‘Head of State’ by Andrew Marr

This definitely gets an “Oblique Good Read Award”.

It’s a political thriller- and a satire.

It was written by Andrew Marr, well-known in the UK as a political writer and broadcaster (and artist). As such, it has a ring of authenticity, and echoes of his drily witty, sometimes tongue-in-cheek voice.

Head of State Cover001The novel is set in the middle of a European referendum campaign. There is a crisis in the pro-Europe camp, which results in a fiendish plot. I won’t give you any spoilers; it is in many ways farcical, but none the worse for that.

There is a great cast of characters: politicians, press, broadcasters, criminals and others. Many are larger than life, and enjoyably so. The Prime Minister is “magisterial” with “louche private behaviour”. The leader of the anti-Europe faction is a dominatrix. Yes, really; but luckily I don’t think Mr Marr will win any bad sex awards. One or two real personalities appear, and there are references to Mr Marr’s own Sunday morning TV programme. It appears there are some in-jokes, such as a knighthood for one broadcaster.

A huge selling point for me is that the book is plot-driven. I read it in two days, acknowledging the satire but gripped by wanting to know the outcome. There is also some nice use of language: for example, one character is “dishevelled”, another is “shevelled”. The authentic-sounding detail of politics and political places is used well but not excessively. As it was written in 2014, it necessarily has been overtaken in certain ways by events, which does not in any way prevent it from being a thoroughly enjoyable read.

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‘Spare and Found Parts’ by Sarah Maria Griffin

Gosh, I thought, this is good. (Yes, I do talk like that to myself.)

Two thirds of the way through, I started to change my mind; but the final verdict is “Jolly Good (with reservations)”.

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This is a science fiction/ young adult novel, with a smidgen of fantasy. How do you know it’s science fiction? It’s set in a post-apocalyptic future. How do you know it’s young adult? The protagonist is a teenager (and love is involved). What’s an old bloke like me doing reading young adult books? Why, that paragon of good taste, Ms. O. included it in her latest loan batch.

Nell, the aforementioned protagonist, lives in a world which has been devastated by plague, somehow brought on by technology, The plague has killed most of the population. Most of those who are left have been damaged in some way and have prosthetic replacements. Thus Nell has a new heart; her father, who has done much of the replacement work, has a new arm.

Nell has grown to be a troubled girl since the death of her mother, and when scavenging for discarded old technology finds a mannequin’s arm, which she determines to use as the basis for a (male) android companion.

Up to the construction of the android, I found the book compelling and believable. However, at that point you have to believe that Nell just joins the parts together, with a small computing unit of some sort, and it works. It becomes sentient. This all strikes me as very implausible; rather like the unexplained space travel in ‘The Space Between the Stars’ by Anne Corlett.

However, having got over this obstacle, the realisation of the android’s character and the ending were moving and powerful. I won’t do a spoiler, but it was a very satisfying resolution.

So, to sum up, a very pleasingly detailed and plausible setting; well-developed characters; a moving and thoughtful story. Set against that, poorly explained science, but it’s still a winner, in the Oblique view.

Unfinished Books 2

Just a gentle ramble.

I have written on this before, saying “…you should not struggle to finish a book if you are not enjoying it or do not believe it’s doing you some good”. And: “…whatever your age, there are impossibly more books than you will ever be able to read. Move on.” (See Unfinished Books.)

I am however still intrigued by the reasons I have stopped reading a book, or have not started it. As I said in my last post, I gave up on ‘Les Misérables’ by Victor Hugo, after whipping through about a hundred pages. My excuse was that it was boring, with “beige” prose and a “glacial” plot. That rather gives away my preference for plot driven fiction.

Unfinished and Unstarted 2I also gave up on ‘The Accident on the A35′ by Graeme Macrae Burnet. This is a pastiche on a French detective novel, which I found too clever for its own good, wrapping up a plot I found dull in a conceit that it had been written by a dead French author. Now one of the author’s previous novels was nominated for the Booker Prize, so obviously I am missing something. I say that sincerely, without sarcasm. The Guardian says it is “accomplished and multilayered’. So what do I know?

Moving on to non-fiction, it was with some excitement that I found a copy of ‘The Ginger Line’, an account of a day’s walk round the London Overground, by Iain Sinclair. What more could I want? Railways, odd bits of London…. I started it twice. Initially I was excited by the dense thicket of prose, rather like a collaboration between William Gibson and Peter Ackroyd. I decided that I wanted to follow the route on a map, so restarted. That interrupted the narrative flow of the book. So…. well, in the end I found it all a bit tiresome. I think what finally did it for me was the mention of his walking partner planning a project in which he takes a procession to a cave in which he will stay for forty days and forty nights; a performance piece? A film?

That interesting chap and wonderful bassist (among other things) Jah Wobble has met Mr Sinclair and thought he had a “rather sneering attitude to regular people”. Hm. All I’ll say is his prose is too rich for me. However I found Mr Wobble’s autobiographical ‘Memoirs of a Geezer’ very readable and re-readable.

Unfinished and Unstarted 1All on that list is rather clever fiction. As far as non-fiction goes, looking through my bookshelves, I found ‘Samuel Pepys- The Unequalled Self’ by Clare Tomalin. It is no doubt very readable, but I am rather ashamed to say that I just couldn’t get on with it. To go back to my original criteria for persisting with a book, I was not enjoying it: I do believe it might do me good to know more about Pepys, but, as usual….. hey, life is too short. And Miss O, her friend and my sister-in-law have just given me several more books to read. Deep joy.

‘Europe at Dawn’ by Dave Hutchinson

This was going to be a rave, “you must read this” review. It still is, but with an added health warning.

europe at dawn001It is the fourth and final book in the ‘Fractured Europe’ series. The setting is a near-future Europe, after an influenza epidemic. The EU has broken into its member states, but these states have further fractured. So, for example, Scotland is independent, but there are now moves for the Orkneys to be independent. City states, such as Dresden-Neustadt, are developing. There are nations, polities, duchies, sanjaks, principalities, communes and so on and so on.

To complicate matters, there is a trans-Europe railway, called The Line, which has declared its own independence as a state, with its own borders. Pushing the science-fiction boundaries further, a country called The Community is revealed, which is somehow in a mini space-time of its own but is connected to Europe. It is rather like England several decades ago.

To further complicate matters, we learn of a shadowy group called Les Coureurs des Bois, who do what the label says: they are couriers, carrying messages, parcels and even people through the new and sometimes difficult borders of the new world. (Interestingly there were once real Coureurs des Bois in Canada, who were basically fur trading agents. Go on, look it up.)

‘Europe at Dawn’ and its predecessors are essentially spy novels, with politics and science fiction mixed in. There are many vivid characters, including Rudi, who is a chef who is somehow also a Coureur, Ben/Benno, a refugee stranded on a Mediterranean island (which itself declares independence as the Aegean Republic), Alice, a cultural worker at the Scottish Embassy in Tallinn, who somehow becomes a Coureur but maybe isn’t- oh, Benno is also a Coureur but maybe isn’t- you get the picture. It’s complicated. I can’t begin to précis the plot.

There is the health warning. I loved it, but it’s all so confusing I’m not sure how much I want to recommend it. It would probably be best to read the sequence, starting with ‘Europe in Autumn’ in order; I think I will have to re-read all of them again and make one of my charts of characters to get a grip on it. And do you know what, I think I will. It’s the only way I will understand how this finishes the series.

I love a good complicated plot. As with William Gibson novels, you don’t have to completely grasp this story to enjoy it. With hindsight, I now see how it reminds me of Gibson in its multiple viewpoints and plot threads, and its story arcs across books. If you like Gibson, if you like near-future science-fiction: give it a try. Blame me if you hate it.

(Note: you will see from the rather second-rate image that I read it on a Kindle. This is not a bad idea if you want to keep track of the characters and places.)

‘Orphan Monster Spy’ by Matt Killeen

This is a very brief review: very brief, because I don’t feel I can do it justice. It’s excellent.

Orphan Monster Spy001

It’s almost unfair to attempt a summary. This is a Young Adult story, but this is one of those occasions when the category is rather meaningless. The protagonist- OK, the heroine- is a 15 year old Jewish orphan girl on the run in Nazi Germany. She becomes involved in spying (with a glamorous, enigmatic British agent) and infiltrates a school for girls of the elite.

So far, a familiar type of theme, but this is handled with power and elegance of language. The plot twists and turns very satisfyingly, with even the last page having an unexpected revelation which made me gasp when I thought it was being wrapped up neatly. Some particularly nasty issues are handled with sensitivity, but without avoiding the nastiness. There are horrible surprises as well as the familiar, never-to-be-forgotten horrors of the ethnic cleansing of the Jews.

Please don’t think this makes the book too unpleasant to read. I’d hate to put anybody off. It’s moving, all too plausible, beautifully detailed and brilliant.

Thanks again to Ms Oblique for putting me on to this.

The ‘Poldark’ novels by Winston Graham

For those of you who have been watching the BBC TV series, and maybe for those of you who haven’t.

The recent BBC TV ‘Poldark’ series has been justifiably popular. (There was an earlier version which I haven’t seen.) Being me, I saw the dramatisation as a way into reading the original novels by Winston Graham. So I did.

Well, I can report, dear reader, that they are very good. Yes, your “very good” may not be the same as mine, but I mean both that they are well written and that I enjoyed them.

For those of you unfamiliar with Poldark, it is the story of two families, set in Cornwall before and after 1800. The historical context seems to be very accurate. It’s certainly very well described and very believable. There is no flinching from the grim realities of poverty and disease: and the latter can strike both rich and poor, with the medicine of the age by and large spectacularly useless.

Poldark 2

The series has some twelve novels, covering the years from 1783 to 1820. I have read up to book 7, ‘The Angry Tide’, matching the development of the TV series. To invest the time and effort in reading a long sequence like this, one must have some sort of feeling for the characters, and Ross Poldark, undoubtedly the hero of the first two thirds, is a character it’s hard not to like: intelligent, tough and principled; probably sexy, if I did but know it. His wife, Demelza, also intelligent, tough (in a different way) and principled, has a rags to riches story. I certainly fell in love with her. Their personalities are of course (that is not sarcastic) interestingly flawed.

Poldark 1There is a strong cast of others: the unprincipled banker, George Warleggan; the forward thinking doctor, Dwight Ennys; and so on, and so on. Perhaps the working class characters are less prominent than the gentry.

I like the interplay and the feuding; I like the detail; and I especially like the way the history intertwines with real lives.

I will be sad when the TV series finishes (after the eighth novel) but I’m happy to think there will be four further books to read. I almost certainly would not have read these if it had not been for the adaptation, which is very faithful to the original. I admit to often having the screen actors in my head when I read. I recommend them to my readers.

Note 1: I have  selected only images I believe to be copyright free, as usual, in the pretence that the BBC and the Poldark publishers care whether or not I use their pictures without permission.

Large picture: Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark from BBC

Small picture: Jack Farthing and Heida Reed, also from BBC TV’s Poldark

Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Note 2: I read them on Kindle. They are still in print and also to be found in second-hand shops.

 

‘Crisis’ by Frank Gardner

This is a great, gripping thriller, with copious convincing detail.

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I do admit to picking this up because I was interested in the author. Frank Gardner must be best known as the BBC’s Security Correspondent. Unfortunately, he is pretty much unmistakable, as in 2004 he was partly paralysed by a terrorist attack and has limited mobility. This has not stopped him going all over the world. His accounts of his disgraceful treatment by certain airlines are telling.

All that doesn’t make much difference to my enjoyment of this novel, apart from a sense of reassurance that the details are right and the scenario is plausible. It’s that wonderful thing, a book where you must find out what happens in the end.

The scenario is that a billionaire drug baron is enormously angry with the British, who are helping the Colombian government to intercept his shipments and networks. He creates a cunning, diabolical plot (no, I’m not being sarcastic) to attack London. Naturally there is a hero, Luke Carlton, who is tasked with foiling it.

If all this sounds rather familiar, well, I don’t care. It came across as fresh and exciting. There are several plot twists which certainly surprised me. How lovely. Did I mention the detail? I’m going to mention it again. Presumably Mr Gardner has got it right; it certainly makes the whole thing sound totally believable.

It’s not, obviously, a “literary” novel, whatever that is; it’s plot driven, the sort of thing I love; but it is well written, and I recommend it to anyone with any liking for thrillers.