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The Girl in Berlin
The Girl in Berlin
by Elizabeth Wilson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing by her previous standards, 5 Dec 2014
This review is from: The Girl in Berlin (Paperback)
Elizabeth Wilson's The Twilight Hour was a fantastic evocation of post-war bohemian London and War Damage which featured some of the same characters was similarly atmospheric. The Girl in Berlin is more clearly a sequel to The Twilight Hour, but for me it is disappointing. This time, the rich depiction of time and place is much more muted and instead there is an attempt to place the characters into a Cold War spy story. It doesn't really work and doesn't play to the Wilson's strengths. One problem is that the territory of Burgess, McLean and Blunt is now so over familiar as to be hackneyed. It has become quite commonplace to set thrillers in amongst these and other real life characters of the era and many writers such as Edward Wilson (presumably no relation) have done it far better.

At all events, in The Girl in Berlin the thriller aspects are fairly unconvincing and the price to be paid is a high one in terms of what it does not allow. Apart from meaning there is no space to depict the raffish post-war London in the way that she does so well, there is no space for character development. In particular, there was an opportunity here to explore the changing nature of Alan and Dinah Wentworth's marriage which is only fleetingly treated. The characters are used as pegs to hang the story on, rather than the story being a way of exploring the characters, which is what I would have expected a sequel to do. Meanwhile, new characters are poorly drawn - Kingdom is a cardboard cutout of a spook and McGovern lacks depth.

I think that if I had read this not having read the others then I might have enjoyed it more, and it's a good enough book. But relative the high expectations engendered by those excellent earlier works this one was a disappointment.

Update: After posting this review, I went back and re-read War Damage, and this did confirm my memory of being much more strongly written. To take just one example, McGovern, who I wrongly described in my review as a new character, features briefly and in just a few paragraphs is better described than in the whole of The Girl in Berlin in which he is the main character.


The Kill List
The Kill List
by Frederick Forsyth
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Poorly written, 11 Nov 2014
This review is from: The Kill List (Paperback)
It’s almost always bad news when a book begins with a list of characters for future reference. It usually means, as is the case here, that the characterization is so poor that readers need an aide-memoire. Apart from poor writing, one problem here is that Forsyth insists on giving a name to every single character, no matter how minor or fleeting their appearance – at one stage we are even told the name of the lady who serves tea in a meeting! But it is not just the writing of characters which is poor. Almost the whole of the book consists of lengthy factual accounts of various agencies and political events. It reads more like a series of Wikipedia pages than a novel. Back in the day – The Day of the Jackal, say – this served Forsyth well because it gave what seemed like a real insider’s account of how the world worked (and at the time he was a practicing journalist). It doesn’t work anymore because in the world of the internet we all know this stuff already, and Forsyth no longer has any special insight. So it just comes across as the writing of someone who has, well, done a lot of research on the internet. In any case, Forsyth now massively over-uses this technique so that it swamps any actual story-telling. It’s a shame, because there is the germ of a good story here, and a very topical one as well. But it reads like an author going through the motions and fails at almost every level as a thriller. A shame, too, given that Forsyth used to be a master of the genre. Still, as the many positive reviews here demonstrate, he still satisfies a market and so I don’t suppose he cares very much. Readers looking for something that matches the insider insight and readability of Forsyth’s earlier thrillers applied to the context of the modern day would do better to read Charles Cumming or Stella Rimington.


Cold Winter in Bordeaux
Cold Winter in Bordeaux
by Allan Massie
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.20

5.0 out of 5 stars Another sophisticated novel from an outstanding author, 4 Oct 2014
This is the third of Massie’s ‘Bordeaux’ novels (along with Death in Bordeaux and Dark Summer in Bordeaux) and although it could be read as a standalone it really requires to be read in sequence as there is a high level of interconnection. These are not really detective novels – they are novels about moral ambiguity, explored through the experience of Occupied and Vichy France in WW2, using the detective story genre as a device. It is a theme that Massie is clearly pre-occupied by and his masterpiece is A Question of Loyalties, which lies outside this series. The Bordeaux series does not quite reach that standard but it is nonetheless excellent.

In Cold Winter, as in the others, Massie presents the complexity of moral choices and moral character. People who have despicable views may sometimes be acting with honour; those with honourable views may act despicably. The protagonist, Jean Lannes, sits uneasily between both, constantly anxious and questioning of the compromises he must make and, perhaps as a result, respected by others and by the reader. His own family embody the dilemmas of the time, with one son joining de Gaulle’s Free French army, the other working for the Vichy regime – both animated by idealism. One of Massie’s skills is to depict political dynamics and family dynamics side by side, as mutually intertwined. Even today, this will have huge resonance in many French families.

This is another highly sophisticated book, which can be read at many levels. It is historically instructive in showing how the Occupation cannot be reduced to a simple binary of collaboration versus resistance. It is morally instructive in showing how socially deviant behaviour in one sphere can go hand in hand with courage in another. It is emotionally instructive in showing how individuals and families respond to these complexities.

But although mainly concerned with moral complexity and ambiguity, Massie is not a moral relativist. Throughout the series we are shown people – such as the advocate Labiche – who are entirely reprehensible: morally, politically, emotionally. They constantly escape justice and are, so far anyway, ‘untouchable’. The morality here is black and white, not grey, but the point is that it does not map on to any conventional categories of ideology, nationality, class or gender. And in case that sounds dull, along the way Massie provides a lively narrative and a compelling evocation of wartime France.

Overall, this is not a book for someone expecting a ‘whodunnit’ (not that there is anything wrong with whodunnits), but rather part of an ongoing and fascinating meditation on the nature of good and evil by an outstanding, if perhaps under-rated, novelist. I am eagerly awaiting the next instalment.


The Incorrigible Optimists Club
The Incorrigible Optimists Club
Price: £10.19

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sperb, evocative novel, 7 Sep 2014
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This is a superb novel that combines an engaging coming of age story with an extremely insightful account of the lives of emigres to France from the USSR and other communist bloc countries in the 1950s and 1960s. Michel, the teenage narrator, encounters and is befriended by these characters whose lives are all in various ways damaged by their experiences. Having myself known several people from this background I found the depiction highly plausible and moving (and interestingly interlaced with ‘real’ characters, such as Jean Paul-Sartre). Against this background, the narrator experiences the breakdown of his parents’ marriage, his brother’s desertion from the French army in Algeria, and his first, bitter-sweet, love. The writing is delicate, evocative and in places humorous. There is a rather abrupt change of gear at the end which, although effective in its portrayal of the horrors of life in Stalin’s Russia, does slightly jar, and the book finishes slightly too quickly. There is perhaps scope here for a sequel. But in its account of, in particular, the dislocation of exile it could hardly be bettered.


Research
Research
Price: £3.79

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Naughty but nice, 23 Aug 2014
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This review is from: Research (Kindle Edition)
This is a very clever, rather cheeky and wholly withering satire of the contemporary publishing scene, and especially the mid-market thriller scene. Readers expecting another Bernie Gunther outing will not just be disappointed but will have rather missed the point. Research begins with a depiction of an industrial publishing workshop with plot outlines supplied to a small army of hacks who write the books in a colour in the numbers fashion. From then on, Kerr offers a pastiche of various styles of thriller writing, as if the book itself might be the product of a writing team, littered with almost every cliché of the genre but interspersed with multiple explicit and implicit literary references and especially genre references. In short, the book is a naughty little writerly joke and a very enjoyable one at that. Since we readers and, specifically, amazon reviewers are amongst the targets, including an amusing sideswipe at the wisdom of the 1* reviews from readers for whom the book was not intended and the crassness of the 5* reviews from the target market, the only option seems, rather unfairly, to be a 3* rating.


A Colder War
A Colder War
Price: £4.35

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Reliable holiday thriller writer, 18 Aug 2014
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This review is from: A Colder War (Kindle Edition)
This is an excellent second outing in the Thomas Kell series. Cummings’ early work was perhaps blighted by an unwarranted comparison with Le Carre but he is developing a neat line in contemporary spy fiction (especially in the Alec Milius series). A Colder War fizzes with twists and turns, and Kell is a convincing character. There is perhaps an over-emphasis on tradecraft – too many long sequences of complex surveillance and counter-surveillance moves – and at times plot and characters are a little clichéd. But for summer holiday reading in the spy genre Cummings is a good bet.


The Whitehall Mandarin
The Whitehall Mandarin
Price: £4.19

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Spy thriller of the year, 18 Aug 2014
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This is a very high quality sequel to The Envoy (although it can be read as a standalone) and for once the near-obligatory comparison with Le Carre is warranted. The writing is taut and the plotting complex. The skilled interweave of historical fact and fiction gives it a plausible and authentic feel – although it must be said that the central ‘secret’ is rather unconvincing. There is a relentless grimness in the Cold War power plays which is somewhat depressing but rings true, and Catesby (like Fournier in Envoy) is a good moral foil to the Machiavellian games of his bosses. The pick of this year’s crop of spy thrillers.


Midnight in Europe
Midnight in Europe
Price: £7.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing and rushed, 18 Aug 2014
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All the usual elements of a Furst thriller are in play here, and his well-researched grasp of the intricacies of European pre-war politics and espionage remains hugely impressive. Yet by the high standards of his previous work Midnight is a disappointment. Cristian, the central character, lacks depth, and although Max is more engaging his motivations are unclear. Furst seems to almost lose interest by the end of what is a relatively short book, which comes very rapidly and leaves many loose ends. Moreover, the sub-plots (the Marquesa coerced into spying; the Hungarian family’s legal dispute) are dispatched so summarily that it is hard to see why they were introduced at all.


The White Room
The White Room
by Martyn Waites
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Powerful but one-dimensional, 6 Sep 2013
This review is from: The White Room (Paperback)
Waites' Born Under Punches is perhaps the best novel to have been written about the Miners' Strike. The style of The White Room is similar, but more monochromatic. The characters are unremittingly immoral and unpleasant and as a result the effect is one-dimensional, even though the writing is delicate and sophisticated. There is perhaps a more subtle message here about the way that morality is socially formed but, if so, the writing is too savage to allow that to emerge. But it is a compelling read and, maybe, an important one, too. There are very few British writers (David Peace might be an exception) writing about Northern England like this. I was both fascinated and repelled by it. Waites is an important author and, I think, could become a great author, at least in articulating a particular - significant - slice of British post-war experience.


War Damage
War Damage
by Elizabeth Wilson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Wonderfully written, 6 Sep 2013
This review is from: War Damage (Paperback)
This is a truly excellent period thriller. Wilson's previous post-war noir (The Twilight Hour) is also excellent and this is, in a vague way, a sequel (i.e. there are some overlapping characters). Both are superb evocations of smoggy, depressed-yet-hopeful, shabby-bohemian and chancer-entrepreneur Austerity London, replete with rich characters and fantastic dialogue. In War Damage a particular strength is to remind us (if we needed it, and I dis) of the enduring appeal of Mosleyite Fascism in Britain even after the war. The plot is a bit ropey, it's true (hence 4* not 5*) but this is writing of a very high order and I think that Wilson is a real talent from whom we will see even better.


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