Book No 2 (2020) : Ordinary Thunderstorms

Until I started work at Jesus College, Oxford, I’d never actually heard of William Boyd. But it turns out he’s an alumnus of the College; I’ve read quite a few of his novels to date and enjoyed them all, especially ‘Restless’. ‘Ordinary Thunderstorms’ was our Book Club choice for March 2020.

Adam Kindred’s life turns on a sixpence. Having been for a job interview, he meets a businessman and strikes up a conversation. When the businessman leaves a file of information behind in  restaurant, Adam tries to return it. The simple act of kindness results in life as he knows it unravelling. He’s forced to live rough, skulking in the shadows of London trying to avoid detection. Meanwhile, the reader learns the back story of the forgetful businessman, and his role in the development of a ground-breaking cure for asthma. As the novel develops, we meet a two contrasting casts of characters, ranging from hit-men and prostitutes in London’s underclasses, to a titled Board member and top pharmaceutical executives.

This book cracks on at a pace, with plenty of twists and turns. It is cleverly crafted, weaving together the major threads of the story in a page-turning thriller. As well as being exciting, I found myself really questioning who were the good guys and who were the baddies, and how easy it is to make assumptions about people based on their place in society. Adam is faced with some tough choices and makes some decisions which I’m sure he would have abhorred in his previous life. It really made me think about what lengths I might be prepared to go to in order to survive.

If you haven’t read any Boyd before, this is as good a place as any to start. However if it isn’t quite to your liking, I wouldn’t give up on him without trying another book – one of the things we agreed upon in our Book Club chat is that Boyd’s novels are very different from one another. So much so, that if you didn’t know, it might not be that easy to tell they were all by the same author.

Book No 47 (2015) : I Let You Go

i let you goWhen the going gets tough, I dream of escape, running away. My bolthole of choice would be an isolated cottage within a stone’s throw of the sea. I would be able to wander on the beach, read books and take photos, completely undisturbed by anyone. So when a 5-year old boy is killed in a heartless hit-and-run accident and Jenna takes flight to Wales, it was this desertion which drew me in to Clare Mackintosh’s story. Away from prying eyes, Jenna stays hidden but gradually begins to shape a new life for herself.

Detectives Ray and Kate are assigned to investigate Jacob’s death but there are very few leads. The case goes cold, enquiries are halted. But Kate can’t quite give up: a year after the hit-and-run, a vital piece of information enables the Police to make an arrest.  Jacob’s killer can finally be brought to trial.

This psychological thriller has been a massive bestseller and the novel is certainly engrossing. With deceptively simple prose, the author has woven a tight web. As Mackintosh is a former police officer, I have no doubt that she has drawn heavily on her own knowledge and experiences to bring a gritty realism to her work. However, I found the final scenes so harrowing to read, rather too graphic. Some will argue that the depiction of suffering is necessary in order to fully expose the horror of the victim’s pain and I understand that, it was just too much to bear. Like the victim, I just wanted it to end, whatever the outcome: the author made her point.

With more than one gripping plot twist and some finely-drawn characters, ‘I Let You Go’ is a rollercoaster of a read. Not for the faint-hearted though, not least because it has the tragic death of a small child at its core.

Book No 6 (2015) : Bad Blood

Duh. I read bad bloodthe second in the series without realising there was a first. That is always irritating, but explains why the characters at the beginning of ‘Bad Blood’ often refer back to the ‘Power Murders’ which the detective team presumably solved in the first book, ‘The Blinded Man‘.

Paul Hjelm is part of a team hunting down the ‘Kentucky Killer’, a serial killer who has tortured and murdered a literary critic in an US airport before making his way to Sweden using a false passport. What is particularly nasty about the perpetrator is that he has a highly refined instrument of torture in his possession, which he uses to pinch the vocal chords of victims so, quite literally, no-one can hear them scream. When the executioner remains unapprehended at Arlanda airport, The National Criminal Police’s Special Unit For Violent Crimes of An International Character has its work cut out to trace him before he strikes again.

The scope of the investigation is wide, bringing in references to the Vietnam War, a secret human rights organisation active in Iraq, the CIA and FBI, New York, the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, drug deals and more besides. As well as the torture-murders, there are also helicopter flights, copied keys, car dashes, beatings, shootings, lots of rain, very little humour and even less sex.

I found the translation stilted and awkward; bizarre words kept tripping me up and I re-read whole paragraphs to try to understand the meaning. The Swedish character and place names remain untranslated so, because of their unfamiliarity, I had difficulty rooting them in my brain. I’ve never been to Sweden so couldn’t visualise the settings, there were too many characters and the plot was complicated. The whole reading experience felt more like trying to memorise the Swedish Highway Code before a theory test.  Although I did stay on the road, I rather wish I’d dumped the vehicle on a roundabout and taken a high-speed train to somewhere sunnier!