Sunday, 27 November 2011


Title: Pure

Author: Andrew Miller

Number of pages: 352

Started: 22 November 2011

Finished: 27 November 2011

Opening words:

A young man, young but not very young, sits in an anteroom somewhere, some wing or other, in the Palace of Versailles. He is waiting.

He has been waiting a long time. There is no fi re in the room, though it is the third week in October and cold as Candlemas. His legs and back are stiffening
from it – the cold and three days of travelling through it, first with Cousin André from Bellême to Nogent, then the coach, overfull with raw-faced people in winter coats, baskets on their laps, parcels under their feet, some travelling with dogs, one old man with a cockerel under his coat. Thirty hours to Paris and the rue aux Ours, where they climbed down onto cobbles and horseshit, and shifted about outside the haulier’s offi ce as if unsure of their legs. Then this morning, coming from the lodgings he had taken on the rue – the rue what? – an early start on a hired nag to reach Versailles and this, a day that may be the most important of his life, or may be nothing.

Read a longer extract here

Plot summary:

Deep in the heart of Paris its oldest cemetery is, by 1785, overflowing. Its stench hangs in the air, tainting the very breath of those who live nearby. The over-filled graves pop and burst, filling people’s basements with bones and spreading disease across the capital. But the cemetery’s roots are embedded deep in the hearts and minds of the people, for whom the graveyard has long provided a backdrop to their daily lives. Into their midst comes Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a young, provincial engineer charged by the king with demolishing it. At first Baratte sees this as a chance to clear the burden of history. But before long, he begins to suspect that the destruction of the cemetery might be a prelude to his own.

What I thought:

This is not a genre of book that I would normally read, and the demolition of a cemetery is probably not my normal choice of reading matter. That said, this was a readable book and I did quite enjoy it. It was well written and the plot was more engaging than I might have expected. Of the Costa list, this is one of the better ones and I’ll be interested to see how it gets in with the judges.

Monday, 21 November 2011

City of Bohane

Title: City of Bohane

Author: Kevin Barry

Number of pages: 277

Started: 16 November 2011

Finished: 21 November 2011

Opening words:

Whatever’s wrong with us is coming in off that river. No argument: the taint of badness on the city’s air is a taint off that river. This is the Bohane river we’re talking about. A blackwater surge, malevolent, it roars in off the Big Nothin’ wastes and the city was spawned by it and was named for it: city of Bohane.

He walked the docks and breathed in the sweet badness of the river. It was past midnight on the Bohane front. There was an evenness to his footfall, a slow calm rhythm of leather on stone, and the dockside lamps burned in the night-time a green haze, the light of a sad dream. The water’s roar for Hartnett was as the rushing of his own blood and as he passed the merchant yards the guard dogs strung out a sequence of howls all along the front. See the dogs: their hackles heaped, their yellow eyes livid. We could tell he was coming by the howling of the dogs.

Plot summary:

Forty years in the future. The once-great city of Bohane on the west coast of Ireland is on its knees, infested by vice and split along tribal lines. There are the posh parts of town, but it is in the slums and backstreets of Smoketown, the tower blocks of the Northside Rises and on the eerie bogs of Big Nothin’ that the city really lives. For years, the city has been in the cool grip of Logan Hartnett, the dapper godfather of the Hartnett Fancy gang. But there’s trouble in the air: they say his old nemesis is back in town; his trusted henchman are getting ambitious; and his missus wants him to give it all up and go straight... And then there's his mother.

What I thought:

I was not a fan of this book at all. I didn’t like the writing style, I didn’t enjoy the plot. I read it all because it is on the Costa Awards shortlist and it seemed a shame to give up on the first one. Not a book I would recommend.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Mystery Man

Title: Mystery Man

Author: Colin Bateman

Number of pages: 422

Started: 10 November 2011

Finished: 15 November 2011

Opening words:

There aren't many private eyes in Belfast, and now, apparently, there's one less. I know this because his shop was right next to mine. His name was Malcolm Carlyle and he seemed a decent sort; he would call in for a chat and a browse now and again when business was slow. His business, that is. His business was called Private Eye, big yellow letters on a black background. Then one day he didn't open up, and I never saw him again, and that was the start of my problems because he was still listed in the Yellow Pages, but when people couldn't get a response on the phone well, they thought, he must be good, he's so busy, he's changed his number, gone ex-directory, so they'd come down to plead their case, find the door locked, stand back and take a look at the place and see my shop next door and think there must be some kind of a connection because you don't have a shop called Private Eye and a shop called No Alibis sitting side by side for no reason at all. So they'd come in and furtively browse through the crime books, all the time eying me up behind the counter, trying to work out if I could possibly be the private eye they were looking for and if there was a connecting door between the shops, and whether I did this bookselling thing as a kind of respectable cover for my night time manoeuvres on the cold, dark streets of Belfast. They'd gotten it wrong of course. Book selling is more cut throat than you can possibly imagine.
The first fella who actually approached me was called Robert Geary; he was a civil servant in the Department of Education in Bangor, he was married, he had three children aged from nine to twelve and he supported Manchester United. He told me all this while making a meal out of paying for an Agatha Christie novel, so I knew something was up. No one had bought a Christie in years.

Read a longer extract here

Plot summary:

He’s the Man With No Name and the owner of No Alibis, a mystery bookshop in Belfast. But when a detective agency next door goes bust, the agency’s clients start calling into his shop asking him to solve their cases. It’s not as if there’s any danger involved. It’s an easy way to sell books to his gullible customers and Alison, the beautiful girl in the jewellery shop across the road, will surely be impressed. Except she’s not – because she can see the bigger picture. And when they break into the shuttered shop next door on a dare, they have their answer. Suddenly they’re catapulted along a murder trail which leads them from small-time publishing to Nazi concentration camps and serial killers...

What I thought:

This was a very readable book with an underlying dark sense of humour. The main, seemingly nameless, character runs a crime bookshop and starts, unwillingly, to gain the “custom” from the defunct detective agency next door.

It was a well-paced book and the main characters each had their own quirks that brought humour to the book. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the outcome of the book – the plot worked, but it was perhaps a more serious outcome than the rest of the book might have suggested.

It was a good book and the first of a series, which I will be pursuing, particularly as the book finished on a cliff-hanger of sorts...

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Cause for Alarm

Title: Cause for Alarm

Author: Eric Ambler

Number of pages: 272

Started: 5 November 2011

Finished: 9 November 2011

Opening words:

The man standing in the shadow of the doorway turned up the collar of his overcoat and stamped his numb feet gently on the damp stones. In the distance he could hear the sound of a train pulling out of the 'Stazione Centrale', and wished he was riding in it, lounging back in a first-class compartment on his wasy to Palermo. Perhaps after this job was done he would be able to take a holiday in the sun. That was, of course, if They would let him.

Plot summary:

Nick Marlow, the hero of Cause for Alarm is an engineer who likes to think of himself as a plain man, above politics; when he takes a sales job in Mussolini's Fascist Italy, it never occurs to him as relevant that his predecessor was killed by a hit-and-run driver or that the boring machines he sells might be used for the making of armaments. Nor does he regard the politics of his clerk as of interest, nor think of the rouged Yugoslav general Vagas as anything more than a friendly buffoon. Before he knows where he is, a web is tightening about him and the only reliable friend he has is Zaleshoff, an American businessman, oddly keen to educate him in the ways of the world

What I thought:

This was a very readable spy novel. It had characters that were perhaps caricatures, but that all added to the readability of the book. I thought it was quite an insightful book that really captured the rising tensions at the end of the 1930s as war was brewing. It was a light read that could be read by some as a manual on how not to get embroiled in the murky world of espionage.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Looking for the Possible Dance

Title: Looking for the Possible Dance

Author: AL Kennedy

Number of pages: 250

Started: 29 October 2011

Finished: 4 November 2011

Opening words:

Everything else is a waste of time. Do you hear me? Everything else is a waster of time. You hear me, Margaret? You understand?
Margaret was outside in the night, standing behind the Methodist Church Hall. Her ears, numbed after hours of music, were rushing with the sudden quiet, as if she had just dipped her head inside a sea-shell, or a big tin box. Margaret’s father was sitting on two empty beer crates, breathing in and out enormously, his legs extended flat ahead of him and both his hands folded, hotly, round one of her wrists.

Plot summary:

Mary Margaret Hamilton was educated in Scotland. She was born there too. These may not have been the best possible options, but they were the only ones on offer at the time. Although her father did his best, her knowledge of life is perhaps a little incomplete. Margaret knows the best way to look at the moon, how to wake on time and how to breathe fire. Now she must learn how to live. A. L. Kennedy's absorbing, moving and gently political first novel dissects the intricate difficulties of human relationships, from Margaret's passionate attachment to her father and her more problematic involvement with Colin, her lover, to the wider social relations between pupil and teacher, employer and employee, individual and state.

What I thought:

I had really wanted to read this book, so was pleased when I finally acquired a copy. However, it didn’t live up to my hopes. It was well written and was very readable, but it felt a bit too much like a “kitchen sink” drama and never really rose above the mundanity of life. To a degree, perhaps that was part of what the book was about, but for me it just didn’t fulfil its potential and I never truly empathised with the characters. A decent enough read, but never really seemed to achieve that extra element that would have made the novel truly engaging.