Book Review

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The Last Days of Night, by Graham Moore

If I’d had to guess, I would have said that this author would be British, with a name like his, however he was in fact born in Chicago, USA, but I’ll forgive him for that. The book’s name, which I actually think is quite clever, refers to the transition period of the 1880s in America, primarily in the metropolitan north east, but then gradually spreading out to encompass the whole country, when electric lighting began to take over from the previous standard of gas; although this wasn’t ubiquitous: oil/kerosene lamps were also cosynchronously very common. There have, in fact, been a few books on this subject, plus a 2017 film, The Current War, which seems to have had a somewhat underwhelming reception, disappointingly [for me, anyway, given the subject matter; although it was caught up in the repercussions of the Weinstein scandal, which delayed its release, facilitating, presumably fortuitously, a ‘director’s cut’ final edit]; the screenplay of which was written by Michael Mitnick, according to the Wikipedia entry for the film, but no mention is made of, or reference to other sources for the story; although, to be fair, it can almost be considered as folk history in America; especially, given Thomas Edison’s persistent reputation.

As with other fictional narratives based closely on readily available historical fact [An Officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris, is another example], authors have to be careful not to deviate too far from established truths, unless they are prepared to categorise their output as an ‘alternative’ history; confining themselves to embellishing known facts with scenarios which are appropriate to their narratives is quite common. This is what Moore has done here, as he freely admits, in his Note from the Author, at the end of the book: “This is a Gordian knot of verifiable truth, educated supposition, dramatic rendering, and total guesswork.” Overall, I would say he has done very well, despite the timeline having been significantly tinkered with to make his narrative plausible. It is essentially the story of the struggle for dominance in the electrical supply market, between Edison & DC [direct current] on one side, and George Westinghouse & AC [alternating current] on the other; into this conflict is also thrown the saturnine character of Nikola Tesla, who has latterly become something of a folk hero globally, but in the USA specifically, notwithstanding what I rather feel is the traducing of his name by a current [no pun intended] billionaire, with his upmarket and very expensive [and therefore not affordable by the masses] products, and the irony of this compared to Tesla’s sad demise.

The story actually begins with litigation between the two main characters, with Edison as the antagonist, suing the protagonist, Westinghouse, for infringement of his patents for the electric light bulb, claiming [speciously, but that is the core of the suit] that he had ‘invented’ it. The latter takes the ostensibly risky step of engaging a relative newcomer to the legal field, Paul Cravath, who knows that this is something of a poisoned chalice, but he nevertheless relishes the challenge as an opportunity to make a name for himself: but only if he wins, of course. Along the way, he meets a seemingly unattainable woman, Agnes Huntington, to whom he is inexorably drawn, when she also engages him to fight a suit for her; at first, he makes a conscious decision not to let himself become dependent upon her, but as the narrative develops, despite evidently being somewhat submissive to her domineering mother, it becomes apparent that there is more to her than meets the eye. When the truth is revealed, it seems inevitable that they will become romantically attached, until Tesla inadvertently causes a schism.

The story is nicely paced, and the characters, although admittedly somewhat enhanced, are plausible, so I found this a very enjoyable read, which retained my attention throughout, and the conclusion was reasonably satisfying. The paperback version I read was published by Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster UK Ltd., in 2017, ISBN 978-1-4711-5668-7.

Book Review

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The Hollow Ones, by Guillermo del Toro & Chuck Hogan

When I saw the name of “the visionary director of The Shape of Water” [with which I was already familiar, but I suppose not every potential reader is] on the cover, in a prominent position at the top, my attention was drawn to it immediately; I wasn’t aware hitherto that he was also an author, although it is not uncommon for film directors to have authorial input to their films, but his bio at the back only mentions his very successful films*. However, I was prepared to take a risk with this book; I am guessing that Chuck Hogan [whose name suggests he should be a wrestler or stuntman] is the primary writer, given that he is [the usual publishing hyperbole notwithstanding] “a New York Times bestselling novelist”, with GdT supplying the fantasy element of this story. I am normally somewhat selective with my fantasy fiction, but the cover promises, courtesy of The Guardian, that this story is “Like a Jack Reacher crime thriller [of which I have read enough to know what to expect] … with a Van Helsing-style demon hunter”, so to reiterate, I thought it would be worth a risk.

Indeed it was, in my humble estimation anyway. It starts off, to set the scene, with a prelude, describing a mysterious cast iron Edwardian mailbox, situated in the financial district of Manhattan, New York; “a sliver of a property that officially stands as 13½ Stone Street.” Some history is given, and the prelude ends by saying that “Every letter that arrives at The Box is a letter of urgent need—a desperate call for help—and every single envelope carries the same name:

Hugo Blackwood, Esq.

This name is “a tribute to one of our most admired authors and the originator of the occult detective subgenre, Algernon Blackwood”, and the tribute ends with a macabre observation “that grave robbing in New Jersey, for occult purposes, is not at all fiction or a thing of the past. It’s happening. Right now.” So far, so portentous.

The story then gets going in more conventional thriller mode, introducing two FBI agents, the female of whom is a relative newcomer, Odessa Hardwicke, whilst the other is the more experienced Walt Leppo. It was a normal working night, but very quickly, it morphed into X-Files territory, when the first of a series of ‘rampage’ killings occurred, which proves fatal for one of the agents. Two other time periods are included in parallel: 1962, when a black FBI agent named Earl Solomon is sent to the Mississippi Delta to investigate the lynching of a white man, for obviously political reasons; and England in 1582, when the young barrister, Hugo Blackwood, encounters “Queen Elizabeth’s court astrologer, spymaster, and scientist”, John Dee, and Edward Talbot, aka Edward Kelley, one of “various mystics who claimed to be in contact with higher realms”, in Mortlake [but not “Greater London”, as the book states, which is a ceremonial county not established until April 1, 1965!], a village that then was part of the county of Surrey. Both Solomon & Blackwood figure in the present-day action, but of the two, Blackwood is the more helpful, albeit initially grudgingly [and almost psychopathically dispassionately], because Solomon is recovering from a recent age-related stroke; Odessa is not immediately aware of Blackwood’s unusual condition, and understandably, it takes her a while to accommodate it.

Overall, this is a quite well structured narrative, and there is a conclusion of sorts when the culprit of the killings is neutralised, but an element of doubt must remain, because the subtitle at the beginning of the book is “The Blackwood Tapes, vol. 1”, which refers to the audio tapes Solomon made during the course of his career, and would suggest that a sequel is to be expected: this paperback version, ISBN 978-1-529100-96-9, was published in 2021 by Del Rey, London. A search using the ISBN doesn’t show any reference to a sequel, so I can only presume that it is either still in preparation, or the idea has been abandoned, pro tem.

*According to the list at the very front of the book, GdT has in fact written ten books on his own account, both fiction & non-fiction; he has also collaborated with Hogan on three other books; Hogan has written five, all fiction presumably; so they are a web-established and productive team.

Book Review

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Jeeves and the Leap of Faith, by Ben Schott

I have to confess, with [I feel quite justified in saying] only a small degree of shame, that I have never in my 67 years [to the best of my knowledge, anyway] previously read a Jeeves & Wooster book by the original, universally revered author, Pelham Grenville [P.G.] Wodehouse, so I’m not able to make a comparison with this “Homage” from author Ben Schott [although I draw a very firm line at “An Homage” for specific grammatical reasons: if it had been described as “An Hommage”, from the original French, I would not have quibbled; whereas the H in the English version, Homage, should be pronounced, requiring A as an indefinite article rather than An; but that’s just my pedantry – don’t get me started on “An historical …”]. Having sounded that note of discord, I do want to praise, in advance of the story itself, albeit somewhat arsa versa [to borrow from the following], the copious chapter notes at the end of the book which, despite being unusual for a fictional narrative, do provide very useful explanatory background, as well as a layer of legitimacy which I can only guess at, given my initial observation.

From the obviously German origin of the name of the author, about whom I know nothing, it is no great surprise to learn that, among his other non-Wodehousian publications is “Schottenfreude — a vital compendium of new German words for the human condition.” Apparently, this is “his second novel, following the triumphantly received publication of Jeeves and the King of Clubs in 2018.” This story is [publishing hyperbole notwithstanding!] the “eagerly anticipated sequel” to the aforementioned, but the two stories are sufficiently independent for me to have enjoyed the latter without recourse to reference to the former. I was already aware, from my research for the biography of Wilfred Risdon, Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles, that Wodehouse had lampooned Oswald Mosley in several of his books written between 1938 & 1971, casting him in the character of Sir Roderick Spode, aka Lord Sidcup, self-styled Leader of The Saviours of Britain party, more commonly known as the Black Shorts, from the black “footer bags” the adherents were wont to sport as an essential element of their uniform: this was a masterstroke of deflating ridicule by “Plum” Wodehouse. In the text, reference is made to Sidcup’s forthcoming debate at the Cambridge Union, a direct parallel of Mosley’s 21 February 1933 debate against Clement Attlee, “That this House prefers Fascism to Socialism”: Attlee won the debate by 335 votes to 218.

The story itself is, no doubt [given my ignorance], suitably inconsequential, within the context of rich, over-privileged roués of the 1930s, although Wodehouse’s skill is evident, assuming Schott’s style is authentic, in his gentle contrast of the upper classes, with all their foibles, with Jeeves’s all-encompassing & ever-present mastery of any given situation; although, whether Jeeves could be described as working class is debatable; however, Bertie’s involvement with the British security services and, simultaneously, a very eligible and evidently reciprocally amorously interested young lady who is a member of that organisation, does seem to somewhat run counter to the customary perception [unless I am mistaken] of the character of Bertie Wooster, not least because he seems to avoid responsibility in most forms but, especially, matrimony with almost monotonous regularity: according to the notes, he has had “twenty-two near-Mrs”, which are helpfully catalogued by the author, according to year & publication, although “The precise number of Bertie’s engagements is hotly debated by Wodehouse scholars, and opinions differ.”

I hope readers will accept when I say that I can’t give an opinion on this book as an example of Wodehouse’s oeuvre, but as a story using Wodehouse’s characters & fictitious world, I would recommend it, because I enjoyed reading it, without feeling in any way patronised; I’m no better equipped to tackle The Times crossword, a fictitious example of which is given in the notes [and others are referred to in the narrative], however, than I was previously, despite Jeeves’s masterly explanations of the clues: they always seem so obvious, once explained. This hardback version that I read was published in 2020, by Hutchinson, London, ISBN 978-1-786-33193-9; it is also available in paperback, ISBN 978-1-786-33194-6.

Book Review

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Launch Code, by Michael Ridpath

This novelist’s name is not one I have encountered before, but he has written eleven other novels, as well as five novels set in Iceland, during the writing of which he “fell in love” with that country: he now also publishes a blog called writinginice, from which a non-fiction book, Writing in Ice: A Crime Writer’s Guide to Iceland, has sprung. The bio on his website tells us that he was privately educated and worked first as a credit analyst, then a ‘junk bond’ trader, so it is unlikely that his experience could be categorised as the ‘school of hard knocks’, but nevertheless, he seems to have an impartial take on humanity’s character flaws: “Working in the City, I had come across some pretty dodgy characters … the shades of grey interested me.” This novel starts off as a thriller, time-shifting between what became known as the Cold War, specifically 1983-4, and the present day; it then morphs into a murder mystery, and quite a tense one at that.

Former Lieutenant William (Bill) Guth, USN, previously assistant weapons officer on the USS Alexander Hamilton, has made a home for himself and his five daughters in Norfolk, after being transferred to England by his American employer; unfortunately, his wife, Donna, died some years ago, but she still figures very strongly in his memory, and in this story, which is played out by the use of regular flashbacks. An incident occurs on board the nuclear missile carrying submarine which brings the world to the brink of nuclear war, but it was clearly averted, or else there would be no present day story to relate. As the narrative develops, details are released gradually as to what occurred on the sub, but only enough details to give the reader one version of the story, which is then changed as new information is released, of necessity in response to the death of a British researcher who is trying to discover the true extent of the danger the world faced, and how close to destruction it came.

The main character of Bill Guth is deliberately, but also cleverly, presented as being ambiguous in his motives, and for a while suspicion falls on his eldest daughter Alice, to the consternation of her loving, but increasingly concerned British husband, Toby; the security services of both countries are also in the mix, which adds another layer of intrigue to the story. I think this is a worthwhile effort, because it throws some light, albeit guesswork to some extent, on the procedures designed to prevent the accidental release of nuclear weapons, and the questionable value of them as a deterrent (all the more so, given Boris Johnson’s pig-headed determination to ill-advisedly increase the size of Britain’s nuclear ‘arsenal’), and the fairly obvious fact that the world has escaped destruction only because brave individuals on both ‘sides’ were prepared to risk their careers, and possibly also their lives, to overrule the automatic systems that were supposed to be foolproof; commendably, the Russians are portrayed as being no more belligerent, and just as fallible as the Americans, as the two quotes at the beginning of the book illustrate:

Never, perhaps, in the post-war decades was the situation in the world as explosive and hence more difficult and unfavourable as in the first half of the 1980s.

Mikhail Gorbachev, leader of the Soviet Union, 1986

We may have been at the brink of nuclear war and not even known it.

Robert Gates, Deputy Director of CIA and later Secretary of Defense

I will certainly look out for other books by this author, and look forward to reading them as & when I find them. This one is published in paperback by Corvus, London, 2020, ISBN 978-1-78649-701-7.

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Brixton Hill, by Lottie Moggach

There isn’t actually a great deal I can tell you about how this narrative plays out, without spoiling the plot, but I was curious to read it, because I recognised the family name of the author: she is, in fact, the daughter of Deborah Moggach, but I have to confess that I haven’t read any of this lady’s work before, and this book by her daughter, her third, is the first of hers I have read. The paperback I read was published in 2021 by Corsair, London, ISBN 978-1-4721-5538-2. The two main characters are Rob, a young man who is nearing the end of a prison sentence he is serving for a crime which isn’t revealed at the beginning, but he is currently detained in an ‘open’ unit situated at the top of the eponymous Brixton Hill, and allowed out daily on weekdays for work in a charity shop at the bottom of the hill.

The other main character is Steph, a slightly older woman who happens to encounter Rob one morning, when he is on his way to work, but before very long, it seems pretty obvious that this meeting was not completely accidental, and the way that her backstory is revealed means that it takes a while to infer that Rob has been targeted; the question is: why? Rob seems like a restrained and thoughtful man, but that doesn’t entirely explain why he has been serving quite a long sentence; also, Steph seems to be leading a double life, and she is very selective with the information she gives Rob, although the same must be said for Rob, who can’t believe his luck at first, given his enforced monastic existence. Unfortunately, when a situation seems too good to be true, invariably that is because it is.

The reason for Rob being targeted was not the one I thought it might be, which was quite gratifying, because the actual reason allowed for an acceptable resolution for Steph, despite Rob having to adjust his expectations. Reading this story was quite timely, coming off the back of the recent Jimmy McGovern television series, starring Sean Bean, called Time, which purports to be a very realistic depiction of the condition in British prisons in 2021, so it is to be hoped that it might encourage discussion around a more humanitarian attitude toward prison reform, notwithstanding the reactionary viewpoints at large in the current administration; coincidentally, but possibly synchronistically, I am currently reading a non-fiction book by a recently retired Metropolitan Police officer, which also expresses encouragingly humanitarian views on crime & punishment, so I think that one will also be worth reviewing. Brixton Hill isn’t a demanding read, but it is a workmanlike effort.

Book Review

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Bittersweet, The Clifford T. Ward Story, by Dave Cartwright

Initially I thought that, necessarily (for reasons, I hope, that should be self-evident) this review will be much shorter than my customary fiction reviews, but in fact, that’s not the case; nevertheless, I hope it will give you sufficient reason for seeking the book out, if for no other reason than to sustain interest in this enigmatic figure in late twentieth century music, and the music itself, of course. Music is one subject of interest, very precious & valuable to me, on which I try to avoid being prescriptive or judgmental, because it is very much a subjective choice, and therefore personal & unique to the individual. This book, like many such biographies, I think I am right in saying, is effectively a labour of love by the writer, who is a musician, rather than a biographer, but in addition to having known the subject himself, even if only tangentially, he has obviously spent a lot of time, to his credit, interviewing the family and friends of the subject, some of them mutual, and using documentary sources, some of which were provided by the subject himself.

The book, which is a modest (in terms of presentation), albeit professional product, has actually been published twice: the first time in 1999, when Ward himself was still alive; and the second edition, the one I read, was published in 2003, with the ISBN 1-901447-18-9. It was lent to me by a friend, who is also a singer, and I am very grateful for the opportunity to learn about the life & career of a singer who was known to me from his best-known output (i.e., the ones which got radio play), but that couldn’t prepare me for what I discovered about this complex, eccentric character who should have been better known, rather than more successful, because like many creatives in his position, success, such as it was, was something he found very difficult to deal with: to the extent of stubbornly and, it would seem, deliberately going out of his way to thwart. This also restricted the extent to which he would be known and his music appreciated, of course. The author, according to his ‘bio’ at the back of the book, has been [sic] a musician and songwriter for over thirty years, so he will be well versed in the gamut of interpersonal relationships in the music business, and the characters who inhabit it; many of whom, both well known and (to me) hitherto unknown, he mentions because of their association with CTW, instead of for reasons of tawdry self-aggrandisement. At the time of writing, Cartwright lived in the city of Worcester, and this is very much a book with the west midlands of England at its heart, and it has been the cradle of creativity for many British musicians of varying levels of influence & appreciation.

Clifford Thomas Ward was born in Stourport-on-Severn, 30 miles south west of Birmingham (“a popular day-trip excursion from the sombre, stiff-lipped canal towns of the Black Country … in the post-war boom of the 1950s”), on the 10th of February, 1944 (apparently simultaneously with the birth of PAYE income tax), the fifth child of Frank & Kathleen Ward. What surprised me most of all in this book, notwithstanding the revelations about Cliff’s complex (and often maddening) personality, from what little I knew from hearing his best known songs played on the radio latterly, courtesy of the now also-departed Terry Wogan, one of CTW’s champions, was that he retained his strong local accent, which he would accentuate, and also lapse into the vernacular dialect, when it suited him; often for comic effect, as he was known to have a sense of humour which encompassed the juvenile; but then again, his formative years were the period of ITMA and The Goons. When he was an adolescent, music was undergoing a seismic development, due in no small part to the influence of American artistes, churlishly oft-lamented by some, but unarguably irrevocably influential, and the teenage Cliff was drawn to music performance, like so many others in that first flush of realisation of independence, after decades of enforced deference to their elders; so he became a singer in several local beat combos, but he never learned to play the piano the traditional way, which caused no end of problems for conventionally-trained (either academically or experientially) musicians.

His career progression from there was difficult, to say the least; he soon realised that he preferred performing solo, predominantly his own songs, and this allowed him the creative freedom he craved. Unfortunately, he was such a perfectionist, but with a capricious streak that caused him to change his mind just when he had thought that a project was finished to an acceptable standard, that he ended up trying the patience of both musicians who worked with him, and management, of whom there were many! Through all this, his rock and possibly only faithful support was his wife, Pat, whom he married at a relatively young age; unfortunately, he chose not to always acknowledge that, but Pat seems to have accepted his philandering (which was almost entirely temperamental, rather than simply opportunist as a concomitant of his musician’s lifestyle) with a high degree of equanimity. His relationship with his four children was also sometimes difficult, and it is somewhat sad, although also indicative, that his response to his later medical condition wasn’t mitigated by his commendably considerate attitude towards his first daughter, Debbie, who was physically disabled at a young age.

Although, it has to be said, his lack of conventional success was due to a significant extent to his contrary nature, leading to all sorts of complications with writing & performing credits and consequent payments under a succession of different management, the direction of his career was inexorably downwards after his diagnosis of multiple sclerosis at the age of 40, in 1984. For as long as he could, he refused to accept submission to an illness that would physically (and, to some extent, indirectly, psychologically) disable him, and kill him at the tragically young age of 57. At first, he steadfastly ignored it (while it was actually possible), dismissing it as an ear infection that was affecting his balance & coordination, but before very long, it was impossible to conceal it, notwithstanding the scarcity of his live performances, even quite early in his career; from then on, the progression was irreversible, causing him to become a recluse, despite the efforts of many of his friends & supporters to convince him that acknowledging his condition would be widely accepted, but one (of many) thing he didn’t want was sympathy, because he would have seen that as a sign of weakness on his part.

Although this book is by no means ‘mainstream’, it does seem to be still available, published by Cherry Red Books, and this company has also reissued at least 4 compilations of CTW’s songs, some of which are re-worked demo tracks, but all of which are free of the “constraints … [of the] sheer bloody-mindedness of record companies”. As an independent publisher myself, I would encourage you to support this author, if you have any interest in the life, career and, most importantly, the music of this under-appreciated artiste. There is a biographical monograph in existence, by Mick Armitage; it is a web page on the Sheffield University site:, and there is also a Wikipedia page:

Book Review

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The Andromeda Evolution, by Daniel H. Wilson

Aside from the merit of the story itself, it might possibly be a tad cynical of me to feel slightly misled by the cover of the paperback version of this story which I read, but I think I can claim some justification: the story on which this one is based, The Andromeda Strain, must be quite well known by many people, especially those aficionados of fantasy fiction, and the name of the original author, Michael Crichton, is prominent in large capitals occupying the upper half of the front cover, so at a quick glance, one could be forgiven for thinking that this book was also written by this estimable author; not so, because a line of much smaller capitals at the bottom of the cover reveals the name of the actual author of this story.

There are two very obvious reasons for this device: the first being that Michael Crichton died in 2008, and the second that it would have been impossible to produce any sort of sequel that drew on the background of the first, but not with reference to the original author, without the inevitable risk of litigation. As it is, Crichton’s widow, Sherri (but not, interestingly, Wilson) mentions in the acknowledgments that the book is a collaboration with Wilson: “a celebration of Michael’s universe and a way to introduce him to those discovering his worlds for the first time.” As it is, Daniel H. Wilson, “a Cherokee citizen”, is an established author, with a PhD in Robotics from Carnegie Mellon University, as well as master’s degrees in Artificial Intelligence & Robotics, so he knows well of what he writes. It is a sobering thought that The Andromeda Strain was written over fifty years ago, but one of the fundamental principles on which this story is based is that the intelligence, such as it is, at the root of the infection which has developed from the original, which was extraterrestrial in origin, has no concern for time, on the scale with which humanity is familiar, but is content to wait as long as necessary for the appropriate circumstances, conducive to its apparently sinister plan, to occur.

Given that I can’t remember if I have ever read the original story, I can’t say if it conforms to the same artifice by which this one is written: it is written partly as a real-time narrative, and partly as a post-event report, drawing on visual, audio & written evidence (some of which is reproduced graphically to accompany the text), so at the outset, it is safe to assume, at the very least, that the world was not destroyed, which is apparently a very real possibility as the story unfolds. A structural anomaly has appeared in the impenetrable Amazon jungle of Brasil, on an exactly equatorial position. The ultra-secret team which was set up, in the aftermath of the first close shave for humanity, to monitor the globe for possible repetitions, and which has been operating covertly in comfortable, if unexciting regularity ever since, swings into action. A team of highly qualified experts is assembled from a pre-approved shortlist by the commanding officer, Major Rand Stern, who works at an American Air Force base, running Project Eternal Vigilance; there is also an operative aboard the International Space Station (ISS). This is Dr Sophie Kline, for whom space is actually a conducive environment, notwithstanding that her legs are permanently bound together, because from the time she was a toddler, she has suffered from a degenerative muscle disease. To assist her earlier studies, and current duties, she has a “unique” brain-computer interface which links her “mentally to the ISS computer systems – an almost telepathic connection.”

The other members of the team are Dr Nidhi Vedala, 42, team leader; Harold Odhiambo, 68, lead field scientist; Peng Wu, 37, Major in the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) Air Force, field scientist; and a late replacement, James Stone, 58, a roboticist. The last member was a substitute for a field medic, and he was the choice of Major Stern; he also happens to be the son of the scientist who stopped the spread of the Andromeda Strain 50 years earlier, so the team leader suspects favouritism, reason unknown. The team sets out to find the anomaly, but they are entering virgin jungle populated by previously uncontacted tribes, so to protect them from the potential danger, they are accompanied by a tough Brasilian American United States Army Special Forces Sergeant and a dozen indigenous frontiersmen. Naturally, not everything goes to plan, but to tell you any more would spoil the plot, so I will have to draw a veil over the story at this point! The paperback version was published in 2020 by HarperCollinsPublishers ltd., London, ISBN 978-0-00817299-2, and I found it a very engaging read, with a satisfying, if only slightly incredible, ending.

Book Review

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World Engines – Destroyer, by Stephen Baxter

I am very happy to state ‘upfront’ that, except for the ending, I have enjoyed reading this book more than any other I have read, of any genre, for a long time; that might seem like a contradiction, but my enjoyment of the main body of the narrative was not diminished unduly by the short final section, which was something of a disappointment. I can’t reveal any details of the final section, naturally wanting to avoid spoilers, but I felt that, after such a comprehensive narrative, in which Baxter has allowed time for the folds in the story to be revealed & explored, the ending could have been longer and more detailed: it was as if he knew a sequel would have been a better way to wrap the story up, or even develop it some more, but in the end, he couldn’t be bothered, or he ran out of steam, so it was just a question of tying up all the loose ends as cleanly as possible. Enough of that for now, though, because you need to know what the story is about! Ahead of the characters & the plot, what I enjoyed about the story was the elements of alternate universes and time periods, rather than time travel per se, but also the fact that the fantasy was very much rooted in the real world that we know, instead of a fictitious universe full of alien races & technology that is unknown to us and, given our current level of knowledge, impossible.

The story starts hundreds of years into earth’s future, the year 2469, precisely, when earth has suffered the climate catastrophe that is now widely predicted. A man is woken from a cryogenic sleep, and it appears that he is a space shuttle pilot from the early days of the 21st century; so, our own time now, but subtly different in the state of space technology (and the political history that has allowed this to be created). He is conversing with a form of artificial intelligence (AI), and he has been woken earlier than he might otherwise have been, given that he suffered a devastating accident which left him very badly injured, because a message has been received from Phobos, one of the satellites of Mars. The main problem, apart from some significant differences in the sequence of events that led up to the sender’s distress call is that it is impossible, because the sender couldn’t be there in the first place, because she is Emma Stoney, the wife of the pilot, Colonel Reid Malenfant, and her ship was lost when it reached Phobos. In this timeline, Mars was already colonised by 2005, and there was “some kind of puzzle with Phobos”, but it was easier to send a dedicated mission from Earth than to have the Mars base colonists do it from the ground. Unfortunately, the problem with Phobos is inextricably connected with an event known by everybody by the name The Destroyer, which is predicted with some accuracy it would seem, by the AIs, to occur in the year 3397, resulting in the destruction of Earth and very possibly also much of our solar system.

Malenfant is sent back to Earth from the moon, where he had been kept in cold storage, and he is assigned a humanoid AI with medical specialities, to monitor & supervise his recovery, and he befriends a young woman who is also assigned to him as a sort of cultural advisor. The Earth of the twenty-fifth century has a well-established resource based economy (the long-term result of a very surprising innovation by one of the best-known 20th century American politicians: and not who you might think!), as money is no longer necessary, apart from occasional exceptional circumstances; the population doesn’t have to work for a living, because all necessities for a comfortable life are freely available: the fact that the population is much reduced as a result of the foregoing upheavals is a positive contributory factor here. Malenfant is curious as to why the populace seems to accept unquestioningly the impending fate of Earth, albeit in the relatively far distant future, but when he speaks to the Earthbound AI, he discovers that it is distinctly worried (displaying a surprising level of human empathy), so he sets out to find out more about the problem with Phobos, which seems to be the root of the danger. Using by then outdated space technology, but with which he is familiar from his own experience, he manages to get to Phobos, which is where the story becomes distinctly strange……

This is about as much as I can reveal without spoiling the plot, but if you enjoy space fantasy fiction and, especially, if you have read any of Stephen Baxter’s other books, either solo or with Terry Pratchett, I am as sure as I can be that you will enjoy this one. The paperback version I read was published in 2020 by Gollancz, London, ISBN 978-1-473-22319-6. This is a book to really luxuriate in, and revel in the way the plot develops quickly enough to retain your interest, but not so quickly as to leave you gasping for breath. As I said, the ending seemed tantalisingly short, but I don’t think it leaves the way open for a sequel: should that be the case and I am wrong, however, I would be eager to read it!

Book Review

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Art of Death, by Laurence Anholt

This book, published in 2019 by Constable, London, ISBN 978-1-47212-999-4 [Paperback, 2020] is the first of what promises to be a series of books featuring a character called The Mindful Detective, which suggests that the stories are not going to be run-of-the-mill police procedurals. On the evidence of this first one, the series promises to feature an ‘odd couple’ detective pairing, which is by no means unknown, but the male detective in the pair is somewhat unusual in that, first & foremost, he is taking an extended period of leave, so he has to be subtly persuaded to join his colleague in this unusual murder case, but also that he has pursued a path of spiritual enlightenment to help his recovery from a distressing trauma. He is Detective Inspector Vincent Caine, and prior to his detachment from full time police responsibilities, he was already sufficiently different from the average detective to have acquired the sobriquet The Veggie Cop. His perplexed colleague is Detective Inspector Shantala [aka Shanti] Joyce, who is divorced, with an eight-year old son.

The story is set in Devon and, although that is not specifically my old stamping ground, it does roam about sufficiently from Cornwall in the west, via Somerset, to west Dorset in the east, for me to feel somewhat at home in the locations. Shanti has recently been transferred to Yeovil from London, after a humiliating failure in a recent case, so she is keen to repair her reputation by turning in a good result on her first murder case in her new ‘patch’. The murder of a “famously narcissistic performance artist”, whose public profile had slipped somewhat since her early controversies (and who might just bear a passing resemblance to Yoko Ono), is sufficiently perplexing to persuade Shanti to ask her subordinate Benno (Detective Sergeant Bennet) to recommend a suitable partner to assist her, hence DI Caine. The 43-year old artist, Kristal Havfruen, had been found immersed in a transparent tank of formaldehyde, when it was revealed at a public event in Devon; it was supposed to be a lifelike effigy of herself, something the artist made regularly, in the tank, but by the time it was realised that this was the real thing, it was, unfortunately, too late.

The banter from world-weary Shanti does seem slightly forced, as she initially tries to persuade Caine to relinquish the world of mindfulness & lack of urgency, and then keep him in a conventional police mindset to identify & apprehend the killer, but thankfully for me, it didn’t become irritating, so the contrast between the two different approaches worked quite well. There are also the beginnings of a “will they or won’t they” [i.e.: get together] scenario which will, undoubtedly, be developed in forthcoming stories. The author, Laurence Anholt has an interesting background, coming from a Dutch family with roots stretching back to Persia, and he also knows very well one of the locations in the book, Falmouth School of Art, having studied there, as well as the Royal Academy in London; also, his interests include meditation and walking on the Undercliff at Lyme Regis, another location in the story. The dénouement is not too much of a stretch, and it is certainly plausible, so this makes for a very pleasant and undemanding read: I will be quite happy to read any further adventures of The Mindful Detective and his gnomic utterances!

Book Review

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An Officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris

This is a weighty tome, running to 608 pages and, ordinarily, I might be deterred by this, but seeing the name of Robert Harris on the cover was all the incentive I needed to convince me to read it, having read a few of his books before now. Also, I was curious to discover how well he would handle a real historical situation, although he is no stranger to setting fiction in different time periods; this book concerns l’Affaire Dreyfus, or The Dreyfus Case, and I had vague recollections of having to apply myself to it in History lessons at school but hitherto, I wouldn’t have been able to present a cogent synopsis of the events that transpired. Given that these events actually happened, Harris’s freedom to create a fictional narrative was necessarily somewhat constrained, but he tells the story from the point of view of a fellow army officer, Marie-Georges Picquart, previously professor of topography at the École Militaire, now deputy to the head of the Third Department of the War Ministry (Operations & Training), who soon after Dreyfus’s conviction becomes promoted to Head of the Second Department, the Statistical Section, otherwise known as Intelligence; this arrangement had been in operation since Napoleon’s time.

Before his public military degradation (an essential part of his punishment, involving the removal of all his regimental uniform decorations & the ceremonial breaking of his sabre, in front of the first military parade of the Paris garrison) Dreyfus allegedly confessed to the captain guarding him that he did indeed pass documents to the Germans, but Picquart decides this is unreliable, which is helpful for him, as he had just given a verbal report to the Minister of War that Dreyfus continued to protest his innocence at the parade, in contravention of normal custom. Alfred Dreyfus, captain of the 14th Artillery Regiment, certified General Staff Officer & probationer of the army’s General Staff, was found guilty of delivering to a foreign power or to its agents in Paris in 1894 a certain number of secret and confidential documents concerning national defence; he was a Jew from Mulhouse, which was in the disputed Alsace Lorraine territory, now part of Germany, following the humiliating defeat by Germany in the 1870 Franco-German war; he also spoke with a slight, but discernible German accent, which was another thing, in addition to being identifiably Jewish, which counted against him. Unfortunately, at that time, institutional anti-Semitism was casually accepted as an attitude by the majority of the population, including Picquart himself.

In addition to the humiliation of the military degradation, Dreyfus’s penalty also included discharge from the army and deportation to a fortified enclosure for life: this was Devil’s Island, 15km from the coast of the penal colony at Cayenne (French Guiana, on the north east coast of South America); the island was reopened especially for Dreyfus, although there were many who called for the death penalty for what they considered to be a heinous crime, particularly in that time of heightened tension between France & Germany. It was once Picquart became established in his position as head of the Second Department that his suspicion begins to grow that Dreyfus has, indeed, been falsely accused, and that a despicable miscarriage of justice has occurred, especially when he learns that secrets are still being passed to the Germans so, albeit somewhat unwillingly at first, he makes it his mission to discover the truth, even if that means that Dreyfus is innocent; unfortunately, in the course of his investigations, he encounters obfuscation, opposition, and outright hostility from his superiors, but also, which proves to be more dangerous, for his career and even, potentially, his life, from his own close colleagues. He suffers many tribulations, threats, and even murder attempts during the course of the narrative, but he proves to be strong enough to survive them all, and the help he receives from a few valued friends, and later associates, a few of whom are as illustrious as the author Victor Hugo, whose publication J’Accuse eventually proves to be powerfully influential, contributes to his eventual success.

This is not to spoil the plot: the story is known, and can easily be researched, but where Harris succeeds is in weaving a plausible narrative for the character of Picquart. Harris himself says at the beginning of the book:

None of the characters in the pages that follow, not even the most minor, is wholly fictional, and almost all of what occurs, at least in some form, actually happened in real life. Naturally, however, in order to turn history into a novel, I have been obliged to simplify, to cut out some figures entirely, to dramatise, and to invent many personal details. In particular, Georges Picquart never wrote a secret account of the Dreyfus affair; nor did he place it in a bank vault in Geneva with instructions that it should remain sealed until a century after his death. But a novelist can imagine otherwise.

Robert Harris

I can highly recommend this book, and I don’t think you need to be an aficionado of history to be able to appreciate it: it’s a thumping good story, including a criminal conspiracy (which never seem to go out of fashion!) and it’s always good to be able to read a story which has any sort of resolution, especially a positive one. The paperback I read was published in 2014 by Arrow Books, London [part of the Penguin Random House Group], ISBN 978-0-09958-088-1.