Guillaume Musso, Where Would I Be Without You? (2009/11)

Art-crime officer Martin Beaumont is on the trail of master thief Archibald McLean, who has just stolen a Van Gogh from the Musée d’Orsay; but the investigation leads Martin inexorably back towards Gabrielle, the American student with whom he had an intense-but-brief love affair thirteen years earlier. Musso’s novel (translated from the French by Anna Brown and Anna Aitken) veers rather towards the corny (McLean, for example, is the kind of crook of flies helicopters and has an ex-MI6 officer, who ‘look[s] like an English governess’ but is skilled in martial arts and marksmanship, as a bodyguard/henchwoman), but sill holds out the promise of an enjoyable read.

The problem is that the book falls between two stools: it’s over-the-top enough to dilute the exploration of emotional issues, but not so much that the novel can really take off as a romp. Where Would I Be Without You? moves through several different genres – crime caper, love story, supernatural fiction – but they don’t quite gel. The novel does have its strong moments (repetition in the prose is used to considerable effect in some passages), but, for the most part, it’s disappointing.

Terry Pratchett, Wintersmith (2006)

My experience of the later Discworld novels has tended to be that they’re OK, but don’t match up to the best of the series – not in terms of their humour, conception, or the incisiveness with which they treat their themes. Wintersmith continues that trend. This is Pratchett’s fourth YA Discworld novel, and the third to centre on young witch-in-training Tiffany Aching. Her predicament n the present book is that, having joined in on impulse with a traditional dance to usher in winter, Tiffany now finds herself the object of the winter elemental’s affections – and winter it will stay if she can’t find a way to get the rightful story back on track.

As the last part of that synopsis may suggest, one of Wintersmith’s main concerns – as so often with Discworld books – is how stories impinge on the way we perceive the world. Pratchett has a story literally affecting the lives and the world in the way that Tiffany has become caught up in the story of the wintersmith and the Summer Lady; but the theme is also there in the way that, although witchcraft is shown to be more about things like observation than magic per se, it’s important for witches to cultivate an air of mystique, because that’s what the people need their witches to have.

Pratchett’s treatment of this is not uninteresting, but… it doesn’t have the spark of his best work. And the disparate elements of Wintersmith don’t seem to me to come together into a successful whole. The Nac Mac Feegle (the warrior-like fairy folk who have become Tiffany’s ‘protectors’ over the course of the series) feel rather awkwardly inserted into the story; and, despite being the main comic-cut characters, don’t raise much more than the odd smile. Indeed, most of the book doesn’t raise much more than the odd smile, which is a long way from the laugh-out-loud humour of earlier Pratchett works. So, Wintersmith: yes, it’s OK, but… but OK isn’t what made me fall in love with Terry Pratchett’s writing.

Hisham Matar, In the Country of Men (2006)

Suleiman is nine years old in 1979, when he gains the first hint that there’s more to his father Faraj’s life than he had thought; the boy believes his father to be away on business, but instead sees Faraj in Triploi, entering an unfamiliar building in Martyrs’ Square. In the months that follow, Faraj’s political activities bring him increasingly to the attention of the secret police, but the young Suleiman has little understanding of what is happening to his family.

The ‘country of men’ of the novel’s title is essentially the adult political world on whose fringes Suleiman comes to hover (occasionally crossing over them). Matar uses the boy’s perspective very well; the fact that we comprehend more than Suleiman can does not diminish the power of those moments when the brutal realities of the adult world intrude upon his childhood. And the way Suleiman’s life is so profoundly affected by his encounter with the ‘country of men’ finds something of a counterpart with the experiences of his mother Najwa, who was herself brought into the ‘country of men’ at the age of fourteen, when forced to marry Faraj, and has subsequently turned to alcoholism. In the Country of Men is an interesting debut, which now makes me want to check out Matar’s second novel, Anatomy of a Disappearance, from which I heard him read earlier this year.