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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-three: London Lies Beneath #Duffy

Inspired by real events, this is the story of three friends, and a tragedy that will change them forever.  Set in the working class streets of Walworth South London in the early 1900s the book concentrates on Tom, Jimmy, Itzhak and their families.

If you’re familiar with London and in particular the Walworth area this book is so much more than a story of friendship, it is a story of south London, a history of the streets and the families that made it such a complex place.  Despite progression over the last 100 years or so this book is an echo of life now, families crammed into small houses, parents working all hours to provide for their families, children with dreams of doing something different, not following the same path as their parents, making more of their life, seeing more, doing more, having adventures beyond the streets of Walworth.  Aspirations every child should have and be encouraged to have.

This is the first book I’ve read by Stella Duffy and I’ll certainly be looking up some of her older work.  She is a beautiful writer, crafting the world her characters live in and opening each of them up to us so that we connect with their inner soul.  This book is nothing without the people, although there is one major tragedy towards the end of the book within the rest of it very little happens and yet Duffy keeps you entranced.  The depth and history given to her characters is fantastic and slowly throughout the book she opens up them up to us, sharing their insecurities with us, allowing us to see the last troubling worries before they sleep and the hope and optimism for the future that wakes them each morning.

Life for the families of Walworth was hard, working 6 days a week most of the time, always wondering if they had earned enough to put food on the table, clothe the children, educate them.  The struggles of the families contrasting with the dreams of the boys is an important part of this story which is handled very well by Duffy.  It would have been easy to over dramatize the poverty but she successfully paints a realistic picture whilst also showing us the wealth held within the families.  Close-knit communities where children are cherished and raised by all, where no one goes without in a time of tragedy, where there is always a chair by a warm fire and someone to share the burden.

At the heart of the book are Tom, Jimmy and Itzhak, best friends and partners in crime. When not in school or helping with work and household chores the boys are found exploring south London.  From Clapham to Nunhead every street, park and waterside path offers them a new world to explore.  Always looking for the next adventure the boys are over the moon when a new Scout troop is established in Walworth and they’re given permission to join.  Each boy finds his own strength through the scouts, knot tying, map making, swimming, and leadership and together they prepare to embark on the biggest adventure of their young life a boat trip along the Thames to a summer scout camp in Sheppey.  A Thames boat trip might not seem like much of an adventure to a reader today but when you picture the river of the time, a bustling waterway filled with cargo ships and passenger ships taking people to unimaginable lands, a vast stretch of water which the boys would have rarely crossed never mind travelled upon then you can begin to understand the caution and worry of their parents and the sheer excitement of the boys.

The lives of the people of Walworth were forever changed after the boat trip.  In today’s age we are touched, more often than we’d like, by tragedies that impact entire communities and Duffy details wonderfully the conflict between a families private grief and a community’s need to mourn and commemorate.

This a slow moving book with wonderful stories within the story and it is an absolute pleasure to spend time amongst the families of Walworth.

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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 five: Hide and Seek #Rankin

A junkie is found dead in a squat on one of Edinburgh’s sink estates. Laid out in a cross-like position, there are candles placed around him and a five-pointed star has been painted on the living room wall. Something about the case just doesn’t make sense to Rebus and as he begins his investigation it leads him to a dark and sleazy underworld of Edinburgh.

For this blog, rather than review the book I wanted to share the Introduction by Ian Rankin which is included in the 2008 re-publication of the book. I find it very interesting to hear an author speak about their work, their inspirations, influences and growth. In this introduction Rankin discusses things that influenced the writing of Hide and Seek, the interesting part being the influences he has only become aware of on reflection, for example the impact of his time spent living in London on his writing. It is also interesting to hear about how Rebus has grown and changed for Rankin. Across the years and many books Rankin has refined his main character, although refined is probably the wrong word as he remains rough around the edges.

I hope you enjoy reading Rankin’s thoughts as much I did.

Hide and Seek

An Introduction by Ian Rankin

A year or two after Hide and Seek was published, there was a break-in at Edinburgh’s police headquarters. Among the items rumoured to have been stolen was a list of names, the names of men prominent in Edinburgh society. Allegations had been made against these men, allegations that they had been using rent boys, leaving themselves open to blackmail, and a police inquiry had been instituted. There were enough similarities between the real-life case and aspects of my novel that people stopped me in the street to ask how I’d know so much so soon. I would explain that my sources had to be protected.

There were no sources, of course: I’d made the story up.

I saw Hide and Seek very much as a companion piece to Knots and Crosses. Reviewers had failed to pick up on the earlier book’s use of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde as a template. I was determined to try once more to drag Stevenson’s story back to its natural home of Edinburgh and to update the theme for a modern-day audience. In fact, the book’s eventual working title was ‘Hyde and Seek’, but only after I’d ditched ‘Dead Beat’ (at the behest of my agent, to whom the book was eventually dedicated). The final version of Hide and Seek opens with a quote from Jekyll and Hyde and goes on to use quotes from Stevenson’s book at the opening of each section. Moreover, I lifted many of the character names directly from Stevenson’s masterpiece – Enfield, Poole, Carew, Lanyon – while Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde provides Detective Inspector Rebus with his night-time reading, when he’s not busy mulling over his latest case.

Not that I was keen for readers to get the connection or anything…

Between Knots and Crosses and the events of Hide and Seek, Rebus has been promoted from detective sergeant – his one and only promotion in the series so far. Other changes have taken place. Rebus has a new sidekick called Brian Holmes (a none-too-subtle nod to another Edinburgh writer, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle). And Edinburgh is changing, too, as new money moves in. The book was written in 1988 and 1989. By then, I was living in London, at the height of Thatcherism. Red braces and Moet were all the rage. In some wine bars, rising property values seemed to be the only currency of conversation. I’d been living in London a couple of years and not making much of a go of it. My wife and I lived in a maisonette in Tottenham, and have failed to find full-time writing a lucrative enough proposition, I was working as a magazine journalist in Crystal Palace, entailing a three-hour commute each weekday. I seemed to be surrounded by people more successful than me, people with fat salaries or five-figure publishing deals. My situation at the time seem to me now to explain the bitted edge to much of the writing in Hide and Seek, and is reflected in Brian Holmes’s memories of his few student months in London (‘a season spent in hell’, as he himself remembers it).

The novel did not come hard on the heels of Knots and Crosses: there had been two other novels in between. One was a spy adventure, Watchman; the other, Westwind, was my attempt at a techno-thriller. The latter, however, was struggling to find a publisher of any kind, which the former had sold a scant five hundred copies in hardcover. Hide and Seek was actually begun in the summer of 1988, but failed to make much headway. My job got in the way, as did attempts to turn my first novel, The Flood, into a useable screenplay, and various frustrating efforts to get work as a scriptwriter on The Bill. I was also reviewing books most weeks for a new broadsheet called Scotland on Sunday.

One other reason why I may have held back on a second Rebus novel: plans had been afoot to film the first one, with Leslie Grantham (Dirty Den in EastEnders) as Rebus. This plan eventually fell through in January 1989. My guess had been than Grantham would want the action of Knots and Crosses relocated to London. Now that he would not be taking Rebus to the screen, I felt free to write a second Edinburgh-based adventure for my character. The final draught of the book was completed in May.

It’s a less overwrought work than its predecessor, the prose leaner, though the Rebus we meet is still not the fully formed character of later books. For one thing, he’s still too well-read quoting from Walt Whitman – someone I’d studied at university but of whom Rebus couldn’t really be expected to have had knowledge.   He also quotes from the Romantic poets and listens to Radio 3 in his car. On his hi-fi at home, there’s jazz, but also The Beatles’ White Album (I’d soon have him preferring the Stones). My own time as a hi-fi journalist is reflected in the expensive Linn turntable owned by one character, while a scene inside the library at the University of Edinburgh takes Holmes to the fifth floor, which I’d haunted during my three years as a postgraduate student.

There are other literary references in the book: to James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner and to the poet George MacBeth, who had shared a writers’ retreat with me a couple of years before. A character from The Flood pops up in the first few pages, and Rebus and Holmes both visit the west-central Fife, where the inspector and I grew up. It’s noticeable to me now that Rebus in particular is not as cynical about his old hunting ground as he was when paying his respects in Knots and Crosses. Maybe enough of my spleen had been vented. London was the enemy now – London, and the harsh materialism I seemed to have found there.

Besides, I had many happy memories of my childhood, memories rekindled by the death of my father in February 1990, while I was in the midst of proofreading Hide and Seek. By the time the book was ready for publication, Miranda and I had decidedly had enough of London and Mrs Thatcher. We were making plans to live in France, praying that my writing would start earning enough to turn the dream into a reality. And once we’d left Tottenham behind,    I’d be able to put some of my own feelings about the capital into words, by taking John Rebus to London on a case.

A case that would become Tooth and Nail.

A final word to the wise: there’s a question of sorts left hanging at the end of Hide and Seek. The curious will find an answer – also of sorts – at the end of chapter four of Resurrection Men. I only realised it was there when I reread the book recently. Don’t say I never share anything…


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