An avid reader calls it as she sees it on books, publishing and the written word in general.

Friday, November 16, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: The Tomb of Zeus by Barbara Cleverly

This has been a difficult and frustrating review to write. Not because the book is particularly difficult or frustrating; in fact, I romped through The Tomb of Zeus in a couple of hours. No, my problems stem from a persistent feeling that the book was somehow unsatisfying. Yet I can’t put my finger on exactly why that was so.


This is the second of Barbara Cleverly’s books that I have read, after I bought her first novel, The Last Kashmiri Rose about six months ago. I never reviewed it because I had that same nagging feeling that somehow I couldn’t be entirely wholehearted in my praise, but I couldn’t identify the problem either. So I let it go. But after reading The Tomb of Zeus and having the same issue, I have decided that most likely it’s not my mood, it’s not the fact my reading was interrupted or I was too hot or cold or suffering a virus. These are good books but something about them fails to come up to my (admittedly high) standard of a great book.

To start with the obvious – it’s not the setting. In both books Cleverly’s research is meticulous and she has chosen an interesting corner of the world to explore in Crete in the 1920s. I studied archaeology and read quite a bit on Arthur Evans’ discovery of Minoan Crete pursuant to that, and nothing in the book struck any false notes. Cleverly manages well to paint a picture of the life of British expat archaeologists in that era, and does it without layering the historical details too thickly. The research is clearly there and well done but it sits lightly behind the story.

I don’t think the problem lies with the plot either. A tidy murder mystery, it sees intrepid female archaeologist Laetitia Talbot investigating a suicide that may be murder. There are the usual closed circle of suspects centring around the students and family occupying the villa, as well as gradual revelations that all is not as it seems.  It’s fairly standard stuff but original enough to be interesting, if perhaps a little far-fetched at times.

And that’s perhaps getting closer to the heart of the issue. Even a far-fetched plot can be made convincing in the context of the novel – look at Agatha Christie. Yet somehow, the book just fails to convince. This is particularly the case in relation to the characters. While they are not stereotypes, it feels very much like they have been dreamed up in service to the plot. I know that this is what all authors do, but the best go beyond it, and at any rate the reader should not see the joins and seams of a novel. Gunning, in particular, seems to exist solely as support and love interest for Laetitia. I should also mention that the references to their previous love affair seem rather unconvincing and the lack of detail made me wonder if I had missed an earlier book in the series (I hadn’t).

Laetitia herself as a character also fails to arouse much interest in the reader. I didn’t dislike her, but I didn’t like her especially either. I have the feeling that she is a close alter-ego of the writer and in this regard, Joe Sandilands in The Last Kashmiri Rose was far more interesting. The act of having to imagine herself into a man’s skin may have given Cleverly the psychological distance she needed to develop the character further. As it is, Laetitia can be summed up as “feisty woman in a man’s world” – and really, not much more.

It’s perhaps a little unfair to judge a book for not being brilliant, and additionally to give rather vague reasons for doing so. My frustration largely results from the fact that I feel this could have been a great book, one that I thoroughly enjoyed. All the ingredients are there, they just needed some additional maturing and some additional spice. Instead, I’m left with the feeling that the novel is just a tad underdone, and it’s a shame. An entertaining enough read but not one to linger long in the memory.


Tuesday, November 6, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: A Drink Before The War by Dennis Lehane

I’ve heard people describe “muscular prose” before, but I never really understood it until I read Dennis Lehane’s A Drink Before the War. The first book in a series now numbering six, it’s satisfyingly  hard-edged crime fiction with a distinctive voice.

The book, Lehane’s first, dates from 1994 and chronicles the seedy side of South Boston, with gangs and violence an everyday occurrence. There’s humour, but this is no comedy; it tends to be of the unrelentingly black variety. Eighteen years and a hemisphere away, I’m in no position to judge if this is an accurate portrait of the times, but it certainly feels authentic. The prose itself is terse, descriptive, at times poetic but painting a sharp portrait of tough times.  If I have a minor complaint, it is that in setting the scene Lehane occasionally gets carried away and has his protagonist phrasing thoughts that are rather too poetic, but as the plot picks up pace this ceases to be a problem.

The narrator, Patrick Kenzie, is a P.I. in the hardboiled tradition. He struggles to pay the rent, probably drinks too much, and has an unrequited crush on his partner, Angie Gennaro. In turn, Gennaro still seems to love her husband, referred to by Kenzie as “The Asshole”, who beats her up on a regular basis. This is one of the things I loved about the book; as in life, human relationships here are seriously complicated. Everyone’s a bit messed up. Even at the end, Lehane avoids tying things up in a neat bow and questions and doubts remain.

The plot itself is tense and satisfying. There is some explosive action as Kenzie and Gennaro go on the run from rival gangs, but the violence never seems exaggerated or cinematic. The “War” of the title erupts, but seems like the kind of thing that could be ripped straight from the newspapers, particularly those of the era.

This is the kind of gritty, well-written, fast-paced book that gives crime fiction a good name. South Boston in the nineties is not a world I’m familiar with, but I enjoyed a visit and I’ll be back for the rest of the books.