Books Read in 2015 19. The Swimmer – Joakim Zander (contains spoilers.)

Genre: Spy Fiction

Narrative Style: Third person from various perspectives interspersed with a first person narrative which details the past.

Rating: 3/520660867

Published: 2014

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Klara Walden doesn’t suspect what she might be getting into when her ex boyfriend, Mahmoud Shammosh, gets in touch with her. Suddenly, she is in the depth of a political scandal that people are willing to do murder over and she is fighting for her life. On the other side of the world, a retired spy tells his story, hoping that he will never have to involve himself in Klara’s life. 

I enjoyed the start of this book quite a lot. It was pacy and the chapters from different points of view kept me guessing as to what was happening. There were hints about torture, terrorism and government cover ups, all of which seemed interesting. I couldn’t quite work out how the first person narrative would join with the present day scenario but it was clear that they would link up.

For me, the narrative started to disappoint when Mahmoud was shot. Not that this didn’t fit with the type of story but he was one of the more interesting characters in the novel and I felt that the story struggled a bit without him. (He had just revealed to Klara that he was actually homosexual. He was then killed off almost immediately as if there was no longer any space in the narrative for him now that he didn’t comply with the masculine presumption of such a genre.) Klara then had to continue on her own and she suddenly becomes this amazing super spy, following leads and avoiding the authorities. This is especially unlikely as it is her stupidity in trusting another ex that brings the authorities down on them and causes Mahmoud’s murder.

I haven’t read much spy fiction but what I have read always seem to have these moments of naivety that bring the authorities and those on the run into conflict. I can see why this is necessary but find it a little irritating as it means the characters swing between naivety and guile in a way that is less than convincing.

The end of this novel was also unconvincing. I felt that the storylines were building up to an almighty climax but in the end it was more of a damp squib. The spy – Klara’s father – saves her life and so is no longer useful in narrative terms so he is killed off. George – who has been kidnapped by the bad guys as he is able to speak Swedish – suddenly manages to escape and is also involved in saving Klara. I was never particularly convinced by this narrative strand but his steering of a boat in a terrible storm to just the right island stretched my disbelief to the very limit. After all this, Klara decides not to reveal the information but to keep it secret. Again, I understand the reasons for this but it still seemed desperately disappointing.

All in all, I think this is a genre I am going to avoid in the future for much the same reasons that I don’t watch these sort of films. The action moves the story and I have to admit, I prefer things that are character driven. I have trouble suspending my disbelief and I felt I would have liked more psychological investigation. It was’t a terrible book just ultimately not for me.

 

Books Read in 2015 – 18. Saints of the Shadow Bible – Ian Rankin

Genrre: Detective, Police procedural

Narrative Style: Third Person from various points of view21283302

Rating 5/5

Published: 2013

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Due to a change in the double jeopardy law, an old case is being re-opened. An old case that involves Rebus’ old colleagues. There is suspicion of wrong-doing and they all swore an oath that they wouldn’t tell. Rebus finds himself caught between his old workmates and Malcolm Fox from the Complaints who is determined to get to the truth. 

I must admit, I didn’t love the first of the Rebus in retirement books, Standing in another man’s grave. It wasn’t terrible but it didn’t inspire me to read this one as soon as it came out. Finally, I gave in and bought it with my birthday Amazon voucher in November. It was so much better, I was sorry I hadn’t read it sooner.

I haven’t read any of The Complaints books but Fox has featured – albeit on the periphery – in the Rebus novels before so I was aware of him. He was an excellent foil for Rebus – a rule follower and a reformed alcoholic, he showed up Rebus’ faults in all their glory. Neither man really trusts the other but they manage to create a successful working relationship all the same. Giving a little of Fox’s past, Rankin shows how similar the men really are and how they have attempted to solve the similar problems that life has thrown at them in different ways. I would certainly be tempted to read some of the Fox novels although I’m not sure how well he would work as a lead character without the alternative of Rebus as relief from his uptightness.

The past and the future well and truly crash in this novel as Rankin shows the difference between policing then and policing now. It goes some way to show how Rebus has developed his own moral code and although he doesn’t always follow the rules, the reader is generally on his side because he isn’t just wantonly corrupt. There is a line drawn between him and the other Saints being investigated although it isn’t always clear exactly where it is. Rankin shows how easy it is for power to corrupt and how dangerous it is when anyone takes the law into their own hands but he does not make simple moral statements. He shows the complexity of any moral decision.

As ever, the twists and turns of the plot and main plot are not easy to unravel and keep you turning the pages. Rankin is a master at giving just enough to keep you curious but not quite enough to work it out fully. A real pager turner, I couldn’t put it down.

 

Books Read in 2015 – 16. Breakfast of Champions – Kurt Vonnegut.

Genre: Satire, Metafiction, Science Fiction

Narrative Style: Third person but with interjections by the character of the author. 

Rating: 4/5

Published: 1973

Synopsis: Science Fiction writer, Kilgore Trout, is invited to an arts festival, much to his horror. Little does he realise exactly what events he will cause when he gives the already unbalanced Dwayne Hoover one of his books to read. The book opens with the idea of the catalytic nature of their meeting and then traces their respective journeys to this point. 

This is probably more about science fiction then it is science fiction as the setting is earth in the seventies. However, there are many descriptions of Trout’s books and stories and there is also a commentary on the place of science fiction as a literary genre (e.g. right at the bottom of the cultural heap) and also on the way science fiction should be read. Hoover speed reads one of Trout’s novels and comes to believe that he is the only man on earth with free will and everyone else is a robot. This causes him to go on a violent rampage where he injures Trout, his girlfriend and his son.

The journeys of both Hoover and Trout, up to this point, are exciting and weird in the way that only Vonnegut’s writing is weird. Hoover suffers from echolalia and hallucinates that the ground is melting while Trout cannot remember who he is talking to and is fascinated by the names on the sides of trucks which seem to make no sense to him. They are joined at the Arts festival by the character of Kurt Vonnegut who wears dark glasses and hides in the shadows so as not to unsettle his creations. This allows Vonnegut (the author) to play with the idea of author as the God of his novels. This is meta-fiction as its best with interesting ideas about writing , authorship and characterisation.

The best – and funniest – part of this novel is undoubtedly the tone and style. The novel is a bit like an idiot’s guide to Earth and so things that are obvious are explained as if they are not. Some of the explanations are hilarious and also send up American culture at that time. There is a strong satirical tone throughout. Very enjoyable.

Books read in 2015 – 11. Shutter Island – Dennis Lehane (Contains Spoilers)

Genre: Crime, Madness

Narrative Style: Third person51LCaxGm-UL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

Rating: 5/5

Published: 2004

Format:Paperback

Synopsis: Teddy Daniels has arrived on Shutter Island with his partner to investigate the disappearance of one of the patients. From the very beginning, things don’t seem quite right to Teddy who already has suspicions about what goes on at the hospital. Things are definitely not as they seem but is it Teddy who is delusional or the hospital that is keeping secrets from him.

I had already seen the film of Shutter Island but it was so affecting that when I realised that it was based on a novel, I was excited to read it even though I knew what the ending was. I do wish that I could have read it blind but I suppose it would be similar to my feelings at the end of the film. Watching the film, I was completely taken in by Teddy and was absolutely shocked when it turns out that he is the lost patient. Reading the book, I was not taken in in the same way but there was a new delight to be had; spotting the clues that Lehane gives to the reader about the true nature of Teddy’s character.

The style of writing was almost typical crime writing with a certain detachment from the subject matter. And at first, Teddy seems like a typical crime fighter – all macho, having seen things in the war that no one should see. However, as the novel progresses, he becomes both more paranoid and more emotional. He starts to lose his grip on reality. If you were reading this without knowledge of the film then it would be perfectly easy to be led along by his decline – to believe that he has stumbled across some great conspiracy. Lehane makes us believe in Teddy that much. Having seen the film, I felt I was a bit less involved than I might have been but this is in no way Lehane’s fault.

The ending is just as affecting even though I knew what was coming. Teddy slowly comes to the realisation that he is the one who has killed his wife and his is the lost patient. The hospital have taken a huge risk – taking him off his medication – in order to try and force him to see the truth. If Teddy cannot face reality then he will be lobotomized – something his doctors do not want. The flicker of hope that the reader feels when Teddy acknowledges his crime is quickly extinguished when in the final chapter, he is back in his delusion and he can see the porters coming to take him away.

The ending of the novel raises the question of how to deal with patients like Teddy. Even though he killed his wife, I felt a great deal of sympathy for him. His elaborate fantasy was due to his inability to accept what he had done, not only to his wife but what he allowed to happen to his children as well. His sense of self was destroyed by the crime. So he could spend the rest of his life in his delusion or he could be lobotomised. Neither option offers much hope.

Books Read in 2015 – 9. How to Fall in Love by Cecelia Ahern

eclecticreader15

Genre: Romance, Chick-lit

Narrative Style: First person, chronological

18161265Rating 3/5

Published: 2013

Format: Kindle

Reading Challenges: Eclectic Reading Challenge – Contemporary Romance

Synopsis: Christine Rose fails to stop a suicidal man from shooting himself which sends her into a tailspin of self-doubt and causes her to end her own marriage. When she sees Adam about to jump off the Ha’Penny Bridge then she knows she has to stop him. 

I thought I’d get this genre out of the way early. As I have said before, I am not a fan of romantic literature. I keep hoping I will find a romance writer I will actually love but it seems it is not to be. I picked Cecelia Ahern because she has a lot of five-star reviews and I wanted to at least know what I was reading was a good example of the genre.

I have no doubt that this is the case, that Ahern is one of the better romance writers around but I still found it a chore to read. There were a number of reasons for this but the main one was there was never any doubt that Christine and Adam would end up together. Not for a moment did it seem that any of the “obstacles” in their way would actually derail the romance. There was no tension at all.

Secondly, I found the characters were all a bit like characters in a romantic movie rather than having any sort of reality. Christine was either ridiculously upbeat or a mess of tears. (This is the second novel I’ve read lately where the lead woman spends most of the time crying. Whatever happened to a strong female lead?) The other characters were just there for her to react to and had no life of their own. Adam’s turn around at the end was not convincing. It was very clearly a work of fiction. That might seem like a stupid thing to say but I felt I could never completely lose myself in Christine”s world because I didn’t believe it could exist.

However, for all my problems with the genre, this wasn’t badly written and I did want to see exactly how it would end so Ahern is clearly doing something right. I won’t be returning to read anymore though.

Books Read in 2015 0 8. Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys by Viv Albertine

Genre: Autobiography, Music

Narrative Style: First Person NarrationBlav494CIAA1lWx.jpg-large

Rating: 4/5

Published: 2014

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Viv Albertine used to be in The Slits. This charts her life before, during and after, looking specifically at the three things mentioned in the title. It is an honest and at times emotional journey through one woman’s life. 

I love The Slits. They are one of my favourite punk bands. So last year, for my birthday, my husband bought tickets to go and hear Viv Albertine read from Clothes, Clothes, Clothes… and then he bought the book for me. Albertine was entertaining and her life has certainly been interesting but I didn’t completely take to her. I felt similarly when I was reading the book. I’m not entirely sure why but I could never completely relate to her.

The book is written with humour and is self-depricating as if all the way through writing, Albertine couldn’t quite believe that anyone would want to read it. She begins with school days, moves through her parents divorce and her entrance into the punk scene then through the domesticity and illness that followed after up to the present day. I found my interest peaked and fell at various points in the book and sometimes I didn’t really want to pick it up at all.

It is best – perhaps obviously – when Albertine is talking about the punk scene and her experience with The Slits. Personal descriptions of the stars  of the scene – Rotten, McLaren, Thunders, Jones, to name but a few – are all entertaining and added to my understanding of the scene and what it was like for a woman at those times. I was less interested in what came after. I guess that makes me pretty shallow but I would happily have read more about those times and less about her family life.

Not that those times didn’t warrant describing. Albertine had early experience of the difficulties of IVF and then discovered she had cancer and her marriage broke down. All of which are described with an emotional honesty it is rare to find. I’m just not very interested in the long fight to have a baby. I have no children and at forty two, it is unlikely I will now. I wouldn’t really choose to read about these experiences if it weren’t for Albertine’s status as punk legend.

For me, my interest picked up again towards the end when Albertine starts to perform and record again despite her crippling anxiety about how good she was. It was rewarding to see her confidence build again and she finally seemed happy with her life.   There is no doubt that Albertine is a strong woman to have come through all she has and also to be able to be so open about what she perceives as her faults but I still felt at the end as if I hadn’t quite got it, as if I still couldn’t really understand her.

 

Books Read in 2015 – 5. A Room Swept White – Sophie Hannah

Genre: Chick-lit, Detective

Narrative Style; A mixture of first and third person with extracts from books and Unknownarticles. 

Rating: 2/5

Published: 2010

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Fliss Benson is sent a card with sixteen numbers on it. She has no idea what they mean. On the same day, she is put in charge of a documentary about miscarriages of justice – specifically women who are thought to have killed their children. Then one of the main focuses of the documentary, Helen Yardley, is found murdered and in her pocket is a card very like the one that Fliss received. 

The premise of this novel was intriguing and emotive. Women who are accused of killing their children often provoke extreme reactions in people and I was curious to see how the subject would be handled. Unfortunately, Hannah allows the narrative to be muddled by too many different narratives and ideas. At first, I thought that the novel would be about Sids and the likelihood of that happening in more than one child from the same family but Hannah throws in high levels of blood salt, babies that appear to have been shaken and babies that reacted adversely to immunisation. To me, this muddied whatever point she was trying to make (and in actual fact, I’m not sure what that point might have been) to the point of incomprehension.

Of course, for all this to work, there had to be an evil doctor. Judith Duffy has given evidence in a number of cases and in Helen Yardley’s case claims that it would be virtually impossible for two babies in the same family to have Sids. This was clearly based on the real life doctor who said that the chances were one in 73 million. Of course, as Ben Goldacre has pointed out, this is erroneous and Hannah does quite a good job of showing us why the doctor was wrong. At least, at the beginning. About half way through, she changes tack and we are meant to view Duffy with some sympathy. And we are also supposed to believe that she becomes friends with one of the women that she helped to jail. This stretched my disbelief to the very limit.

Perhaps the most annoying element of this novel was Fliss Benson. The only narrator to have annoyed me more is Ana from Fifty Shades of Grey. Fliss is a bundle of insecurities, always doubting herself and bursting into tears. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe that all female protagonists should be strong or good role models or anything as crass as that but she really was annoying. I wanted to slap her, I really did.

At the beginning of the novel, she is promoted to creative director of the company she works for for no readily apparent reason except that the old creative director Laurie Natrass has found a new job. It is as if Hannah couldn’t imagine a woman being successful except at the whim of a powerful man. Of course, Fliss is in love with Laurie despite the fact that he is exceptionally unloveable which causes a lot of mooning and moaning which I could really have done without.

The most successful elements were definitely the third person descriptions of the police investigation and I know I would have enjoyed this more if it had been a straightforward police procedural. And if I’d been convinced by the ending. In fact, I found the last third of the book really difficult to finish. I only did finish it because I wanted the closure even while I knew it was going to annoy me. It is a while since I’ve been so relieved to finish a book.

Books Read in 2014 – 2. Raising Steam – Terry Pratchett

Genre: Humorous fantasy

Narrative Style: Third person from a variety of points of view. The_front_cover_of_the_book_Raising_Steam_by_Terry_Pratchett

Rating: 4/5

Published: 2013

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: A new invention has arrived in Ankh Morpork and it quickly grabs everyone’s attention. Particularly those with anoraks and notebooks. The steam engine has arrived and is definitely hear to stay despite the efforts of those who wish to stop progress whatever its form. It falls to Moist Von Lipwig to try and keep the railway safe which means pleasing Lord Vetinari, nobody’s idea of an easy life. Moist will need all skills as a scoundrel and a few more besides to survive this adventure. 

This was a Christmas present from my husband. It felt like high time that I got round to reading it, having read all the others. Normally, Pratchett’s are purchased the minute they are released but I’m not a big fan of the other books with Moist Von Lipwig so I didn’t rush this time.

It was so long that I’d forgotten what a pleasure it always is to read a Discworld novel. Especially one with such good subject matter. There is no doubt (in my mind, anyway) that there is something fascinating about the steam engine and something elegant that more modern trains just cannot compete with. Pratchett captures this perfectly in his descriptions of Iron Girder and of her creator’s love for her. Simnel, the engineer with the flat cap and the Northern accent, is one of Pratchett’s better recent creations and was totally believable.

Of course, this isn’t just a novel about steam and the men who tinker with it. This is also a novel about discrimination, extremism and politics. Extreme members of the Dwarfish community have been knocking down the Clacks and are now attacking the train. While the low king is away, they take over and try to place their leader on the Stone of Scone. Pratchett is at his best when he writes of such subjects. There is a strong moral at the heart of this novel but it is never preachy. At the very heart of it is a message of tolerance which is impossible to argue with.

It is less successful, I think, when dealing with the gender issues in the Dwarfish community. Dwarfs do not reveal their sex normally but many were starting to break with the tradition and near the end of the novel, the Low King reveals she is in fact a queen and not only that but about to become a mother. I’m not sure what it is about this that rankled but I just didn’t find it convincing.

As for Moist Von Lipwig, he still remains one of my least favourite Pratchett characters but there was so much other stuff going on that he didn’t annoy me as much as he has  done before. The pace is fast with exciting train rides, battles and action aplenty. I could have happily continued reading.

 

Books Read in 2015. 1. The Trinity Six – Charles Cumming

Genre: Spy Thriller

Narrative Style: Third Person, Largely chronologicalUnknown

Rating: 3/5

Published: 2011

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Sam Gaddis is an academic desperately in need of some cash. When his old friend, Charlotte says she may be about to break a story on the sixth Cambridge spy, he is immediately interested. It could be the scoop of both their careers and bring in some much needed money. When Charlotte dies of a heart attack, it is left to Sam to continue the investigation that she has begun. 

This was a new genre for me. Apart from James Bond, I’ve not even seen many spy films. So I was unsure what to expect. I thought it would be an interesting subject and a thrilling one. If such a sixth member was suddenly revealed to the public, the scandal would be huge as would the rewards of any journalist brave enough to do it.

It certainly hits the ground running. Cumming drops the reader into the middle of Charlotte’s story as Gaddis is told the story of a 76 year old, Edward Crane, whose death was faked in 1992 – all members of the hospital team were paid off by MI6. Crane it transpires is the sixth member that the government so want to keep quiet. Gaddis immediately starts to do some research unaware that by merely entering the name into a search engine he is alerting the Government to what he is doing.

It isn’t long before Gaddis is in over his head. Although he isn’t the sort of man to let that stop him. His curiosity and need for money drive him on even when the bodies start to pile up. Gaddis swings from painful naivety to incredible intelligence and back again in a way that wasn’t always successful. Above all, his arrogance and his determination to break the story at all costs alienated me from him. He was a hard man to empathise with.

I’m not an expert on the Cambridge spies but the facts given seemed right and the history and conspiracies certainly were plausible. Cumming slid between fact and fiction very easily and I never doubted the likelihood of events. It is certainly true that some governments will go to great lengths to keep the secrets of the past just that.

Finally, I enjoyed the thriller elements the most but found a lot of the characters, particularly the men, difficult to relate to. This may be a feature of the genre – if men weren’t arrogant and greedy, stories like this wouldn’t get very far – but it was a little alienating. That said, I would certainly not rule out reading more of this genre in the future. A spy story is always intriguing because it plays to our suspicion that we aren’t being told the whole story and perhaps we’d all quite like to be the person to blow it all apart.

Books Read in 2014 – 65. Maddaddam – Margaret Atwood

Genre: Dystopia

Narrative style: Third PersonUnknown

Rating 5/5

Published: 2013

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: This picks up the story at the end of both Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood with the earth decimated by a man-made plague. Toby and Ren have found Amanda, currently being held by two Painballers and are contemplating their next move when Jimmy appears. The action continues from this point. 

My expectations were high for this book. I had enjoyed the first two and really, I meant to read this one much earlier. I was half expecting to be disappointed. Could it possibly live up to my hopes?

Of course, this is Atwood we’re talking about. If anything this was better than The Year of the Flood. This was largely due to the Crakers being back on centre stage and Jimmy also. Although Jimmy wasn’t always an active participant, his character was inseparable from the mythology that he gives to the Crakers who treat his hat and watch as sacred objects. There is a lot of humour and also a lot of affection in Atwood’s creation of a religion for the Crakers. I particularly liked the way that they mistook the curse ‘Oh fuck’ for a cry to a deity who would come to help.

Zeb’s backstory added colour to the story of Crake and helped to explain events of the other two novels. It was enjoyable watching him switch identities and jobs, always managing to just get out of trouble. The love story between Toby and Zeb was also enjoyable. There was a refreshing lack of sentiment in their relationship. Toby was easy to identify with as she learned to put her insecurities to one side as the future of their group was much more important than any personal issues she may have.

I was a little troubled about the alliance between the humans and the pigoons at first. I wasn’t convinced that it wouldn’t just seem ridiculous but Atwood even managed to pull that off and they became more human than pig in the end.

The idea of teaching the Crakers to write and so be able to pass on their creation story to other generations was inspired. Atwood gives them childlike voices but never belittles them and their lack of guile. Perhaps this is what we would have to be like in order to actually save the current world.

The end of the novel is both sad and full of hope. There are deaths and battles but also births – babies that are half human and half Craker. The hope lies in the Crakers, their new mythology and the potential of the new species. It seems that the future is at least a little rosy.