Sometimes it’s impossible to part with the things we love the most…
Published on February 4th, this novel is billed as “Perfect for fans of Eleanor Oliphant and The Keeper of Lost Things, this exquisitely told, uplifting novel shows us that however hopeless things might feel, beauty can be found in the most unexpected of places.”
Personally, I can’t wait.
When Amy Ashton’s world came crashing down eleven years ago, she started a collection. Just a little collection, just a few keepsakes of happier times: some honeysuckle to remind herself of the boy she loved, a chipped china bird, an old terracotta pot . . . Things that others might throw away, but to Amy, represent a life that could have been.
Now her house is overflowing with the objects she loves – soon there’ll be no room for Amy at all. But when a family move in next door, a chance discovery unearths a mystery long buried, and Amy’s carefully curated life begins to unravel. If she can find the courage to face her past, might the future she thought she’d lost still be hers for the taking?
Get ready to learn what really happens behind closed doors.
Landlords have become one of the most hated groups in society. Parasites, they’re often called. And there’s a lot of them. The Treasury estimates there are almost 2.6 million landlords in the UK with around 5.45 million rental properties.
But the real life of a professional landlord is very different to what most people think. From burglaries and break-ins to drug raids, police warrants, crazy tenant antics, bailiffs, squatters, lawsuits, wrecked properties, interfering council officers, game-playing freeholders to moments of heartfelt joy and happiness, the life of a landlord is never dull. Especially when the government keeps moving the goalposts.
This explosive front line exposé blows the lid off what it’s really like to be a landlord and the shocking reality of renting out a property. Hovering close to a nervous breakdown and likely suffering PTSD, The Secret Landlord exposes truths rarely shared. Stories that will grip you, move you and smack you in the face.
This is the truth, the other side of the door.
This is as difficult a book to review as I’m sure it was to write. And, in all honesty, I think a reader’s degree of satisfaction with their purchase is going to be directly linked to their politics and their experiences (isn’t everything?)
There’s a lot to like
The good things – the Secret Landlord is clearly a well-intentioned landlord. She writes fluidly and is as engaging a guide through the trials and tribulations of this lifestyle that you could wish for. Material which could be very dry is handled with aplomb.
So, it is clearly well written and its diary format allows these dispatches from capitalisms front line to romp along.
I think it is fair to say that this is a landlord who’s heart in the right place and is well intentioned. She wants to make a living – fair enough – and her ethos is clearly well meaning.
She says, ““My tenants tend to stay with me for years – I like that. I like the fact we can have a long relationship and get to know each other. Truth is, I don’t really like change. I really like it when people come to stay and they don’t leave. I like them growing and changing and hearing about their lives.”
That’s positively heart warming. As is how responsible this attitude is:
“I don’t understand, I truly don’t, the landlords who don’t do repairs. I have no understanding, morally or commercially, why you wouldn’t fix a problem.”
Here’s the thing though: the system is awful.
And, frankly, her justifications for her role within it are very poor. Take a scenario from early on in the book when she needs to sell two properties to ensure she has enough capital on hand to survive.
“My phone rings and I see it’s the long-term tenant at the flat where I’ve just sent his eviction notice. I brace myself. ‘I’ve just got this notice, what’s going on? What have I done?’ ‘I’m so sorry, you haven’t done anything, but the problem is the government has made lots of tax changes and so I have no choice but to sell.’ ‘But, this is my home!’ ‘I know and I’m really sorry, I don’t want it to be like this, but I hope you can understand I have to sell because I need to raise some money.’‘So how long have I got?’ ‘The date’s there on the notice, you have over two months. I’m really sorry about this.’
Right, so a tenant who has done nothing wrong is to be made homeless because you over extended yourself?
By the way, in Scotland the tenant would get 6 months notice which would help a little bit, but what makes this galling is the weakness of the arguments in need to make herself feel better.
At various points she asks, “Is it my fault?” and, later when the tenant about to bounced out in the street is not pleased we get this reported exchange:
“He’s still majorly unimpressed as the rental market has risen loads and he’s unhappy about how much more he’s going to have to shell out to rent somewhere else. I bite my tongue. I’d like to point out he could’ve been saving some money from his reduced rent with me.”
Yeah, except that’s not how it works is it? We aren’t given this particular tenant’s occupation but there is every chance that his wages won’t have kept pace with rent levels so he almost certainly won’t have been pocketing the difference, oh-so-financially-prudent Secret Landlord.
“Is it my fault?” she asks?
“No,” unsurprisingly answers friend who is also a landlord.
“Yes,” say everyone else. You are literally part of the problem.
This particular paradox is writ large when she outlines how the system has changed since the financial crash. She has repeatedly said that she is a responsible landlord.
“The hoops you have to jump through and the paperwork you have to complete is something else nowadays. But, back in the day, and obviously that was before the financial crash, getting a mortgage, a re-mortgage or any sort of money was easy. Hell, you could even do same-day re-mortgages back then!… I should have borrowed more!”
No! No, you shouldn’t. People investing in sub-prime mortgages is the literal – literal – reason the world’s financial system had a cardiac arrest which nearly sent us back to the Dark Ages. This is not an exactly reflective guide.
“The thing that gets me about all of this is the way the government has created these housing problems and blamed landlords for everything. The government sold off the council housing and hasn’t built enough since. Private individuals then bought properties to rent out to fill the housing need. Then everybody and his dead grandmother went crazy about landlords owning property and renting them out and making a profit.”
Now, in her defence, it is also clear that the tax system is a mess, tenants are – well, arseholes – and this is not an easy profession. Actually it sounds like a dreadful profession and this is a lady doing the best she can. Maybe calling landlords parasites is harsh.
But, if you lay with pigs, you end up bacon and I’m afraid that this well-written, slick journey through the dark lowlands of the realities of capitalism’s foothills does not make me feel sorry for the choices this category of people have made.
Author Bio – The Secret Landlord has been renting, refurbishing and selling properties across the UK for almost two decades. An award-winning landlord, as judged by the National Landlords Association, The Secret Landlord has provided accommodation for hundreds of tenants from all walks of life.
Detective Constable Bailey Morgan is back doing what she does best – working undercover.
This time she has to infiltrate the inner circle of a notorious underworld family. Posing as a fellow villain, she is on a one-woman mission to bring the family to their knees.
But things are never that simple. Bailey finds that she is forced to confront shadowy wraiths from her past and will come face-to-face with a set of devastating revelations that will shatter her world and threaten her very existence.
With only herself to trust, Bailey is on her own and the stakes are higher than ever.
Heart-stopping and gripping. Perfect for the fans of hit TV shows such as Line of Duty and Gangs of London.
Caro Savage is a new writer to me. I had missed her debut, Jailbird published in October 2019, but I liked the sound of her latest effort, Villain.
The fact that she has the best name for a crime writer since Karen Slaughter, only interested me further!
I am happy to report that she lives up to her name: this novel is top notch. Savage manages to sprinkle the consequences of her protagonist’s previous undercover exploits through the novel with a light touch as well create a plucky, highly skilled detective who you want to go on the ride with.
It is not often that we see the far reaching results of exposure to violence and the effect that has on those that undergo it. Here, Bailey is on beta-blockers after a diagnosis of PTSD courtesy of the horrors she has previous undergone.
A bugbear of mine in crime fiction is that convincing, flowing dialogue can often be the casualty of action but Savage manages the trick of making her characters distinct, recognisable and also realistic.
The other thing that Savage manages to do is ramp up the tension. Bailey’s interactions whilst undercover make your palms sweat as the threat of violence and trauma hangs over every encounter and keeps you hooked from first to last.
I have to be honest, the seam of black humour which runs through the novel – a severed arm torn asunder by a car bomb landing with a splat in front of a homeless man in the opening pages is a particular treat – keeps this novel from the potential of all thrillers to topple towards melodrama and is like a palate cleanser from the tension and thrills.
Caro Savage has announced her arrival as a writer to take note of with this thrilling follow up to her debut and I can’t wait to come across Bailey again.
Caro Savage knows all about bestselling thrillers having worked as a Waterstones bookseller for 12 years in a previous life. Now taking up the challenge personally and turning to hard-hitting crime thriller writing, Jailbird was published by Boldwood in October 2019.
Courtesy of Catherine Yaffe, PAJNewman is delighted to be able to bring you an exclusive extract of The Lie She Told – You can read a review of the novel here
All Kate wanted was a peaceful life.
All Ryan wanted to do was destroy it.
Kate and her son Joe have created a new life for themselves in the Highlands of Scotland and she couldn’t be happier. That is until she picks a stranger up from the side of the road that turns out to be a figure from her past. Will all her secrets be revealed?
“Ryan?” She asked, risking a glance sideways
“Haha, I wondered when it would dawn on you”
“What the hell..how..” Kate was speechless. She’d last seen Ryan on the final day of the court hearing, hanging around outside on the court steps. As memories slowly clicked into place she went through a series of emotions. Her hands started to shake, heart pounding she moved from recognition to anger in a split second.
She swerved violently and pulled haphazardly onto the side of the road.
“What the actual? What are you doing here?” she removed her seatbelt and despite the lashing rain opened the car door and got out.
“Get out of my car now!” she yelled above the cacophony noise that swirled around the hills of the Highlands.
Ryan leaned over into the driver seat and shouted something, but Kate could only see red as rage, shock and fear took over.
“I want you out of my car now!” she screamed again, shaking with anger.
Reluctantly Ryan did as she demanded and stepped into the monsoon,
“Kate, come on, don’t be like that”, he headed around the front of the car towards her.
She backed away,
“Oh no you don’t, stay away from me Ryan”
Ryan carried on forward, relentless, “Kate, what’s wrong with you?”
“Stop it Ryan, I don’t have to listen to anyone, anymore. I am not the same naive victim that you knew back then, and I will not listen to your bullshit”
Catherine Yaffe is a former freelance journalist, magazine editor and digital marketing agency owner. Catherine has previously written non-fiction books on Digital Marketing before following her passion for writing crime novels full time.
The Lie She Told is the first in a series of books that challenge the status quo of relationships and makes the reader question how well you know those around you.
Catherine lives in West Yorkshire with her husband Mark and their 2 cats Jenson & Button (she’s also a F1 fan!)
When the estranged daughter of Scotland’s premier art dealer goes missing, Private Investigator Hanlon is hired to find out where Aurora is.
But what she thinks will be a relatively straightforward job, soon turns dangerous. The missing girl has a troubled past but what made Aurora suddenly pack her bags and disappear?
Hanlon has her work cut out for her. The stakes are rising and she needs to get to the bottom of the case before someone else is attacked.
And is Aurora still alive, or is she missing for good?
A former detective in the Met, Hanlon now finds herself living in splendid isolation in the wilds of Argyll with just her knackered Vauxhall Corsa and her trusty hound Weymss to keep her company.
I wasn’t familiar with the work of Alex Coombs but the setting of Scotland was the thing which tickled my fancy. I live locally to the setting, I like a good Tartan Noir: colour me intrigued.
And Coombs did intrigue. Hanlon is a smashing character: damaged and haunted; loving her dog, her only emotional attachment; adjusting to her new rural life.
The University of Edinburgh alumni renders some parts of Scotland well – he’s good on the capital and its various sub-districts, as well as describing those single track roads which wind their way down towards the hamlets and villages on the road to Campbelltown.
There are some odd lapses – Loch Lomand in the Highlands? – but actually that’s the sort of mistake which seems to fit with the characters’ perspectives which is nice.
Coombs also has a mind for engaging characters – coke-addicted, psychotic Glaswegian hard men aren’t exactly original, but his is a memorable specimen of the species.
His gay hitmen are refreshingly rendered also and he has a lovely turn of descriptive phrase. “‘One person, they get in the van with the girl. Two people…’ He shook his head irritably. He was tired of this. There could be endless permutations – what if she arrived riding a camel? ‘Fuck it, if there’s two or more with her, we dinnae do anything.’”
He is no less comfortable skewering the pretentions of the Edinburgh students Hanlon encounters. “Morag was studying Creative Writing; if anyone was likely to make a mountain out of a molehill it was probably an aspiring writer with an overactive imagination.”
And this equally applies to the lecturers, “‘Look, I am an Artist!’ his dress proclaimed. Hanlon thought it also proclaimed, ‘Look, I’m an arsehole’ but for now she would keep that to herself.”
There are some false notes in the dialogue, occasionally it sounds a little generic and not specific to individual characters and there can be that flaw of the crime novel – a lot of recapping of plot while the detective muses to herself. Hanlon is a loner – having only a dog does limit her opportunity for natural sounding exposition.
However, ‘Missing for Good’ is a rattling good read, sprinting along with enjoyable gusto and building to a satisfying crescendo. All in all, thoroughly recommended – I’ll have to go back and read Mr Coomb’s other stuff now.
Author Bio – Alex Coombs studied Arabic at Oxford and Edinburgh Universities and went on to work in adult education before retraining to be a chef. He has written four well-reviewed crime novels as Alex Howard.
‘It got better, in time, though to be truthful it always felt more of a duty than a pleasure: a little like homework, satisfying when over, and done well, but never exactly enjoyable. But then nobody had ever suggested it could be otherwise.’
This was the view of Claudia Faraday, 1920s respectable wife and mother of three, on the subject of sex. That is until an unexpected turn of events shakes her out of her torpor and propels her back into the world revitalised and reawakened, where she discovers, as Marie Stopes might have said: Approached in the right way, even homework can be fun.
The Awakening of Claudia Faraday is a delightful little novel which consistently confounds expectations. The cover, with its silhouetted protagonist could be for a new spy series, the pink writing could signal traditional “chick lit” (urgh – what a bind of a brand that is), the “Roaring Twenties” strap line makes it sound like a PG Wodehouse romp and the blurb description could be anything from a Jilly Cooper bonkbuster to a serious and measured study of the sexual awakening of upper middle class women in the early part of last century.
And, in the end, this rather sad, rather charming novel is a little of all of these things, (although spy thriller is a stretch. The only revelations here are of the human heart and mind, it is a little lacking in unmasked super villains to be fair.
It is sad. This is a quite and understated sadness of withering dreams and slipping youth. Claudia is a lovely protagonist. A gentle and well intentioned woman who, in her sixth decade, is only beginning to question her wants and desires.
Trench writes with such a penetrating pathos of the boredom of a newly empty nest that the reader’s heart aches for our heroine, so used is she to being of service to others that she is not even the lead character in her own story.
“And so the weeks passed, September into October, and no omnipotent author stepped in to liven up the shapeless plot that was Claudia’s life. She was back to counting the creaks as she ascended the stairs on her way to her bedroom.”
I spent a huge amount of time in the novel feeling desperately sad for Claudia. The Twenties were in distinct danger of not only failing to roar for her but also to go out with barely so much as a whimper.
It was clear that not only sex, but also any agency had been ground out of the character: by society; by men; by her friends; by her mother. This fundamentally sweet woman hadn’t noticed the hypocrisy of everyone else and so was facing the outgoing sands of time in baffled and barely articulated sorrow.
This gentle gloom is alleviated by the light touch, page turning writing skill and the assortment of charming oddities which surround her.
The loyal housemaid Lily – fairly consistently having to let her hand fly to her mouth after yet another misplaced observation of her mistress – is a cutie, old friend and occasional sparring partner Prue, seems to be made up of equal parts scandalous affairs in hot climates and terrible driving.
The absentee husband Gerald sounds what used to be called a perfect pill. Having ruined sex for her, then impregnated her three times scooting off overseas for archaeological digs, he could only make it to one of their children’s weddings.
The children themselves add colour and charm to the rather drab world of their mother. Jessica has a horsey laugh, a disordered house and is a flapper with a jolly husband with an alliterative name; Harriet is a Bohemian with a penchant for interior design and a wayward husband while the youngest daughter, Flora is all horse breeding and country air.
It is not a difficulty to spend time in the world of these delightful characters. It is especially easy when Claudia is making her slightly waspish observations such as:
“It was invariably the revolutionaries who managed to consume most of other people’s wine, and their food, while looking down on them from some lofty moral plinth upon which they had placed themselves.”
In conclusion, The Awakening of Claudia Faraday is a nice little novel filled with excellent characters, charming locations and the quiet desperation of some of our fellow citizens. I can’t wait to meet up with them again.
Patsy Trench lives a quiet and largely respectable life in north London. Claudia’s story shows a side of her normally shy and reserved nature that is little known, even to her friends and acquaintances. Her previous books, about her family’s history in Australia, are entertaining and informative accounts of that country’s early colonial beginnings. She began writing late, and in a previous life she was an actress, scriptwriter, playscout, founder of The Children’s Musical Theatre of London and lyricist. When not writing books she emerges from her shell to teach theatre and organise theatre trips for overseas students. She is the grateful mother of two clever and grown-up children, and she is addicted to rag rugging and, when current circumstances permit, fossicking on the Thames foreshore for ancient treasure.
I have always loved Nick Hornby. I fell in love with his prose when Fever Pitch came out and was suitably skewered by his analysis of insecure, introspective young men with High Fidelity. I was, of course, charmed by About a Boy.
And, although I feel like these are going to the three books on his tombstone, even his less well known/popular books are, at worst, always readable.
Love Across the Brexit Barricades
I can’t quite decide if this book is going to get him in trouble or not. It certainly tap dances into some pretty heated areas: this is a novel of love across Brexit barricades, splintering society, race. Not too many hot button issues for a white, middle class writer of a certain age to try and tackle.
Except it isn’t really. Because it’s Hornby and he’s just so good at what he does. In Joseph and Lucy he seems to have the only two people in the world prepared to admit that they don’t understand issues and don’t have all, or indeed any, of the answers.
Lucy is a divorcee in her early 40s with two kids. Head of English at a not particularly good north London comprehensive, she juggles a trying-to-reform alcoholic ex, a good group of friends and some fairly shambolic blind dates with good humour and a resignation that this might be what life has left in store for her.
Into this fairly acceptable world comes Joseph. A 22-year-old man who dreams of a making music while paying for himself through football coaching, a part time job in a leisure centre, a bit of babysitting and tutoring and a Saturday job in the butchers of Lucy’s gentrified area.
With the Brexit referendum looming in the background, these two magnetically attracted people must decide where they stand and whether their race, their income, their education and their very different worlds can be surmounted by love.
What the novel definitely does do is a fantastic job of demonstrating the divisions within which our society works now.
Joseph and Lucy inhabit different worlds, by dint of race, age and income but – crucially – the flow of information is literally different.
Joseph gets his information from Instagram, chasing rabbit holes of information inaccessible to Lucy.
However, her white, middle class privilege means that both characters are ensconced in their own unintentionally echo chambers. If not comfortably then at least unquestioningly for a big chunk of the novel.
Hornby’s description of Lucy’s awareness of the difference between her generation is very well done and, frankly, scalpel sharp:
“Lucy was beginning to suspect that he might be what the girls at her school would refer to as a ‘fuckboy’, a word she discouraged them from using because of its first four letters but which in all other ways seemed an entirely welcome neologism. There had always been tarts and slags and sluts, and now there were fuckboys, and the contempt with which the girls spat the word out gladdened her heart.”
And yet, possibly its most astonishing achievements as a piece of work devoted to the present is that this is a novel from which anger is absent for the most part.
In fact, possibly the weakest aspect for the reader is that Hornby chooses not to show the arguments even when they do happen. They are reported but we don’t hear the words, we are merely told the fall out and left to decide for ourselves.
For a novel in which race is an enormous factor and at this moment in history, that’s a phenomenal achievement.
Hornby is still the best and most accessible of modern observers. He is razor sharp on the gentrified areas of north London where one normally encounters his characters.
There’s a definite lineage between High Fidelity’s Rob and his DJ ambitions and 22-year-old Jospeh and his tracks. Of course, whereas Rob ran a slightly dilapidated record shop which his partner was a corporate lawyer, here we have a partner who is Head of English at a bog standard comprehensive and a young man with a portfolio career, scratching a living working multiple jobs.
The fact that this makes him better off than his peers at university is one of the quieter and depressing twists of Hornby’s knife.
Witness Joseph’s musical mentor and school friend. Zech.
“Americans used the dollar sign to look flash, but PoundMan sounded cheap, like Poundland. Zech meant it to sound cheap, too. It was, he said, a celebration of Haringey consumer culture.”
A Tale of Simple Things
Yet, at heart this is a novel of simple things. In a complicated world in which both characters come with baggage, make mistakes, there is a simple message.
“If you’d asked him…what made him happy, he wouldn’t really have understood the relevance of the question. Now he knew the answer: sleeping with Lucy, eating with Lucy, watching T.V. with Lucy. And maybe there was no future in it, but there was a present, and that’s what life consists of.”
Maybe that is something we can all, in this most heated and divided of times, get behind.
Okay, full disclosure – I thought this book was going to give me a dilemma. I like to keep things positive (there’s enough bad stuff in the real world, without moaning online.)
And I wasn’t absolutely certain I was going to like Who Killed Patrick by Syl Waters.
So, why review it?
Well, it was marketed to me as being about Tarah, a young woman with a life is going nowhere. Not disinteresting.
At the drop of a hat, she decides to junk the UK and head to Fuerteventura to start a new adventure.
She soon starts a job managing a hotel complex. However, a dead guest threatens to pull apart her hoped-for dream life.
So: I like a bit of a crime, I like of bit of sun and it sounded OK.
There was some bit about Tarah’s pet guinea pig, Mr Bob, who apparently has a knack for sniffing out trouble and suspects foul play.
Not really keen on supernatural talking animals but I thought, what’s to lose?
I am pleased to say my misgivings were dispelled on the second page.
Any book where the frustrated protagonist can respond to a patronising boss asking her how to open an email attachment with, ‘I can open it as well if you want?’ I asked in my most pleasant would-you-like-me-to-suck-your-cock-while-doing-the-splits personal assistant voice,’ is a winner in my book.
Who Killed Patrick? continues in the same vein. It is a charming read with a delightful, well-intentioned central character wholly and realistically out of her depth.
Who among us can’t relate to a lead character who feels like there is, ‘Always too much month and not enough money’?
I also like the dashes of crudity which make Tarah a realistic heroine. When she meets one character she says, ‘‘Coochi cooo, who are yoooooo?’ He says in a I’m-talking-to-a-little-baby-in-a-very-silly-but-very-cute-voice-which-makes-women’s-hearts-melt-and-them-feel-slightly-moist-between-their-legs,’ which is just splendid.
Likewise, one tires of amateur detectives wandering thorugh murder mysteries blithely immune to the stress and strains it would take on you. Not our Tarah.
I struggle to imagine Hercule Poirot in his climactic final get together of the suspects saying, ‘If I wasn’t going to have to go out and be the ring leader, I’d be laughing at this crazy scene. But as I have to be a part of this, I’m not. I’m shitting it. My stomach curls and I feel like my insides are about to explode into my pants. My intestines are twisting and cramping like they’re trying to perform a Trucker’s Hitch knot.’
I also appreciate Waters’ description of Fuerteventura, a place she makes sound like a sun soaked volcanic paradise – dead holiday maker and permanently sozzled ex-pat “locals” aside.
I was prepared to dislike a talking guinea pig with a nose for trouble. But, again, I had misjudged the quality of the writing and the story telling.
For those who are concerned – worry not.
Mr Bob is a charmer and I look forward to encountering him again in future adventures. Or so I hope!
Rarely have I been more pleased to be wrong about a book. Who Killed Patrick? by Syl Waters is a delightful read which zips by with charm and highly skilled writing. I can not wait for a sequel (please, please, please) and to read more of Waters’ work.
Sign up to Syl Waters newsletter receive a free copy of The Little Book Of Curiously Fascinating Facts about Guinea Pigs – http://www.sylwaters.com/
Author Bio – Most people know crazy cat ladies are a ‘thing’, but I’m a proud crazy guinea pig lady! I love fun in the sun and plenty of cocktails. My happy place is flip flops. I write stories to keep me company – my characters ensure I’m never lonely and always smiling (when I’m not tearing my hair out!)
Scottish author Simon Conway’s fifth novel looks poised to position him as one of the best authors working in the thriller genre today c
Full confession: I’d heard of Simon Conway but this is the first novel of his that I have read. Frankly, after this, my ignorance shames me and, I mean this sincerely, this piece should propel Conway into the very first rank of thriller writer’s working today.
A world of smoke and mirrors
The Stranger centres on Jude Lyon, an SIS officer, dispatched by his duplicitous Head of Service, Queen Bee, to track down a legendary terrorist who was taken to Syria back when we didn’t do that sort of thing. Honest.
But this terrorist is not all that he seems. And neither is anyone else in this novel.
As well as Lyon, a lead character with a love life complicated enough to make George Smiley blush, and Queen Bee, the smoke and mirrors head of the security services, the novel is populated with a fascinating cacophony of characters, including a squirming semi-alcoholic former Foreign Secretary, a Scottish journalist with a professional and personal interest in Lyon and a Russian diplomat and his wife who may or may not be luring Jude towards the rocks of disaster.
Conway’s plots are onion layered: peeling back one skin at a time. He manages that neat trick so often missing in this type of novel which makes plot reveals seem inevitable and surprising rather outlandish or tediously predictable.
His storytelling remind me of the best of Charles Cumming or Jeremy Duns – engaging, jigsaw tight, satisfying at the end but with potential for expansion in a future work.
Descriptive passages Martin Amis would be proud of
He writes well too. “Jude’s immigrant provenance is equally exotic and fragmentary, shot through with competing veins of conformity and criminality, from a cigar-chomping bank robber for a grandfather to a general given to eccentricity and dark moods for a father,” is the sort of descriptive passage that Martin Amis at his most interesting would have been proud of.
And, while it is true, Conway’s novel doesn’t – of necessity – have the same laugh out loud quality of some of Mick Herron’s novels, “Jonno Butcher, one of Cathy’s seemingly inexhaustible supply of meat-faced nephews,” is a description of which even the Slough House author would be proud.
I will be surprised if it emerges that Conway is not a fan of Le Carré. In fact, I’m not sure if it’s an affectionate nod to Le Carré, or merely to do with the abundance of such names in the region, but all the characters from the Caucuses we encounter in the book have names from Le Carré’s novels, especially ‘Our Game’.
Perhaps the most impressive area is that of the terrorists. He makes them well-rounded, whole characters who you don’t mind spending time with. Terrifying, yes, but nuanced and engaging too.
A crash, bang, wallop conclusion done with joie de vivre
The ending of The Stranger may be slightly crash, bang, wallop for some people’s tastes but even this is done with enjoyable joie de vivre and edge of the seat inducing tension as well as some final plot twists which make me hope that this is not a standalone novel but the first in a series.
Overall, a triumph of a novel that makes me long for the opportunity to encounter Jude Lyon and his world again.
Just need to go back and read Simon Conway’s back catalogue now. Whole-heartedly recommended.
Which is as good a place as any to begin with John Le Carrè’s latest work, Agent Running in the Field. Rumoured to have angered his former employers, (according to one very put out spook at the Cliveden Literary Festival at least)
Mr Le Carrè’s somewhat classy retort in The Times was enough to generate some publicity for what is certainly a lower key release than 2018’s Legacy of Spies (which even got a session at the London’s Royal Festival Hall beamed to cinemas over the UK).
This was supposed to be his Brexit rant – his anti-Trump, reactionary wail of despair at UK national suicide, the world gone mad, manipulated by the kleptocratic, Tsarist spook-in-chief in Moscow. This was supposed to be his deconstruction of the British state and it’s Cambridge Analytica-altered, Putin fiddled with, Big Red Bus of Deceitful Propaganda opus. Hell, even the title sounds like a riff on our former Prime Minister’s childhood agricultural misdemeanours. And, at least in the character of Ed, the novel does reflect those emotions.
“It is my considered opinion that for Britain and Europe, and for liberal democracy across the entire world as a whole, Britain’s departure from the European Union in the time of Donald Trump, and Britain’s consequent unqualified dependence on the United States in an era when the Us is heading straight down the road to institutional racism and neo-fascism, is an unmitigated clusterfuck bar none.”
This, in fairness, is hardly an equivocal position. But, nor is it a radical stance so far out with the opinions of many of the people watching Brexit unfold and, in comparison to – say 2003’s Absolute Friends – this is a quiet and measured response.
And, really, that is my take away from the novel. It is a small story in a way that the absolute first rate Le Carrè pieces aren’t. The character of Ed is a graceless and, as a narrator in one of his novels might say, seems to have elevated gracelessness to an art form. Nat is an unreliable narrator, the seemingly happy marriage undermined by what everyone else sees in him apparently, although the influence of this on the plot seems slim.
Overall, it’s always better to read Le Carrè than others. There are the usual damning characterisations, the usual pithy descriptions and he does physical nuance just about better than anyone but, here, the plotting lacks surprises and the ending fails to pack the sort of punch that even a relatively minor novel of his latter period, Our Kind of Traitor or A Most Wanted Man for example, manage to produce.