I crave good thrillers. But they are vanishingly rare.
So when I find a book with a compelling plot, rich characters, horrifying jeopardy and seat-edge cliff-hangers, I fall on it like a starving man on a feast.
I am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes is such a thriller – an epic, breathtaking romp from New York to Afghanistan to Bahrain to Gaza to Bodrum to Bulgaria and back. I really enjoyed it.
Here (no spoilers) are some reasons it works well:
- characterisation: the outstanding feature of the novel. Both the bad guy (“The Saracen”) and the protagonist, the US-trained superspy codenamed “Pilgrim” (both Saracen and Pilgrim can also mean “Nomad”), are richly drawn, with enough back story to fill several novels. This can be irritating: the book is so long that some threads of detail disappear (Pilgrim’s drug habit) or reappear without having been described in the first place (the Saracen’s dead wife). But on the whole the characters, including a host of minor players, gleam like diamonds. This makes you care about them;
- action: the action scenes are thrilling. A firefight in an Afghan village, the ghastly deaths of three hostages, the theft of some medical supplies from a heavily-guarded facility – all will have you on the edge of your seat;
- evil: the consequences with which the world – and specifically the US – will threatened if Pilgrim does not succeed in his mission are both credible and horrific. The potential horror is illustrated early on in the book in microcosm, leaving you praying it will not come about on a bigger scale;
- good: Pilgrim has an unerring moral compass which draws sympathy – a bit like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher (links in bold italics are to other posts on this blog). Other characters also have clear moral values. Even “The Saracen” plans his act of evil for reasons which he believes are pure and noble;
- richness: Hayes reaches deep into characters to create insights which enrich and illuminate the book. For example, he creates a Jewish character who has survived the Holocaust and hangs around the Bebelplatz – a memorial to the 1933 book-burning by Nazis in Berlin – to highlight a point: when millions of people, a whole political system, countless numbers of citizens who believed in God, said they were going to kill you – just listen to them. Later, Pilgrim inspires a cynical musician who has lost his mojo to resume his musical career – just in passing. The book is full of warm, fascinating detail;
- I am Pilgrim contains some fine epigrams. I liked Evidence is the name we give to what we have, but what about the things we haven’t found? and If you want to be free, all you have to do is let go;
- The structure of the book is outstanding. Hints from opening chapters flower into relevance hundreds of pages later. For example Pilgrim’s early hatred of the practice of torture by “waterboarding” sets the scene for it to be used later. The early love of an anonymous Geneva banker for his family becomes a key to the resolution;
- The book is rich in cliff-hangers, especially from the mid-way on. You really, really want to know what will happen next.
Another thriller – described by Edmund de Waal as “utterly gripping” (more…)
One key to writing better is to read critically. I attempt to do so, often noting down excerpts from books as I read. Here are three examples.
Read, enjoy, and – if you are a writer – learn from the great authors below.
See my February 2017 blog for a full review of this frightening book
Comedy: P G Wodehouse
‘Oh, I’m not complaining,’ said Chuffy, looking rather like Saint Sebastian on receipt of about the fifteenth arrow. ‘You have a perfect right to love who you like.’
Thank you, Jeeves – PG Wodehouse
Thriller: Lee Child
You’re going to Mississippi. They’ll think you’re queer. They’ll beat you to death.’
‘I doubt it,’ I said.
Lee Child – The Affair. Unusually, “The Affair” is narrated in the first person by Jack Reacher, Child’s indestructible yet – on a good day – ironic hero. My review of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels is positive.
Diary: Alan Clark
“This morning I bathed, before breakfast, in the loch just opposite the targets. I don’t know what the temperature is, a tiny trace of Gulf Stream perhaps, but not much. One feels incredible afterwards – like an instant double whisky, but clear-headed. Perhaps a ‘line’ of coke does this also. Lithe, vigorous, energetic. Anything seems possible.”
Alan Clark, The Diaries
For earlier posts of “selected quotations from master writers”, see Carols, the perfect Martini and love: three quotations; Short story technique from the master: 3 quotations; or Two-and-a-half literary quotes.
P.S. If you enjoy fresh, original writing, feel free to like or follow my Facebook page or sign up for e-mail updates (top right – see blue “click here” button). You can explore the range of writing on this site via my five pleasure paths.
With Travelling Companion and Daughter I spent some end-of-holiday days in west London. We stayed in a flat in Barnes and visited Putney, Teddington and Hammersmith. There were a few falsely sunny mid-mornings (I wasn’t up early enough for the false dawns) but basically the weather was the same grey we’ve been having in Brussels.
On the tube train that took us from St Pancras to Hammersmith was a Boris bike (a street rental bike). It didn’t seem to be with anyone. The woman in the photo stood up and moved to to make it clear it wasn’t hers. A few stops later, though, a young man who had been made homeless and was begging down the carriage came along and rolled the bike off onto the platform.
When I lived in London in the 80s I was a north London boy, more or less. These places in the west are…
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For a taste of what my readings are like, see the video below by Sibylle Trost, a film producer in Berlin.
If you live in Vienna, you may wish to note that Blood Summit is available from English language bookshop Shakespeare & Company at Sterngasse 2 in central Vienna:
What better book to read at Christmas than Right Ho, Jeeves – a festive winter wonderland of Wodehouse, a rich Christmas pudding of Plum?
Right Ho, Jeeves opens with Bertie once more estranged from the genius of Jeeves. This time, the offending sartorial item to which Jeeves objects is a white mess jacket with brass buttons:
He rose, holding a white object. And at the sight of it, I realised that another of our domestic crises had arrived, another of those unfortunate clashes of will between two strong men, and that Bertram, unless he remembered his fighting ancestors, and stood up for his rights, was about to be put upon.
The cover of my Folio Society edition of Right Ho, Jeeves
When Bertie Wooster arrives to Brinkley Court without Jeeves to help him, he is beset not by one, two or three problems but by an unprecedented five, at my count. Most atypically, Bertie causes the resignation of Aunt Dahlia’s fabulous French chef Anatole, who makes a rare appearance:
This wizard of the cooking stove is a tubby little man with a moustache of the outsize or soup-strainer type, and you can generally take a line through it as to the state of his emotions. When all is well, it turns up at the end like a sergeant-major’s. When the soul is bruised, it droops. It was drooping now, striking a sinister note. (more…)
‘I only finished the first volume,’ my friend says. ‘It was so badly written. And boring.’
‘I disagree,’ I say. ‘I think the writing is brilliant. It hits every target for a best-seller. I read all three volumes. But I ended up hating it.’
What to make of 50 Shades of Grey? Last time I looked, it had sold 150 million copies in 52 languages and spawned a hit movie series. The book has 85,000 reviews on Amazon.com with an average of 4*, and a further 21,500 on Amazon.co.uk – also averaging 4*. A lot of people love it. Why?
The following review contains spoilers. Links in bold italics are to other blog posts on this site.
Each volume of “50 Shades” is substantial
Here are 5 things I found brilliant about the 50 Shades trilogy:
(i) everything is big. In her book “How to write a blockbuster“, Sarah Harrison says a bestseller must have glamour in the sense of absolute, undeniable, gobsmacking allure… with all the maidenly restraint of Joan Collins on speed. It’s got to be BIG, she says. Everything about 50 Shades is big – Christian Grey is not just rich, he’s mega-rich. He isn’t just talented; he is a concert-quality pianist and outstanding skier and linguist who excels at martial arts. He’s not only a good person: he wants to help poor people around the world. He’s not just handsome – every woman he passes is entranced by his charisma. As Ana sums him up:
A writer compares turnips and sex. Is he wise, or daft? Can we use his wisdom – if any – to make ourselves happier?
I have written often about happiness on this blog. You can find a summary in my piece The one with the links to happiness.
W Somerset Maugham considers happiness and the meaning of life in his essay The Summing Up, written in 1938. Perhaps writers – and others – can learn from him. Try not to be put off by the old-fashioned way in which he often refers to “men” when he means “people”
W Somerset Maugham is most famous for his short stories
In The Summing Up, Maugham asks whether writing itself is enough for a happy life…
From time to time I have asked myself whether I should have been a better writer if I had devoted my whole life to literature.
… and concludes:
Somewhat early, but at what age I cannot remember, I made up my mind that, having but one life, I should like to get the most I could out of it. It did not seem to me enough merely to write. (more…)