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Alone in the Dark…

12:55, 29 November 2020

The first case for Harry Bosch since relinquishing his LAPD detective’s badge a year ago and a sense that the series’ readers are being prepared for a new direction, but not yet. Even shorn of the most potent symbol of his personal mission, this story confirms the fire energizing ‘Mr’ Bosch isn’t even damped down, never mind extinguished. Indeed, retirement has provided Bosch with that most precious commodity – time and when an ex-colleague, Lawton Cross, gives him a call, Bosch is soon back on the job. 

As noted recently in “A Darkness More Than Night”, the main character is dogged in his pursuit of justice and unsolved/unresolved cases are mentally archived and copies of the investigation records retained, pending further consideration. Five years earlier, Bosch, Kiz Rider and Jerry Edgar were the first responders to the murder of a production assistant from a movie company. However, when a $2m dollar heist occurs on a film set just a few days later, the case is transferred to the Robbery Homicide Division. It galled Bosch that the young woman’s life wasn’t considered important until the money was stolen. In any event the RHD investigation went nowhere and when the two detectives involved were the victims of a bar shooting, the case was shunted onto the unsolved pile. The incident had left Lawton Cross in a wheelchair, his partner dead. 

There was also the spectre of a missing FBI agent linked to the case bringing more echoes from the past hoving into view. Special Agent Roy Lindell (also appeared in ‘Trunk Music’ and ‘Angels Flight’) knows the value of Bosch’s involvement and runs interference for him, while former prosecutor, Janis Langwiser (‘Angels Flight’ and ‘A Darkness More Than Night’) provides some heavyweight legal cover. 

Since Bosch ‘pulled the pin’ his former partner, Kiz Rider, traded a career in the RHD for the greasy pole of the Chief’s Department, angered by his decision to walk away. But, though Rider is sent to warn him off, Bosch has never been one to surrender in the face of authority and well-versed in the respective agency processes and scare tactics, he’s fleet of foot enough to duck and weave past the pitfalls devised by the LAPD and the Feds. 

Bosch’s kryptonite remains his estranged wife and former FBI agent, Eleanor Wish. Settled in Las Vegas and making a living as a professional poker player, the intimate bond between the couple remains, but neither can compromise and risk their respective vulnerability. It’s a gnawing sensation for Bosch, the loss of the light in his life and an interesting diversion for the reader from the intricate plot of the investigation. Bosch also reflects on the very different relationship between Lawton and Danielle Cross, but they are equally casualties of circumstance, their lives marred by a shared history, from which there can be no escape. Amid the familiar thrill of Bosch’s relentless pursuit of justice, in this book the author poignantly captures the sense of multiple losses weighing on the main character, but the very satisfying denouement also hints at a potential source of salvation.

The story arcs that link characters intermittently across the series continue to demonstrate a remarkable feat of storytelling, but the gradual exposure of Harry Bosch, warts and all and the ongoing description of Los Angeles and Las Vegas, through his eyes, remains compelling, even as I move inexorably towards Book 10 in the series (‘The Narrows’). 

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
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Marooned in Venice…

12:15 29 November 2020

Book 8 in the Harry Bosch series and the enigmatic main character is once again having a bit of a time of it. When the Deputy Chief describes one of his officers as a “shit magnet”, even the broad shoulders of Detective Bosch might feel the urge to sag a little, but as we have learned in the series thus far, above all Bosch is a resilient guy. 

Just as well! After the frenetic, testosterone-steeped rutting of Harry Bosch and Terry McCaleb in “A Darkness More Than Night”, this book is, by comparison, a far more reflective, sombre affair. Notwithstanding child murder cases are the worst kind in Bosch’s view (“they hollowed you out”), this story also sees the main character beset by female colleagues and needing to wrestle emotionally with a former lover (coroner, Teresa Corazon) and former partner (Kiz Rider), current boss (Lt Grace Bilets), and a potential new romantic interest (Patrolwoman Julia Brasher). The plot also maroons Bosch outside of his comfort zone and offers the reader a glimpse of another side of the undistilled macho hero.

The book’s dramatic title was coined by an archaeologist for a mundane method of applying a grid to the crime scene. Still, the attendant challenges of addressing historic crimes are interesting and the need for a forensic anthropologist is a first for the series. The case also acknowledges (more than others) the tough miles that often underpin the investigative journey, with Bosch poring over microfiche records, sifting information, following leads.

One of the consistent elements of the series that this reader especially enjoys is the description of the locality through the eyes of Bosch. Never having been to California, the imagery evoked by the author fascinates and informs in equal measure, on this occasion introducing the reader to Venice, stateside. The running sore that is the relationship between Bosch and Deputy Chief Irving is also further irritated, but arguably the detective’s most redeeming quality is his insistence on keeping the department honest and not giving way to expedience. However, as he once more rails against departmental politics, in this episode Bosch discovers for the first time that the ‘cage’ of his job did not provide the safe haven he supposed and his allegiance to the LAPD must be evaluated anew.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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Fury and the Fae

21:45 PM, 21 November 2020

This was my first book by indie author Will O’Shire and Book 1 of the ‘Fae Awakening’ series seemed like a logical start point. The author especially enjoys writing in the urban fantasy genre and in this novella the narrative explains how the Fae and human worlds co-exist, side by side. Ordinarily the permeable interface, which enables each to carry on oblivious to the other, is  marshalled by the likes of the main character, investigator Hunter Braydenbach (human) and the Fae ‘Guardians of the Realms’. Tasked by a treaty between the different spheres with ensuring ‘never the twain shall meet’, their clandestine activities are perilous and thankless, but crucial to maintaining peace, albeit no one would choose to be a hunter or a guardian.

This short book also introduces a host of characters and mythical creatures. Troll and goblin, giant and gargoyle. Some working together, to solve the mystery of the flaming black unicorn that has set light to buildings and killed a human, whilst seeking to preserve the anonymity of the Fae. Others, like untrustworthy leprechaun, Damian Hurst, just trying to get ahead. An added complication in this story are the two unsuspecting human teenagers unwittingly drawn into the Fae world, where they need to be protected and preferably prevented from getting themselves killed!

It’s a thrilling mix and for the reader an important foundation for future books in the series. I’m especially keen to read more about the intriguing and illusive forest-dweller and ‘bigfoot’, ‘Kawa’, who helps Hunter’s team and I’m sure there’s more to come from guardian ‘Frank’ too.

The book seems to be pitched at a YA readership and though in my paperback copy the author pays tribute to the cover design by Ivan Cakic, the animated version shared by @willoshire on Twitter is also excellent. https://twitter.com/i/status/1310761213639319555 In any event an interest in the Fae has certainly been awakened in me!

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.
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“The Call of the Dark…”

11:24 PM 1 AUGUST 2020

Terry McCaleb has a new life on Catalina Island, with a house on the hill and his boat in the marina. New heart, new wife, new baby. Life is good. Yet, when an old colleague (Jaye Winston) comes calling for his skill as a former FBI profiler, McCaleb is immediately smitten by the lure of his past life and a return to the darkness.
The murder under investigation is particularly violent and gruesome. The victim, Edward Gunn, had been implicated in a murder six years earlier, but was never charged by the LAPD and the case was reluctantly dropped. The lead investigator had been Harry Bosch.

Immediately the story conjures up the potential clash of two titans of the justice system chronicled by Connelly and the author skilfully sets the scene for his most tenacious predators …”The cool air of the shark grey dawn…”.

In the courthouse, McCaleb also bumps into journalist Jack McEvoy in a passing nod to another of the author’s stable of well-known characters, but as the big beasts circle each other, it’s clear that’s where the action will be. Bosch makes no bones about his assessment of Gunn as a scumbag and retains a sense of being deprived of the opportunity to sweat the guy (due to Bosch shoving the intervening Lieutenant through his office window and getting himself suspended). But, for fans of the Bosch series, this interlinking of books and characters is fascinating and offers real depth to a pool of work that continues to deepen, though the respective novels can also stand alone. I am continuing to wade through them in published order and in this seventh novel featuring Bosch, the perspective of former agent McCaleb enables the author to really plumb the shadowy world that the two men choose to infiltrate. Still, when McCaleb identifies a tentative connection, or coincidence, potentially linking Bosch to Gunn’s murder, the two men would appear to be on a collision course. Moreover, the implied threat to Bosch’s integrity and reputation risks undermining his current murder prosecution.

The main tenet of the book is pondered by McCaleb. “You don’t go into the darkness without the darkness going into you.” and this is surely the point for the reader. McCaleb and Bosch are both hardened lawmen, perhaps even desensitised by their lengthy exposure to evil, but their mutual hankering for an almost gladiatorial lifestyle should be as much a cause for concern as a relief. Society perhaps needs such ‘soldiers’, but must also continue to demand that ‘ends’ are indeed through justifiable ‘means’.

Michael Connelly is a master of intrigue and this book is certainly thrilling, as it casts a light on two compelling characters that choose to work in the shadows.Another excellent example of why the author is among the best in his chosen genre.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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Contrasting Fortunes

4:12 PM 26 JUNE 2020

One of the things I adore about Kevin Ansbro’s writing is the assured way in which he reconciles the seemingly incompatible. Few authors can so effortlessly weave together the incongruity of a European serial killer with a SE Asian mythical being, trapped in a two thousand year purgatory at the bottom of the Andaman Sea. Yet, the remarkable journey on which the author takes the reader also enmeshes very familiar human themes of attachment and loss, romantic love and platonic friendship, alongside Buddhist notions of karma. It makes for a heady mix!

This blending of perceived contrasts, the exotic and mundane, is exemplified perhaps in the main locations for the tale. With all due respect to the inhabitants of East Anglia, Norwich (UK) and Phuket (Thailand) are, on the face of it, very different! Still, through the travails of the main characters, the author suggests that human experience is not entirely shaped by location, or culture. If not ‘fate’, sometimes things are just ‘meant to be’.

Take the British couple, Calum and Hannah, they are close friends at school, but then are separated by the vagaries of family moves, but it is Calum’s solo visit to Thailand that proves the catalyst for a potential reunion with his ‘true love’. As well as developing an immediate affinity for this unfamiliar territory, Calum befriends a young local man, Sawat Leelapun, with a shared interest in martial arts, but a very different trajectory in life. As a boy, Sawat has survived the 2004 tsunami, but experienced the attendant tragedy and challenges that followed. He too has a significant other (‘Nok’), but more central is the bond formed between the two men and the influence of Sawat’s humble nature on his hot-headed British friend. As well as helping Calum reflect on his own approach to life, like the knock-on effect of dominoes, Sawat also confides in his friend an incredible secret he has harboured since childhood and introduces the reader to the mythical Kinnara.

This diversion into supernatural elements is not new for the author, but offers a very helpful vehicle for expressing the clear affection with which Mr Ansbro regards the people and culture of Thailand. ‘Klahan Kinnara’ is a prince among the mythical swan people, cast into the sea, spellbound and destined to be alone for eternity. Klahan is also separated from his beloved and like his human counterparts shares a profound sense of loss. The question posed by the story is whether the three couples can all rely on fate/karma/good fortune, or perhaps the invincible nature of their collective love, to generate similarly happy outcomes?

The fly in the ointment, of course, is the serial murderer I mentioned, but whilst the author has a penchant for a dash of the macabre, it is never arbitrary. Rather the latent threat is a further development of the contrast between good and evil. Just as the reader might hope for good things to happen to good people, the reverse can also be quite satisfying. With ‘Kinnara’ , the author has skilfully delivered another exhilarating and emotional ride for the reader and has secured another spot on my favourites shelf.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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Bastard Rebellion

3:39 PM 24 JUNE 2020

One of the benefits of building a world unfamiliar to the reader and characters that can live for hundreds of years, is the size of canvas, on which the author can construct his story. Certainly, in ‘Shadowless’, Randall McNally has developed a book exploiting those epic proportions, ranging across the ‘Northern Realms’, with a large cast of characters that perhaps befits such an ambitious undertaking. The fact that this is also a debut novel merely emphasises the congratulations due to the author, for such an absorbing read.

Amid echoes of Greek and Roman mythology, the Northern Realms is a world that cultivates curiosity and discomfort, wonder and horror in equal measure. The book also rather morphs into a novel, as the first half comprises a series of chapters, which read almost like short stories, or vignettes, introducing the respective ‘heroes’, with their inherited power and explaining how their differing local environments are formulated.

The malevolent ‘villains’ in the region are undoubtedly the cohort of powerful gods, who have survived a civil war among themselves, but in the process killed all of the goddesses. As a consequence, this exclusively macho group, using their ability to assume any form, satisfy their carnal desires among mortal women, the resulting offspring being born with supernatural traits, but without shadows. The ‘shadowless’ are thus born with innate advantage and yet are destined to be marked out and damned, neither mortal, nor god. The power bequeathed by their respective fathers may grow, if they can survive, but it can also be ‘harvested’ by the relevant god, in a cynical cull of their illegitimate children. Moreover, the Northern Realms are in the thrall of temples and mortal worshippers, who seek to enthusiastically appease the gods, by deploying a militia of ‘Shadow Watchers’, to identify and sacrifice the shadowless. Survival depends often on staying hidden from public view, in aristocratic isolation, forest, dungeon, or underground community. Only the mysterious Brother Amrodan, priest within a sole religious order committed to finding and helping the shadowless, appears to be on their side. Moreover, Amrodan is the lynchpin, mapping the whereabouts of the disparate individuals over centuries and devising the plan by which the gods might eventually be challenged. For me, he was a fleeting reminder of Nick Fury, meticulously assembling the ‘Avengers’, only Amrodan’s use of the dark arts involved a primeval pool and his kickass firepower came in the shape of a black dragon!

In a sense, the fact that these fascinating shadowless individuals seemed to struggle to gel as a group was hardly surprising. However, as prophesied, within the group is an especially powerful ‘shadowmancer’ who didn’t really fulfil his potential in this first outing. Coming up against a 25 feet tall monster with destruction on his mind may test the mettle of any leader, but it has left me with the impression that this book is the foundation of an ongoing story, the opening battle in a war, which I hope the author will continue. Interesting as they are, I did wonder at the sheer number of characters and the juggling required to keep them all in play, but if this does indeed culminate in further volumes, then returning to the canvas analogy, the author has acres of material to work with. Certainly the polish in some of those discrete early chapters bore the hallmarks of a talented wordsmith and I hope to return for Mr McNally’s next instalment soon. Incidentally, whilst the reader should rarely judge a book by its cover, the cover art, which did well in an online competition, on this occasion, is rather a good guide to the quality within.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.
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Accomplished Debut Novel

12:56 PM 24 MAY 2020

“Killing a Dead Man” is rightly billed as a ‘supernatural thriller’ and though the author, Siobhian R. Hodges is a new talent, I thoroughly enjoyed this debut novel. Ostensibly targeted at the YA readership, it can be tricky when shedding light on some challenging themes not to oversteer, but in her subtle use of light and shade, the author successfully navigates a course, which balances the best and worst of human traits.

Written in the first person, the book adopts the perspective of Jordan, now aged fifteen, but weighed down by the loss of his twin brother, Danny, brutally murdered five years earlier. It was a defining moment in Jordan’s young life, steeped in guilt that he hadn’t prevented it and anger that the perpetrator had not been caught. The only consolation for Jordan is that Danny’s spirit had not moved on, but intermittently communicates with his brother. Jordan can feel Danny’s presence, rather than see him and though comforting, the connection was not without consequences. The boys’ bewildered parents had finally sought psychiatric help for their surviving son, meanwhile Jordan’s talking to an invisible brother was seized upon by teenage school bullies. The central character is isolated amid the struggles of his adolescent life, but not alone. Still, when Danny divulges he knows the identity of his killer, Jordan is compelled to launch across the country in search of revenge.

Whilst the premise of the subsequent adventure may play differently, depending on the reader’s beliefs concerning the afterlife, I found the author’s description of the twins’ ongoing relationship and the permeable nature of the boundary between this world and the next, both convincing and warming. Jordan and Danny are each held in a glutinous state of torment, which must surely be excised if they are to move on with their respective journeys, but it will take active forces in both realms if Jordan is to survive the ordeal.

Along the way, the reader is introduced to some intriguing characters, in particular, long-suffering taxi driver, Mr Butch, who is unwittingly drawn into Jordan’s odyssey and just as Danny attends the edge of the living world, so Jordan’s companion is a welcome escort for his foray into a murky, sometimes hostile adult environment.

The book teems with suspense, yet delivers the reader a very satisfying denouement. I look forward to placing my copy in the hands of a teenager, for whom I think the novel was intended, but with a hearty recommendation that it is well worth reading. So too perhaps for those young of heart!

Unusual praise too for the quality of the binding. I am not ordinarily moved to comment on such aesthetics, however, the paperback, apparently “printed in Great Britain by Amazon”, has a deliciously waxy feel to the touch, which simply made the book a genuine pleasure to hold. Ms Hodges is to be congratulated on such a rounded debut and I look forward with interest to her future titles.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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Fate or Coincidence – a COVID Read

7:21 PM 12 APRIL 2020

Cometh the hour, cometh the book! Just when we had lapsed into the nightmarish ‘social isolation’ that has attended the COVID-19 pandemic, I happened upon this novel through the vagaries of Twitter and the #WritingCommunity. Perhaps, in keeping with the book, it might almost have been fated to rescue me from a state of pervasive gloom and offer a literary balm to a bruised psyche. Indeed, Kevin Ansbro’s tale of love and devotion, in a variety of forms, is teeming with the ‘feel good factor’, but also succeeds in realizing the author’s self-confessed penchant for “handcuffing humour and tragedy to the same radiator”. It is hard to pidgeon-hole this book neatly into a single genre. Thrilling – certainly, philosophical at times, but it is also brimming with pathos, humour, suspense and love rather than romance, juxtaposed with far darker strands of human life and even the hereafter.

To revel in what man (and woman) is capable of, is to wonder at a fathomless capacity for altruistic good and yet also recognize a breathtaking instinct for selfishness and even unalloyed evil. In “The Fish that Climbed a Tree” the author deftly traverses that continuum in a cleverly conceived plot that draws upon the experience of an impressive range of characters, whose respective journeys are influenced by an active (or in some cases very redundant) moral compass.

The heroically named Ulysses Drummond, vicar of St Cuthbert’s, Hackney, and Iraq war veteran, was of a good family and with his diminutive wife Florence had made a very positive contribution to their community. They were also proud parents of Henry, aged 10, when the couple were brutally murdered in front of their young boy. By contrast, the murderers – Ukranian gangster, Yuri Voloshyn and Rwandan war criminal, Pascall Makuza, are on a very different trajectory towards judgement day. Still, whether by fate, or a series of coincidences, the Drummonds will be dogged by that fateful day, as Henry passes into adulthood and a date with destiny foretold in the book’s prologue.

Along the way, through boarding school and into his life in London, Henry’s timid, shy naivety ensures he is bullied and beaten, nurtured and comforted, encouraged and feted, but it is the relationships that he forms and the decisions he must live by, which intrigue the reader. That and the heady blend of supporting characters, so well drawn, as to remind me of Dickens, long before the author’s nod to “A Christmas Carol” in the final chapter.

While I accept that, at times, Ansbro’s extravagant use of language, with a liberal sprinkling of adjectives, similes and metaphors may not be to every taste, for me such flourishes added to the charm of this book. The underground train’s “doors closed with a matron’s shush…”, simply an example of well-crafted writing. Indeed, the style (except for the repeated use of “Omigod”) felt part of some glorious former era, which of course may say as much about my reading preferences.

However, in a happy coincidence, my review also now chimes with #IndieApril and pays tribute to an often neglected well of writing talent. Moreover, I am grateful to Kevin Ansbro for a tremendous diversion in these troubled times and do not hesitate in loading this novel onto my ‘favourites’ shelf. I hope that when I return to it in future, I shall recall the contrasting real-life circumstances surrounding this first reading.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
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Blunt, Heads & Laughter in Gloomwood!

14:04, 8 November 2020

For Twitter followers of Ross Young (@InkDisregardit) it may be unsurprising to learn that his debut novel, “Dead Heads” is an irreverent comedy. Notwithstanding the contested nature of the afterlife, the author’s depiction of ‘Gloomwood’ (a city located somewhere beyond the living sphere) is a far cry from the common expectations of paradise. Yet, it is perhaps consistent with a realm overseen by the Grim Reaper – grey, depressing….grim.

Still, though populated by the dead, when members of the great and the good start being mysteriously decapitated, the city administrators look to the newly-arrived Detective Augustan Blunt to stop the carnage and unravel the strange ethereal events. Such a surreal premise might discourage some readers of contemporary urban fantasy, but the characters are well-drawn and the world constructed by the author is fascinating in all its detailed weirdness. However, it is the dialogue and crisp one-liners that give full rein to the author’s dry humour and the inventive nature of his story-telling. For example, I just love the idea of being collected from the ‘deathport’ by a reaper in a hoodie!

Ross Young is an unfamiliar indie writer to me, but this outing has fuelled my curiosity and this first Gloomwood novel is a promising platform for future stories and the further development of a funny cast of characters. Somehow this book just seemed to resonate with the surreality of our time and laughter born of dark humour may be our best antidote in the face of the COVID tragedy, at least for now.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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The Hostess, the Actress and the Duchess…

Another triumph from indie author Jane Davis in this gloriously gritty novel that engages head-on with a post-war London struggling to re-boot itself and wider society, amid ongoing privations. Against this authentic backdrop, the dawning realisation that Britain needed to change and to challenge former ingrained inequalities (particularly the structural disadvantage of women) is deftly explored by the author, through the lived experiences of three fictional women in the 1950s. Moreover the reader discovers that Caroline, Ursula and Patrice are each held hostage by their very different respective circumstances and perceptions of duty to family (parents, children, husband). Such traditional values are also cleverly juxtaposed with the tragic real-life story of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in the UK. The sensationalised accounts of her crime carried in the press at the time (Ellis shot her lover, killing him) succeeded in vilifying Ellis, but drew a veil over the scandalous and violent behaviour of the ‘innocent’ male victim.

The format of the book reflects multiple points of view and rotates between the key characters’ perspectives. Indeed, it sounds like the start of a joke, ‘the hostess, the actress and the duchess’, but despite the disparity in their social positions, their common experience of abuse (financial, emotional and physical) at the hands of men, is something of a leveller. But for quirks of chance, all three might not be so far removed from the fate awaiting Ruth Ellis, yet they are drawn inexorably together, bonded by a shared sense of being social misfits. The intertwining of their journeys also offers touching examples of support, without judgement.

Far from being a tale of ‘doom and gloom’, the writing is sumptuous and though perhaps not intended as a feminist commentary on the period, the author has provided the reader with a genuine depiction of a society in transition and three strong and courageous female characters equal to their time. 

Indeed, time, as measured for the nation by the iconic notes of ‘Big Ben’, provides a wonderful symmetry to this book. From August 1949, when the bongs failed to appear on cue, to July 1955 when sections of London held their collective breath in anticipation of the nine o’clock salvo, the author locates each of the women and enables the reader to follow their discrete but convergent journeys. It is true there are no male role models to speak of, which perhaps begs the question whether the period also presided over the demise of ‘gentlemanly’ conduct, or leastways diminished capacity to do the ‘right’ thing? But, the dilemmas the book exposes and the moral conundrums posed make for a fascinating and stimulating read, irrespective of the reader’s gender.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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Detonating a Taboo

8:15 PM 24 OCTOBER 2016

This book was listed for World Book Night 2016 and though an unusual storyline (at fist glance recovery from teenage mental illness may not seem fertile territory for humour), Holly Bourne has successfully woven together a really positive ‘rite of passage’ novel, which reinforces the notion that a diagnosed condition need not define the person. In this instance the sixteen year old person is Evie and the start of a new college offers the prospect of a chance to re-boot her adolescent life, no longer identified as ‘that girl who went crazy’. Still, in her efforts to re-invent herself with new girl friends and prospective boyfriends, Evie is cautious about how much she reveals about the past, or even her experience of the present. By contrast, her family have lived with Evie the darkest lows and with her psychologist, try to help navigate the return to ‘normal’.

Indeed, the book is something of a roller-coaster from emotional highs to poignant lows, the reader follows the central character’s progress and setbacks in her burgeoning relationships and ongoing mental health challenges, but the author deftly avoids any mawkish tendencies. Alongside some laugh-out-loud moments, Bourne also explores interesting insights and manages to balance the interplay between the potentially crushing effects of illness, with the shared ‘madness’ that so often characterizes the human condition. A thoroughly enjoyable and compelling read, it turns out we are all a unique version of ‘normal’, just moving along our respective paths. If we are lucky, there are people who care alongside us on the journey. 

I’m passing my copy on, fully endorsing the World Book Night listing as a genuine celebration of reading and books in all its diversity. Remember the name. Holly Bourne is a very promising young writer.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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The road to enlightenment

12:46 AM 15 OCTOBER 2016

‘The Pilgrimage’ has the distinction of being Paulo Coelho’s first major book and relates his extraordinary and at times mystical quest along the medieval route to San Tiago de Compostela. The mental and physical trials the author experiences and the insight he derives from this challenge are perhaps deliberately obscure, but also makes this a challenging read in parts. Complex metaphors wrapped around the enigmatic author and his strange guide (Petrus) give the impression that this book is multi-layered and yet I’m not convinced that careful unwrapping is necessarily worthy of the implied effort.

Certainly there were some interesting concepts introduced, such a ‘agape’ – total love. “…the love that consumes the person who experiences it… the highest form of love”. Moreover, enthusiasm is considered as “agape directed at a particular idea or a specific thing”. Still, Coelho postulates the ultimate challenge for each of us is how to harness these underpinnings of faith and happiness on our respective journeys. Invoking a term coined by St. Paul, the author examines what it means, “to fight the good fight”.

What should we be seeking to achieve with this wonderful gift of life and the talents we each possess? This is philosophical stuff and encapsulating the ‘bigger picture’ within the boundaries of a walk, albeit a very long one, was interesting, though somewhat dull. Rather than lift a veil on the meaning of life, Coelho has perhaps suggested we are each on a pilgrimage of sorts, to discover our own meaning and purpose. Still, my personal search for happiness is likely to include fewer such weighty or prophetic books. Life is afterall rather short.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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Life is partly Survival…

2:42 PM 24 SEPTEMBER 2016

‘Life of Pi’ made the World Book Night list for 2011 and rightly so. Martel has created a modern masterpiece, which is beautifully written. The storyline is unusual and all the more absorbing for it. The ending too is intriguing and though the movie interpretation is good, it can’t do full justice to a wonderful book.

Notwithstanding the general assumption of the superiority of the human race, the author holds up an interesting mirror for the reader, which reflects man’s inherent, but potentially ugly, animalistic desire for survival. 

Rating: 5 out of 5.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/REVIEW/SHOW/1521143932

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Servants No Longer De Rigueur…

2:16 PM 24 SEPTEMBER 2016

I was honoured to be given the opportunity to give this book, as part of the World Book Night 2012. This was my first choice and enabled me to wax lyrical about this deceptively simple story, which explores in detail the reflections and experiences of a butler, Stevens, as he contemplates his life in service and the relevance of a life spent in service at a time of profound social change. Empathetically written, Ishiguro’s prose is a sheer delight and his attention to detail and fine emotional expression is quite touching. Certainly not a thriller, yet I feel the intentionally pedestrian pace merely accentuates the absolute quality of the writing. A truly exceptional read! 

Rating: 5 out of 5.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/REVIEW/SHOW/1521144071

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Dark Matters

12:21 AM 24 SEPTEMBER 2016

A challenging read which plumbs psychological depths and questions the morality underpinning ‘crime and punishment’. I found the brutal killing and attendant emotional turmoil both disturbing and fascinating in equal measure and the abundant food for thought truly marks this book out as a classic.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/BOOK/SHOW/7138

Rating: 5 out of 5.
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‘Champion’ Heroes

13:10 PM 30 August 2020

In his thrilling fantasy novel, indie author Jeff Lane introduces two strains of superhumans, in effect the Yin and Yang of seemingly contrary forces, locked in a perpetual existential struggle for survival. That the conflict between the ‘champions’ and the ‘spoilers’ rages alongside the humdrum existence of the vast majority of the human population is interesting. That such extraordinary beings are hidden in plain sight among the general population and their activities go largely unnoticed is also slightly unnerving! Both groups are relatively small in number and co-opt lesser mortals to their respective causes, however, the enmity between the two factions is palpable. For the champions it is driven by the predation of the spoilers, whose hunting style resembles that of hyenas. The spoilers seek to harvest power from their superior opponents in a gruesome and tortuous process, draining the very life force from a lone champion, most often isolated and overwhelmed by numbers. Still, for the reader, this insatiable appetite for the ‘consumption’ of champions’ energy, in what is essentially a parasitic existence, readily casts the ‘spoilers’ as villains and the battlelines drawn between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are clearly marked throughout this opening book in the series.

In an act of self preservation, some champions are loosely connected through a national network and this story follows the transition of eighteen year-old, Jim Hunt, from college student to elite champion-in-the-making. Jim is the prodigy of his neighbour, the enigmatic Nathaniel Parker, who had identified the boy’s potential at a young age (and the need to protect it), but until now never disclosed why he was so special. However, the importance of the young man does not go unnoticed and when spoilers audaciously organise to trap Nathaniel and use him as bait to feast on two of the most powerful champion ‘batteries’, Jim has a life-changing decision to make. 

This, will he, won’t he, journey to potential ‘champion’ undertaken by Jim is exciting and at times comical, as the hero is supported by his college roommate, Eric Warner, who exhibits all the more familiar traits of a hapless mortal teenager. In fact, at times, Eric reminded me of Sancho Panza, with his squirely regard and selfless support for his friend, though he is also weighed down by a substantial secret, his ‘sanchismos’ provide a useful lighter tone amid the surrounding tension.

In the broader arc of this compelling story, can the champions survive this coordinated attack on their existence? Maybe even counter attack the unusually organized incursion into their established, but intentionally nondescript lives? No doubt which side the reader is on, but the grandstand finish raises plenty of new questions, which will have me reaching for Book 2 (“This Burning World”). The author has also confirmed that Book 3 (“This Champion’s World’) is currently being edited, so more to look forward to. For fans of thrilling fantasy tales, this is a very welcome addition to the bookshelf and I am obliged to Jeff Lane for a welcome diversion in this time of COVID-19. 

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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Sumptuous Secret

12:08 AM 24 SEPTEMBER 2016

An enchanting tale of children growing up in a private space unencumbered by the troubled and sometimes burdensome world of adults. Uplifting and heavy on the feel-good factor, beautifully written, a classic book for adults and children alike.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/REVIEW/SHOW/152114455

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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Classic Adventure

11:48 PM 23 SEPTEMBER 2016

Wonderful classic novel of adventure and unadulterated escapism. As I was reading, the news was full of the latest activity in Icelandic volcanoes, which just seemed to add to the vivid descriptions crafted by Verne. Meanwhile the interplay between the key characters was both moving and intriguing. Quite a short book, the pace of the story is brisk, which fuels the incessant sense of excitement and perhaps a slight sense of guilt at a very sedentary life by comparison! In any event, a very satisfying read.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/REVIEW/SHOW/1521144597

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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A Novel or a Series of Short Stories?

10:28 PM 23 SEPTEMBER 2016

I am a great fan of Sebastian Faulks work. Although we will all form attachments to particular books, he rarely disappoints and within the body of his work he has set the bar wonderfully high. However, as a ‘novel in five parts’, I’m not sure ‘A Possible Life’ works. The writing is superbly crafted and the sweep of the book is clearly ambitious, but seems most effective as five short stories. Certainly, for me the ‘novel’ is not greater than the sum of its parts, which is disappointing, but should not detract from the quality of the writing, which is at times sumptuous. I intend to read it again, in case I am doing the book an injustice, but I would encourage anyone to make the effort, in any case.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/REVIEW/SHOW/1521144712

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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Not the Mountain, but the Climb

10:09 PM 23 SEPTEMBER 2016

The notion of a story about Elijah may not be an obvious choice for the secular majority. Yet, such is the depth and quality of the Brazilian’s writing that the author successfully draws the reader in and through this profound parable invites the curious to reflect on the path of his/her ‘Personal Legend’ and the various stages that living one’s own destiny entails. Moreover, how should one respond in the face of the ‘unavoidable’. As Coelho observes,”…the unavoidable has touched the life of every human being on the face of the earth. Some have rebounded, others have given up – but all of us have felt the wings of tragedy brushing against us.”

To illustrate the point, the novel is set in the year 870 B.C. in Phoenicia (latterly Lebanon) and relates the exploits of the prophet, Elijah, fleeing persecution in neighbouring Israel, at the hands of Phoenician, Princess Jezebel. Since childhood, Elijah had heard voices and conversed with angels, but the massacre of the prophets and direction by the Lord, caused him to to seek refuge in the city of Akbar. Notwithstanding Phoenicia had enjoyed a lengthy period of peace and prosperity, underpinned by strategic alliances and a talent for trade, the presence of an enemy of of their countrywoman, Jezebel, placed Elijah under a constant threat. Throw in that the Phoenicians’ worship of pagan gods inhabiting the Fifth Mountain, the threat of Akbar’s invasion by an Assyrian army and a love interest with a native citizen and the possibilities for conflict are manifold. Indeed, the story of Elijah is a study in resilience, determination, compassion and the positive power of love, as well as an examination of doubt, fear and corrupted morals, all of which beset the human experience over millenia.

Coelho’s gift is to invite the reader to gain inspiration from the story of Elijah, contemplate our own responses to the unavoidable and embrace the inevitable potential for learning and growth on our respective journeys. A very thought-provoking read.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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Industrial Heart-lands

3:12 PM 18 SEPTEMBER 2016

Often described as an important/landmark novel, the story of members of the Morel family is a fascinating expose of period industrial working class life, made even more compelling through the author’s examination of the main character’s relationships. Lawrence consistently critiques social convention in his works and in this book covers the historic taboo of adultery and unmarried sex, but more importantly sheds light on the roles of women in society, juxtaposed with the male dominance of the period, born of paid work. Indeed the three central women in the novel – Mrs Morel (mother), Miriam and Clara (two lovers) are the stronger characters, albeit fatefully attached to the respective men in their lives. Still, their influence is testament to the dependence conferred upon son and lover. There is perhaps a suggestion that the emotional attachment of the female characters makes them potentially vulnerable to the whims of their male counterparts. However, in the most moving scenes, when Mrs Morel has to cope with the tragic loss of her eldest son, it is the contrasting ineptitude and emotional confusion of her husband that elevates the matriarchal figure to new heights of superiority and dominance. Overall a wonderfully thought-provoking read, which rightly sits among a select collection of books that might be labelled as ‘important’.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/BOOK/SHOW/17567570-SONS-AND-LOVERS

Rating: 5 out of 5.
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Great Heights to Unnecessary Depths

11:31 PM 12 SEPTEMBER 2016

Any contemporary story set (even partly) in Afghanistan runs the risk of appearing bleak, at least to western eyes. However, in spite of a sobering glimpse of life under the talaiban, it is Hosseini’s examination of a series of overlapping relationships, which reveals the frailty of man and the attendant capacity for tragedy.

At the outset, the narrator, Amir, is aged just twelve and has a close relationship with Hassan, the son of his father’s servant. The characters are all subject to a social structure which ensures they know their respective places (Pashtun are the dominant tribe locally, while the Hassari are commonly regarded as inferior) but privately such boundaries are blurred. That is, until an incident witnessed by Amir challenges his ability to openly support his erstwhile friend. Amir and his ‘Baba’ are members of an elite class, but following the death of his mother, giving him birth, Amir grows up feeling distant from his father and desperate for his affection. However, he is no ‘chip off the old block’. Baba is charismatic and courageous, a stalwart of Afghan society and Amir’s sense of inadequacy is fuelled by the very positive attributes shown by Hassan and admired by his father.

Kite flying, we learn, is an important pastime in Kabul culture and offers an interesting metaphor for life in the differing strata, contrasting the fliers with those subject to gravity, scrabbling for victory among the ‘also rans’. Ironically, it is with Hassan’s encouragement and help, Amir is able to excel at flying and inspire pride in his father. In a touching show of loyalty, Hassan even seeks to run down the last defeated kite in a kite-battling festival, to seal a memorable triumph for his friend. Yet, the euphoria is short-lived.

In an impulsive and childish act, Amir deliberately sweeps Hassan aside, but in so doing unleashes a lifelong sense of personal guilt, magnified by the dignified self-sacrifice of his victim. In spite of everything, Hassan, by fluke of birth a member of the lowly Hassari tribe, demonstrates a superior magnanimity and notwithstanding the consequent prospect of destitution, stoically accepts the betrayal.

Fast forward, and the overthrow of the royal family by the forces of extreme Islam and with it the social order that has secured their privileged positions, sees Baba and Amir flee Afghanistan.

In the USA, notwithstanding their attendant poverty, Baba exhibits the drive to start again, though father and son are sustained by the cultural traditions preserved in the local Afghan community. Still, there is an inevitability in the need for Amir, the young man, to be confronted with circumstances in which he must return to his birthplace and seek to atone.

This book is clearly well written and offers an interesting insight into Afghan society , both home and abroad. However, there is also the troubling spectre of child abuse, which is explicitly referenced and to my mind, diminishes the narrative. Not because it challenges some taboo, but rather it adds little value to the story and gives the impression that it has been included for gratuitous shock impact. Moreover, in the context of the book, such behaviour only occurs on foreign soil and could be construed as symptomatic of an inferior society, which given western trials of recent years, seems more than a little hypocritical. I acknowledge it could be argued that this may be a courageous addition on the part of the author, but on balance, for me, it detracts from an otherwise compelling read.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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‘O’ level debate

4:44 PM 10 SEPTEMBER 2016

This was one of my course books at school and we pored over the adventures of ‘Fiver’ and ‘Bigwig’, et al and the underlying social systems of the respective burrows. It was one of those classroom unknowns, but discussed at length, whether it was the author’s intention to provide a critique of democracy vs authoritarian rule, or simply a children’s adventure book to be enjoyed.
It was not until my thirties that I was able to get a definitive answer from the author, Richard Adams. I was lucky enough to live for a time in the same village, not far from the legendary down and was invited round for tea. Of course, I had to satisfy my curiosity, but it was quite a relief to learn that it can be enjoyed as simply a classic piece of fiction and the news did not diminish it one jot!

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/BOOK/SHOW/10258076

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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‘His Dark Materials’

4:31 PM 10 SEPTEMBER 2016

An utterly absorbing tale, which sparkles in its creativity and reaches young and older readers alike, with the quality of Pulman’s writing. The characterization is exceptional, the plot intriguing and the pace superb. A modern classic series which really does deserve the description, page-turner.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/REVIEW/SHOW/1521145388

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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Four-legged Hero

4:26 PM 10 SEPTEMBER 2016

This was my first introduction to Jack London’s work and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The storyline was gritty and very in keeping with the period and the tough life for pioneers in the wilderness of north america. But, it was also gripping and offered a really satisfying read. On the strength of this book, I aim to read more from this author.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/REVIEW/SHOW/1521145435

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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Workout for the little grey cells…

4:18 PM 10 SEPTEMBER 2016

Just after midnight, a snowstorm stops the Orient Express dead in its tracks in the middle of Yugoslavia. The luxurious train is surprisingly full for this time of year. But by morning there is one passenger less. A ‘respectable American gentleman’ lies dead in his compartment, stabbed a dozen times, his door locked from the inside . . . Hercule Poirot is also aboard, having arrived in the nick of time to claim a second-class compartment — and the most astounding case of his illustrious career.

Series: Hercule Poirot (#10)

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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Contemporary Christianity

3:46 PM 10 SEPTEMBER 2016

I came to this book, mindful of my spiritual frailties and yet, aspiring to better understand how to move forward. In that context, Dave Roberts has provided an inspirational and thought-provoking insight into the development of Ffald-y-Brenin and the foundation of faith, which has enabled the creation of a thriving ‘house of prayer’. Indeed, so engaging was the book that I drove to West Wales to see for myself, such was the allure of the exciting groundswell of activity described. I was not disappointed.
Doubtless it helps if the reader is a ‘believer’, but even if not, I fancy one cannot help but be impressed by the sheer dedication and outpouring of faith writ large on the page, which also suggests a courage and conviction which is increasingly rare today. A common charge is of ‘mainstream’ Christianity being a bit ambivalent and less forthright in it’s moral assertions. Whilst this book might not be the antidote, it does at least imply that there remain strong voices, with clear messages, not least concerning the value of prayer and an ongoing need to develop our relationships with God. An uplifting read.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/BOOK/SHOW/18912000-THE-GRACE-OUTPOURING

Rating: 3 out of 5.
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Can do better….

9:50 PM 3 SEPTEMBER 2016

I have come to expect a polished story from JG, pacy and with a concise opening, which hooks the reader from the off. ‘The Racketeer’ fits this pattern and yet in my view it is not one of his best. The plot seemed more contrived than usual and the characters less plausible somehow. I do not regret reading it, in fact I read it voraciously, but even as an erstwhile fan, this book will not be near the top of my favourite Grisham’s.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/REVIEW/SHOW/1521146142

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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To Bee-keep, or Not to Bee-keep

9:30 PM 3 SEPTEMBER 2016

A charming journal following the exploits of wannabee bee-keeper James Dearsley, in his first year as a novice. The book is full of ‘well I didn’t know that’ moments and offers some interesting insights into the trials and tribulations of establishing successful hives. Of course, it is a timely introduction too, as there is much handwringing around the international decline in the bee population and the potential impact on man, from such a threat to bio-diversity. I suspect readers are likely to include some people weighing the possibility of enlisting into the beekeeper ranks and though the book is not a manual, it does offer some pros and cons for what might seem an idyllic notion. Intriguingly the author does also draw parallels with that other seemingly eccentric British pastime of morris-dancing, complete with the need for a customary costume. Still, he makes a very compelling case for the hidden community of enthusiasts and a rewarding way to get back in touch with nature. For those wishing to take their exploration of bee-keeping further there is also a useful list of additional resources in the back. One for the curious to crawl over.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/REVIEW/SHOW/1521146731

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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College mayhem

7:01 PM 3 SEPTEMBER 2016

A chronicle of Porterhouse College, Cambridge, the acidly-Sharpe humour served up by the author is as sumptuous as a fellows feast. Dripping with hysterical characters, the book plots the chaotic attempts to spare the ancient institution from financial ruin, led by a coterie of dysfunctional men marooned in a glorious past, which is slowly and painfully being eroded. The Master (Skullion), formerly the Head Porter, the Dean, Senior Tutor, Bursar and Praelector conspire and scheme and cross metaphorical swords with a media magnate and gangster for the greater good of Porterhouse. The Machiavellian plot twists unstintingly with laugh-out-loud moments sprinkled throughout. Tom Sharpe is rightly regarded as a great post-Waugh humorist and guardian of the national funny bone. Very highly recommended.A chronicle of Porterhouse College, Cambridge, the acidly-Sharpe humour served up by the author is as sumptuous as a fellows feast. Dripping with hysterical characters, the book plots the chaotic attempts to spare the ancient institution from financial ruin, led by a coterie of dysfunctional men marooned in a glorious past, which is slowly and painfully being eroded. The Master (Skullion), formerly the Head Porter, the Dean, Senior Tutor, Bursar and Praelector conspire and scheme and cross metaphorical swords with a media magnate and gangster for the greater good of Porterhouse. The Machiavellian plot twists unstintingly with laugh-out-loud moments sprinkled throughout. Tom Sharpe is rightly regarded as a great post-Waugh humorist and guardian of the national funny bone. Very highly recommended.

A chronicle of Porterhouse College, Cambridge, the acidly-Sharpe humour served up by the author is as sumptuous as a fellows feast. Dripping with hysterical characters, the book plots the chaotic attempts to spare the ancient institution from financial ruin, led by a coterie of dysfunctional men marooned in a glorious past, which is slowly and painfully being eroded. The Master (Skullion), formerly the Head Porter, the Dean, Senior Tutor, Bursar and Praelector conspire and scheme and cross metaphorical swords with a media magnate and gangster for the greater good of Porterhouse. The Machiavellian plot twists unstintingly with laugh-out-loud moments sprinkled throughout. Tom Sharpe is rightly regarded as a great post-Waugh humorist and guardian of the national funny bone. Very highly recommended.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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Granada’s grandeur

4:03 PM 3 SEPTEMBER 2016

Extracts from Washington’s book are used in the audio guide for contemporary visitors to the Alhambra and it was the emotive prose which inspired me to seek out a copy. The grandeur of the palace complex is beautifully reflected in the author’s description and related legends and alludes to the almost mystical influences of Spanish and Moorish inhabitants.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/REVIEW/SHOW/1521151018

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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Classic swashbuckler!

12:03 PM 3 SEPTEMBER 2016

The term ‘classic’ is heard often, but this famed tale, first published in 1883, must bear the rubric as well as any. I confess I am very late coming to ‘Treasure Island’, the book, and can see why so many suggest it and recall it fondly from a childhood reading list (myself, I recall the 1950 Disney film version played out at Saturday morning pictures). Still, rarely has a fictional literary character been so profoundly absorbed into the national consciousness as Long John Silver. Moreover, on belatedly reading the book, one realizes the challenge of trying to capture, in moving pictures, the sheer scale of this much-beloved adventure and the pale nature of the many attempts.

As an island nation, I suspect we have a particular fascination with the sea, but Stevenson’s use of a maritime backdrop taps into the lifeblood of nineteenth century Britain, from the evocative description of bustling Bristol, steeped in trade, to the skills of the seamen who enabled such trade to flourish. Little wonder perhaps that such men should assume heroic status among landlubbers, nor that sea-faring legends should prove such fertile ground for the anti-hero.

In the main, the story is narrated by Jim Hawkins, young son of an inn-keeper, who is by chance drawn into a dark plot involving the pirate fraternity and the search for the late Captain Flint’s plundered loot. The contrast between the leading protagonists is stark, from the stoic, cultured Captain Smollett, Dr Livesey and Squire Trelawney, of the gentrified classes to the deformed, drunken and duplicitous pirates including Pew, Israel Hands and Long John, although it is the latter ‘have nots’ that display the more intriguing characters. Indeed, Stevenson describes the comic ‘lower’ classes in quite disparaging terms, the worse off for their inferior intellect and a weakness for drink, but on board ship the value of sailors in their ‘natural’ environment proves quite the leveller.  Woven throughout is the majestic schooner, ‘Hispaniola’, which sails under the Union Jack and Jolly Roger in the course of the book and provides the means of safe passage across the oceans for the would-be adventurers and a triumphant return.

The book is fairly short and the pages slip past under a full-sail assault on the senses, in which the reader can almost taste the salty air, luxuriate in the warmth of a secluded lagoon and hear the rigging creaking in the mainsail. Only Long John Silver’s irreverant parrot to break the atmosphere…..”pieces of eight!” 

Well over a hundred years after its original appearance, Treasure Island remains a wonderful tribute to the adventure genre, replete with a reputation undiminished by the intervening years. Young or old, for sheer escapism, this book can muster a place on most shelves. 

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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Nation-building

11:21 PM 29 AUGUST 2016

I read this with my teenage son and it says much for the late Pratchett’s ability to speak to a broad audience that this story was immediately hailed as “the best book ever….well so far”. So what was it that resonated so notably with that most challenging of all readers – the adolescent male? Clearly a pacy storyline helps, but the Pratchett brand of humour effortlessly underpinned some complex concepts and successfully held the readers attention, able to empathise with a choice of hero/heroines.

The novel centres on the story of two survivors – ‘Mau’, an islander undergoing a right of passage to manhood, interrupted by a cataclysmic tsunami, which destroys his society and ‘Daphne’, whose boat, borne on the same monstrous wave, crash lands in the rainforest. With echoes of Tarzan meets Jane, Pratchett compares and contrasts the disparate cultures and beliefs upon which Mao and Daphne’s respective views of the world are founded and blends their different knowledge and skills to combat their vulnerability and attendant dangers. It’s a thrilling adventure. Babies to be birthed, raiders to be repelled, food to be chewed for the toothless. Indeed, part of the book’s appeal is possibly this Dahl-esque indulgence in the unexpected, the violent, the gross. But, it is also touching in parts and even the burgeoning relationship between the two main characters was tolerated in all its subtle sensitivity.

In many ways this is a ‘right of passage’ book and the emergence of the two young adults, stepping out into their prescribed futures, forever bonded by their experience, is quite uplifting.

The idea that, on this small island at least, it might be possible to erase a history and start again, or perhaps we are each a summary of our preceding generations, so that we are rarely a blank canvas. Certainly the encroachment of the ‘outside’ world into an isolated island community must change it forever, if not for the better, but individual contributions do matter.

Helpfully, in his ‘Author’s Note’, Pratchett plays the “great big multiple universes get-out-of-jail-free card”, to explain any anomalies in the plot. And about ‘Thinking’, he also belatedly warns the reader that “this book contains some”!

It is perhaps a measure of the writer that though aimed at the ‘young adult’ reader, ‘Nation’ has much to commend it to a wider audience. Leastways, son and I are committed to further exploration of TP’s lengthy book list. Bring it on!

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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Jungle drum

9:18 PM 28 AUGUST 2016

This was my first taste of Paul Theroux, but I tend to love the orange-spined Penguin books and the Sunday Times byline on the cover suggesting the author “is as cool as Maugham”, just had to be tested.

Set in Malawi, the book follows the antics of American, Calvin Mullet, sent by his company ‘Homemakers International’, to establish the use of insurance on the continent and European, ‘Marais’, a wannabe revolutionary leader, seeking to ignite a popular uprising against the incumbent dictator (‘Osbong’). The interplay between their disparate paths and the buffeting of the respective ambitions, lends itself to a satirical examination of a paternalistic brand of imperialism. But, the impact of capitalism, in the guise of a local brothel just piles on the irony, as the author casts an empathetic, quizzical eye over the insincere and ill-informed fumblings of the ‘developed’ world and the assumed vulnerability of the ‘developing’. Throw in the stereotypical British ex-pat, Major Beaglehole and the scope for political incorrectness is huge. However, read as a book of its time (1970s), the caricatures are cleverly assembled and instantly recognizable.

A very entertaining read, I’m not sure I would put Theroux in the same bracket as Maugham, but he does have an impressive back catalogue  and I shall look forward to sampling some more. 

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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Profound look at good endings…

8:44 PM 28 AUGUST 2016

Working as I do in an integrated Health & Social Care environment, ostensibly geared to working with older citizens, this book had a resounding resonance with my own professional experience. The loss of my grandparents in recent years also bore some of the hallmarks of the tensions alluded to by Gawande, between the expectations and aspirations of people faced with the additional years, which for many, modern science has made possible and systems which may be subverted towards longevity as a destination in itself, without recourse to the ‘quality of life’ issues, with which they are inevitably bound.
Gawande makes a very cogent case for considering the role of western medicine in contemporary society and the potential for Drs to collude with patient’s assumed desire for survival, because treatments are possible, rather than initiate ‘difficult conversations’ which establish ‘what matters’ to the individual. The author describes common examples of clinicians instinctive leaning towards the exhaustion of a catalogue of possible interventions, without necessarily relating decision-making to what the patient is seeking to achieve through treatment. The book may thus be seen as a rallying cry to clinicians to rebalance the power differential which has evolved between the professional and the patient. However, there is also an implied criticism of societies that have become distanced from the reality of death. In the past, families and individuals were arguably more exposed to the experience and consequences of ageing and dying. In contrast to today, when such decline is frequently behind hospital doors, managed by professionals, the sanitizing of the process may have resulted in societies less equipped emotionally and practically to procure and recognize a ‘good’ death. For example, the author contrasts the experience of many with the often enlightened approach adopted by the hospice movement, which could inform much of ‘mainstream’ medical ‘end-of-life pathways’.
In his quite profound book, Gwawande’s sensitive writing style invites overdue reflection on how we have come to the current state of affairs. Given the ageing populations of most western nations, he has also perhaps rendered us a great service, initiating a wake-up call to all of us, to consider how we would want the last stages of our lives to look like (and equally pressing – not look like) and to have the courage to ensure our nearest and dearest are aware of our wishes. Abdicating responsibility for defining a ‘good death’ in our own terms, potentially leaves the decision-making, when the time comes, in the hapless hands of those without the clarity of ‘knowing’. For those of us in a position to initiate such difficult conversations, the reward of short-term discomfort may be surprising responses, but also understanding and knowledge with which to advocate the most appropriate outcome. A really thought-provoking read.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/REVIEW/SHOW/1521155649

Rating: 5 out of 5.
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Sequels can work…

7:39 PM 28 AUGUST 2016

A return to Jake Brigance as a hero of the courtroom marks the continuance of John Grisham’ s first novel. JB now in his thirties has not enjoyed the take-off of his career that might have been anticipated following his triumph in “A Time to Kill”, set three years previously, but his brand of delivering legal representation with an ethical edge remains thoroughly compelling. Of course, the latest tale is dependent upon a scenario which duly presents a moral maze, through which JB must navigate on behalf of a victim of circumstance, facing high calibre legal gladiators. As always, Grisham confirms his standing as a consummate story-teller and his pacing of the plot translates into a strong ‘page-turner’. The book reinforced my relish of the wise Judge Atlee, who wields power on the Ford County bench, mentor of JB, but unashamed arbiter of fair play, at times based on an apparently instinctive, ‘common sense’ view of justice. There are a couple of mechanisms used to maintain the pitch of impending failure, but nonetheless, the resolution of the court case is satisfying and confirmed my standing as a fan of
Grisham’ s skill as a writer of thrilling fiction.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/REVIEW/SHOW/1521162726

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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Men and sheds

7:41 PM 7 AUGUST 2016

Witty, insightful, poignant and thought-provoking, for men of a certain age Marcus Berkmann’s book provides a useful compass with which to navigate those twilight years, with humour rather than resignation, grace rather than grumpiness. Should be compulsory reading for all men with the potential to age predictably.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/REVIEW/SHOW/1521167368

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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Quite Sublime

7:12 PM 7 AUGUST 2016

The word ‘superb’ is not one I bandy about lightly, but it seems eminently appropriate for “The Book Thief” by Marcus Zusak. Not only is it inventive in the use of Death as a narrator, which adds a peculiar perspective to the story and confers so much more than a simple device, but the plot and characters are truly compelling. Just when I might have thought the rich seam of World War II had been overworked, comes this beautifully crafted book, which teases at loose threads of this global human tragedy and gradually unpicks the experience of a unique individual, her foster parents and the street and town in which they lived. That the street and characters are German and shaped by the familiar trajectory of the conflict is intriguing. That human frailties and blessed courage know no national boundaries, yet flourish at the individual level, is fascinating.
The gloriously flawed heroine, Liesel, is a child, but nonetheless challenges stereotypes and her arbitrary circumstances, not saintly, but indomitable, funny yet deep. Meanwhile, the disparate array of relationships between Liesel and her parents, neighbours, asylum-seeker and benefactor sow the seeds of sadness, frustration, admiration and despair in equal measure. The impact of man’s folly is clearly shown in war and is perhaps felt most keenly by the poor and yet the author also casts a hopeful light on the resilience of the human spirit and without sentimentality the possibility of greater things. A wonderfully poignant read to ponder.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/BOOK/SHOW/893136.THE_BOOK_THIEF

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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Quiet, please!

We all have talents, this seems self-evident, but in a world apparently possessed by a clamouring for celebrity culture and the reward of extrovert behaviour, there is a risk that we trade charisma for depth and push ‘quiet’ souls to the margins. This book makes a compelling case for re-evaluating the contribution of the introverted and examines why the range of human personalities exists, what are the implications for those who fall to the introverted end of that continuum and for those successful in overcoming such a potential disadvantage, how did they do it?
Naturally there is an obvious attraction in this book for introverts everywhere (though western culture appears to offer the greatest challenge) and there is a warming validation in Susan Cain’s explanation that it’s OK to be ‘quiet’. The cerebral-leaning are not to be pitied, the ‘geeky’, the ‘shy’ are capable of making profound contributions in work and social life and this book offers some real insight for those seeking to understand how best to relate. The book also offers strategies for the introvert not wanting to be held hostage to their natural self. I found it gratifying to find that introverts don’t need to move to China to be appreciated, but awareness of approaches that might oil the wheels of relationships were thought-provoking. This book reaffirms that ‘it takes all sorts’, but my favourite quote appears in the conclusion, “The secret to life is to put yourself in the right lighting.For some it’s a Broadway spotlight; for others, a lamplit desk”. Thank goodness for that!

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/BOOK/SHOW/18006972-QUIET

Rating: 5 out of 5.
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Older and wiser…………

The underlying premise of this book is quite intriguing in that it appears to question the morality behind the ‘warehousing’ of our elders in Care Homes. Moreover, the delegation of caring responsibilities for some of our more vulnerable people to the vagaries of commercial enterprise seems destined to deliver only a diminished quality of life. Cue Martha Andersson, a septuagenarian heroine unwilling to allow the status quo to go unchallenged and the potential for conflict, drama and humour is set. Like a latter-day Spartacus, Martha contrives to lead her friends and fellow malcontents on a spree of uninhabited rule-breaking and new experiences, in an effort to enrich their lives.The series of adventures struck me as reminiscent of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, or rather how they might behave in retirement. Still, there is something endearing in the rebels rejection of stereotypes and their general railing against the dying of the light. Indeed, there is something delicious about the group’s refusal to comply with social etiquette and the frequently patronizing expectations of the older fraternity. Friendship, romance, bonding and unashamed thrill-seeking drive the ‘gang’ into an escalating spiral of misdemeanors, outwitting those in authority and proving the adage that people can only be ‘governed’ by consent.

On the whole an easy, entertaining read without being overtly funny or exciting. Nonetheless, the concept is a good one and just as some of us aspire to be the elder in the purple hat, some of us may now have a sneaking desire to join the ranks of the aged rebels and definitely not go quietly, but rather wring some quality from life well into our dotage.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/REVIEW/SHOW/1644378598

Rating: 2 out of 5.
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Satirical Humour?

1:35 PM 6 AUGUST 2016

There can be little doubt that McEwan ia an exceptionally talented writer. Fresh from reading “Atonement”, for me, this is clearly demonstrated by the contrasting, but similarly compelling style and storyline deployed in “Solar”. 

This book centres on Nobel-prize-winning physicist, Professor Michael Beard. A brilliant mind, though past his ‘best before’ shelf-life, Beard is an emotional train crash, careering out of a fifth failed marriage and destined to be perpetually disappointed by the self-inflicted carnage of his sabotaged relationships. And yet, the superficial nature of Beard’s disposable romantic encounters, juxtaposed with the gravity and gloomy predictions of global-warming, is shot through with mawkish satirical humour. Notwithstanding the lure of scientific rationality, the weak and shallow base motivations of man are seemingly unequal to the challenge of impending destruction. Moreover, humankind may yet be sacrificed on the altar of our individual and collective inability to focus! It’s a sobering thought….

Another well-constructed novel, which further burnishes McEwan’s reputation, though I was also left with the impression that the serious threat to the planet is no laughing matter!

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Love vs Lust – a tiresome rematch

4:33 PM 8 MAY 2020

I’m prepared to accept that this book by Paulo Coelho was intended perhaps as a parable, deep and insightful, from which the reader could glean an important lesson for life. Unfortunately, for me, its depth was rather undermined by a torpid, meandering tale, which fostered little empathy with the main character and minimal interest in whether her stale marriage would survive a bout of premeditated adultery.

Linda is a journalist and lives in Geneva. She is married to a wealthy husband and together they have an only son, enjoying a clearly privileged life, in one of the safest and most stable countries in the world. And, the author suggests, therein lies the problem. For safe and unchanging, read predictable even boring and a metaphor for Linda’s sense of unhappiness. Throughout the book, Linda’s partner is never named, but referred to as ‘husband’ and like their country regarded by Linda as ‘perfect’, yet uninspiring and anonymous, safe and functional, but lacking in emotion or passion for life. By contrast, her lover-to-be, politician Jacob Konig incites in Linda spontaneity, fear and risk, but also a feeling of being alive, of shaking things up.

For all her rather hollow exploration of what is perceived as impending depression, Linda disregards the implications for her child, or husband, of gambling with their marriage. Rather, the initial guilt erodes and the apparent antidote to her gnawing loneliness and unhappiness is even rationalised as “the present that I deserve after behaving for so many years”. The key character is an intelligent, beautiful woman and yet her response, which she describes as sordid, selfish, even sinister, is apparently beyond her control. Even though she anticipates her illicit affair is destined to be time-limited and is anxious about being discovered, Linda is addicted to the window into herself that Jacob has opened. Yet, her artificial creation of the ideal family and the perfect lover reek of weakness and a tragic, but pathetic attempt to distract from an unsatisfying life.

Fundamentally there is nothing new here. The grass is not always greener, beware what you wish for, treat others as you would wish to be treated, etc. Ironically perhaps, what may be viewed as self-indulgence, may also invite others to shape the immediate future. A test for even the taken for granted, ‘perfect’ husband. 

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Shipwrecked Sailor Leads to Literary Treasure

10:33 AM 24 APRIL 2020

Mark Twain once wrote, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn’t.” It’s an adage exemplified in this poignant account of survival at sea. The tale was originally related to a young reporter at the Bogota daily, ‘El Espectador’ in 1955. The young sailor, Luis Alejandro Velasco, was just twenty years old and would go on to experience a brief, but lucrative, period in the Columbian media spotlight, before sinking without trace. The reporter, belatedly attributed with writing the piece, one Gabriel Garcia Marquez, would subsequently experience a “nomadic and somewhat nostalgic exile that in certain ways also resembles a drifting raft”, before going on to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982. That the original serialised newspaper story was republished in the form of a book, as a retrospective homage to Marquez’ early work, was dismissed by the author as more about an exploitation of a fashionable writer’s name, than the merits of the story. Still, I think Penguin deserves some credit for having reproduced this short work (just 106 pages) for posterity.

The Columbian navy destroyer, ‘Caldas’, had been in dock in Mobile, Alabama to undergo repairs for eight months and in February 1955 was on its homeward journey to the port of Cartagena. It should have been an unremarkable routine voyage, but when eight members of the crew were swept overboard, just hours from home, the story instantly became a national calamity. A search for survivors began immediately, but after four days the effort was abandoned and the lost sailors were declared dead. After a further week, Luis Velasco washed up on a beach in Northern Columbia, barely alive. Somehow he had managed to survive for ten days without food or fresh water, adrift on an open life raft. In essence, this book is a journalistic reconstruction of this implausible feat, derived from painstaking hours of interview, deliberately written in the first person to accentuate the emotional drama of a firsthand account. It’s certainly a gripping and compelling read. Almost as intriguing is “The Story of this Story”, written by the author in 1970 and included as a prologue, with Marquez’ reflections some fifteen years later.

What ‘El Espectador’ hadn’t foreseen was the seismic impact for the nation of such an unsuspecting hero, nor the reaction of the incumbent dictatorship. Yet, thankfully, rather like his subject, Marquez popped up later, albeit on a foreign shore. Content to vanish into obscurity, Velasco, the reader understands, remained in Columbia. By contrast, the author became a literary treasure of the world.

Rating: 4 out of 5.