By now, everything that could have been said about Donna Tartt’s third novel, The Goldfinch, has been said. One of my favourite articles about it is this one from Laura Miller in the Guardian, where this phrase stood out for me:
“Her prose has the inimitable burnish of hammered silver or hand-rubbed wood.”
Because it really has. The Secret History remains one of my favourite novels of all time – my paperback copy is literally falling to pieces from re-reading and it only recently became available on Kindle. I didn’t get around to reading The Goldfinch until I was on holiday in January this year, but I’m kind of glad because it meant I got to read it without the usual interruptions for getting off the tube, going to bed early or having to do normal everyday things.
Theo loses his mother in a terrorist attack on New York’s Metropolitan Museum, at the same time acquiring a priceless painting which becomes the focus and bane of his life. Like The Secret History’s Richard, Theo is sensitive yet dissolute while yearning after a woman he can’t have. I can’t think of anyone who does drug-and-alcohol-soaked ennui better than Tartt – the passages with a chronically under-supervised teens Theo and his friend Boris knocking back vodka and pills under a blazing Las Vegas sun are beautifully crafted. It almost comes as a shock to hear later in the book how unreliable Theo actually was as a narrator of this period of his teenage years. I hate to keep comparing characters in novels, but Theo seems to share Richard’s intense self-awareness but simultaneous inability to see himself how others see him, from the crooked and unreliable Boris, to the distant-as-an-angel Pippa, to his saviour and business partner, Hobie.
The saddest thing about The Goldfinch is that we’ll probably all have to wait another 10 years for Tartt to write her next masterpiece. OK, I’ve finished gushing now.
John Connolly’s private detective Charlie Parker returns for a 12th book – The Wolf in Winter. My fears for an impending end to Maine’s finest just increase with every book because I know it can’t go on forever. The seeming suicide of a homeless man and the disappearance of his daughter leads Parker to investigate the insular and prosperous town of, erm… Prosperous.
As we’ve come to expect, there’s way more to this than meets the eye. Connolly’s ability to convey menace and fear remain undimmed and I’ve always really liked how he picks up and drops certain themes throughout the series (like the Believers) as he encounters different cases. His long-time sidekicks Angel and Louis feature heavily in this book too, with the level of violence which typically accompanies them. It’s hard (I think) to do a ‘good’ novel which incorporates the supernatural without it being a bit naff but Connolly makes the weird somehow seem perfectly normal.
A word to the wise (if it’s not too late by this time) – I’d avoid the Amazon reviews of this until you’ve read it as too many idiots seem to be posting spoilers.
The past and the future
This is a slight cheat because the Stella Duffy Theodora books are actually a re-read but they’re so good I want to talk about them. The first, Theodora, Actress, Empress, Whore, covers the early life of the performer who came to rule Constantinople whereas the second, The Purple Shroud, deals with her life as Justinian’s Empress.
As you’d probably expect, Theodora is no wilting lilly. She’s hard-faced, ruthless and not always likable, but you cannot help willing her to succeed. The books aren’t really typical historical fiction – a lot of the dialogue is necessarily modern which I actually quite like, not being a fan of ‘forsooth’ prose in books. They’re totally fascinating and I found myself wanting to go off and read more about the Byzantine empire, not to mention Theodora herself. She always comes across as no-nonsense, but as the books develop, you really see how she starts to learn the art of political intrigue and by the end she’s a master at it.
I read Chronicles of the Invaders: Conquest by John Connolly and Jennifer Ridyard for two reasons. Firstly, I’d just finished reading The Wolf in Winter before the end of my tube journey and there was an excerpt of Conquest at the end of the book, and secondly, it looked actually pretty good. It’s a Young Adult (YA) book but I certainly don’t remember YA books being this readable, this violent or this thought-provoking when I was a YA.
The story of Syl, an alien teenager growing up on Earth following the invasion of her people, the Illyri, converges with that of the human Resistance in Scotland following a mysterious bomb attack and nothing is the same again. It touches on all the kind of themes you’d expect a YA novel to cover – cultures clashing, forbidden love, tolerance of the different, teenage derring do etc. But despite a slight lack of character development in some cases (which I assume is because it’s the first in a series) Conquest is surprisingly mature and readable as a grown-up. The only thing I can remember reading as a YA which was vaguely comparable was Louise Lawrence’s Warriors of Taan and Andra for the considered exploration of human-alien relationships and politics.
Crime and spies
Having avoided the late Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine for a couple of years, I thought I’d give The Child’s Child a go as reviewers seemed to be saying it was better that RR/BV’s recent books. It IS better but doesn’t live up to previous Vine novels. Honestly, I wish her editor/publisher/agent would tell her to stop writing modern-day characters as though they’ve been transported from the 1930s – ‘I went off to the university, which all my students call ‘uni” (this is from a PhD aged around 30 living in London in 2011), adding inverted commas to phrases like ‘man bag’ and making a big deal about pointing out examples of political correctness. It dates her books more than if she just ignored things she clearly believes to be too new-fangled because it’s painfully obvious she’s uncomfortable with some aspects of modern life.
That said, I enjoyed the sub-novel which is also called The Child’s Child far more than I enjoyed the story of Grace, Andrew and James. I’ve said before that Vine/Rendell excels at creating the kind of mean-spirited bitter character you just want to shake and Maud is certainly that.
No Man’s Nightingale, on the other hand, was dire. I’ve long suspended my disbelief on how old ex-Inspector Wexford actually is but having him unofficially solve cases for the police is getting a bit daft now. Rendell does her usual thing with any non-white characters – it’s almost like she has a checkbox for creating them. Clergy – check. Female – check. Single mother – check. Asian – check. It’s just all a bit cringey. One of the other reviewers on Amazon comments on the same thing – ‘condescends grotesquely to ethnic minority characters: their colour is their defining feature’ which is pretty much spot on. I think I’ll have to go back to avoiding, which is a shame.
Another one I wish I’d avoided is Craig Stone’s Life Knocks. I actually feel a bit guilty about not liking it because I think he’s a talented writer, but I just really really struggled with this book. It’s described as Stone’s memoir and ‘his struggle with love, friendship and isolation in his mid-twenties’. My main problem with it was the incessant grating random metaphors (‘like trying to wrestle a plunger from the face of an octopus’) and phrases which I am genuinely unsure what they are (‘my tongue has been replaced by a nun crying alone on a step’, ‘frightened lettuce’). The other reviews of the book are overwhelmingly positive so presumably it’s just me who didn’t like it.
I want everyone to read Terry Hayes’ I Am Pilgrim so we can all talk about it. A good spy novel is a great thing and Pilgrim is definitely one of those. Although I’d come across this when it was released last year, it slipped under my radar for some reason until a friend recommended it this summer.
In the year post-9/11 (thus neatly evading more modern surveillance technologies), a retired uber-spy is tracked down by an NYPD cop. Ostensibly, it’s to help solve a murder case but he finds himself on the trail of a mysterious Islamic jihadist who is every bit as talented and resourceful as he is, not to mention hell-bent on the destruction of America. A key plot device is centred around the fact uber-spy managed to write a book which appears to be essentially an instruction manual for terrorists and murderers at the same time as being a go-to text for US government agencies.
The pace is absolutely ripping with all the globe-trotting, intrigue and unexpected plot twists you’d expect from a good thriller, leading to a gripping showdown. Pilgrim is 700 pages long. I started it on a flight on Friday and finished it on Sunday morning. It’s THAT compulsive I even told my husband to shut up so I could read the finale in peace. Slight narks about it are the amount of racial stereotyping – while you can understand why it’s happening based on uber-spy’s background, it’s still a bit grating. Uber-spy is also a bit humourless and narcissistic, but then I guess if you were literally the best spy in the universe you might polish your fingernails a bit too.
Hayes is a screenwriter by trade and and this has Hollywood blockbuster written all over it. Don’t be surprised to see a film in a couple of years. I just hope it doesn’t end up having Tom Cruise in it.
There seems to be an awful lot of sub-standard crime novels out there at the moment. Mark Edwards’ Because She Loves Me and The Magpies remain the only Kindle books I’ve ever sent back for a refund. Sibel Hodge’s Look Behind You is another shocker. Aside from the fact the plot is nearly identical to that of Nicci French’s (far superior) Land of the Living, it’s pretty obvious who the baddie is pretty much right from the start and the writing is just clunky.
A much much better crime novel was Sara Hilary’s Someone Else’s Skin, which introduces DI Marnie Rome. It’s tense, snappy and an absolutely cracking read, turning the domestic abuse story echoed in Look Behind You on its head. Also high up on the crime must-read list are Sabine Durrant’s Under Your Skin and Remember Me This Way. The former has a high profile TV presenter stumble across a dead body on her morning run, becoming unexpectedly involved in the police investigation. There’s a big twist which I genuinely did not see coming but I’m not going to spill the beans. The latter is the story of a bereaved wife who starts discovering some odd things about her deceased husband. There’s a big twist in that one too though not the one you would expect. The dual narrative reveals a dysfunctional and controlling relationship and the writing of both books is tense and pulls the reader inexorably in.
If you want an insider’s view of the film industry, Observer critic Mark Kermode’s polemic The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex is as good a place to start as any. He tackles dumbing down of cinema (hello, Michael Bay!), the scourge of 3D and the futility of remaking foreign language films for English-speaking audiences, amongst other rants about popcorn, Pearl Harbor and Danny Dyer. It’s a hugely entertaining read and Kermode’s passion for film brings even explanations about how 3D is made to life.
First up is Ben Aaronovitch’s Foxglove Summer, the fifth book in the Rivers of London series. Despite the massive shocker at the end of the fourth book, it doesn’t get mentioned at all for a good chunk of this one which seemed odd. PC Peter Grant leaves London to do some magical crime-solving in the country. It’s no less entertaining to read than the previous ones, but it did feel a bit unfinished somehow, not to mention leaving some pretty big unanswered questions hanging.
This year I discovered Susan Hill’s Simon Serrailler series. If you can ignore the constant reminders of what a terrible commitment-phobe the main character is, these are actually very very good. I’d hesitate to describe them as crime – they are about a policeman and crimes happen but they’re more about the impact on a family and local community.
Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests returns to post-WWI London and follows the impoverished but genteel Frances and her mother as they try to scrape by. A decision to take in lodgers has far-reaching consequences for all involved.
I loved Matt Haig’s Echo Boy. Set in 2115, a young girl forms a friendship with Daniel, who is basically a very sophisticated android. Like his previous book, The Humans, Haig fills Echo Boy with a powerful and thought-provoking tangle of feelings.
Finally, the fourth Nicci French Frieda Klein book was released this year too and despite our heroine remaining as prickly as ever, everyone seems to gravitate to her. Thursday’s Children has Frieda returning to her hometown to investigate something which happened when she was a teenager. Her nemesis, Dean Reeve, continues to haunt her as she digs up memories which are painful for everyone, not least herself.