The Graveyard of the Hesperides

The Graveyard of the Hesperides, by Lindsey Davies

Hodder & Stoughton (2016), Paperback, 416 pages

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I’m probably beginning to sound like a broken record on the topic of this series, but for the fourth time in this series, I once again failed to warm to Davies’ rebooted saga involving Flavia Albia instead of her disreputable adopted father Falco. I can never put my finger on it, the writing is as clever as ever, snappy, witty, but somehow Flavia Albia just does not resonate with me. In this iteration, Albia and her soon to be husband Tiberius Manlius are drawn into the case of a bar which in the course of being renovated has been found to be concealing six skeletons, whose identity is a mystery. The couple must solve the murder so the renovations can proceed, while at the same time trying to prevent their wedding becoming a family-related disaster. There is the usual delving into the sleazy Roman underworld, which Davies has made very much her own. Entertaining, funny and original, it’s all of that, but for me it just can’t compare to the Falco series, maybe it is lacking Falco’s peculiar mix of sleaze and honesty, I don’t know. It’s a great book, as all of Davies’ books, she is a true original in an overcrowded genre, but for me, something is lacking, I’m sorry.

7/10

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Journey to the Centre of the Earth

Journey to the Centre of the Earth: A Scientific Exploration into the Heart of our Planet, by David Whitehouse

W&N (2016), Paperback, 288 pages

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We know far more about the depths of space, billions of light years away, then we do about the planet underneath us, just a few thousand kilometres deep. The same applies to literature on the subject. Books on the cosmos are aa dime a dozen, but readable literature on the planet’s core is quite rare. Not surprising perhaps, since, unlike the stars, we cannot, and likely never will be able to, actually see the interior of our planet beyond a mere 12 kilometres or so down, because the heat and pressure exceeds that of the sun’s surface. All evidence comes from supposition, analysis of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and occasional rare eruptions of material from deep in the planet which makes it to the surface. With these scraps of evidence, David Whitehouse has produced a readable interpretation of what happens beneath the crust for the lay reader. Although the science can at times get too abstruse even with Whitehouse’s admirable interpretation, this is an enjoyable and educational introduction to a topic that few people know anything about, bad science fiction movies notwithstanding. While Whitehouse lacks the lyrical expression of say, Carl Sagan, who truly exposed the romance of science, his writing is lively and entertaining. A pleasure to read for science geeks of all ages.

8/10

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The Story of Egypt

The Story of Egypt, by Joann Fletcher

Hodder & Stoughton (2015), Paperback, 482 pages

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I’ve been an Egyptophile for as long as I can remember. Even as a child, while my friends had posters of rock stars and football players on their walls, I had Tutankhamun adorning my room. I just loved the silent mummies, the beautiful dignified statues and paintings, the fascinating depths of their tombs, the whole sense of mystery that ancient Egypt still generates. While my interest have expanded substantially, I am still prey to grabbing a good book about Egypt when I see one, and this is a cracker. Joann Fletcher has condensed the whole history of Egypt, from pre-dynastic times to the death of Cleopatra, into 400 odd pages covering 3000 years, and done it very well. While the centuries fly by, and dynasty gives way to dynasty, nothing feels hurried, and Fletcher gives every Pharaoh their due according to the length of their reign, their importance in Egypt’s history, and probably most importantly, how much is known about each, which is some cases is very little. However, the book’s main appeal comes from the fact that Fletcher has avoided the temptation to just include the dry historical details, and enlivens the text with snippets which reinforce the humanity of these godlike beings. She reveals that Ramses the Great dyed his hair, the wife of Montuhotep was given to biting her nails, and Cleopatra’s father was given the nickname Fluteplayer because of his youthful predilection for that instrument. In addition, Fletcher goes beyond the stories of the Pharaohs to give information about the lives of the ordinary people of Egypt, gathered from graffiti, scraps of papyrus and pottery and their modest tombs. This is a thoroughly entertaining and informative read. I loved it.

9/10

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The Library at Mount Char

The Library at Mount Char, by Scott Hawkins

Crown Publishing (2015), Hardcover,  400 pages

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A while ago, I reviewed a book entitled The Rook, which I thought was an absolute wild roller-coaster of a fantasy read. Well, it hasn’t taken long for The Rook to be emphatically overtaken in the wild ride stakes. You have read nothing until you have clapped eyes on Carolyn, David, Michael and the other inhabitants of the Library at Mount Char. This a is a book which starts off with a woman walking down the street at night in a bloodstained dress, and ends with the sun being destroyed, not once, but twice, and a new God installed. It is impossible to categorise this book into any one genre, there are elements of fantasy, sci-fi, crime, social commentary, and many more. The plot so far as it can be described, revolves around a community of individuals taken from their parents as children by a powerful being who calls himself Father, and who may or not be God. He has given them access to an immense library of ancient knowledge and arcane secrets, with each being given a catalog of skills to master. Studying outside their designated catalog is strictly forbidden, and punished in the most horrendous way imaginable. The 12 children have grown into powerful adults, each with an amazing skill set. David is an unstoppable killing machine, Michael can control wild animals, Margaret can die repeatedly, wander the world of the dead finding information, and then be brought back to life by drug-addicted Jennifer. Carolyn, the main protagonist, has the seemingly innocuous talent of knowing a multitude of languages, but Father has earmarked her for something special. As the book opens, Father is missing, possibly dead, and his children begin competing to gain access to the library and become his all-powerful successor. From there the plot is beyond description, it needs to be read to be understood. And it is a wild, wild ride. But it is captivating, mesmerizing, unsettling, shocking, sad, revolting and joyous all at the same time. This is the type of fantasy I like, nothing twee, no Harry Potter nicey-niceness, it is raw, powerful and utterly engrossing. Fantasy for adults, I love it. More please.

9.5/10

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Olmec Obituary

Olmec Obituary, by L.J.M. Owen

Echo Publishing (2015), Paperback, 247 pages

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Elegant and refreshingly different addition to the mystery genre, in that the mystery is archaeological rather than criminal, although it does involve a crime committed 3000 year ago. Dr Elizabeth Pimms is an Egyptologist forced by financial considerations to follow the family profession of librarianship rather than her heart’s desire of digging up ancient cultures. However, her new job at a library in Canberra leads her into an unexpected involvement in a tomb of Olmec skeletons unearthed in Mexico, as well as a possible case of academic fraud. This is in addition to dealing with stresses in her own family. To tell the truth, I could have done with less of Dr Pimm’s family problems, they felt forced and didn’t quite ring true, however, the main plot of the book, concerning the archaeological mystery, is exceptionally well-handled, riveting and intellectually interesting. This also goes for the library portions of the book. This is no surprise, as the author, like her protagonist, is also a librarian with a PhD in archaeology, so she is familiar with both these disciplines and it shows. As I am also a librarian with a PhD in ancient history, it also speaks to me. Its not often I get to feel such an affinity for not one but two disciplines which are featured in a book, and everything has a comforting veneer of familiarity to me. However, even if I did not feel such a close relationship with the material, I would still rate this book very highly. Its a cracking good read, and I look forward to the next episode in the series with great anticipation.

9/10

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Capital

Capital, by John Lanchester

Faber & Faber (2015), Paperback, 592 pages

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Pepys Road is an average upper middle class street in London hovering on the brink of financial crisis in 2008. The inhabitants are a perfect cross-section of society – the banker in a mid-life crisis, his shopaholic wife  and their luscious Hungarian nanny, the Polish jobbing builder dreaming of the perfect woman and return to his homeland with money, the elderly widow dying of cancer and her careworn daughter, the Pakistani family running the corner store, who have unwittingly sheltered a jihadi, the Zimbabwean refugee working as a traffic warden, the young African on the brink of football stardom and his fish out of water father, and a host of other characters who swim in and out of the narrative as required. What links them together, and provides the central plot is that each is receiving unsigned postcards saying “We want what you have”. While the postcard campaign mounts in tempo, the residents deal with their own issues with varying degrees of success. And this, in the end, is what truly makes this book worth reading. the postcard plot is uninteresting the revelation of the culprits in the end is incredibly underwhelming, but along the way the reader will have been captivated by the different stories of the characters involved. For some, like Zbigniew the builder and his Hungarian sweetheart, the story ends happily, for others, like Roger the banker and Quentina the traffic warden, it doesn’t, but their stories bare captivating and will hold the reader’s attention to the end. This is a masterful piece of writing, the author has used a weak device to hold together a narrative where the protagonists really have little in common, and done a superb job of creating a very readable and absorbing novel. Well done.

8.5/10

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Citizens of London

Citizens of London: The Americans who Stood with Britain in its Darkest Hour, by Lynne Olson

Scribe (2015), Paperback, 448 pages

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Absolutely fascinating and detailed book, ostensibly dealing with three very different Americans, broadcaster Edward. R. Murrow, ambassador Gilbert Winant and industrialist Averell Harriman, all of whom lived and worked in Britain during its darkest days inn 1940-41, and all of whom fought for US recognition and aid for Britain’s plight. However, the book also furnishes a warts and all account of the twisting, often uplifting but sometimes poisonous relationship between Britain and the US during the war. Olson pulls no punches, freely recounting fervent Anglophopia among leading Americans, including FDR himself, and British condescension towards Americans. It is clear that only the overwhelming importance of the common goal of defeating Hitler, plus the efforts of enlightened individuals  like Murrow, Harriman and Winant, kept the alliance alive and ultimately delivered victory. The book also deals fascinating detail of life in embattled Britain, grey, exhausted and hungry for most of the population, but captivating, alluring and vibrant for the fortunate few, for whom ample supplies of partying, booze and sex were freely available. None of the three titular Americans were immune to the romantic possibilities of wartime – Murrow and Harriman both had affairs with Churchill’s daughter in law Pamela, while Winant courted Churchill’s daughter Sarah. Spicy details like this like up the narrative, but there is plenty of interest always in every aspect of the wartime growth of the “special relationship”. This is a fabulous piece of historical writing, lively, confronting and absorbing. Very, very good.

9.5/10

 

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The Midnight Watch

The Midnight Watch, by David Dyer

Atlantic Books, (2016), Paperback, 336 pages

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A fascinating novel about the Titanic, that nevertheless, never quite hits the mark. Although it delves into the story of the Californian, the ship that stood by within visual range of the Titanic while it was sinking and did nothing, certainly a rich field for a novelist to mine, the plot lacks substance in the final analysis. There is no real mystery, no final shock reveal, and in the end it becomes a rather morbid quest by the novel’s protagonist, journalist John Steadman, to elicit an admission of guilt from enigmatic captain Stanley Lord. The novel only really comes to life in the postscript, where Steadman gives the story of the Sage family, all eleven of whom perished in the sinking, a truly heart-wrenching tale, that belies Steadman’s rather coldly forensic pursuit of the truth about the Californian, bringing home the full horror of what happened to so many ordinary people on that cold April night in 1912. As I said, I found the book fascinating, taken in terms of pure interest in this endlessly fascinating story, it is magnificent, and evokes the attitudes of the times splendidly. However, as a novel, a work of fiction, it just doesn’t quite do it for me.

7.5/10

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The Rook

The Rook, by Daniel O’Malley

Head of Zeus, (2013), Paperback, 496 pages

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What an amazing read! This is a gem from out of nowhere, people, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Think the X-Files meets UNIT from Dr Who. Think Harry Potter for grown-ups. It’s really impossible to classify this book, it is a true original, a supernatural thriller with a wonderful mixture of absurdity, scares and black humour. Myfanwy Thomas awakes in a park surrounded by dead bodies and with no memory of who she is. Letters in her pocket purport to be from the personality who previously occupied her body, an agent in a top-secret organisation known as the Checquy, which since the Middle Ages has guarded Britain from paranormal threats by means of the paranormal powers wielded by its operatives. Myfanwy finds she is a member of the Court, the top-ranking enclave that runs the Checquy. Guided by helpful hints left by the original Myfanwy, Myfanwy Mk II finds she has to both find her way in a position she has no knowledge of while letting no-one know she is not the person they think she is, at the same time hunting down a traitor in the ranks and combatting a powerful ancient enemy from the Continent. While at times, the book threatens to run away from the author’s control and the absurdity of the plot becomes sometimes a little too much, MyFanwy, simultaneously diffident, confused and very, very, sometimes frighteningly strong, holds the whole edifice together. She is as appealing and empathetic a character as any I have come across, very Harry Potterish but with an adult’s cynicism. The ending is a genuine surprise and sets up what should be a very interesting sequel. I can’t praise the Rook highly enough, if your taste runs to absurd monsters, black humour, a fair dose of violence and some stomach-churning ickiness, this is just a superb read. It is a rare pleasure to review something as genuinely fun to read as this.

10/10

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Impulse

Impulse, by Dave Bara

Del Rey (2015), Paperback, 384 pages

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This is actaully the first in the series which continues with Starbound. I should probably have read this one first, as what happened in Starbound would then have somewhat less mystifying, although no less enjoyable. The story of young Union officer Peter Cochrane, mourning the loss of his girlfriend when her shuttle was destroyed, is about to embark on his tour of duty on the new Lightship Starbound, when he is suddenly detailed to the Impulse, sent to make contact with the newly discovered world of levant, another lost Earth colony. It becomes his first encounter with the hostile First Empire, whose origins are explained, but leaves them no less a mystery. In the whole of the two books of far, a living member of the Empire has not yet appeared, and all their hostile acts appear to be committed by either automated weapons or enslaved captives from the Union. In fact, I wonder whether Dara is leading up to a revelation that the First Empire as a human construct no longer exists, and has been replaced by some sort of machine intelligence. This would be logical and perfectly in keeping with the ideas so far in the books, time will tell. I didnt enjoy this quite as much as the sequel, perhaps it was trifle less developed and coherent as the second, as befits an author finding his way with new material, however, it was still an enjoyable read. If you like good old-fashioned space opera, as typified by the pulps of the 30’s and 40s, and authors like Asimov and Smith, you will like this. Great literature it ain’t, but good reading it certainly is.

8/10

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Starbound

Starbound by Dave Bara

Del Rey (2016), Paperback, 368 pages

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A cracking read, good old fashioned space opera, with detectable elements of 1930s/40’s pulp sci-fi, plus a hint of more modern works such as Dune and Starship Troopers. This is the second book in the series, and I would strongly recommend reading this book’s precursor first, as this leads on directly from the events of the first, otherwise much of this book is confusing. The story revolves around Peter Cochrane, a young officer in the Union Navy. The Union is a fragile coalition between former Earth colonies who have only just begun to contact each other again a century and half after a devastating civil war. Cochrane comes from Quantar, a planet originally settled by Australians. The other planets are Carinthia, settled by Germans, and Levant, the newest member, which appears to have been settled by people from the Middle-East. Earth is also a member, but plays only a peripheral role through the aid of Earth Historians, sages wise in technology, who are gifting things like hyperdrive and advanced weapons back to the former colonies in return for them joining the Union. The Union is threatened by the mysterious First Empire, the remains of the former galaxy spanning plutocracy, who are trying to re-assert their control over the Union planets. Much of the story is informed by the fact that the technology of FTL flight is so new to the Union that every hyperspace jump is a risky adventure, and that travel between planets is not a matter of press a button, bang you’re in hyperspace, but every jump must be planned carefully and has the capability of ending very badly, despite the existence of jump points left by an earlier civilization, the Founders. Complicating Cochrane’s life is the fact that he is also a high-ranking member of the Quantar aristocracy and heir to the throne of Quantar, so he spends as much time engaged in inter-planetary diplomacy as in his military duties. This very Dune-like interplay between the ruling houses of each of the planets gives a nice contrast to the sci-fi elements of the story, a mixture of old and new that works quite well in crafting an absorbing story. The story in this book centres around the discovery of an abandoned space station that may belong to the Founders and then the attempted coup by the eldest son of Carinthia’s ruler, that threatens to destroy the fledgling Union. Cochrane must do his best to thwart this and fight off the depredations of the First Empire, meanwhile being forced to choose between his lover and a dynastic marriage that may save the Union. I found this book fascinating, it’s not perfect, but the combination of old-world dynastic intrigue and planet-hopping, space war sci-fi is enthralling. I really want more, can’t wait for the next instalment.

8.5/10

 

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The Ghosts of K2

The Ghosts of K2: The Epic Saga of the First Ascent, by Mick Conefrey

Oneworld Publications (2015), Hardcover, 336 pages

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I think it’s definitely no secret now that I’m a climbing and mountaineering groupie of fanatic proportions. Despite my crippling fear of heights (or perhaps because of it), I am drawn to sagas of climbing derring-do at ridiculous altitudes. And this is a cracker. K2 is possibly my favourite mountain (Everest is so last century, after all). It is so perfect in its dimensions, so photogenic, so remote, so forbidding, so utterly brutal to the foolhardy, the unprepared or the just plain unlucky, as to possess a magic and a fascination that for me, Everest just doesn’t have. This is is the story of K2 from its first discovery, hidden away in such a remote part of the Karakoram between present-day Pakistan and China, that up until its first attempted ascent in 1902, the number of Westerners who had actually seen it could be counted on one hand. Conefrey covers that first whimsical, almost comic attempt by noted occultist Aleister Crowley (a competent climber when he wasn’t plumbing the depths of sexual and blasphemous depravity), to the later attempts by various American teams in the 1930s, then again in the early 1950s when the US “owned” K2 exactly as the British “owned “Everest”, and then the surprising final conquest by the unheralded Italians in 1954, and then comprehensively deals with the bitter controversy which pitted team-mates against one another and that has dogged that conquest ever since. It makes for a fantastic read, especially since many of the stories are much less well-known than their equivalents from Everest, which brings a freshness to the narrative. The larger than life characters too, are well-depicted in all their often flawed heroicism.  Crowley and his companion, inventor Oscar Eckenstein, the Duke of Abruzzi, who had the honour of having his name applied to one of K2’s best known features, the Americans Charlie Houston and Fritz Weissner, who suffered the agonising near-miss of getting to within reaching distance of the top only to be held back by a panicky Sherpa, and the cheerful but totally unsuitable Dudley Wolfe, possibly the unfittest man ever to attempt an 8000 metre peak, and who died along with three Sherpas high on the mountain. The ill-fated 1953 American expedition is dominated by the tragic story of Art Gilkey, immobilised by thrombophlebitis as his companions attempted to carry him down the mountain, only for him to be swept away while his friends desperately tried to save him. The there is the heroics of the 1954 Italian expedition, which despite a total fracture between the irascible leader Ardito Desio and his climbers, somehow managed to deposit Achille Compagnoni and Lino Lacedelli on the summit on 30th July 1954. (And had they  known the controversy that would engulf them for the next 50 years, brought on by their team-mate, Italy’s greatest ever climber Walter Bonatti, they may well have chosen to stay on the summit). This is simply a great read, ripping stuff about the conquest of the last great unknowns on the face of the planet. Brilliant!

9.5/10

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A Very Courageous Decision

A  Very Courageous Decision: The Inside Story of Yes Minister, by Graham McCann

Aurum Press (2014), Hardcover, 384 pages

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There are very few comedic television shows which have had such an impact on the social and political real world as the BBC comedy Yes Minister, and its subsequent successor Yes, Prime Minister, which during their relatively short run between 1980 and 1984, and 1986 and 1988 respectively, shook up the public image of politicians and civil servants as no other comedy program has ever done. The legacy of the show, apart from memories of a brilliantly witty, superbly written and acted series, is that any revelations of government bungling or civil service shenanigans, immediately evokes calls of “Yes, Minister”, and it will be immediately and implicitly understood by the public at large, even among those who have never actually seen the shows. McCann’s carefully written and detailed book is both the story of how the show came to be, and its blossoming impact on the viewing public and the politico-social world. McCann starts with the early careers of writers Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, two very different individuals, one fervently left-wing, the other equally as vehemently right of centre, who came to evolve a idea for a series revolving around a career civil servant, a newly elected minister, and his private secretary. The story of the early evolution of the series from idea to screenplay to casted series to production is covered closely and in immaculate detail. McCann is highly experienced in writing books of this nature, having previously penned similar books about Open All Hours and Fawlty Towers, and the book is meticulously and absorbingly written, with comments from all the people involved in the production, including actors and crew. particularly interesting is the way in the which the charactters of Sir Humphrey Appleby, Jim Hacker and Bernard Woolley evolved through the skill of the actors playing them. McCann goes on to cover the whole of the two series, and the subsequent revivals on the stage and screen, as well as demonstrating the massive impact it had on British politics, with MPs embracing the show, and queuing up to give their best wisecracks about it at question time. No less a fan than the Iron Lady herself, Margaret Thatcher, all but demanded the chance to appear in a skit about the show. This is a terrific book, by turns absorbing, funny, sentimental, occasionally sad and informative. This is certainly one of the better books I have ever read in this genre. Highly recommended.

9.5/10

 

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Prick with a Fork

Prick with a Fork, by Larissa Dubecki

Allen & Unwin (2016), Paperback, 304 pages

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Larissa Dubecki is now a well-known Australian food critic and writer, with a noted acerbic touch to her written output. Those wondering why she does tend to dip her pen in acid when reviewing restaurants will perhaps have their question answered by reading this inflammatory tome. For as it happens, Larissa, now on top of the food service food chain, as it were, began her career at the bottom, as a much put-upon waitress in a number of seamy, sleazy eateries, where apart from the arrogance, stupidity and just plain selfishness of the clientele, she had to contend with randy cooks, rampant drug-taking, disappearing cash, orgies in the cool-rooms and unintelligent restaurant owners who all believe their 1 star establishment is destined to be the next big thing. Dubecki pulls no punches, the writing is fast and frenetic and she plays the shock value for all its worth, producing what can only be described as Restaurant Babylon. In between her shocking and sometime quite disgusting tales, she has included many amusing anecdotes and asides from other participants in the  hospitality industry. For myself, I found the gross-out stuff became quite excessive, and the manic writing style just a little OTT. For all that though, it’s still an entertaining and educational look at an industry that prides itself on being cutting-edge and trendy to the max. Many hipsters may die from sheer shock upon reading this book, for it punctures the mega-cool veneer of the foodie industry with needle-sharp precision, while the rest of us will get a good laugh, and maybe chose the next place we choose to dine just a bit more carefully.

8/10

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The Strangers Who Came Home

The Strangers Who Came Home: The First Australian Cricket Tour of England, by John Lazenby

Bloomsbury (2016), Paperback, 304 pages

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A wonderful read for all cricket tragics, like myself. In 1878, an intrepid band of Australians (most of whom regarded themselves as Englishmen still), set out to tour the Old Dart and to try to beat the English at their own game. Following the successful English tour of the previous year, which involved the first official Test match ever played, the Australian Eleven as they were known, embarked on one of the most epic sporting tours of all time. They would play 72 matches on three continents, cross two oceans, and take the best of a year to complete the tour. The highlight of the tour was undoubtedly beating the powerful MCC side in a single afternoon at Lords, a victory that shattered English complacency and contempt regarding the sporting prowess of colonials, and laid the foundations of the continuing cricket rivalry between England and Australia, now into its 3rd century and showing no signs of abating. But the side also played 42 other matches against English and Scottish sides of varying strengths, winning some and losing some, encountering foul weather, terrible pitches, outright cheating and crowd hostility, but also plenty of good competition, healthy rivalry, press adulation and playing some damn good cricket along the way. Lazenby does an excellent job of bringing this almost forgotten tour to life, every significant ball and shot in every match being described in loving detail, with plenty of news reports and anecdotes that evoke wonderfully the spirit of the times. The book is full of larger than life characters, such as W.G. Grace, the giant of English cricket, the demon fast bowler  Fred Spofforth, who broke wickets and English hearts, the incredibly hard-hitting batsman Charles Bannerman, and the “Prince of Wicketkeepers”, Jack Blackham. This is vintage cricket-writing at its best, reminiscent of legends such as Cardus and Arlott. Cricket tragics and fans of classic sporting contests in general will love this.

9/10

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Dreadnought

Dreadnought: The Ship that Changed the World, by Roger Parkinson

I.B. Tauris (2014), Hardcover, 304 pages

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The title is actually a misnomer, the book covers far more than just the building of the eponymous battleship that in 1906, changed the face of naval warfare. It is actually an account of the development of capital ship strategy in the world’s major navies btween the 1870s and the 1920s, starting with the first ironclad warships with breech-loading weapons and ending with the 15 inch gunned behemoths that fought in the last pitched battle between battleships at Jutland and were effectively outlawed at the Washington Naval Conference in 1921 because the ruinous cost of building them had nearly bankrupted some nations, including Britain. This is an interesting, well-paced book, taking what can be a dense subject and making it easily accessible to the lay reader without sacrifcing any of the essential detail. In between the description of the various features of each succeeding class of warship, Parkinson manages to inject many of the personalities that were responsible for the developments in naval strategy. Larger than life characters such as Jacky Fisher, Winston Churchill, Alfred von Tirpitz, Kaiser Wilhelm, Admirals Jellicoe, Beatty and Scheer, stride through the pages. Parkinson also manages to look beyond the Britain-Germany arms race that dominates so many books of this kind, to show what was happening in the other major navies of the world. France, Russia, Italy, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, Japan and the USA, and even the South American republics, are all covered, and the book shows just how even the extravagant cost of these monster ships was not enough to deter even relatively poor countries from joining in the race. This is a truly absorbing book, one of the best I have read in this subject area, highly recommended for all this intrigued by naval history, war at sea, or the history of the early 20th century.

9/10

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Andy and Don

Andy and Don: The Making of a Friendship and a Classic American TV Show, by Daniel De Vise

Simon & Schuster (2015), Kindle edition, 320 pages

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As a kid, I was not much taken by the Andy Griffiths Show. For one thing it was in black & white, and we were too infatuated with colour (which only arrived in Australia in 1974). It was also more than a decade old by then, and had already been gone from American TV for most of my lifetime. It was also a show with lots of love but little action, and I preferred action shows like Westerns and cop shows, like most kids. But I did love the whistled theme, which is repeating in my head as I write. And the doings of Mayberry have somehow filtered into my consciousness without my realization, to the extent that I can effortlessly remember all the characters. This wonderful book, then, brings back a lot of memories, and is a timely inside look at one of the great comedic partnerships of TV. Andy Griffith and Don Knotts came from similar poor, rural, Southern backgrounds. Griffith was born into grinding poverty, and slept in a drawer for a part of his childhood. Knotts’ mother had a nervous breakdown after his birth, and he was abused by his alcoholic father. But both men were able to rise above their backgrounds, through the hard grind of local theatre, bit parts in films and TV, developing their comedic characters, Griffith as the honest, straight-talking Southern boy, Knotts as the nervous twitchy little man who had a genius for catastrophe. They first met on the set of No Time for Sergeants in 1958, and a lifelong partnership was formed. In 1960, after years of trying, Andy Griffith was given the green light for his own TV show. One of his first acts was to enlist Knotts to be his c0-star in the Andy Griffith Show. It was to be one of the most successful shows in TV history, running for 8 years, spawning several spin-offs and reunions, and enshrining both Griffith and Knotts in comedy’s hall of fame forever. De Vise delivers a warts and all depiction of Griffiths’ and Knotts’ parallel lives. Neither man was trouble-free off set. Griffiths had a towering temper, resented being upstaged, an carried grudges for a long time. Knotts was a compulsive hypochondriac, a heavy drinker and taker of prescription pills. Both men were womanizers and went through several marriages and numerous relationships each. None of this takes away from the majesty of their comic achievement, however, on set they were a perfect partnership. A lovely book that not only covers two men’s lives and their achievements, but also in passing the history of television itself. As I said, I have no great memory of the show itself, but its does bring back wonderful memories of watching TV in that era. A really enthralling and nostalgic read.

8.5/10

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In Montmartre

In Montmartre: Picasso, Matisse and Modernism in Paris, 1900-1910, by Sue Roe

Penguin (2015), Paperback, 384 pages

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Sometimes slow-moving, but wonderfully atmospheric account of Montmartre’s second coming as the centre of the art world. After the heyday of Impressionism in the 1870’s, at the turn of the century a new clique of ambitious young artists gathered among the seedy clubs, decrepit hovels and cramped cafes surrounding the storied hill on the Right Bank. The Moulin de la Galette, an authentic windmill as opposed to the ersatz Moulin Rouge, and much trendier, was the early meeting place for Picasso, Matisse, Vlaminck, Derain, Modigliani, who were all beginning their artistic careers, and still feeling their way through the post-Impressionist era. For a decade, formative strands of modern art swirled around the Bateau-Lavoir, a seedy garret where Picasso lived in squalor with his indolent mistress Fernande Olivier and tried to sell paintings, moving quickly through his Blue period, and his Rose Period, before moving into what Matisse had described in passing as “cubism.” Roe sets the book as a double act between Matisse and Picasso, the family man versus the womanising vagabond, but really Picasso steals the show. His “bande” (Vlaminck, Derain and Braque), as well as sundry hangers-on, swagger through the streets of Montmartre, drinking to excess, smoking opium, chopping and changing lovers  like they do their clothes. Out of this chaos comes the beginnings of modern art. Rose includes plenty of the non-artists who clung to the art cabal, including Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Guillame Appollinaire, Maurice Utrillo and Suzanne Valadon. Roe evokes the atmosphere of Belle Epoque Paris perfectly, you can practically see the dancers in the nightclubs, smell the absinthe, watch the inebriated artists stumble back to their garrets at dawn. A wonderful book, full of lovely anecdotes, for anyone who loves art, or anyone who just loves people-watching. Highly recommended.

9/10

 

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The Murder Road

The Murder Road, by Stephen Booth

Sphere (2016), Paperback, 496 pages

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I have heard Booth’s long running series described as the anti-Midsomer Murders, and there’s certainly some truth to that. Instead of Midsomer’s pretty countryside, twee villages and charming eccentric characters, Booth offers the bleakness of the Peak District, small huddled villages and ugly towns, and sullen, troubled  characters with dark secrets. In this installment, Ben Cooper is called on to investigate the murder of a truck driver after his vehicle becomes stuck under a bridge, blocking access to a tiny, ramshackle village. The inhabitants are less than impressed by having their only road cut off and cause Cooper grief in a number of ways as he struggles to ascertain  why the driver was so far out of his way,  and what connection the murder has to a horrific traffic accident from eight years before and the suicide of a bereaved widower. In addition, he is having to cope with big changes in his team. Long-time comic relief Gavin Murfin has retired, and new detective Dev Sharma, whom Cooper has his doubts about, arrives. His long-time partner, nemesis, and sexual tension magnet Diane Fry is far away in Nottingham, and makes only a cameo appearance, albeit a decisive one that seems likely alter their relationship forever. Its unlikely anyone will ever read Booth’s works for excitement, they are more of a slow burn. But the brooding atmosphere and simmering tension is captivating, and the Peak District setting, both lovely and forbidding, complements the story to perfection. Think of it as Midsomer noir and you’re probably very close. Personally I love these books, and while I realise they are not to everyone’s taste, if you like gritty police procedurals, particularly if they are set in captivating locales like these, you will love them too.

9/10

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Shakespeare and the Countess

Shakespeare and the Countess: The Battle That Gave Birth to the Globe, by Chris Laoutaris

Penguin (2015), Paperback, 544 pages

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The title is actually somewhat misleading, since the Bard makes only a cameo appearance. It is really a biography of one of the more influential and remarkable women in an age of remarkable women. Elizabeth Russell, by her own styling the Dowager Countess of Bedford, although hardly anyone else recognised her as such, was a well-educated, fiercely Puritan and anti-Catholic woman, dedicate in the main to fighting for the recognition of her daughters’ claim to the riches of the Earldom of Bedford, from which she was tragically cut off when her husband died before inheriting the title. She was certainly a woman who would go to any lengths to attain what she wanted, and it was here that Shakespeare and his players ran afoul of her. It was their intention to operate a playhouse in Blackfriars, where Elizabeth happened to live, and she would have none of it. She amassed the signatures of other notable residents of the area, including some of Shakespeare’s own sponsors, in a petition against it and forced the Bard and his players to look elsewhere. The end result, of course, was the Globe Theatre, the most iconic playhouse in history. However, looking at this from Elizabeth’s viewpoint, this was a very minor incident in an eventful life, and the book reinforces that point. While it tends to drag in some areas as it follows the minutiae of Elizabethan politics, this is a fascinating read. Laoutaris has done well to find a previously largely unknown incident in the life of one of the most studied individuals in literary history, and from it has extracted the life story of a woman who is as little-known as Shakespeare is lauded. I really do love history that disinters remarkable individuals who have been largely forgotten and brings them back to life. This is a superb example.

9/10

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The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio

The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio: The True Story of a Convent in Scandal, by Hubert Wolf

OUP (2015), Hardcover, 496 pages

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An absorbing if dry examination of a scandal that the Vatican buried as deep as it could for 150 years. In 1858, a German princess domiciled in a convent in Rome sent out a desperate cry for help, claiming she was about to be murdered. After her rescue, the Church set about investigating her claims. What emerged was so disturbing that the case was referred to the Holy Office for the Doctrine of the Faith, the modern incarnation of the Inquisition. But this was not the Inquisition of the Middle Ages, dedicated to torture and the stake to weed out heretics, this was a pedantic and dedicated prosecutor’s office, staffed by lawyers rather than witch-hunters. The whole book thus becomes an meticulous investigation of the evidence collected. What the investigators discovered was that the seemingly peaceful convent was a hotbed of heresy, sexual misconduct and bullying leading to murder and attempted murder. The investigation came to centre on Sr Maria Luisa, a young and beautiful nun who had risen to hold several key position in the convent through having some form of hold over the abbess. Once there, she conspired to institute worship of the convent’s founder, whose alleged holiness had been discredited by the Church, manufactured letters purporting to be from Jesus and the Virgin Mary endorsing her actions, and seduced other young and naive nuns into sexual activities under the guise of administering “blessings”. Even worse, nuns who had rejected these activities died under mysterious circumstances, a fate which nearly befell Princess Katharina von Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen. She also seduced her confessor, who turned out himself to be rather more than just a humble misguided priest. Wolf demonstrates how this seemingly minor scandal fed into the wider struggle within the church between the so-called Ultramontanists, led by the Jesuits, hard-line conservatives who wanted complete domination by Rome, and the liberal reformers, who wanted a more decentralized, pastoral church. As it turned out, Maria Luisa’s humble confessor turned out be a key player in this debate who happened to be lying low under an assumed name. In the end, the Church punished the transgressors, the nuns severely, the priests much more leniently, dissolved the convent and pushed the whole business as far down in the archives as they could. The result for the nuns was truly tragic. Poorly educated peasant girls for the most part, caught up in an environment they were ill-prepared for, they were made the scapegoats and the remainder of their lives, Sr Maria Luisa in particular, were hellish. This is an essentially dry and fairly legalistic book, but the detail that Wolf provides so carefully is absorbing and shocking. Religious sceptics will have a field day scoffing at the naivete and superstition of ignorant people which is depicted so clearly here, but you won’t be able to help feeling great sorrow for many of the participants. It’s a very human story despite its legalistic nature.

9/10

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Bog Bodies Uncovered

Bog Bodies Uncovered: Solving Europe’s Ancient Mystery, by Miranda Aldhouse-Green

Thames & Hudson (2015), Hardcover, 224 pages.

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Like many people, I was captivated by reading as a teenager P.V. Glob’s seminal The Bog People: Iron Age Man Preserved, which introduced the world to the truly astonishing discoveries, which had actually been occurring for centuries, of perfectly preserved 2000 year old corpses  being excavated in the peat bogs of Northern Europe. In Glob’s dry precise text and wonderful  black and white photos, I was introduced to Tollund Man’s perfect, peaceful face, Grauballe Man’s tortured scream, and the sinister “blindfold” covering the eyes of Windeby Girl. In later years I was absorbed by the saga of perhaps the most famous bog body ever, Lindow Man from Cheshire, which precipitated a veritable flood of bog body books, ranging from the scientifically exact to complete crap. Now all of these famous corpses are revisited, along with many newer discoveries, in this excellent book which updates the science of bog preservation. Wonderfully written by Miranda Aldhouse-Green, who navigates the perilous line between scientific exactitude and popular appeal with deft precision, this is a genuinely exciting book to read. Simply put, the advances in both the number of bodies discovered and the science of how they lived and died and of their amazing preservation has been staggering. Apart from the science, which is carefully kept to the level that the average intellect can understand without sacrificing its veracity, a wonderful picture is built up of the lives of the societies from which these unfortunates came from, and why they were chosen to be deliberately killed, offering in horrific ways, and interred forever in the peaty waters. I have seldom read a better mix of science and human interest. For anyone who remembers reading Glob’s book, or was caught up in the Lindow Man saga, or who is just interested in a unique snapshot of the lives of certain unlucky individuals from long ago, this is a must-read.

9.5/10

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The Third QI Book of General Ignorance

The Third QI Book of General Ignorance, by John Lloyd

Faber & Faber (2015), Paperback, 320 pages

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If you are a nice, considerate person, you will read this book to amuse yourself, improve your general knowledge of useless information, and then never mention to anyone that you have read it, or God forbid, quote examples from it. On the other hand, if you are not a nice, considerate person, you will drive your friends insane by repeating examples from the book which demonstrate that everything they ever thought they knew, is dead wrong. Such is the dilemma a book like this presents. The arresting blurb informs you that “Everything you thought you knew is still wrong”, and it delivers. You think Tarzan swung on vines through the jungle? Wrong, at least as far as the original books go. The Earl of Sandwich invented the sandwich? Wrong. You can legally kill a Welshman in Chester after sunset? Wrong (I should hope so!). Lady Godiva rode naked through Coventry? Wrong. And so on. Vastly entertaining, if you are a trivia buff (I am). Irritatingly pointless, if you are not. Let’s face it, this is never going to be considered for any book of the year awards, but it does what it claims to do, and is entertaining along with it. And you might learn some things, or perhaps many things, you have never known. Fun stuff, pure and simple.

8.5/10

 

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The Nature of the Beast

The Nature of the Beast, by Brian Sykes

Coronet (2015), Paperback, 337 pages

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One of the most interesting books to emerge in the arcane field of cryptozoology for quite a few years. Brian Sykes is no left-field wacko or pseudo-expert, he is the Professor of Human Genetics at Oxford and world-renowned expert in the genetic descent of man, and for him to turn his knowledge to the study of the existence of Bigfoot, the yeti, the alma and other purported ape-men wandering the planet’s various semi-explored regions is a real boost of credibility for a field that has wallowed in the shallow end of the scientific pool for many years. Sykes, after recounting a spooky encounter with an alleged Bigfoot, sets out to obtain samples of the DNA of as many reported ape-man encounters as possible from across the planet, with a view to discovering if it is possible if some members of homo sapiens’ long-extinct cousins, such as Neanderthals or Gigantopithecus, may somehow have survived into the modern era. This is no dry scientific dissertation though. Rather, his journey is told in an amusing travelogue, full of light-hearted anecdotes about his encounters with many people who claim to have encountered ape-men and many who passionately believe in their existence, to the extent of devoting their lives to finding the hairy men. Along the way he tells of the difficulty of finding viable DNA from often old and degraded samples, and how in response science is advancing to such an extent that genetic material. can now be extracted from the tiniest samples. In the end, after many travels and travails, Sykes ends up with a bevy of samples, hair, skin, blood and other materials from purported encounters, which are analysed for their DNA fingerprint. Not surprisingly, virtually all turn out to be from conventional animals, bears, deer, wolves and the like, however, Sykes is gratified to find himself left with a couple of samples that defy classification. He is subsequently led to the extraordinary story of Zana, a supposed hairy wildwoman who was captured in Russia in the mid 19th century, and spent her life on a farm, never learning to speak or wear clothes, but able to bear 4 children by various fathers. Sykes is able to recover DNA from the exhumed remains of her children and makes an astonishing revelation about who Zana really was. The reader is left in no doubt that if fully verified, this discovery will change the view forever of man being the sole survivor of the hominid family walking the earth in the modern era. It is a fitting climax to an extremely interesting book that will intrigue dedicated ape-man enthusiasts and sceptics alike.

9/10

 

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Alone on the Wall

Alone on the Wall: Alex Honnold and the Ultimate Limits of Adventure, by Alex Honnold and David Roberts

Macmillan (2015), Paperback, 256 pages

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I think I’ve confided before that I’m a mountaineering and climbing junkie even though I have a terrific fear of heights. I love reading about death-defying and vertigo-inducing feats at altitude even though I would collapse in a screaming heap even at the thought of doing something similar. But the vicarious pleasure or reading or viewing someone else risking their life is just too much to resist. And this book is a beauty. Alex Honnold is ultra. He is arguably (and I doubt even his rivals would be doing much arguing) the best exponent in the bowel-clenching world of free-solo climbing. Put it simply, he climbs alone, on terrifyingly vertical rock faces, to dizzy altitudes with no ropes, no pitons, cams or other equipment, and no companions to assist him if he gets into trouble. He falls, he dies, its as simple as that. His only equipment,  a bag of chalk for his fingers, a pair of climbing shoes, and his own muscles and brain. This guy does things that even other equally daredevil climbers baulk at. As the blurb puts it, he does things that are literally inconceivable for ordinary mortals like the rest of us. His philosophy (and philosophy is a common practice among climbers, it’s an occupation that tends to promote introspection) is that he does not fear, because fear only comes if you make mistakes, and since he does not make mistakes, he has nothing to fear. He is also a genuinely free spirit, with no permanent home, living in a van which he has kitted out as  a crude dwelling on wheels and travels from place to place climbing, always looking for the next ultra-difficult route on some enormous face somewhere in the world. The book is almost poetic in its descriptions of his climbs, as he literally flows from one foothold to another. The one slightly jarring note is the copious climbing jargon, which flows freely and prevents the non-initiate from really appreciating the nuances of this oh-so breathtaking sport. But its a minor niggle. Even if you can’t appreciate the lingo, you will have no problem appreciating that this is a uniquely talented individual who lives and moves on a level so far above the rest of us as to seem almost divine. And his craft will blow you away, literally. Captivating.

9.5/10

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Admiral Collingwood

Admiral Collingwood: Nelson’s Own Hero, by Max Adams

Head of Zeus (2015), Hardcover, 368 pages

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I make no secret of my passion for the days of fighting sail, I have read most of the best fiction in the field, O’Brien, Forrester, Kent, Pope and many others, and enjoyed them all. But in my opinion, none of them can match the stories of the real heroes of the Royal Navy in the day’s of Britain’s wooden walls. It is particularly good to read a book that acknowledges those whose contributions have been largely forgotten or overshadowed, in other words, anyone who is not Nelson. Don’t be mistaken, I have read many books on Nelson, enjoyed them all, and his place in history is well-deserved, but unfortunately his exploits have grossly overshadowed many leading figures whose contribution is just as important. One such is Cuthbert Collingwood, 1st Baron Collingwood, Vice-Admiral of the Red, Nelson’s dear friend, and a man who matched Nelson in so many ways, and exceeded him in others. It was Collingwood who led the British fleet to cut the French and Spanish line at Trafalgar, his ship dismasted and being pounded by as many as six enemy vessels, he fought on until the battle was won. It was Collingwood, who after Nelson’s death, kept Napoleon at bay in the Meditterranean for 5 years, thwarting his ambitions in Spain, Sicily and Greece, and played a far more significant role in Napoleon’s ultimate defeat then Nelson did. Yet, as Adams shows, he has been largely forgotten. There is no column for him in Trafalgar Square, although he contributed at least as much to this victory as Nelson, only a scattering of memorials and street names throughout Britain. Part of this is undoubtedly due to Collingwood’s character, he was a modest individual, with no flair for dramatics like Nelson. There was no infidelity like Nelson’s storied affair with Lady Hamilton to capture the eye of history. He remained touchingly devoted to his wife and daughters, and his letters home and his longing to be reunited with them are among the most touching parts of the book. It was not to be – having served his country without stint for more than 40 years, he spent the last six years of life virtually continuously at sea, and died at sea without ever seeing his home and family again. A better sailor than Nelson, and certainly a better diplomat than Nelson, he lacked Nelson’s impetuosity and flair for the dramatic, which has made for better copy in the history books than Collingwood’s steady proficiency. This is a great read, largely anecdotal and filled with the minutiae of war at sea, liberally interspersed with Collingwood’s own words through his copious correspondence. Highly readable, full of action, the whiff of salt and gunpowder, this is a match for any fictional tale of tall ships and fighting sailors.

9/10

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The Shadow King

The Shadow King: The Bizarre Afterlife of King Tut’s Mummy, by Jo Marchant

Da Capo Press (2013), Hardcover, 288 pages

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Certainly the best Tutankhamun book I’ve read for many a year (and I’ve read some godawful crap about the boy king in the past decade), and quite possibly one of the best Egyptology books I’ve ever read. This is mainly because Marchant is not pushing some theory about how he died, who he is related to, or why he’s either Moses or Jesus, or Buddha. No, this is a dispassionate, focused survey of the history of Tut’s remains from the moment Howard Carter cracked the sarcophagus, through the Tut craze that rocked the Western world afterwards, through the mummy’s neglect during the war years, the rise of Nasser’s Egyptian nationalism in the 50’s, into which Tut and the other Pharaohs were dragged as symbols of Egypt’s reclaimed heritage, the explosion in medical and forensic science which led to every conceivable test being performed on the body, and the resultant theories, ranging from the sensibly scientific to the just plain looney, which resulted from these tests. The last third of the book is dominated by the most polarizing figure in archaeology, the larger than life Zahi Hawass, who depending on who you read is either an Indiana Jones-hatted bully sticking his face in front of every camera pointed vaguely in the direction of antiquities, or a visionary who has created an Egyptology community of Egyptians for Egyptians, wresting control from Western imperialism. Marchant quietly makes the point that because of Hawass and his insatiable desire for publicity, hundreds of millions of dollars have poured into Egypt for the advancement of archaeological research, although she also points out that much of this money remained unaccounted for when Hawass got too close to the despised Mubarak regime and crashed and burned along with it during the 2011 revolution. But the central figure of the book remains the increasingly dilapidated mummy of Tutankhamun, small of stature, fragmented, crumbling, and so meagre of remains that at the book’s conclusion Marchant, pondering the king’s almost insignificant current resting place in a corner of his own tomb, wonders how something so small and battered has come to mean so many things to so many people over so many years. A wonderful piece of writing, as Marchant keeps the essential balance between the hard science and the human interest, and always keeps the narrative moving forward at a the proper pace. Highly recommended.

9.5/10

 

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A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms

A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, by George R.R. Martin

Harper Voyager (2015), Hardcover, 368 pages

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I have a confession to make – I am apparently the only person in the Western World who is not a fan of either Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire books, or the Game of Thrones TV series. I started to read the first book in the series, but never finished it. I started to watch the first season of Game of Thrones, but never finished it. See the pattern? Let’s just say I found both of them too much like hard work, too intense, too politically heavy, too many plots, and too many people to keep track of, and too relentlessly gloomy. I read non-fiction for the heavy, serious stuff, I read fiction for escapism. But, hallelujah, I have found a book by Martin that I have managed to read all the way through, and quite enjoyed it. This a collection of three previously published novellas by Martin, set in the SOIAF world, but 100 years earlier. It concerns the adventures of Ser Duncan, known as Dunk, a young hedge knight, upright and moral, socially awkward, and endearingly clueless with women, and his page Egg, a boy wise beyond his years, whose real identity is a closely-guarded secret, for he is actually Aegon Targaryen, who is destined to rule the Seven Kingdoms. The pair have an assortment of adventures as Dunk wanders the kingdom seeking temporary employment as a knight for some lord, or the next tourney where he can prove his skill against other knights, culminating in Dunk and Egg aiding in thwarting the Second Blackfyre Rebellion (that will mean something to SOIAF fans, I presume). The characteristic heavy and labryrinthine politics of the Martin oeuvre are still present and, it is still a chore to keep track of who’s who, and who’s plotting with and against who, but in this case, the weight is relieved by the humour, mainly caused by Dunk’s awkwardness, Egg’s sass,  or just bad luck. Its a light-hearted frolic compared to the main books, although Dunk’s clumsiness doesnt detract from his honesty, courage and basic goodness. He is altogether an endearing character, who wins through basically through those qualities I have mentioned. The moral of the book, if it has one, is that good guys don’t always finish last, although in terms of romance Dunk remains left at the gate, his virginal status unchanged at book’s end. Martin promises more of Dunk and Egg’s adventures, and I look forward to reading them. This is a great piece of fantasy escapism, full of the lore of knightly chivalry, well worth reading for diehard Martin fans, as well as mere dilettantes like myself.

9/10

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The Natural Way of Things

The Natural Way of Things, by Charlotte Wood

Allen & Unwin (2015), Paperback, 320 pages

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An entrancing mixture of flowing lyrical beauty and sordid, confronting brutality. Ten women are abducted and taken to a crumbling farm in the Australian outback. The only thing they have in common is that all were involved in sex scandals with powerful men. Upon arrival their heads are shaved, they are dressed in filthy clothes and made to undergo arduous physical labour by two male guards, the thuggish Boncer and the narcissistic Teddy. A mentally unstable “nurse”, Nancy, completes the staff of the prison, which is surrounded by a lethal electric fence. It becomes clear that the guards know as little about what is really going on as the girls, only repeating that “Hardings is coming.” The action opens with extreme violence as Yolanda is bashed so brutally her jaw is broken, another girl has her arm held to the electric fence to prove it is real. The book soon comes to centre on the most resilient of the girls, Verla and Yolanda, who gradually assert their strength of character over the mentally weaker guards, and who come to control of their situation by the symbolic acts of trapping rabbits, for Yolanda, and collecting mushrooms for Verla. Its is not revealing too much to say that the eventual outcome is much better for the girls than for their guards. “Rescue” eventually comes, but Yolanda and Verla realise it is no rescue at all and opt to take their chances beyond the fence.  There is no real resolution provided as to why the girls have been subjected to this horror, but the fact of Verla and Yolanda’s empowerment in the face of such appalling treatment provides a satisfactory conclusion. The book is mercilessly confronting, yet its descriptions of people, animals and the landscape is mesmerisingly poetic. Wood’s obvious anger at the sort of institutionalised misogyny that can lead to acts like this is palpable, but the strength of the women, despite their very human flaws, is triumphant. This is not an easy book to read, but it is ultimately rewarding. I would never call it a casual read, but its a good one.

9/10

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Death by Video Game

Death by Video Game: Tales of Obsession from the Virtual Frontline, by Simon Parkin

Serpent’s Tail (2015), Paperback, 288 pages

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A thoughtful and thought-provoking book, ostensibly focusing on the recent disturbing stories of players, particularly in Asia, who literally have played themselves to death. However, Parkin moves on from this to look at a wide range of issues relating to gaming, from the usual suspects, such violence, whether games area a waste of time, whether kids are playing too much, and so. None of it is particularly original, and the experienced reader may want to skim a lot of this. However, where the book really gets interesting is when it probes, as the subtitle suggests, the outer edges of the gaming world, where people are doing interesting things which games were never meant to be about. I particularly loved the story of the guy who has set out reach the borders of the virtual world of Minecraft, a journey which may take more than 20 years. The rationale Parkin offers for this, that since the real world has been so thoroughly mapped, people who want to be genuine explorers can now draw the maps of virtual worlds, really struck a chord with me. I really delight in playing open world games, because of the opportunity they offer to really explore nooks and crannies that have nothing to do with the game story but have been placed there, either intentionally or unintentionally, by the developers, to give the player a momentary thrill of discovery. I first experienced this more than decade ago, playing a game called Boiling Point, which was set in a fictional Central/South American country with lots of jungle and mountains. I happened,  in the far north-west of the country, well away from any game action, to suddenly come upon a beautifully rendered waterfall. It had absolutely nothing to do with any part of the game plot. It was just there, either put there by one of the game developers, perhaps for the benefit of explorers like me, or even by some random permutation of the game’s algorithm.  The thrill was immense, I felt like I was the first one to discover it. I have sought that feeling in every open world game I have played ever since, and its a huge drawcard for me, much more so than the game plot or gratuitous killing or anything else. For that reason, I very much appreciate that Parkin has isolated this particular unexpected attraction in gaming, as well as numerous other surprising ways in which people are using games in ways that games were never intended, some like the use of games to help with depression, domestic violence, terrorism, actually proving that games can be beneficial. This is a really worthwhile book, I recommend it for all gamers, and in fact anyone who has the slightest interest in games.

8/10

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The Secret Chord

The Secret Chord, by Geraldine Brooks

Little, Brown (2015), Hardcover, 320 pages

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A lyrical poem of a book, every bit in keeping with David’s legendary skill with the harp. The story of King David, largely stripped of the religious content, although the worship of Yahweh still forms a key part of some of the characters’ actions. This is the story of David as a figure of secular power, king of a nascent Israeli empire, with its enemies pushed back on all sides. The main enemies in this book are all internal, including David’s own family and entourage. Narrated by Natan, David’s pet prophet and adviser, who has sworn himself to celibacy to serve his king, yet must watch as David’s lust and that of his sons bring the king’s family to deadly conflict. Natan’s only comfort in in his custodianship of David’s youngest but most promising son, Shlomo (Solomon), who shows developing signs of the great and wise king he will become. The real charm of this book is in the deft, confident writing, which carries the reader effortlessly back to a time when people interacted with their gods and by sheer hard work, coaxed fertility out of an unforgiving land. Natan is a superb narrator, by turns carried away by David’s power, and shocked by his blatant disregard for the most sacred of Israel’s laws. Often he is melancholy and defeatist, but is always elevated when he beholds the blossoming Shlomo. His curse on David, for sending the Hittite mercenary Uriah to die in battle after sleeping with his wife Batshiva, is a chilling highlight – although David’s line will rule for ages, he is forever disfavoured by Yahweh and four of his family will die as punishment. This is a terrific read, a book to be savoured, and quite possibly re-read to gain further nuances. It is to be hoped that there is a follow-up covering the reign of Shlomo, that is something I look forward to.

9.5/10

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Ministers at War

Ministers at War: Winston Churchill and his War Cabinet, by Jonathan Schneer

Oneworld Publications (2015), Hardcover, 352 pages

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Superbly written, lively account of the eclectic group of politicians, Conservative, Labour, Liberal and Independent, that Churchill put together in the darkest days of 1940 to firstly, save Britain, and secondly, win the war. Schneer shatters many myths about those days, not least that the War Cabinet put aside all its political and personal enmities to concentrate on the task at hand. Instead, infighting was frequent, and Churchill spent as much time hosing down squabbles, and fending off potential rivals, as he did planning the war. The other great myth was that Churchill’s popularity and position were unassailable for the duration of the war. Rather he reached his peak of popularity during the days after Dunkirk, during the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. After the treat of immediate invasion passed, his pubic popularity declined and various rivals started to measure the possibility of supplanting him. The two most significant were the high-minded independent Socialist Stafford Cripps, and the tough as nails Canadian-born magnate Lord Beaverbrook. Churchill saw off both of these challenges, but his legendary political skills failed him, when he underestimated the strength of public feeling for a complete overhaul of British society after the war, led by the firebrand Labourite Herbert Morrison. Churchill, and to a lesser extent  the Labour leadership both downplayed Morrison’s continuing agitation for a post-war reconstruction plan, but in the end the canny Labour leader Clement Atlee, always held in contempt by Churchill, went with the flow and won a totally unexpected landslide in the 1945 election, with Churchill irredeemably branded as a figure of the past. The book is a breathtaking piece of living history, with every tense moment, every argument, every vital meeting recording in a fast-moving style. I had my doubts initially about an American writing a book like this, evidenced by his need to explain, presumably to an American audience, how Westminster-style  democracy works, but Schneer has pulls it off brilliantly. People who claim to find history boring should read this, it snaps and crackles as well as any novel. A first-class piece of historical writing.

9.5/10

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Six Against the Rock

Six Against the Rock, by Clark Howard

Granada (1979), Paperback, 432 pages

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Simply the best prison break book I’ve ever read, and right up there as one of the best books I’ve ever read, period. It is a highly dramatized account of the Battle of Alcatraz, which started on May 2, 1946, and blazed for 2 days. When it ended, 3 convicts and 2 guards were dead. Two more convicts died in the gas chamber at San Quentin. Howard bases his account around the leader of the break, Bernard Coy, a bank robber from the backwoods of Kentucky, thought of as a model prisoner, quiet and thoughtful, who nevertheless was perceptive enough to spot a chink in the Rock’s impenetrable fabric and figure out how to exploit it. To carry out his plan, Coy recruits five very disparate convicts to break out with him. There is Marvin Hubbard, a backwoods bank robber like Coy, Dutch Cretzer, a violent gangster, Buddy Thompson, a lone-wolf criminal from Texas, Sam Shockley, a mentally subnormal kidnapper, and Clarence Carnes, a young thug with lightning fists (Howard puts Carnes under the pseudonym of Dan Durando, because Carnes was the only one of the gang still alive at the time of writing). Other famous criminals resident on the Rock, including Robert “The Birdman” Stroud, George “Machine-Gun” Kelly and Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, also feature in the story. The break begins perfectly, only to be foiled by the thousand to one chance of a guard on duty that day not returning the key for the outside yard to its proper rack. The result is that the desperate convicts are trapped inside the cell block with guns, determined not to be taken alive. The battle escalates to the proportions of a small war, with the Marines and the Navy called in to bombard the cell block, causing major damage to its fabric and threatening the lives of dozens of convicts trapped inside. Eventually, Coy, Hubbard and Cretzer are shot dead, Thompson, Shockley and Carnes captured. Thompson and Shockley are sentenced to death for the murder of captive guards, Carnes escapes because of his youth. There’s no doubt that Howard took some liberties with the truth for the sake of creating a fast-paced, dramatic story, but substantially the story he tells is true. You’ll rarely find a true-life account that reads so much like a good novel while retaining its sense of being a real story with real people’s lives at stake. Howard really humanizes his characters, violent criminals are portrayed as very human, with fears, hopes and dreams, and the overall theme of the book is how men pushed to the brink, with no hope left,  will finally crack. Amidst the violence are some touching, melancholy, bittersweet moments that will really affect the reader, and Howard’s admiration for Coy, the still water that ran deep, who managed to do what no-one else at Alcatraz had ever done or ever would again, is very obvious. I can’t recommend this book any more highly, it is a fantastic read, and now that it’s readily available second-hand for a pittance, it is extraordinary value.

10/10

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Star Wars: Aftermath

Star Wars: Aftermath, by Chuck Wendig

Arrow (2015), Paperback, 384 pages

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I will give this author credit for attempting to write a serious novel set in the Star Wars universe without resorting to using any of the big names. There is no Luke, Leia or Han, no Chewie, R2D2 or C3P0, not even Lando. This is a novel that attempts to ride on its own merits, without resorting to the cheap relief of parading an established star to gain reader interest. A noble sentiment. Unfortunately, by the time you are half way through this book, you will be wishing that one or more of the big names would appear, just to liven up the deadly dull parade of nobodies doing nothing in a particularly unexciting manner. I’m afraid this story is just painfully dull. The characters are uninteresting and cliched. The fact that the only character in the book that made me sit up and take notice is a kick-ass but deranged battledroid named Mr Bones is a damning indictment on the breathing segment of the cast. The plot is just nothing, really. A group of Imperial admirals meet around an insignificant planet in the backside of nowhere to decide how to proceed as Imperials in the wake of the death of Vader and the Emperor. On the planet below a motley assortment of Rebels, disaffected Imperials and dodgy black marketeers run around in circles for obscure reasons pursuing God only knows what aims. And that’s it. The story goes nowhere, does nothing. I can appreciate that this is an attempt to show the respective states of the Alliance and the Empire in the wake of the Emperor’s death, but why set the whole thing upon one dismal planet? Why not something a bit more expansive, that spans a few planets and shows a bit more of whats going on in the wider galaxy? There are a few interspersed sections showing snapshots of whats happening elsewhere, but since they are completely ephemeral and contribute nothing to the overall story, what’s the point? Cameos by some of the lesser lights of the canon, Wedge Antilles, Mon Mothma and Ackbar are completely bungled – Antilles is either unconscious or an Imperial prisoner for most of the book and the other two do nothing but talk and wring their hands (or fins). Again, what’s the point? And those three words pretty much sum up this whole book. Nothing about nothing equals nothing, really.

3/10

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The Pentagon’s Brain

The Pentagon’s Brain: An Uncensored History of DARPA, America’s Top-Secret Military Research Agency, by Annie Jacobsen

Little, Brown (2015), Paperback, 560 pages

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An absorbing book about a little-known organisation that has been at the heart of American military planning and weapon development since the height of the Cold War. DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), began its existence as ARPA in 1958 as a response to the shock Soviet achievements in space, with the mission of ensuring that the US would never be caught unawares by a rival again. DARPA has been behind to some extent practically of the US military’s developments in weapons and communication ever since. As the book reveals, the agency has dabbled in missile launch detection, surveillance (including surveillance of millions of US citizens), nuclear test detection, counterinsurgency (from Vietnam through the Gulf War, Iraq, and Afghanistan), and most recently anti-terrorism. One of the agency’s lesser-known links is with the shadowy organisation known as the Jasons, a loose grouping of elite scientists who are tasked with brainstorming the most radical and left-field answers to military problems. DARPA’s main contributions to military strategy have also drifted over into civilian life, including drones, laser technology, and most pervasively and influentially, a little thing called ARPANET, which became the foundations for the Internet. This all makes for fascinating and sometimes controversial reading. Certainly conspiracy buffs, readers of a left-wing or anti-authoritarian bent, or those who simply mistrust governments, will find plenty in here to anger them, but this doesn’t alter the fact that is a fine piece of writing that lifts the lid on an influential organization that has played a major role, behind the scenes, in much of world history of the later 20th century and early 21st centuries. The book is gripping in the early parts, but tends to lose focus a bit in the latter stages, the only flaw in an otherwise wonderful piece of writing and research. Worthwhile reading.

8.5/10

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Dictator

Dictator, by Robert Harris

Hutchinson (2015), Paperback, 464 pages

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The culmination of Harris’ trilogy on the downfall of the Roman Republic, this is arguably the best book of the three. While the others were somewhat clunky, and suffered from the fact that a lot of the drama in the late years of the Republic happened in the Senate, this book covers the period when Rome’s political structures had finally collapsed, and the action had moved from dry debate to actual warfare. The book centres on the peripatetic bibliophile, gossip, legal genius and sometimes proverbial pain in the butt Marcus Tullius Cicero, as observed by the narrator, his faithful secretary, librarian and muse Tiro. The choice of Cicero as central character is a good one, as Cicero’s letters are our main source of information on this period, as well as being a natural foil for the more important players in the drama, all of whom alternatively sought to bring him to their side, aware of his pull in the Senate and his formidable powers of oratory, and then subsequently drove him away in disgust when he proved to be hopelessly vacillating. Above all, Cicero, a hopeless drama queen through and through, is just a damn interesting character to write a book on. The book starts slowly , but then gathers pace as the venerable Republic starts to unravel. Cicero and Tiro are witness at first to the Senate conservatives’ efforts to bring down Caesar, then the subsequent war between Caesar and Pompey, Caesar’s triumphant return to Rome and his downfall at the hands of the assassins, the war between Antony allied with  young Octavian and the so-called Liberators, then the beginnings of the conflict between Antony and Octavian which leads to Cicero’s death at the orders of the former. There are some curious historical omissions – Antony is brought into the story too late, and Cato, the heart and soul of the anti-Caesar forces, is largely ignored, but overall this is an exciting, historically solid outing on a fascinating period of history. I loved it because I know and appreciate this era particularly well, but anyone who loves a good historical novel will really enjoy this.

8.5/10

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The Wrath of Cochise

The Wrath of Cochise, by Terry Mort

Constable (2014), Paperback, 352 pages

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A rambling but fascinating discourse on the West and general and the Indian wars in particular. Despite the title, Cochise only figures in the beginning and end of the book. The rest is a lengthy scene-setting exercise featuring the history of contact between the Apache and white men, and the Apache hatred for Mexicans, as well as extensive discourse on related topics including mining, the stagecoach industry, the Mexican-American War, the Mormons and the Civil War in the West. The core of the book relates to a fateful decision made by a young army officer that led to a bloody decade long war between the US and Cochise’s Chiricahua Apaches. Following the abduction of a 12 year boy by Apaches, Lieutenant George Bascom, only three years out of West Point, elected to hold Cochise and his family hostage in an attempt to bargain for the boy’s release, but Cochise escaped. After failed attempts to get his family back, Cochise tortured to death several white captives and went on the warpath against the whites. Mort goes to great length to analyze Bascom’s motives for his decision, showing they were militarily correct, according to his West Point training, but he simply did not understand the Apache mindset, which was totally alien to all the whites’ assumptions about how they would behave in a given situation. The US Army’s military tactics against the Apache were also flawed. Unlike the Plain tribes, the Apache did not have any property or herds of horses the Army could capture, they were a pure warrior society who excelled at guerrilla warfare. The result was a decade long war costing hundreds of lives, before Cochise finally wearied of war and sued for peace. This is a fascinating work for anyone interested in the West, and the Indian tribes in particular. It is a graphic picture of a way of life that was destined to disappear, and the tragic confrontation between two utterly different civilizations. Great read.

8.5/10

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Console Wars

Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo and the Battle That Defined a Generation, by Blake J. Harris

Atlantic Books (2014), Paperback, 592 pages

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I have to admit this book left me cold, not because it is not extremely interesting, absorbing and well-written, but because of the subject matter. The book details the explosion in the videogame industry in the late 80’s and early 90’s, when after a hiatus following the earlier collapse of Atari in 1983, sales of consoles and games exploded into millions of units. The primary engines behind this growth were the rival corporations of Nintendo and Sega. At the beginning of the story, Nintendo had a death-grip on the home entertainment market, while Sega was a struggling Japanese arcade game maker who barely had a presence in the USA. Enter Tom Kalinske, a former successful Mattel executive who is headhunted by Sega while holidaying with his family. In the course of the next decade, Kalinske molds a team and philosophy at Sega that turns the videogame industry on its head, at its culmination briefly overtaking Nintendo as the biggest seller of consoles in the US, before jealousy by the company’s Japanese parent and a dual strike by Nintendo and Sony effectively ends Sega’s console ambitions for all time. The story is symbolized by the rival corporations’ flagship mascots, Mario for Nintendo, Sonic the Hedgehog for Sega. The book strongly channels the “cola wars” conflict between Coke and Pepsi, which is referenced in the story, as well in as the sly title. As I said, this is a fascinating book, absorbing for anyone like me who loves games and gaming. And I am the first to admit that gamers like myself have benefited immensely from the technological advances this conflict sparked. However, I said the book left me cold and that is true. I had no emotional involvement in this story because I am not and have never been a fan of consoles. I am a hardcore PC gamer, one of those some of us would refer to as “one-percenters”, those who only game on PC, never on console. To me, consoles are toys for the entertainment of children, and I really feel I had this view confirmed by the actions of the principals described in this book. You will simply never read of any more childish, immature and petty actions and stunts perpetrated by supposedly adult executives to denigrate or even bring down their opposition. To me, they are toymakers, and they act exactly like it. But don’t let that stop you from grabbing this book and devouring it, if you have any interest in videogames at all. It truly is an epic, fascinating read.

9/10

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The Trivia Man

The Trivia Man, by Deborah O’Brien

Random House Australia (2015), Paperback, 256 pages

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A sweet little story, with two of the most endearing misfits you’ll ever find between the pages of a novel. Kevin and Maggie are two pieces of middle-aged driftwood afloat in the sea of modern life. Kevin is an anal-retentive  forensic accountant obsessed with facts and statistics, who lives in a very neat, very plain flat. He is spectacularly unsuccessful at maintaining human relationships, even though he has a type of Alvin Purple vibe where attractive women try to seduce him, but he wants none of it, or thinks he doesn’t.  Maggie is a teacher of Latin, who has spent the past twenty years holding a torch for a guy who treats her as a convenience stop between other romances. The two come together in a weekly trivia competition which forms the structure of the book. From the beginning the reader assumes they will eventually end up together, but the characters repeatedly dismiss the possibility while they pursue other avenues and the author teasingly leaves the reader with only the faintest glimmering that they might just make it.  The book never reaches any startlingly heights or offers great insights into the human condition, but what it does do is provide entertaining reading with interesting characters, a neat structure organized around the weekly trivia competition, and for trivia buffs like myself, tantalizing questions as part of the competition being a bonus. This book did hit a nerve with me, as I am a obsessive trivia fanatic like Kevin, although I like to think a bit more socially adaptive, but it is a slightly unnerving expereince to see a character with whom you can identify so strongly and wonder “Is this how people see me?” Loved the book though.

8.5/10

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The Haunting of Springett Hall

The Haunting of Springett Hall, by E.B. Wheeler

Cedar Fort (2015), Kindle edition, 256 pages

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A  lovely, entertaining little ghost story. There is nothing startlingly original, but as an enjoyable waste of time, it works very well indeed. Lucy is a young woman who wakes up as an apparent ghost in the English manor house of Springett Hall with no memory of her life. After frustrating attempts to communicate with people who can neither see or hear her, to he relief she discovers that the heir to the hall can perceive her, although he regards her as his muse. More tellingly, the handsome young gamekeeper Phillip can also perceive her, and although he has no memory, its clear they were bound together in some way in their previous lives. They discover they are bound by a curse laid down by the evil former owner of the hall, who even in death, is able to command other spirits, animals and even the hall staff to obey his bidding. Lucy and Phillip embark on a race against time to recover their memories and to find a way to break the curse. Along the way, they gradually fall in love despite the impossibility and danger of their situation. As I said, nothing really original, but it all works in its modest way. Lucy and Phillip are likeable protagonists, feisty, resourceful and determined. Their love develops quite naturally with the usual Victorian moral stutterings and inhibitions, and the reader will empathize with their plight, the impossibility of romance between a spirit and a living person. There are some genuinely spooky moments, and the denouement is suitably hair-raising and tense, but there’s a happy ending of sorts as a payoff. I really enjoyed this book.  As a cheap Kindle download that gives you a couple of hours of light reading pleasure, its a bargain whatever way you look at it. Good stuff.

7.5/10

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Trigger Mortis

Trigger Mortis: A James Bond Novel, by Anthony Horowitz.

Orion (2015), Paperback, 320 pages.

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Bond is back! It doesn’t matter that this book has an execrable title, a weak villain, weaker heroine, and a “meh” story. It works because it is Bond, the original Bond of the Ian Fleming books and the early Sean Connery movies. Bond is suave and polished, but also somewhat of a thug, ruthless, sometimes brutal, even cruel. He is also fallible, he makes numerous mistakes (fails to spot a tail, leaves his gun in the car, lets a SMERSH hitman get the drop on him). In short, this is a very human Bond, far from the invincible superspy that he has become in popular culture. Anthony Horowitz, with the blessing of the Fleming estate and fresh from his Sherlock continuations House of Silk and Moriarty, has turned his hand to another iconic British character. Set in 1957, directly after the Goldfinger episode, it opens with Bond in an uncomfortable relationship with the famous Pussy Galore. However, Pussy doesnt last, exiting the story before midpoint, leaving Bond free to encounter another sassy and independent heroine, the hilariously named Jeopardy Lane. Unfortunately, her name is the most interesting thing about about her, as she is quite weakest Bond girl I can remember. Essentially she is a curvaceous, woman-shaped hole on the page, who does all the requisite Bond girl things on cue, shows a bit of flair on a motorbike, sleeps with Bond, then exits the story without ever having really captured the reader’s interest. She is matched with an equally lacklustre villain, the Korean billionaire Jason Sin. Sin has an interesting backstory, but he is bland and predictable, and his master plan to end the US space program by dropping a misfiring missile onto New York is fairly ho-hum, been there, done that. On the Bond villain scale, he isn’t even a Scaramanga, much less a Goldfinger or Blofeld. None of this matters, though, as this story works, simply because the original Bond is back. Horowitz has brilliantly captured the essence of the Fleming Bond. That alone is enough to make this a must-read. It is to be hoped that Horowitz follows this up with another, meatier escapade for Bond, but if he does nothing but keep the same Bond he has memorably re-created here, it will still be enough.

7.5/10

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The Girl in the Spider’s Web

The Girl in the Spider’s Web, by David Lagercrantz

MacLehose Press (2015), Paperback, 448 pages

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I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I was so glad to see my favourite anti-heroine Lisbeth Salander back I probably would have read the book even if told it consisted of the text of collected laundry labels. On the other, Lisbeth aside (and she is simply not given enough print-time, one of my biggest gripes), it was not a pleasant reading experience. The first 50 and the last 100 pages were quite good, fast-moving and exciting, but in between was a turgid mass of exposition with a lot of unlikeable and uninteresting characters milling around as if lost.The story centres on a IT whiz who may have come up with a breakthrough in Artificial Intelligence, who is gunned down by an assassin connected with a syndicate of malevolent hackers, and the story comes to focus on the fight to protect his autistic son, who may hold the key to the mystery, and the involvement of Lisbeth’s evil twin sister.  I will temper my criticism somewhat on the grounds that this is a translation, and I don’t know how much of the stodgy centre was due to the author or to the translator. The book just cried out for a character to grab the story and run with it somewhere, anywhere, and this is where the lack of Lisbeth-time was really felt, We know from past experience how she can grab a story by the throat, but she was never really given the chance until the last part of the book.That said, any Lisbeth is good Lisbeth, and the author has at least captured her character impeccably. If anything, she is even more kick-ass in this book than in the Larsson books, adding James Bond skills to her already formidable array of talents. She is the book’s saving grace, and for that reason alone, I will come back to read any further additions to this saga.

6.5/10

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The Master Executioner

The Master Executioner, by Loren D. Estleman

Crossroad Press (2015), Kindle edition, 272 pages

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A quirky, somewhat melancholy Western that will, along the way, answer just about everything you ever wanted to know (or didn’t want to know, as the case may be) about the science of putting a rope around a man’s neck and dropping him through the trap into eternity. I enjoyed it, but then I have always been an execution junkie. The science and technique of hanging has always fascinated me as an exercise in the efficient despatch of humans that society has deemed no longer worthy of life. This is a novel, but it is way up there with many non-fiction books I have read upon the subject in its grasp of the intricacies of death by the noose. The story basically concerns the life of Oscar Stone, a Civil War veteran who sets out to the West with his new young wife, but along the way almost accidentally ends up as the assistant to grizzled hangman Rudd. Stone loses his wife, who is revolted by by his new calling, but spends the next 30 years travelling the West as a visiting executioner, cold and precise, always endeavouring to be the most perfect hangman he can be. But the calling comes with a very high personal cost, which Stone must confront at the end of his career. The ending will not surprise given the subject matter, but this surprisingly wistful little Western will reward the reader who stays the course. Yes, it’s basically a manual on how to hang a man efficiently and humanely, but there’s enough of a story, and enough interesting characters to make it a worthwhile read.

8/10

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Pirate Hunters

Pirate Hunters: Treasure, Obsession and the Search for a Legendary Pirate Ship, by Robert Kurson

Random House (2015), Hardcover, 304 pages

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Who doesn’t love pirates? Or lost treasure? Or the mystery of a long-lost ship? Terrific read about all those things, and more. Joseph Bannister was a respectable merchant seaman in the 17th century who suddenly and seemingly inexplicably turned rogue and went pirate. After a short but bloody career, he was chased down by two British navy ships near a small island in the Caribbean. After a fierce battle lasting 2 days the British ships were forced to withdraw, but Bannister’s ship the Golden Fleece had been burnt to the waterline. 300 years later, two intrepid treasure hunters set out to find this rarest of wrecks, a genuine pirate ship from the Golden Age of Piracy. This makes for a fast-paced, action thriller, as the intrepid pair battle the elements, recalcitrant governments, claim-jumpers, sceptical backers and just plain bad luck. It wont be giving too much away to inform you that they do eventually find their Golden Fleece, in a place no-one suspected, but the interest is all in the finding. A great story, only marred by some macho posturing, sometimes involving guns, which I found off-putting, but given that treasure-hunting attracts largely the alpha male type, I suppose it’s not surprising. This is a minor point, though, it is an extremely interesting read. Worth your time.

8.5/10

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The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers

Hodder (2015), Paperback, 416 pages

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I have heard this book described as if Firefly and Red Dwarf had a baby, and this was it. After reading this, I would concur, but also add that Friends joined them for a threesome and they asked Farscape to film it. This is the only way I can think to describe this bizarre, loveable, quirky mishmash of a book. It is as conventional a piece of hard sci-fi you could imagine, and yet wholly unconventional at the same time. The story, such as it is, concerns a battered ship and motley crew of humans and aliens, whose job is to tunnel, create wormholes, for quick travel across the galaxy, who are given the job of a lifetime to tunnel through to a newly discovered warlike species. The actual getting to the place they are to start tunnelling takes all but the last 50 pages, the rest of the book consists of the various adventures and misadventures they encounter getting there. Really the meat of the book is the complex relationships between the crew members, the humans, Rosemary the central character, an accountant on the run from her past, Ashby the captain, Corbin the unpleasant one who has a secret which nearly costs him his life, and engineers the tattooed tech-nut Kizzy and her offsider Jenks, who is in love with the ship’s AI. The aliens, Sizzix, the reptilian who is very, very affectionate, Dr Chef, doctor and cook, whose race is slowly dying, the paired being Ohan, who is theirself slowly dying, and the captain’s love interest, a sexy alien soldier who pops in and out of the story. This makes for a complex mix of relationships, which impinge on romance, sex, religion, technology, health, prejudice and just about every other topic you can think of. This is a fairly nicey-nice universe, a la Trek, with the exception of a few unpleasant races, everyone gets along pretty well. Its a marvellous piece of writing, I could get irritated with the lack of a real central plot, but I really can’t, everyone is just so nice and loveable, even the arch-jerk Corbin gets to do something heroic that saves a crew member. Its just a fun read, I really hope there’s a sequel.

9/10

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Ghost Soldiers Of Gettysburg

Ghost Soldiers of Gettysburg: Searching for Spirits on America’s Most Famous Battlefield, by Patrick Burke and Jack Roth

Llewellyn Publications (2014), Paperback, 288 pages

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Do I believe in ghosts? The answer is a qualified maybe. I am somewhat inclined to accept the possibility that emotionally charged events can leave an imprint on the surrounding terrain or atmosphere, which in the right conditions, can literally play back, the so-called Stone Tape theory. Firm, incontrovertible evidence is, as always, yet to be found, but it least seems possible under our present knowledge of the universe. I am decidedly less inclined to accept the possibility of fragments of human consciousness somehow surviving death and being able to contact or be contacted by sensitives. The first theory lends itself to solid scientific investigation with a sceptical mind and suitable instrumentation, and I have been part of such investigation in the past and will be again in the future. The second idea requires the intervention of psychics and mediums, and that I have never been a party to. This division leads to an inevitable split in the types of paranormal books one can buy, those that claim a basis in scientific, technical investigation and those that rely on the testimony of psychics. I eagerly seek the former, avoid the latter. Basically I love a good ghost story. I’m also a Civil War buff of long standing. So you would think I would grab at a book like this with glee, and I did. You might also assume I would enjoy it immensely, and in that you would be half-right. Hearing this, you might guess after my long spiel about the difference between and my preferences regarding scientific investigation and the use of psychics, that the book turned out to be one of the latter kind rather than the former, and you would be again half-right. Half of this book is very good. The other half is hilarious. Basically, this book promises a detailed scientific investigation of what you would expect to be one of the most paranormally charged places in the US, if not the world, and with that reassurance, the book sets off confidently, and immediately descends into Wa-Wa Land. Firstly we have so-called scientific investigators wandering off into the battlefield, but instead of using their instruments, they settle down to have a cosy chat with soldiers dead for 150 years, to sort out some issues with the battle. Then they offer to help the said soldiers cross over, but there’s a problem. The soldiers from opposing sides refuse to cross over together. So, they are lined up in military order, and with accompanying rebel yells and Union huzzas, they cross to the other side. Trust me, you have to read this piece to believe it, I actually had to check this book was intended to be non-fiction, I was starting to believe I had somehow wandered through the Looking Glass. And it just goes on like that. Every so often the instruments and cameras and digital recorders are produced, but the authors and their friends keep talking to dead soldiers and actually believe they have changed the history of the battle because spirits told them what did not make it into the history books (That laughing you can hear in the background is my imagination of how several eminent Civil war scholars I know would react to that.) OK, history books are wrong because dead guys say so. Is there anything of value in this book to the serious ghost researcher and indeed the interested Civil War buff? Yes, there are some very good photographs, some valuable EVP and other vidence is captured and described, and there are suitable creepy and spooky unexplained happenings. And the events of the battle, the tragedy of it, are also well-captured, it is actually quite a good history of the battle (the bits provided by dead guys apart, of course). Yes, as a lover of ghost stories and a Civil War buff, I did find something to like in this book. Not as much as I’d hoped, of course, but on the whole I am sort of glad I read it. Half of it anyway.

6.5/10

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Extinction Point

Extinction Point, by Paul Antony Jones

47North (2014), Kindle edition, 308 pages

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There’s nothing startlingly original in this little book, but what it does it does exceedingly well. Emily Baxter is a journalist living and working in New York when she witnesses a strange red rain start to fall. After the rain stops falling, all life on Earth starts to die, horribly, and Emily, apparently immune, is left, alone as far as she knows, in the shell of New York. Worst of all, she soon realises that the bodies of the dead are being transformed into something else, a new alien form of life. The bulk of the book revolves around Emily’s struggle to survive and make sense of the new world order, and then the beginning of her journey by bicycle across America after she makes contact with a group of survivors in Alaska. The book has been criticized for having too much exposition, although it seems to me this is a necessary consequence of Emily being essentially alone for 95% of the story. I found it moved swiftly, deftly and confidently, with minimal wastage of words. There is humour, drama, visceral horror and pathos in fairly equal amounts. Emily herself is a likeable and feisty heroine, whose struggle to cope with almost unimaginable horror is both engaging and emotionally involving, and she develops well from a street-smart if somewhat naive reporter reporter into a committed and determined survivalist. This is the first of four books (so far) in a series, and I’m certainly keen to see how the story develops and the process of Emily’s continued discovery of what has happened to her world. Nice little read.

8/10

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Dark Run

Dark Run, by Mike Brooks

Del Rey (2015), Paperback, 432 pages

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One of an incredible run of sci-fi books being rushed out in a genre I have dubbed “Firefly porn”, based on that single season TV show that has garnered an incredible cult following, and now apparently is transferring its appeal to the written form. The familiar trope, originally borrowed from both literary and motion picture sources, of the battered smuggler/pirate/mercenary/trader ship, with a crew of misfits, all with secrets in their pasts, and their hard-bitten but ultimately decent captain, also with secrets in his past, is having a new lease of life. A few weeks ago, I reviewed Pelquin’s Comet, here is Dark Run, and I have in my to-read list Retribution Falls and The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, all with a  a very similar premise. Dark Run would be somewhere in the middle of the quality scale for this genre, I have read better, but then I have read a lot worse, certainly it kept the pages turning until the end. Ichabod Drift is the skipper of the Keiko, a battered smuggler ship with a misfit crew, who accept a job from a powerful crime boss to deliver a package to Old Earth, only to discover at the last minute it’s a nuke intended to obliterate Amsterdam. The rest of the book is spent with the crew of the Keiko hunting down the man who ordered the hit, both to exact revenge and to stop him from eliminating them. There are some dull spots, but also plenty of action. Brooks’ vision of a galaxy divided up between Old Earth confederations of Europe, North America and Africa, but with plenty of room for individualists, rebels, scammers, crooks and wayward souls to plot their own, usually semi-legal, courses through existence is well-realized, and his characters are strong if not exactly original. The book’s denouement was actually somewhat of a letdown after early promise. While offering plenty of action, I found it a bit of a blah moment emotionally, after being asked to invest substantially in the lives of the characters. Still, this is by no means a bad book, it’s a fast-paced, and reasonably engaging read, not likely to linger over-long in your mind afterwards, but certainly worth a few hours of your time, particularly if you are into the Firefly porn genre.

7.5/10

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Lasseter’s Gold

Lasseter’s Gold, by Warren Brown

Hachette Australia (2015), Paperback, 352 pages

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Rollicking re-telling of one of Australia’s most enduring legends. In 1897, Harold Bell Lasseter stumbled out of the central Australian desert with an incredible tale of a vast reef of gold, up to 10 miles long. Although a string of fortune-hunters searched diligently for his reef over the years, it could not be found. Nor could Lasseter be persuaded to tell anyone where it was. In 1930 he succeeded in persuading one of Australia’s most powerful union bosses to fund an expedition to find it, using funds secretly taken from the union’s coffers. The lavishly-funded expedition, provided with supposedly desert- proof vehicles and even a plane, proved to be an unmitigated disaster. Feuding among its members, frequent breakdowns, a plane crash, and of course, Lasseter’s refusal to let anyone know where to find his reef (to the extent many began to doubt it even existed), led to it being called off after months of fruitless searching. Lasseter himself refused to give up, and went off accompanied only a mysterious German dingo-trapper, and was never seen alive by white men again, his body found in a shallow grave months later. This is a ripping page-turner of a book, expertly told, that examines the evidence of Lasseter’s life and death, draws no firm conclusions about the existence or not of the gold reef, which has never been located despite countless searches over the years, but leaves it up to the reader to decide whether Lasseter was a fraud or a genuine visionary. Above all, it’s a great book about the Outback, the mysterious otherness which informs so much of Australia’s history and culture, brooding, brutal but hypnotically beautiful, prepared to give up wealth beyond calculation, but also to take life away from the unwary and the unprepared. Fantastic reading.

9.5/10

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Death ex Machina

Death ex Machina, by Gary Corby

SoHo Press (2015), Hardcover, 336 pages

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I intimated in my review of the previous book in the series that I had considered it to be the best book in the series so far. Well, this one hasn’t surpassed it, its not as good in some ways, but better in others. It is the product of an even more confident author, who is now willing play games on the reader, with word tricks, Easter eggs and some stunning work in the denouement. The story takes Nico and Diotima (now newlyweds) into the world of Greek theatre. The Athenians invented modern theatre in one staggering period of creative genius in the 5th and 4th century BC, and this story goes right to the heart of that period, when theatre was a still-evolving mode of cultural expression, yet to shake off its status as a serious religious ritual rather than mere entertainment. Nico & Diotima are called in on the eve of the Great Dionysia, the Greek world’s most sacred festival celebrating the god of wine and good times, to exorcise a ghost which is upsetting the cast and crew of the theatre that is due to host the tragic plays which are the centrepiece of the festival. They drive away the ghost but are then confronted by a more sinister mystery when one of the actors is found hanging from the machine which raises and lowers the gods in and out of the action (the deux ex machina, literally “instrument of the gods”). Needless to say, the stakes become higher the closer Nico and Diotima get to the truth, but with the help of Nico’s ever-resourceful kid brother Socrates, they solve the mystery and catch out the bad guy in a wonderful set-piece where Corby frames his characters’ dialogue exactly as they would have been in an Athenian tragedy. Really breath-taking, confident stuff. While I found the story not as gripping as the previous book, it is certainly a lot funnier. In-jokes abound (“The Corinthian Play” as an obvious allusion to the old acting superstition about Macbeth, actors making terrible politicians etc). To round it off, Corby includes a comprehensive and fascinating series of notes which give the background to the development of Greek theatre, some of which is astonishing (the word tragedy comes from the Greek words “tragos”, goat, and “oidios”, song, so tragedy is literally “goat-music”). This is a series which is increasing in merit with every new addition, it is entertaining, captures the flavour of the Greek world perfectly, has endearing, amusing and interesting characters and is educational to boot. High class writing in a genre that is rarely distinguished by such flair.

9/10

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