Books read 2023
For what it is worth I thought I would gather details of the books I read this year.
Ellis Peters, A morbid taste for bones
The first Cadfael novel. I have watched the TV series and listened to radio versions with Philip Madoc. This is the first of the books I have read. Well plotted with some lovely characterisation. Cadfael is worldly, kind, and fair. Aware of frailties, his own and a perceptive awareness of those and of the strengths of others. A lovely pay off with Cadfael’s rationality used to expose the murderer and then leave a satisfactory ending for the inhabitants of a small Welsh village. Cadfael in his rationality feels like a medieval Father Brown telling Flambeau the lack of reason is bad theology. Will read more.
Ian Fleming, For your eyes only
The first collection of Bond short stories. Of particular interest for showing that Fleming had depth in comparison with the caricatured reputation Jeremy Duns discusses in his critique of reviews of Fleming. I have read the Bond books in sequence and found small setpieces which do not appear to have the high stakes associated with Bond throughout very well done. The bridge match in Moonraker is a stand out — tension arising from the description of a card game. This book is a series of setpieces, some big and some small. Fleming shines in short form. Risico and From a view to a kill are classic thriller shorts (the former has twist after twist) but my favourite was A quantum of solace. Bond listens to a tale of a relationship and its disintegration. It feels like something by Greene. Would have loved to see more of this side of Fleming.
Yuko Tsushima, Child of Fortune (trs Geraldine Harcourt)
I cried reading this. It is an intense novel, originally published in Japan in the late 1970s. It is a novel about alienation and isolation and the role of women. Koko is a single parent. Her relationship with her daughter is poor, her daughter staying with Koko’s sister. Koko works. She is a single mother. The book is written in the third person but you are in Koko’s head almost throughout (although there is a sequence near the end in a shop where the focus moves from the internal and you see Koko’s emotions from the outside). It is beautifully put together. It flows through her recollections of childhood, her love of her brother, her missing father, her lover, her marriage, and a fling witn a friend of her ex husband which leaves her believing she is pregnant. It is very moving. Meditations on loss and love and the connections of life.
Ted Lewis, Jack’s return home
This is the novel that was filmed as Get Carter. An unsettling read, dark, and with an air of misogyny running through it. Jack Carter returns home from london to an unnamed scunthorpe to attend his brother Frank’s funeral. Frank died after he drove his car off a cliff while heavily drunk. Jack arrives on Thursday (for some reason Wednesday night fixture Coronation Street is on the television) , and the novel takes place from Thursday to Sunday. Carter works for London gangsters and despite the protests from his employers after the funeral sets out investigating his brother’s death. He gets caught in gangland turf wars in the town, with gambling, pornography, and connections with London. Women are treated atrociously, abused verbally and physically. The first person narrative from Jack’s viewpoint makes it worse. There is sudden violence. Lewis can write. He does not have the flatness of Derek Raymond, but he lacks the style and dark wit of James Ellroy. Unremitting bleak.
Isabel Colegate, The Blackmailer
Published originally in 1958 this is Colegate’s first novel. Judith Lane is the widow of Anthony Lane, a war hero who died in Korea. She is a publisher and is approached by Baldwin Reeves, a barrister who served with her husband, with a memoir. The memoir reveals that Lane was a coward, a man who kept his men in place when ordered to retreat, who collaborated in a prisoner of war camp, and who gave away an escape plan. Judith cannot publish this and Reeves blackmails her to keep the true story secret. Reeves is a man on the make — desperate to be an MP, a successful barrister, and trying to grab any route up. Judith and Lane’s family is another avenue. Lane is from a wealthy family (with a devoted mother — who dislikes Judith and thinks her beneath her son — and grandfather, Sir Ralph, who appears studiedly eccentric, but in many ways beneath the doddery exterior seems the most perceptive character in the novel). Reeves’s blackmail ends up involving more than money, as he attempts to control Judith’s behaviour and relationships, determines to . It ensnares Judith’s partner in her publishing house, Felicks, an author/gangster, and others. There is a wit throughout. (sir Ralph pondering Baldwin Reeves and whether children born at the time would be known as MacMillan or Gaitskell and the wonderful tale of the nanny who refuses to heat her old house after 31st March every year). The book is very enjoyable, and Judith and Felicks, the kind warm publisher, who pretends to be mean and brusque, are great characters.
Anthony Powell, A question of upbringing (A dance to the music of time volume 1)
The first volume in the twelve volume sequence. First person narrative in the voice of Nick Jenkins it follows him from school to university. Powell’s writing is easy, the characterisation strong. There are incidents, and coincidences: the police being called on an irritating school teacher as a practical joke; a minor road accident (crashing into a ditch), meeting Widmerpool (a more senior boy from school) in France. Jenkins has a self awareness and growth that appears to be lacking in some of his school friends, and by the end of the novel he grows apart from them — taking life and study more seriously as he seems to try to maintain connections which are broken off by the actions of others. He also over the novel comes to reject the caricatures of the most interesting character Widmerpool as a figure of fun from some of his school friends. Encountering him in France (to improve his French) there is hint of Widmerpool’s ambition (he is training as a lawyer, talking of careers in business or politics) but also some sense of Widmerpool’s ability to read people. It is beautifully written, witty, and seemingly inconsequential — but incidents and characters linger long in the mind.
PD James, Death in Holy orders
The first Adam Dalgliesh novel of the 21st century followed A Certain Justice, where Dalgliesh failed. Where he could identify the murderer but do nothing about it. In her book about detective fiction James wrote about the importance of place and this is another illustration of how important place is in her work — a training college for priests, isolated, located in East Anglia it is not the first of James’s works set in the area (One of her very best Devices and Desires must just be down the road). You sense the isolation and have a clear feel for the locale and the church. she evokes places incredibly well and place seems pivotal to her work. It is also not the first of her works to focus on a church. A taste for death, Innocent blood, Death of an expert witness, and many others had scenes in churches. It is beautifully written. It does not have the hectic pace of some crime fiction, but the leisurely nature of the writing allows investigations to take time, characters to be fully drawn. There is a suicide, the death of an apparent innocent, an unusual connection which personally involves Dalgliesh, a particularly unlikeable character you are waiting to get bumped off. Character is, as always with James, very strong. And guilt and sin permeates the novel — nearly every character affected in some way. A word for Kate Miskin — the female detective whose character grows and becomes ever more nuanced (as James stopped writing her Cordelia Gray books) and also Father Peregrine whose response when asked if he wants to catch a murderer is wonderful as he takes it as a serious request rather than a sarcastic attempt to bring him to focus in questioning. James is always enjoyable. I have not read her for too long. more will follow this year.
John Banville, The infinities
Banville is a wonderful stylist with sentences you want to sit and revel in. The infinities was his first novel after winning the Booker. It is based on Amphitryon, the myth (adapted a couple of times) where Zeus seduces a woman in the guise of her own husband and as a result of which she subsequently gives birth to Heracles. Banville has long been interested in science (his trilogy of novels about Copernicus, Kepler and Newton is a high in a career of highs) and is someone who has enthusiastically reviewed works by the physicist Carlo Rovelli. His curiosity and interest in ideas, and particularly in the quantum world that Rovelli returns to in his popular science books, is evident throughout this novel. The novel is set in an alternate world — where cars run on clean fuel derived from water, and where Mary Queen of Scots had her cousin Elizabeth executed, and there is no Schrodinger considering quantum issues but instead Schrosteinberg. The narrative is based on one day in Arden, a country house where Adam, an old man, a scientist (mathematician and physicist) of some renown has had a stroke and is dying. It is a world inhabited by greek gods, where Zeus seduces Adam’s daughter in law, and Hermes is an observer of moment to moment existence. Narrative duties are shared between Hermes and old Adam as the latter remembers things from his past. The alternate world of the novel is there as slightly askew observations from the narrators, never dominates, and the novel is a family story of relationships and love. The memories of old Adam are moving as he remembers first life and his betrayals and how he perceives the impact on his children. Hermes narrates with one raised eyebrow throughout, meddling and interfering in the life of Adam and his family and staff in Arden. I love Banville’s writing, his unreliable narrators, his drawing of character. And I loved this. Reading him is always a joy.
Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim
This is the second Amis novel I have read, the third book by Amis. My introduction to him was The King’s English, a fabulous witty, perceptive and wise book about grammar and the use of language. The first novel of his I read was the (atypical perhaps?) Riverside Villas Murder, a murder mystery aping the style of golden age stories and set in that era but with modern sensibilities. I enjoyed that a lot. I had avoided Lucky Jim, partly because it loomed over his work, the masterpiece, the great comic novel. I liked it but it was not the novel I expected. It has set pieces that are funny (the business with Dixon burning his blanket, his interactions with the old professor whose status as professor seemed inexplicable, the madrigals, and Dixon’s shambolic lecture) but it is dark. A novel of post war, with broken people and broken dreams, trying to cope with a world that is not making sense and that they are trying to piece together. There are war experiences underlying the characters, a sense of loss. Margaret (the character I understand being based on Monica Jones, lover of Philip Larkin) is first introduced as someone recovering from a breakdown, from a suicide attempt. ANd she does not stand out. This is the society Jim Dixon inhabits. Where life is too much. Dixon is precarious throughout. Worried about status. Worried about work. Worried about hanging on. And the characters around him are similar, save Gore-Urquhart — a Scot who seems at ease and to have adjusted to the uncertainties of the post war world best. The book ends with the comedy ending. Job secured. Love secured. And Dixon moving into a new life. But the happy endings feel forced. I would have been happier with a bleaker Amis — because that is where the novel feels like it is heading until Margaret’s ex-boyfriend appears and waves his magic wand to expunge all blame from Dixon. I suspect I will get on better with later darker Amis.
Jilly Cooper, Rivals
I blame Ian Rankin. A few years ago I read a thing he had written saying Jilly Cooper was his guilty pleasure, and through twitter I asked him what he would recommend. Rivals was the masterpiece. It is long and funny. Cooper drops names and brands (google suggested some perfumes and high fashion I was oblivious to). It is very readable. And that seems quite a feat when the heart of the novel is about bidding for an independent television franchise — not the obvious source of drama, and comedy, and sex. The novel is heavily populated. I have been in villages near my home town with fewer inhabitants, but Cooper draws character effectively, and even those who appear for only a page or two seem to have a life. The novel takes a while to get going. There is a TV production company run by a bad ‘un (helpfully called Lord Baddingham) who hates the local MP Rupert Campbell Black (a former Olympic showjumper). Baddingham poaches an American from the TV industry to come to the UK to make a show which has world popularity and wins awards, and then poaches Declan — an Irish presenter and interviewer obsessed with Yeats, and judging by the acknowledgements drawn on the late Eamonn Andrews. Declan presents a live interview show which seems based on John Freeman’s face to face and interviews hollywood stars, and royalty, and politicians, and (because he works for a regional ITV franchise) local nonentities for franchise related reasons. The early sections are readable but their art only becomes apparent about 300 pages in when Declan resigns and he and Rupert end up setting up a competing bid to Baddingham’s company for the franchise. The tensions and rivalries between the characters are all set up from the first half of the book, and then built on in the second. There are lots of affairs, throwaway lines, setpieces which work really well (the new year party, and the early practice runs for the franchise interviews are really well done). It is good humoured. It is properly funny. The bad guys are bad. Apart from the ones with redeeming characteristics who are transformed by the love of a good woman. The one thing that jarred was the portrayal of a dyslexic character, which was well intentioned but felt a bit patronising. Good preposterous fun though. I understand Mr Rankin’s guilty pleasure far better — and share it.
James Mitchell, A magnum for Schneider
This is a novelisation of an armchair theatre play by James Mitchell, which had been the origin of the television series Callan with Edward Woodward. This was the second attempt at the story, a third version forming the basis of the Callan film after the TV series finally finished. the basic plot is that Callan is a man formerly employed to kill by the state. He has left the service and is now working as a clerk but is invited back to do a job, killing Schneider — a man who works in an office near Callan. He is though not being given support by the service. He has to source his own gun. he has to make his own plans. And it is difficult for Callan — because he likes Schneider. They have a shared interest in war games with model soldiers. And while finding out more about Schneider he learns that Schneider is under police investigation — making a killing harder. It is difficult to view novelisations in isolation from the source material, but Mitchell was a talented screenwriter and the novel goes beyond the confines of the play which it is based on (and avoids some of the filler sequences of the film — chase sequences on the streets of London, and a car chase over a trainline). CHaracters are given more depth and back stories (Lonely’s reliance on and devotion to Callan is explained with their shared experience in prison). Characterisation is effective. THe novel places Callan more firmly in a secret service world of political killers, and suggests that from Callan’s placement in the office through his boss Hunter and the service, and the interplay with the police as Callan is carrying out surveillance, that Callan is being set up. It is enjoyable. Later novels in the series (and short stories published originally in the press) are standalone.
Charlotte Bronte, The Professor
An odd novel in some ways. It feels like three different books tied together. First person narration by William Crimsworth gives the novel some coherence but the first section involves family disappointment as William does not become a clergyman, cutting off ties with his uncles, and an awful experience for William working as a clerk for his brother, a cruel arrogant character — where he is humiliated. William leaves the work and moves to Belgium and becomes a teacher. The narrator is prickly, dislikes teaching, dislikes his pupils, dislikes his colleagues. He seems out of place in Belgium teaching boys in a boarding school, and girls in a neighbouring school. He though connects with a young woman in his class — Frances. William has a thing with one colleague but breaks off civil communications as she seems to speak to someone else. Frances and William marry and the final section feels a bolted on third section where time speeds up as we get an insight into their married lives. the first person narrative has some nice sections, generally with snark and sarcasm directed at pupils and colleagues (you feel bronte had fun with that). But this is unbalanced, an honourable failure. First Charlotte Bronte I had read.
John Fowles, The Collector
my god this is dark. I don’t think I have read anything as claustrophobic, and as creepy before. It is incredibly disturbing. Brilliantly written. Brilliantly characterised but incredibly disturbing. There are two principal sections: the first a first person narrative by Fred Clegg, ineffectual, measured, works for the town hall, a man obsessed with MIranda, an art school student. He wins the football pools and with cash works out how to kidnap Miranda, converting a house out of the city, with cellars and modifications to the building. He buys her clothes in anticipation of the abduction. He is a man who collects butterflies, pins them on boards to look at. And he decides to collect Miranda. To pin her down. His narrative presents everything as matter of fact, banal. but this is over a horrifying narrative. a calculated abduction, locking Miranda in a small cellar, playing with her psychology. Torturing her by completely cutting her off from outside news, from fresh air. There are interesting stylistic devices. Fred’s communications are always reported never presented in quotes. You get this narrative of dissatisfaction at Miranda not playing the game, an underlying fury at her behaviour. You are conscious throughout that Fred is an unreliable narrator, that affection he perceives from Miranda is not accurate. this is made clear on a couple of occasions by her actions. Miranda tries to escape. She attacks him. And at times Fred’s response is violent — the tension and anger exploding. The narrative then switches to a diary from Miranda. Her perspective shows her fear, her discomfort, but also shows that she is an uncomfortable relationship, toyed along by an artist (GP) older than her. She does not have sex with him and he is cruel, horrible to her, but she still finds him fascinating, desirable. GP and Fred drip with misogyny. Fred idolising MIranda, as he hates what she could be, as he hates the idea of women as sexual. It is an astonishing uncomfortable work — where the narrative voices reveal more than the characters intend (or than they know about themselves). Fowles feels in control of the work though, that he is trying to examine the attitudes, to show the hate. A stunning dark piece of fiction.