Tuesday 6 December 2011

Portobello by Ruth Rendell

Ruth Rendell writes under her own name and as Barbara Vine.  Her first novel featured Inspector Wexford.  Since then there have been upwards of 20 books in which he is the main character. These are police procedurals.  The Barbara Vine books are less about murder than about accidental death and the pressures of society.

Her other books, and this is one of them, tend to be loosely described as psychological crime novels, often with socially disadvantaged characters.  It has a quiet feel to it and is possibly not as dark and creepy as some of her books,  but the characters and their odd assortment of psychological idiosyncrasies and flaws are totally absorbing.  She has a particular gift in being able to make the commonplace seem menacing.  In one way you feel you know people like them, and yet at the same time they are extraordinary.

The whole is set, as might be gathered from the title, in and around Portobello Road.  Although they appear to have nothing to do with each other, the characters' lives weave in and out of each other's in unexpected and apparently random ways.  Above all, for me, it brings the area to life:
"The Portobello has a rich personality, vibrant, brilliant in colour, noisy with graffiti that approach art, bizarre and splendid. an indefinable edge to it adds a spice of danger."
  Available from Amazon UK or from Amazon.com

Thursday 6 October 2011

Quietly in Their Sleep by Donna Leon

Donna Leon is an author new to me.  I was looking for something light and easy to read and it was coincidental that the book was set in Italy, in Venice. It couldn't be more different from A Thousand Days in Venice, apart from the setting of course, but even that took on a different view.

I was dismayed at first to read so many negative reviews on Amazon (UK) but that turned out to be because it has been republished with a new title, the US title.  Previously it was called "The Death of Faith".  People were understandably annoyed that they had bought what they thought was a new book only to discover they had already read it.

I enjoyed the book.  It is one of a number of books in the series featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti. The characters of Brunetti himself, his colleagues, and of his family were appealing to me.  It is quite a relief to read about a policeman who isn't an alcoholic or has a failing marriage, or any other major problem in his life.

There are a couple of big issues brought into the plot, one of which, paedophile priests, may have been the reason for the re-issue now that it's even more consistently in the news.  The other issue concerns Opus Dei and the power of the Roman Catholic Church.  Both I feel to be rather too deep for this book and sit uncomfortably in an otherwise lighter book.  They aren't really examined or addressed to any extent and I felt that they didn't quite mesh together or with the rest of the plot.

You are constantly aware of the setting in Venice with a strong sense of the city and of Venetian society.

Quietly in Their Sleep is available from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
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Thursday 29 September 2011

The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna

I chose this book purely and simply because I know a young girl who came from Sierra Leone to study in England while her parents stayed behind to survive the horrors of civil war as well as they could.

Saying that, I must point out that Sierra Leone isn't mentioned anywhere in the book but I think it's accepted that it is indeed set in Sierra Leone both during and after those dreadful times.  It tells the story of three men whose lives become three strands which touch and cross to form a complex web: Kai, a Sierra Leonean surgeon; Elias, the retired dean of the university who is dying at the hospital; and Adrian, a young British psychologist who is escaping his life in England.

At first I found it hard to keep track of the three different points of view all of which darted from present to past and back again.  It often took me a few moments to work out where I was, and when.  Before long, though, I was totally absorbed and found it a compelling read.  I kept wanting to pick up the book when I should have been doing other things.

It's not the most comfortable of reads, it does make you sit back and think, so if you're looking for a light page-turner this is not it.  However it does give you insight not only into ordinary life in western Africa, but also a clear picture of a country torn apart by war and an idea of what those terrible times must have been like.

More than that, it raises issues that are worth considering, whether or not you agree with them.  The first of these is whether all the western organisations which flood into developing countries do any good and whether in fact the individuals are there for their own benefit rather than the people they profess to help.  Do these NGOs understand the way of life in the countries where they are trying to help as they should or are they approaching with pre-conceived western values?  Second is the matter of post traumatic stress disorder, and whether it's always necessary to pathologize what is a natural reaction.  A vast percentage of the Sierra Leone was affected by the war but is it a psychosis or is it life?

There is a really interesting interview with Aminatta Forna on The Interview Online. It really is well worth listening to it.

The Memory of Love is available at Amazon.com and at Amazon.co.uk
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Wednesday 14 September 2011

Cambridge Blue by Alison Bruce

A Cambridge Blue is normally an award for sporting excellence given to a member of the University of Cambridge in England.  In this case, it means a book that is set in Cambridge and its cover is blue. Or green.  Unless I am missing something, I can see no reason for the title.

The story is a police procedural or would be except that the young and too-good-to-be-true (brilliant, good-looking, caring) detective paid scant attention to police procedures.  I know this is fiction but there is a limit beyond which the story loses credibility.  He is so "nice" that I disliked him almost as much as the "nasty" detective.

I found the plot interesting enough but the ending seemed rushed and contrived.  I always dislike lengthy explanations to find out "whodunit"

Alison Bruce very clearly has an excellent knowledge of Cambridge and you do get an overall idea of the place but some atmosphere is missing.  Someone, somewhere, described it as being like Cambridge-by-numbers.  It might be a book you would read after you've visited, to bring back memories.

Buy Cambridge Blue at Amazon.co.uk or at Amazon.com

Wednesday 7 September 2011

The Joys of My Life by Alys Clare

From the back of the book I read: "Adroitly weaving medieval history into a rousing and mystical tale", and I was interested.  Elsewhere on the cover it mentioned Chartres, the Ile d'Oléron and Richard the Lionheart and that finished the process of capturing my imagination.

This was yet another cover with a black background - there seem so many at the moment.  A robed figure, maybe a monk, a labyrinth, maybe the one at Chartres.

It became obvious after a while that the book was one of a series with a number of references to things that had happened to the characters in the past.  It wasn't a major problem because the book stands relatively well on its own but I'm not sure how you'd feel going back to read earlier books.  In fact it is the twelfth and final book in the Hawkenlye Mystery series and it finishes with a fair amount of tidying up of loose ends.

The story started at the siege of Châlus Castle, not far from Limoges, where Richard the Lionheart was fatally wounded.  From there we are taken to Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine who wants a chapel built in honour of her son, Richard, we are introduced to the main characters, and the mystery unfolds.  In all honesty there wasn't much of a mystery so you could hardly describe the book as full of suspense.  The magical or mystical elements were over-played for my taste.

Nor did the characters really come to life for me.  They all seemed too good to be true - or evil.  Even the hero, Josse d'Aquin, didn't feel like a real person, and I the love of his life, Joanna, left me with no impression of her character at all.  I found Helewise the abbess more interesting because through her we saw how the Christian church was changing at that time and how the crusades against Catharism were starting.

It was fun, though, to trace the journeys made by the characters through France, and to visualise the cathedral being built at Chartres. It was a light, easy, and undemanding read.

The Joys of My Life is available at Amazon.co.uk or at Amazon.com

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Sunday 7 August 2011

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

I always read the Amazon reviews for a book before I buy a book.  There were a plenty for Cutting for Stone, it isn't a new book - published 2009 - and they are very heavily weighted towards 5 stars.  But for some reason I held back.

I wish I hadn't.

It's a big book in every way.  At 500+ pages of quite densely packed text it isn't a quick read and I'll admit that at the start I felt it was too detailed.  In fact it probably could have been edited down quite a bit, but in the end for me that wasn't essential.

The story is told through the eyes of one of a pair of identical twins, sons of an Indian nun and a British surgeon.  We then follow their lives in Ethiopia, through personal and political turmoil until Marion, the narrator, is betrayed by the girl he loves and has to flee the country.  He ends up as a surgeon in the USA where his life runs no more smoothly.

It is an immensely dramatic and compelling novel, and combines intense realism with an almost magical quality.  In fact some people think the realism of the surgical descriptions are almost too vivid, but I'd say no worse than some thrillers I've read.  I'd prefer the medical details over  violence and day.  Along with the family saga, you do get a feel for the country of Ethiopia, its life, politics and history.

Frankly, I couldn't put the book down and, if it weren't for the large pile of books waiting their turn, I'd happily read it again.

Cutting for Stone is available at Amazon.co.uk or at Amazon.com

Saturday 25 June 2011

Two Caravans by Marina Lewycka

A few weeks ago I was travelling by train through Kent, the Garden of England.  I saw the strawberry fields and through a gap in a hedge I was completely taken aback to see row after row after row of caravans.  A whole field on the side of a hill had been given over to them.

I hadn't realised when I picked up this book how much this would come back, almost to haunt me.  Although the book is described as hilarious, I think there's far more tragedy than comedy in it.  Whether intended or not, it's a social commentary on migrant workers, on battery farming methods, on human trafficking.  It follows the story of a mixed group of workers in Kent, then on to London and finally, briefly, Sheffield.

I was close to giving up early on in the book, partly because I didn't much care for the characters and the story didn't grab me, but I'm glad now that I persisted.  I'll never look at strawberries or chicken portions in the same way again.

Tuesday 21 June 2011

Single to Paris by Alexander Fullerton

What I hadn't realise when I started this novel was that it's the last part of a series of four.  However, although it's very obvious, it doesn't really matter.  In outline, it tells of a Special Operations Executive, Rosie Ewing, who is sent to France in August 1945 to try to rescue two agents being held by the Gestapo in Paris.

The book was written in 2001, but I wouldn't have been in the least surprised to hear it was in the 1950s.  In one way that's probably a good point, after all the book is set in Paris just as the Second World War is ending, but there's something about the style that seems to me to be dated.  Added to that, very few sentences are complete.  It reads like someone's thought processes in places, almost a stream of consciousness.

If you're looking for something with the atmosphere of Paris, Single to Paris will give you that, even though at times it sounds like a GPS system telling you, "Now turn right into boulevard St Michel..."

Saturday 21 May 2011

Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson

...and co-authored by Davis Oliver Relin.

Although my copy of this book has the same cover art, it also has a little medallion stating that the book is a Kiriyama prize winner.  The Kiriyama Prize "was established in 1996 to recognize outstanding books about the Pacific Rim and South Asia that encourage greater mutual understanding of and among the peoples and nations of this vast and culturally diverse region".  It promised a lot but delivered little.

I'm sorry to say I found this one of the most tedious books I've read in a long time.  I struggled to finish it.  The author, no doubt doing good works in Pakistan, is nevertheless completely self-satisfied and self-congratulatory:
As Mortenson turned his brave, wind beaten face towards the dying embers of the fire, he reflected inwardly....
The writing is painfully clunky, and manages to make this reader at least concentrate more on the writing than on the story.  The story itself could have been told in much less space if it had left out all the minutiae that are completely irrelevant.  Who cares about Greg's earlier relationships?

To be perfectly honest, I found even the photos included have nothing to add. They are little more than a series of faces beaming at the camera. One I will never forget - a Christmas card featuring Mortenson with his wife and baby, and two weapons, rifles or something, I don't know. On a Christmas card?!  It is my lasting memory of the book.

However, if you can get over the irritations that bothered me, you will be able to read about the remote parts of a country that most of us will never visit.

Updated to add that apparently the truth was "stretched" in a number of places and there are some discrepancies in the financial management of his organisation.  Some call the issues minor problems and transgressions, others call it lies and fraud.

Buy Three Cups of Tea at Amazon.co.uk or at Amazon.com