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Exile
Exile
Price: £3.79

4.0 out of 5 stars High-wire act, 1 April 2015
This review is from: Exile (Kindle Edition)
Richard North Patterson is one of the best thriller writers currently active, and Exile is quite a feat. I was sceptical that it is possible to write a novel in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and not sink into the swamp, yet Patterson does it. As in all mysteries, it is best to leave the plot untouched in the interest of avoiding spoilers... but the novel has a Palestinian lady accused of having committed a grave act of terrorism on US soil that further happens to involve a high-level Israeli figure, and she is defended by a Jewish ex-lover and fellow Harvard alumnus. The background material, which is extensive, left me very nervous during the first chapters, but Patterson is balanced as to the conflict itself, or as balanced as it is possible for an American writer, even of liberal bent, to be. The pace is otherwise fast and the plot excellent, Patterson showing his mastery of the legal background in the final chapters. A gripping item in the genre by an emerging master.


The Sound Of Waves
The Sound Of Waves
by Yukio Mishima
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Sea breeze of a tale, 26 Mar. 2015
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This review is from: The Sound Of Waves (Paperback)
Mishima's best is no-doubt the sea of fertility tetralogy, but The Sound of Waves is a pleasant short novel, or long novella, less gloomy and wistfully, even uplifting, somewhat like After the Banquet but in an entirely different setting. This has Shinji, an uneducated young fisherman on an island off the coast of Japan pursue the daughter of the community headsman, the overbearing owner of several vessels. The girl, Hatsue, a former pearl diver, is well disposed, but her father is in no mood to condone anything so newfangled as a love match. Yet tradition also involves respect for courage and character, virtues in which Shinji is not lacking, and perhaps all is not as hopeless as it looked. Nor does The Sound of Waves, in spite of first appearances, present the picture of a traditional Japan stuck in its ways. On the contrary, set in the 1950s, it has its characters do such things as listen to the radio and take bus trips to Tokyo. Indeed, subtly, what Mishima brings to light is the picture of a country that is fast changing yet retaining, at least in pockets such as the island of Utajima, its traditional values. Beautifully written, this novel will serve as a good introduction to the author, or alternatively as a fine piece for anyone who has read his more major works.


Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival
Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival
by David Pilling
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

4.0 out of 5 stars On Japanese resilience, 23 Mar. 2015
David Pilling was the Financial Times' Japanese correspondent for several years in the noughties, and his book takes stock of the last two decades of change, especially economic and political, in the country. Japan, indeed, presents a confusing picture to the outside observer: stuck economically since its 1980s bubble burst, it remains a rich and modern country, and apparently incapable of reform politically, it has been rocked by catastrophes such as the Fukushima nuclear plant explosion that have nevertheless mobilised civil society in entirely new ways. It is Pilling's conclusion, indeed, that Japan as a nation is far more resilient than recent events appear to show, and that even economically it has been more successful, even through the 'lost decades', than is superficially thought. The book meanwhile also takes stock of Japanese self-perceptions, relations between the sexes, and the nation's complicated relationship with China and other Asian countries. It also contains numerous first-hand anecdotes, especially about the Tsunami, its after-effects, and the rebuilding effort, as well as drawing from interviews with politicians, high-level civil servants, writers, artists, and even the granddaughter of admiral Tojo.

Pilling's book should appeal to anyone with an interest in or relationship with Japan. I read it while travelling there as a tourist and found it fascinating. It is not a history and is best read with some prior knowledge of Japan's past, but it is targeted at the general reader - as indeed Pilling's newspaper reporting was. While it tends to be positive and was clearly written by a fan of the country, it is also nuanced, even critical at times. If you want the Koizumi era decoded, or would like the full story on Fukishima, or are looking for an update on post-bubble Japan, this is the book to read.


In a Country of Mothers
In a Country of Mothers
by A. M. Homes
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Struggling mothers, 5 Mar. 2015
Jody has just begun on a job in cinema and left home. Ever conscious that she was an adopted child, however, she has adjustment problems and, after moving to New York, she visits a therapist. As it turns out, her new shrink Claire abandoned a little girl of hers, through an illegal adoption process, years before as a teenager. Claire now has a family: a husband and two boys, but she starts to obsess over Jody, convinced she is her lost daughter. And as Jody, unaware of Claire's secret, gets drawn ever more tightly into her therapist's private circle, things start to become distinctly unhealthy. A.M Homes begins well from this interesting premise, but her novel tends to become drawn out as the plot progresses. The characterisation is reasonably good, moreover, but Jody's dependence on Claire could have been better substantiated. Indeed, in its last pages, the book tends to fail on the show-don't-tell criteria, and to lack conviction. The result is that the ending, otherwise clever, falls somewhat flat. In a Country of Mothers, from an intriguing exploration of mother-daughter relationships in modern America, ends up flailing and flagging somewhat, making the novel's second half unworthy of the first.


The Goldfinch
The Goldfinch
by Donna Tartt
Edition: Paperback
Price: £4.49

5.0 out of 5 stars Tartt's best, 3 Mar. 2015
This review is from: The Goldfinch (Paperback)
Obviously this book has been hugely hyped, but it is good, and better in my opinion than the also well known Secret History. Indeed, The Goldfinch is more moving and has more psychological veracity to it than Tartt's earlier works. It also involves high stakes for its protagonist, and works better on the whole. Theo Decker has been the victim of a bomb attack in a New York museum where he has lost his mother. With his father missing, and an alcoholic and a crook anyway, he finds himself having to fend on his own. Complicating things further, Theo has seized a precious miniature painting, The Goldfinch by the seventeenth-century Dutch master Fabritius (a real painting by an actual painter), in the daze of his being hit by the explosion. The picture, a tantalising object he cannot bring himself to give up, brings an excitement to Theo's life without which he couldn't bear to carry on, but as stolen art it also constantly threatens him with catastrophe.

Tartt is good at characterisation, and this has a wide cast of protagonists ranging from the Manhattan social elite to the edges of the petty crime world. The novel deftly moves between New York, Las Vegas, and Amsterdam, and it weaves between coming-of-age story and thriller. The book is well written, and it is good on the art and antiquities world without being pedantic. At 800+ pages, then, it is quickly read.


Everything You Know
Everything You Know
by Zoe Heller
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.74

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Heller's great debut, 23 Feb. 2015
This review is from: Everything You Know (Paperback)
This is Zoe Heller's first novel, and it crackles with characteristic wit and humour. Willy Muller, a TV journalist, has become involuntarily famous after his wife died in questionable circumstances during a domestic fight. Having fled London for California, he is attempting to rebuild his life as a script writer, but the whole experience has left him bitter and contemptuous of all around him - though the result is not self-pity but a sarcasm that is so corrosive that it borders on farce. Muller's ill starred attempt to fit into the American scene, meanwhile, is further rocked when he learns that one of his two daughters has committed suicide. Ignoring the deadline on his latest ghosted biography and the problem of his fast-depleting funds, he bumbles into a trip to Mexico. Yet his lost daughter's journal, which forms a second, more tragic voice to the book, won't leave him alone until he is compelled to face his past. Heller artfully blends comedy and emotion in this highly accomplished psychological drama. As good as the same author's Notes on a Scandal and in my opinion superior to The Believers, Everything You Know is a highly engaging novel that should appeal to Heller fans and novices alike.


The Making of Modern British Politics: 1867 - 1945
The Making of Modern British Politics: 1867 - 1945
by Martin J. Pugh
Edition: Paperback
Price: £26.99

4.0 out of 5 stars The missing link, 11 Feb. 2015
In 1867, Britain had just adopted the Second Reform Act. Though this was a major step towards universal suffrage, it remained several gradations away from modern democracy yet. Its ruling parties were the predominantly agrarian Tories and the Liberals, a ramshackle group still completing its transition from the politics of Palmerston to those of Gladstone. By 1945, it had become the two-party polity we have become accustomed to. This book elucidates the era in between, the long transition made all the more painful and unpredictable by two major wars. The slow collapse of the once invincible Liberals, the surprise yet chaotic rise of Labour, and the multiple Conservative reinventions are all charted here, with due attention to electoral, ideological, and tactical factors. Complete yet clear and to-the-point, Pugh's account reflects the main historical debates as to the forces at play. It is essential reading for students of the period and of general interest in its portrayal of the country's end-transition to political modernity. Finally, British politics have recently become more multi-party again, with the first coalition cabinet in a long while, and the book's account of three-party, interwar politics may in this sense have become relevant anew.


Munich: The 1938 Appeasement Crisis
Munich: The 1938 Appeasement Crisis
Price: £7.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Great betrayal, great account, 2 Feb. 2015
Faber's Munich: the 1938 Appeasement Crisis, is the best general-reader account of Munich as well as being the more recent to date. Both well informed and lively, it tells the engrossing story of what must rate as one of the greatest diplomatic blunders of all time. We all know how Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister, surrendered the Sudetenland and with it Czechoslovakia to Hitler, not realising that far from buying peace he was making a major strategic contribution to the totalitarian camp. At least, we think we know, but there is always more to tell of this morbidly fascinating tale. Faber concentrates particularly on the British side of things and excels at showing British policy in all its nuances - Chamberlain's arrogant obstinacy, the sycophancy of his followers, the despair of anti-appeasers such as Eden, Duff Cooper, or Churchill, but also the surprise, last-minute reversal of Halifax - and in its twists and turns. His book is colourful, good at captivating the atmosphere of the time, and it contains more than a few telling anecdotes. It is highly recommended reading, even if you already have some familiarity with the subject.

Faber's book also makes a valuable academic contribution, tapping into a number of British manuscript archives from second-tier protagonists. For students, however, the major work on Munich remains Telford Taylor's Munich: the Price of Peace, a more analytical work that is also better rounded in terms of coverage of French, German, and Czechoslovak aspects as well as such issues as the military balance. Though Taylor is no revisionist, it is also worth pointing out that academic historians have recently tended to be kinder to Chamberlain than used to be the case, and to find mitigating circumstances in Britain's poor state of war-readiness and in public opinion. Frankly I find all that dubious, and Faber is a very good reminder why.


Clandestine
Clandestine
by James Ellroy
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Ellroy in his stride, 2 Feb. 2015
This review is from: Clandestine (Paperback)
Clandestine is Ellroy's second novel, and though it exhibits some of the features of his more mature writing - a much longer time span to the plot than is typically of noire, for example - stylistically it tends to be a conventional thriller. Set in early 1950s L.A., it also echoes the masters of the genre, as Brown's Requiem did and arguably even more so. Fred Underhill, an ambitious cop, happens on his beat on the strangled corpse of a young secretary he once knew. Months later, a connection is made with another murder exhibiting similar features. Underhill sets about enquiring on his own, then with the help of detective Dudley Smith - a major denizen of Ellroy's later works - and soon they corner a suspect and move in for a confession. But have they got the right man? As usual in Ellroy, no one is entirely innocent, and it takes multiple twists and turns before the investigation reaches any sort of closure. Clandestine is a great thriller by a master in his formative years. Lacking the staccato style of the American Underworld trilogy, more fluid and easier on the reader, I would even rate it as a more appealing novel than some of Ellroy's later, better known, and more complex works.


Brown's Requiem
Brown's Requiem
Price: £4.35

4.0 out of 5 stars Vintage Ellroy, 12 Jan. 2015
This review is from: Brown's Requiem (Kindle Edition)
This was James Ellroy's first novel. In the introduction, the author writes that it is `heavily beholden' to Raymond Chandler, but also that imitating the 1940s noir genius was 'a dead-end street on GenreHack Boulevard'. With this, all is said: Brown's Requiem is a transposition of the L.A. private eye classics to the late 1970s. With its sour and flawed but gritty hero, its excursion through vice-ridden Mexican border towns, its vortex of corrupt policemen and crazed criminals, it hits all the nails on the head. At the same time, stylistically it is not Chandler, lacking the crackling dialogue, the bygone polish, the inimitable poetic sarcasm - it is tempting to plot based on Chandler, but it is a far harder thing to write like him.

And yet Brown's Requiem is a great read. Fritz Brown, a cop turned detective and classical music buff, is hired by a golf caddie to spy on his cello-playing sister and her patron. But the caddie is not what he looks, and Brown soon finds himself investigating a far wider conspiracy involving organised fraud and arson. As a disgraced ex-cop, moreover, he comes to be at a dangerous disadvantage when he finds that powerful policemen are involved. Violent and dark but not exceedingly so, this is a thriller of the first class. It also draws from the world of golf caddies, in which Ellroy apparently did a spell as a budding writer. Its style, finally, is far different than his later novels: much less clipped and laden with slang, lacking the staccato directness of the author's 'American Underworld' trilogy, but also more fluid and easier on the reader. Ellroy remained, when he was writing this, in his formative years. For Chandler-obsessed fans, this is actually an advantage.


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