Last year I had a look at a few of those lists you find on the internet talking about ‘books to read before you die’ and the like, and picked a few to add to my Christmas wish list on Amazon. This month, I read three of the slimmer ones I received as presents and share my thoughts about them here.

Dashiel Hammet – The Thin Man
If you’ve been following me for a while you’ll know that I enjoy the work of Raymond Chandler. Chandler is best known for writing hard-boiled detective novels from 1939 onwards through to the 1950s. He wrote seven novels all featuring the character Philip Marlowe. But before Chandler, there was Hammet. Hammet wrote five detective novels between 1929 and 1934, the most famous perhaps being the The Maltese Falcon. After exhausting Chandler’s bibliography I always had it in mind to read more of Hammet’s work, and so when I saw The Thin Man touted as one of those books you just have to read, it was a no-brainer to add it to my bucket list.

The Thin Man, Hammet’s last novel, is set in New York at the end of 1932. The main character is Nick Charles, son of a Greek immigrant and a retired private eye, who is married to the younger and perhaps in some ways smarter Nora. Nora is a wealthy socialite and Nick spends most of his time drinking with her in their hotel apartment or going out to speakeasies. Nick is reluctantly drawn into investigating a woman’s murder. The case involves the dysfunctional Wynant family – a dizzy daughter who has a crush on Nick, a two-faced mother who may have more to do with the murder than she’s letting on, there brooding son who tends to lurk in the background for most of the novel and the estranged husband Clyde Miller Wyant who is a secretive scientist working on a top-secret project and absent for the entirety of the tale.

It is Wyant’s personal assistant and one-time lover Julia Wolf who has been found dead and the scientist soon becomes the prime suspect, although Nick doesn’t believe he did it. Nick has to contend with various detectives, shady policemen and criminal lowlifes in the process of solving the crime he really doesn’t want to be involved in. He quips his way through various encounters and illegal bars while the case gradually falls into place and takes a few knocks along the way – in fact he gets shot quite early on in the story, but the wound is non-fatal.

Raymond Chandler described Hammet as ‘the ace performer’ and The Thin Man is a jolly good read. It is equally as good as The Maltese Falcon and perhaps actually a little less far-fetched, and so more engrossing as a result.

Ursula K. Le Guin – The Lathe of Heaven
The Lathe of Heaven, which won won the Locus Award for Best Novel in 1972, is in Gollancz’s Science Fiction Masterworks series, where Le Guin is rubbing shoulders with the likes of Philip K Dick and Arthur C. Clarke. This one was a bit of a punt to be honest after I was not particularly blown away by her 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness, but it’s science fiction and I needed my sci-fi fix.

The Earth-based story, based initially in an over-populated world on the brink of war, revolves around George Orr and his psychiatrist William Haber who Orr is legally obliged to visit for therapy after being found to be using illegally acquired prescription drugs. The reason for his drug use is to stay awake as when he dreams he alters reality and the past. Only he is aware of this happening, until Haber is convinced of his God-like power to change things.

What follows is a story of the powerful Haber abusing his role as therapist and manipulating Orr with a hypnotic dream machine into making changes to advance his career and alter the world after his designs. Each time Orr leaves a therapy session it becomes apparent that the world has changed somehow – for example the world is threatened by aliens gathering on the moon – thus uniting nations previously ready to fight each other – everyone turns grey thus solving the race issue etc. etc. Intertwined with this is Orr’s relationship with Heather a lawyer intent on helping him out of his bind.

It reminded me a lot of Philip K Dick’s work and also the world-altering film The Butterfly Effect which despite all it’s flaws had the same very interesting premise at it’s heart. What if you could change the world, but didn’t really have control over how it turned out? The Lathe of Heaven was a fun read, but surprisingly I found myself somewhat disappointed with it after the complexity of The Left Hand of Darkness. Le Guin just can’t win, but I will persevere – I have Earthsea gathering dust on my shelf.

Andrey Kurkov – Penguin Lost
Penguin Lost is the darkly comic sequel to the hugely enjoyable and critically acclaimed Death and the Penguin. The last book of Kurkov’s I read was The President’s Last Love which wasn’t on a par with Death. I’m pleased to say that with Lost, Kurkov is back on form.

As the novel opens we find our reluctant and oftentimes depressed hero Viktor still in Antarctica after fleeing from the Mafia on a flight booked to return penguin Misha to the wild. He soon gets the opportunity to return home to Kiev with a fake passport and a credit card loaded with funds on the proviso he will hand deliver a message to the wife of a Russian outcast in Moscow. However, on returning home he finds that Misha has been taken and his whereabouts are hard to discern, although rumour has it he is somewhere in Moscow.

Viktor falls into the employment of a Mafia boss running for political office who helps him find out that Misha might now be actually be in Chechnya in a private zoo. Viktor pays for passage to the war zone and ends up working in a makeshift crematorium burning the bodies of soldiers and civilians from both sides of the war. He manages to find and become reunited with Misha who has been living in a dog pen with Alsatians. He manages to get back to Kiev with the penguin and then goes about trying to atone for deserting him.

I haven’t gone into great detail, because I do recommend you read Death and Lost. They are full of interesting passages and a unique kind of askew view of everyday life in a troubled Ukraine. Apparently this is bordering on ‘magic realism’, and I am a big fan – since I guess Murakami and Gaiman, two of my favourite authors, fall into this category of literature.