Dick Francis is always at his best writing about what he knows: jockeys, horses, and horseracing. Unfortunately, this book spends most of its time describing in excrutiating (and generally not very well-informed) detail computer technology circa 1980s that is used to construct a betting system that predictably becomes the McGuffin of the plot. It also features an unbelievably vengeful psychopath as an antagonist that any self-respecting protagonist would have done away with whenever he had the chance. Instead the guy keeps popping up in a way that would be unintentionally funny if it were not so annoying. There are many other Francis books that show off his experience and knowledge of horseracing.
This was my first (and probably last) Ian Banks novel. I am always on the lookout for new mysteries, and I was particularly interested in the tie-in to 1960s-70s radical politics. Although the writing style is good, I found the plot weak and the pace tedious. The resolution depends on characters spilling their guts to police instead of just clamming up or saying "before we go any further I want to talk to my solicitor." Occasionally this sort of confessional splurge can be forgiven, but it is such a constant feature of this book that it becomes intrusive and annoying. Finally, as detectives go I found Banks a bit on the bland side. Chacun a son gout, I suppose.
The story gets off to a strong start, with a very believable scenario in which Lord Halifax succeeds Chamberlain as PM and sues Nazi Germany for peace. The "what if" premise here is that a continuation of appeasement would have led to Hitler emerging as the clear victor in an attenuated war that never really grew into a World War. The depiction of fascism extending itself gradually into the institutions of British politics and society is truly frightening. The English characters swept up in this tragedy are finely drawn and mostly sympathetic (except for a suitably loathsome Blackshirt brother-in-law). However, the taut narrative begins to fray a bit about a third of the way into the book. As some others have noted, the idea that some secrets about America's development of an atomic bomb conveyed orally during a violent family argument does not really bear up to close scrutiny. Too, the prolonged chase of the person who, very much against his will, is burdened by the secret drags on far too long and is accorded too much importance to the governments concerned. Thereafter the story ends somewhat abruptly, with what seems like a somewhat forced rosy scenario for Britain's future following Hitler's death. What could have been a great book thus ends up being only good.
Written during WWII, Ross MacDonald's spy thriller is only partly satisfying. The plot is only so-so and the protagonist is less than believable, but the distinctive writing style clearly establishes MacDonald as a force to be reckoned with. As a writer, MacDonald only comes into his own in the Lew Archer series. Readers new to MacDonald should read all of the Lew Archer books first. After that, savor this little book for what it is: a early effort by someone who would go on to be a great writer.
I was attracted by the idea of a cyber-terror attack on financial systems. But what I actually got was a disappointing combination of deadeningly conventional thriller cliches with a good deal of tech talk thrown in with the goal of persuading the reader that the author actually knows what he is talking about. Who knows, he just might have expertise in the technical details. But then again who really cares if the technical content is buried in a heap of stock characters pulled off the thriller genre shelf (all the women are attractive blond, all the men are above average, etc. -- a veritable Lake Woebegone cast) and sloppy, appallingly bad writing even for a genre not known for its literary merits. One unintended benefit: every so often I come across a book so ineptly crafted that I am inspired to go back to my long unfinished second novel. Heaven knows that I am no great shakes as a fiction writer but I have no doubt can better than this even after three or four beers. So get ready world, I'm coming back!
For my money The Zebra-Striped Hearse shows Ross Macdonald at the top of his writing. The story is less violent and more psychologically-nuanced than earlier books on the series. The plot is brilliantly developed with the twists and turns needed to maintain suspense and element of surprise. The writing is both graceful and spare, perfectly capturing the essentials of the detective noir genre. My only complaint is the title which turns out to be something of a red herring -- or maybe that's entirely intentional. I won't say anything further lest I give away a spoiler alert.
I consider myself a Scott Turow fan. I have read all his books available on Audible and several in hard copy, never with less than overall appreciation for his ability to draw the reader into his narrative and his skill as a writer. Until now. I feel both puzzled and disappointed by Personal Injuries. Several reviewers have described the plot as boring, presumably because it moves along very slowly, frequently punctuated by digressive descriptions of minor characters and descriptive details of settings, clothing etc. It is, in short, more "literary" than the typical crime procedural mystery. My criticisms are more specific and do not take the author to task for writing a book that departs from my general expectations. I would argue that the books fails in ways that transcend genre. For example, the tensions between Robbie, the protagonist anti-hero sleazeball lawyer, and Evon, the constipated FBI agent assigned to undercover duty in Robbie's office, are artificial, tortured, and ultimately the stuff of television soap opera. Throwing in Robbie's wife dying a slow, painful death from ALS over the span of the story only reinforces this unfortunate impression. The cast of corrupt cops and judges comes across as more caricature than credible. Even poor Sandy Stern, the stately Argentine-American attorney from earlier Turow novels, is dragged in toward the end for a cameo appearance. In desperation perhaps, to lend some credibility? Finally one point that some might regard as nitpicking: the story is told in the person by George. George wafts in and out of the storyline, sometimes omniscient (or nearly so) and other times a relatively uninteresting and incurious observer of events. Turow attempts some unconvincing justification of how George could be cognizant of virtually all the things that are going on in the lives and thoughts of the other characters but it just doesn't fly. Creative writing technique aside, it is never a good thing when the reader is distracted by wondering who is narrating and why. Note: After I wrote this review I did a little research and learned that Time magazine named Personal Injuries as the Best Fiction Novel of 1999. I am left wondering who was on the jury and if they actually read the book.
I bought this book because of an interest in speculative geopolitics. The idea of China invading Alaska in the aftermath of a sovereign debt depression intrigued me. However, neither the geopolitical speculation nor the story grabbed me. Instead I suffered through endless (and repetitive) descriptions of military weaponry, battle scenes described in the most purple of purple prose (worthy of first prize in a "bad writing" contest), cartoonishly shallow characters (to call them cardboard would be to insult inanimate fiber material), rampant stereotyping and cultural chauvinism, etc. I disliked this book on every level imaginable. In the end, however, it failed to connect with my interest in geopolitics and near-future sci-fi.
For my money this is the best of the post-Smiley books. It is not only sophisticated in its understanding of the moral ambiguities and contradictions of the ongoing -- no end in sight -- conflict in the Middle East, it is a compelling psychological study of a young woman on the fringes of left-wing politics who is drawn -- more accurately kidnapped -- into a plot to thwart a terrorist bombing. Charlie is a theater actress of only modest success, which is to say she makes a living but only barely. She is the quintessential anti-heroine of the story. Sexually promiscuous and co-dependent, an abused girlfriend (of the cretinous "Long Al," a fellow actor), drawn to but also repelled by the brutal logic of terrorism and counter-terrorism, and finally an accidental if not unwilling savior of innocent lives. This is also a love story, counterposing Charlie and "Joseph," a Mossad operative who despite his legendary status as the coolest, toughest spy among the best of both types, is fraught with existential doubt about the consequences of meeting violence with more violence. Le Carre's prose is, as always, superlative. Little Drummer Girl stands up to anything ever written in this genre, including Graham Greene at the top of his game. Michael Jayston's narration is a perfect match for Le Carre's prose.
Having previously read The End of the Affair a few years ago and thinking it a minor Greene book, I have raised it to my A-list based on Colin Firth's extraordinary narration. Firth approaches perfection in bringing out the rhythm's and nuance of Greene's unpretentious but beautifully crafted prose. If there's any weakness here it is Greene's preoccupation with Roman Catholicism, which becomes a bit wearisome toward the end of story. Though not as great a novel as The Heart of the Matter, which appears on many lists of the 100 greatest novels ever written, The End of the Affair as narrated by Colin Firth is a must listen.
The very negative reviews of this book might well be the result of the jarring difference in style, tone, and narrative from the Shardlake series. Winter in Madrid is written in a literary style" with a weak plot, third person narration, flashbacks, and a generally bleak mood. As a fan of the Shardlake series I was unpleasantly surprised by all of the above. I wouldn't consider Winter in Madrid to be a failure or a bad novel, but it was neither what I expected or enjoyed. For anyone interested in the Spanish Civil War I would recommend Orwell's Homage to Catalonia.
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