Book Review

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Lovecraft Country, by Matt Ruff

This is not an easy book to review; not because I don’t know what to say about it, but because I know virtually nothing about H P Lovecraft’s writing, so I wouldn’t want to jump to any lazy conclusions about the presumed connection between this book and Lovecraft’s own oeuvre. I was attracted to the book because I recently watched (and enjoyed, albeit with some ongoing confusion) the HBO dramatisation, which was shown serially in Britain on Sky (and seems to have taken some considerable liberties with the narrative, but I suppose that is only to be expected, using the mitigating excuse of “dramatic licence”) and, inevitably, two of the drama’s main characters were depicted on the latest edition of the book’s front cover: this paperback was published in 2020 by Picador, London, ISBN 978-1-5290-1903-2. Unfortunately, the book’s Wikipedia page isn’t a great deal of help here:

Lovecraft Country is a 2016 dark fantasy horror novel by Matt Ruff, exploring the conjunction between the horror fiction of H. P. Lovecraft and racism in the United States during the era of Jim Crow laws, as experienced by Black science-fiction fan Atticus Turner and his family.

See above for citation

Lovecraft’s own Wikipedia page is somewhat more helpful, but I will return to that at the conclusion of the review. The book is actually a portmanteau of eight separate, but connected stories, the first of which gives the book its name. The story starts in 1954, with the return of Atticus Turner, who has just been released from military service, having served in the American war in Korea, to his home in Chicago. Although the story starts in an apparently ‘normal’ world, it very quickly becomes clear that this normal world is a very difficult one for black people (or ‘coloured’, as they are often referred to, which is at least polite), and that the events which ensue are going to be seen & interpreted through the lens of this difficult, and very often painful reality.

Before long, magic becomes an inescapable part of the fabric of the story, which makes the journey upon which our protagonists have embarked, even more perilous. Atticus’s father, Montrose, has gone missing, and in New England, where they hope to find him, Atticus, his uncle George, and his childhood friend Letitia encounter thuggish & provocative white police officers (inevitably), but also the white, patrician Braithwhite family: father Samuel and son Caleb will figure in the rest of the story, and become a presence that it is impossible for Atticus & his associates to ignore. The Braithwhites are members of one of a loose confederation of quasi-Masonic Lodges, but this appearance is merely superficial, as their main purpose appears to be the use of magic; and not always a beneficent one, unfortunately. Atticus’s family also appears to have a knowledge of the same esoteric arts practised by the Braithwhites, and George & Montrose are also members of a Chicago Masonic Lodge; one exclusively for Black members, of course.

To give any more plot details would be unfair, but it might be helpful to add a few details about Lovecraft himself here, to support the description of the environment which Atticus & co. encountered as ‘Lovecraft Country’. Lovecraft’s Wikipedia page states, somewhat confusingly, that he began his life as a Tory, which is normally understood as a British political persuasion, but despite apparently becoming a socialist after the Great Depression, it is clear that some of his views were also incontrovertibly right-wing, to the extent being arguably fascist; although the page also states that the form of government advocated by Lovecraft bears little resemblance to that term; I would take issue with that, having researched fascism for the biography of my relative, Wilfred Risdon, because in the early 1930s at least, it was possible for fascism to also embrace socialistic principles. Unfortunately, his racial attitudes were not unusual for the time, although it would seem that his earlier (prior to the 1930s) denigration of non-white races later modified somewhat, to an opinion that different ethnicities should remain in their area of origin and, ideally, not intermingle, unless they, presumably only the white races though, were prepared to assimilate completely.

However, returning to the book, it is an engaging story; and having seen the television dramatisation, notwithstanding the dramatic liberties, does help to a large degree with visualisation of the action (but I appreciate that not all readers would be able to avail themselves of this facility); but the battle of wits between our protagonists and the white antagonists, not least because the Black characters are able to show, with considerable ease, that they are really the match of (and, often, superior to) their white oppressors, both actual & putative, makes the narrative very enjoyable, especially if equality, fairness, and human rights are important to you. This is highly recommended, and you don’t need to be a connoisseur of fantasy fiction to be able to enjoy it; although that undoubtedly helps!

Book Review

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Two Tribes, by Chris Beckett

I have to confess upfront that this book was something of a disappointment for me. The book back blurb includes the paragraph: “Two Tribes is a reflection on the way our ideas are shaped by class and social circumstances, and how they change without us even noticing. It explores what divides us and what brings us together. And it asks where we may be headed next.” So far, so good, and the book starts well enough, but I could see the book’s thickness rapidly diminishing as I was reading, and I was wondering why the wider story outside the characters’ immediate actions, which is threaded right through the book, was not moving forward as quickly as I thought it could. The book is categorised as ‘speculative fiction’ (which is a new category to me), and Beckett is clearly an intelligent & thoughtful writer, detailing the thought processes behind the characters’ action.

The story is presented as a reconstructed history of the time in England immediately following the Brexit vote, from the point of view of a historian & archivist, Zoe, who works in the Cultural Institute in “the bleak, climate-ravaged twenty-third century”, after she discovers the two hundred and fifty year old diaries of the two main characters, Harry, an architect, and Michelle, a hairdresser, so a certain amount of ‘embroidery’ is practised by Zoe, to flesh out these two people’s lives, and she actually resorts to explicit fabrication in the creation of some characters with whom Harry & Michelle come into contact, for the novel she has decided to write, although it is outside her professional remit, to the consternation of Zoe’s friend, and putative lover, Cally.

England is under the ostensibly benign supervision, in the form of the Guiding Body, of China, as a result of some sort of catastrophic societal breakdown (and living conditions are still rather primitive for some of the population), and this is the aspect of the story that I felt Beckett could have developed better; of course, it would inevitably be speculation & hypothesis, but I feel it is something of an abrogation of the author’s responsibility, to work back from an imagined future with only lightly sketched details of how that future came about. Harry and Michelle are from different backgrounds, but for Zoe, it is “an extraordinary stroke of luck” that another diary, Michelle’s, overlaps both chronologically & geographically with Harry’s, so it is possible for Zoe to present the very real discord that has been experienced in Britain following the ‘leave’ Brexit vote through the eyes of a character effectively from each side of the divide; and people’s accents & enunciation are examined in some detail to emphasise their social difference. Beckett points out our own hypocrisies & blinkered thinking in the discussions the characters have and, for me, this is the most successful aspect of this book, because in the real world, it is widely recognised (possibly more by the ‘remain’ side than the ‘winners’ of the vote) that this episode in our early twenty-first century history is producing many more negative than positive repercussions.

Where the book falls down is in not projecting forward, apart from in the very broadest brush strokes, to describe how the societal collapse came about. At some stage, ‘normal’ life broke down sufficiently (which might have coincided with a collapse of democratic government) for armed conflict to begin, with two factions, the possibly somewhat clumsily named, but easily understood, Liberals & Patriots fighting for dominance. China must have had sufficient investment in the country, presumably, to want to protect it, and an agreement was reached whereby the country was invaded, enabling a Protectorate to be established, creating a Guiding Body “of qualified, able and scientifically minded people”, using Nine Principles to develop the country in a way appropriate to one of the factions, albeit patrolled by armed militiamen, which is roughly when the story starts. How did social media ‘argy-bargy’, and current-affairs navel-gazing programmes, descend into armed conflict? Would having a theoretical scenario presented here prevent it happening in real life? Probably not, but knowing how bad things could become should spur us on to work ever harder to preserve peace. The paperback version of the book that I read was published in 2021 by Corvus, London, ISBN 978-1-78649-933-2.

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Coffin Road, by Peter May

The scenario of a protagonist waking up, in a state of some jeopardy, either current or recent, with no knowledge of his or her identity or the chain of events which has precipitated the current situation, cannot be unique to this book, but it is a refreshing change; and, of course, the misdirection can be laid out right at the beginning, a fog (both literal & figurative) which the protagonist and, implicitly, the reader, has to penetrate to unravel the mystery of why he; in this case, a man; came to be washed up on a beach somewhere with total amnesia. The Coffin Road of the title is an ancient way which was taken across the Isle of Harris for burial rites, because the east side of the island was too rocky for burials, so the body had to be carried across to the western side, where the natural soil was more accommodating. The reason for this road being used as the name of the book is not immediately clear, but suffice to say that the road is significant to the story.

The man doesn’t discover his true name until well into the story so, up until that point, he only has the information he has gleaned from the people in his immediate vicinity to go on and, although they seem plausible enough on the surface, it takes a while to discover that some of them might be deceiving him, but why? Ostensibly, the man is writing a book about the mystery of the missing lighthouse keepers of Eilean Mòr (Gaelic for big island), who went missing without trace in December 1900, almost exactly one year after the light was first lit on the largest of the seven Flannan Isles; at the outset, he has no knowledge of how he came to be doing this, but when he reads a booklet about it in the cottage he is renting for the duration, he is instantly gripped by the story. He is aided & abetted, to some extent, by an attractive (of course!) young woman, apparently the wife of an academic taking a year out with her in this beautiful, but rugged, location; the unnamed man is also having an illicit liaison with this woman, and he sees no reason initially to question this, for a variety of reasons!

Unfortunately for the man, who is apparently a sailor of some expertise, there is a dead body at the location he is given to understand was the last place he visited before his accident, so to add to his current confusion, he also has the terrible foreboding that he might have been responsible for this murder. Into this mix, but separately at first, is thrown a teenage girl in Edinburgh, who is trying to discover the truth about her father’s suicide because, although all the information available to her points to this being the case, she can’t accept that he would abandon her, given that she knows how much he lover her; unfortunately, she is riven with guilt, because the last time they parted, she told him that she hated him.

Although this might seem like a pretty conventional thriller, before long the real message of the story becomes apparent: there is an environmental catastrophe on the horizon; getting closer by the day, in fact; and this book is the vehicle for this message, so I am very happy to share it. Of course, most of the educated world is aware of the issue, but the problem that needs to be addressed is the cavalier, money-driven attitude of the agrochemical industry, especially given the vast potential profits that can be made from the products of this industry: so how can this real threat be alleviated, if not removed completely? I know nothing about this author, but he has produced at least seventeen books, one of which is non-fiction, so he is clearly a well-established writer, and I will certainly keep a look out for his work in future. Coffin Road was published in 2016 by riverrun, an imprint of Quercus Editions Ltd., London, in paperback, ISBN 978-1-78429-313-0.

Book Review

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I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov

This is possibly the best known of Asimov’s stories, but the book with this title is, in fact, a series of nine short stories, published individually between 1940 & 1950, plus a fictitious introduction, in a connected thread, and it is also one of five ‘robot’ books written by Asimov; the epithet ‘seminal’ can surely and safely be ascribed to it, in the science fiction genre. Younger readers might initially associate the title with a 2004 film of the same name, directed by Alex Proyas, and starring Will Smith; given that it is a few years since I watched this film, from what I can remember, it bears little resemblance to Asimov’s original: the Wikipedia ‘blurb’ tells us that the original screenplay, Hardwired, was “suggested by Isaac Asimov’s 1950 short-story collection of the same name.” The underlying message of the film might not be too far removed from the original, however, because Asimov’s portmanteau essentially uses the technology of robotics as a vehicle for psychology, philosophy and, possibly, even morality: how much autonomy can we, should we, give to what are machines or, perhaps, cyborgs; if they have organic content in the form of a positronic brain (a term conceived by Asimov, and now very well known in science fiction); and if we do, how far would we be able to trust them, in view of their likely superiority, both mental & physical?

Of course, AI (Artificial Intelligence: “founded as an academic discipline in 1955”, according to Wikipedia, so very much springing out of, if not necessarily inspired by, Asimov’s thinking) is now a very widely known, if not necessarily understood, concept, and it is used in a plethora of applications, from internet search engines to what are now referred to as ‘smart’ devices; the worry, which some technologists are probably quite happy to dismiss as ‘conspiracy theory’, is that much of the work that AI does goes on unseen, in the background, so it is virtually impossible to monitor its activity and the repercussions for society, especially where privacy & human rights are concerned: perhaps these wider implications weren’t obvious to Asimov when he was writing the stories in the American post-war, white heat of technological development, although it is pretty clear that he was aware of the dangers that intelligent, autonomous robots could present.

These creations, initially of mankind but, before very long, self-reproducing, can be made to be beneficent (probably the best-known example of which is the android Data, from the Star Trek Next Generation series) just as easily as they can be made bellicose, as they would be when (rather than if) the military were allowed to dominate their development: the difference would be governed by the primary programming of the neural net (another name for the positronic brain), and it must be assumed that the military’s killing machines would not be given the fundamental & inescapable guidance of Asimov’s wonderfully precise & concise Three Laws of Robotics, “designed to protect humans from their robotic creations”, hence the clear & present danger which would be obvious to all, including (but expediently ignored by) the military.

The protagonists of these stories are three main characters, the primary one being, to Asimov’s credit, a female ‘robopsychologist’, Dr. Susan Calvin, the other two being engineers Gregory Powell and Mike Donovan, who have to deal ‘on the ground’ with different situations involving robots, in the chronological course of the narrative. It is structured in the form of a memoir of a series of interviews with Calvin by an unnamed future version of a journalist (he is only ever referred to by Calvin as “young man”: he is thirty-two), who is acquiring background information on her for his “feature articles for Interplanetary Press”: he already “had her professional ‘vita’ in full detail.” The year is 2062, and over the course of the interviews, Calvin gives the journo her thoughts on both her life, to that point, and sketches in the scenarios involving the main & supporting characters, which are described in the third person, including Calvin herself.

There are many interesting aspects to this series; the first is the obviously, and occasionally, in our terms comically, antiquated manifestation of the future technology as it could be conceived in the late 1940s; another is the way that everybody, across this future society, is quite comfortable with anthropomorphism of robots, primarily derived from their nomenclature: “Dave”, from DV-5; “Cutie”, for the QT series; but the first robot mentioned only has a human name, Robbie, rather prosaically, although ‘he’ cannot vocalise, being “made and sold in 1996. Those were the days before extreme specialization [sic], so he was sold as a nursemaid…” Also, and somewhat depressingly for me, it is taken for granted that capitalism will still be operating in this technological future, but it doesn’t have to be so: there is at least one highly developed ‘alternative’ system, Resource Based Economy, embodied in the work of Jacque Fresco and his collaborators in The Venus Project — it is difficult to pin down exactly when his work would have first achieved some prominence, but he was born in 1916 (died 2018!) and, according to the website, “Fresco’s lifelong project stems from his firsthand experience of the Great Depression, which instilled in him the urge to reevaluate how many of the world’s systems work.”, so it is possible that Asimov was aware of this concept, but whether he chose to ignore it is a moot point.

The impression given by Dr. Calvin’s reminiscences, for all her obvious genius professionally, is that she is distinctly ambivalent about the advisability of humanity’s inexorable & irrevocable reliance upon robots and AI, and her empathy, for all she could come across as occasionally cold & arrogant, is presumably the vehicle by which Asimov conveys his own reservations: any tool, or weapon, has no impetus other than the autonomy which is bestowed upon it, so an inert tool is subject to the use to which a human being might put it, but it appears that Asimov was wanting to warn us of the dangers of opening Pandora’s Box. Thankfully, those concerns are being addressed to some extent, but inevitably, secrecy associated with humanity’s protectionism embodied by global military forces means that it is possible that wider society will have no inkling of how far development of autonomous AI has progressed before it passes the point of no return: perhaps the best we can do is hope and work for peace wherever possible. The paperback edition of the book I read was published by HarperVoyager, London, in 2018, ISBN 978-0-00-827955-4.

Book Review

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The Roots of Evil, by Quintin Jardine

The final quote on the back cover about this book, from the Glasgow Herald, tells us: “If Ian Rankin is the Robert Carlyle of Scottish crime writers, then Jardine is surely its Sean Connery”; notwithstanding that I’m not sure how complimentary (if at all) this is to the excellent Robert Carlyle, I think the comparison of Jardine’s writing to an actor, someone whose modus operandi is to believably become different people on a regular basis (although in Connery’s case, he could never quite relinquish his ‘shtrong’ Scottish accent, even when playing his best-known character, Bond), perhaps doesn’t convey the message that it was supposed to? In addition, whilst I endeavour to eschew judging a person by his appearance, I think it’s fair to say that one could be forgiven for thinking that the upper body photograph of this author, accompanying the short bio on the inside rear cover, especially by the way he is scowling straight down the lens, could easily be that of one of the ‘villains’ he is accustomed to writing about (although that is undoubtedly presumptuous, on the basis of only reading one of “more than forty published novels”), rather than a man in any way resembling the estimable Mr. Connery. Still, all that said, in Jardine’s defence, his Bob Skinner character (aka Sir Robert Skinner) is a horse of a different feather than Rankin’s Rebus, notwithstanding his predilection for copious use of the f-word; so, this is definitely ’grown-up’ fiction.

This was another book that felt, at first, like it might be ‘hard going’ (although that is probably more a reflection of my capacity to absorb new information than it is of the beginning of this story); and, be warned: there is no shortage of characters whose names must be memorised if the narrative is to be followed, especially given the size of Skinner’s family, as a result of a few different relationships/liaisons. However, it only took me a few chapters to start enjoying the story (and the layout, a very important factor in my enjoyment, of the hardback edition I read, was conducive to easy reading). There is a whiff of nepotism about the relationships between some of the characters, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but when some of these relationships are with currently serving or ex-police officers, surely corruption can only be a half-step away (Line of Duty anyone?). The thread which holds the story together, and which provides the strands that have to be unravelled, is the murder of two police officers; one serving and the other now a civilian; whose bodies are left in a car which is dumped outside one of Edinburgh’s main police stations in the first hour of the first day of 2020 (so it is bang up to date, including a reference to concerns about a new respiratory infection that has surfaced in China at the end of the previous year, and Zoom calls; although I’m not sure how prevalent they were before the pandemic affected Britain): both have been shot, in similar, but crucially different ways.

The clues are revealed slowly, to enable the reader to piece the motivation of the killer or killers together; but of course, they are not revealed in a linear fashion, so a certain amount of mental dexterity is required to put each new nugget in its appropriate pigeonhole. There are international connections as well, so although the action might be confined to dour Edinburgh & its environs, the tentacles of the criminality behind the murders stretch far beyond it. Skinner is in an unusual position, in that he is now Chair of the UK division of an international media company, which among its many activities publishes one of Scotland’s top newspapers, The Saltire, so this can be useful to prevent, or at least mitigate unsavoury scrutiny of police actions and scurrilous speculation thereon; however, he hasn’t completely severed his police connections, because he mentors rising CID officers, and if it aids his investigations as & when required, he can produce a Special Constable’s warrant card. The investigation is brought to a successful conclusion, thereby also solving an outstanding case in another, distant, country, although this is not necessarily satisfactory for all parties involved. I can recommend this book, and I will certainly keep my eyes open for other books by Quintin Jardine. The Roots of Evil is published in hardback by Headline Publishing Group, London, ISBN 978-1-4722-5591-4; trade paperback is also available.

Book Review

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This is What Happened, by Mick Herron

Notwithstanding the inaccuracy of the strapline for this story, displayed at the bottom of the front cover; I appreciate that it is a common figure of speech: “some stories you can’t make up” – but unless this story purports to be true reportage, it obviously IS made up!; on the basis of the two previous books by this author which I have read in the Jackson Lamb [aka Slow Horses] series (you can read my review here), despite it not being one of those, I set out to read it with high hopes. It could probably more accurately be described as a novella, because at 241 pages, set in 13.75pt Bembo [a generous font anyway], it doesn’t take very long to power through.

It starts off in relatively familiar spy-trope territory, with the protagonist, “[t]wenty-six-year-old Maggie Barnes … someone you would never look at twice”, ostensibly undertaking a mission for her MI5 handler, Harvey Wells (I could suggest an attribution for this name, but that could easily spoil the plot!), in which she is required to surreptitiously insert a monitoring program outside office hours into the computer system of the London-based company, which is Chinese-owned, for which she works as a lowly post-room clerk: Harvey assures her that this action will be vital for the ongoing security of their country, to thwart what could be a disastrous potential cyber-attack by the Chinese government. The mission is successfully accomplished, albeit not without a hitch, being discovered by one of the company’s security guards, her evasion of which she is subsequently informed has resulted in the death of said employee.

Harvey handles this unfortunate dénouement by installing her in a safe house or, to be more precise, a safe basement flatlet with only small and obscured high-level living room windows, in an anonymous London terrace. Apparently, the other flats in the building are occupied, so she must not leave the accommodation for the foreseeable future, until Harvey deems it safe for her to return to some sort of normal life. Unfortunately, as the weeks turn into months, Harvey tells her that society is breaking down, despite her heroic action, thanks to the cunning intervention of the Chinese, which the British appear to have been powerless to resist. Naturally enough, she becomes increasingly institutionalised by this incarceration but, given that she has always been quite reserved and undemonstrative, she learns to accept her isolation, albeit not without occasional depression. Two years pass, and still there is no sign of an improvement in the world outside her obscured windows; eventually, she persuades Harvey to let her venture outside, albeit during the night, when there is little likelihood of encountering anyone threatening; nevertheless, she very quickly finds the experience frightening, and is mightily relieved once Harvey has hustled her back to her safe haven.

That is parts one & two of the book. Part three introduces us to Dickon Broom, whose library card Maggie discovered at the back of the wardrobe in her tiny bedroom: in her highly susceptible mental state, she fantasises that he was an agent who also had the need of the safe house at some previous time; she doesn’t share this with Harvey, though. In fact, he’s a freelance English teacher, although he is also able to teach politics (“Not to a very high level”) and GCSE Italian. He is looking for new challenges, after leaving his previous employment at a school for foreign students who want to learn English as a second language. Although he knows that his prowess with the opposite sex leaves a lot to be desired, he has recently met a woman called Sue, who is looking for her younger sister, who went missing two years ago. Coincidentally, Maggie is also estranged from her older sister, Meredith, but this she has also neglected to mention to Harvey.

This is as far as I can go without completely spoiling the plot, but suffice to say that the story doesn’t develop the way the initial setup would suggest. The ending is satisfying, without being easily predictable so, although it might not fit neatly into one of the standard fiction compartments, if you are happy to approach it without preconceptions, it is an enjoyable read or, at least, I found it so. It was published in Great Britain, 2018, by John Murray (Publishers), ISBN 978-1-47365-732-8 [hardback; other formats are available].

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The Sleepwalker, by Joseph Knox

Although this is pure happenstance, it is unfortunate that I have read this book, published by Doubleday in 2019, ISBN 978-1-784-16218-4 [paperback] out of order, because the main character, Detective Sergeant Aidan Waits, might have made more sense, and been somewhat easier to like (possibly still a stretch, though) than he is in this third book. The stories are set in Manchester, England, although I think this is truly only of any significant interest to people who know the city well: from my own limited knowledge of it, I would say, no disrespect intended, that it has just as many scuzzy areas as most other major cities in Britain, and the criminals are probably no more or less unpleasant than those in any other city, so the stories could have been set anywhere; still, they have to be set somewhere, so Manchester it is. I don’t know if the author was deliberately trying to make Waits similar to Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus, with all the latter’s clearly visible character flaws, but I think there is a definite similarity; neither of the two quotes from Rankin about this or another book in the series mentions Waits, but a quote from The Guardian does mention the setting: “Knox presents the city as pungently and uncompromisingly as Ian Rankin does Edinburgh.”

The story is partly narrated by Waits, so we are treated to a lot of his stream of consciousness, which can become slightly wearing, but it is leavened with third-person reportage of the actions of other characters. Waits appears to be in a precarious position in his job, being almost universally disliked which, given his apparent incompatibility with the requirements for the job, are hardly surprising, but again, this is where some knowledge of his development as a police officer from the earlier stories would have helped: there are a few flashbacks which throw some light on this, however. The main thread of the story concerns the death of a serial killer, and its consequences, but there is also the thread of Waits’s relationship with one of the ‘top’ Manchester gangsters. Some sort of obligation to him is implied: “in a sense, I’d belonged to Zain Carver once”; but there is also the threat & consequent jeopardy that this would involve. Against his wishes, Waits is assigned a partner, DC Naomi Black and, whilst she is clearly efficient at her work, it is obvious to Waits that this DC has been foisted on him to monitor his work, presumably (to him) to give his superior clear evidence of misconduct, enough to throw him out of the Police service.

Waits, only too well aware of the nature of his position, has already made provision for a hasty departure, but these plans are scuppered by a dangerous player in the story, a female firearms officer by the name of Louisa Jankowski, who was on duty when the serial killer, Martin Wick, was killed in the hospital where he was already dying from cancer; so Waits is convinced that she is somehow involved with the murder, but he has to tread very carefully. While all this is happening, he has to deal with the news that his mother, from whom he has been estranged for many years, is about to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act; he suffers from panic attacks, which might or might not be a direct result of the mental & physical abuse his younger sister suffered from their mother as children: “Our mother used to use her arms as ashtrays”. A young woman, possibly a drug addict, with a tattooed face, is under suspicion and being sought for the hospital murders, but Waits also has his doubts about Frank Moore, the man whose wife & children were apparently murdered by Wick: Moore has now remarried, and has, somewhat improbably (although not impossible, of course) the same number & gender of children as he had previously, and now runs self-help courses, including for prisoners, after finding that Christianity was a way out of the slough of despond in which he had found himself when his life collapsed.

This is a very complicated plot, and the dénouement is somewhat ambiguous, but the primary reason for that is likely to be to allow for another book in the series, which is hardly surprising: it certainly isn’t a murder mystery in the Hercule Poirot or DCI Banks mould, notwithstanding that their plots can also be similarly tortuous. That said, it is worth sticking with, and I will be happy to read either or both of the earlier stories if I can encounter them; if only, as stated above, to provide some background to this highly flawed character.

Book Review

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Our Kind of Traitor, by John le Carré

Many people hold le Carré’s work in very high regard; I consider myself to be one of those; so I was rather unsure, as I started reading this book, first published in 2010 and again in 2011 by Penguin Books, ISBN 978-0-241-96785-0 (2014), whether this might be one of his less successful books. It starts in Antigua with Peregrine (Perry) Makepiece and “Gail, his long-standing girlfriend” on holiday, booked after his father had died from “the same cancer that had carried of his mother two years earlier, leaving Perry in a state of modest affluence.” In the meantime, he had begun to question his direction in life, deciding to leave academia in Oxford and “qualify as a secondary-school teacher in one of his country’s most deprived areas.” Gail was also undecided as to whether her future should consist of marriage & babies and “give up the Bar…or should she continue to pursue her meteoric career in London?” So, “a holiday in Antigua looked like providing the ideal setting in which to do it.” Unfortunately, Perry, who is an excellent tennis player, makes the mistake of allowing himself to be cajoled into a match with “a muscular, stiff-backed, bald, brown-eyed Russian man of dignified bearing in his middle fifties called Dima.” Almost inevitably, given the author, his nationality means that he will have a story to tell that will be of interest to the security services back at (Perry’s) home.

The narrative develops quite slowly, hence my initial concern, but le Carré’s skill is in giving the characters space, in the combination of present-day & flashback, rather than rushing into a bullet-point checklist of narrative stages. Perry’s contacts are suitably interested in what he has to tell them about Dima and, perhaps somewhat predictably, I regret to say, the man running the operation (although not at the top of his chain of command) is an eccentric nonconformist maverick, by the name of Hector Meredith (think John Hurt); perhaps there’s only room in spy fiction for one Smiley? Perry & Gail are not entirely unwilling participants in the operation to exfiltrate Dima to England, but the main complication for the planners is that Dima has a large extended family, which he refuses to leave behind. The bulk of the action takes place in Switzerland, where Dima and his family are currently based, and both Perry & Gail go beyond the call of duty to assist the operation. Overall, it goes reasonably smoothly, as a result of the meticulous planning undertaken by Hector’s department; in fact, the main threat to the operation comes from the ‘suits’ back in England. I can’t say I was particularly rooting for the protagonist, Dima, given that he is an unpleasant example of the new breed of Russian criminal, but if only as a result of my rather pale patriotism, I was hoping that neither Perry nor Gail would come to any harm. The dénouement is something of an anticlimax, leading to the death of one of the main characters, but I will say no more to avoid spoiling the plot. We are left to draw our own conclusions as to the consequences which are not spelled out at the very end, which I always find rather frustrating, as I am a completist when it comes to stories! I’m glad to be able to say that I have read another book in le Carré’s canon, but I wouldn’t describe it as one of his best.

Book Review

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The Face Pressed Against a Window, by Tim Waterstone

I have to confess I am rather ambivalent about this book: it is subtitled A Memoir, so it is, by definition, selective, which means that I couldn’t enjoy it as much as I would have done a ‘proper’ autobiography. Tim Waterstone’s childhood is described in some detail at the beginning of the book (in which there is also a reference to “genteel Bournemouth”); so far, so good, but after his time at university (and here he shamelessly name-drops, including one of his intake who achieved great fame, Ian McKellen), he seems quite happy, after one fairly short chapter about his time working in India, to almost jump straight to when he achieves his dream of opening first one, and then before very long, a whole chain of independent bookshops (another confession: I didn’t make the connection when I first read his name as the author, and didn’t look closely enough at the cover cartoon which shows a Waterstone’s bookshop!), and the bulk of the rest of the book is occupied, understandably of course and, to be fair, forgivably, by a detailed exposition of the trials & tribulations, as well as the laudable successes, of his bookselling empire. He is also rather tight-lipped about the first two of his marriages, the former during his time in India. His third marriage appears to have lasted, and he has produced, in all, eight children.

His childhood was not the happiest, and it is possible to ascribe the competitive aspect of his nature that enabled him to realise the dream that made itself known to him as a young man to that, but I think that would be simplistic: of course we are all, to a great extent, a product of our childhood & upbringing, but we are also all unique, so there must have been other factors along the way as well. He was the youngest of three children, and his father never loved him like he did Tim’s siblings, a brother and a sister. His father is described as a weak man, who depended upon his wife to a large extent while trying to give the impression that he was the man of the house; it is most likely that, as far as his father was concerned, Tim’s conception was an accident, and therefore unwanted; whereas his mother was always loving & supportive after a fashion, but that didn’t deter her from accompanying her husband to India for work, which meant that the three children were packed off to boarding schools; at Tonbridge, later, he was a contemporary of Frederick Forsyth. The boarding school episode was by no means unusual, of course, but Tim was unlucky enough to be sent to a school run by a married paedophile clergyman; although that, too, was sadly not unique. Tim laments that he made an unforgivable mistake of describing in an interview for The Times Educational Supplement his treatment at this school in a “painfully jocular and trivial and false” way, which prompted letters from previous students or, in one traumatic case, the widow of a former student who had killed himself, because “he had been destroyed by the sexual abasement he had been through at Warden House at the hands of the headmaster.” Lesson learned, albeit at a relatively late stage of his life.

In the final analysis, I am also somewhat ambivalent about how I regard Tim Waterstone as a person, not that that has a bearing upon my review of his book: he is evidently a thoughtful and considerate person, as evidenced by his supportive & caring attitude toward his staff, preferring to think of them as colleagues & friends, rather than merely members of staff; and he makes no secret of the fact that he is a Labour voter, although he doesn’t specify if he was a Blairite, given the latter’s quasi-Tory support for ‘business’; but he also is clearly and unequivocally driven & competitive, without which qualities it is very probable that he would not have succeeded, and this is the aspect of his personality which I can’t personally identify with. That doesn’t make him a better or worse man than I, of course, and it is impossible to go any further than that without the benefit of a personal acquaintance, which is extremely unlikely. What is unquestionable is that he changed the face of British bookselling in the 1980s, before the advent of the behemoth Amazon, and beyond, irrevocably. The book, published in hardback by Atlantic Books Ltd., London, in 2019, has the ISBN 978-1-78649-630-0; it is also available in paperback and an Ebook.

Book Review

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Don’t Say a Word, by Rebecca Tinnelly

This book, the second by this author, published in 2019 by Hodder & Stoughton, ISBN 978-1-47366-452-4, is actually quite difficult to review without revealing too much of the story, which obviously doesn’t necessarily make for a good review. The story develops, as is often the case (which is not to denigrate the approach, as it can be very effective), using a mixture of present-day first- and third-person narrative interspersed with flashbacks to several time periods, which advance chronologically as the story progresses, to add background detail which ‘fleshes out’ the lives of the characters, and helps to explain their thought processes. Again, the details are only revealed piecemeal, to keep the reader guessing; at first, I have to confess that I was not convinced that this was going to be a book I would enjoy reading, but it wasn’t long before I could appreciate how important the story was to the main characters, so I decided to persevere, and I’m glad that I did.

Selina Alverez is a single, thirty-four year-old Barrister who is based in Bristol; a city I knew well 45 years ago, having studied for my Design degree there and resided for a few years subsequently; she obviously has a social conscience, giving Starbucks vouchers to homeless people she encounters, and her main residence is an apartment in Taunton, a not insignificant drive away, but she retains a minimal “prisonesque” basement pied à terre, in a “Georgian block on the outskirts on the Durham Downs” in the city for convenience. She is still good friends with a girl she knew since the age of eight, Esther Lithgow, who also works in the legal profession, albeit as a solicitor and, therefore, not moving in such elevated circles as Selina, but also lives in an apartment in Taunton, adjacent to Selina’s. Her friend’s father is dying of cancer at home in a village not far from Esther, but her mother, Connie, who is still alive, is both physically & apparently mentally underdeveloped as a result of a childhood trauma at the age of six, seeing both parents die in a car accident resulting in a fireball, although we soon learn that she has a perfectly coherent & intelligent inner voice: she is just not able, most of the time, to vocalise her thoughts, which has consigned her to a subservient position as an adult, but even this is an improvement on her childhood & adolescence, when she was regarded by most, including the medical profession as the original definition of an idiot and, therefore, not capable of living independently.

She is taken in by her maternal grandmother, who is unsympathetic and often cruel to her, for no obvious reason, other than specious religious grounds, whereas the grandmother is indulgent & encouraging toward Connie’s ‘normal’ cousin, Michael who, coincidentally & contemporaneously, has also found himself in a position of needing a home, having been abandoned by his mother Charlotte, who was a twin of Connie’s mother Caroline, and the worst type of irresponsible hippie. Luckily for Connie, there is a neighbour, Maud, who treats her empathetically, and Michael, 5 years older than Connie, assumes the rôle of her protector, albeit not in defiance of the grandmother. Selina & Esther’s story runs in parallel to Connie’s development; over the three years prior to the current date, their friendship has deteriorated somewhat, as a result of the diminishing number & duration of Selina’s visits. When she does finally return Esther’s calls, she discovers that Connie is in hospital, having apparently attempted suicide. Selina’s discomfiture is exacerbated by a secret she is carrying, which is alluded to obliquely before this event, but it is this secret that is gradually described in minimal increments as the narrative develops, and it is the cipher that, whilst innocuous in & of itself, has to be interpreted for want of explicit explanation from Connie, to unravel the tangled & tortuous life to which Connie has been confined.

Although this is a convincing story, with a reasonably satisfying dénouement, after some fairly shocking revelations along the way, it was let down slightly for me by at least one obvious spelling mistake that should have been identified in the editing process; such as “plimsoles” instead of “plimsolls”; plus, albeit in the acknowledgments section at the back of the book, “license” as a noun, instead of “licence”, but this I would ascribe to the author’s age, as a result of Americanised spellings such as this becoming, regretfully (for me) ubiquitous thanks to the steamroller effect of the influx of American culture (and default-setting American English spell-check used in word-processing applications); also, and whilst this is purely a personal hobby-horse of mine, she only ever uses “whilst” which, I would maintain, does not denote the passage of time, that being covered by the use of “while”. These are minor reservations, of course, which I hope will not detract from some sort of enjoyment or appreciation for my followers who choose to read it, even though that read is not likely to be a comfortable one, unless one positively relishes the Schadenfreude of reading about others’ misfortunes.