No crime here

24 09 2016

Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith

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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

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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

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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





We are Sailing

21 08 2016

The Shadow-Line: A Confession by Joseph Conrad

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‘A sudden passion of anxious impatience rushed through my veins and gave me such a sense of the intensity of existence as I have never felt before or since.’ Written in 1915, The Shadow-Line is based upon events and experiences from twenty-seven years earlier to which Conrad returned obsessively in his fiction. A young sea captain’s first command brings with it a succession of crises: his sea is becalmed, the crew laid low by fever, and his deranged first mate is convinced that the ship is haunted by the malignant spirit of a previous captain. This is indeed a work full of ‘sudden passions’, in which Conrad is able to show how the full intensity of existence can be experienced by the man who, in the words of the older Captain Giles, is prepared to ‘stand up to his bad luck, to his mistakes, to his conscience’. A subtle and penetrating analysis of the nature of manhood, The Shadow-Line investigates varieties of masculinity and desire in a subtext that counterpoints the tale’s seemingly conventional surface.

Classic Conrad this and the storytelling doesn’t disappoint. Superbly written as ever and with a really powerful depiction of life at sea this really is very good indeed.

 

four stars





Carving it up

14 08 2016

Number 11 by Jonathan Coe

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A novel about the hundreds of tiny connections between the public and private worlds and how they affect us all. It’s about the legacy of war and the end of innocence. It’s about how comedy and politics are battling it out and comedy might have won. It’s about how 140 characters can make fools of us all. It’s about living in a city where bankers need cinemas in their basements and others need food banks down the street. It is Jonathan Coe doing what he does best — showing us how we live now. “Coe is among the handful of novelists who can tell us something about the temper of our times”. (Observer).

Not his best but this sort of sequel to the brilliant ‘What a Carve Up’ is still pretty good. The interconnectedness of it all is perhaps stretched too far but it is good fun with lots of satirical critique of the way we are plus some added and surprising spookiness.

stars-3-5





Istanbul (not Constantinople)

7 08 2016

Stamboul Train by Graham Greene

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Carleton Myatt meets Coral Musker, a naïve English chorus girl, aboard the Orient Express as it heads across Europe to Constantinople. As their relationship develops, they find themselves caught up in the fates of the other passengers and drawn into a web of espionage, murder and lies…

An entertaining entertainment from Greene which I had somehow overlooked before. Espionage, murder and lies indeed. Good stuff.

stars-3-5.





An Alternative Axis

30 07 2016

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick

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America, fifteen years after the end of the Second World War. The winning Axis powers have divided their spoils: the Nazis control New York, while California is ruled by the Japanese. But between these two states – locked in a cold war – lies a neutal buffer zone in which legendary author Hawthorne Abendsen is rumoured to live. Abendsen lives in fear of his life for he has written a book in which World War Two was won by the Allies. . .

Despite the TV adaptation hype (I think the Amazon series is rather different from the book) this is well worth a read. The alternative reality is sketched out very credibly and with lot of rich detail. The alternative possibility to this – a different reality in which the Allies won the war – may or may not be real.

 

stars-3-5.

 

 








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