Ghostly writing

22 10 2016

The Ghost by Robert Harris


A body washes up on the deserted coastline of America’s most exclusive holiday retreat. But it’s no open-and-shut case of suicide. The death of Robert McAra is just the first piece of the jigsaw in an extraordinary plot that will shake the very foundations of international security.

For McAra was a man who knew too much. As ghostwriter to one of the most controversial men on the planet – Britain’s former prime minister, holed up in a remote ocean-front house to finish his memoirs – he stumbled across secrets which cost him his life.

When a new ghostwriter is sent out to rescue the project it could be the opportunity of a lifetime. Or the start of a deadly assignment propelled by deception and intrigue – from which there will be no escape…

It’s a great premise for a novel and the stories on offer to a ghostwriter to a former Prime Minister provide lots of opportunities for political intrigue as well as more deadly goings on. It’s a gripping read, as ever, from Robert Harris and highly recommended.

four stars

Monastical mayhem

15 10 2016

Dissolution by C J Sansom




It is 1537, a time of revolution that sees the greatest changes in England since 1066. Henry VIII has proclaimed himself Supreme Head of the Church. The country is waking up to savage new laws, rigged trials and the greatest network of informers ever seen. And under the orders of Thomas Cromwell, a team of commissioners is sent throughout the country to investigate the monasteries. There can only be one outcome: dissolution.

But on the Sussex coast, at the monastery of Scarnsea, events have spiralled out of control. Cromwell’s Commissioner, Robin Singleton, has been found dead, his head severed from his body. His horrific murder is accompanied by equally sinister acts of sacrilege.

Matthew Shardlake, lawyer and long-time supporter of Reform, has been sent by Cromwell to uncover the truth behind the dark happenings at Scarnsea. But investigation soon forces Shardlake to question everything that he hears, and everything that he intrinsically believes . . .

Have avoided this for a long time because the whole premise just seemed a bit unlikely but, having enjoyed Winter in Madrid, I thought I would give it a go. Anyway, it’s an intelligent and well-written and entertaining whodunnit with a strong Wolf Hall flavour and no worse for that. And there aren’t many books which carry an endorsement from The Tablet on the cover…


Nighty night

8 10 2016

The Night Manager by John le Carré


At the start of it all, Jonathan Pine is merely the night manager at a luxury hotel. But when a single attempt to pass on information to the British authorities – about an international businessman at the hotel with suspicious dealings – backfires terribly, and people close to Pine begin to die, he commits himself to a battle against powerful forces he cannot begin to imagine.

In a chilling tale of corrupt intelligence agencies, billion-dollar price tags and the truth of the brutal arms trade, John le Carré creates a claustrophobic world in which no one can be trusted.

There are quite a few differences to the recent Hiddleston-led TV adaptation but the basic plot is pretty similar and the whole tale is equally gripping. Entertaining stuff.

four stars

Middle class hero

1 10 2016

Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis



The word “Babbitt” entered the English language as a “person and especially a business or professional man who conforms unthinkingly to prevailing middle-class standards”. If Lewis’s first widely acclaimed novel, Main Street, sought to shatter early-20th-century romanticizations of small-town America, his next work, Babbitt, turned a critical eye towards the celebrated midsize industrial city, home to the enterprising American businessman. After the social instability and sharp economic depression that emerged in the wake of World War I, many Americans in the 1920s saw business and city growth as foundations for stability. The civic boosters and self-made men of the middle-class represented particularly American depictions of success, at a time when the promotion of the American identity was crucial in the face of rising fears of communism. At the same time, growing Midwestern cities, usually associated with mass production and the emergence of a consumer society, were also celebrated emblems of American progress. George F. Babbitt, the novel’s main character, is described by the 1930 Nobel Prize committee as “the ideal of an American popular hero of the middle-class. The relativity of business morals as well as private rules of conduct is for him an accepted article of faith, and without hesitation he considers it God’s purpose that man should work, increase his income, and enjoy modern improvements.”

A striking satire of American culture, society, and behaviour in the 1920s it comprehensively chronicles the vacuity of middle-class American life and the pressure to conform. At some length, it has to be said. Published in 1922 and a bestseller at the time it apparently contributed significantly to the decision to award Lewis the Nobel Prize for literature in 1930.



No crime here

24 09 2016

Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith


It is set in the Soviet Union and in the year 1953; Stalin’s reign of terror is at its height, and those who stand up against the might of the state vanish into the labour camps – or vanish altogether. With this background, it is an audacious move on Tom Rob Smith’s part to put his hero right at the heart of this hideous regime, as an officer in no less than the brutal Ministry State Security.

Leo Demidov is, basically, an instrument of the state — by no means a villain, but one who tries to look not too closely into the repressive work he does. His superiors remind him that there is no crime in Soviet Union, and he is somehow able to maintain its fiction in his mind even as he tracks down and punishes the miscreants. The body of a young boy is found on railway tracks in Moscow, and Demidov is quickly informed that there is nothing to the case. He quickly realises that something unpleasant is being covered over here, but is forced to obey his orders. However, things begin to quickly unravel, and this ex-hero of state suddenly finds himself in disgrace, exiled with his wife Raisa to a town in the Ural Mountains. And things will get worse for him — not only the murder of another child, but even the life and safety of his wife.

Terrific debut thriller and thoroughly gripping throughout. Disturbing and inspired by a real child killer in the Soviet Union who escaped capture because the system protected him the novel captures the nightmare of society at the end of the Stalin era.

four stars

To the ends of the earth

17 09 2016

Explorers of the New Century by Magnus Mills


It is the beginning of the century, and two teams of explorers are racing across a cold, windswept, deserted land to reach the furthest point from civilisation. It is, they find, ‘an awfully long way’. Johns and his men take the western route, along a rocky scree, gossiping, bickering and grumbling as they go. Meanwhile, Tostig’s men make their way along the dry riverbed in the east – they are fewer, with just five men and ten mules, and better organised than their rivals. But with Johns’ team keeping apace in the distance, the race is on to reach the Agreed Furthest Point …

As precise and strange as Mills’ other outstanding novels this novel is a really dark, funny and deeply disturbing read. The distinctively direct narrative works perfectly and builds towards a striking conclusion.

4.5 stars

I don’t like to be beside the seaside

10 09 2016

Death and the Seaside by Alison Moore



With an abandoned degree behind her and a thirtieth birthday approaching, amateur writer Bonnie Falls moves out of her parents’ home into a nearby flat. Her landlady, Sylvia Slythe, takes an interest in Bonnie, encouraging her to finish one of her stories, in which a young woman moves to the seaside, where she comes under strange influences. As summer approaches, Sylvia suggests to Bonnie that, as neither of them has anyone else to go on holiday with, they should go away together – to the seaside, perhaps.

Brilliantly written and beautifully paced this is an outstanding and compelling novel. It’s subtle, clever and deeply disturbing. Highly recommended.

4.5 stars

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