Category Archives: Book review

Book twenty-four and Book twenty-five: The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath (Tales of Alderley) #Garner

The Tales of Alderley are children’s fantasy novels written in the 1950s and 60s by Alan Garner.  Despite critical success Garner actually grew to dislike his characters and the third book in the series wasn’t released until 2012!

Upon reading these books my first thought was how had I not read them when I was younger.  They are a fantastic introduction to the fantasy world for children and I can’t believe it has taken me so long to stumble across them.  Set in and around Macclesfield and Alderley Edge in Cheshire the books rely heavily on the folklore and landscape of the area and having grown up not too far from the area myself I definitely connected with the setting of the story.

So what is the story?

The Tales of Alderley tells the story of two children, Colin and Susan who are sent to stay with old family friends whilst their parents are overseas.  Living on a farm in a quiet rural area of Cheshire the children naturally begin to explore the fields and woods and in doing so come to realise that the world they know is shared with wizards, shape shifting witches, dwarves and other magical creatures.  The first book focuses on the lost Weirdstone of Brisingmen, key to protecting the world of humans and good magic from the evil spirit Nastrond.  When it falls into the wrong hands the power of dark side begins to grow and Colin and Susan find themselves caught up in a great quest to take back the stone and quell the forces of darkness once more.  In the second book some time has passed since the great battle and Colin and Susan have had no contact with the world of magic.  But times are changing and the elves need Susan and Colin’s help with an unknown evil power in their own lands.  In helping the elves, Susan is left vulnerable to other older dark powers roaming the Cheshire countryside.  A struggle between old and new magic is taking place and the children get caught very much in the middle of it.

You can’t help but smile when you begin this book and find the “obligatory” map laying out the key places of the story.  I read this book in a mere couple of days, and would find myself caught up reading chapter after chapter.  It is a natural page turner with fantastic chapter cliff endings keeping you reading on.  Whilst there is complexity to the story it is not overwhelming and at roughly 300 pages long they are considerably shorter than many fantasy novels making them perfectly accessible to children new to the genre.  I also found that having children as the central characters kept a good level of mystery and fantasy to the back story of characters, motivation  and plot development without becoming too complex or weighty.  But don’t be worried that in doing that it loses any depth or darkness, I’m sure if I had read this as a child I would have been hiding under the covers insisting that I was ok whilst secretly dreading turning the light off.

Whilst written for children I thoroughly enjoyed both of these books.  So whether you’re looking for a light fantasy read for yourself or something to get your children interested I would highly recommend these books.

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Book twenty-two: The Ipcress File #Deighton

Published in 1962 The Ipcress File is the first introduction to Len Deighton’s British Spy.  In the book he remains nameless but he was later christened Harry Palmer for the films starring Michael Caine.  Deighton took an interesting approach to his writing, the whole book is a report to the Minister of Defence and as such has references and notes supplementing the core story.

The novel begins with the reassignment of our protagonist from Military Intelligence to a small civilian unit headed up by a man called Dalby.  His first case is a missing British scientist, the latest of eight top priority personnel to disappear in a space of six weeks.  Their main suspect is a man codenamed Jay an intelligence broker believed to be working for the Soviets.  The missing scientist is tracked and a successful rescue mission executed.  As the investigation into Jay continues a safe house is raided, although abandoned a tape recording of distorted human voices is discovered.  Taking him away from the Jay investigation Dalby requests our protagonist joins him on a trip to observe an American nuclear weapons test in the Pacific.  Whilst there our protagonist learns there are suspicions that he is in fact a Soviet Spy, trusting in the wrong people he finds himself held and interrogated by the Americans before being handed over to the Hungarians.

Can he escape the Hungarian holding cell? Who was the real spy at the American test base? What was the significance of the voice recording? How deep into British government does the treachery go?

I could answer these questions but it would ruin the story so I’m going to leave my plot summary at that.

A huge commercial success when published The Ipcress File is often mentioned as one of the best spy novels of all time and whilst I do not disagree with that statement I must warn readers that this is a book that will require your full attention.  Similar to when I read John Le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Solider Spy I found myself having to re-read sections to ensure I fully understood what was taking place.  This is not a book to pick up if there are distractions or if you can’t commit a decent amount of time.  There is a lot of mystery and subterfuge within the book and I have to admit to getting a little lost at times.  But it is a credit to the characters and storyline that despite getting lost I wanted to continue and was happy to go back and clarify points to ensure I had a general idea of what was going on.   That said, I can completely understand how what I found enticing and mysterious another reader might find obtuse and just give up.

Without giving away the ending I have to say it was a little disappointing.  After such a complex plot I felt that things were tidied up far too quickly without a real fight.  And no matter how good the bulk of the book was if you’re left feeling a little deflated it becomes difficult to rave about.

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Book twenty-one: Strip Jack #Rankin

The 4th book in the Rebus series sees our leading character back in Edinburgh and in a new relationship with Dr Patience Atkin.  Rebus is without a doubt more comfortable in his native Edinburgh and in this book I would say he is at his most stable so far.  That said, it wouldn’t be Rebus if there weren’t dark clouds up ahead and doubts about his future, or more specifically his and Patience’s future.  Forever tied to his job and unable to put his love life first I found it amusing that a decision about whether to move in with Patience is weighted by whether he continues to be based at the Greater London Road police station or moved to St Leonards.  For those who’ve read subsequent or more recent Rebus books…well you know the outcome.

Of the Rebus books so far I would say Strip Jack is the more straight forward “who dun nit” with a little bit of Rebus intuition thrown in.  The book starts with a raid on an Edinburgh brothel, where amongst the many punters the police find a popular young MP Gregor Jack.  Despite the secrecy of the raid upon exiting the building the road is lined with press.  Something about this doesn’t sit well with Rebus, it just seems too lucky for the press to be there.  When Jack’s wife Elizabeth disappears Rebus can’t help but feel there is a bigger game at foot and starts to explore the social and personal lives of Gregor and Elizabeth Jack and their friends.  A disappearance becomes a murder.  There is pressure on the police to quickly solve it but Rebus  isn’t convinced they’re following the right line of enquiry.  True to himself and like a dog with a bone Rebus won’t give up.  Was Gregor Jack set up? Who can be trusted? Where was Elizabeth murdered? Step by step Rebus unravels the story in a way only he can.

Without becoming uncontrollable in twists and turns there are enough red herrings and sub-plots in Strip Jack to keep us all guessing.  The cast is larger than previous books, giving Rankin an opportunity to develop more colourful and varied characters and in doing so giving Rebus more reflections to compare and judge himself against.  With this book we are seeing a world evolve around the Inspector.  In subsequent correspondence Ian Rankin has spoken about his decision with this book to take Rebus out of a fictional Edinburgh and into a more real one.  In the short series so far geography and in particular Edinburgh and its surrounding areas have proven to be a key building block of the books.  These books more so than any other series I have read place a city at its heart.  Edinburgh is as much a reoccurring character as Brian Holmes, Gill Templer, “Farmer Watson” and in the later books Siobhan Clarke and “Big Ger Cafferty”.  Whether it is the return from London, or this decision to make Edinburgh more real, in Strip Jack Rebus feels more grounded and secure in his role at the station, his stage in life and quite possibly in his romantic life.

It goes without saying that I’m a huge fan of Ian Rankin’s work, I wouldn’t be re-reading the series from start if I wasn’t.  I really enjoyed this book and felt like you could feel Rankin getting to grips with his plot structure, character development and starting to bring multiple dimensions to his main man.  A review of the book I recently read seemed to lament on the absence of the gruff, self-loathing critical rebel we know from later books.  If you’re not reading the books in order I can understand why someone would question Rebus’ approach in this book but I would say to them, start at the beginning, travel with him, because only then can you truly understand the infuriating loner who wins the sympathy of readers time and time again.

 

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Book twenty: The Romanovs 1613-1918 #Montefiore

This a rare book review on this site as it’s not a fiction book.  I would like to say my interest in Russian history and in particular the Romanovs came from some intellectual observation about the growth of Russian power in the period 1613– 1918 and the similarities with the current government’s foreign policy.  But it didn’t.  In fact the first thing to catch my imagination were the rumours of the possible escape from members of the Cheka by Tsar Nicolas II’s youngest daughter Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna.  And yes, my knowledge of these rumours came first from the 20th Century Fox animated film of 1997.

Whilst it might not be the most highbrow introduction to Russian history it did peak my interest and helped make sense of the disco hit Rasputin by Boney M!

Great timing or sheer coincidence I found myself earlier in the year in a bookshop a few days after the end of the BBC adaption of War and Peace.  Having been enchanted by it and wanting to know more I was immediately drawn to Simon Sebag Montefiore’s latest book “The Romanovs”.  (The beautiful book cover is also a definitely draw – not that I judge books by their covers).  It’s taken me quite a few months to work my way through it but it has been a joy and incredibly informative.  Whilst I knew nothing of the growth of Mother Russia prior to reading this book I can now see similarities between President Putin and Russia’s historical leaders; a strong sense of state, a principle of absolute supremacy, a desire to have a strong role of the global stage but always mindful of the need for a strong military as everyone is or could be an enemy of the state.

The Romanovs remain the longest and most successful reigning family in modern times.  During their dynasty they ruled over q sixth of the world’s surface.  But how did they do it? And how did they lose it? In this book Montefiore introduces us to twenty tsars and tsarinas and a world of limitless power, empire-building, fierce rivalries, affairs of the heart and murder plots.

I have often struggled with non-fiction books in the past, finding them too academic focusing on the facts and missing a story-telling element.  Montefiore on the other hand has written a perfectly balanced book.  There is definitely not a shortage of facts, but I do feel his primary goal is to keep the flow of the story using footnotes to expand on the wider context and/or provide additional important facts. Whether this is a simple testament to the author’s ability or whether the Romanovs naturally lend themselves to stories it would be difficult to say without reading other books by Montefiore.

The books spans a long period and we are introduced to many characters both within and outside of the family.  I do not think it possible to remember every detail, name and position without reading more and committing significant time to study the period.  But, if you wish to have a general knowledge of the growth of the Romanov family and the role they played in the formation of Russia as we know it today then this is a very good starting point.

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Book nineteen: Shadowboxing with Bukowski #Kastin

Nicholas Kastinovich is a tormented young bookseller struggling to keep his bookstore afloat in the town of San Pedro.  Hassled by his father, ostracized more often than not by his wife his only joy comes from building his collection of books, imagining a brighter future with Katherine, a lady who visits the shop, and hoping for a clear indication of friendship from the infamous author Charles Bukowski, who lives in the area.

This is a book where our lead character is bared naked to the reader.  We are privy to his every thought, movement, irritation, desire and dream.   Narrated throughout by Kastinovich the story is honest and sad.  There is no glossing over depression, there is no hiding from the dispossessed feeling to the downtown area of San Pedro.  But somewhere within this melancholy there is hope and a belief that better things are still to come.

Any lover of books who has at one time or another found solace within the pages of a novel or even spent a day hidden away in a bookshop will immediately empathise with Kastinovich and understand why and how his books become such a lifeline for him.  The bookshop alone is his beacon for the brighter future.  When we are at our lowest, when we feel the world can offer us nothing, to a lover of books there is always a place to escape, there amongst the letters, words, paragraphs and chapters do we find our place.  Like a comfort blanket the words swirl around us and take us away from our misery.  Kastinovich is a character we can all identify with.

What I loved about this book is the honest and brutal narrative.  The style reminded me of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, one man pouring his heart out and over analysing life to us his captive audience.  I don’t know how other people read but for me characters have voices, I hear the tones and lilts within their speech as I read the book.  Kastinovich could only ever be voiced by one person in my opinion and that is David Sadaris.  Sadaris is well known for his autobiographical and self-deprecating humour which is a perfect match for our down trodden bookseller.

Whilst you feel for Kastinovich when things get tough there are also many times when you can’t help but will him to just grow some balls and take control of his situation.  There is a strong trait of self-pity in our leading character and I found myself in part waiting for the straw that would break the camel’s back and force him into action.

Ultimately very little happens in Shadowboxing with Bukowski – there is no great twist in the story, no climatic ending but there is a truth and openness.  On completing it I’m not moved like some books, my views have not been challenged and no thoughts have been provoked, but I’ve enjoyed spending time with Kastinovich.  It was sort of like having tea with a relative, it was hard going at times but you’re left feeling the other person got far more out of it than you and that’s ok.

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Book eighteen: The Secret Broker #Crane

On first appearance Luca Voss is nothing more than an international playboy.  A fan of fast cars, gadgets and beautiful women.  But, underneath lies a highly skilled and trained secret agent in the employ of the ancient and secretive Seven Families.  When two of Voss’ colleagues including the lead agent “The Broker” are murdered he sets out to find out what they were working on and fights against the clock to prevent an international emergency.

From the opening chapter, when a Japanese ship is commandeered by mercenaries, kidnapping their smuggled passengers, I was hooked.  I had read that this was a must read for fans of John le Carre.  I’m actually not a fan of his, having read a few of his books I find them very slow, intellectually confusing and I get lost in the secrets like a child in Hampton Court Maze.  The Secret Broker is none of these things, it is fast paced, full of twists and turns and quick reveals.  You can read the entire book in the time in take le Carre’s character to order a drink at the bar.   So, if you’re a fan of le Carre maybe give it a miss but if you’re a fan of more modern mystery filled thrillers by the likes of Steve Berry, Chris Kuzneski and Raymond Khoury then this has to go on your to read list.

As a debut novel The Secret Broker is well written, Crane has done his research and his portrayal of the international political climate whilst manipulated to make his story is believable.  Similarly the back story to the power of the Seven Families is intriguing but not ludicrous ensuring the conspiracy doesn’t take over the book.

There is still some development of characters to be done and I hope to see more depth and consistency should the characters continue in subsequent books.  Voss is highly dependent on his assistance and lover JJ.  Whilst her power of seduction is key to her role, I don’t think the “romping” scenes with Voss and other characters brings much to the book.  If anything it made it feel dated,  a scene written to titillate the older male reader maybe?

The Secret Broker will not test your intelligence nor stimulate debate but like a good action film if you’re willing to suspend reality for a short period it’s a fantastic thriller with enough twists and turns to keep you guessing till the end.

I hope to see more of Luca Voss and the Seven Families in the future.

You can buy the book here

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Book seventeen: Undertow #Heathcote

Carmen a freelance journalist is married to Tom a city lawyer.  Happily married they balance their London life with weekends in Norfolk spending time with Tom’s three children from his previous marriage to Laura.  A marriage broken up not by Carmen but by the beautiful Zena who drowned swimming in the sea.  Content with life and planning a family of their own, Carmen’s world is thrown into a tailspin when a chance meeting with a young man at the train station makes her question Tom’s involvement in Zena’s accident.  Can she trust Tom? Can she stay with him? Is she safe?

Undertow is a well-paced psychological thriller which kept me guessing up until the last few chapters.  It’s not a perfect plotline, there are some holes and some elements of it are hard to believe but these are minor things and in no way did they stop me wanting to read on.

I think part of my attraction to the book was that I really warmed to the character of Carmen and the complexity of her relationships.  With her mother, step mother and half-brother she is the rock, the person they all turn to and she has to be strong for them.  I really believe that when someone has to be so strong for others, masking any unhappiness in their own life it can leave them vulnerable.  In Carmen this vulnerability manifests itself in her personal relationships, she seems to be naturally attracted to the bad boys.  Prior to Tom she had one long-term relationship with Nick, an actor, we don’t know many details about their relationship but what is revealed is not good.  The only assumption I could make for why she stayed with him so long was that Carmen’s fear of being alone was possibly greater than her unhappiness and it took Nick cheating on her multiple times for her to find the strength to end it.

Carmen is a very capable character, she owns her own flat and has had a successful career yet she needs to be needed and rather than enjoy her new found independence after breaking away from Nick it is a relatively short period of time before she starts dating Tom.  Within months they marry and he moves into her flat.  When she is made redundant from her journalism job, Tom reassures her that she doesn’t need to work, that he earns enough money for them both and Carmen is convinced to become a stay at home freelance journalist. Without her realising it Tom is ensuring Carmen is dependent on him and that they live their lives according to his likes.

There is nothing likeable about the character of Tom.  He is a manifestation of everything bad about city workers.  Confident, smooth, manipulative, aggressive, dismissive of others, Tom likes to be in control.  In the early chapters Heathcote reveals Tom’s arrogant quick tempered natured and seeing this side of him makes it easy for us to believe that he may have killed his lover Zena.  As the story unfolds we are shown a different more vulnerable side, Tom is fiercely loyal to those he loves, carries tremendous guilt over his affair and its impact on his family and needs Carmen to balance him. And yet, I still couldn’t bring myself to like him, I couldn’t empathise with him and I actual felt he used his vulnerability to manipulate Carmen.

The book opens with Zena’s washed up body being found on the beach in Norfolk. A cold soulless death is portrayed, the vibrant life of a young girl taken by the heartless sea.  We then skip forward three years, having died in a tragic accident, Tom’s ex-lover has never given Carmen much cause for thought but when the accidental nature of her death is questioned the ghost of Zena very quickly gets under Carmen’s skin.  For Carmen there are too many unknowns, she realises she knows very little of relationship Tom had with Zena.  How did they meet, who pursued who, why did he leave Laura for her, was she happy with her new role of “step mum”, had she already set her sights on a new target?  In trying to get to the heart of the matter Carmen meets and talks with people from Zena’s past, each one talks of her beauty, she grasp of life and determination to get what she wanted.  She is without a doubt portrayed as a black widow using her beauty to enrapture men and manipulate situations for her gain.  The reader is given no opportunity to sympathise or feel sorry for Zena.  Carmen does not go down the rabbit hole to lay Zena to rest, to get justice for her, to allow her to rest in peace.  Carmen must solve the mystery to know who the man she married is.

Reading Undertow I felt like I was joining Carmen on a journey.  Once the seed of doubt about Tom’s involvement in Zena’s death has been planted it takes hold of Carmen and she will risk everything, including her relationship with Tom to find the truth.  Without giving away too much of the plot there are some fantastic twists and turns, I swung from believing Tom definitely did it, to it being an accident, to it being someone else multiple times.  But I did feel some elements of the story were weak in conviction.  Carmen’s brother meeting someone who had worked with Zena was a tenuous plot line, Zena’s mother welcoming Carmen in to her home and talking so openly about her daughter with a stranger was less than believable and the Family Liaison Officer who had worked the case discussing details just seemed implausible.  But these things can be forgiven and overlooked for plot development purposes.

My main gripe with the storyline is the gap after Carmen leaves Tom. Having given him every opportunity to tell her exactly what happened and feeling like the distance between her and her husband can’t be reconciled Carmen leaves Tom and goes to stay with her mother.  In the next chapter we have jumped forward two months, and they’re back together.  Whilst a conversation with Kieran, her step-brother, is used to explain the reconciliation it just felt lacking in substance.  She may not have thought him guilty but she did not believe his total innocence and left because she could not continue with the doubt and second guessing.  How are they reconciled without discussing that more? Carmen becomes stronger and stronger throughout this quest for truth and it is difficult to believe she would have so easily reunited with Tom.

At its heart Undertow is a who dunnit.  Whilst Tom is the main suspect Heathcote dangles other possible suspects, Zena’s spurned lovers, Tom’s ex-wife or maybe it simply was a tragic accident.  But, the book is also about a journey, sometimes we have to face the darkest moments in life and in people to realise what we want and what we need.  This book is not about finding peace for Zena, but is about finding peace for Carmen.

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