Book Reviews

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Anthology #14

A Guide to Treehouse Living, by Elliot Reed

This clever & engaging book is unusual in that, rather than the diary form which is often used to notate events which happen over a specific time period, this is presented as an index, albeit as stated, not strictly alphabetical, but near enough. It presents the events in the life of a young teenage American boy and, whilst it isn’t specifically a coming-of-age story, he does learn a lot as the events unfold; in fact, because there is no introduction or prologue, we have no way of knowing how long after the events the index is written, but it feels like it could be some time, because some of the language & concepts therein have quite a mature feel to them. The boy, who doesn’t even know his real name until well into the book, decides upon the format of the index after finding them useful in books he reads to stave off boredom; he is given into the care of his uncle, who owns a mansion but likes to gamble, because his father went away and he can’t remember what happened to his mother. The most clever aspect of the book is how the events unfold more or less chronologically as one entry leads into the next. There is a whiff of Huckleberry Finn about the story, although I don’t think it is intended as a pastiche, but it didn’t take me long to sympathise with the lad and hope that his life would work out well for him. Probably a one-off story, but a later edition using the same artifice could work. An interesting slice of Americana. The paperback I read was published in 2020 by Melville House UK, London [2018, Tin House Books], ISBN 978-0-9115-4541-5.

The Winter Agent, by Gareth Rubin

This is the second novel by this author; the first being Liberation Square, which I have reviewed here previously. The first posited a fictional outcome to world war two, but this one sticks very closely to the facts about our espionage in that period as we know them; although, as he states in the final historical notes: “We will probably never know the truth…Some of the MI6 files will be opened in the 2040s…Perhaps they will contain a clue”. So this is the fictional account of an SOE agent’s work in occupied France, between February 1944 and D-Day, 6 June the same year, through which he worked with other local & infiltrated agents to prepare the way for a great invasion which was a precursor to defeating Germany the following year [given that this is a fact of true history]. Without wanting to spoil the dénouement, Rubin very cleverly conveys the permanent anxiety, and potential paranoia, associated with having to be constantly on the alert for discovery, which might or might not be a result of betrayal. Along the way, the agent, Marc Reece, a former Royal Navy officer, codename Maxime, has some very lucky [debatably, for me, too lucky] escapes, including after his situation has deteriorated significantly, but good luck shouldn’t be discounted, and Maxime was well trained back in Blighty before his essential mission, so that much is plausible. This is a well-told story, so I can recommend it. The paperback I read was published in 2020 by Penguin Books, [2020, Michael Joseph], ISBN 978-0-4059-3063–5.

The Frayed Atlantic Edge, by David Gange

This book is a real eye-opener; or perhaps more relevantly, a real mind-opener. In simple terms, it is the recounting, over the period of a year, of the author’s traversing by kayak of the Atlantic coastlines of, in compass bearing order, Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Cornwall. It goes without saying that he must, of necessity, be reasonably young, fit, intrepid and, depending on your viewpoint, fearless or foolhardy. What emerges is not just a travelogue; it is that, yes, in a very specific form; but it is also, given his academic speciality of historian, a social history of the narrow peripheral band of these islands which he passes and, he asserts, which has been overlooked and even, deliberately & deleteriously ignored or, worse, ravaged of both human & material resources in the name of progress, rationalised as standardisation, which is inevitably metropolitan in its conception. Given the latter, it is unsurprising that much of the text deals with esoteric concepts of artistic, aesthetic and emotional feelings, encapsulated in the work of artists, musicians, and thinkers, both ancient & modern, who experienced the might, majesty, and occasional devastation wrought by the ocean, as it interacts with these multifaceted coastlines. Gange is especially sympathetic to the until recently drastically reduced quota of non-English language users; thankfully, this shortfall has latterly been redressed, and the future for Scottish & Irish Gaelic, Welsh, and Cornish is looking brighter, along with their associated coastal cultures. I very much enjoyed this book. The paperback I read was published in 2020 [2019] by William Collins, London, ISBN 978-0-0082-2514-8.

Bad Actors, by Mick Herron

Life goes on as what passes for normal at Slough House, including the occasional turnover of its unwilling denizens. River Cartwright is absent, and his currently empty desk has been requisitioned by a new occupant; merely because she prefers its position to the one assigned to her; Ashley Khan, like all of her predecessors, still harbours the romantic notion that her current discomfiture is only a temporary glitch in her career, and before very long, she will be back across the river under First Desk Diana Taverner’s notional roof. Most concerning, a personal adviser to the prime minister, the similarity of the former to Dominic Cummings which might be entirely coincidental, has started causing ructions, and is intent on bringing Herron’s version of MI5, Regent’s Park, under his control, thereby minimising, if not actually eliminating government oversight. Needless to say, Taverner is fighting this all the way. Meanwhile, an influential member of a Downing Street think tank has disappeared, and before long, the circumstances surrounding this become very murky: this murk doesn’t quickly become clearer when Jackson Lamb’s Slow Horses become involved. This story is full of almost up-to-the-minute political and espionage intrigue, and justifiably shows politicians and some civil servants displaying their worst attributes. It is accompanied by a short story focusing on Lamb, but that notwithstanding, its purpose is unclear, although a new SH story is due this autumn. The impression it leaves me with, unfortunately, is that it was rushed out to be included with this volume, because there are so many obvious typographical errors, and there is no addendum or postscript to clarify this: at 32 pages, it could have been the prologue to a new full length story: enjoyable nonetheless. The paperback I read was published in 2023 [2022], by Baskerville, [John Murray (Publishers)] London, ISBN 978-1-5293-7872-6.

Book Reviews

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Anthology #13

Little White Lies, by Ace Atkins

This is another story in the Spenser canon, originally written by Robert B. Parker; I have reviewed a book by the man himself, Trouble in Paradise, which features different characters, but this one is about a Boston private investigator, Spenser, who narrates the story. Like the aforementioned book, this one is relatively short, at 255 pages, but it is crisp & easy to read, with no padding. Spenser, possibly unusually for a PI, wasn’t previously a cop, but served time in a District Attorney’s office, so he is familiar with the law in his country, and has contacts in the police; he also served time in the military, so he is no shrinking violet. His latest client is a woman who has been cheated out of a lot of money by an older man, with whom she was having a relationship; the man deliberately creates an air of mystery, telling her that he was a CIA officer, among other things, so he has to be circumspect about how much of his past he can reveal. The woman was referred to Spenser by his current romantic partner, a psychotherapist. Spenser quickly discovers that the man, who calls himself M. Brooks Welles, is a very slippery character, with some potentially very dangerous associates, so Spenser has to call on some help from previous colleagues, to bring the man to justice and achieve restitution for Connie, his client. Needless to say, there is many a slip along the way, and a couple of murders for added jeopardy. Not demanding reading, but enjoyable nonetheless. The paperback I read was published in 2018 by No Exit Press, Harpenden, ISBN 978-0-8573-0191-8.

Adrian Mole: The Prostrate Years, by Sue Townsend

Yes, the book’s title is a Malapropism, but deliberate, of course. It is used by several different characters in the story, much to the annoyance of the grammar pedant [hooray!] and hero of these stories, the eponymous Adrian Mole, who is approaching 40 years of age. This, sadly, is the author’s final Mole story; she was working on a new one when she died in 2014, at the tragically early age of 68 [my own age, for a few more months]; so this story ends with our hero somewhat adrift in his own life. I want to avoid being too critical of the story, because I am at a significant disadvantage of never having read the earlier books in this series, so I only have a very sketchy awareness of Mole’s life arc. He is clearly one of life’s losers, but he appears not to have succumbed to self-pity or self-indulgence. He is on his second wife [but the family tree at the back of the book shows that he will have a third in the future], has a son from his first marriage, and a six-year old daughter at the time of writing [the diary], 2007-8; for some unknown reason [perhaps explained in earlier diaries] the narrative starts in June and ends in May. The humour is gentle, not laugh-out-loud funny, but there is some social comment woven in, betraying the author’s, presumably, socialist political leaning. An enjoyable, if lightweight read, and I will be quite happy to read more of Townsend’s now terminated output. The paperback I read was published in 2017 [2010] by Penguin Books, [2009, Michael Joseph], ISBN 978-0-2419-5949–7.

Meantime, by Frankie Boyle

This is actually quite a difficult book for me to review; I like the author as a standup comedian and presenter of topical, often controversial, satirical television shows, which usually last anything from half an hour [the latter] to an hour [the former, in edited versions]. Knowing that his performances will be viewed by a wide selection of British people [and possibly sold to other English-speaking countries] his language, in terms of his vocabulary, has to be intelligible; however, here, because the story is set in Scotland, predominantly Glasgow, he uses a fair amount of local slang, some of which takes some thinking about. He also expands his regular standup practice of describing people, and sometimes events, with colourful [and occasionally abstruse] similes: it does become tiresome eventually, suggesting to me that he is trying thus to establish his credentials as a fiction writer; perhaps he will moderate this in further efforts. The story concerns the murder of a woman the protagonist, Felix McAveety, considered his best friend, and his resolution, as the one positive thing he might have done his life recently, to find the culprit, and the motive. The investigation encompasses his regular acquaintances, plus strangers who prove helpful. Along the way, they all [very probably echoing Boyle’s own political views] muse on Scottish society, which gives a very bleak impression of a nation collectively struggling with its mental health, using a combination of legal & illegal stimulants to numb the pain of reality. Only a partial recommendation from me, I’m afraid.  The paperback I read was published in 2023 [2022] by Baskerville, an imprint of John Murray (Publishers), London, ISBN 978-1-3998-0117-1.

Night Soldiers, by Alan Furst

I feel sure that I have already read at least one book by this master storyteller before this one, but an exhaustive search of this blog’s archive [and a filterable search facility, which the dashboard doesn’t appear to have, would be a distinct advantage] didn’t locate one. This is a long book; 511 pages in the compact paperback format; but rather than a daunting prospect, it allows the author to take the time to develop in relevant detail the main character, a Bulgarian young man by the name of Khristo Stoianev and, to a lesser extent, the subsidiary characters. The narrative begins in 1934, and progresses to the end of the second world war, so quite a long period of time; it is also something of a travelogue, of the Balkan countries, but also extending as far west as France. Khristo is recruited into Russia’s NKVD, the forerunner of the KGB, after a family tragedy, but he quickly learns how brutal & murderous the ground-level politics of communism could be; however, he is an intelligent lad, and quickly assimilates, whilst not losing sight completely of his moral compass. Soon he is entangled in Germany’s war, and is able to survive thanks to a combination of cunning, colleagues, and a life-saving amount of good luck. I was slightly disappointed that the ending, whilst it was satisfactory in one respect, was rather rushed, omitting some significant details, which was something of a shame, given the time the author devoted to the relating of the main story, but that is only a minor quibble: overall I very much enjoyed this book. The paperback I read was published in 2018 [2005], by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, [1989, Mandarin; 1988, The Bodley Head] ISBN 978-1-4746-1162-6.

Book Reviews

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Anthology #12

The Candy House, by Jennifer Egan

I am guessing that the name of this book is a reference to the Hänsl & Gretel fairy tale, where the candy [aka gingerbread] house is used as a lure, but here the lure is a piece of equipment connected to a supercharged version of our current internet, by which memories & subjective experience can be shared to the collective consciousness. I found the way this book was structured rather confusing: there is so much detail [a lot of which I would consider superfluous], in different voices, and a variety of presentational styles—narrative; memo/notes; and emails, for whole chapters, that it was difficult to keep track of characters in different time periods, how they all meshed together, so in the end, I struggled to care about them, which is a shame, because the book’s premise is good, IMO. The memory upload facility invented by one of the characters; but clearly not the primary one; is very interesting whilst simultaneously very worrying—think Facebook times 10, with immersive involvement. Unfortunately, I found myself having to wade through acres of biography which skirt around the book’s theme, which is a shame, and it meant I couldn’t share the enthusiastic soundbite back-cover reviews [there are many more inside] of authorities such as Vogue, Guardian, The Irish Times [Best Books of 2022], and the [British] Telegraph. For me, this was a good opportunity fumbled. The paperback I read was published in 2023 by Corsair, London [2022, Corsair UK; 2022, Scribner USA] ISBN 978-1-4721-5094-3.

Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir

Dr Ryland Grace is a man on a mission; this mission is very simple: save humanity. So: no pressure, then…. This is the only rationale I can perceive for the book’s title, the mission’s name, because there is no religious content anywhere in it. I can only detail the beginning of the narrative, because to reveal any more would spoil an excellent plot; the back story is revealed piecemeal as the first-person narrative progresses, but for a very good, and plausible reason: Grace wakes up in an unfamiliar environment, which he soon determines is a space vehicle, and he assumes that he has been in some sort of suspended animation, or a coma. There are two other people in this area but they are, unfortunately, both dead: one more degraded than the other. When his memory starts returning, he realises that he is on his way to a nearby [twelve light years, actually—space: it’s relative] star called Tau Ceti. Why? Because the heat/light radiation output of Sol, earth’s sun, is being significantly reduced by a band of red light, arcing from there to Venus, with drastic, quite short-term consequences for humanity. Astronomers have determined that whilst Tau Ceti is also being similarly affected, its radiation output has not diminished: how come? Hence Grace’s mission; and that of his dead fellow passengers. I have enjoyed Weir’s other two books—The Martian, and Artemis, and whilst the premise here is similar to that of the first book: lone astronaut, having to use his ingenuity to survive; this one is cleverly, and engagingly written [not that the other wasn’t!], and I have no hesitation in recommending it, if you like sci-fi that isn’t completely implausible; although the protagonist’s Ned Flanders-style language did make me chuckle. The paperback I read was published in 2022 by Penguin Books, London [2021, Del Rey, UK; 2021, Penguin Random House, USA],  ISBN 978-1-5291-5746-8.

Confidence, by Denise Mina

Having enjoyed this author’s pootling about on television with Frank Skinner [aka Christopher Collins] in various locations, celebrating the lives of various literary figures, some better known than others, and found her personality engaging [and her choice of clothing refreshingly eccentric], I very much wanted to enjoy this first example of her writing which I had hitherto discovered. I sort of did, but I also found the plot a bit confusing. Anna, the narrator, whose given name is not revealed to us until some pages in, is a podcast co-creator; so, very contemporary. She runs out on an unenjoyable holiday in Scotland, reprehensibly leaving behind her two young daughters, in the care of her ex-husband and his new partner, and accompanied by Fin, who loves her, but is too timid to either tell her or stand up to his younger & volatile Italian girlfriend. They have heard about a young woman who is part of a group who practise urbex; urban exploration, usually abandoned & neglected old properties, and post films about it on YouTube. She has gone missing, but discovered a possibly priceless silver artefact in an abandoned Château. After that, the artefact, and those who want to possess it for their own various reasons, become the focus of the story. I suppose the premise is plausible, but in the end, I couldn’t raise a lot of enthusiasm about the characters; not a bad read, otherwise. The paperback I read was published in 2023 by Vintage (2022, Harvill Secker), ISBN 978-1-5291-1181-1.

Here Goes Nothing, by Steve Toltz

There aren’t many books, thankfully, which make me want to throw them across the room in disgust, when I finish them but this, sadly, is one. I would have expected some sort of resolution for the protagonists after a reasonably good setup, but the reader is left in limbo; no pun intended; and that’s not where I like to be at the end of a story. It starts in Australia [the author’s nationality] and Angus Mooney is dead, but his unexpected afterlife is rather different from the version described in The Purgatory Poisoning, by Rebecca Rogers, reviewed recently. Here, it is very similar to earthbound existence, but in a different landscape. As is often the case, Mooney’s backstory intersperses the current timeline, and we learn how he was murdered by a deceitful ‘cuckoo in the nest’ in the form of Dr. Owen Fogel, who disingenuously inveigles his way into the house of Mooney [while he is out] and his wife, Gracie, by spinning the yarn that he grew up in that house, and his father died in the garden, after falling and hitting his head. He tells the current occupants that he is dying, from an aggressive  brain disease, and he would love to spend his final days in his childhood house; Gracie is empathetically taken in, but Mooney is sceptical, and ends up being murdered for it. Unfortunately, there is far too much existential musing for my liking, and a lot of it is just nonsense, which spoils what could have been a good premise. Plenty of critics [the ones quoted, of course] loved it, but I beg to differ. The paperback I read was published in 2023 [2022], by Sceptre, an imprint of Hodder & Stoughton, London , ISBN 978-1-5293-7160-4.

Book Reviews

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Anthology #11

Joe Country, by Mick Herron

The name of this book isn’t an eponymous singer of folk songs of questionable provenance, but a reference to the name of the meta-territory in which espionage agents operate, used by the author’s anti-hero Jackson Lamb, in the sixth episode in the Slow Horses canon—a couple of his previous stories have been reviewed here: Dolphin Junction [novella in a compendium], and London Rules. As much as any of the stories could be considered pivotal, this one definitely is, but its import is not evident until the end, when the repercussions are indicated. After the murder of one of the Slow Horses by Frank Harkness, the American father of one of the remaining ones, River Cartwright, Lamb unwisely condones [if not actively encouraging] a seek-and-destroy mission, because it becomes apparent that Harkness is back in the country, running a covert mission to murder a youth in Wales. The lad, who happens to be the son of the deceased Slow Horse, witnessed illegal activity at which a very prominent member of the royal family [no name, but not many guesses required] was present, has gone into hiding, but one of Lamb’s team, who was the dead Horse’s mistress, takes off unofficially to protect him. The dire winter weather is only one, albeit the worst, factor which causes the operation to founder for both sides. Another tense edition of this series, and well worth reading. The hardback I read was published in 2019 by John Murray (Publishers), London, ISBN 978-1-4736-5744-1.

The Purgatory Poisoning, by Rebecca Rogers

Without wishing to be pedantic, the title of this book is misleading, because the poisoning in question doesn’t happen in “Purgatory”, but in its defence, notwithstanding the alliteration, it could also be a sly pun, using the other meaning of purgatory: as an adjective. As a non-Christian, I had to be consciously objective, but if as a reader you are prepared to accept the necessary tenets of Christianity—one God: check; heaven, hell, and the eponymous Purgatory: check; angels with supernatural powers: check; then the wishful thinking element of this engaging fantasy will not be difficult to accept—in fact, you might accommodate it as perfectly plausible. Dave Walsh is dead, and he wakes up in Purgatory which is, naturally enough, difficult to accept, at first. In this he is aided by Angel Gobe, who just happens to be the image of Michael Palin [I won’t spoil this origin story] and, although the fact of his murder should not, normally, be an issue to engage God & minions, it transpires that there are “blocks” in his past, and these engage Gobe and his enthusiastic assistant, Arial, who both decide to investigate, somewhat unofficially. Revealing anything beyond that Dave’s grandparents embraced the dark side would spoil the plot, but there is a reality-based human element of all the usual emotions & pretensions here, so the fantasy is a vehicle to carry them. Light-hearted fun, aside from the religious [and, by implication, moralistic] aspect. The paperback I read was published in 2023 by HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd., London,  ISBN 978-0-0085-5302-9.

Slough House, by Mick Herron

I was lucky enough to find this book in very quick succession to the one reviewed above, and this one follows chronologically. The eponymous backwater [or Oxbow Lake?] and its unfortunate & unwilling occupants are under threat as never before. The existence of the last resort has been expunged from the, by now, customary digital records by order of First Desk Diana Taverner at Regents Park [a smaller, more secret version of MI6 HQ], ostensibly for the purposes of training her new agents in surveillance, but the rarely used old paper records still exist, and the identities of the Slow Horses are clandestinely copied, in the mistaken belief of the Russian GRU that these losers [in the opinion of Slough House chief Jackson Lamb] constitute an assassination squad. Consequently, they are being systematically eliminated by a pair of Russian killers, which comes to Lamb’s attention too late to save the first two victims. In this miasma is also Taverner’s involvement with a project to set up a supra-governmental steering organisation beyond normal oversight, with funding from unspecified, but clearly inadvisable foreign sources; plus the Yellow Vest movement, whose spokesman is being groomed for leadership by the ex-government minister at the top of the putative coup in all but name, Peter Judd, who now runs a PR company by the name of Bullingdon Fopp; and a rich young man running a GB News-style television company, also being used by Judd to promote his agenda. Fascinatingly close to reality, and very cleverly observed, and I hope the series will continue. The hardback I read was published in 2021 by John Murray (Publishers), London, ISBN 978-1-5293-7864-1.

The Dark Net, by Jamie Bartlett

I think there’s a good chance that the reaction of people to the name for this book [subtitle: Inside the Digital Underworld] will be determined by their age: people of my generation, say 50 and over, will find the concept disturbing and, possibly, even frightening [most likely influenced by the political bias of their choice of news media], but that might be mitigated by a reasonable familiarity with digital technology; adults younger than that, and older teenagers, are likely to find it less concerning, and possibly even exciting. Although the author states that he has used pseudonyms where appropriate, there is nothing to suggest that he is not using his own name, which could either be very brave, or foolhardy: take your pick. Although now a few years out of date, this a very comprehensive guide to what is available below the level of the ordinary internet; but some of that is accessible from the latter, if one knows where to look. Whilst avowedly not “a guide to illegal or immoral behaviour online”, it does cover Libertarianism [aka “Freedom”], Narcotics, Pornography [of every conceivable flavour], and even Transhumanism! I made several notes as I was reading, but to include them would make this review too long, so I can only recommend that if, rather than eliciting a knee-jerk response of revulsion at the thought of learning about it, you can put preconceptions aside, you will find this book a fascinating examination of how human nature in the twenty-first century can be given free rein to indulge in all manner of vicarious action; although that is not to condone any of the more heinous aspects which, sadly, will probably always be enacted in some form. The paperback I read was published in 2018, large print version, by W. F. Howes Ltd., Leicester [2014, William Heinemann, London], ISBN 978-1-5100-9804-6.

How to Use Irony in Writing

Do you know how to use irony in your writing? This article explains it.

Nicholas C. Rossis

After my host’s sudden passing back in January, I spent a couple of months moving over 100 clients to our new ISP – without any passwords that would let me do so in a seamless way. What ensued was a Sisyphean task of convincing various ISPs to share with me the necessary information and help me move all those websites. With that nightmare finally over, I’m back on my blog. To celebrate, I have a very special post for you that discusses irony in writing. I hope you enjoy it!

Types of Irony in Writing

Irony is not an obscure grammar term. In fact, many Internet memes count on it, such as the photo of a stone with the words “nothing is written in stone” written on it, or a bird sitting on a sign that says, “birds are not real.” These are visual displays of irony that make us…

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Book Reviews

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Anthology #10

The Secret Lives of a Secret Agent, by Tim Crook

I very much wanted to enjoy reading this book, when I realised who the subject was, but by the time I’d finished it, I couldn’t feel disposed to give it a fully positive review. The subject was the inspiration for a recent television drama, called Mrs Wilson, and the main character was the subject’s third wife, Alison, and she was played by her own granddaughter, the versatile Ruth Wilson. Her grandfather went by various names, but his first given name and family name were Alexander Wilson. The author is careful to be even-handed about his assessment of the subject, given that it was written at the instigation of one of his sons, Mike Shannon, now deceased, but it is abundantly clear that Alex was a deceitful fantasist, who married four women, three bigamously, and fathered many children as a result; the latter is hardly surprising, given that he was Roman Catholic, but one wonders how his religious faith could accommodate the former. He did some work for the British Secret Intelligence Service, but he also elaborated on it excessively, and wore military uniforms to which he was not entitled. This is a fascinating story but, for me, this second edition is let down by repetition, some odd phraseology, and poor presentation: if those don’t deter you, it’s worth a read. The paperback I read was published in 2018 by Kultura Press, ISBN 978-1-9088-4206-0.

England’s Finest, by Christopher Fowler

This is the second collection of short stories by this author, twelve in all, featuring the “decrepit duo” of Bryant & May [although that does seem a little unfair in John May’s case] and most of them are around 23 pages long; one, however, has an uncharacteristically fumbled ending: in this case, clarity was sacrificed for the sake of brevity IMO, but one is significantly longer than the rest, at 54 pages, described by Fowler as “very much the centrepiece of the book”. Not all are set in the present, which is quite refreshing, and there is a synopsis of each story at the back, including background information; this is only one of the extra features, almost in the style of a probably soon to be defunct DVD [how times change!], including A Brief History of the Peculiar Crimes Unit*, Dramatis Personae, Private & Confidential Memo from Raymond Land, A Note from Mr Bryant’s biographer*, Author’s Notes on the cases, and Murder on My Mind: an Afterword. *which might or might not be true. The final extra item is very informative, because it includes details of the author’s background, and his rationale for working the way he does. Overall, I found this a very enjoyable addition to the B&M canon: easily absorbed, with plenty of variety, albeit centred on the real London, to keep the reader interested. The paperback I read was published in 2020 by Penguin/Bantam, London  [2019, Transworld Publishers, London],  ISBN 978-0-8575-0409-8.

Firewatching, by Russ Thomas

This is the first novel by this author; a second one, again with a 1-word, present continuous tense title [Nighthawking] should have been published in February 2021; and after a beginning in which I wondered in which direction the narrative was going, apart from one minor slip when he uses discomfort a couple of times as a verb, when he should use discomfit, it settled down into a good police procedural, which concentrates on the main characters as much as it does the action. The protagonist is Adam Tyler [Life on Mars, anyone? Although this is set in & around Sheffield, not Manchester, and present day], a Detective Sergeant who happens to be gay, and on this particular case, he allows himself to be compromised by having a liaison with a young man who turns out to be a suspect; to his amazement, he is allowed by his superior, a gruff Inspector, to stay on the case, and the reason for this is that the latter was a devoted colleague of Tyler’s now deceased father, also a police officer. There is plenty of submerged guilt & hidden resentments in evidence to the reader, following the discovery of a body walled up in the cellar of an ex-vicarage, and what are the two dotty old ladies, one of whom seems to be in the early stages of dementia, who live in an adjacent property, hiding? The tension is maintained until the end, with the unsuspected pyromaniac only being revealed when all seems lost for one of the characters. The paperback I read was published in 2020 by Simon & Schuster UK Ltd., London, ISBN 978-1-4711-8095-8.

The Angels of Venice, by Philip Gwynne Jones

This novel meanders as slowly and languidly as the Grand Canal in Venice, around which the action is set. It is the seventh in this series set there, and featuring the honorary British Consul, Nathan Sutherland, who is married to a local woman, and has been resident there for several years, as has the author. The plot starts with the death of an English woman during a real event, the catastrophic flood, or Acqua alta; high water; as it is known there, which occurred in November 2019. It is not within Sutherland’s specific remit to investigate the event but, of course, he does, albeit slowly and, for the most part, carefully. The woman was employed by a rich English philanthropist, but questions begin to be asked about his integrity, and that of his foundation, named after his father; also, the bookseller, in whose shop the woman spent a lot of time, and to whom she might have been closer than her apparently feckless English fiancé would like, seems increasingly suspect. When a potentially extremely valuable, original Dürer cartoon is thrown into the mix, the plot starts to crystallise for Sutherland. There are a few other interesting characters in the dramatis personae, including a young woman nicknamed Siouxsie Sioux by Sutherland, on account of her appearance: she is one of the so-called Mud Angels, who voluntarily assist the cleanup operation after the inundation. The partial map at the front helped with geography, and the glossary at the back helped with the local argot. Worth a read, and I will look out for other stories in this series. The paperback I read was published in 2023 [2022] by Constable, London, ISBN 978-1-4721-3431-8.

Book Reviews

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Anthology #9

The Hound of Death, by Agatha Christie

This title is the first story in a compendium of stories from this world-famous author, and they all concern the paranormal, the occult, or both. Some are better than others and, notwithstanding that all fiction must be contrived to a certain extent, I felt that these stories were more contrived than her detective fiction—I haven’t read any of her romantic fiction [and I’m not likely to]—and they all included a character who was a doctor and/or ‘nerve’ specialist. There are the customary human foibles & weaknesses as well, of course. The age of the stories does mean that, inevitably, they have a somewhat dated feel to them and, in the more modern, mostly science-based thinking of current times, the blind faith in the paranormal, and even occasionally hysteria associated with it, does seem somewhat risible, and the characters laughably gullible; or, perhaps, I am just too cynical to be convinced by them now. They do serve as a contrast to her better-known output, and each story is tolerably short, averaging about 20 pages. The paperback I read was published in 2016 [1933, Odhams Press Limited] by HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd., London, ISBN 978-0-0081-9642-4.

The Recovery Agent, by Janet Evanovich

This looks like the beginning of a new series of thrillers from this author, who already has four character series to her name; although I am reticent to describe this story as an example of “crime comedy”, as one reviewer does. Some might find an element of comedy in it, but it was very weak, for me, and without wishing to sound in any way chauvinistic, the enthusiasm with which she uses trade names of very expensive products like stiletto heels and lingerie imply that this story and any successors might be targeted primarily at women? Having said that, it is a workmanlike [if that expression is still permissible] effort: a sort of cross between Romancing the Stone and the Indiana Jones genre. Gabriela Rose is a recovery agent [possibly more common in the US, at a guess] who takes on a personal quest, which if successful would help to support her home community that has been devastated by a natural disaster. The first problem is that the prize she seeks is the subject of myth, and has been unsuccessfully sought by many others for decades; the second is that the area in which she has to search is rife with drug lords, who are keen to protect their ill-gotten gains, and one of these lords is highly feared & revered for possessing supernatural powers, and has a large army of devoted supporters behind him. This is light hokum, not to be taken too seriously, but pleasant reading for all that. The paperback I read was published in 2023 by Simon & Schuster UK Ltd., London  [2022; Atria Books, USA, 2022],  ISBN 978-1-3985-1027-2.

Jeremy Hardy Speaks Volumes, by Katie Barlow & David Tyler [editors]

I genuinely did not want this book to end, and it was a joy to read. I have to confess that, although I was aware of the subject as a stand-up comedian and, occasionally, as a panellist on comedy and/or satire shows, I was not aware of his prodigious appearances on radio, predominantly BBC Radio4—I mostly listen to music radio. I had enjoyed his dry, slightly lugubrious demeanour on television, and found him amusing, but I am so glad that I have had the opportunity to read this anthology, which is compiled from scripts for his radio & personal appearances: including a couple at a local arts festival called MusicPort. He is one of fewer than a handful of writers whose work will literally make me laugh out loud; the others are Spike Milligan and Clive James, both also deceased, sadly; Jeremy died in 2019, hence this memoir. It is probably fair to say that I enjoyed reading his musings; some of which were clearly mischievous, but nevertheless; all the more because his politics & sense of humour align very closely with mine, and his still relatively recent loss is all the more poignant for me because of that: how delicious it would have been to have him tearing strips off our current deadbeat government but, alas, such is not possible. If you enjoy satire, and your politics are left of centre, I can’t recommend this book highly enough. The paperback I read was published in 2020 by Two Roads, London, ISBN 978-1-5293-0036-9.

Six Minutes in May, by Nicholas Shakespeare

If you enjoy fastidiously researched biographies or memoirs of twentieth century history, especially focusing on the political arena, then this book is for you: I take my hat off to the author, who is actually in a similar position to mine, in that his grand uncle, Geoffrey Shakespeare, was closely connected with the events examined in forensic detail here: he was, at the time, Parliamentary Secretary for the Dominions, and his political affiliation was National Liberal. The six minutes in the title was the length of time it took for the division which sealed the fate of the prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, and propelled Winston Churchill into the leadership of a country at war with Germany. That said, his elevation was not instant, nor was he, by any means, the favourite [or even the most suitable] for the position, and the ‘meat’ of this book is the fascinating machinations which put him in his position of power, and the character & foibles of all the associated personalities. Right up until the very last moment, the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, was the preferred candidate for many, including the king, but Halifax’s persistent refusal for predominantly personal reasons which were unknown to nearly all but his inamorata, ‘Baba’ Metcalfe, the wife of Conservative MP ‘Fruity’ Metcalfe, and daughter of Lord Curzon, finally ruled him out of contention, and Churchill was grudgingly accepted, despite his lamentable performance as First Sea Lord, in the débâcle of a month earlier, with the attempted mining of Narvik harbour in Norway, which instigated a brutal German invasion.  Thankfully, despite all his peccadillos, he managed thereafter to steer Britain to victory. The paperback I read was published in 2018 [2017, Harvill Secker] by Vintage, London, ISBN 978-1-7847-0100-0.

Book Reviews

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Anthology #8

Over My Dead Body, by Jeffrey Archer

This is a workmanlike product from this well-known & prolific author, who has been a controversial figure in his time in the British political sphere; he has also published, very probably without a trace of shame or irony, three volumes of Prison Diaries, from his time languishing at his, no doubt, revered monarch’s ‘pleasure’. This is an undemanding read, but no less enjoyable for that; it is the fourth entry in the William Warwick series: another one, Next in Line, previewed here, should have been published last autumn [2022]. The story begins with an episode including a questionable death, which serves to introduce the plot, where Detective Chief Inspector William Warwick of the Metropolitan Police is sailing to New York for a week’s holiday with his wife, Beth, keeper of pictures at the Fitzmolean Museum. When he returns, he is put in charge of a cold-case squad: somewhat uninspiring perhaps, but he also has a mission: to prove that a devious art-loving criminal, Miles Faulkner, did not die in Switzerland, but is still alive. He is, indeed, still alive, and with a new identity, after plastic surgery, but he proves too clever for easy apprehension; he also has a very devious barrister supporting him. Warwick has a very clever ally though: Inspector Ross Hogan, ex-SAS and former undercover officer. The story is set in 1988, but we don’t ascertain that until well into the narrative. The paperback I read was published in 2022 [2021] by HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd., London, ISBN 978-0-0084-7431-7.

On the Bright Side, by Hendrik Groen

The subtitle of this lovely, poignant book is The New Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, and as the discerning reader might surmise, he is a Dutch gentleman, and a resident of a care home in north Amsterdam. At the time of writing, he was eighty-five years old and, in fact, this book is a sequel to his previous book of an identical nature: The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years Old. Of course, here we are dependent upon the accuracy of the translation, by Hester Velmans, and her English is a mixture of mostly British spelling [excluding realize] with some American terms: chomp, stomp, airplane, and sputter. That notwithstanding, the diary entries, which include most, but not quite all days in 2015, cover a range of experiences & emotions, the latter of which most people who are advanced in years [albeit perhaps not quite as advanced as the author] will readily identify with; the most difficult being, in addition to the variety of degrees of acceptance of the inevitable by his friends & fellow care home inhabitants, coming to terms with the loss of a close friend. There is plenty of humour here; it isn’t just a repetitive list of days of tedium; a core of the still most mentally, if not realistically physically active occupants of the home form the Old-But-Not-Dead-Yet Club, to give their remaining days, if they can’t hope for years, some spice [I think the book’s rear cover slips into hyperbole, describing this as “octogenarian anarchy”], so they organise regular outings, including meals out at a variety of international cuisine restaurants. If this helps younger people understand the reality of life in old age, it is highly recommended. The paperback I read was published in 2018 by Penguin Books [2017, Meulenhoff, Netherlands],  ISBN 978-1-4059-3030-7.

A Funny Life, by Michael McIntyre

This book is the second volume of autobiography by a comedian most British people [he is hardly known in the USA] regard as ‘Marmite’ [ditto this concept in the USA]: they either love him or have no time for him. Not being most British people, I don’t conform to either assessment. His early life must have been covered in the earlier volume, entitled Life & Laughing, so here, after a rambling prologue, in which he describes the rationale behind the first volume, he begins with the birth of his first son, Lucas, and how, endearingly, he is devoted to his wife, Kitty. After that, he progresses pretty much chronologically through his career to [almost] date, and the embarrassing self-inflicted setbacks he has survived, as well as the successes which have made him a rich man. This career is largely the result of the endlessly enthusiastic support & promotion he received from his force-of-nature agent, Addison Cresswell, who died suddenly from a heart attack in 2013, tragically at Christmas. Since then, he has built on that support and helped to create some very successful TV programmes, as well as breaking records for live performances. My impression is that he is a genuinely funny man, but [self-confessed] very vulnerable & needy at times, as well as suffering from self-doubt; but many actors & performers share these attributes, of course. This is easy reading, and I wish him well. The paperback I read was published in 2022 [2021], by Pan Books [Macmillan], London, ISBN 978-1-5290-6369-1.

Betrayal in The Cotswolds, by Rebecca Tope

I have read possibly a couple of earlier instalments in this Cotswold Mysteries series [there are plenty of them!], but I can only assume that I haven’t reviewed them because my overall impression was the same as it is after reading this one: the pace is slow, the jeopardy almost non-existent; so, engendering the same sort of feeling one might get, not having any particular aspiration to live there, from reading the many glossy magazine features about this somewhat ‘olde-world’ film-set region of the country—fine if one is rich, but rather vacuous at the same time. Thea Slocombe is a house-sitter, when she isn’t helping her second husband, Drew [she is also his second wife] with their ecologically friendly undertaking business. She is also an amateur sleuth, whom the local police seem happy to accommodate—even to encourage. When she witnesses a fatal hit-and-run incident right outside the house in which she has that day taken up residence, it launches her on another investigation. The house’s current occupant is away on business in Germany, but he is part of a large family, and his ownership of the house is disputed. The perpetrator is eventually unmasked, but the five days over which the action takes place seem like much longer. This is easy reading, so not unenjoyable, but her relationship with the police does seem somewhat implausible. The paperback I read was published in 2023 [2022] by Allison & Busby, London, ISBN 978-0-7490-2869-5.

Book Reviews

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Anthology #7

Three Debts Paid, by Anne Perry

This is a decent enough story, but in my humble opinion, the author takes an excruciatingly long time to reach the dénouement, sending two of the main characters round in unnecessary circles, and asking the same questions more than once, both of themselves, and others whom they need to or want to question. There are two main threads happening: the first, a series of brutal & violent murders, in which the victims are stabbed & slashed, then an index finger segment removed post mortem; apart from the latter detail, the only other common aspect is that they all occur in pouring rain on the streets of London in the February of 1912. The second is a legal case of plagiarism, which is complicated by a charge of assault against the defendant. The main characters all know each other: Inspector Ian Frobisher is investigating the murders, and he was at Cambridge with Daniel Pitt, the barrister who is recommended by Frobisher to the defendant, Professor Nicholas Wolford, who taught Pitt, whose father just happens to be head of Special Branch. There is also a potential love interest, between Daniel and Miriam fford Croft, who has recently qualified as a pathologist, but she had to do this in Amsterdam, as the facility was not available in Britain; she also happens to be somewhat older than Daniel. The murderer is not too difficult to identify, but this takes around 300 pages! The court case near the end is rather messily terminated, and I didn’t think clients were able to instruct barristers directly, as is the case here. The paperback I read was published in 2022 [2021] by HEADLINE PUBLISHING GROUP, London, ISBN 978-1-4722-7527-1.

This is the Night They Come for You, by Robert Goddard

At first, I wasn’t sure if I was going to enjoy this story, but it didn’t take me long to decide that I definitely would! Also, the author’s name seems familiar, but if I have read another of his books, I can’t find a review for it; he has written twenty-nine other books, according to the flyleaf of this one. The story revolves around the politics of Algeria, a country about which I know very little; there are also associated threads in England & France. It is set in the present day, and Covid has left its mark on Algiers, but lurking in the background, there is the spectre of the revolutions and tragic bloodshed which have riven the country since the War of Independence, whose true horror was exemplified in the massacre of Algerian protestors by the Paris police on the night of 17 October 1961. An Algiers police superintendent is charged with bringing a high-level embezzler to justice, and he is obliged to work with a rare female security service operative. A French woman has been offered a written confession made by her English father, who ran a bookshop in Algiers, before he was murdered, apparently by moslem extremists. An English man is also interested in the Algerian embezzler, because he is convinced that the latter murdered his sister, who was the bookshop owner’s girlfriend in Paris. The threads are very cleverly woven together, and they build to a dramatic climax, so I can recommend this book. The paperback I read was published in 2022 by Penguin [Bantam Press], London, ISBN 978-0-5521-7847-1.

Until the Last of Me, by Sylvain Neuvel

This author, as his name suggests, has French ancestry, but is a native of Québec. The book being reviewed is [again!] the second of a prospective trilogy, classified under the title of Take them to the Stars, and it is a type of alternative history science fiction; it is also, for me anyway, an allegory of the seemingly eternal, sadly, struggle of the female gender to overcome the at best dismissal, and at worst outright violence of the patriarchy. This should not spoil the plot, but the theme is only barely disguised. The plot is that a race of humanoid extraterrestrials, known as Kibsu, have lived among us for 3000 years, and for only vaguely explained reasons have “shaped Earth’s history to push humanity to the stars”, by using their skill with mathematics & astronomy to assist our technological development. Somewhat implausibly, they are all female, only using indigenous males for procreation; to complicate matters, however, the women are hunted, and regularly eliminated [but not enough for the race to die out completely] by the Tracker, a lineage of males, whose purpose seems to be simply to prevent the Kibsu from achieving their goal. The dénouement of this story is climactic, but not sufficiently to prevent the plausibility of a conclusionary sequel; I did enjoy it in the end, but it took a while before I was sure. The hardback I read was published in 2022, by Michael Joseph [Tom Doherty Associates], ISBN 978-0-2414-4514-3.

The Locked Room, by Elly Griffiths

It is now February 2020, and Covid is starting to bite; although, not as hard as it would, as we now know with hindsight. Dr. Ruth Galloway, the head of the Archaeology Department at the University of North Norfolk, is enjoying some quality time with her illicit, and only barely concealed lover, Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson, because his wife, Michelle, is isolating in Blackpool with their son and Harry’s mother. Harry and his team are investigating a series of apparent suicides of elderly people, but they are having to operate a skeleton staff in the office because of safety requirements. Ruth has just cleared her recently deceased mother’s house in London, and discovered a photograph which shows her cottage taken before she moved in, with the caption “Dawn, 1963” on the back; meanwhile, she has a new neighbour, a nurse by the name of Zoe, but she seems strangely familiar… Two students at the university go missing, then Ruth’s neighbour also does. There is also a significant scare [including for regular readers of this series] when one of the least likely main characters is struck down by Covid. At the end of the book [but not the end of the series: the next instalment is previewed here] Ruth has two very significant decisions to make: both of which have been forced upon her, and neither of which she is enthusiastic about having to make. Another very enjoyable instalment! The paperback I read was published in 2022 by Quercus Editions Ltd., London, ISBN 978-1-5294-0967-3.

Book Reviews

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Anthology #6

The Daves Next Door, by Will Carver

I was sorely tempted to bail on this book, well before I reached its end; looking at it charitably, I suppose it could be considered to be ‘worthy’, if it ‘makes people think’; that is: consider their life, as an individual, and how their opinions & actions impact other people, but I have to confess I found it too full of existential angst, and a disjointed narrative which is always presenting alternatives—what if this didn’t happen, because in another universe, in fact [but is it?] it didn’t. The main theme of the story is a series of bomb outrages in London, in the very near future [the current year, 2023, in fact], and parallel to the descriptions of the various characters & their situations are reports from the Intelligence and Security Committee, which examine how the outrages could have been allowed to happen, and why they weren’t prevented. There is also a suggested metaphysical element with one character, and a thread connecting the narrative is chapters in which one of the putative suicide bombers asks himself, while he is riding the London Underground, what he is doing, why he is doing it, and even if he is actually God [as in the Judeo-Christian deity; or perhaps the Moslem God: it’s not entirely clear]. This author has written several other books, so I am prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, but this one was not to my taste. The paperback I read was published in 2022 by Orenda Books, London, ISBN 978-1-9145-8518-0.

The Colorado Kid, by Stephen King

Surely, everybody who reads books or watches films, or both, must have heard of this author; but until now, I had no interest in reading one of his books, fearing that they all fell into the horror category, of which I am no aficionado [I was saddened to learn, recently, that this term originates in bullfighting]. However, I had ignored, or forgotten, that he also wrote The Green Mile, The Shining, and the source book for The Shawshank Redemption. This novella was something of a coup for the publishers, because they never thought they would be able to tempt an author of this stature to write for their revived ‘pulp’ genre, Hard Case Crime, but he jumped at the chance. This is more of a mystery than a ‘whodunit’, because although the story concerns the death of an initially unidentified man on a Maine beach, the narrative is a leisurely discussion about it between two local newspapermen, one of whom is a sprightly ninety years old, the other of who is somewhat improbably named David Bowie, and their very young colleague, Stephanie McCann, who is on a temporary work placement as a graduate student. It might be a spoiler to reveal that no provable motive for the death is revealed, but the pleasure in the story is in the interplay between the characters. The paperback I read was published in 2019 by Titan Books, London, ISBN 978-1-7890-9155-7.

Shot in Southwold, by Suzette A. Hill

This story precedes the one I have reviewed previously, The Cambridge Plot, in an earlier anthology, and it revisits a location which was used in an earlier novel, A Southwold Mystery, and to which reference is made in this story. This time, the plot revolves around a film which is being shot there, so no spoiler here, because the pun is easily found in the title. Also, the year is specifically stated as 1960 [albeit on the back cover], but even though that is more than half a century behind us, the atmosphere is not unduly historical, save for the absence of the technology which we now take for granted. The trio of characters from the later novel, Felix Smythe, Cedric Dillworthy, and Rosy Gilchrist, is present here, along with one or two other regulars. Felix has been offered a small part in the film, although the plot is somewhat difficult to discern: not least for the actors! Once the groundwork has been laid, and well into the narrative, one of the actors is murdered so, despite their having minimal enthusiasm for becoming embroiled in the unravelling of same, the trio is inevitably drawn into it. Despite some jeopardy for one of the characters near the end, the narrative ticks along at a leisurely but not unenjoyable pace towards a conclusion where the local constabulary is shown to be stereotypically plodding. The paperback I read was published in 2017, by Allison & Busby Limited, London, ISBN 978-0-7490-2131-3.

The Enigma of Garlic, by Alexander McCall Smith

This is, presumably, the latest episode in what could, depending upon one’s assessment of these popular productions, be described as a soap opera; I don’t watch any [or listen to any, with reference to the [very] long-running British radio drama, The Archers], but I will take a neutral approach, and call it an episodic saga, despite the geographic dislocation. The same regular dramatis personae appears: seven year old Bertie, in training to be a figurative doormat [although his good friend Ranald Braveheart Macpherson recognises Bertie’s humanity, nevertheless] under the tutelage of his putative fiancée and Harridan in training Olive, with the sterling sycophantic support of her acolyte Pansy. One of the other threads concerns café owner Big Lou, who marries ex-strongman Fat Bob, only for rumours of his infidelity, and possibly even bigamy, to emerge; these are covertly investigated by local aphorism-dispensing nun, Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiore Montagna. There is no explicit suggestion that the saga will not continue, and possibly a familiarity with Edinburgh & its environs might facilitate a greater enjoyment of these gentle peregrinations, but it isn’t necessary: they make a pleasant change from, and antidote to police procedurals with the inevitable blood & gore, and even espionage stories can become somewhat formulaic, so I will happily read other episodes in this series; the eponymous garlic barely gets a mention, by the way. The hardback I read was published in 2022 by Polygon, an imprint of Birlinn Ltd., Edinburgh, ISBN 978-1-8469-7590-5.