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.

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Anthology #5

The Poisoned Rock, by Robert Daws

This is one of possibly several books which I have read and, for whatever reason at the time, thought: “Nah, I won’t review this”—not because I didn’t enjoy it—so, clearly, this is not the first reading, but my memory is not sufficiently eidetic to spoil a further reading. The Rock in question is Gibraltar, and the author is a successful actor near whom I have had the pleasure of working some years ago, on an ITV production called The Royal, a spinoff from the very successful & well loved Heartbeat, on which I also worked, many times, mostly in a background capacity. As is often the case [for no other obvious reason than sheer happenstance], this is the second book in what is currently a trilogy, featuring the characters of Detective Chief Inspector Gus Broderick, of the Royal Gibraltar Police, and Detective Sergeant Tamara Sullivan, who is currently midway through a three-month secondment there, mainly because of a problem in her work with the Metropolitan Police in London. The story concerns a film which is being made on the rock [a subject with which the author would be easily familiar] about a female spy during World War II; somebody disagrees with the premise & the reputation of the protagonist, and sets out to stop the production by murdering people associated with it. The narrative is very effectively structured & paced, so I am happy to recommend this story, and I hope that the other two books in the series are as good. The paperback I read was published in 2017 by Urbane Publications Ltd., Chatham, ISBN 978-1-9113-3121-6.

Explosive, by Cliff Todd

This is a fascinating summary of the career of one of Britain’s foremost former forensic explosives scientists, although it could also be worrying, if one were of the mindset that one could be vulnerable to the threats described in this book. A series of abhorrent [as they should be to any reasonable-minded person whose worldview has not been disgustingly prejudiced by religious dogma and/or psychopathy] bombing outrages or attempts is described, as well as the author’s background, and what led him to this essential work. The first chapter begins the story of identifying the perpetrators of the Lockerbie bombing, which will surely remain long in the minds of British people who were alive at the time, and many Americans, who are relatives or friends of the victims. It is a sad fact that the forensic experts will mostly be one step behind the murderous criminals, and the author had to call on all of his expertise & ingenuity to at least endeavour to keep pace with new developments in explosive device design. It will probably come as no surprise that the reputation of his department ensured that their help was called upon many times by foreign governments, to identify the perpetrators of bombing incidents in their countries. We were lucky to have had such a capable expert working to keep us safe, and his legacy will, thankfully, continue in that capacity. The paperback I read was published in 2022 by Headline Publishing Group, London, ISBN 978-1-4722-7899-9.

Trouble in Paradise, by Robert B. Parker

This author, who died in 2010, wrote an almost bewildering multiplicity of books in four different series, plus a few with other authors [including Raymond Chandler], although it is possible that many could perhaps be described as novellas, like this one, which weighs in at only 190 pages. That said, however, despite his writing style being described by polar opposite reviewers in the Sunday Telegraph and the Guardian as “hard-boiled”, the action is written in a refreshingly crisp manner, with minimal extraneous detail, and relatable dialogue for contemporary American characters, with the action set in & around Boston, Massachusetts. The eponymous Paradise is a small coastal town, and the action concerns a planned heist on a small, not easily accessible adjacent island. The perpetrators are led by a cold-blooded career criminal, who assembles a small team of associates with the appropriate skills, along with his devoted girlfriend, and the forces of law & order are led by the town police chief, Jesse Stone, an ex-LA cop, who has a somewhat convoluted love-life, including his ex-wife, who has moved ‘back east’ to be close to him. I’ve never been greatly attracted by this genre of crime fiction hitherto, but this story was very easy to read, and the resolution was satisfying. The paperback I read was published in 2013 [1998], by No Exit Press, Harpenden [GB Putnam, USA], ISBN 978-1-8424-3443-7.

Bleeding Heart Yard, by Elly Griffiths

Elly Griffiths is now one of my favourite authors: I know before reading the first page that I will enjoy reading the story, and this one didn’t disappoint. I have possibly done my readers [thank you, by the way!] a disservice by not reviewing the previous story featuring this protagonist, Detective Inspector Harbinder Kaur, who now works for the Metropolitan Police, but who previously worked for the force near her home with her parents in Shoreham, so this move is both a promotion, and an expression of independence. The story is narrated by one of Harbinder’s colleagues, DS Cassie Fitzherbert, and we know from the start that she has a guilty secret: all the more guilty, as she is a police officer, because when she was eighteen, she murdered one of her fellow sixthformers. The book’s title does seem a bit obscure, but its relevance is gradually revealed as the story progresses. Cassie was on the periphery of a group of friends at school called, somewhat ironically, The Group. Two of them have gone on to become MPs [on opposite sides], one is a pop star, and one is a successful actress; the others are trying to avoid resentment at the ‘famous’ ones’ success. At a school reunion, one of the MPs is found dead, and Cassie finds herself a suspect; although, not the only one. I won’t reveal more, but the story plays out nicely to a slightly unexpected outcome. The hardback I read was published in 2022 by Quercus Editions Ltd., London, ISBN 978-1-5294-0995-6.

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Anthology #4

The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough

I am reasonably confident that I will not be alone in knowing very little about Wilbur & Orville Wright, other than that they were the first to achieve powered flight, in 1903; this excellent biography redresses this for me, and it is a very comprehensive summary of the lives of these two highly industrious, but also very close individuals, who changed the world so comprehensively with their tireless & assiduous work to achieve their dream and bring it to reality. The transition from bicycle makers to aeroplane technologists might seem almost unfeasible, but they clearly had the capability & the determination to work methodically and master the physics of their project, progressing from simple kites to sophisticated & aerodynamically sound flying machines: that included the design & manufacture of their own internal combustion engines to provide the motive power; although they did have some very capable help with that. From the early struggles & failures, and daunting environmental conditions in their testing location, they battled through against some ridicule, to final success & well deserved recognition. This highly recommended book is supported by some excellent photos & diagrams. The paperback I read was published in 2016 [2015] by Simon & Schuster UK Ltd., ISBN 978-1-4711-5038-8.

Get Me The Urgent Biscuits, by Sweetpea Slight

Although I am only really a dilettante when it comes to ‘the theatre’, because my involvement hitherto has been exclusively in the amateur sector, I very much enjoy the process of acting, and I have worked with both amateur & professional actors at different levels in film & television, some of whom have become permanent & dear friends, so this memoir by a woman with the endearing nickname of Sweetpea is a captivating glimpse into the world of professional theatre in the 1980s & ’90s, predominantly but not only in London, and the personalities she encountered in her work as assistant to the indomitable and almost stereotypically eccentric Thelma Holt. Similarly to Holt, Slight had aspirations to be an actor [although Holt did work professionally as an actor, initially], but they were both aware that acting is an extremely precarious profession, so Holt moved into producing, and when, perhaps serendipitously, Slight started working near Holt, albeit on work experience, Holt saw her potential and took Slight under her wing. Thereafter, a heady whirl of work followed for the next twenty years, during which Slight had to contend with low wages but high job satisfaction, and her uncertainty about her sexuality. The book ends with Slight deciding to branch out on her own, but with no indication as to her chance of success in the future: this article throws some light on it—she is now PA to Anne Robinson [the expression “out of the frying pan…” springs to mind!] The large print paperback I read was published in 2018 [2017] by W F Howes Ltd., Leicester [Weidenfeld & Nicolson], ISBN 978-1-5100-9803-9.

Codename Faust, by Gustaf Skördeman

This is the second book in this series featuring Detective Sara Nowak, and it is set in & around Stockholm; the previous one, the author’s debut thriller, was called Geiger, and this was the codename of the spy whom Nowak unmasked. This, and other backstory details which the author helpfully feeds into this narrative, could rather spoil a potential reader’s enjoyment of the first, after reading this one, but the protagonist’s credentials are established, nevertheless. Nowak is the almost archetypal feisty, independent female police officer, prepared to bypass normal rules of procedure to achieve her goals, and she had a difficult childhood, although here she is, ostensibly at least, happily married to a successful music promoter, and his family is also very rich. She is back at work under some sufferance, after being badly injured during the operation described in the previous story, and when, beyond her acceptable jurisdiction, questionable deaths, or obvious murders of former spies start occurring, she is warned against becoming involved, but what does she do? [no three guesses required!] I wish I knew Stockholm well, or had a detailed city map, to follow the story, but that didn’t unduly detract from my enjoyment of this story, which has a clever twist right at the end. The hardback I read was published in 2022 [2020], by Zaffre, London [Bokförlaget Polaris, Sweden], ISBN 978-1-8387-7654-1.

The Cambridge Plot, by Suzette A. Hill

This is a somewhat whimsical little story; although not quite so high on the whimsy scale as the Bertie Wooster adventures; or, indeed, those of Lord Peter Wimsey, which aren’t actually whimsical. However, the title is quite a good pun, which I won’t explain here, but it should very quickly become clear, because it is applicable to 2 different strands of the story. It is set in the halls of Cambridge academe, and after a fairly protracted [but not unenjoyable] introduction, there is a series of deaths connected to the commissioning and execution of a new statue, intended to commemorate a previous, illustrious [although not to all] alumnus. This story features returning characters Professor Cedric Dillworthy, his long-time ‘friend’ Felix Smythe [a London florist who enjoys royal endorsement], and a young woman, Rosy Gilchrist, who works at the British Museum. The time period isn’t specified, but it appears to be set in the 1960s, so there is a whiff of the Miss Marple about it. The deaths are explained without any high degree of sleuthing being required, and there isn’t enough jeopardy to really set the heart racing, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing: it is an easy read from an author who only took up writing at the age of sixty-four, after a career in teaching [so perhaps not prompted by The Beatles?]. The paperback I read was published in 2019 [2018] by Allison & Busby, London, ISBN 978-0-7490-2298-3.

Book Reviews

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Anthology #3

Fall, by John Preston

This book is subtitled The Mystery of Robert Maxwell, and is described on the front cover, by no less a reviewer as Robert Harris, as “… the best biography yet of the media magnate”: despite not having read any of its predecessors, I am very happy to accept that assessment. It is difficult not to stray into hyperbole when describing this repugnant man, who was a consummate con-artist, notwithstanding his tough & demanding background of poverty in Czechoslovakia, before reinventing himself as many times as was necessary to enable him to achieve almost unimaginable [although perhaps not by current Bezos/Musk standards] wealth & social standing, before it all came crashing down, when the extent of his deception was revealed. The main question, which [spoiler] the book doesn’t conclusively reveal, is whether he took his own life, was murdered, or died as a result of an accident aboard his luxury yacht, the Lady Ghislaine: whose name also has a current resonance, which is touched upon briefly at the end of the book. Perhaps his criminal activity has taught the high-flying financial world a well-deserved lesson, but I am prepared to believe that it didn’t, when the lure of financial gain is too strong to resist. The paperback I read was published in 2021 by Penguin Books, [Viking], Random House UK, ISBN 978-0-2413-8868-6.

Capture or Kill, by Tom Marcus

This is the first novel by “Tom Marcus”, a pseudonym “to keep his identity hidden” [at the insistence of MI5] “to ensure he stays safe”, given that “it’s the first true ground-level account [of “the real story of the fight on our streets”] ever to be told”; that might or might not be true: it all sounds a bit ‘boys’ own’ to me, and the writing style used in the first-person narrative is a bit rough around the edges, including some basic spelling mistakes & grammatical errors which the editors should have picked up, but that could be deliberate, to convey that the author “grew up on the streets in the North of England … [and] left the Security Service recently, after a decade on the frontline protecting his country due to being diagnosed with PTSD.” The protagonist, Logan, is personally selected by the DG of MI5 to join an ultra-secret, deniable action agency called Blindeye, to identify and, if necessary [it generally is, apparently] eliminate threats to the safety of this blessed realm. He is weighing up if this should be his future when a tragedy occurs, which decides the question; before long, however, he discovers that all is not what it was supposed to be, so drastic action is called for…. If the covert activities presented here are true, it could be ammunition for both conspiracy theorists & civil rights activists, but ultimately, there is no way for Joe Public to know the truth [and survive]. The way is left open at the end for a sequel, so its appearance can be more or less guaranteed. The paperback I read was published in 2018 by Pan Books [Macmillan], an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, ISBN 978-1-5098-6359-4.

The Bourne Initiative, by Eric van Lustbader

Aside from the exotic, film-staresque sound of the name of the author, who is continuing the highly successful series originated by the late Robert Ludlum, this is one of the latest novels featuring this by now almost mythic freelance operative, who freed himself of the shackles of his Treadstone background some years before. As usual, he is trying to live a quiet life, whilst being only too aware of diverse threats to his existence, and in this story, he is dragged into a chase to discover the whereabouts of the eponymous Initiative, which turns out to be, ostensibly, a highly dangerous tranche of computer code, created at the behest of his erstwhile, now dead, Russian compatriot, General Boris Karpov. In the course of the narrative, during which, as ever, so it would seem, Bourne doesn’t know whom to trust [but that’s espionage for you, I guess], he is forced to accept at least one potentially life-threatening collaboration. The action is virtually non-stop and, apart from the slightly unrealistic capacity Bourne has for absorbing physical punishment and quickly recovering therefrom, the progress to the dénouement is reasonably plausible, so if you like fast-paced spy thrillers, this is one I can recommend. The paperback I read was published in 2017, by Head of Zeus Ltd., London, ISBN 978-1-7866-9425-6.

Elsewhere, by Dean Koontz

I don’t remember if I’ve ever read any work by this author before, or whether the subject matter is exemplary of his normal output, but suffice to say that I was easily drawn in by the topic of parallel universes: another branch of the ‘what if’ scenario, although I was occasionally slightly irritated by the apparent stupidity of the protagonists by their actions in stressful situations; that is possibly presumptuous, however, because I’m not an eleven-year old girl, or a somewhat naïve American man who has suffered a trauma in his marriage. Jeffery [aka Jeffy] Coltrane is entrusted with a cardboard box by an eccentric, but presentable vagrant with whom he has struck up a relaxed friendship, and exhorted to not open the box under any circumstances, but to keep it safe. Of course, circumstances dictate that the box is opened, initiating a series of breathtaking & [in the ‘normal’ world] barely believable events. Jeffy’s daughter Amity proves to be mature beyond her years, but not strong enough on her own to defeat the forces of evil with apparent government backing who are seeking to destroy both them and the wonder which has fallen into their hands. This is a real page-turner if you like this sort of fantasy fiction, so it comes highly recommended, even if the dénouement is perhaps just a tad too ‘pat’ for credibility. The paperback I read was published in 2021 [2020, Thomas & Mercer, Seattle] by HarperCollinsPublishers, London, ISBN 978-0-0082-9127-3.

Have a go!

Have you ever thought about sharing ideas with your friends, but you find platforms like Facebook & Twitter, etc. intimidating? Why not start a WordPress blog: it’s easy! Click the link to read the post. There are plenty of different templates to choose from, and if you have something to promote, there’s nothing to stop you; for example, I use my blog to promote the biography of my grand uncle, Wilfred Risdon: Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles, which can be bought direct from my own website (follow the link, and don’t be put off by any browser warnings: the site is perfectly safe—it just means I haven’t converted it to https yet, but it’s coming soon 🙂 ), but I also like to share reviews of books I’ve read, and other things related to books & publishing, so it’s not just a hard sell. Even if you only post now & again, it’s rewarding being able to share your thoughts with other people; check out the blogs I follow, from the links on the right, as well: there are some lovely, friendly people out there. As they say on The Prisoner [one for the teenagers!]: Be seeing you!

Book Reviews

Photo by Simon Wilkes on Unsplash

Anthology #1

Dolphin Junction, by Mick Herron

It’s always a pleasure to find a book by this author, and this is a collection of his short stories, one of which features some of his Slow Horses characters; there are also two featuring his private investigators Zoë Boehm and her hapless, erstwhile husband, Joe Silvermann. Herron seems to have the knack of being able, cosynchronously, to write both contemporaneously and classically; although maybe by that I mean that his writing is cogent, a quality not always found in current fiction; and he is very clever in how he sets the reader up for a conclusion, only to often turn these assumptions on their head. There are eleven stories in this collection, and they are all of the right length, so each new one is anticipated with pleasure. This hardback was published in 2021 by John Murray (Publishers), London, ISBN 978-1-5293-7126-0; there is also a paperback, ISBN 978-1-5293-7127-7.

Our Man in New York, by Henry Hemming

This non-fiction book deserves to be read very widely: I say this as the author of a non-fiction biography, but the remit of this biography is arguably much wider than was mine, so I have every sympathy for this author with regard to the research he must have had to undertake. He is the grandson of a very good friend of the subject, William [Bill] Stephenson, but that notwithstanding, his documentary & anecdotal sources in his family were more limited than he would have liked; nevertheless, he has produced what I consider to be a very well-researched & important record of the British government’s efforts to influence American opinion enough, in 1940, when Britain was on its knees against the merciless onslaught of Hitler’s Germany, to persuade President Roosevelt to bring America into the war on the side of the Allies. Whether Stephenson’s background as a Canadian made a significant difference to his attitude & effect in this campaign is debatable, but suffice to say that, by the time Japan attacked America in December 1941, American opinion had revolved enough to make the country’s contribution a foregone conclusion. A must-read! The paperback I read was published in 2020 [2019] by Quercus editions Ltd., London, ISBN 978-1-7874-7484-0.

The Peppermint Tea Chronicles, by Alexander McCall Smith

I have already alluded to this series; the 44 Scotland Street stories, set in Edinburgh; in a review of another series, the Inspector Varg novels, by this author [no diaeresis over the first A of his name here, as I expected], and I was curious to read how different, or otherwise, this might be from the aforesaid Malmö-set Varg stories. This is trumpeted as “now the world’s longest-running serial novel”, and it is with no little regret that I have to say that this reads like it; that said, it is very pleasant reading, which does have some measure of closure for a couple of the characters, but otherwise, it is a gentle meander through the lives of the characters during a short length of time in “Auld Reekie”. One thing I did find slightly irritating is that, for all the writing is cogent, there is an ever-so-slightly supercilious air about the latin quotations which are used without translation: some I knew, and some I wasn’t 100% sure of. Nevertheless, as said, this is very pleasant, undemanding reading, so I will be very happy to find another instalment in the series, whenever it is in the timescale. The hardback I read was published in 2019 by Polygon, an imprint of Birlinn Ltd., Edinburgh, ISBN 978-1-8469-7483-0.

Admissions, by Henry Marsh

This name might not mean a thing to many people, but is you are a supporter of assisted dying, as I am, you might have seen his name as one of the high-profile supporters. He was a neurosurgeon [aka brain surgeon] before he retired, although he had not completely retired when he wrote this book; he was only working part-time though, and he also did stints in Ukraine [before the most recent Russian invasion] and Nepal, working with erstwhile colleagues. These foreign sojourns were partly altruistic, but it is fairly apparent from his personal musings that he has something of a restless nature; he has also seen, in his working career, which has encompassed many aspects of the medical profession, the despair which can overtake human beings who are suffering terminal illnesses, and the anguish which this can cause their loved ones, so this explains why he supports the concept of assisted dying. This has been decriminalised in many countries, and other countries are engaged in rational discussion about its advantages, but Britain doggedly refuses to countenance this humanitarian change, despite many well-informed & high-profile supporters: I can only hope that this resistance is dropped in the not-too-distant future. The paperback I read was published in 2018 [2017] by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, ISBN 978-1-4746-0387-4.

Book Review


image credit: fromthestage.net

No Time Like The Future, by Michael J. Fox

I suppose it would be virtually inevitable that a memoir; of which there are now four; by this personality [I eschew the term celebrity] would include in its title a knowing reference to his most well known and, arguably, celebrated [whilst nevertheless still not condemning him to inclusion in that overused category mentioned above] trilogy of films; although, that said, only one of the others does; but I can happily accept that, for a variety of reasons, which don’t require explanation here. The front cover photograph; an unapologetically simple monochrome study of the man sitting sideways on an ordinary office-style chair; shows him looking straight down the camera lens with a weary, but at the same time, not completely worn-down expression on his face, which conveys, I think, what this volume wants to convey: that he is indisputably down, as a result of the health issues which have beset him over the course of his life hitherto, but by no means is he out.

In addition to the foregoing, the front cover photograph shows a deceptively youthful looking fifty-eight year old man, which is quite surprising, given his well documented tribulations. He was diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s Disease in 1991, at the cruelly early age of just twenty-nine, but rather than just giving up and accepting the inevitable; which it is, currently; he used his own resources, of money & influence, to set up a foundation, in his own name [categorically not as an ego-boosting vehicle] to raise global awareness about this scourge and help find a cure; he also engages in advocacy work. This book catalogues his most recent experience to the time of writing; and there is an epilogue, written in August 2020, which includes the arrival of the Covid pandemic, and the consequences ensuing therefrom, so it is almost, albeit not quite, how things stand today. This could be quite a traumatic read, in view of the impact this illness has had upon his life, but thankfully, his trademark wry humour shines from the text to avoid this.

In addition to the degeneration of his physical mobility; which has made something the majority of us take for granted: walking more than a few steps, inadvisable; and, what is understandably more concerning, even frightening, for him, his mental acuity, he also had to contend with a tumour on his spinal cord. He was faced with an awful decision: risk being permanently confined to a wheelchair and never walking again, or have an incredibly delicate operation which, if successful, would result in his being able to continue as he was—disabled, but still mobile, albeit carefully. His wife, Tracy, and his four children were a great source of solace & support in those desperate times, but it is also a measure of the resilience of the man that he decided the risk was worth taking, and the top surgeon in his field calmly & efficiently ensured a successful result; the post-operative delusions ensuing from the combination of the necessary medication were frightening both for him and his family but, thankfully, they were mercifully short-lived.

His recuperation was not entirely trouble-free, however: his determination to return to ambulant independence overrode any semblance of caution he should have exercised when he was back in his New York apartment, assuring his daughter that he would be able to get himself up unaided the following morning, before going off for a very welcome acting opportunity which had been especially made available for him. Predictably, he fell and badly broke his left arm, which meant he was out of action again for an extended period. There is a happy ending to that section of the story, thankfully: although that setback plunged him into a depression, it also acted as a wake-up call to be more realistic about his prospects, and eventually, he was able to do his acting job, which the producer, Spike Lee, had very honourably held open for him; he was also sanguine enough to know that his acting career is all but over, but that that is not the only thing which defines him. His life latterly has not been a triumph of hope over adversity, but there is always hope, where the possibility of a cure is concerned, and most definitely determination, so I found this a rewarding read which I can heartily recommend, and I hope you will too. The hardback version I read was published in 2020, by Headline Publishing Group [UK], ISBN 978-1-4722-7846-3.

Website Update

With reference to my previous post, as a result of, sadly, inevitable postage price increases, and very probably an indirect result of Britain’s recently leaving the EU, it has become necessary to update the Wilfred Books website to reflect this, because the postal charges included for despatch of the print version of Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles have been insufficient, for all areas of the world, for some time now. I should also point out that the book’s retail purchase price has NOT increased, neither are there any plans for this to happen. To achieve this update, certain sections of the site have been ‘refactored’, as it’s called, but it has not been a simple matter of just editing a few items of text; the reason for this is that a new price group, specifically for delivery to the EU zone, needed to be introduced: previously, the first non-UK price group included Europe, but this is no longer the case. More details can be found on the website’s about page, where there is a link to the book’s own page, and there is also a purchase link there.

Another complication is that there is now a veritable plethora of possible screen sizes for all of the devices which people can now use to access websites, compared to when the book was first published, in 2013; and, indeed, there are now even narrower screens than the first smartphones had [which I find slightly incredible, but I’m old-fashioned, and prefer a laptop for accessing websites]; so, each possible screen size had to be checked, to make sure that the new layout of the page a buyer is taken to when purchasing a print version of the book, looks acceptable with the new EU postal delivery price group included, so although this was relatively straightforward, as mentioned above, it was not a quick undertaking!

I hope the page looks acceptable across all devices, but I must stress that I am not a professional website developer; although I was confident that I could produce a functional & attractive site to make my book available direct, with no middle-man in the process, other than PayPal, which processes the purchase securely. So, if I have missed a new device size, or slipped up when formatting the page for an existing device, please don’t hesitate to let me know in the comments.

Finally, dare I remind readers that a present-buying opportunity [in addition to normal impulse-buying] is rapidly approaching, so if you know of someone [or yourself!] who would enjoy reading a comprehensively-researched examination of the febrile inter-war period of the 1920s & -30s in Britain, please ensure that a purchase can be delivered in good time! The book focuses specifically on what made an ardent socialist like Wilfred Risdon from Bath, who saw action as a medical orderly in the first world war, and worked in the Tredegar coal mines alongside Aneurin Bevan [who, as we know, went on to a sparkling political career], drastically change his political allegiance to support Oswald Mosley who, although he started out also as a socialist with the best of intentions, fairly soon swung to the opposite side of the political spectrum before the second world war. During the war, after a short period of internment in Brixton Prison under the notorious Emergency Regulation 18B, Wilfred sensibly decided to leave politics behind as far as possible, and concentrate on his passion for animal welfare, advancing to the position of Secretary of the prestigious National Anti-Vivisection Society, before his death in 1967; before that, he engineered the bold [and confrontational!] move of the Society’s London headquarters to Harley Street, the heart of the British medical profession, that still [and continues to, sadly] relied upon animal testing, which involved [Wilfred would argue, unnecessary] hideous & painful procedures. Given the state of the world in general, and British politics in particular now, a knowledge of how we arrived at this point can be very illuminating, so I can heartily recommend Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles: but, then again, why wouldn’t I?