Quichotte by Salman Rushdie

I do enjoy Salman Rushdie’s writing (I had better read The Satanic Verses, which I bought back in the 1980s at the time of the fatwa).

In Quichotte, Rushdie writes the story of Quichotte, a retired pharmaceuticals salesman, and Sancho, the son he has conjured into existence, as they travel across the US on a quest intend to lead Quichotte to his beloved, a daytime tv presenter with whom he has become obsessed.

Except Rushdie does not write the story of Quichotte. Rushdie writes the story of cheap thriller writer Sam Duchamp; it is Duchamp who writes Quichotte’s story, in which his own story becomes more and more entwined.

Quichotte takes on a number of the issues of modern life, particularly in the US: daytime tv, racism (and to an extent Trumpism), and the epidemic of opioid addiction.

As a modern day homage to Don Quixote, Quichotte works a treat. 10 out of 10.

In a House of Lies by Ian rankin

Another Rebus, and a good one at that.

Although retired, John Rebus has nothing else to do than get under the feet of Siobhan Clarke and Malcolm Fox, and the people they are working with.

Here, a body is found. It is a person who went missing some years ago. Rebus was involved in investigating that disappearance, and a lot of the focus is on the officers involved in that enquiry.

At the same time, Siobhan is getting a lot of unwanted attention from a nasty pair, officers who were also involved in the earlier investigation and are now in the section that investigates police corruption.

Rebus sticks his nose in, and stirs the pot somewhat. Of course in the process his old adversary ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty becomes involved.

The murder is solved, and Siobhan is got off the hook, while her tormentors find that the tables are turned on them. And is Malcolm Fox getting a new love interest?

But how long will Rebus’ health last? I know there is another book in the series, but how many more?

Anyway, I am going to give this one mark more than the last one, Rather be the Devil, so 8 out of 10.

Civilisations by Laurent Binet

I was looking forward to reading this book, having heard a discussion about it on Start the Week on BBC Radio 4. But what a disappointment.

The premise is a reversal of historical fact. Instead of Europeans ‘discovering’ and conquering the New World, Europe is discovered by the Incas. They find a region of weak and fractured nations, ready to be taken over and colonised. After a few years the Aztecs join in.

This is all presented as a kind of history, which starts circa 1000 CE with a band of Vikings who make their way down the East coast of America to the Caribbean. A few hundred years later, Columbus makes it to Cuba, where his ships and men are captured: he never makes it back, but the story of the land across the ocean becomes known.

After the Incas land in Portugal and take over Spain, the story becomes a recitation of events and battles. Real historical figures are thrown in: Pizarro, Charles V, Thomas More etc, even Miguel de Cervantes. But there is no real characterisation or point to the story other than reversing the idea of what the Spanish did to South America.

As I said, disappointing. 4 out of 10.

The Quarry by Johan Theorin

The Quarry is the 3rd in Johan Theorin’s Oland quartet, Oland being an island in the Baltic Sea off southern Sweden. I read the first 2 several years ago. A that time I started The Quarry, but stopped after 120 pages – that is where I found my bookmark.

Picking the book up again, I cannot think why I stopped. I read it from the start, and had no problem following it through to the end.

This is not as strong as the first in the series, Echoes From The Dead, but it’s not bad. The common thread is the location, and some of the characters overlap. As always with nordic noir, there are things that happened in a previous generation that need to be resolved.

I am not sure that I would recommend this as a stand alone book, but it is worth reading if you are working through the series. 7 out of 10.

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

Klara and The Sun has been hailed as a return to top form by Nobel Prize-winner Kazuo Ishiguro. I certainly found it interesting, and thought-provoking.

The novel is set in the relatively near future. Klara is an AF – an artificial friend, a robot. She is bought to be companion to Josie, only child of a single mother. This is Klara’s story of that relationship, including how Josie grows and moves on.

Klara often seems naive, very child like. There were some things, pieces of knowledge, that I was surprised had not been programmed into her. But the novel is not really about robots – it is about us, human beings. As with all Ishiguro’s work, it is about an aspect of what it is to be human (I think I read that Ishiguro has said that he keeps writing the same novel).

The audiobook was well narrated, it held my attention throughout.

9 out of 10.

The Birdwatcher by William Shaw

I wwas recommended to the author’s series featuring DS Alexandra Cupidi. On investigating, I found that there is this first novel before the series proper begins. While we are introduced to Alex Cupidi, the central character is another police officer, Sergeant William South.

We are told at the outset that South has committed a murder. This is the story of how he investigates a murder, while at the same time the secret he has kept hidden for years is unravelled.

Set in the sometimes bleak marshy coastal area around Dungeness in Kent, The Birdwatcher introduces us to the area and to DS Cupidi, while being a good police crime story in its own right.

A solid 8 out of 10.

An Instance of the Fingerpost by Ian Pears

This is a weighty book. Literally – the hardback-sized paperback is 890g, or about 2lb!

This is also a long book, coming in at 690 pages of fairly close text.

We are taken back to the later years of the reign of Charles II (1660-1685). Here we have 4 accounts of events in Oxford in 1663. The Restoration is in its early years. There are many political and religious tensions – at this time the two were closely related. The 4 accounts are of mainly the same events, but written from different points of view and with different motivations. Many actual historical figures are featured, albeit with elements of fiction woven into their actual stories. Having studied this period of English History as a ‘special subject’ in History A Level 45 years ago, I found the aspects that were founded in historical fact very interesting. I shall have to pick up my copy of Aubrey’s Brief Lives again.

The book is set around events in Oxford, and particularly the death of an Oxford don and how a young woman was accused of his murder, tried and hanged. We see how some believed in Sarah Blundy’s guilt, some tried to save her, and others thought that although innocent Sarah had to hang to protect other interests.

As I said, we have 4 different accounts. The narrators are a Venetian merchant’s son and doctor, a student who is trying to clear his father’s name of the stain of treachery to the Royalist cause, a cryptographer who worked for Cromwell and now the restored King – a man who sees plots everywhere, and a bookish historian. Each brings his own perspective and agenda to the telling of the story. Each story contains elements of the truth, but also misdirects the reader through that narrator’s interpretation or misdirection. One distracts from the truth of his activities to protect others, one is vain and deluded, and possibly mad, a third is so caught up in his own preoccupations that he comes close to the truth of what has been going on but ends up getting it very wrong. And it all comes together only in the last pages.

This book is long. I had to persevere with it somewhat as I found two of the narrators unsympathetic and overly preoccupied with their own reputations, with showing themselves in a good light. But it was worth persevering with in the way that all came together and the author reveals what was actually happening. As a literary thriller, a kind of detective story, it is very satisfying.

As I said, a weighty book. It requires patience, but I think it is worth it. 9 out of 10.

The Singing Line by Alice Thomson

I bought The Singing Line in 2012, following a recommendation by an Australian friend. So I have just read it, 9 years later.

Alice Thomson is the great-great-granddaughter of Charles Todd and his young wife Alice. In the 1850s the newly wed Charles and Alice left England for the colony of South Australia. Charles Todd led the ambitious project of constructing a telegraph line from Adelaide in the south to Darwin in the north, where it could be connected to a cable that would complete a link between Australia and the rest of the Empire. Messages between Australia and London that had taken months to reach their destination would take a few hours.

The continent had only been crossed once before from north to south. There were deserts, mountains, swamps to traverse. There was no known route across the mountain ranges in the middle. And yet Todd did it. He named the town of Alice Springs after his wife.

Some 125 years later his great-great-granddaughter and her husband followed the route of the telegraph across Australia. This book tells the story of that 1997 journey, of Charles Todd and his construction of the telegraph line, and of Alice. Ultimately it is a very human story, well told.

9 out of 10.

My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

I think a lot of my problems with this book may be the responsibility of the narrator. It took me a while to realise that this book is written in a number of different voices. The narrator did not change his voice, and the introduction at the beginning of each chapter did not initially make this clear. In fact the narration was at times pretty lifeless, making it easy for my attention to wander. That is a pity.

This book is set in Istanbul some centuries ago, I think the late 1500s. It centres on the school of miniaturists attached to the sultan’s court. There is a love story, and also a detective thriller as the killer of two of the artists is tracked down.

At the heart of this book is also a discussion of the differing approaches of Islamic and European art, a conflict which has led to the killings.

I think with a different narrator I might well have enjoyed this book more, rather than wishing it would come to an end. I think I will probably try more Orhan Pamuk, but not with John Lee.

That is why I am giving this 6 out of 10.

The Creak on The stairs by Eva Björg Ægisdóttir

There seems to be more and more of a set formula to Icelandic crime novels: The detective relocating from Reykjavik to get away from something in their past; a claustrophobic small town; an unsolved mystery a generation earlier; and – of course – a murder.

The Creak on the Stairs follows that formula. It does it well. Elma is a detective relocated to her home town of Akranes, escaping memories of her breakup in the big city. Not long after she returns, a body is found. The deceased also used to live in Akranes, and has avoided the town ever since. So why was she there? Why has she been killed?

Eva Björg Ægisdóttir reveals the details slowly, both of what comes out in the investigation and of what happened in the dead woman’s past. And when all is answered, the answers are satisfyingly not what might have been expected.

So yes, this book follows the formula, but it does it well. 7 out of 10.