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.

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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The Vinyl Detective: Victory Disc, by Andrew Cartmel

This clever story is the third in the Vinyl Detective series; there is a fourth book, Flip Back, described at the time of publishing of this book as being scheduled for May 2019, and I am presuming it is part of the same series, given that each book has a title which is associated with vinyl records. The author, clearly—if his knowledge of the subjects, on display in this book—is a jazz & HiFi enthusiast, and as well as being a novelist, he is also a screenwriter [Midsomer Murders, Torchwood], script editor [Doctor Who], playwright and comic/graphic novel writer, and has toured as a standup comedian: so, very versatile, and his sense of humour comes across in this story, in an understated way. There are brief mentions of a previous adventure, in which the principal character, who narrates but whose name is not revealed in the narrative, and is known by his sobriquet of The Vinyl Detective, was in some danger, but he obviously survived to be involved in this story. The other main characters, who all live in London, are the narrator’s girlfriend Nevada, and their friends, Jordon [aka Tinkler], a fellow audiophile, and the woman he loves—“or at least lusted after”—Agatha DuBois-Kanes, known as Clean Head, because her head is shaved; plus two cats, Turquoise [aka Turk], and Fanny.

At the start of the story, Tinkler has bought a very large speaker cabinet; an exponential horn-loaded loudspeaker, to be specific, for his HiFi: unfortunately, he knew he would be away in France on holiday when it should be delivered, so he asked Clean Head to tell the Vinyl Detective & Nevada that he had arranged to have it delivered to them, somewhat accidentally-on-purpose neglecting to tell his amoureuse that said speaker was a “black behemoth”, taller than an upright piano, and deeper. While searching inside it for the necessary cables, which appeared to have originally been taped to the lip of the cabinet’s internal opening, they discover a very old shellac 78 rpm record, and this sets off a whole train of events involving survivors of the wartime Flare Path Orchestra, the British version of Glenn Miller’s Army Air Force Band, and the daughter of the band’s leader, Colonel ‘Lucky’ Lucian Honeyland; all the other members of that illustrious [but fictitious] band were in the Air Force, but Lucky was a flier, and a squadron commander, no less. Miss Honeyland commissions the Vinyl Detective and Nevada to find as many other extant records by the Flare Path Orchestra as they can, and in addition to the discs, she is more than happy to pay generously for anecdotes from surviving members as well, so the Vinyl Detective is very happy to help.

Since neither the narrator nor Nevada owns a car, they are accompanied by one or both of the other two of their friends; either in Tinkler’s Volvo, or Clean Head’s taxi; and during the research they variously undertake, they encounter a nubile young 18-year old woman, Opal Gadon, and a ferret-faced local history researcher, who is knowledgable about a tragic wartime murder case in Kent. Also: what is the story behind a psychedelically painted ‘hippie’ van, which seems to mysteriously follow them around? Incrementally, they discover surviving members of the Flare Path Orchestra, and a few more invaluable 78 records, but they also uncover another group which has an interest in the activities & politics of Lucky Honeyland which portrays him as a rather different character; especially in view of the popular and highly lucrative children’s books which he wrote: that being the case, where does this new evidence leave his daughter? Does this have any connection with the brutal wartime murder? This is quite a tangled tale, but as a result of the team’s investigations, the true story is revealed, and the dénouement is rather poignant: at least one person’s quest is resolved successfully, however. This is easy reading, and not unduly demanding, but none the less enjoyable for that, so I shall keep my eyes open for other entries in this series. The paperback I read was published in 2018 by Titan Books, London, ISBN 978-1-7832-9771-1.

Book Review

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Judas 62, by Charles Cumming

From the strapline on the front cover of this book—“He thought the mission was over. Now Moscow has him in their [sic] sights.”—and the photo of a Lada with an obviously eastern European, possibly Russian licence plate, the reader might be tempted to assume that the 62 in the book’s title refers to the year in which the story is set. Not so: the Judas referenced is a ‘hit list’, of Russian intelligence officers, military personnel and scientists living in the West who had been targeted by Moscow for reprisal assassinations, as in the case of the real life victims Skripal & Litvinenko, to name but two. The impression is given that the author, whose name is vaguely familiar [but I am not familiar with any of his other work] knows of what he writes: in his very brief biography at the front of the book, we are tantalised with the information that “Shortly after university, he was approached for recruitment by the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), an experience that inspired his first novel, A Spy by Nature.” So is it safe to assume that he was recruited? Presumably, he could tell us, but then he’d have to kill us…… not easy, if he is anticipating a numerous readership.

This book is the second in what promises to be some sort of a series [something I seem to be making a habit of: jumping in to a series mid-way, but given the random access nature of public library usage, inevitable], the previous one of which was called BOX88. The significance of this name might have been explained in the eponymous tome, but it isn’t here, other than to impart the information that it is “a top-secret Anglo-American spy agency” which, given the protectionist mentality of both countries when it comes to sharing secret intelligence, does seem slightly implausible, but for the sake of enjoying the story, it is necessary to suspend that disbelief: it is well worth it, however. We are also expected to swallow the fact of a young student, who had not yet graduated from university, being sent into the heart of post-Soviet Russia by BOX88 in the summer of 1993, to exfiltrate a biological weapons scientist, Yuri Aranov, who wanted to defect to the West. That being the case, this story is in three parts: the fairly lengthy narrative of the exfiltration, bookended by events in the present [2020], in which COVID is affecting everything: even the London location of the BOX88 headquarters.

When the protagonist, Lachlan Kite, who is now middle aged, but by now in a senior position in BOX88, finds out that his erstwhile cover name, Peter Galvin, is on the Judas list, assigned the number 62, hence the book’s name, naturally enough, he is concerned; the question is how this could have happened, given that there is an unwritten law in espionage that intelligence agencies do not target each others’ operatives for elimination; but also, Kite is worried for the safety of his erstwhile girlfriend, from whom he is now estranged, but who played a significant part in his covert operation in Russia in 1993. A sting operation is decided upon, to be played out in Dubai, but using better backup facilities than Kite was able to call upon previously. This is a substantial book, of nearly 500 pages, and although the infrastructure of BOX88 is not in the le Carré mould, the plotting & the characters are as believable as he might have used, so this is definitely a book which, for me, easily held my attention all the way through, and the possibility of a further story in the series is implied at the end, so I will certainly look out for another book, be it the forerunner or a sequel; and Cumming has written other series and standalone stories, so I would be happy to find any one of those. The paperback I read was published in 2022 [2021] by HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd., London, ISBN 978-0-0083-6350-5.

Book Review

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Triple Cross, by Tom Bradby

This book is the third episode in the Kate Henderson series, and it is a worthy member; the previous story, Double Agent, was reviewed here, so I won’t repeat the backstory for the latest story, or reveal the ending of the previous one, but certain inferences could be drawn from Kate’s situation at the beginning of this one. Kate has now left MI6, and the narrative commences with her on holiday in the south of France, with her two children, and her husband, Stuart, who is permitted to leave Russia temporarily; but not enter Britain, from which he is barred, on account of his earlier treachery. Her children continue to hope for a rapprochement between their parents and, surprisingly [for Kate, as much as for Fiona & Gus] this appears to be on the cards. Almost inevitably though, she becomes aware of being under surveillance while away from their gîte, and manages to lose the pursuit car with some arguably dangerous driving—especially given her passengers—but only to find on returning that the prime minister, James Ryan, has imperiously imposed a visit upon her, and she has no choice but to listen to what he has to say.

There is still a high-level mole in MI6, codenamed Dante, and Kate is to be tasked—all objections ignored—with leading an independent, but also highly secret, for obvious reasons, investigation into the agent’s identity; in the process, also, finally laying to rest any suspicions about the prime minister’s loyalty, which Kate thought had been conclusively proved by the inquiry in which she played a large part before she left the service. There are two prime suspects [although there are others including, awkwardly for Kate, of course: herself]: the current and the former head of SIS, known as C; the current C, Ian Granger, and the previous one, who was always kindly avuncular towards Kate, Sir Alan Brabazon. The links, both direct & indirect, which both of these highly qualified and very clever men had with the Russians, Igor & Mikhail Borodin, who played significant parts in the previous story, would need to be scrutinised in great detail before a decision could be reached. Kate works with a small team, one of whom is her close colleague, Julie Carmichael, but also two others over whose selection she has no choice: Shirley Grove, Ryan’s cabinet secretary [who oversaw Kate’s previous inquiry], and a young [and very hunky] assistant private secretary to Ryan, Callum Ellis.

As ever [or so we are led to believe] in the murky world of espionage and the security services, nothing can be taken at face value, and suspicious coincidences & occurrences which seem too neat or obvious must be considered extremely carefully, which leads Kate, understandably, to reëxamine all the circumstances & personal associations which led to the current situation. Before long, she realises that she has no choice but to make a trip into ‘the lion’s den’, Moscow, to obtain in person from a new agent some information which will finally & conclusively unmask Dante. Unsurprisingly, there are complications, but to reveal any more would spoil the plot: suffice to say that the dénouement, although unexpected, is conclusive, whilst leaving the door open for further instalments in the series, towards which I look forward with anticipation. The Penguin paperback I read was published in 2022 [2021] by Bantam Press, an imprint of Transworld Publishers, London, ISBN 978-0-5521-7786-3.

Book Review

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The Bourne Treachery, by Brian Freeman

Strictly speaking, this is Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Treachery, because the original author has to be credited when a character’s arc is continued; this is Freeman’s second novel in this canon, and an author called Eric Van Lustbader has also written twelve [count them!], in addition to the, by comparison somewhat paltry, three originals. They all have a noun associated with the character’s name, so they are surely soon going to run out of credible options? I suppose we could have The Bourne Tea Party, but I digress 😉 This one was published last year, so Covid is known about, but it doesn’t play a significant rôle in the plot. These stories are pulp, to a large extent, and if you’ve seen any of the films [given that this is a very profitable franchise (aka money-making machine)] you know pretty much what to expect, but as long as you can accept some questionable ethics when justice is dispensed, they make reasonably enjoyable, albeit undemanding reading.

If you’re not familiar with the character, Jason Bourne is a skilled assassin who works for a highly secret [aren’t they all?] ’Black Ops’ organisation, called Treadstone, funded by the American government, but ultimately deniable, and it is tasked with keeping “The Free World” [i.e., America] safe, which generally involves killing people indiscriminately, if they are perceived as presenting a credible threat. Incidentally, there has recently been a television series called Treadstone, which purported to present the organisation’s origin, but I found it very confusing, the way it bounced back & forth in time, and it was difficult to keep track of all the characters, of which there were many, so I gave up on it after about half a dozen episodes. At some point in Bourne’s past, he has suffered an injury or a medical procedure which has robbed him of his long-term memory, which is a very useful plot device, because it means that characters from his past can be introduced, and he won’t know them until it’s possibly too late; although we should know by now that Bourne is a character who can’t be written off too quickly.

At the beginning of this story, Bourne is living in Paris, still unclear about much of his past, and his habits are too regular, but it is almost as if he is tempting possible assassins; Treadstone, from which he is estranged, being one of the candidates; to come after him. He does keep in touch with a particular Treadstone agent though, and through Nash Rollins he learns that his particular skill-set is wanted to neutralise a threat to one of the speakers at the forthcoming annual meeting of the World Trade Organisation in London. The threat comes from a highly skilled & dangerous assassin called Lennon, who three years ago was responsible for murdering a turncoat ex-KGB man named Kotov, whom Bourne & his erstwhile partner and lover, Nova, were exfiltrating from Tallinn, except that the ferry he was travelling on was blown up, killing many innocent people in addition to the target. This action is described in a prologue; Lennon also seems to know an uncomfortable amount of personal information about Bourne himself.

Most of the action which follows is set in London [thankfully, not London, England], and there is even a section located in a north-east coast town I know very well: Whitby! There is the obligatory Dracula reference, of course, but it is only really in passing, and it doesn’t have any bearing on the story; being an actor of ‘a certain age’, I can see that I would be just right for one of the minor characters there, were this episode to make it to the big screen [must call my agent………]. Not a classic of English literature, by any standards, but a good & engaging yarn, so if you like this sort of scenario, I would quite happily recommend this entry in the Bourne canon. The paperback I read was published in 2022 [2021] by Head of Zeus Ltd., part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, ISBN 978-1-7895-4658-3.

Book Review

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Silverview, by John le Carré

This is the “last complete masterwork from the greatest chronicler of our age”, according to the reliably hyperbolic blurb on the inside front cover, and it was published posthumously; this also implies that there was, or were, other works of greater or lesser merit in preparation at the time of his death on 12 December 2020. This is a relatively slight volume of 208 pages, and the eponymous Silverview is a “big house on the edge of town”; the town being an anonymous “small English [east Anglian] seaside town.” The protagonist is the thirty-something Julian Lawndsley, who has relinquished his former life as a “high-flying” City financier for the more cerebral vocation of owing a bookshop. At the beginning of the story, we encounter Lily, who has an infant son in a pushchair, delivering a secret written message to a house in South Audley Street, London, on behalf of her dying mother; the recipient of the message, Proctor, is presumably a member of the British security service. There is some doubt as to Lily’s relationship with her father, and it is not until some time after Julian has encountered the enigmatic Edward Avon in his bookshop that we are able to make the connection with Lily & her mother, Deborah: she & Edward reside at Silverview.

Avon affects English mannerisms, but Julian is immediately aware that this could be a cover for a foreign origin—and, indeed, he is revealed to be of Polish extraction, despite referring to himself as “a British mongrel, retired, a former academic of no merit and one of life’s odd-job men.” Avon persuades Julian to turn his shop’s basement into a reading room, to be called The Republic of Literature, and Avon volunteers his services to trawl the internet for rare, valuable, and possibly even abstruse volumes, for which a computer will be required: Julian is more than happy to oblige. After making the acquaintance of one of his fellow shop-keepers, Celia, he learns that Avon might possibly also have acted as a handler for some, or all, of his wife’s valuable china collection. We also learn more about Stewart Proctor, who is, indeed, in the security service, MI6 to be specific, and he has served in several locations abroad with his wife, also an operative, but who is now actively studying archaeology.

It becomes apparent that Edward Avon is under investigation, but understandably this is kept very low-key, and Proctor only introduces himself to Julian after some protracted internal debate. The element of complication in the situation is that Avon’s wife Deborah was also the Service’s star Middle East analyst until debilitated by her illness; the house belonged to her father, who was active in the Service in the second world war, and it had communications connections with the local Air Force base: these connections are still active with a more recent strategic base, although Deborah has requested that these be severed because her condition is terminal. This is about as much as can be revealed here, but it is worth noting that le Carré focuses on older operatives in this story; also, to some extent, whether Proctor considers Avon, despite his possible unreliability, or even explicit treachery, to be a better man than he, as a result of all the troubles he has survived, which Proctor has managed to avoid? Proctor’s reservations about the Service also very possibly manifest David Cornwell’s own views: I am fairly certain that he has expressed his ambivalence in interviews over the years. This is possibly a somewhat low-key swan-song; although le Carré very possibly hoped to be able to continue working for some more years, not anticipating his demise; but it is nevertheless a competent and, consequently, enjoyable completion of his canon, so I have no reservations in recommending it. The hardback I read was published in 2021 by Penguin Viking, ISBN 978-0-241-55006-9.