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 Review

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Dead at First Sight, by Peter James

This story actually precedes one I have previously reviewed here, Left You Dead, so one major decision taken by Detective Superintendent Roy Grace towards the end of this narrative might suggest a certain course of events which appears not to have been followed, according to the situation in which Grace & his entourage find themselves in the later story; having said that, this possible disjunction should not deter anyone, especially ‘fans’ of the Grace canon, from reading either story. Grace is, for the most part, ‘in a good place’, apart from the regular [and unwelcome] monitoring of his activity by his superior, ACC Cassian Pewe which, although he is generally able to ignore it, nevertheless forms an irritating background buzz to his work environment.

This story represents a return to a subject which James has tackled before: online dating, in Want You Dead; but in this one, the focus of the story is the money-extraction scams which heinous criminal organisations perpetrate, targeting lonely individuals who sign up to online dating agencies, hoping to find a partner, generally after a previous partner has died, or otherwise left their lives, so the majority of them tend to be in an older age group and, unfortunately, not always as discerning as they should be, when it comes to ‘hard-luck’ stories spun by ostensibly genuine [and obviously physically attractive, of course, going by their profile photographs] individuals who are evidently very much in love with their targets, but desperately in need of large amounts of cash, for various reasons. These schemes normally work very efficiently, fleecing the poor victims with no chance of recompense, especially as the criminal organisations tend to be based overseas, outside British legal jurisdiction, but in the story, two of the perpetrators, albeit originating from Ghana, are actually based on Grace’s ‘patch’, in Brighton.

Two women who have become suspicious about the identity of their online amours, have ended up dead: one in Germany, and the other one in Brighton; the latter one has been in contact with a local gay motivational speaker, telling him that his image has been found on several online profiles, of which he was completely unaware—this leads him to become dangerously involved in the situation. Into this mix is thrown a returning character, an American contract killer, known as “Tooth”, with whom Grace has previously come into contact, but despite being injured, managed to avoid capture & arrest by Grace. Tooth is under contract to a crime boss based in Jersey, Channel Islands, although the relationship is fractious, to say the least, and Tooth is seriously considering retirement upon completion of this contract.

As should be apparent from the foregoing, because of the number of different characters in this narrative, there are several different strands operating concurrently, but as ever, James manages to keep the action flowing smoothly, without becoming bogged down in detail, but the reader can be assured that all the procedural details have been meticulously researched, so are undoubtedly accurate. The dénouement is not reached without any hitches, but the conclusion is satisfying, and should leave the reader eager to read further instalments, ideally in sequence, but that should not necessarily be a priority. The paperback I read was published in 2019, by Pan Books, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, ISBN 978-1-5098-1641-5; as usual, two very helpful maps of Brighton, and the surrounding area of Sussex, are printed at the front of the book, before the commencement of the story.