Monday, December 31, 2007

Happy New Year!

Happy new year and I hope 2008 brings you all hood health and happiness and a load of wonderful books to read.

A year of reading - part one

Looking back over the course of this year on the reading front it has been packed full of surprises, both good and bad.

It would be easy to just try to cobble together a top ten but looking at things thematically these are the first batch of five areas that have provided some highlights this year:

Disorientating and disturbing
In this category you have to put Franz Kafka’s The Trial and Amerika but also most of the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Petersburg by Andrei Bely is also disturbing in the same way that The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad is operating around the subjects of terrorism and psychological terror. At the top of the list though has to be Castle in The Forest by Normal Mailer which was one of the hardest books to read and one of the most unpleasant – not because it was about Hitler but because it was about all of the things Mailer uses to rub the reader up the wrong way.

Love and idealism
East of Eden by John Steinbeck has a father that loves his sons and manages to show his bitter ex-wife what love is all about. The last scene in Graham Greene’s Power and the Glory shows the strength of commitment the church has to providing priests for the people in Mexico to follow. Aimez-vous Brahms…by Francoise Sagan shows the power of the illusion of love. Ultimately, The Road by Cormac McCarthy is about the love of a father for a son and the values of the past.

Meditation on life
Obviously a biography like Story of a Life by Konstantin Paustovsky has to be included but other Russian authors also produced books that felt like reflections on personal experiences. The Woman who Waited by Andrei Makine was able to brilliantly take a reader down the wrong path following the mistaken narrator. The House on the Embankment by Yuri Trifinov showed the tragedy of a man who put party and personal security before love and honour.

A taste of France
More by accident than design a fair few French authors were consumed. Jean-Paul Sartre showed that he could produce a good story as well as a text that works on an existential level with his Roads to Freedom trilogy. Some of the same themes of occupation and resistance were covered in The Blood of Others by Simone de Beauvoir. The classic Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert was enjoyable but his Sentimental Education was even better. One of the most ambitious books I have ever come across was Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec who went room by room through a Parisian apartment block telling a story of those who lived and had lived there.

The fantastic
Along with Alice in Wonderland one of the surprises of the year was the Gormenghast trilogy by Mervyn Peake. Once the commitment had been made to stick with them the reward was a story of good versus evil that was set against a most unusual world of Gormenghast. Although it might not be fair to put it in this category Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5, with its time travel and aliens, was one of the strangest anti-war books but oddly more powerful as a result. Billy seems to have been so impacted by his memories of Dresden and the firestorm that travelling to other planetary systems would be more preferable to remembering those events in 1945.

Second half tomorrow…

Books read 2007

1. The Plato Papers by Peter Ackroyd
2. East of Eden by John Steinbeck
3. The Trial by Franz Kafka
4. Petersburg by Andre Bely
5. Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz
6. Metamorphosis and Other Stories by Franz Kafka
7. The Accompanist by Nina Berberova
8. Under Western Eyes by Joseph Conrad
9. Dubliners by James Joyce
10 Exile and the Kingdom by Albert Camus
11. Amerika by Franz Kafka
12. The Pearl by John Steinbeck
13. The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene
14. The Tales of Ivan Belkin by Pushkin
15. The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene
16. Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene
17. Aimex-vous Brahms... by Francoise Sagan
18. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
19. The Best Short Stories by Rudyard Kipling
20. Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake
21. Lord Emsworth Acts for the Best by P.G. Wodehouse
22. Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake
23. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D.Salinger
24. Titus Alone by Mervyn Peake
25. The Return of Philip Lationowicz by Miroslav Krelza
26. Selected Stories by Anton Chekhov
27. A Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert
28. The High Window by Raymond Chandler
29. The Age of Reason by Jean-Paul Sartre
30. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
31. Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood
32. Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: an Introduction by J.D. Salinger
33. The Repreive by Jean-Paul Sartre
34. Iron in the Soul by Jean-Paul Sartre
35. Cat & Mouse by Gunter Grass
36. The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass
37. Candide by Voltaire
38. Fruits of the Earth by Andre Gide
39. The Blood of Others by Simone de Beauvoir
40. Trouble is my business by Raymond Chandler
41. Life A User's Manual by Georges Perec
42. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
43. Scoop by Evelyn Waugh
44. Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman
45. The House on the Embankment by Yuri Trifinov
46. Story of a Life by Konstantin Paustovsky
47. Franny and Zooey by J.D.Salinger
48. The Madhouse by Aklexander Zinoviev
49. Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne
50. Koba the Dread by Martin Amis
51. Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
52. Imposture by Benjamin Markovitz
53. Mr Pye by Mervyn Peake
54. Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut
55. Selected Tales by Edgar Allan Poe
56. Roseanna by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo
57. Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome
58. The Little Man from Archangel by Georges Simenon
59. The Steppe and Other Stories by Anton Chekhov
60. Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut
61. No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
62. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
63. All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
64. Saturday by Ian McEwan
65. The Crossing by Cormac MacCarthy
66. The Immoralist by Andre Gide
67. The Castle in the Forest by Norman Mailer
68. A Hero's Daughter by Andrei Makine
69. Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell
70. A Life's Music by Andrei Makine
71. The Dogs of Riga by Henning Mankell
72. The Woman who Waited by Andrei Makine
73. The Man who went up in Smoke by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo
74. Maigret and the Idle Burglar by Georges Simenon
75. The Madman of Bergerac by Georges Simenon
76. The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad
77. Cities of the Plain by Cormac McCarthy
78. The Black Madonna by Doris Lessing
79. The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Sunday, December 30, 2007

bookmark of the week

With this being the last bookmarks of the week of 2007 it seemed like a good moment to pick three that have been interesting.

The Swiss Edelweiss was picked up in Interlaken on holiday and reminds me not only of a great time this summer in Switzerland but also my wedding – my wife wore Edelweiss in her hair on that magical day.

The literary event of the year for most in the publishing world was the publication of the final Harry Potter book. This bookmark reminds me of standing in a queue until 1.45am to buy the book. The atmosphere was incredible bearing in mind this is a book and screaming teenagers and police controlling the crowds might not be something I get to see again connected with a book.

Finally, this hand painted bookmark was something my wife contributed to the collection and it reminds you of a rural England. I have always lived in large towns or cities but the idea of living in the country with a little house with a real fire and a dog still captivates.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Road - post VI

The ending of The Road reminds you of the wonder of a great book. By the end you are immersed in this burnt out world where ash, darkness and death pervade and hope is something that is akin to a dream.

The central characters of the father and son not only hold up a mirror to the present and the past but also remind you, all too powerfully at the end of the story, about the difference in mortality between the young and old. The father talks of the fire being passed down from generation to generation but it feels more like a burden as the skills that helped one generation exist disappear into the ash.

Having reached the coast the disappointment at the grey sea and the lack of difference is palpable. The cart full of their belongings squeaks along the road and the constant search for provisions and tools that will help them dominates everything. McCarthy brings together all of his themes of dying eras that have been in his other books as well as his ability to create characters that have a deep friendship. Just as with Billy cradling the dead John Grady in his arms in Cities of the Plain there is another of those moments here as the last few pages slip by.

Ambitious books like this throw up big questions. At the end you are left not only wondering what it would be like to live in the world of The Road, but how you can live now to make sure our children not only never face a burnt out world, but have the life skills needed to survive whatever is thrown at them.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Reasons to be concerned

Things are all over the place at the moment with family coming and going so no book reading. But as I waited at Heathrow airport for my brother to fly in from Newark there was an opportunity to get through most of an interesting article in the New Yorker about the prospect that American’s might stop reading. Using statistics that mirror the sort you see about UK reading levels the article by Caleb Crain paints a scenario where reading is marginalised to a select few.

“There’s no reason to think that reading and writing are about to become extinct, bur some sociologists speculate that reading books for pleasure will one day be the province of a special ‘reading class’. Much as it was before the arrival of mass literacy, in the second half of the nineteenth century.”

It felt odd reading about a scenario when we return to the 19th century on the same day that rickets started to reappear in children with some people blaming video games for keeping children out of sunlight.

Reading is not just a leisure activity but holds the key to knowledge and encouraging people to look beyond their narrow horizons. Lose that and society will be a great deal poorer and more frightening as a result.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Road - post V

Unless the last 60 pages of this book go totally wrong this is going to be a cracker of a book. This is what literature should be all about. Not only asking the reader to think about some of the biggest questions but also describing a world so convincingly that it feels as if you could be there.

This book is head and shoulders above the other McCarthy novels that I have read because he is writing about the future not the past and the world not Mexico. What is happening in America in The Road is the same everywhere and concepts such as borders have become irrelevant. The relationship between the father and so is also something that is universal. What is trust and what is love? What happens when you can no longer look after someone and have to lie down and die? Add to those questions any parents face the scenario where you no longer know if you can deliver on your promises and it has the potential to be heartbreaking.

The father and so wander along the road and always seem to find some hidden cache of food when they are nearing starvation but they can never stop. They spot some adults following them and stumble across them cooking a baby to keep hunger at bay. This book contains images that you would expect as a consequence of an apocalyptic event but because McCarthy never overloads the landscape with charred corpses or cannibals whenever the father and so come across them they have the power to shock.

The aim in the next couple of days – before the end of the year – is to finish this great book off and also try to wade through the Swedish/South African plot lines and wrap up the Henning Mankell thriller as well.

More tomorrow…

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The positive experience of podcast listening

At first the idea of listening to podcasts filled me not only with scepticism but a bit of dread because it is another drain on time. But after having tried it now for a few weeks it is fair to say there are some fantastic things out there. One of the advantages of the iTunes podcasting list is that there is an option to subscribe to weekly podcasts from well beyond your normal geographical horizons.

My favourites are:

* The Book Review by the New York Times weekly look at the world of books and authors. It has some great interviews but what is really good about it is the way it is so accessible.
* The Penguin podcast is obviously a chance for the publisher to market its books but it also provides an insight into the people who work at the company
* Books on Guardian Unlimited can sometimes be a bit long winded but again provides a discussion that does get you thinking rather than just tuning out.

There might well be others out there, iTunes Meet The Author occasionally posts something, but those above are regular enough to make it worth while subscribing.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas to you all. Hope you have a good day and get a chance for rest (or a sleep in some cases - my children have been up for hours) amongst the mayhem. Who knows maybe father christmas might have put a good book or two in the stocking.

Monday, December 24, 2007

No time to read...

...Father Christmas is coming. The boys have gone up to bed in a state of hyper excitement and we have checked on the web and seen that after a couple of stops on continental Europe he will be here...

Lunchtime read: The Black Madonna

This collection of short stories ends with a tale that highlights the differences between the masters and servants. Lessing is able to cover big topics in this collection around the concepts of equality, racism and freedom without ever having to resort to a lecturing style.

"The two little children would gaze at each other with a wide, interested gaze, and once Teddy put out his hand curiously to touch the black child’s cheeks and hair.
Gideon, who was watching, shook his head wonderingly, and said: ‘Ah, missus, these are both children, and one will grow up to be a Baas, and one will be a servant’."

In No Witchcraft for Sale a cook that has struck up a friendship with the boy of the house saves his sight when a tree snake spit in the Teddy’s eyes. He rushes out to get a root that will act as an antidote. The result is that the family are eternally grateful but then invite down a scientist who plans to turn the remedy into something that can be mass marketed. Gideon the cook refuses to help them and despite gentle ribbing about it he never reveals his screts to those that own the land but fail to understand it.

A review will follow the Christmas festivities…

bookmark of the week

After a business meeting a couple of weeks ago that took me to Reading there was a chance to stop off at the Paddington bear stall at Paddington Station and pick up these bookmarks. With the release of another book in the series, which appears to be tackling the sensitive issues of immigration the bear from darkest Peru is back in the news right now. The new book plus the Marmite advert have done a fair bit to remind people about the existence of the little bear that needed looking after.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Road - post IV

There are some really big questions being asked by McCarthy all the time in The Road. If there is no such thing as God – if the dead world seems to disprove his existence – then why should you be kind to others? Why keep living when there seems to be no point? How do you die when those you leave behind are doomed?

All the time you keep wondering what you would do in a similar situation. Somehow although the bunker full of supplies that the father and son find is tempting you suspect that the safety of movement would win out. The Road is at least a destination and a reason for staying alive. The 200 mile journey to the coast might at least keep you going. Quite what you will find once you get there is anyone’s guess. But it taps into the American spirit to keep moving in search of something better and you are reminded in an odd way of Grapes of Wrath and the journey to the West.

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: The Black Madonna

It sounds simple planning to use the ingredients of a 15 year-old boy, a buck that dies and is stripped by flesh eating ants and the solitude of the African landscape as the tools in a coming of age story. But it is only made to look so smooth because Lessing combines those limited props in such a powerful way.

In A Sunrise on the Veld, a boy sneaks off before his parents are awake to shoot guinea fowl and breath in life and feel alive. But the sight of a dead buck slows him in his tracks and he starts to consider mortality and the inevitable moment when he won’t feel so young anymore.

He wanders home planning to wake up and seize the dawn the following morning but accepting that things had changed and he had plenty to think of rather than shooting the breeze without a care in the world.

Last short story tomorrow…

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Road - post III

Despite the tension that has developed between the father and son walking through the post apocalyptic wilderness there is a moment of brightness.

An undiscovered bunker full of food and provisions is lying in wait for them. But that brings it own complications – do you stay and enjoy the supplies and then head off all the time feeling like a sitting duck? Do you grab what you can but then regret it when the food runs out and that large supply room was left abandoned?

McCarthy is able to get you to think like this because of the quality of the description. By now you know this is a world of meagre resources, where luck plays a crucial role in determining life and death. A country where cannibals walk the land looking for new flesh. And a world that occasionally has memories that evoke a past that has gone forever.

Compelling but because of the Christmas activity something that is being read as slowly as the father and son walk the road.

More tomorrow…

Friday, December 21, 2007

Excuses, excuses, excuses

Its -2 degrees centigrade with freezing fog seeping in through the letterbox
I feel ill - it might be flu or something I ate
The heating is not working so sitting here reading or tapping away on a keyboard is miserable

Apologies but goodnight...normal service will resume tomorrow

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Road - post II

Most of the time when you take a break from reading a book and slide in the bookmark it takes a couple of minutes and maybe a couple of pages to get back up to speed. But this is totally different.

Within a couple of paragraphs the tension that has been growing as the father and son head down the road is there again and as they discover the cannibals retreat the horror is gripping. They stumble through the woods and only just manage to get away but the vision that McCarthy paints, albeit it very briefly, is etched into your mind and this book has you by the throat again.

"Huddled against the back wall were naked people, male and female, all trying to hide, sheilding their faces with their hands. On the mattress lay a man with his legs gone to the hip and the stumps of them blackened and burnt. The smell was hideous.
Jesus, he whispered.
Then one by one they turned and blinked in the pitiful light. Help us, they whispered. Please help us."

I have to put it down because of time but there is no way of knowing what will happen next and whether or not the road will lead to their salvation or their death.

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: The Black Madonna

This has been a struggle today and only got the chance for a very quick read of the Lessing. The themes that she has developed about colonial differences between races and master and slave come out in the short story The Old Chief Mshlanga.

A daughter of a white landowner discovers that there is a chief living nearby and the land her father cultivates and lives off once belonged to the chief. She feels no fear of the natives walking around with a gun and a couple of dogs that pin the locals to the trees, but she does feel afraid of the Chief. It is partly because he feels no fear of her that she is disturbed. Walking into his village she is made aware of an alternative world. But it is temporary because it is quashed and moved away by the government. A short but powerful tale of inequality.

Hopefully will be able to manage one or both of the last couple of stories tomorrow…

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Road - post I

This book is shaping up to be one of my favourites of the year, if not the favourite. The reason is that it is almost impossible to stop reading it and although the characters are as sparse as the post apocalyptic landscape there is something compelling here.

Reading The Border Trilogy and No Country for Old Men has been perfect preparation for this. Not only is the McCarthy style now easy to get to grips with – no quote marks and occasional switching between first name and surname – but also so is his big theme.

In books where the subject has been always about the dying of the light the cowboys and moral sheriffs wondering what is going to become of their world it makes sense to have done with it completely. Everything leads to this book and the road is not just a metaphorical one but also something that McCarthy has been travelling to get to this novel.

At almost the halfway point in the novel the story of the father and son struggling to follow the road to the coast is one that is gripping. Not just because their relationship is under the microscope but because their world has effectively ended. Walking through supermark4ets that have been looted and are now the domain of cannibalistic gangs the only real question that matters is whether or not they will make it.

But of course there is another bigger question here that is about not if this sort of scenario could happen but when. The world of cowboys is already coming to an end but McCarthy draws out the warning to us all pointing out that it is not just the ranches with the horses and their owners that face extinction.

More to come…

Lunchtime read: The Black Madonna

It is very hard to do any reading this week that is a bit of a worry because the chances of doing any next week are even slimmer. I blame being in charge of a three year old as one reason and the bitter cold as another. As a result it is almost impossible to get into the groove and focus. Still did manage to do a bit more Lessing.

In this short story collection there is definitely a colonial feeling with The Pig focusing in on a plantation and The Traitor on an old house in the bush.

The Pig hands a jealous man the chance to shoot his rival after the farm owner had called for poachers to be shot. The irony is that the man did not want to shoot anyone for risk of losing face in the village but the chance to kill his young wife’s lover is just one too good to miss.

The Traitor seems almost autobiographical in voice with two sisters playing in the ruins of a house in the bush. One day the original tenant returns and the girls show him back to the house and then reveal that they have hidden all the bottles he consumed in a hole in the ground. Rather than thank them the man and their father seem bemused. The fact that they sided with the man seems to have also damaged relations with their mother who they quickly return to the side of when they get home.

Both stories again show the ability to draw on the briefest of sketches to fill out a motive and a life story for a character.

More tomorrow…

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

book review - Cities of the Plain

This is the final part of the Border trilogy by Cormac McCarthy and it reunites the main characters from the first two books All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing.

Like those two books this is about mortality. Not just about the passing and the death of individuals but the passing of an age.

Billy and John both work on a ranch that is being runned in the old fashioned way with men on horses training them, riding them and using them to keep watch over land and cattle. The collection of men that are working the ranch stretch from the late teenagers Billy and John up to old men who look like spending their last days on the ranch near the Mexican border. All of them have in common a sense of being lost in time and as a result out of kilter with the modern world. The ranch is going to be sold to the US army that are looking for places to get ready for the Cold War – there might even be a suggestion there of nuclear testing. That would really blast away any sense of the past.

There are numerous passages where Billy and John along with the others moan about not knowing what they really want as they stumble through the daily grind of being a ranch hand. But then things change for John Grady and it becomes quite clear what he wants and his object not only of affection but obsession falls on a 16-year-old prostitute. The relationship makes no sense on many levels. She is Mexican, unable to speak English and seems to be suffering from some condition that might ultimately be fatal. There is also the small problem of her pimp who has fallen in love with her.

But John Grady puts his mind to it and prepares a home on the ranch to bring her back to. But it never happens as she is killed by the brothel runners and ends up being identified by Grady in a morgue. That death sparks a couple more with Grady getting revenge before himself being a victim of the knife cuts of the pimp he kills.

His death leaves Billy bereft and no longer comfortable on the ranch. There is then an epilogue that to be honest is not required but shows that Billy spend most of his remaining years wandering before settling down to become some sort of living museum.

The past is all around McCarthy’s books and having got through the trilogy it seems to have set things up perfectly for his most recent work expanding on themes of mortality – The Road. These are books that could only be written by an American that not only has a sense of the relationship between the US and Mexico but also of the past and the present. The cowboy is such a strong image of everything that America represents – the hard working, land taking exponents of the American dream. That is why it is such a powerful twist to discover that the very cowboys that you would expect to be self assured and robust are lost in a world that no longer thinks it needs them or recognises whet they stand for.

A trilogy that has plays out some big themes but ends up underlining them in the friendship of two men who were stuck in the past.

Version read – Picador paperback

Lunchtime read: The Black Madonna

Prompted by her Nobel Prize my local library has a small display of Doris Lessing’s books. This slim volume seemed like a good place to start and a good choice for a lunchtime book.

Having never read any of her work before the thing that starts to strike you in the two short stories the Black Madonna and the Trinket Box is the ability Lessing has to unravel a human being with just a few words.

In the Black Madonna an Italian prisoner of war manages to befriend a captain and unlock his tongue with brandy but also the power of art. The Black Madonna in question both scares and attracts the captain who is envious in a way of the Italian’s simple view of love and the world. That is maybe the advantage he has being the captured man. He shows friendship for the captain but when spurned knows how to wound him deeply with just a couple of words.

The Trinket Box is also about the mystery of someone. In this case an aged Aunt Maud who dies slowly but manages to leave everyone with no idea of how she felt and what she thought other than just how well she was able to read their own minds and desires.

As a taster it already, just 30 pages read, give a clear indication of Lessing’s ability to pierce the soul and commit it to paper.

More tomorrow…

Monday, December 17, 2007

The White Lioness - post III

There is no way of writing this without sounding like a snob but one of the books that I have always avoided has been the cheap airport novel. They tend to get chosen without much thought, after all the flight is usually waiting, and then get consumed quickly and are forgotten just as fast. The mistake with Henning Mankell might have been that just because Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo wrote a crime novel so intelligently that the same standard would be replicated elsewhere.

No doubt some people would have no problem with this stuff but it seems a waste of time that could have been spent reading something else.

Where I have a problem is that this is just too fantastical. The story centres on the conspiracy a bunch of white fundamentalists have to kill Mandela. Sweden comes into the equation because it is seen as a far away enough place to be a training ground to prepare the killer. The first assassin is the one who loses a finger while his KGB trainer flips out and shoots an estate agent. That is the reason why Wallander gets involved. But as the story drifts between the conspiracy in South Africa and the events in the ground in Sweden you start to lose faith in it all slightly. Just as with Dogs of Riga this is the stuff of fancy, or at least it feels like it. For me personally that is undermining the experience of reading this thriller.

As the Murder in the Rue Morgue showed the story might sound unbelievable but if the description and the explanation is credible enough then the reader will go along with it. More of those feelings would help here.

More tomorrow…

Sunday, December 16, 2007

bookmark of the week

Looking through the box where I keep most of the bookmarks this one put a smile on the face. The world's greatest reporter and a cartoon character that is drawn brilliantly and continues to be popular worldwide.

This is a card bookmark showing Tintin being given a medal in a scene from the book The Sceptre of Okkatar - a story that inspired the bookshop of the same name that earlier this year was snapped up by Waterstones.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The White Lioness - post II

Once it becomes clear that this story involves South African politics being honest the heart sinks as you start to brace yourself for a repeat of Dogs of Riga. It also starts to become clear that this is a crime writer that allows himself to surf a wave of fiction rather than base the story in the nitty gritty of the police station.

So there is an introduction in the second part to an assassin who is taken on to kill Mandela but assumes that he has been hired to kill de Klerk the leader that has been identified as letting down the whites.

As part of the preparation for the killing the killer is flown to Russia to meet with an ex KGB contact to get trained and then they both move to Sweden to hide out in a safe house. The problem is that the house they choose is discovered by a lost estate agent who is rewarded with a billet in the head after she asks directions.

The killing of the woman disgusts the hired killer and he decides to kill the KGB agent but fails, loses his finger and then is on the run in Stockholm. As the KGB man chases him down another police officer is shot after a bank robbery and a shop assistant dies of a heart attack after being robbed at gun point.

The second section is interesting not only because it moves around locations but also because the name Wallander is absent. No doubt he will reappear to pick up the threads of the case. In the meantime I’ll stick with it but if it becomes more fantastical then the prospect of reading more in the Wallander series is becoming less attractive.

More tomorrow…

Friday, December 14, 2007

book review - The Secret Agent

This is an odd book to be reading right now. Joseph Conrad might be credited with writing one of the first novels to cover the subject of terrorism but it feels all too familiar in this age of suicide bombers.

The irony with The Secret Agent is that The Professor, who is rigged and boldly talks about being prepared to blow himself up, never does it while an innocent simpleton stumbles and trips blowing himself to pieces.

Living not too far away from Greenwich Park and enjoying strolls through its tree-lined avenues it is odd to think of someone choosing to target the observatory for a terrorist attack.

But maybe it is never intended to be chosen with Mr Verloc being intimidated into making some sort of outrage to ensure he keeps the cheques coming from the embassy that pay him for being a secret agent. Verloc is the main character in the story flanked with his wife Winnie and his brother-in-law Stevie.

Back in his past Verloc once tipped off a foreign dignitary over the possibility of some sort of assassination attempt and ever since then has been dining out on the performance. But with a change of guard at the embassy he is challenged to show his worth by exploiting his position as a leading light in anarchist circles in London. Verloc feels blackmailed and disappears from view while he thinks about the consequences.

Conrad starts to weave the story around the encounter and takes the reader into a pub where two anarchists, nicknamed The Doctor and The Professor, are talking about the power that comes from the knowledge that you could blow yourself up. The Professor is rigged permanently to blow. But he finds it hard to believe someone has beaten him to it when The Doctor produces the paper to show that someone has blown themselves up in the park.

Conrad manages to leave you wondering if it was Verloc for a while before the identity of the simpleton Stevie is revealed. The reader finds out only just before his sister and her grief leads to the murder of Verloc. All of the secret agents protestations of innocence laying the responsibility at the door of the embassy count for nothing.

With Verloc dead the story fizzles out but Winnie tries to take refugee in the arms of the Doctor but once he sees the dead Verloc he is intent on escaping her clutches. Left alone she commits suicide leaving those who knew the couple shell shocked and undermined by the experience. The power of the bomber has been tested and found wanting.

This is sometimes a book that is difficult to follow because of the style but the message is as up to date as ever. Here is a morality tale of the costs of taking lives and the results on those who have been involved in that process. The outcome is that innocent people die and even those that believe they are in the right are plagued with self-doubt, recriminations and a sense of futility. A bomb might make a temporary outrage but does not do much more other than main and kill innocent people who had to be killed for some one, and some radical group, to make a point.

The White Lioness - post I

Henning Mankell is not afraid to use his books as viechles to make political statements. The Dogs of Riga was about drug running across the shattered borders of the former Soviet Union and here there is a SOuth African element.

But Mankell is also clever and does not introduce the political theme from the start preferring to grab you with a pulsating story about the dissapearance of an estate agent. The loveable woman who appeared to have no enemies goes out looking for a house to view but ends up knocking on the wrong door. She is then greeted at gun point by a mystery man. The story then shifts to the main character Kurt Wallander starting the search for a missing person. The search is going nowhere until they widen the geographical area and the house the esate agent last visited suddenly explodes, her car is found in a pond and eventually a petty thief stealing a water hose finds her body in a well.

Along with those dicsoveries there is also a black man's finger, the butt of a South African pistol and some satellite equipment to add to the mystery. Part one ends with a murder, victim, location of crime but no apprent motive or hint at the identity of the killer.

More tomorrow...

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Cities of the Plain - post IV

Just as you expect with McCarthy the minute the story winds up on Mexican soil for any length of time the blood begins to flow.

The first victim is the young prostitute that John Grady has gone to visit. She is tricked into getting into a cab that winds up with her having her throat cut. Grady is the one who identifies her in the morgue and then inevitably sets out to exact his revenge.

In a clever bit of deliberate miss-identification Billy is the first to get to the brothel and demands to know from the pimp running the place Eduardo what is going on. He is sent away with the warning that if Grady turns up there will be trouble.

Grady does turn up and gets cut badly in a knife fight with Eduardo that ultimately ends in the pimp’s death. But Grady is so badly wounded. That he just manages to struggle to a tearaways den and collapse. Billy finds him but his friend dies while he is away fetching water. He is grief stricken and picks his friend up and the bloody pair then end the scene walking down the Mexican street.

The book would have been powerful enough had it ended there but there is an update on Billy who is 78 and a wandering hobo. He meets someone who delivers a classic metaphorical sequence about a traveller in a dream and death. The traveller dreams that he is executed and wakes to find that although he is alive the dream did take place. What was the dream and what was reality? That is the message from that exchange.

Things end with Billy being taken in by a family who seem to not mind him being around and recognise him for what he is – one of the old cowboys.

A review will follow soon…

Anyone with some reading group advice?

Reading groups are something that has so far passed me by. But it looks like I am going to be involved in setting one up at work next year. Does anyone have any advice about how they work? We were thinking of meeting once a month and discussing a book a month in a pub in the evening away from work. Does that sound like a good plan? I’d love to have comments from anyone who has any suggestions and experience with this sort of thing.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Cities of the Plain - post III

Whenever you read a McCarthy book you always sense that there are moments that carry great symbolic weight. The problem is that when most of the book is broken up with a pattern of dialogue the prospect of a wall of unbroken text signals something is happening. As a result you tend to concentrate that little bit harder than elsewhere in the book and when you come away not quite understanding if there was some sort of hidden meaning you might have missed it can be frustrating.

Maybe there is nothing there anyway and it is a shame to spoil the reading of a good story but it is hard not to. For instance when a pack of wild dogs is discovered in the rocks above the pastures and it is responsible for killing calf’s a whole section starts on the chase to hunt them down. In the end using cowboy skills to lasso and kill the wild dogs the problem is solved but maybe the message is that the only chance these cowboys have for using their skills is on dogs.

There is also something about the way John Grady turns the abandoned shack into a home for his bride to be that reminds you of a simple life of the past when people lived on the land.

The story starts to move towards its pivotal point when the young girl will leave the brothel and try to meet up with Grady and cross the border so they can start their life in America.

The blind piano player from the brothel that Grady has befriended warns him that the pimp who runs the brothel is in love with the girl and he will kill her rather than let her go. There is also a suggestion that she is ill and has not told Grady about herself.

As she breaks out of the brothel and heads towards the border the girl is met by a taxi driver and promised to be taken over the bridge but she is driven to the river and waiting for her there is the brothel pimp’s sidekick armed with a knife.

More tomorrow…

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

book review - The Madman of Bergerac

The reason for choosing this book by Georges Simenon after the Idle Burglar is that this book finds a younger and more dynamic detective. The irony is that after he throws himself off a train at the start of the book to try to follow a mystery figure and gets shot in the shoulder as a reward Maigret is bed bound.

The book then takes on a Rear Window type feel with Maigret looking out of his hotel window down onto the town square of Bergerac. Despite not being able to move a great deal Maigret manages to upset and alienate the leading lights of the community and refuses to play along with the idea that the case has been solved with a body being found in the woods near the train track.

Most of the great detective stories evolve around a character that just seems to have a nose for deception and a gut feeling that leads to the killer. Maigret is no different and his dogged persistence of the doctor, his wife and sister-in-law and the prosecutor. He manages to unsettle them enough to solve the mystery but he risks his own reputation in his pursuit of the truth.

With so many detective's either being loners, divorced or in slowly disintegrating marriages it is rather touching to see Maigret relying on his wife as his eyes and ears when he is trapped in his hotel room. She understands not only his personality but by the end starts to appreciate his methods.

Maybe it is because he wrote so many books but Simenon never really pushes Maigret but lets the story flow. There is no angst filled moments when he pulls up in a car and stares out at a horizon and wonders whet he is doing with his life just a determined attempt to solve a crime and make a difference.

The other consequence of the output by Simenon is that you know there are so many books to choose from that there is no pressure to keep going straight from one book to another to finish a series. You do end this wanting to read more but knowing that Maigret will be there when the mood takes you.

Version read - Penguin paperback

Cities of the Plain - post II

The problem with the determination of John Grady to marry and rescue his Mexican sweetheart from the brothel and bring her back to the ranch is that it is doomed to failure.

Even though he discusses it with as many people who will listen you sense that by asking people if they approve of his intention to marry he himself has doubts. Back on the ranch there is the daily business of having to buy horses and try to make a profit being a cowboy. McCarthy uses these moments to flesh out some of the other characters on the ranch and the impression he gives is that for Billy and John the future is all around them. There are men of various different ages that have found the only refugee they can find is in a life that resembles the past.

For John Grady the Mexican romance is not seen as an escape from the life of a cowboy but and attempt to make it even more secure.

Grady is also not honest with people about who is sweetheart is and what she does for a living. In turn there are hints that the girl has not been entirely honest with him either.

More tomorrow...

Monday, December 10, 2007

book review - Maigret and the Idle Burglar

When is a policeman not allowed to be a policeman? The answer in this Georges Simenon thriller is when the policeman is hampered by red tape and procedure. So when it starts with Maigret being invited by a colleague to view a corpse that has been dumped in the cold the detective discovers who the victim is, that he was a burglar and even his past history. But because the prosecutor has to handle everything the old detective is sent home.

Maigret manages to investigate the death of the burglar in parallel with keeping an eye on a spate of robberies he is charged with solving. The way Maigret goes about looking into the case of the idle burglar shows compassion, human understanding and an appreciation of working with those on the wrong side of the law. All of the traits that would not be acceptable to the system. So he expresses frustration and bitterness but all the time gets closer to solving not just how he died but how the burglar lived his life.

If there is a moral from this story it is that it is possible to write a character that is prepared to be human. Someone who can show that they sympathise and have the flexibility to turn a blind eye in order to solve a bigger problem. Maigret is written in light brush strokes but you can visualise a detective two years away from retirement with a wife who desperately wants him to take it easy. Not only is the detective coping with age, modern methods and the system but he is also fighting against an attitude that will let certain criminals go unpunished if they are important enough.

For a slim book it leaves you with the pay off that the robbery crimes are solved and the criminals caught and put into the pipeline to face justice. But the case of the poor forgotten burglar is only solved in the mind of Maigret who knows that the killers will get away with it. An ending that is not common for a thriller, but one that is thought provoking nonetheless.

Version read - Penguin paperback

Cities of the Plain - post I

The final part of the Border Crossing trilogy reunites the characters from the first two books. John Grady and Billy Parham are both working together on a ranch. The ranch is on land wanted by the military and there is a suggestion that the world of the cowboys is under threat of compulsory purchase order.

As was the theme with the first two books horses are the key feature with Grady training them and Parham working with them along with several other ranch hands. But the border with Mexico is also never far away either physically or mentally. Grady is the first to get involved emotionally with events south of the river after he falls in love with a prostitute. The 16 year old is working in a high-class brothel and Grady's plans to buy her freedom look like being doomed. But he seems determined to take her away regardless.

Billy seems to be wandering round without much cause still not sure what his purpose is on the planet. He has a loyalty to those he works with but is prepared to call a spade a spade when necessary.

Grady's love affair with the girl is where the feeling of doom comes from along with a sense that a time is ending and the cowboys will have to move on. The time of the horse is coming to an end. Quite what trouble Grady will bring on himself and those he lives and works with can only be guessed at. But given the violence in the first couple of books it should involve Mexicans, guns and a loss of blood.

More tomorrow...

Sunday, December 09, 2007

bookmark of the week

The London Transport Museum recently reopened after millions of pounds were spent upgrading it. This is a bookmark from my last visit there a few years ago. No doubt I will be going again to see what they have done to the place and will come back armed with another bookmark. One of the highlights they have in the museum is Harry Beck’s maps not just for the London Underground but also his rejected map for the Paris Metro. I recently did a piece about the history of Beck’s map so plan to go and see those in the New Year.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

book review - The Man Who Went up in Smoke

Most detectives are based in a particular geographical location that is often as famous as there are. So you get Morse in Oxford and Holmes in London. The creation of husband and wife team Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo is meant to be based in Sweden but Martin Beck spends most of this novel in Budapest.

Because of the dual locations there is a real fear that the sense of character development that started in Roseanna will stall and to some extent it does because the marriage breakdown and self analysis that is often bordering on hypochondria is put on ice in Hungary. The research that the couple put in shows because the city feels natural and not over described. You always get the feeling when someone is constantly referring to street maps and famous places that are making up for insecurity about a lack of knowledge. This book does not show that tendency and is more enjoyable as a consequence.

The story just like Roseanna keeps you guessing and wondering what will happen until the end but unlike the first novel in the series there is never any sign of the missing journalist who occupies Beck's time, The journalist turns out to be a drug dealer and a terrible friend to other hacks. His tendency to drink large amounts and then abuse the wives and fiancés of those he hangs around with eventually costs him his life. But it takes the trip to Budapest for Beck to work out just how easy it would be to pretend to be the journalist and steal a passport from behind the desk at the hostel and then return to Sweden.

When the climax comes there is a reference to the title about the way the end comes for the drug-pedalling journalist. Beck returns to his spoilt holiday and slips back into his slowly disintegrating personal life. The reality of the anticlimax after solving a case hits him hard and it is another touch that shows the writing ability of the duo. Far too many people view thrillers as pap that can be read and then disposed of. Maybe that is true of some books but this is characterisation and plot making of a very high order and this should be read before being written off.

One of the reasons why you might stick with a series like this is because of Beck but it is the Swedish landscape and the approach to solving crimes that are described here that make you want to read on.

Version read - Harper Perennial paperback

The Secret Agent - post V

Should have posted this last night but things intervened so here is the last post on The Secret Agent with just a review to come.

Having stumbled back to his home after the bombing in Greenwich Park Mr Verloc faces the challenge of explaining to his wife why her brother died. The problem is that his wife is not listening and she realises that the man in front of her is a killer who took the life of her brother.

The more he moans on about the embassy and the pressure he was under to carry out the bombing the less he gets through to her and in the end is rewarded with a knife in the stomach. Mrs Verloc then stumbles around in shock and rushes out of the house and into the arms of one of the other members of the anarchist group. The Doctor, as he is known, has a weakness with women and announces all too quickly that he has always loved her. But after having been introduced to her husband's corpse he starts to panic and although appearing to go along with her plans to flee to the continent jumps off the train and leaves her to travel to the continent alone.

The chronology then skips with the Doctor talking to the bomb carrying Professor sharing a rather frank and bitter exchange before pulling out a newspaper report detailing the suicide of Mrs Verloc who threw herself off the cross channel ferry. As he stumbles off to the wreck of his life the bitter professor shuffles off through the streets with his bomb under his coat. His power is ignored but his arrogance remains and his stumbling off into the dark sums up the contrast between those who choose to use their own suicide as a weapon and the masses around them who have no such concept.

A review will follow soon...

Friday, December 07, 2007

Lunchtime read: The Madman of Bergerac

Although he is bed bound Maigret manages to conjure up visions of the town and the inside of the main inhabitants rooms using his imagination, maps and the descriptions from his wife.

He keeps prodding away at the doctor in particular and annoys almost everyone but finally his old police colleague starts to see that there is some method in his madness. The final manoeuvre is to bring up the mother-in-law of the doctor after Maigret comes to settle on him as the key to the case.

With the elderly woman in the hotel things start to happen rapidly as she starts to tell Maigret the truth about the relationship between the doctor and her daughters. The doctor arrives and then tries to escape with his lover and the climax comes with him choosing to end his life cornered on the third floor of the hotel rather than face the truth and so in the arms of his real love, his wife’s sister, they commit suicide.

Maigret has solved the crime of not only the madman of Bergerac, who turns out to be the doctor’s father, but also why he was on the train in the first place. The fact he manages to do so all from his bed in the hotel is a feat of his ability to read people and places. But he is assisted by his wife and in a complete difference to the modern thrillers, where most policemen are divorced or going through a marriage breakdown this was clearly written at a different time when policing was demanding but not marriage destroying.

It is a bit like Rear Window except that everything that happens is seen by Maigret in his mind rather than out of the window looking out on the main town square.

A review will follow soonish…

Thursday, December 06, 2007

book review - The Woman Who Waited

If there are a couple of things you can be guaranteed with a Andrei Makine book it is beautiful descriptions of the Russian countryside and a focus on a personal story that acts as a metaphor for what has happened to an entire country.

Both of those features are present in the Woman who Waited but there is some masterly story telling going on here. The narrator is a player in the vivid student scene in Leningrad and after graduating he heads out to the wilderness looking for a village to provide him with literary inspiration.

His initial thoughts are that he can produce a satirical novel based on the peasants but the life in the abandoned villages is far from humorous and then his attention wanders to focus on the story of Vera who apparently has been waiting for her lover to return from the second world war for thirty years.

Her reputation in the village and surrounding area is almost legendary and the narrator starts to get closer to making her acquaintance. The problem is he does so taking a superior position. What could this woman in the wilderness be able to teach or show an intellectual from a major city? What could her life story provoke other than sympathy?

Because the approach taken to Vera is subtle you never notice that the narrator is completely on the wrong track about her until she opens her mouth and reveals she is not a village idiot or someone who has stayed waiting all of her life. In the end the shock of those discoveries starts to force the narrator to ask some questions about himself but he runs away from it rather than facing that conversation.

Makine is almost like a short story writer weaving deep and thought provoking stories out of just a handful of characters and locations. Vera the woman remains nearly as much of a mystery at the end with the narrator having discovered some secrets but missed out on others because of his arrogant assumptions.

It shows the difference between attitudes in the town and country in Russia as well as the differences between those keen to move on and forget the war and those who cannot. That seems to be a recurring theme in nearly all of his books because the devastation visited on a generation seems to be conveniently filed away by many characters in his books.

Ultimately the truth about Vera emerges in fragments and just as he has done all along the narrator misjudges her intentions completely having the arrogance to assume that she will come to rely on him. Once she realises that her lover is never coming back and he has created a life without her she seems set on living her life on her own terms. The narrator is used to plug a need to express some grief but he is never seriously being seen as a replacement for her love.

His arrogance that led him to believe Vera was a limited school teacher, someone who had never ventured out of the village and someone in need of an emotional prop are all revealed to be wrong and in the end he runs away rather than staying to really unravel the mystery of this woman who has waited for something for so long.

Version read – Sceptre hardback

The Secret Agent - post IV

The consequences of the suicide bombing come home to roost in quite dramatic style. As the two senior policemen fight it out to protect and charge their favourite anarchists Verloc has to face his wife.

Once she overhears that Stevie her brother is dead she goes into a trance and no matter what excuses Verloc gives it doe nothing to get through to her. In a brilliant piece of writing Conrad has Verloc arguing exactly as a man usually does trying to justify the unjustifiable by making himself out to be the victim.

Despite Verloc’s warning that he will spend time in prison and that he has been a victim of the bullying of Mr Vladimir in the embassy his wife realises she is now free and gets dressed to go out. She gets stopped by her husband who is lounging on the sofa and she then picks up the knife and kills him convinced that she is doing away with her brother’s murderer.

The entire scene of Verloc and his wife is not only believable but shows how easy it is for the wrong words and attitude to inflame grief and lead to something much more dangerous.

Meanwhile the police are focused on smashing the spy ring and see Verloc as a sprat that will lead them to the whale. But with him lying on a sofa in Soho with a knife in his gut is he going to be any good to anyone?

Final chunk tomorrow...

Lunchtime read: The Madman of Bergerac

This is one of the Maigret books that was written much earlier on than The Idle Burglar but ironically after an initially bit of bravery throwing himself off a train Maigret spends his time bed bound with a wounded shoulder.

The story starts to unfold almost immediately with the detective heading off on his holidays to see an old colleague who has based himself out in the country. On the way there he moves into a second class sleeper and is so disturbed by the man weeping and fidgeting in the bunk above he is awake when the man jumps off the train.

Maigret follows him and after scrambling up from his fall down the bank he is rewarded with a bullet in the shoulder and a trip to hospital. The immediate suspicion for a couple of murders that have happened in the woods near where Maigret was picked up falls on the detective. But he is able to come round and quickly inform them that he is not the ‘madman of Bergerac.

Once patched up he moves into the hotel looking over the town square and starts to irritate and infuriate the local gentry – doctor, public prosecutor and chief of police – by investigating the crimes of the mad man of Bergerac.

Even his old police colleague comes in for suspicion and by the time he has staged a reception in the hotel to gather evidence from public witnesses there is no one amongst the town leaders who would not like to see the back of Maigret.

More tomorrow…

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

book review - The Dogs of Riga

After the Faceless Killers, a tight and focused book that introduces the world of Kurt Wallander, you hit Dogs of Riga with high expectations. Initially Henning Mankell starts delivering straight from the off with a couple of dead men drifting ashore in a life raft.

But after that things start to go wrong and the focus of the story moves to Latvia. The reason for the involvement of the Latvian police is the suspicion that the dead men came from there and the case seems to be closed after a police officer from Riga travels over and then heads home having taken responsibility for the case.

Then there is a lull when it looks like the dead men in the raft might have been a red herring before Wallander is heading over to Riga to assist in the murder investigation of the policeman who visited to work on the case.

Once in Riga the firm foundations of the Swedish landscape are replaced by broader strokes and it becomes slightly harder to believe the story. Okay so this is fiction but the police procedural genre is based largely in the reality of police work and this quickly starts to emulate something of a James Bond novel.

Things get even stranger when Wallander realises that there are secret organisations and powers at work in Riga that the murdered police officer got caught up in. His widow becomes the main contact, and a love interest for Wallander, and he promises her after he is sent home after the murder case is conveniently solved, that he will return.

His second trip to Riga is a spy thriller with bullets flying, shady figures following his every step and the two police officers in charge of Riga both being under suspicion of ordering the murder of their colleague. Wallander has to work out which is guilty and gets it wrong only to be saved by his enemy’s enemy in a roof top shoot-out.

He heads home without anyone aware of what he has been doing when he was meant to be skiing in the Alps. He also heads back without the widow who he has fallen in love with despite asking her to return with him.

It reminds you of the Patrick O’Brien novels where he always seems to be happier writing when the action is at sea and it feels a bit awkward and forced when the story is on land. The same happens here with Mankell leaving Sweden to head for Latvia.

But in his defence the point that could be made, and one in fact that is explained slightly in Mankell’s postscript is that this is a book trying to make a statement about the times and the climate in the immediate collapse of Soviet rule. That makes is different from the run of thrillers and does show an awareness that Mankell wants to make a point about the wider world but it is a risky ambition that doesn’t always come off in The Dogs of Riga.

Still it will not put me off reading more of the Wallander books and the next stop is the third in the series The White Lioness.

Version read – Vintage paperback

The Secret Agent - post III

They were discussing Conrad on Radio 4’s Front Row programme tonight pointing out the similarities between his wiring and Henry James. Have to confess I have never read any of the latter’s work but there is still time to sneak on in this year.

The more you read The Secret Agent the more there are similarities with Under Western Eyes, which is set in St Petersburg.

But where that book was a relatively straightforward narrative this one moves backwards and forwards with the bomb going off in Greenwich before the back-story is filled out. There are two stories running in parallel with the police officers trying to crack the case both having different views of who is to blame and meanwhile it emerges that it was Verloc’s brother-in-law the simpleton Stevie who tripped over a root and blew himself up.

For Verloc’s wife the news is all too much as she is still getting over the fact her mother has moved out begging a charity to put her into an alms house. She overhears her husband not only admitting to being the second man in Greenwich Park but also admitting to coming clean about his involvement as a secret agent.

Although the bombing has been a failure it still managed to cause an outrage as demanded by the Embassy paying Verloc but there is no sense of victory just disaster back at the shop. For Mrs Verloc, the really innocent party, there is a sense of blame because she suggested that her excitable brother Stevie went out for walks with her husband and then suggested that he go and stay with a well known anarchist.

Quite what will happen now the details of the bombing are starting to become clear is nowhere certain and that is because Conrad has already made things far from clear with the movement back and forth in time.

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: Maigret and the Idle Burglar

The cases of the armed robberies and the Swiss burglar are both solved but they do not interlink in a way that might have been imagined.

Where there are similarities it is in the way that women are often the loyal protectors of their men but end up being victims of their crime. It also shows how the legal system will, sometimes protect those that are guilty because of the risk of making a scene and upsetting the influential and wealthy.

In the end the scenario that Maigret expected might have happened with the Swiss burglar being caught red-handed seems to have transpired. The kicks that the Swiss got out of stealing when the people were actually at home seems to have been his undoing.

But both cases are used not only to show the skill Maigret has in solving crimes but the dangers of a cumbersome legal system that is more worried about following the rules than punishing the guilty.

As an introduction to the character of Maigret this might not have been the best choice because he is clearly defined at this point and on the brink of retirement so it makes sense to dip into the Simenon canon and pick one of the earlier books so that is what I plan to read in lunch breaks next.

A review will follow soon…

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Secret Agent - post II

This book could have been written now with the emphasis on suicide bombers and the debate about the importance of instilling terror in a population. Once past the scene setting this starts to open up as a novel that has a great deal of depth. Conrad is standing back showing not just the philosophy and actions of the anarchists but also the Police who are struggling to understand them.

The case for bombing is explained, with it being a chance to shatter complacency and in the case of the suicide bomber show the power and commitment of an individual. But there is also the misery of being able to only threaten people with a bomb in the pocket – the case of the shady explosives supplier The Professor.

Although it is far from comic there is a certain humour about how inept both sides are and even the superintendent refers to it as a game which both sides will play to a set of rules that both appear to operate to.

On a personal note, with Greenwich just down the road, it is odd to be reading about stations and locations I know reasonably well with the bombers coming off the train at Maze Hill before one of them stumbles over the roots of a tree in the park and blows himself to pieces.

The assumption is that Veloc has died because he was the one who asked for the explosives but that is never clearly stated and as the story develops you suspect someone else has been the victim of the bomb in a tin. The address leads them back to Veloc's shop but before anyone gets there there are suspicions among the police about which anarchists might have been responsible.

There is a message that resonates here about the naivety by the police and some of the anarchists about just how far some people are prepared to go. The difference between someone who shouts about something but never does it and someone prepared to blow themselves up is a psychological one that exists today.

More tomorrow...

Lunchtime read: Maigret and the Idle Burglar

Maigret is not a traditional policeman in many senses. But the main one that differs from the norm is his ability to respect not just criminals but others operating on the wrong side of the law.

In his chase for the killers of the Swiss burglar he interviews the woman lodging next door, who happens to be a prostitute, and also manages to upset his superiors by suggesting that a wealthy ‘Friend of France’ might be involved in something criminal. He treats most people the same regardless of their social background. Because he has just a couple of years to go before retirement he is often found at home smoking his pipe and chatting with his wife rather than slumped up against a bar with other policemen talking shop.

Again that breaks the norm because he is almost at the end of his career and is still married whereas most fictional detectives and policemen tend to be loners unable of keeping a relationship going.

As the story moves to its conclusion there is a passage where the author signals that things are going to come to a climax. What leads up to it is the escalation in the gang raiding shops and banks with one of them being killed by an off-duty policeman. Tailing the gang leads them back to the suspect they have been after all along. Meanwhile with the Swiss burglar it looks like he was killed with a statue after being caught in the house of the rich friend of France.

Presumably the two cases are interlinked and there will be a twist at the end that has not been predictable? All will be revealed tomorrow…

Monday, December 03, 2007

The Secret Agent - post I

It takes a while to get into this book. The story doesn’t flow from the start and it is difficult working out just exactly what is happening with the main character Mr Veloc appearing to run a shop and be in the pay of some embassy as a secret agent. The shop, which sells among other things pornographic pictures mainly operates at night with the aid of some low burning gas lamps.

Mr Veloc is married to a woman that gave him the opportunity to gain a house with some furniture but also a live-in mother in law and a useless brother-in-law who lost his last job after setting off some fireworks in the stairwell.

But life seems okay with Mr Veloc moving around his world in firm command. That is until he is called into the embassy and has an encounter with Mr Vladimir who accuses him of doing next to nothing and demands an outrage in the next month suggesting that he blows up the Meridian in Greenwich to try and stir up the apathetic middle classes.

Despite hanging around with terrorists and anarchists the idea of the bombing throws Mr Veloc off his usual assured path.he gets together with the terrorists and thinkers that are part of his anarchist group and hoes to bed depressed that all they are full of is hot air. The only problem is that his brother-in-law has overheard some of the more descriptive oratory and is so wound up he can hardly sleep.

More tomorrow...

In celebration of Conrad's 150th

With all the focus on Joseph Conrad's 150th anniversary, with a good piece in The Guardian at the weekend about him it only seemed right to start reading one of his books this week. One of the main ones left that I have not read so far but was sitting onm my bookshelf with the old price of two shillings inside is The Secret Agent. The first post on it will come tonight but already its possible to say that the difference between the dialgoue and descriptions of a 20th century novel and from the 19th is that it is hard to read the latter at the same speed.

Lunchtime read: Maigret and the Idle Burglar

Once caught by the bug it is easy to find yourself drifting to the crime section in your local library. So finding myself back there once again who better to pick up than one of the most prolific writers and his famous detective creation by one of the Inspector Maigret novels by Georges Simenon.

Coming on the back of a few Police procedural thrillers there are echoes here with the Parisian police being crippled by changes introduced that hands the power to the magistrates. Maigret is called to inspect a body that has been dumped with the face bashed in but because of the rules he should not even be there.

The irony is that he knows the victim and could be helpful but is never given the chance being encouraged to leave by the magistrate’s representative. He goes home but knows that the victim is a Swiss burglar who works alone, keeps his head down and is someone that in an odd way Maigret respects.

He visits the mother to tell her that her son has died to try to find a motive but comes away without any answers and goes back to trying to locate a gang member from a ring that is terrorising post offices and banks in the capital.

More tomorrow…

Sunday, December 02, 2007

book review - A Life's Music

This book by Andrei Makine qualifies as a novella because of its length but it is also a tight story around a tale told by a pianist to a fellow traveller on a train.

Just as with other Makine novels the landscape of Russia plays a key part as does the history and politics of the country. Things start in the Urals with a snow-covered wind whipped station and passengers waiting for the delayed Moscow train. The narrator moves from room to room until he finds a man playing the piano who is also waiting for the train.

The pianist helps the narrator get a seat on the packed train and then starts telling him his life story. The son of parents who were victims of Stalin’s purges he ran away to an Aunt in the Ukraine just in time to be caught up in the German invasion of 1941. He steals the identity of a dead Russian solider and manages to get through the war with a fair amount of bravery – echoes of Ivan in A Hero’s Daughter – before ending up as a general’s driver.

That position continues after the war and he meets the general’s daughter who is also a pianist and there is a crush then the bitter realisation of what could have been an awful mistake leaving the pianist in a corner playing the part of the fool. He almost plays it until the end but cannot resist showing off what he can do at the piano and then he disappears out of the daughter’s life and the narrative skips over his ten year in the camps and the wilderness of the frozen north.

He returns to Moscow with the narrator being brought up to speed discovering that the general’s daughter has had a son that he helps support. They then head off to a concert where history repeats itself as the pianist who had never been able to perform on stage because of his parents arrest now watches his protégé come out and fulfil a dream on his behalf.

There is plenty of tragedy here. Not only about the random pointlessness of the arrests in the Stalin years, the brutality of the war and the class system that continued to exist even in the communist system. But there is also something about the power of music and its ability to transcend class and age barriers and live on through the years.

There is also a hidden moral which is never to forget that each passenger on each journey sitting next to you could have an amazing story to tell if you are prepared to stop and listen.

Version read - Sceptre paperback

bookmark of the week

This was a bookmark that was free from Waterstone’s. It has been illustrated by Axel Scheffler who put together the pictures for the Gruffalo books. He also produced the illustrations for The Christmas Bear a fantastic pop=up book the boys and me have been reading ever since buying it yesterday.

National Bookstart Day was back on the 5th October so these must have been knocking around in the back of the store and put out to clear before the date passed into 2008. Glad I picked it up because I missed it on the actual day.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

book review - Faceless Killers

The first two chapters of the first in the ten book series of Kurt Wallander novels by Henning Mankell grabs you and sucks you into a story with a force that rarely lessens throughout the entire book.

“’What are you doing?” she says, and he can tell that she’s annoyed.
As he replies, he feels sure. The terror is real.
‘The mare isn’t whinnying,” he says, sitting down on the edge of the bed. ‘And the Lovgrens’ kitchen window is wide open. And someone is shouting.’
She sits up in bed.
‘What did you say?’
He doesn’t want to answer, but now he’s sure it wasn’t a bird that he heard.
‘It’s Johannes or Maria,’ he says. ‘One of them is calling for help.’
She gets out of bed and goes over to the window. Big and wide, she stands there in her white nightgown and looks out in the dark.
‘The kitchen window isn’t open,’ she whispers. ‘It’s smashed.’”

Important throughout the book is the landscape and the weather so on one of the first couple of pages there is a map of the local area with the main towns and an idea of the location of the landmarks that start to get mentioned in the book. Most of the time there is a threat of snow that keeps the main character Kurt Wallander occupied as it seems to be a barometer for his mood and health.

But what keeps this story going is not just the brutal murder of two old people who lived on a farm but the fact that there does not seem to be a motive for it. The police are left scrambling in the dark and because Wallander’s boss is on holiday he gets to pick up the case and the responsibility for managing the team of policemen who he deploys to try and discover what happened to the old couple.

Along with the case unfolding, which it does painfully slowly, there is plenty of opportunity to introduce Wallander. He is a divorced father of one, a 19-year-old girl Linda who he has never really managed to get close to since he discovered her trying to commit suicide when she was 15. His wife has left him not for another man but because life with him was unbearable and his father is on the brink of going senile and for some reason hates the fact his son became a policeman.

Wallander is in his early forties, likes classical music and a drink and has an eye for women of a particular type. He has the instincts needed to crack crimes but more importantly the dogged determination not to let them go. His is ably abetted by his colleague Rydberg but he has cancer and by the end of the book is on his way out of the picture. Other policemen come and go but the burden of solving the case falls on Wallander’s shoulders.

Where this works so well is that Mankell introduces a second crime to not only keep boredom from the door but also demonstrate just how successful Wallander is with a race hate murder involving an ex-Policeman.

All of the police procedures are here with the pain and annoyance of press conferences, the battles with the prosecutor to get warrants and arrests. It makes it clear the frustration with not only trying to find a couple of unknown killers but also how it can become a bogged down process just filling in the paperwork.

The final section of any thriller has to get you galloping through the pages breathless as the final page comes. This does get you going with the breakthrough in the case coming months after everyone else has given up. When they do manage to get the men the sense of relief and the story all falling into place is evident for Wallander who has by that time managed to at least comes to terms with his divorce and father’s decline in health.

Of course a test of any good thriller, particularly one that is the first of a ten part series is whether or not you would read anymore.

Just try stopping me…

Version read – Vintage paperback

The Man Who Went up in Smoke - post II

With two men who have attempted to kill Beck in custody the case starts to unravel. The German travel agents turn out to be part of a narcotics smuggling ring that used the missing Swedish journalist Alf Matssson as their man to take the drugs from Eastern Europe into Sweden.

The story of just why the missing journalist was up to becomes clear, as does the involvement of the two men and the girl who tried to seduce Beck – all part of the same ring. With no sign of the missing hack but at least some portion of the case clear Beck heads back to Sweden.

Once there it happens so quickly but he heads for a suburban police station to hear about the case of the missing journalist and a friend that erupted into violence and a police call. The friend tells Beck that the hack became incredibly lewd once drunk and said things about his wife that were inappropriate.

With that picture of drunken goading Beck heads back to Stockholm and manages to piece together the final pieces of the jigsaw. The path he had been on with trips to Budapest and ruined holidays had been useful but completely in the wrong direction.

“’I suppose this means that Matsson has left Hungary.’
‘No.’ said Martin Beck. ‘He’s never been there at all.’”

The ending is part logical deduction and part riding the luck of intuition and it comes with a sense almost of anti-climax at the ending with Beck coming down from the high of solving the murder by heading back to the mundane and joining his family on holiday. Without giving anything away the end for Matsson does have a clear reference to the title, which all along pointed in another direction.

This is a great read but just like the departure Mankell makes from Swedish soil in the setting of his second book in the Wallander series The Dogs of Riga this does lose some of the impact Roseanna had. That is inevitable when it is a police procedural thriller and in a foreign country the procedures of the police remain behind closed doors.

A review will come soon…

Friday, November 30, 2007

Sliping down the charts

Sadly it gets almost boringly repetitive positing up links to news stories about the dire state of reading amongst British children but here is another. According to the global literacy league rankings England has sliped down to 19th position from a previous position of third because of the poor literacy levels among children.

"A generation of 10-year-olds are losing confidence in books, spending fewer hours a week reading at home and enjoying it less than five years ago..."

That was an excerpt from the article in The Guardian that made depressing reading - if of course you read it at all.

The Man Who Went up in Smoke - post I

After some Henning Mankell it was just too tempting to head back to those other great Swedish police procedural writers - husband and wife team Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo - and the second in the series of books based on the main character of Martin Beck.

The first half of the book reminds you strongly of the Dogs of Riga because it is set in Eastern Europe in Budapest and just like the Latvian background of Mankell’s book has a feeling of subterfuge with Beck being followed throughout the city. There seems to be a better switch from Sweden to a foreign country and it is much more believable than Dogs of Riga.

But Wallander seems to have more of a personality because he is prepared to dump the police rulebook slightly more quickly and allow himself to be ruled by his heart. The policeman’s intuition is much more quickly expressed by Wallander.

Still Beck is a strong character for different reasons, the main one being that he will get the crime solved. He has his holiday ruined and is asked to head off to Budapest to find out what happened to a journalist who has disappeared. He grumbles and moans about his holiday but heads off to see if he can find the journalist. The trial is stone cold and even the local police do not seem to be that interested in the case until things hot up.

Beck manages to track down the journalist’s last known movements to a hostel where a young woman he was apparently dating lived and it is by applying pressure to her that things start to happen. Although she denies knowing anything about the journalist things develop after Beck refuses her sexual advances. He then heads out for an evening walk and is attacked and only just manages to avoid being killed by a duo that seem determined to get rid of him. At that point the local police start to take it more seriously and the case starts to unfold.

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: A Woman Who Waited

The beauty of this book is that along with the narrator you are so sure that it is possible to predict the actions and decipher the motivation of Vera, the woman who waited. Already she has proved that she has not wasted all of her life waiting and there are a couple more surprises in store.

After getting close to making the relationship physical Vera backs off and then disappears to go to the festival in the large town nearby. She is gone for three days and while she is away the narrator stumbles around the snow covered landscape dreaming of her and almost being paralysed by her absence. But when she returns she moves swiftly to consummate their relationship and it is only afterwards he understands why – the man she has been waiting for never waited for her. A picture of a state official and a grandfather is pointed out by a neighbour from the local paper and Vera’s heartbreak is palpable.

But the narrator is seized by cowardice and runs away rather than facing the prospect of being trapped as a replacement love interest for the intense Vera. But as he tries to escape he meets her and after a silent but meaningful row across the lake she bids him farewell. She is able to see through him and be a braver and more worthy character to let him go.

Throughout the story the narrator makes arrogant assumptions not just about Vera, the tragedy of her life and her apparent natural decision to fall in love with him, but also about the villagers who he assumes are worse off than the intelligentsia in Leningrad. But he scurries off there frightened by the rawness of their integrity in the end.

A full review will come soon…

Thursday, November 29, 2007

book review: A Hero's Daughter

After reading a couple of Makine books over the last couple of weeks there are some clear themes that emerge from Andrei Makine’s work that are all in evidence in A Hero’s Daughter.

The first theme is the Second World War that devastated a generation of Russians and at the same time left the survivors with a clear sense of their importance to the world for the sacrifice the country made and to the state they were trapped by. This story starts in the war with the hero of the Soviet Union Ivan being saved by a nurse who has the foresight to hold a mirror up to his mouth to see if he is breathing.

But before too long the story moves away from the nurse and her hero and settles down to one of disappointment and living in the past remembering past glories. The story could easily stagnate there but Makine introduces a daughter who becomes a perfect way of juxtaposing the present with the past.

She also introduces the second theme, which is one of disappointment and disgust with the way Russia’s fortunes have turned out since the war ended. The daughter is a translator but ends up working for the KGB by sleeping with foreign businessmen and helping sort through their luggage while they sleep. She dreams of escaping by saving up enough hard currency to dress and move in the sort of circles that would attract someone from Russia’s intelligentsia.

She almost pulls it off but the two worlds collide with her father, who is now a widower and a drunkard, arriving in Moscow to discover not only does his daughter appear along with everyone else to ignore the past but she is also enslaved into prostitution by the state.

The shock of that discovery kills him over time and she is left realising not only the level of indifference over her father’s sacrifice as a solider all those years ago as she struggles to get anyone to bury him, but also how trapped she is. In the end she pawns his hero’s medal to pay for the funeral but returns to the job of state prostitution to help raise the money she needs to try and get the medal and a hope of her freedom back.

It is written in a way that in places is almost cinematic with sweeping battlefields and moments when you can feel the chill as the snow and wind creep in. As a method of looking at the past and at the present the idea of having a single generation works well and the relationship between father and daughter reflects that of the young and the old veterans throughout the book.

All the might be brighter and modern is not necessarily better if those behind the system are still rotten.

Lunchtime read: The Woman Who Waited

Just over half way through and the morale of the story so far seems to be about the dangers of judging someone not only by appearances but also by reputation.

Vera who becomes something of an obsession for the narrator is seen as someone who has wasted her life waiting in a little village for her childhood sweetheart to come home from the war. The narrator starts weaving scenarios around her that he believes happened and apart from clearly a growing love/lust for the woman there is strong sympathy mixed in with frustration she has spent thirty years waiting.

But when he finally sits down to talk to her it emerges that she studied linguistics in Leningrad for six years and has lived much more of a life than he ever imagined. Ironically you feel that her revelation makes it harder for him to maintain his sympathetic love and he will be forced to change his opinion and attitude towards her.

More tomorrow…