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 Review

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Termination Shock, by Neal Stephenson

If this book, and the previous one by the same author which I have read, Cryptonomicon,  [albeit a much later book in his canon] are representative, then they are all [13] very long indeed; this one runs to 697 [!] pages, and the font used for the text is small—possibly 12pt—but I can genuinely say that this was a book I really didn’t want to end. It will probably be classified as SciFi but, given that it has been written within the last couple of years, on recent evidence, I would describe it as prescient, because IMHO one doesn’t have to be a tree-hugging, panicking environmentalist to discern that the scenario presented here is all too plausible; even possible—I hope against hope it is not probable. It is the near future; although the exact year is not specified, but COVID-27 is mentioned [subsequent to COVID-23 and our by-now familiar COVID-19], so it could be in the region of ten years hence, at least, and the climate has significantly worsened. The explanation for the book’s title will follow some further background information.

There are several different strands to the narrative, starting in different locations, but the reason for that will soon become clear. I had to put my republican sentiments into suspended animation for the duration of this story but, thankfully, that wasn’t too difficult, despite one of the main characters being the fictitious queen of the Netherlands, Frederika Mathilda Louisa Saskia, although the Dutch ‘royal’ family is famously low-maintenance; Saskia, as she prefers to be known by those close to her, is also a likeable person [but that has no bearing on my principles, as in the British situation]. A Texan billionaire, T.R. Schmidt [aka McHooligan, the publicly marketed persona for his chain of truck stops] has invited a somewhat disparate group of prominent persons to a conference in Houston, to discuss the climate crisis, and Saskia is one of these; although her constitutional inability to act directly & unilaterally is explained in great detail [as is much else: one of the commendable aspects of Stephenson’s narratives]. Unfortunately, her incoming self-piloted jet aeroplane crashes on landing at Waco airport; Houston being unavailable as a result of the intense heat; but she, and her minimal entourage survive, albeit with a few non life-threatening injuries, to continue the journey, and during her rescue from the cause of the crash, feral swine [and, randomly, although not much more, an alligator], she encounters another main character in the story: Rufus [Red] Grant, a self-employed operator trading under the name FERAL SWINE MITIGATION SERVICES.

Another character, who initially also seems like a rather random inclusion, is a young Canadian man by the name of Deep, although he generally goes by the nickname of Laks, which is derived from the salmon he catches for a living; when he can’t do that in his native British Columbia, out of season, he works as a welder. Initially, these aspects of his character, in addition to his high level of fitness and toned physique, and the traditional Indian martial arts he enjoys practising because of his Indian heritage, don’t seem to connect with the rest of the narrative, but slowly & surely, through the literal, as well as emotional journey he undertakes, the author draws these loose strands together, and they later connect very satisfactorily.

Schmidt’s proposal, which is demonstrated after all the scrupulously polite & accommodating preliminaries, is to spread the sulphur which he has available in vast quantities into the upper atmosphere, providing a global reflective blanket to mitigate the greenhouse effect of the sun, which has been exacerbated by human-produced carbon dioxide. He is going to do this unilaterally and, it transpires, has already started doing it [the technical details are quite involved, so better absorbed from the narrative]; he hopes to also encourage other strategically placed nations to do the same, hence the conference, although the invitees are not necessarily the most geographically, or politically, obvious. Hence the jeopardy in the story: a scheme such as this has been proposed in similar forms previously, but a scientific consensus was never reached so, with a nod to his location, Schmidt decided that he must take the metaphorical bull by the horns and use his money for humanity’s benefit. Unfortunately, not all of humanity would be similarly benefited, and nations such as China & India, which were not invited, are significantly concerned, for political as well as geo-climatic reasons.

The title is the name of what is generally reckoned [using the climatic data currently available to the scientists] will happen if climate-mitigating measures, such as that proposed, and already put into action by Schmidt, are precipitately terminated: the climate would go into a sort of shock, from which it might never recover; or, at least, not in a way which would be conducive to long-term survival of the human race. For several different reasons, I cannot recommend this book highly enough: whether it would convince waverers, or hardline climate change sceptics, of the need for rapid & decisive climate mitigating action is debatable, but aside from the politics, it’s a damn good and well-written story—I would also recommend Cryptonomicon, if you have any interest at all in cryptography, but the history aspect of it is also illuminating, and written in a very approachable way. The [large!] paperback I read was published in 2022 [2021] by the Borough Press, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd., London, ISBN 978-0-0084-0440-6.

Book Review

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No Time Like The Future, by Michael J. Fox

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

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

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

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