The Spinoza Problem

On one level, it was a book about two very different influential figures separated by three hundred years. It was interesting to learn about seventeenth century Jewish life in Amsterdam, and about Hitler’s rise to power in Germany. However, two factors gave the writing much more significance and impact.


51ks87xytml-_sx320_bo1204203200_This book has much to commend it, despite the ending which I found disappointing.

As I read the book I was thinking of giving it a five star rating, and the phrase that kept coming into my head was “a very satisfying read”. I had initially purchased the book on the strength of having previously read Yalom’s psychotherapy books, and another of his novels (which has what must be the most unattractive title for many readers – When Nietszche Wept). That novel, and his professional books, convinced me that the author could write very accessible prose on potentially challenging subjects, and that he was able to create characters with real psychological depth.

This book was satisfying on so many levels. It was written after the author was inspired by a visit to the Spinoza museum in Rijnsburg where he learned that Alfred Rosenberg (the intellectual force behind much of the Nazi anti-semitism) had deliberately and personally stolen the library of the Jewish philosopher.  Continue reading “The Spinoza Problem”

Ambition of Men

Given the limited scope, the book, on the surface sounds as if it could have been very boring. However, nothing could be further from the truth.

29397486I had been an admirer of Harris’s work for a number of years and bought this on the strength of his ability to inform, tease, and entertain me. I have to say that I found this the strangest of his thrillers to date, and yet one which was at the same time, satisfying.

What is different about the book is the extremely limited scope. There is limited terrorism, gunfire, bombs, and death, but all this takes place in a very minor capacity, almost at a tangent to the central focus. All of the main “action” takes place within the Vatican – within two buildings, in fact. The “action” is simply the election of a new pope.

Given the limited scope, the book, on the surface, sounds as if it could have been very boring. However, nothing could be further from the truth. By limiting his attention Harris has succeeded in creating a very intense, powerful portrayal of a religious and political intrigue. Continue reading “Ambition of Men”

The Americans Don’t Come Out Of This Too Well

For me, the genius of the book – the moment where I stopped reading and thought, “Wow, that’s clever! Why didn’t I think of that?” happens about two-thirds of the way through.

18635080I read thrillers on holiday for the same reason that people watch Soap Operas at lunchtime or of an evening.  I want to be entertained and temporarily drawn away from the demanding routine of my life into another world.  If I vaguely care about the people in that world, that’s a bonus.  If I learn something in the process, either about life or myself – well, that’s a double bonus.

The is book is the second in Jonathan Holt’s Carnivia trilogy and I bought it on the strength of really enjoying The Boatman (the first in the series).  It shared many of the qualities that brought me enjoyment of the first novel.

The reader is drawn into the book by a very skilful abduction of a teenager, and the attempts of the police to find her.  Straight away there is tension to be resolved.  The kidnappers keep ratcheting up the suffering they are imposing on their victim.  Two of the main police protagonists are at odds with their superiors about how to proceed, and also at odds with each other, making any successful resolution look difficult.  Finally, the straightforward kidnap starts to look less than straightforward.  In a sense we think we know who did it, but then that certainty also starts to unravel.  Continue reading “The Americans Don’t Come Out Of This Too Well”

I’m Angry About What Happened

I am left admiring the originality of the plot and the skill with which it was handled. But reading it was more than an intellectually satisfying experience. I am also left with anger at what happened …

24824392This is one of the most interesting books I have read for a long time. Several writers have used the device of portraying a single event from the perspective of different characters. (You could argue that it has almost been a compulsory ruse of writers from at least Henry James onwards.) For me, what sets this book apart from some of the rest is the way time is used to create an almost unbearable tension as at least two versions of reality slowly emerge and are finally brought together and tested.

The main protagonist, a female TV documentary maker, has a secret from the past that she has managed to keep well buried and away from her partner and son. The author also hides it from us for most of the book, allowing us to guess from clues what it might be. Someone discovers a past involving the woman and writes a novel about the events which he then makes sure that the woman and her son get a copy of. Continue reading “I’m Angry About What Happened”

Such Great Restaurants, Such Stink

We learn about the influence of the Mafia on the city, the techniques used by people traffickers, the protocols for paperwork on a US military base, the operation of drones, the Italian justice system, some of the conventions used by computer hackers. I knew I was reading a novel, but for the most part, the detail encouraged me to believe wholeheartedly in the world I was being invited to inhabit. The book was interesting.

51lrM7ND2aLSomeone said, “If you like Dan Brown, you’ll like this.” They were wrong. I like Dan Brown, but I loved this. I did really enjoy this book for several reasons.

First, the plot was fantastically intriguing. Three seemingly unrelated incidents happen to different people in different parts of Venice. The author then skilfully takes us on a journey where we are invited to link the incidents together and use that knowledge to resolve the ending. What I particularly liked is that, for the most part, it seemed credible. The plot doesn’t depend on anything that stretched the imagination beyond reason, and its complexity keeps you on your toes right to the end.  Continue reading “Such Great Restaurants, Such Stink”

Power Play: The Sex Games Are A Metaphor

I found myself laughing out loud at one point reading about the American reaction to a major event in the book, thinking it was so over-the-top to be absurd, and I had to remind myself that as a former BBC correspondent in America, the author knew precisely what he was writing about. It is this convincing detail of the political worlds involved that provided much of the pleasure for me.

13021847This is a very interesting and skilfully crafted book. If you enjoyed “The West Wing”, you’ll love this. It has so much more to offer. The author takes you inside Downing Street as well as the West Wing (and the British Ambassador to America moves seamlessly between the two). We see the see American security forces dealing with a crisis (as well as trying to instigate and/or avoid World War III), the British security forces dealing with terrorism, we visit a grouse shoot in Scotland, and make an historical journey to the British forces in Northern Ireland.

My previous reading of Gavin Esler had alerted me to his ability to deliver sharp, witty prose, with pithy observations about political life, and this book delivered in abundance. And the political worlds that he describes in such detail provide a fascinating and authoritative backdrop to the action. Continue reading “Power Play: The Sex Games Are A Metaphor”

Can Love Stop The Pain?

The final fifth of the book is a tour de force of careful unravelling of detail. The reader wants to know what happened to the final child, if he is still alive, and who (if anybody) took him. In the space of relatively few pages three separate explanations are given, one after the other. Each one is convincing at the time and leaves the reader satisfied until the ground we stand on is suddenly pulled away. I was left feeling sympathy for the police officers and something of their shock.

24422329I was sitting up to 1:00am. I had to get to the end to understand what happened.

On the surface this may have a lot to put you off. All I can say is, “Don’t be put off by the surface.” If I tell you that it involves the death or disappearance of six children, the grief of one mother, the guilt and rejection of another, a war veteran with PTSD, and the rigours of the Falkland Islands’ landscape and water, you may want to put it down saying that it sounds too grim. However, despite that, it isn’t grim at all. In fact, it is one of the most optimistic books I have read for a long time. Ultimately friendship, care, and love triumph over the pain and losses.

The first part of the book is dominated by the grieving mother who has lost her two boys in a tragic accident that could have been avoided. We sit with her in her pain as she plots either the murder of the woman who could have prevented it and/or her own suicide. Sadly the Islands have a history of dead or missing children. At least two other boys have disappeared in recent history. We are jolted into the present as another boy disappears, and then another one.

Continue reading “Can Love Stop The Pain?”