his recurring Johannesburg police inspector, Benny Griessel, but the wonderfully dour and complicated Zed van Heerden in the central role.

It’s a gripping ride, combining the story of van Heerden’s spiral downwards which is where we start the book, with the unravelling and unwinding plot that begins with a will and escalates into a safe, a mystery and danger round every corner. On a purely ‘page-turning’ level, this is top stuff and confirms Meyer as one of my favourite crime writers in terms of plot, pacing and characterisation. 

What makes this book a notch higher still in my estimation is the brilliant intertwining of stories and the consistent and illuminating insight into South Africa that the novel gives – not in a shoe-horned making-a-political-statement kind of way, but just moments of reflection and passing comments that draw attention to both the ongoing effects of apartheid, the changes being wrought on society, and the individual journeys that is requiring people to go on.

In short, this might be more than a decade old, but it’s well worth a few hours of your time – and I’ll be continuing to go back through Meyer’s previous novels to dive into.

Score: 8.5/10

BUY IT NOW:  Dead at Daybreak

Year 2 / Book 27: Late Fragments

27) Late Fragments by Kate Gross

The subtitle to this book is ‘Everything I Want To Tell You (About This Magnificent Life)’, which gives you an indication of what it is about. It’s a memoir written by a high-flying woman who gets diagnosed with terminal colon cancer when she is 34 and who dies two years later: the subtitle is aimed at her young twin boys who she is leaving behind along with her husband. More than that, the book is really an attempt to cram everything she has learned and feels and is going through into words and pages – and to demonstrate there is meaning in the life she has lived.

Which, of course, there is – Kate Gross was a leading civil servant in Tony Blair’s government and went on to be the founding CEO of his Africa Governance Initiative, helping fledgling governments like Rwanda set up the infrastructure they needed. She was clearly ambitious and this shines through in the book, although she grows more aware post-diagnosis of the double-edged sword of that ambition: forgetting to pay attention to friends and occasionally family, but more noticeably to the things she loves doing. The lines that stand out to me from the book are when she says that sometimes our younger version of ourselves knows best; as her time draws to a close, she returns to first loves: swimming, writing, time with friends.

She clearly loves writing and literature and that flows through the book: at times, even, it feels like she is trying to get too much in – an allusion, a literary quote, a reference – but that’s entirely forgivable; would we not all do the same, knowing it’s the only book we will write? It’s a minor quibble in a book that has plenty of poignant moments and learning that resonates. Having been the husband to a wife diagnosed with cancer, I was particularly struck by her concept of the ‘spiral’ – which is about how the close family & a few friends support the individual at the centre, but then they need support from the next circle of friends, and so on. Practical support for the people around the person suffering from the illness can sometimes be the best thing to do.

This isn’t a cancer memoir as such; there’s little medical detail or jargon or information about the treatment she goes through. What there is, and what I was left with after reading it, is a passionate and urgent call to retain our wonder for the world, for the things and the people we love, and to pursue those passions with commitment and eyes open. There are worse things to get from reading a book.

Score: 7/10

BUY IT HERE; Late Fragments: Everything I Want to Tell You (About This Magnificent Life)

Year 2 / Book 26: Hillbilly Elegy

26) Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy is a memoir written by someone from a poor white family in the middle of America, who ‘got out’ and made a success of themselves (going to a prestigious university and ending up at a venture capital firm. It became a bestseller in the US and has been widely viewed as ‘explaining’ why Trump won the election, or at least detailing the conditions and factors behind that political movement. I’m not sure it does that (I’d suggest reading the magnificent The Unwinding for a comprehensive look at what is happening in America and why Trump has risen to power), but it is a well-written, compelling and articulate view into people’s lives that often remain undocumented and little understood.

The content is shocking in places: the levels of violence, domestic conflict, alcoholism and drug use combine into a potent mix which only requires a spark to set light to.  Families are dysfunctional and in a state of constant reinvention and uncertainty: new partners arrive and leave in the book with troubling regularity. And underpinning both is the decline of more traditional industrial jobs and the associated lack of opportunity.

But Vance also talks continually about the hillbilly culture and code – in which fierce loyalty mixes with an equally fierce mistrust of authorities (including politicians) – and which he dates back to much earlier times and generations. He also notes how this is changing between generations: “Not all of the white working class struggles. I knew even as a child that there were two separate sets of mores and social pressures. My grandparents embodied one type: old-fashioned, quietly faithful, self-reliant, hardworking. My mother and, increasingly, the entire neighborhood embodied another: consumerist, isolated, angry, distrustful.”

There is little clear reasoning given as to why he makes it while others don’t, beyond a few swipes at others’ laziness – views that aren’t surprising given his experience and his political mentors (David Frum, Peter Thiel etc). More clear is that his grandmother Mamaw, along with his sister Lindsey, gave him the consistency and solidity that was hugely lacking elsewhere. And even his mother, plagued by addictions and terrible choices, places a strong emphasis on education and learning.  It is wise, perhaps, for Vance not to draw much wider lessons from his own experience – it is, after all, just one experience amongst many; and, as the saying goes, data beats opinion every time.

For me, the most insightful and affecting part of the book was towards the end in which Vance realised not only the class divide he was having to bridge in these new social networks (there is an interesting sidebar on social capital, networks and careers here) but also that he hadn’t left his past behind. Although he was physically and financially and career-wise in a completely different sphere, he was (and probably is) stil carrying some of the psychological baggage from his upbringing in all its chaos and persistent anxiety. In this it reminded me slightly of Lynsey Hanley’s excellent book Estates in which she details not only the physical walls (of the estate) that have to be scaled to move out and on, but also the psychological walls in people’s minds that last much longer and are arguably more difficult to climb over.

So don’t read it for an explanation of the Trump phenomenon, but do read it for a searing insight into the reality of white working class lives in the middle of America…and to question, as I have been doing, how these problems can possibly be tackled: which feels, as with the changes to hillbilly culture, like it will take generations to transform.

Score: 8/10

BUY IT NOW: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis