Tobias Hill’s novel is described as a thriller in the SUNDAY TIMES review that’s quoted on the cover. It’s too measured and reflective to be that, in my view, and is none the worse for it. Neither is it science fiction, though it is set a little way in the future, when hard currency has ceased to exist and has been replaced by an electronic currency, Soft Gold. The global economy depends on it, and it in turn depends on the (supposedly) unbreakable code in which is encrypted. The creator of the code is John Law, a fabulously wealthy businessman, and the story begins when the tax inspector, Anna Moore, is sent to track down discrepancies in his accounts. As she begins to penetrate the layers of mystery surrounding Law, a mutual attraction develops between them . . .
Hill is an award-winning poet and it shows in the elegance and precision of his writing, which offers a series of little surprises in its aptness of description and metaphor. It’s written in the present tense, always difficult to pull off, I feel, but it works.
As an aside, I might add that I once worked for the Inland Revenue. It soon became clear that my talents lay elsewhere and I left before my mistakes caught up with me.
The crime writer I’m most enjoying at the moment is Andrea Camilleri, but Qui Xialong is a close second. As I said in my very first blog, I don’t read him for the (perfectly servicable) plot, but for his fascinating evocation of contemporary China and Shanghai in particular. WHEN RED IS BLACK is the third in the series. When a former member of the Red Guard is found dead, the roots of the crime lie in the cultural revolution and the long shadow it still casts over the present. I ought to admit an interest. We’ve got a family connection with China and spent some time in Guangzhou around four years ago. Like Shanghai it is a huge city where new buildings are going up at a staggering pace. The air pollution when we were there was stupendous – we had chest infections for weeks after we got back. The Shanghai of WHEN RED IS BLACK is also a city of extraordinary contrasts. Inspector Chen and his ‘little secretary’ go to drink at a retro bar called Golden Time Rolling Backwards, decorated in the style of 1930s Shanghai, while a month’s wages of a young man who has come to work in the city wouldn’t be enough for one karaoke night. As usual the incidental details are fascinating. A housewife is given a present of a live soft-shell turtle and thinks nothing of killing and gutting it herself and steaming it for dinner. A woman scrapes a living by shelling frozen shrimp by hand.
There are often times when I have 15 or 20 minutes to spare – waiting in the doctor’s surgery, waiting for a child to finish a swimming lesson, waiting for a train, etc, so, although there is nothing like immersing oneself a novel, a book that you can read in short bites is good too. TRY ANYTHING TWICE by Jan Sturther is that kind of book. It’s a collection of short pieces written in the thirties by the author of MRS MINIVER and they are similar: dispatches from middle-class domestic life, but written in the first person. Some of the period details are a little quaint – this is a world of nannies and prep schools – but many of her observations are still spot on. Take for instance her remark that a ten-year old address book makes ‘good, though cryptic reading. How few people one knew in those day . . . And what has become, I wonder, of the Hartley-Whitneys. And who the devil was Mrs Broole?’ And take her comment on parties: ‘Giving a party is very like having a baby: its conception is more fun than its completion, and once you have begun it it is almost impossible to stop.’
There’s been a series of days that have sent my heart to my boots. Sky like grey blotting paper, light dead and dull. Even with my special daylight lamp by my computer, sometimes I can hardly keep my eyes open. This is the time of year to read books set in hot places and ROUNDING THE MARK, the latest Inspector Montalbano mystery by Andrea Camilleri, went down a treat (a birthday present from my stepdaughter: thanks, Claire). That said, it wasn’t altogether an easy read. His novels are getting darker and his hero more disillusioned, and one aspect of it really wring my heart. At the same time, they are funny and warm – and the heat and the smell of Sicily almost leap off the page. And the food! If only I had a housekeeper like Adelina who leaves dishes of delectable food in Montalbano’s fridge. Now where did I put that holiday brochure . . .
It’s to use this blog as a reading journal and record everything I read for a year. One of my first reads of the year and a fine start was an absolutely cracking ghost story, STRANGERS, by a Japanese writer, Taichi Tamada. The narrator, a middle-aged scriptwriter, divorced, disillusioned, takes a sentimental journey to the Toyko suburb where he grew up and where his parents both died when he was twelve. He meets a man and a woman who closely resemble his dead parents and returns again and again for the comfort of being with them, but things are not what they seem in more ways than one . . . The novel is a little like THE TURN OF THE SCREW in its use of a possibly unreliable narrator and rivals it in scariness, but it’s also a touching exploration of love and loss and grief.