My varied reading: January 2015

Posted: February 3, 2015 in Book Awards, Historical, Israel, Italy, notes, Off Topic, Southern States, spy story, USA, Venice

17-john-le-carre-books-blog480As I commented earlier as I am reading some hefty non-crime fiction books alongside my usual crime fiction diet I will only be making the briefest comments on the books I read, unless there is something particularly interesting to note.

Since my last review I have read:

Entry Island: Peter May:- Neither of the two plot strands in this long book were particularly original, but the descriptive writing was excellent. The historical back story set in 19th century Scotland was exceptionally good, and a little bit superior to the modern day story set on Entry Island off the coast of Canada. 

Duet in Beirut: Mishka Ben-David translated from the Hebrew by Evan Fallenberg:- After a failed mission in Beirut agent Ronen is dismissed from Mossad, and when his former commander Gadi discovers he has gone to Beirut to redeem himself he follows to prevent another disaster. There is some discussion about the morality of targeted assassinations that inevitably lead to tit-for-tat killings, and a lot about the interpersonal relationships between the characters, a situation that is complicated by Ronen’s wife having been Gadi’s lover in the past. A good read with much more about planning an operation rather than the actual action.

The Golden Egg: Donna Leon:- The Guido Brunetti books are usually enjoyable, and his close family life with Paola and the children make such a interesting contrast to that of so many other detectives. But this was such a miserable slow paced story that even a devoted Donna Leon fan was struggling at times. 

From Eden To Exile: Eric H. Cline:- The author discusses the archaeological evidence that might explain some biblical mysteries. An interesting read although no easy answers were found.

This Dark Road To Mercy: Wiley Cash:- A gripping story told from several perspectives set mostly in the author’s home state of North Carolina. This book deservedly won the 2014 CWA Gold Dagger.

A Mad Catastrophe: Geoffrey Wawro:- One of many books published in 2014 on the centenary  of the outbreak of the Great War. This long book deals with the disastrous conduct of the war by Austria-Hungary in 1914 on both the Serbian and Russian Fronts. Full of unpleasant details of ludicrous offensives that lead to horrendous losses, and the ultimate fall of the Hapsburg and Romanov dynasties. With a few exceptions most Great War Generals seem to have been out horse riding, playing polo, or chasing women when their military schools covered the tactical lessons of the American Civil War, the Russo-Turkish War of 1877, and the Russo-Japanese War. The Great War was a dreadful tragedy that cast a long dark shadow over the last century, and we are still living with the results today.

I also tackled two very different spy thrillers A Most Wanted Man by John le Carre, and A Foreign Country by Charles Cumming [winner of the 2012 CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger] which was my favourite read in January. The contrast between these books was fascinating, and in some ways surprising as the veteran was surpassed by the comparative newcomer.

I haven’t read John le Carre since The Looking Glass War [1964] back in 2010, a novel nowhere near as good as the Karla trilogy, or Theforeign country Constant Gardener. Since then I have re-watched the TV version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and seen the 2011 movie with Gary Oldman, and am now watching the TV version of Smiley’s People with the brilliant Alec Guinness. The amusing thing about The Looking Glass War was that the three sections were introduced by quotations from Rudyard Kipling, John Buchan and Rupert Brooke,  a choice hardly representative of  le Carre’s political stance today.

The problem with A Wanted Man is that the narrative is so turgid, and lacks the subtlety of the Karla trilogy and many of the earlier books. I read a ranking of le Carre’s novels somewhere on the internet that puts A Most Wanted Man at 20 out of 22.

I think this book could have been so much better. The author hints that the “most wanted man” Issa Karpov, a Chechen who has been tortured by the Russians,  might not be everything he seems, and there might be a clever twist to the story; but unfortunately there isn’t and the ending is both predictable, and abrupt. What was most disappointing was that most of the characters seemed more like walking political statements than real human beings. I will be extremely interested to see what the movie starring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as German intelligence agent Gunther Bachman makes of the book. 

Charles Cumming’s A Foreign Country also begins slowly, but it has plenty of trade craft and action as it follows disgraced agent Thomas Kell as he attempts to track down the missing newly appointed head of MI6, Amelia Levene. This is more nuanced novel with some intriguing little twists in the plot, and a very exciting ending. This was a book  that definitely deserved the award of the 2012 Ian Fleming Steel Dagger. I enjoyed it so much that I am now reading the sequel A Colder War, which also features Thomas Kell.   

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Comments
  1. Norman – It sounds like you’ve had a bit of a mixed-bag experience lately. I am glad to hear that there seemed more to like than not to like. I’m not what you’d really call a big fan of spy thrillers. But I’ve heard good things about A Wanted Man, and now I see you loved it too. I ought to check it out…

    • Norman Price says:

      Margot, some of the reviews of the book on Amazon were really bad, far worse than my opinion. I am sure the film must be less boring, although the movie casting having read the book and having a picture in my mind of the characters of Annabel Richter and Tommy Brue was bizarre. William Dafoe and Rachel McAdams! No way.

  2. MarinaSofia says:

    What a lot of reading – and a good variety of it, too – for January! Well done. I haven’t read John le Carre in ages, either, but it’s a shame that it didn’t live up to some of his other works.

  3. Steve Rubin says:

    Hi,

    I am also reading The Colder War which I am enjoying. If you like Charles Cumming, don’t miss The Trinity Six.

    Steve

  4. That’s a lot of interesting books Norman. I have read a couple of Charles Cummings book, but not this one – it sounds good.

  5. tracybham says:

    I enjoyed this overview of the books you read. Such interesting books. I have been wanting to read some Le Carre books but I will start with some of the Smiley books. I know I read some back when they came out, but don’t remember when or which, so safe to read them again now.

    I am curious. Did you read The Constant Gardener, and if so, did you like it?

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