I’ve really fallen behind with my reviews over the past couple of weeks, partly because I’ve had a lot of preparation to do for other projects and partly because once more the dentist is looming large in my life. She told me on Tuesday that all the excavating that had to be done back in April when the rogue root was discovered embedded in my jaw means that before any restoration can be done I’m going to have to have a bone graft and a pin put in place. “You might want to clear your diary for the following week,” she said, rather ominously. I am choosing to interpret that as, “expect at least a fortnight of untold misery”. At least, that way, if I’m over-reacting I will have been prepared for the very worst. Anyway, in order to clear the decks I thought I would just offer a series of mini reviews so that I can start afresh at the beginning of next week.
An Officer and a Spy ~ Robert Harris
This was the second from my 15 Books of Summer list. It’s the first time I’ve joined in with this particular challenge and I can already see that I have approached it all wrong and may need to reorganise myself. Nevertheless, that did nothing to dim my pleasure in this book. As I’ve said before I chose it because I wanted to know more about the Dreyfus Affair, which rocked France during the last decade of the Nineteenth Century and wasn’t really resolved until almost the end of the 1900s. I’ve had a patchy experience where Harris is concerned but I thought this book was excellent. Told from the point of view of a French Army Officer, Georges Picquart, it starts on the morning on which Dreyfus, found guilty of passing secrets to the Germans, is publicly humiliated by having all the insignias of rank and regiment torn from his uniform. Picquart has been involved in bringing this about and is rewarded by being placed in charge of the intelligence unit that had been responsible for bringing Dreyfus down. Once he has access to all the unit’s secrets, however, Georges starts to suspect that the case against Dreyfus may well have been at best flawed, at worst manufactured, and so begins to dig more deeply into the affair. What he discovers is a conspiracy to protect the positions of the men in power in both army and state at whatever cost to the truth even if that cost should include men’s lives.
This is a chilling story extremely well told. It is particularly chilling because of the parallels so easily drawn with our own times: the incipient anti-semitism at the heart of national institutions, the conspiracy to cover-up the wrong doings of men of power, and the ease with which the media can stir up mob hysteria in the populous. It needs Picquart at its heart, a man determined to uncover the truth despite the cost to himself, otherwise the reader would come away thoroughly ashamed to be a member of the human race.
A Closed and Common Orbit ~ Becky Chambers
This was the novel chosen for Wednesday’s book group meeting and it provoked a lot of discussion. It is the second in a sequence of three science fiction books and although those who had read the first thought you didn’t need to know what had gone before the rest of us disagreed. The storyline stood on its own, but we felt we had missed a lot of the ‘world-building’ that had happened in the first novel and were at times floundering a bit. Like most science fiction, the book asks questions about the way in which a society works which can be seen as relevant to both the fictional world and our own. In this instance these were mainly to do with the autonomy of the individual, gender fluidity and the definition of sentience. Although not everyone agreed with me, my own feelings were that these were treated with too light a hand. I did find myself wondering who the intended audience was, because personally this was a book I would have given to teenagers rather than to adults.
Black Summer ~ M W Craven
Just before Christmas, I wrote about The Puppet Show, the first in Craven’s Washington Poe series, here. As I said then, Craven was my crime fiction discovery of the year and Black Summer has only served to reinforce this view. DS Washington Poe is now back with the Serious Crime Analysis Section (SCAS) full time. Based, as it is, in Hampshire, this means that he spends far less time than he would like in his beloved Cumbria but this changes when a young woman walks into the Alston library and tells the police officer based there once a month as a ‘problem solver’ that she is Elizabeth Keaton. As far as the law is concerned Elizabeth Keaton was killed six years previously and it was Poe who was mainly responsible for putting her father, world famous chef, Jared Keaton, behind bars for her murder. If Elizabeth is still alive then Jared is innocent and given that very few people would argue that he is a dangerous psychopath, this doesn’t bode well for Poe. Matters become even more complicated when Elizabeth vanishes for a second time and the evidence seems to suggest that Poe has something to do with her disappearance. Never one to suffer fools gladly, the DS has made enemies in his home force and as some of those climb the ranks they are only too pleased to have the opportunity to bring him to book. However, while Washington may have enemies he also has friends, two in particular: his immediate boss, DI Stephanie Flynn and the brilliant, if socially inept, young analyst, Tilly Bradshaw. When, at two in the afternoon, Poe texts Tilly to say that he is in trouble he expects that she will drop everything and turn up sometime the following afternoon. Fifteen hours early at three in the morning isn’t quite been what he’s been counting on, but Poe is Tilly’s friend and in her book that’s what friends do. Tilly Bradshaw is one of my favourite characters in fiction. Her incisive mind cuts through everything. I don’t care that she frequently doesn’t know how to act in a social situation. Tilly tells it how it is and I applaud her for it. What is more, she is brilliant at discerning patterns and, although I don’t think there is quite enough Tilly in this book, she it is who finally has the insight that explains what is going on and leads the case to its conclusion. Possibly the best thing about this book is the way in which it ends because it makes it clear that there is going to be a third in the series. If you enjoy crime fiction and you haven’t read Craven then I can’t recommend him too highly.