The only list that matters – Best in Show 2015!

The best book I read all year, was…

First, a list over all the books I started to read (or finished, in the case of the first on the list) in 2015.

Click on the title to go to my review for the book.

Apocalypse : Dean Crawford
The Bourne Ascendancy : Eric van Lustbader
A Traitor’s Fate : Derek Birks
Cockroaches : Jo Nesbø
The Last Viking : Berwick Coates
The Moscow Option : Jeremy Duns
The Iron Castle : Angus Donald
Avenger of Rome : Douglas Jackson
Viking America : James Robert Enterline
The Sea Road : Margaret Elphinstone
The Sword and the Throne : Henry Venmore-Rowland
Sword of Rome: Douglas Jackson
Crowbone : Robert Low
The Serpent Sword : Matthew Harffy
The Black Stone : Nick Brown
The Confessor : Daniel Silva
Potsdam Station : David Downing
Blood Will Follow : Snorri Kristjansson
The Bone Tree : Greg Iles
Killing Floor : Lee Child
Hereward. Wolves of New Rome : James Wilde
False God of Rome. Vespasian III : Robert Fabbri
The Corners of the Globe : Robert Goddard
Lehrter Station : David Downing
An Officer and a Spy : Robert Harris
Masaryk Station : David Downing
Wulfsuna : E.S. Moxon
Catastrophe : Max Hastings
The Northmen’s Fury : Philip Parker
The Cairo Affair : Olen Steinhauer
Hanns and Rudolf : Thomas Harding
The Siege : Nick Brown
The Ends of the Earth : Robert Goddard
The Bloody Meadow : William Ryan
The Long Ships : Frans G. Bengtsson
Slash and Burn : Matt Hilton
The Redbreast : Jo Nesbø
Rome’s Fallen Eagle : Robert Fabbri
The Sword of the Templars : Paul Christopher
The King’s Assassin : Angus Donald
March Violets : Philip Kerr
Hannibal. Enemy of Rome : Ben Kane
The Imperial Banner : Nick Brown
Path of Gods : Snorri Kristjansson
The Scarlet Thief : Paul Fraser Collard
Solomon Creed : Simon Toyne
Child 44 : Tom Rob Smith
Die Trying : Lee Child
The Cross and The Curse : Matthew Harffy
At The Ruin of The World : John Henry Clay
I Am Pilgrim : Terry Haynes

Well, I read a whole load of very good, enjoyable books in 2015. Several from authors I’d read before and some from authors new to me. On reflection, there were several contenders for best book, however, as I decided I really couldn’t single one out like that, here’s, by genre, my picks from last years’ crop.

Click on the cover to buy the book from The Book Depository, click on the title, to read what passes for my review.

Thriller
The Bone TreeThe Bone Tree by Greg Iles
If you’ve read this, you’ll know what I’m on about. It’s an 800-page monster. but grips like a vice from the get go and does not let go. I read it over a long weekend and, as the cliche goes, could not put it down.
You do need to have read Natchez Burning (the first in this trilogy and also an 800-page monster), to get the full impact from the book, as that sets up a lot of the revelations and general fuck ME!”s you get from what goes on and what is revealed in The Bone Tree. If you’ve read Natchez Burning, but not got onto this yet, you’re in for a treat. If you’ve not read either, do so now! Steven King cannot be wrong! (He’s quoted on the front cover, if you’re wondering).
Book three is out in the spring, I think.

I Am PilgrimI Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes
What can I say? I’m finding I am still speechless at how good this one was. Another beast of a long one, but it doesn’t read like it – you won’t notice how long it is once you get well and truly glued too it – you’ll think only that it’s too short when it’s over. Bang up to date in story, treatment and all that, it doesn’t have an agenda and you’re not supposed to either have your prejudices confirmed or destroyed. A refreshingly ‘this is how it is’ sort of thing. A one-off, which is a rarity, though it would stand being a series, but it’s probably best it isn’t. The Guardian’s quote obviously ignores The Bone Tree, but otherwise, for once, they’re not too far off the pace. Incredible enjoyment. And that’s why we read, isn’t it?

Historical Fiction

Probably my most read genre, so there was always going to be a few to choose from here. I had a particularly good year and it came down to three I couldn’t get a cigarette paper in between.

Hannibal Enemy of RomeHannibal Enemy of Rome by Ben Kane
For me, a glorious return to the Ben Kane fold. It’s not that he went away or anything daft like that, just it had been quite a while since I’d read one of his books. He is very active, as they say, on the old social media, so I feel like I’ve also been along for the ride, even without actually reading one of his books for a couple of years. I decided to skip Spartacus and get straight into Hannibal. Wow! I was captivated the whole way through. It’s a good long book, but it’s also lean, mean and effective storytelling. An even-handed presentation of wars between Carthage and Rome, that takes neither sides, nor prisoners. A real pleasure to read and learn and a super set-up for the other two in the trilogy, not to mention the next series.

Rome's Fallen EagleRome’s Fallen Eagle by Robert Fabbri
This was an absolute joy to read. Really excellent descriptive work and a captivating story, with no signs of Robert having to straight-jacket the/his Vespasian character in order to fit things into what is the accepted historical timeline and facts and all that. After a stomach-churning time in Rome with the previous book (False God of Rome), this one is – especially as he’s out in the open of Germania and Britannia (albeit in the forests most of the time) – a real breath of fresh historical air. There’s a freedom, a sense of adventure and a clarity of purpose that is just perfect. And, that it’s number four in a series, when most series are showing signs of the well having run dry, is even more remarkable. Well, I think so anyway.

The Sea RoadThe Sea Road by Margaret Elphinstone
Speaking of remarkable…I can’t remember who and when this was recommended but I’m really, really glad I read it. She is a Scottish writer as far as I can see and if, like me, you have any sort of interest in the Vikings voyages to North America, you’ll love this book. Poignant, wistful, yearning, tear-jerking…all kinds of wonderful stuff. Keep your wits about you to get the most from the ending section. Real saga storytelling i the 21st Century that knocks nonsense like the last few Robert Low Viking parodies into place. Also proof, if Robert Low and Giles Kristian need it, that it didn’t always rain from leaden skies, every day, ‘back then.’

Non Fiction

I also occasionally venture out and sample the real world, so here goes:

Hanns and RudolfHanns and Rudolf by Thomas Harding
A thoroughly intriguing and surprisingly even-handed look at the lives of two Germans leading to, during the and after, the Second World War. That, by a quirk of fate, one was born Jewish and one to German parents, starts the comparison. Their fates obviously diverge somewhat, after that seemingly even start. Whilst the main thrust, is the author’s trying to figure out what his grandfather (?) did during the war, that he didn’t feel the need to talk about, it’s most rewarding for, through not actually writing the comparing and the contrasting, looking at why, how someone became the Commandant of Auschwitz. People who know more than me are never going to agree, and it’s wrong to look for a one line answer, however…this comes closest of all the books I’ve read – and I’ve read a few.

An Officer and a SpyAn Officer and A Spy by Robert Harris
Not strictly non-fiction, but a dramatising of fact, in fiction in a A Day of The Jackal-type way. If that guy who wrote Schindler’s Ark can get away with it, Rober Harris can, the other way, in my list.
I was familiar with the name Dreyfus and also with Affair and that it was a big deal to French people, both back then, and now. So, I thought, let’s find out. After reading a few barnstormers by the formidable M. Harris, I got into this. Phew! Incredible…such bravery, such fortitude, such stupidity, bare-faced lying and moral courage. If right was done, it was done too late to save face, lives were ruined and very few came out smelling of roses. As a way of understanding the utterly stupid – though probably not thought stupid at the time – mind-set that led to World War I, it’s indispensable.

And finally Esther…

Independent

Well, it should be a genre, or maybe not a genre, as they write in genres, but…erm, well, many plucky authors – and you make up your own reason why here – clearly send their manuscripts to the boss of Decca, or the umpteen people the Hairy Potter woman did. And, as a blind blogger, I don’t see Self-Published as a different genre to be avoided like a plague, not touched with a barge-pole, I’m way too good to waste my time on that stuff, don’t you know, now what does this publisher want me to say, oh yes : It’s BRILLIANT! Yes, I see them as books and stories and really, really good.

The two I know are Independent sort of things I read this year, both – fortunately – turned out to be excellent. So, purely in order of ace-ness of cover, here they are:

The Serpent SwordThe Cross and The CurseThe Serpent Sword and The Cross and The Curse by Matthew Harffy
Despite having a face that says ‘read my books or I send the boys round’ Matthew seems a really nice guy. Goes without saying, he knows his Anglo-Saxon onions too. The loner, outsider, proving his worth against the odds, isn’t new. However, it is new when set in Anglo-Saxon invasion times. That’s after the Romans and before the Vikings, to you and me. The real beauty here, is The Cross and the Curse. Fan-Saxon-Tastic! I almost wanted to hug him, but then thought of the publicity shot and thought better of it – it’s so good. Go buy it (it’s out NOW!) as they say) and get in on the ground floor, then it won’t just be me saying ‘of course, I’ve been reading Harffy for years, don’t you know?’

Wulfsuna by E.S. Moxon
Despite having the same surname as one of my neighbours (also English) near here at Speesh Towers in deepest Harlev, Denmark, this is a superb first effort from the lovely Ms.M. She of course got an extra star for either being from Birmingham, or now living there, I forget which. Anyway, this is in the same sort of ball-park as Matthew, in the Anglo Saxon ball-park, that is. However, in a way, the Wulfsuna stories are the other side of the fence (in that ball-park?), I thought. As they start, with the main characters coming over to Britain, rather than Matthew’s already having been here a good while. I thought a lot of Snorri Kristjansson’s books, in that there were some fantasy elements woven into what is obviously a very clever interpretation of the historical records. As in, she knows what we know and uses that as a launch pad for the stories.
I think I’m right in putting this in the Independent pile, though it is published by Silverwood Books. Anyway, who needs a tin-pot genre like Indie, when the story and writing is as good as this? Not me, no sir.

So there you have it. It could well be, if you’ve read any of the above, that you think differently. That’s great. All I hope, is that you enjoyed whichever books you read last year and you enjoy all the books you read this year. That’s, as I say, what it’s all about. Reading books for enjoyment. And I finish and review all the books I start. Oh, thanks for reading this blog, btw.

Review: The Cairo Affair

The Cairo Affair
The Cairo Affair by Olen Steinhauer

My rating: of 5 stars

I must admit to having been more than a little non-plussed by this one. I did, against my usual better judgement, quickly see a few very good reviews before I read it. So my disappointment was multiplied accordingly.

Problem is, the politics down Cairo-way, is so buggered-up, so fluid, that no one knows what on earth is going on. Not least the people actually involved. And the people not involved, are all on the way up here now. It’s not that no one on the outside can possibly understand, it’s that those on the inside don’t, or won’t, or can’t understand (or all of the above) what needs to be done. Those on the outside can see sure enough what needs to be done, but those on the inside won’t listen – because we ‘don’t understand.’ So, we’ve more or less said ‘OK then, have it your way…’ and we stop bothering listening, being interested in, or caring about them. Until they turn up at our door. Why should we bother to find a solution, when it’s plain that no one down there wants one and that there actually isn’t a solution. So, to set a book down in north African/Arab politics, you’ve really got to have a bit more to get me worked up, than some interesting observations and a plot hinging on possible CIA meddling. Which may be leaks, maybe concerning the internal politics of a post-Gadaffi Libya. It needs a lot more to it than just they might, possibly have had a game-plan that they, or someone else, might just possibly be setting in motion. That sort of rumour and half-misinformed speculation happens every day, in just about every other ‘thriller’ you look at nowadays. And anyway, anything that goes right down there, is Allah’s will, anything that goes wrong, it’s the CIA’s meddling. Or Israel. You know it.

I think really he should have concentrated on any internal strife or conflict caused by back-stabbing within the USA and/or CIA, rather than trying to whip up interest from Eastern Europeans and Americans meddling in places they really shouldn’t. Actually, I can’t think what he was hoping I’d come away from it all with. There is some interesting stuff about the old Yugoslavia, the tensions that bubbled under the surface there, that were only kept in check by a ruthless dictator. And comparisons with what young Olen seems to (my interpretation) be suggesting is a similar situation developing out of the ‘Arab Spring’ (I’m pretty sure this was written before the fall of Gaddafi) and after the fall of Mubarak in Egypt, where volatile, pressure-cooker countries are/were only kept in check by ruthless dictators…

The book’s stylistic concept, of back-tracking over events and time, to see that event from another perspective and hear other views, is interesting enough. However, if you took all the double vision and backtracking out but one – even the one with the most page-time – you’d be left with a very short book, with a very slight story. What, with all the various views left in, we have got, is a decent-length book, trying to cover up a rather slight story.

I suppose you could argue it’s about trying to build your own future, but finding it difficult to impossible to free your feet from the clinging quicksand of your country’s past. But even that isn’t exactly a first, is it?

It promised much, the whole way through, but in the end, delivered very little. It’s an ok concept, but one that makes a book more concerned about getting the concept to work on paper, than making sure it’s a good story under the style.

 

Me, on Goodreads

Review: Spies of The Balkans

FeudSpies of The Balkans by Alan Furst
My Rating: 4 of 5 Stars

“So, don’t trust the telephone. Or the newspapers. Or the radio. Or tomorrow.”

Spies of the Balkans is a subtle and thoroughly satisfying story of war-time, Second World War-time, set in Greece, in Salonika, in 1940 – the early, confused, months of the war.

Furst portrays perfectly, the ambiance and atmosphere of a country not initially involved, but caught in the crossfire and seeing the war creep inexorably closer. Naive spy games are being played out, mostly and typically, by the British, it has to be said. Johnny Foreigner can be persuaded, if not bought, to just do this one more thing as a favour for…for what? Past favours? Promises of protection that can’t possibly be fulfilled or have no intention of being fulfilled. The sound of the British Empire crumbling and fading to insignificance in the face of a new, harsher reality, is deafening. But, that’s just me. Here, people are getting on with it, matter of fact. There’s a problem, they solve it. They get the job done. Costa Zannis is the man, in Salonika, who can. A man with contacts and connections seemingly throughout Eastern Europe. At one point, he’s having an affair with a woman who turns out to be a British spy, of sorts. At another, he’s pulling in favours and running the eastern side of a rat-run smuggling Jewish people out from under the Gestapo’s noses and across Europe to some sort of freedom – not just a better future, but a future. Full stop. Then he’s swooning like a love-sick calf over an old school-girl crush, extricating herself from the sweaty grip of a shipping magnate. In between, he’s got to go fight the Italians up in the Macedonian mountains, then try and make sure his family also escape to freedom. In the middle, the good old British are back, reasoning if he can smuggle Jews out of Germany, he can smuggle stupid British scientists out as well.

This is indeed espionage writing at its best. Ordinary espionage, maybe is a better description. The espionage of necessity. It’s not going to have you on the edge of your seat, it’s not going to have you breathless in anticipation of the next stunning shock or cheap thrill. But it is going to keep you gripped in much more subtle ways. It is beautifully written, sparse but effective, measured and delightfully paced. A bit like how Olen Steinhauer’s Balkan Trilogy could or should have been written, I felt at times. Steinhauer got close, but Furst hits the mark.

What I came away with was a feeling that I’d got to know a character who might well have existed, who maybe did exist, I hoped so anyway, who did what he could, because he could. And didn’t think much more about it than that. He got on with it. If there really were people like Zannis, we owe them.

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Review: Victory Square

Victory Square
Victory Square by Olen Steinhauer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What had confused me more than once while reading this and others in the series, is whether the three of them are set in a fictional East European country, or I’ve just missed – or been too stupid to put two and two together, it’s possible – which Eastern European country he’s actually set them in. I began piecing clues together like this – The country is, west of Ukraine. It was overrun by the Germans at the start of WWII. “Early on in the occupation, the Germans had enlisted the help of malcontents from our Ukrainian population. These young men had been promised that, once the war was won, the eastern half of our country (including the capital) would be returned to the Ukraine…” What can be confusing, when trying to figure out what’s going on, is that the previous two books in this series, had their names changed for the publication outside the USA (if I’m right). So it is a relief to stop having to berate myself that I really should be able to place the people and places. A quick visit to Olen Steinhauer’s website and it seems that the novels these reviews were mentioning, ’36 Yalta Boulevard’ and ‘Liberation Movements’, I do actually have. It’s just I have them as The Vienna Assignment and The Istanbul Variations as they were published in the UK. So, I’m not going mad. Quite. Yet. Still, a name like Brano Sev should stick in the memory, I guess. Even if you think it’s a kind of drain cleaner.

Really, anyone who’s been alive in 1988 (apart from me, obviously), is surely going to be reading this and say ‘Romania!’ and the collapse of their version of Communism. Then the pursuit and trial of the husband and wife leaders, Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu.

So, ‘Victory Square’ seems to be the final in his series of novels about Brano Sev, Emil Brod and the like. Victory Square completes the cycle/circle (or square!), by taking Brod back to looking into, or at least having to deal with the after-effects, of one of his earliest cases. Back in the days where uncertainty about the right of his leaders to lead wasn’t filling the air and the whole system he knows nothing else of but, is collapsing around his ears. Steinhauer writes the character of Emil Brod really well indeed, writing subtly, but convincingly, the role of a man, thinking he’s too old for this shit, going through the last few days before his retirement. Reaching the end of his (working) life, but facing up to that with the end of the system that sustained him the whole of the life he can remember, means he is in effect going to have to start again, as if his previous life never happened. Imagine that. Add in finding your name on a list of people who are quite clearly being swept away by the new revolutionary broom. Weighty stuff, but made light work by Olen S. There’s a weary bleakness you get, almost without noticing how he’s doing it. Also, the character of Gavra Noukas, another member of the old regime, but younger and maybe even smarter than Brod (though not Sev), having his world rocked to its foundations by being forced to be an part of the trial of the leaders they once revered. He realises he’s being set up, but can’t get out of it, even though he’s not really forced into it. It’s happening almost without him knowing what is happening. I got a distinct impression of how they might be doing this whilst also feeling like they were detached from it all, looking at themselves doing it, because their real selves surely wouldn’t dare. Then, at one point, to put it into perspective for us, Emil Brod says “…I didn’t think about the hypocrisy of the people who had arranged and run the trial.” Hypocrisy because they took part, often willingly in the excesses and crimes they’re now putting the two leaders on trial for. They seem absolved, just because they are doing the accusing. Gavka seems tormented by this hypocrisy too. But more because he can’t find any innocent victims anywhere amongst the accusers. ‘Who am I to cast the first stone?’ Is probably why he has such a hard time at the trial. He had no choice while the regime was functioning and he has no choice now it’s falling apart. It is, as Brod puts it, for many people it is the “end of everything”. They hadn’t contemplated another future for themselves, than that the system provided. They hadn’t needed to and now, they didn’t know how to. But, there are also other forces and other people behind it all (as is always the case) with other reasons for setting it all in motion and profiting from regime change. And the roots of all that, go back, as said to the early days of Brod’s working life and Brano Sev’s subtle machinations.

This isn’t a spy novel, in the traditional sense. It’s more – and also less – than that. More interesting than just an examination of, or an allegory of, the collapse of Communism and a lot less action than a le Carre, or ‘Bond’ or (certainly) ‘Bourne’. I think it’s quite possible that different readers will get a lot of different things from the same book. By focussing in on the seemingly mundane, the stark reality and forcedly dull dreams of the people, he is of course, illuminating the big problems and faults in the system that has otherwise provided everything the people need. Except the people who have decided what the people need, aren’t the ‘people’ themselves. A person in a Olen Steinhauer novel, might appear to be dull and lead a dull life, but they dream of being a free dull person in the west and deciding just how dull their life is, for themselves.

Thought provoking and interesting, with many hours of after-contemplation. Always the sign of a really good book, I find.

Buy Victory Square on The Book Depository

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Say what you like about Amazon…

The Pagan Lord…but. I ordered Bernhard Cornwell’s latest in the (let’s see what they’re calling the series this week) ‘Warrior Chronicles’, The Pagan Lord a good while back. When it was announced I think.

I got an email from Amazon last Friday, that they had dispatched the book.

It arrived, here in Denmark, Monday morning around 10.00. Delivered by a very pleasant lady from Post Danmark.

I’m thinking that must be some sort of a record. That Amazon must have some sort of arrangement with the Post Danmark people. Whatever they did – maybe it was just magic – you can’t fault service like that.

The Pagan Lord (printed)So, a hardback, first edition and I began reading Monday afternoon. As I’d coincidentally just finished the previous one (Olen Steinhauer Victory Square).

Incidentally. The picture to the left here, is a scan of the actual version I have. As I’ve noted before, the picture Amazon show, isn’t always the one you get. Amazon seem to get an image ahead of publication and use that. I’m not actually sure they ever update it, even after publication. So, you will see is is slightly different from the pre-publication version. As far as I can see, the actual image of the warrior is the same. Bernard Cornwell’s name is the same typeface, but now it’s in white. The title is in gold not white and the copy at the bottom is different. Instead of the standard ‘In a clash of kingdoms…’, there is the more book-specific ‘one man will decide the fate of a nation.’ It’s a really good looking affair. A matt cover, with embossed author name and title and really does look and feel worth the money. I’m about half way through now, enjoying it very much and review ideas are forming up nicely.

I’m going to recommend this one to you, purely based on the cover and the half I’ve read. If you’ve read the previous six, you’ll get more out of it, but if you haven’t, this one hangs together just fine on its own.

Review to follow as soon as I’m done.

Top Five Books of the year – so far

According to my blog (you’re looking at it) and Goodreads, I seem have read 21 books so far this year.

I though that, as we’re more or less half way through the year now, I’d see about a list of the five books I’ve read and enjoyed the most. I couldn’t get it down to three.

I generally read Historical Fiction, of many different periods, spiced up with Spy stories, stuff about WWII and, well, anything else that takes my fancy. I’ll generally though, sidestep any book written about feelings or with ‘this is an important novel, I urge you to read it’, or thereabouts, on the front.

So here, purely in alphabetical order only, they are. They are books I’ve read in 2013, not necessarily published this year. Click on the picture to go to the Amazon page for that title.

If you agree – or differ – you’re very welcome to say so.

Dark City BlueDark City Blue : Luke Preston
Dark, as the title says. And brutal and brutally honest. A Police drama like few others, shot through (literally) with bullets, with humour, of the dark sort and even with hope. And the good news is, as Herger the Joyous says in The Thirteenth Warrior; “It’s alright, little brother…there are more!
Luke Preston on Twitter

Dead Spy Running Dead Spy Running : Jon Stock
Whenever I read in the future, some reviewer (like me maybe) saying ‘I couldn’t put it down, I’ll think of this book. I couldn’t put it down, literally. I could not take my eyes off it for a second. If I did, I was left staring into space thinking “that didn’t just happen, did it? He didn’t just do that did he?”
Jon Stock on Twitter

Hero of RomeHero of Rome : Douglas Jackson
This was something of a surprise, though I don’t really know why it should have been. A delightfully written, fully rounded and full-blooded take on the early Roman invasions and campaigns in England. Again, good news is that it’s just the start of a series featuring the main man Gaius Valerius Verrens.
Douglas Jackson on Twitter

The Coming of the Third ReichThe Coming of the Third Reich : Richard J. Evans
As, for some reason known only to certain higher powers, I am fascinated with the periods before, during and just after the  World War II, this was a remarkable find for me. Exhaustive and rewarding in it’s clarity, its detail and it’s thoroughness. This is the first of three and is surely the go-to book on the origins of the Nazi Party in Germany.
Richard J. Evans is obviously far to clever to be on Twitter.

The Road To RomeThe Road to Rome: Ben Kane
Quite possibly my most enjoyable read of the year so far. Really cannot fully express how much I enjoyed the final chapter in the Forgotten Legion Trilogy. Everything comes from the first two novels comes together in Caesar’s Rome, in a finale full of battles, beatings and backstabbing. I’m also putting my money on it only being a trilogy, so far…
Ben Kane on Twitter

The other books I have read this year are:

A Loyal Spy: Somon Conway
Blood Work: Michael Connelly
Conflict of Empires: Sam Barone
Dirty Little Secret: Jon Stock
Free Agent: Jeremy Duns
If The Dead Rise Not: Philip Kerr
Shieldwall: Justin Hill
The Caspian Gates: Harry Sidebottom
The Dying Light: Henry Porter
The Hunt for Red October: Tom Clancy
The Istanbul Variations: Olen Steinhauer
The Red Coffin: Sam Eastland
The Tenth Chamber: Glenn Cooper
The Thieves of Heaven: Richard Doetsch
XPD: Len Deighton
Zoo Station: David Downing

Review: The Istanbul Variations

The Istanbul Variations
The Istanbul Variations by Olen Steinhauer
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I really not sure I know what to feel about this one. Apart from a certain amount of disappointment.

Come on Olen, I know you can do better than this.

To be honest, I’m not even completely sure I know what it was all about. Which is why I’m a little disappointed, as I was tremendously impressed by and thoroughly enjoyed the two previous books of his I’ve read.

Istanbul Variations really is nowhere near as good as it should have been, based on that previous experience. Nowhere near as mind-bogglingly good and memorable as they were, or this should have been. It’s only because I’m holding the book in my hands right now, that I can remember what happened. In fact, I think I feel really rather ambivalent about it. Take it or leave it. As detached from the story as the story seemed detached from me, the reader. There was very little feeling of involvement got out of me, the reader. It was all seemed more than a little ‘at arm’s length’. Like watching the story unfold while being the other side of a misty window from it. Rather than being in the room with it. If you understand what I mean.

I’m guessing (and of course no doubt guessing wrongly), but it seemed like he wrote a full story, then took out a lot of the explanations and plot detail, in an attempt to make it seem a lot more exciting, pacey, lean and interesting. Like it would be a challenge to us, to do some work to figure it all out. But I think he left too much out. Perhaps not to the detriment of the tale. But to the detriment to gaining my involvement, making me care. I kept going back over a section to see if I’d missed the line that would make the difference. Never found it.

What’s it about?! Istanbul, 1975, Cold War (eastern) Europe, airport, hi-jack, plane crash, investigation, Prague Spring, treachery, dredging up the past, mind-control…and that’s where it left me behind.

However, as I so much enjoyed the others I have read, and because I have a couple more up on the shelf there – I will give more Olen Steinhauer a go.

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Review: Gospel Truths

Gospel Truths
Gospel Truths by J.G. Sandom
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is not your run-of-the-mill religious, historical, chase, search, code-breaking, discovery of some ancient artefact that proves Christianity is based on a myth or a lie, type of thriller. It’s quite a step up from that.

Passages reminded me of books I’ve read by Alan Furst or Olen Steinhauer. The introspection, the uncertainty, the slightly tainted or regretted past, the feeling I got of the main character just being along for the ride in certain sections of his or her own life.
Gospel Truths is written from the point of view of a middle-aged English police officer, with a slightly troubled past personal and professional life. He is originally from the English counties, but after a high-profile success, he is now working in London. He is handed a bit of a hot potato of a case, involving a suicide they suspect is murder but can’t prove, international banking scandals, The Vatican and various highly un-savoury international underworld figures. His investigations lead him to France, to cathedrals, the possible involvement of the Freemasons, a Gospel that could be written using Jesus’ own words and the long tendrils of freemasonry organisations, with more fingers in more pies than they have fingers. I think I’ve covered the most of it.

The funny thing is, that while the book is called The Gospel Code and the story is ostensibly woven around a murder and a search/chase for an ancient gospel, that isn’t really what (I think, as least) the book is about. It’s more about a personal and introspective search, by the main character Nigel Lyman. We learn more about him, his background and history, than we do about the searched for Gospel. And it’s all the better for that.

If I were to be critical, i’d say that there some background passages were a little too oblique. I liked the style of colouring in his past with some passages which, on the surface, seemed to have little to do with the plot, but were there to illuminate how the reasoning he applied to plot developments, came about. However, sometimes I was struggling to see how exactly they helped me understand him any more than getting on with the story would have done.

Overall, you are going to have to put in a bit of effort into reading this one. It’s much more than an ordinary, airport shop, holiday-reading, page-turning blockbuster, no matter how much the cover blurb would like to convince you you’ve got another Dan Brown in your hands. It’s much better than that.

Recommended.

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Review: Vienna Assignment

Vienna AssignmentVienna Assignment by Olen Steinhauer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Thoroughly enjoyed this one. I’ve previously read ‘The Tourist’, which was also excellent, though probably more of a mainstream spy novel.

‘The Vienna Assignment’ is particularly good because it doesn’t do, as in the main character doesn’t do, what you probably expect it/him to. At least, that’s how I felt anyway.

It’s set in Eastern Europe – and, as Vienna and Austria are in Western Europe – Western Europe, in the mid-sixties. It’s about spies, about Socialism about suspicion and trust, betrayal and idealism when all the evidence points against it.

Atmospheric, intriguing and thought-provoking. Read it, you won’t be disappointed.

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