Art Kavanagh

Talk about books: a newsletter about things I’ve read

Books I’ve read, intend to read or that I’m reading at the moment

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Books I’ve finished reading

Kind of Cruel cover Sophie Hannah, Kind of Cruel

Orchid & the Wasp cover Caoilinn Hughes, Orchid & the Wasp
Very ambitious; loosely combining ideas from Deleuze and Guattari, Isaiah Berlin and others. Rereading required. I enjoyed it very much but I think I prefer her short stories, some of which I’ve written about in the newsletter.

A Room Swept White cover Sophie Hannah, A Room Swept White

Exciting Times cover Naoise Dolan, Exciting Times
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, which is essentially a love story, though an unusually nuanced and analytical one. (At least that’s how it seems to me, no expert on the subject.) I hope she’s writing more.

Disgrace cover J. M. Coetzee, Disgrace

Shame: A Novel cover Salman Rushdie, Shame: A Novel

My Cousin Rachel cover Daphne du Maurier, My Cousin Rachel
I think this is the first thing by Daphne du Maurier that I’ve read and it came as a very pleasant surprise. I love the characters’ uncertainty about each other’s motives and actions. I immediately ordered a copy of the author’s The Scapegoat (1957) and I’ll be reading that soon.

Hearts and Minds cover Amanda Craig, Hearts and Minds

Final Cut cover S J Watson, Final Cut

A Rich Full Death cover Michael Dibdin, A Rich Full Death

Lights Out: A Novel cover Peter Abrahams, Lights Out: A Novel

A Perfect Crime: A Thriller cover Peter Abrahams, A Perfect Crime: A Thriller

End of Story cover Peter Abrahams, End of Story

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency cover Douglas Adams, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency
I’ve reread this for the first time in more than 30 years. Hilarious and clever. I don’t remember Adams’s second Dirk Gently instalment, The Long Dark Tea-time of the Soul, being as funny or as good but I still want to reread it.

Madame Zero cover Sarah Hall, Madame Zero

Missing, Presumed cover Susie Steiner, Missing, Presumed
Well plotted kidnap story. The missing young woman is a student, daughter of an influential couple who are friendly with the Home Secretary, which is awkward for the investigating detectives. Susie Steiner died young, but not before writing two more books in the series. I’ll probably read them too eventually.

Paradime cover ALAN GLYNN, Paradime
I was very tempted to abandon this novel. The opening chapters, in which a man with PTSD flounders hopelessly, were painful to read. But it really takes off about halfway through, so I’m glad I stuck with it.

Blacklist cover Andrew Taylor, Blacklist
A spy story written in the late 1980s, shortly before the end of the cold war. For a while the plot seemed overstuffed, many minor characters being blackmailed, threatened or killed, but the ending ties it up neatly enough. I glimpsed the final twist early on but my attention was skilfully misdirected and I forgot.

The Trusting and the Maimed cover James Plunkett, The Trusting and the Maimed

The Guest List cover Lucy Foley, The Guest List
Highly entertaining but very contrived plot. The identity of the murder victim is revealed only near the end of the story — but comes as absolutely no surprise. Some great female characters: I particularly like Hannah and Aoife. The writing’s a bit careless in places but I soon stopped noticing.

Transcription cover Kate Atkinson, Transcription

Exhalation cover Ted Chiang, Exhalation
Most of these stories have elements that I like very much — for example, the title story is in part a brilliant analogy to the 2nd law of thermodynamics — but in other respects they often seem more like fables or parables than what I think of as stories. Entertaining and stimulating but sometimes a bit (gently, unobtrusively) preachy.

That Old Country Music cover Kevin Barry, That Old Country Music
I read all but one of these stories in a library ebook. The exception is “Who’s-Dead McCarthy”, which I read in a (printed) anthology, Being Various. I felt that I grasped/appreciated the printed story better. I don’t believe the difference is just that it’s a better story.

The Secret Place cover Tana French, The Secret Place

The Trespasser cover Tana French, The Trespasser

An Island cover Karen Jennings, An Island
I bought it because it seemed the most interesting book that didn’t make it from the Booker longlist for 2021 to the shortlist. It’s a powerful, moving story but some of the storytelling is inert. I’m on the fence: I’m likely to reread it but not soon.

Lifestyle Choice 10mg cover Rosemary Jenkinson, Lifestyle Choice 10mg
The title of this collection should have given me a clue, but I was surprised by the amount of drug-taking in these stories. So, not what I was expecting, but some very good stories that I’ll go back to.

Klara and the Sun cover Kazuo Ishiguro, Klara and the Sun

The Second Midnight cover Andrew Taylor, The Second Midnight
When Germany invades Czechoslovakia in 1939, a 13-year-old English boy is left behind in Prague. He spends the whole war there, first with Communist partisans and afterwards labouring in the gardens of a Nazi colonel, leading him into a maze of conflicting loyalties and opportunities for betrayal.

When We Were Orphans cover Kazuo Ishiguro, When We Were Orphans

Snowflake cover Louise Nealon, Snowflake

A Shock cover Keith Ridgway, A Shock
This is described by the publisher and author as a novel but we may need another term. It seems too episodic and disunited to be a novel, yet the episodes are too connected and intertwined for a collection of short stories. It has made me think again (for the first time in years) about structure, on which I may have more to say soon.

Smiley’s People cover John le Carré, Smiley’s People

The Human Factor cover Graham Greene, The Human Factor

The Girl on the Stairs cover Louise Welsh, The Girl on the Stairs
I think this novel is about the way impending childbirth can distort someone’s perceptions, not to mention priorities. The “ironic” ending left me feeling (not in a wholly good way) that the rug had been pulled from under me.

Dark Lies the Island cover Kevin Barry, Dark Lies the Island
Some of these stories are extremely bleak, even despairing. They’re likely to stay with the reader — whether s|he wants them to or not. I expect to return to this collection.

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold cover John le Carré, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold

56 Days cover Catherine Ryan Howard, 56 Days
I didn’t enjoy the early chapters of 56 Days, where boy (29) meets girl (25) just before pandemic restrictions are imposed: too much of the writing here has the tone and style of social media posts. Once the plot developments get going, though, it’s a blast.

The Ashes of London cover Andrew Taylor, The Ashes of London

Faithful Place cover Tana French, Faithful Place

Judas 62 cover Charles Cumming, Judas 62
Mission: Impossible meets Smiley’s People. Who said the Cold War is over? Reviewing Box 88, I said it was “a secret, rogue intelligence-and-assassination outfit”. I was wrong: we learn here that they stop short of assassination. Highly enjoyable.

Limitations cover Scott Turow, Limitations

Broken Harbour cover Tana French, Broken Harbour

The Second Cut cover Louise Welsh, The Second Cut
I read this because it was recommended by Andrew Taylor on Twitter. It’s very enjoyable, with credibly interesting characters in unusual and often dangerous situations. I’d like to read the same author’s The Girl on the Stairs (2012) soon.

Wait Till I Tell You cover Candia McWilliam, Wait Till I Tell You

A Legacy of Spies cover John le Carré, A Legacy of Spies
I’m unexpectedly impressed though surely Christoph’s and Karen’s legal action would be statute-barred? We find out what Smiley had on Mundt, and how both Mundt and Karla ended up. One sentence in the last paragraph, not plot-related, hit me like a punch.

Notes to Self cover Emilie Pine, Notes to Self

Enduring Love cover Ian McEwan, Enduring Love

The Children Act cover Ian McEwan, The Children Act

The Nothing Man cover Catherine Ryan Howard, The Nothing Man
Fairly compelling but I think I’d have liked it better if Ryan Howard hadn’t already done the serial killer plot in The Liar’s Girl. Maybe this is best seen as a second, more effective bite at that particular cherry.

The Right Side cover Spencer Quinn, The Right Side
I loved this book and may eventually write about it; even if I don’t, I intend read it again. LeAnne Hogan is certainly one of Peter Abrahams’s “impaired heroes” — the ones I wrote about in my newsletter. A couple of mysteries are solved, but they’re not very mysterious ones: the book is much more concerned with how LeAnne comes to terms with what has happened to her and with the people (and dog!) around her.

On Chesil Beach cover Ian McEwan, On Chesil Beach
This surprised me: the reviews had led me to expect something rather different and much less enjoyable to read, so I put it off for far too long. I’ll be returning to it — soon, I hope.

The Honourable Schoolboy cover John Le Carré, The Honourable Schoolboy

A Simple Favour cover Darcey Bell, A Simple Favour
A book like this, about intrigue, betrayals and bad behaviour, needs a compelling plot, which this doesn’t have. Characters who aren’t as smart, cool or transgressive as they think they are show exactly the combination of stupidity and selfishness you’d expect. Pointless.

Dark Spectre cover Michael Dibdin, Dark Spectre

The Ground Beneath Her Feet cover Salman Rushdie, The Ground Beneath Her Feet
I read this twice, with more than a 20-year gap between the readings, and found it quite a different experience the second time. I hope to write something about it eventually, after I’ve read it a third time.

Oblivion cover Peter Abrahams, Oblivion

Delusion cover Peter Abrahams, Delusion

Nerve Damage cover Peter Abrahams, Nerve Damage

I Know What I Saw cover Imran Mahmood, I Know What I Saw
The first-person narrative of a long-term homeless man whose memory is damaged and who is sure he witnessed a murder that can’t have happened when he says it did. The brilliance of the start isn’t maintained.

Fury cover Salman Rushdie, Fury

The Good Turn cover Dervla McTiernan, The Good Turn

Milton's God cover William Empson, Milton's God

End Games cover Michael Dibdin, End Games

The Buried Giant cover Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant

The King’s Evil cover Andrew Taylor, The King’s Evil
The third in a series set in Restoration London but the first I’ve read. I’m not going to write about it till I’ve read the others. Contemporary with last decade of Marvell’s life, though he isn’t mentioned in this one.

Blood Rain cover Michael Dibdin, Blood Rain

To read

Troubled Blood cover Robert Galbraith, Troubled Blood

Summer Will Show cover Sylvia Townsend Warner, Summer Will Show

Keats's Odes cover Anahid Nersessian, Keats's Odes

Blank Pages and Other Stories cover Bernard MacLaverty, Blank Pages and Other Stories

Runaway cover Alice Munro, Runaway

Debatable Land cover Candia McWilliam, Debatable Land

The Cambridge Companion to Salman Rushdie cover Abdulrazak Gurnah, The Cambridge Companion to Salman Rushdie

Archipelago cover Saif Rahman, Archipelago

What I’m reading right now

The Carrier cover Sophie Hannah, The Carrier

William Empson, Volume I: Among the Mandarins cover John Haffenden, William Empson, Volume I: Among the Mandarins