I read and certainly enjoyed the previous novel from Mark Mills, The Savage Garden and thus, I looked forward to reading The Information Officer. However, I will admit at the outset that I was disappointed with this one, his third novel. (I am still to read his first novel Amagansett, later to carry a revised title in the UK of The Whaleboat House.)
This is one of those novels that clearly divides opinion. At the time of writing, there are 40 reviews on Amazon UK, ranging all the way through from 1 star to 5 stars. The mode average comes in at 4 stars, so it errs onto the positive; indeed, if we take 3 stars as a sort of "sitting on the fence" indicator for which 9 people expressed that opinion, the positives then outweigh the negatives with 22 people on 4 or 5 stars and 9 people on 1 or 2 stars. Elsewhere, Mike Ripley at Eurocrime thought the book "a good thriller", "a stunning book about human beings surviving under extreme circumstances…" and a "master-class in fluent story-telling." Laura Wilson at The Guardian hailed the novel as "A compelling, vividly rendered slow burn of a book which culminates in an electrifying climax." So what's the book about? Having read the cover synopsis before reading the novel, I can say it encapsulates most of the plot of the novel, so I'll tempt you with less:
Lucy Wadham's The Secret Life of France will be published by Faber & Faber on 2 July, 2009. The author is well qualified to provide insights into France and the French as she is British but has been living there since the 1980s, having married a French man in a union that ended some twenty years later. But she stayed in France, enjoying the culture to which she had become aquainted and accustomed, although never losing her Anglo-Saxon roots and the ability to observe objectively. And how timely for this insight as President Sarkozy seeks a bigger profile on the world stage (think D-Day). A recent article in Prospect Magazine is titled "Sarko the Sex Dwarf", where Wadham, borrowing from her sister's "rich vocabulary of male sexual stereotypes" is not afraid afraid to be direct and hit a nail on the head. Indeed, The Secret Life of France is hitting quite a few nails on the head and its pages fire on many cylinders.
My interest in this book derived from the time I had the experience of working for a French company in the City. (The lack of qualitative noun is deliberate on my part; let's just say I spent much of the time bemused, flummoxed or both.) But I did learn a lot about French culture from French-women-abroad and it's great to see the female point of view in The Secret Life of France, because Wadham confirmed a few things I knew already, explained them in greater depth and then added more. Much more.
The Undutchables: An Observation of the Netherlands, Its Culture And Its Inhabitants, by Colin White (Author), Laurie Boucke (Author), Rusty Haller (Illustrator), Gerald Fried (Illustrator).
Following on from a Dutch crime author, I'd like to draw your attention to this book, for it is a gem. The fact that you find so many copies in the book shops at Schipol airport is testimony to its authenticity and accuracy. Indeed, some say that for those arriving from abroad to work in the Netherlands, their employers either buy it for them or recommend they buy it. (And given one aspect of Dutch culture, I suspect the latter is more prevalent.)
Thus there is a recommendation on one level, but it's also useful if visiting the country and also if you're reading Dutch authors in translation. Why? Because the portrayal of the culture in the fiction will be absorbed in a more effective way. What's in the book? Well, it's pretty comprehensive at 305 pages, 21 chapters and 3 appendices. The chapters include the following as subject matter:
Close-Up by Esther Verhoef is her first novel translated from the original Dutch into English in the UK, brought to us by Quercus. It's one to enthusiastically include in the psychological thriller category, but with a buyer-beware sticker. I know some prefer the bedroom door closed on their crime and thriller reading and we are heading into erotic thriller territory here. (Albeit the bedroom is often not the location of choice…) But you have been warned: just in case you are sensitive to such matters. And I know that some of you may exclaim that intimate doings are not necessary to the plot. They are with this novel: it's about a relationship, first and foremost; about moving on and finding new confidence. Thus it's all rather key to the plot in Verhoef's Close-Up.