Sunday, July 17, 2011

(No.160) The Great Stink [and other vacation reading]

When summer vacation time arrives some people actually do read (or say they read) the sort of 'serious' books they wish to be known for reading but many more -- perhaps most of us -- prefer to relax with a mystery rather than with Proust, with one of Alan Furst's masterful evocations of pre-war Europe or with the latest adventure of Lee Child's Jack Reacher rather than long postponed Samuel Beckett or James Joyce.

I belong to the relaxation group and in my clan a book that is fun to read is worthwhile for itself; it doesn't have to be significant based on having redeeming literary qualities or social value. So, here's a list of several books I think provide enjoyable reading for vacation time. All are available in softcover.

The Great Stink (Harcourt, 2006) is the first novel by Cambridge don Clare Clarke. Set in London of the 1850s its focus is the city's sewer system, an engineer returned from the Crimean War hired to transform it and crime in this subterranean world. It is fascinating, realistic and researched so well that the reader can almost smell the sewers.

Far Cry (Arrow, 2010) is written by the English novelist John Harvey, author of a fine series of eleven crime novels featuring Nottingham's Detective Inspector Charlie Resnick. Harvey has written other non-series novels and Far Cry is a recent one. It revolves around the disappearance, years apart, of two daughters of the same mother. Harvey's plot and writing are, as always superior.

Storm Prey (Berkley,2011) is the 20th of American novelist John Sandford's crime series featuring policeman Lucas Davenport. A drug robbery occurs at a hospital in which Davenport's spouse, a surgeon, works and unwittingly sees one of the robbers. As a potential witness she becomes a target and protecting her is interwoven with catching the robbers. Pleasant enough reading but not up to the level of reader enjoyment to be derived from, say, Lee Child's Reacher novels.

Djibouti (Morrow,2010) is written by the novelist many thousands of readers have long regarded as the gold standard for well plotted American crime stories: Elmore Leonard, now in his 80s. This novel has a rather unusual plot involving an American documentary filmmaker and her sidekick who set out to make a movie about Somali pirates. As a longtime reader of Leonard's novels, I did not find this one as enjoyable as, say, Get Shorty or Rum Punch or many of the other 40 or so he has written. Still, a less enjoyable Leonard novel is still worth reading.

One Soldier's War (Grove 2007) is not a novel. Rather it is a very interesting and insightful memoir written by the Russian Arkady Babchenko (translated by Nick Allen). Now a journalist Babchenko was conscripted into the Russian army and served in some very nasty campaigns undertaken by the Russians since 1994 in Chechnya. As a sometime student of military history I was the most surprised not by the brutality faced by Russian conscripts served up by their own officers (both commissioned and non-commissioned) or even by the viciousness of the Chechen campaigns. Rather I was particularly struck by the inefficiency and logistical incompetence and incapacity of the Russian military so long after it had retreated from Afghanistan.

Lustrum (Arrow,2009) is a political thriller set in Rome ca. 63 BC told by Tiro, the secretary to the consul Cicero. Like all of Robert Harris' novels (my favourite is still Fatherland) it is a book so interesting, well researched and plotted and written that it is very hard to put down. The story told in the novel involves the struggle for power in Rome among seven men including Cicero, Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus.

Fatal Last Words (Portador,2009) is the umpteenth novel in Quintin Jardine's successful and long running series featuring Edinburgh policeman Bob Skinner and his loyal associates on the force. In this novel a famous Scottish crime novelist is murdered while at a book festival. Skinner, although he is now Deputy Chief Constable, naturally becomes involved in the case. Complications ensue.


by Alastair Rickard