Year 6 – catch-up; Books 1-10 including Zadie Smith, Max Porter and Abir Mukherjee

As the more eagle-eyed or regular reader will know, Lockdown 1.0 featured of a baby for us which, it is fair to say, has had something of an impact on a) the whole book a week thing and b) keeping up with reviews. I have considered just moving this into a children’s book blog, but I don’t have that much to say about them (apart from that oddly, the ones from friends in German & Japanese have gone down best). So I’ll try and get back into some reviewing on a more regular basis.

In the meantime, I have some catching up to do; the last review I posted was in October last year. I’ve read a dozen books since then so, although these were probably a mix of November 2020 – February 2021, I’m going to post them up here with a mini-review as part of year 6. Click on the book covers if you want to buy them.

1) Their Little Secret by Mark Billingham
This is another Tom Thorne novel – maybe the most reliable police procedural series being written? This one is typically great, spiralling out from a suicide into a complex plot with lashings of twists, psychological drama, and relationship insight. As highly recommended as any in the series 8.5/10

2) The Catch by Mick Herron
A Slough House novella (well, short story really) which is actually a very diverting character portrait of someone who works in the intelligence services at the end of his career, who gets embroiled in one last, particularly sticky situation. More poignant and less wise-cracking than the series as a whole, demonstrating Herron’s talent. 7/10

3) American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson
This came highly lauded by many and the premise is great – a black female intelligence officer at the FBI who is asked to undertake a special mission relating to a foreign leader and a potential coup. But I just couldn’t get on with this – I don’t know if it was the structure (heavily-flashbacked) or the overall pace (slow….), but I had to give up after around 100 pages. First of those for a while. 3/10

4) A Necessary Evil by Abir Mukherjee
Big fan of this series, and this is the second (third is on the TBR pile), which I really enjoyed. In this one, Sam Wyndham and his sidekick Sergeant Bannerjee follow the path from a high profile assassination to the mixed-up world of the kingdom of Sambalpore. It’s lovely, evocative, fun, interesting and not un-thrilling stuff. Great escapist reading. 8/10

5) A Room Full of Bones by Elly Griffiths
Elly Griffiths’ protagonist Ruth Galloway, archaelogist-cum-investigator, is one of the more real and rounded crime series characters around and I love hanging out with her as a reader, and with Cathbad, Nelson and all the rest of the merry band. This one starts with an old box of bones but has soon escalated via some unexplained deaths into something much more interesting and genuinely exciting as the plot and pace ratchets up towards the end. 7/10

6) Intimations by Zadie Smith
Just to show that not everything I’m reading is a crime thriller. This is a powerful, personal and insightful book of short essays that all relate to 2020 in different ways – many of them resonated hugely with me. Smith is a wonderful writer who wears her intellectual rigour lightly here, and communicates beautifully. She is also compassionate – which I feel like we all need a great deal of right now; so as she explores her life, Covid, race, class and identity, you feel that she is with you, and you with her. Great. 9/10

7) A Treachery of Spies by Manda Scott
So many elements to like in this book: a TV production links to a fascinating contemporary murder thriller tied to a fascinating tale of the Resistance in the war – and complicated by the involvement of multiple intelligence services all the way. And I enjoyed it quite a lot; but I also endured it a fair bit. I feel like there was a stonking novel which a better editor could have got out – a few less turns, a bit more pace, a bit more directness at key moments and this would have been an 8 or 9 for me. I’ll absolutely read Scott again, as I think she’s got great ideas, and there’s some really standout moments here. 6.5/10

8) The Last Hunt by Deon Meyer
Big fan of the Benny Griessel series of novels (Cobra & Icarus especially), and this is a decent addition to the series; it has almost Agatha Christie echoes with the train-based nature of it, before branching out into more typical Griessel / Meyer / South African territory. I always feel like I learn a great deal from these novels and, for all Griessel’s stereotypical dysfunctions (ex-alcoholic, music lover, divorcee etc), he’s a character you root for and get behind. 7/10

9) The Death of Francis Bacon by Max Porter
I loved Max Porter’s book Lanny and I’m also a huge Francis Bacon fan: he may be my favourite artist. So I had high expectations from this….which sadly weren’t met. It’s a slightly odd imagining of Bacon’s last days (he died in a convent in Spain) which lacks coherence, drama or real interest – Porter’s talent means that there are moments of interest, small epiphanies of illumination….but they pass too quickly and, sadly, this largely feels like a very pet project which Porter wrote for himself – and forgot the reader. 5/10

10) Wild Fire by Ann Cleeves
The last in the Shetland series featuring Jimmy Perez, and I think this one is one of the best. It features a family who’ve taken on a house with a history, and how their outsider status, their autistic son and their connections to the wider community result in deaths, suspicion and mystery – which Jimmy and the always-in-knitwear Willow weave their way through, bringing the strands together until the solution is clear. It’s great, evocative, claustrophobic stuff, with rounded and compelling characters. A strong end to a great series. 8.5/10

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