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Review: Best Kept Secret by Jeffrey Archer

Best Kept Secret is the third book in Jeffrey Archer’s series of indeterminate length, The Clifton Chronicles. I reviewed the first volume, Only Time Will Tell, in September last year and gave it a broadly positive four-star review. In October, I gave the second book, The Sins of the Father, a broadly negative two-star review. Between then and now, Archer has hinted that his quintology might just become a septology or even an octology.

This is a bit surprising, because it feels to me like he’s lost interest. He’s now all but abandoned the idea of multiple intersecting plots told from multiple points of view, and is using a pretty straight narrative. He’s abandoned the exploration of different social settings, contrasting the working class Cliftons with the wealthy Barringtons, and keeps the plot firmly rooted in wealth throughout. He’s abandoned many of the most interesting characters, paying only the briefest visit to the protagonist’s mother, for example. He’s abandoned detailed characterisation, relying on new stereotypical new characters about as deep as the paper on which they’re printed. And he seems to have lost all enthusiasm for driving the plot forward.

This volume picks up precisely where the last left off, and hence starts by resolving the inane cliffhanger about a House of Lords vote which, as discussed at length elsewhere, could never have occurred in the first place. The resolution isn’t immediate. It’s strung out for a quite ludicrous amount of time. And after that, we’re launched back into a tale of increasingly unlikeable people being portrayed as saints, and fighting off attacks from people portrayed as two-dimensional villains, against backgrounds with which Archer is personally very familiar – politics and the law, in the main. The villains’ cause is, as ever, aided by utterly moronic decisions by the saints. But, after things hang in the balance for a while, the resolution favours the saints. Mix in some filler passages with plot of no consequence, rinse, and repeat ad nauseum.

In my last review of this series, I suggested that books in a series should be either: self-contained, with interesting broader arcs between different types volumes; or part of an epic tale, with smaller arcs satisfying the conditions of the publishing format. This volume, even more than the last, fails to fill either of those conditions. There’s barely any semblance left of an arc reaching back to the first volume, and there are no satisfying arcs within this volume alone. Once again, the amount of plot in this volume that actually contributes to moving the story of the series forward is no more than could be summarised in a couple of paragraphs.

Each of my previous reviews of this series has singled out a ludicrous incident within the plot to demonstrate my dissatisfaction. This time, I’m spoilt for choice. I’ll have to plump for the court case in which a will is challenged. According to Archer, the case is on a knife-edge, with the judge unable to decide whether to place more weight on the opinion of a doctor who never met the writer of the will but contests that ill people can never make wills, or a doctor who actually examined the patient. That Archer spins this out for so long, and comes up with an suitably insane resolution in the form of a crossword, just about out-crazies the brazen way in which he adds a bizarre cameo appearance by Princess Margaret… in Argentina. I’m not even joking.

And yet, even that isn’t the craziest thing about this increasingly infuriating series. No, the most insane thing is that, despite it all, I know I’m going to buy the next volume this time next year. And, in the end, that probably says more about this series than any review I can write. And yet, I still can’t bring myself to recommend it.

The infuriating cliffhanger at the end of this volume, which is considerably less well introduced and for which the resolution is many times clearer than in the previous volumes, only adds to my suspicion that the series would be improved by the story skipping a decade or so. I think that would give some hope of reinvigorating the plot, and maybe Archer’s enthusiasm for it. I’ll live in hope.

Best Kept Secret is available now from amazon.co.uk in hardback and on Kindle.

This post was filed under: Book Reviews, .

Weekend read: Microsoft’s lost decade

Microsoft has been having a tough time of late, with sales of both the Surface and Windows 8 reportedly below expectations. Many millions of words have been written over the years about Microsoft’s woes, but Kurt Eichenwald’s article for Vanity Fair last summer gave a particularly thoughtful, well written and absorbing account of where it all went wrong for the firm. And for that reason, it makes a great weekend read.

This post was filed under: Weekend Reads, , .

2D: Pragmatism

For this 2D post, I’ve chosen to present two different points of view about pragmatism.

In Prospect, Alex Worsnip sets out his position that “‘pragmatism’ means sacrificing moral aspirations for something else” – and that the “something else” might not be all that desirable. In politics, he argues, pragmatism is nothing more than a technique for presenting an argument which defies dissent. At least with ideology, there is something to argue against.

In The Global Mail, Eric Ellis takes the argument about pragmatism away from the purely philosophical and into the physical present, looking at the Dutch approach to climate change. When much of your country lies below sea level, there’s little point debating the ideology of climate change – the only pragmatic course is to act. This has lead to the extraordinary position of virtual unanimity between politicians of all colours and the population at large over spending hundreds of billions of dollars on tackling the problem. Perhaps if people could be convinced to be a little more pragmatic over other politic issues the world over, then we’d be able to achieve far more.

I really like both of these articles, and the combination of the two has made me think a bit differently about pragmatism. Previously, I’d thought of it as a benign way to reach an end result. Now, I see far more clearly both the power and the danger of defaulting to pragmatism.

I hope you enjoy giving them a read!

2D posts appear on alternate Wednesdays. For 2D, I pick two interesting articles that look at an issue from two different – though not necessarily opposing – perspectives. I hope you enjoy them!

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