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.

Book Reviews

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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.

Book Reviews

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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.

Season’s Greetings!

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Thankfully, in the northern hemisphere the Winter Solstice has passed, so the days will now gradually lengthen, but there might still be some cold weather to come [again!] before we can enjoy some much-needed warmth; for all that the snow, ice & frost looks pretty in photographs, and can be enjoyed in small doses outdoors, I prefer mostly to look at it from a warm indoors! Whether you celebrate this time of year, and however you do it, I hope it brings you joy & companionship; suffice to say, I will be making the most of the urge to hibernate by reading avidly, remembering to borrow sufficient books from my lovely library to tide me over while it is closed for the holiday, so there will be another review anthology in due course. Have a cool Yule, y’all!

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

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Anthology #2

The Electric Dwarf, by Tim Vine

Confusingly, this is not the Tim Vine many of us know & love from his standup routines, crackling with clever one-liners, but a composer, born in Jersey, C.I., and it appears to be his only sally into the world of fiction, to date. I would like to say I enjoyed reading it [twice, in fact: thanks, Swiss cheese memory!], and it is described [uncredited] on the back cover as “A ‘Withnail’ for the twenty first century”; I freely confess that I haven’t read the source material for that fine film, so I am not able to make a comparison, but this book is a ragbag collection of disparate characters, whose exploits might have been amusing, were it not for the spelling mistakes & odd constructions in the text, which might or might not have been knowing, for effect: I couldn’t decide. This is generally guaranteed to prejudice my opinion negatively. The paperback I read was published in 2019 by Salt Publishing, Norfolk, ISBN 978-1-7846-3172-7.

Burial of Ghosts, by Ann Cleeves

The only output of Ann Cleeves I have read hitherto has featured either the Vera or the Jimmy Perez [Shetland] characters, so I wasn’t sure what to expect with this story. Overall, it is a slower paced narrative than those to be found in either of the other ones, and I have to confess that I was on tenterhooks for most of it, wondering when the inevitable jeopardy was going to occur. I won’t spoil the story by enlarging on that, but suffice to say that any perceived lack of jeopardy doesn’t detract from the narrative’s construction. It is narrated by the protagonist, a young woman who was abandoned at birth, so she has led something of a rootless life so far, including some psychotic episodes & behaviour which was either borderline or actually criminal. After a very brief fling in Morocco with a married man, who happens to be dying at the time, she is tasked after his subsequent death with finding his son, who was apparently not known to the man’s wife, as he was the product of a much earlier liaison. The author’s cogent writing style is always enjoyable to read, so I can happily recommend this standalone story. The paperback I read was published in 2013 [2003] by Pan Books, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, ISBN 978-1-4472-4130-0.

Beyond Recall, by Gerald Seymour

With a distinguished background in journalism, covering armed conflict & terrorism across the globe, as well as Northern Ireland, he is well qualified to be able to write the many novels he has to date about members of the armed services, the intelligence services, and the theatres in which they work. This story is written, in large part, in a breathy, no-personal-pronoun style, to convey an inner monologue, which is often rushed as a result of stressful situations; it is effective, but can become somewhat irritating, if used too much. This story is about redemption, the protagonist being a retired corporal from a British special reconnaissance unit who, against his better judgment, given his mental breakdown before demob, is persuaded into one last mission, to identify a Russian officer whom, a few years back, he observed as an adviser to a unit of the Iranian army operating in Syria, and which carried out an atrocity, from which a young woman was the only survivor. The disparate strands of the narrative are skilfully woven together, and the tension is slowly, but cleverly built. The mission has no right to succeed, given the vicissitudes it suffers, but the dénouement is almost plausible, and I will leave it to the reader to decide that. The paperback I read was published in 2020, by Hodder & Stoughton, London, ISBN 978-1-5293-8600-4.

Your Inner Hedgehog, by Alexander McCall Smith

This is the third book in this series; the von Igelfeld Entertainments; and its protagonist is Professor Dr Dr [no mistake] Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld, nicely lampooning German fastidiousness, and displaying a decent understanding of the language—Igel is the German word for hedgehog, hence the title, and in the text, the author explains that the character’s name means from [or of] hedgehog field, and its derivation: “Family tradition has it that they once lived in close proximity to a field renowned for its hedgehogs, but where this field was, and even if it ever existed, is far from clear.” Igelfeld is a professor at the modern-day Regensburg Institute of Romance Philology, and the story concerns the rather parochial activities of this department, and its denizens who, like most academics, it would seem, are self-centred and primarily concerned with their own advancement and the avoidance of any personal slights, whether explicit or implicit, rather than providing a decent education for the students. The humour is consistent with the author’s somewhat whimsical style, and it is erudite [in spades], with the de rigeur latin quotations; some familiar, but not all; but I can’t, personally, go as far as describing it, as does the back-cover synopsis, as “hilarious”: “entertaining” yes, just about, but in a light-hearted & undemanding way. That said, I regularly keep my eyes open for other books by him. The slim paperback I read was published in 2022 [2021, Little, Brown] by Abacus, an imprint of Little, Brown, London, ISBN 978-0-3491-4451-1.

Book Reviews

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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

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Containment, by Vanda Symon

It is a refreshing change to read a thriller set in Britain’s alter ego, New Zealand, and it would be nice to be able to visualise, as we in the northern hemisphere slide into the dark & cold days of winter, the lazy, hazy days of an antipodean summer, but unfortunately, this story is set in winter, but that is, realistically, only a very minor reservation. The author has only written two other books in this series featuring her female protagonist, Detective Constable Sam [Samantha] Shephard, but they have been nominated for awards, and Symon is also a radio host and a board member of the New Zealand Society of Authors. The stories are set in & around the southern city of Dunedin; described by no less a commentator as Ian Rankin as “[t]he Edinburgh of the south”, and he should know!

The NZ police rank system is slightly different, in that there are no detective sergeants: a DC, such as Shephard, starts as a Constable, then progresses to fully-fledged Detective, the next step on the promotion ladder being Detective Inspector, as in England. Not entirely unexpectedly, given that she is a woman in a profession where misogyny is still not eradicated, she has a bastard of a boss, so she is permanently looking over her shoulder, and being as careful as possible what she says in his possible earshot in the office. The story starts with a container ship running aground in the bay near her home, allowing some containers to wash up on the shore, and their contents to spill out, leading to an ugly outbreak of looting by the locals. Even though she is off-duty, Sam tries to prevent one young man making off with a large package, and is seriously assaulted for her trouble; luckily, another man comes to her assistance.

When she is back on duty—sooner than she wanted, but her boss insisted—she is tasked with following up on the grisly discovery of the body of a diver, who has been in the water for some days, so the body is in a very poor state. Before long, a connection is found between this death; soon established to be murder; and the looting of the container goods. Working with her colleague, they gradually discover the trail of events leading to the death of the submerged man, although much of the time, Sam has to avoid the DI knowing what she is doing, because he has very eccentric ideas about where her responsibilities lie. The murderer turns out to be uncomfortably close to home, but is eventually caught. This was an enjoyable story to read, and I would be happy to find another one by this author, because the writing style is conversational, without being too colloquial. The paperback I read was published in 2020 [2009, Penguin Books (NZ)] by Orienda Books, London, ISBN 978-1-9131-9319-5.

This will be the last ‘long form’ review I post for a while, so for the foreseeable future, forthcoming reviews will be ‘short form’: restricted to one paragraph, but posted in groups and with the ISBN link so that further details of the books can be searched for, if a purchase might be desired.