Book No 33 (2014) : Bad Company

bad companyThis book was a deal between myself and a friend’s teenage son. He is an avid reader but our tastes are wildly different. As we both had holidays coming up, he agreed to read a book of my choice and I promised to read one of his. I gave him Michel Faber’s ‘Under the Skin‘ and he gave me ‘Bad Company’ by Jack Higgins, a thriller featuring undercover enforcer Sean Dillon.

Several things occurred to me whilst reading. Firstly, there is neither description nor emotion in the book. It reads more like a witness report, one event following another, actions and dialogue linking more bits of  action. There is precious little in the way of examining the characters’ psyches, motivations or reactions. As a result, the only point of moving through the chapters is to see what happens next – there is virtually no engagement with the people at all. Secondly, the scope of the book is vast in terms of history and politics, managing to include Hitler’s bunker, Middle Eastern oil, the IRA, SS and Mafia connections. There are lots of guns,  weapons, dead bodies, lies and dastardly plots. It felt formulaic and I am not absolutely certain whether the work is intended as teen/crossover fiction; the limited vocabulary seemed unlikely to engage an adult reader.

To be honest, I can’t really summarise the plot in any meaningful way and I did occasionally get lost trying to keep up with who-was-who and who was on which side. At one point, my sympathies were with the baddies. They died at the end. I figure that is probably how a lot of Jack Higgins books end, but I am afraid I am not likely to be reading any more in order to test my theory. I am, on the other hand, very keen to know how my book buddy got on with the Faber!

 

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Book No 32 (2014) : My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You

my dearI scribbled down the name of Louisa Young’s book after a friend I met in the supermarket car park suggested it as one of my 50:50. I’m so glad I bumped into that fellow book-worm (thanks, Sheila!) as this WW1 novel turned out to be a well written, haunting read.

Riley Purefoy is not a privileged lad. But he’s bright, artistic and wants to better himself. When the Waveneys, a bohemian London family, adopt Riley as a kind of pet, it is not long before he is taken in by artist Sir Alfred. Riley has already fallen for Nadine Waveney, but her mother disapproves of the match and determines to keep the young soul mates apart. As WW1 breaks out, Riley signs up, tries to believe he might be able to forget Nadine. Separated by the war, communication is stilted and uncertain to begin with, but over time the lovers’ letters become more meaningful. Whilst on leave from their respective duties (Nadine is by this time a nurse), the couple spends time together. It seems as if their love has a future and they long for peace. However, when Riley is sent back to England to recover from serious facial injuries, devotion is tested to the limit.

Young’s prose is neither overly descriptive nor effusive, yet she nevertheless succeeds in creating believable characters whose fates really drew me in. There are a number of interesting sub-plots, including a wife’s obsession with cosmetic procedures and Riley’s necessary surgery. Sensitive portrayals of shell-shock and the after-effects of war, on both serving personnel and those who waited at home, add depth to this touching novel. One critic has called ‘My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You’ “Birdsong for the new millenium“, drawing a comparison with Sebastian Faulks’ epic novel. Actually, I can’t agree with that as I think Faulks is a far more accomplished writer – having said that, if you do enjoy the L.Young book, I am almost certain you would be equally (if not more) entralled with ‘Birdsong’.

Book No 31 (2014) : The Rosie Project

the rosie projectDr.Don Tillman likes to be organised. He has a tight schedule, orchestrated to the exact minute – it takes ‘three minutes, twenty seconds’ to have a shower, unless he washes in hair, ‘in which case it takes an extra minute and twelve seconds’. (The extra time is because he has to leave the conditioner on for sixty seconds). He operates a Standardised Meal Plan (Lobster on Tuesdays  – hence the cover pic) and changes to his routine flummox and unsettle him. As a geneticist, he finds scientific explanations reassuring and his literal interpretations of situations make life difficult for him, both at work and in his personal life. Despite his ordered existence, Don would like to be in a relationship and so he devises The Wife Project, a systematic approach to finding the perfect partner. Rosie doesn’t tick any of the right boxes, but she is the most beautiful woman in the world. Don’s dating programme results in a whole host of hilarious situations, as he tries to re-assess his priorities, address his social awkwardness and win Rosie’s hand.

There is a suggestion that Don might be an ‘Aspie’, (has Aspergers Syndrome), but the author readily admits that he didn’t carry out any research into autistic spectrum disorders at all. Don is quirky and Rosie is the perfect contrast.

This is a popular book at the moment and it’s easy to see why. It’s very, very funny – witty dialogue, slapstick situations. I read it as a Book Club choice and when we met to discuss it, we had just as much fun! We amused ourselves by firstly trying to cast the film using famous actors – we settled upon Colin Firth and Natalie Imbruglia as Don and Rosie. After a few more glasses of Prosecco, we had even more fun casting them using people we know. Cruel? Possibly. But if you know me, I bet you can’t help wondering whether I have you tagged as the next Don Tillman?!

Book No 30 (2014) : The Girl with All the Gifts

girl with all the giftsI’ve been inhabiting dystopian societies for a couple of weeks now. This is a relatively new experience for me, which is what reading should be about! ‘The Girl with All the Gifts’ is essentially a zombie book. I’m fairly sure I’m not, this is the first zombie story I have ever read. According to many reviewers, this post-apocalyptic novel re-works a familiar genre in a new way. I’m not able to comment on that, for the reasons stated above!

Melanie is the central character and she is the girl with all the gifts – the title is a reference to Pandora, who was driven by curiosity to open a box, which turned out to contain all the evils of humanity. Only one thing remained to comfort Man – and that was Hope. Melanie goes to lessons every morning and has a crush on her teacher, Miss Justineau. Miss Justineau seems fond of Melanie as well, convinced that the child is not as dangerous as others would have her believe, and that the young girl is capable of the usual range of 11-year old emotions. Dr Caroline Caldwell disagrees and is determined to uncover the explanation for why Melanie and her friends are different. When the three of them are forced to undertake a road trip in the company of two  guards, the conflict between the interests of the two women has to be played out.

I finished the book about a week ago, but I still haven’t made up my mind about it! The storyline is that of an adventure, yet the notion of the semi-human ‘hungries’ infected with a grey fungus, is one which seems too ridiculous to me. I know it’s fiction, but combined with the pseudo-science and mycological theories, I couldn’t quite bend my brain round the imaginary creatures. Which may be a good thing – otherwise Dr Caldwell might want a slice of it!

Book No 29 (2014) : Oryx and Crake

oryxMargaret Atwood is a genius. I have found some of her longer works inaccessible, but ‘Oryz and Crake’ is absorbing and thought-provoking. It is the first of a trilogy, followed by ‘The Year of the Flood’ and ‘MaddAddam’.

Snowman (aka Jimmy and Thickney) is surviving in a post-Apocalyptic landscape. He lives on the coast, taking care of the Crakers, a gentle and peaceful race. Survival depends on being able to forage water, food, weapons from the remains of civilisation. He also needs to find shades and protection from the blazing sun. Snowman is lonely and his mind keeps drawing him back to the past – to his childhood, university days, his friendship with the brilliant Crake and his relationship with Oryx. Through these flashbacks, the reader discovers his connection to the downfall of the human race as we know it – and it’s not pleasant.

The tantalising aspect of the book is that the scenario seems so plausible. Huge scientific multi-nationals have come up with technological solutions to the problems of world over-population, disease and conflict. ‘Pigoons’ are animals which have been created as hosts for growing multiple kidneys; more cost-effective and less distressing than ‘cloning a harvest child’. Having cured all the known illnesses, the pharmaceutical giants are running out of ways to make money, so, they manufacture some new strains and distribute them via innocuous vitamin pills. The wherewithal to do these things probably exists in 2014, which made me feel more than slightly uneasy whilst reading.

‘Oryx and Crake’ is a flight of fancy But it left me feeling that our plane may already be taxi-ing along the runway.

Book No 28 (2014) : Raven Black

raven blackBooks based in Scotland are generally a hit with me – Scotland is my favourite place in the whole world. ‘Raven Black’ by Ann Cleeves is set in Shetland, a rugged group of islands situated over 100 miles North of mainland Scotland. The book is a crime thriller and is the first in a series, which has been televised for BBC Drama.

On her way home, Fran Hunter discovers the body of her teenage neighbour, Catherine Ross. Catherine has been strangled. Suspicion immediately falls upon Magnus Tait, a reclusive islander who has been suspected of murder before, when young Catriona Bruce went missing – her body was never found. Jimmy Perez is a local detective, who refuses to jump to the same conclusion as others. Even once Magnus has been arrested following the unearthing of Catriona’s body, Perez uses his knowledge of the community, its tensions and stories, to eke out the details which are so important in a murder investigation. The climax of the story takes place during the annual Shetland celebration Up Helly Aa, which culminates in the burning of a Norse galley. It’s a fine backdrop to the culmination of the police investigations.

Cleeves paints her characters with great skill, mirroring human loneliness in the Shetland landscape. She gradually exposes several potential suspects, all of whom had links to Catherine. There are no gruesome, bloody details, the power of this book is in the relationships woven between the islanders.

Needless to say, the murderer, once revealed, was a complete surprise to me. It always is! I am never certain whether this is due to my own failings of deduction or intuition, but it does mean that I find myself scanning back through the pages to find the clues I missed. This was an atmospheric and suspenseful read and I will be looking out for the sequels.