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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There are Tittles in this Title

There are Tittles in this Title: It’s a Weird Word World, by Mitchell Symons

Michael O’Mara Books (2014), Hardcover, 192 pages

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For those who are wondering, a tittle is the dot above a lowercase “i” or “j”. If you are in fact the sort who wonders about things like tittles, then this is the book for you. A fascinating little compendium of everything interesting, bizarre, unbelievable and just plain ludicrous about words and language and everything pertaining thereof. Some of it is quite pedestrian (do we really need yet another list of palindromes or acronyms?), but most are supremely interesting and some are downright fascinating. Did you know, for example, that United Arab Emirates is the longest country name consisting of alternating vowels and consonants? Or that Hull City is the only British football club the letters of whose name cannot be filled in with pencil? “Hobson’s choice” originated from a stingy horse seller who would only sell customers the horse nearest the wall, giving them no choice in the matter, while “smart alec” refers to a 19th century criminal named Alex Hoag who would steal from mens’ clothes while they were having sex with his prostitute wife, then play the outraged husband to extort more from them. There are lists of lovely mnemonics (Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain – the colours of the rainbow), and nasty but funny teachers’ comments on report cards (“since my last report, your child has reached rock bottom and then started to dig”). There are things you would never guess in a lifetime (the Sanskrit word for war means “desire for more cows”, and “abracadabra” was originally a spell to ward off hay-fever) and things you probably would rather not know (in a hospital, “Code Brown” means an incontinence-related mishap and “Digging for Worms” refers to varicose vein surgery). In short, a great, fun read, whether or not you want to read it the whole thing right through (should take less than an hour), or just dip into for your own amusement and education.

8/10

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Maverick Mountaineer

Maverick Mountaineer, by Robert Wainwright

HarperCollins (2015), Paperback, 416 pages

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I must admit to being a climbing and mountaineering addict. Not actually climbing myself, I rush to add, since my tolerance for heights is non-existent, but reading about it and looking at suitably vertigo-inducing photos that give me a delicious thrill while I’m safely in my armchair at zero metres of altitude. In fact the one failing of this otherwise exceptional book is that there’s not quite enough mountain-climbing for my taste. George Ingle Finch was an Australian-born climber of extraordinary talent, as well as a brilliant scientist, who but for the pettiness of a group of stuffed shirts in the antique  British climbing establishment, could well have been the first man atop Everest, and done it some 30 years before Hillary and Norgay. As it was, he was for a time the record-holder for altitude on Everest. Wainwright covers Finch’s early life in detail, including his formative climbing in the Alps with his brother, with some breath-taking achievements, although as I noted, the book disappoints by not having enough climbing description. Too often, the author mentions a climb that the brothers undertook, describes the climb in a sentence or two and then moves on to the next. I’m a climbing junkie as I said, I demand creative descriptions of great climbs, and I find this brevity of description somewhat off-putting, although I’m cognisant this is a biography and not a book about climbing per se. There is substantially more climbing when the story reaches Everest during the 1922 British expedition, as Finch, one of the early exponents of bottled oxygen, tries in vain to convince his fellow climber of the merits of O2, but gets only mockery in return. Meanwhile, his abrasive style has alienated the truly Neanderthal dimwits who are currently running British climbing, and for his pains, these obnoxious stuffed shirts maliciously leave him out of the 1924 expedition, when he was a better than even chance of reaching the summit. Wainwright pulls no punches in his description of the political shenanigans, the obtuseness of the Alpine Club bosses is laid bare and it truly astounding, and rage-inducing. This is a warts and all book, and to his credit, he doesn’t spare Finch, whose personal life was troubled to say the least. Married three times, his son from his earliest marriage he believed was not his, and hence largely ignored the boy, who grew up to be the famous actor Peter Finch, who never met his father until well into adulthood. Wainwright covers these sometimes messy details of Finch’s life openly and honestly. It all makes for a thoroughly absorbing account of a well-rounded and adventurous life. Great read for climbing addicts like me, and anyone who just likes an exciting and adventurous life story.

8.5/10

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Inside Alcatraz

Inside Alcatraz: My Time on the Rock, by Jim Quillen

Random House (2015), Hardcover, 384 pages

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I do love prison books, and this one is a cracker, right up there with Papillon and Six Against The Rock, two of my favourites. The title is somewhat misleading, only about half the book is devoted to Jim Quillen’s time as a prisoner of America’s most notorious prison. This really the life story of a career criminal, from his difficult childhood with an alcoholic mother and indifferent father, to his early, minor criminal exploits, graduating to more serious crimes leading to a long sentence in San Quentin. Compulsively driven to escape, Quillen was eventually able to abscond from a work camp with two other inmates and go on a crime spree throughout the western US. Upon his recapture, Quillen learnt that he had breached Federal law during his rampage, and as a result was sentenced to 45 years in Federal prison. Because of his escape record, it was decided to send him to the most escape-proof prison in America – Alcatraz. While there, Quillen continued his attempts to escape, but his efforts were ultimately stymied by the bloodiest attempted breakout in the Rock’s history, the so-called Battle of Alcatraz in May 1946. Quillen was an unwitting eyewitness to this deadly confrontation, which left 3 prisoners and 2 guards dead, while sheltering with other prisoners as a firestorm was directed upon the prison by guards, police, the Marines and even the Navy. But this horror was be a turning point for Quillen, at his lowest point after the battle, he was found by a kindly priest who guided to God, and a realization that he wanted a new life, free, law-abiding and loved. From there on the book is an inspiring, often touching record of a man’s efforts to rehabilitate himself, reconciling with his estranged family, working towards earning parole, first from Alcatraz, then San Quentin, building a career as an X-ray technician, and eventually love, marriage and fatherhood. This is an entrancing book, fast-moving, graphic and exceptionally well-written. Quillen is very Papillonesque as he details his early life, his desperation for freedom, and his desire to rehabilitate himself if given a chance. I highly recommend this book, it’s a great and inspiring read.

8.5/10

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The Marathon Conspiracy

The Marathon Conspiracy, by Gary Corby

SoHo Crime (2015), Paperback, 368 pages

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The fourth in this series set in 5th century BC Athens, and the best by far. A really entertaining page-turner, full of drama, interesting characters, a liberal dash of humour and a genuinely intriguing plot. In this episode, Nico, the budding private eye, is distracted from preparations for his forthcoming wedding to the nubile priestess Diotima when a skull is found in a cave near Athens. No sooner has the skull been identified as that of the hated former Athenian tyrant turned traitor Hippias, thought dead in Persia for 30 years, than news is received that one of the two girls who found it has been brutally killed, and the other is missing. Nico and Diotima journey to Brauron, the temple cum girls’ school which the two girls attended, tasked by Athenian statesman Pericles with finding the missing girl and solving the mystery of Hippias’ fate. As before, at various times Nico is accompanied by his bratty, but brilliant brother Socrates (yes, that Socrates), who produces several blinding flashes of logic to assist Nico when he has reached an impasse. I must say the Socrates angle is the weakest part of the story, although the young Socrates at least is far less annoying here than in the earlier books. This is more than made up for, however, by the byplay between Nico and Diotima, which has developed well over course of the books and continues to impress here. They work well together as a pair of gumshoes, this is developing into a fine, nuanced partnership, and it will be interesting to see whether married life changes the dynamic between them. The supporting characters are also very good, particularly noteworthy is the playwright Aeschylus playing the tough old veteran of the Persian Wars. The scene where Aeschylus and an equally ancient Persian soldier fight back to back to ward off a swarm of mercenaries is one of the most moving in the book. This is a great read, a book that’s genuinely hard to put down. The story, based on genuine historical events, is thoroughly absorbing.  I enjoyed the earlier books, but this one has really vaulted to another level entirely. I can hardly wait to see where it goes from here.

9.5/10

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Potsdam

Potsdam: the End of World War II and the Remaking  of Europe, by Daniel Neiberg

Basic books, (2015), Hardcover, 336 pages

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A solid and earnest work, falling somewhere in the grey area between popular history and serious academic substance, neither entertaining enough for the former, nor comprehensive enough for the latter. For all that, it is very readable, a work of just the right pace. Heavily informed by the disastrous Paris Peace Conference of 1919, the victorious Big Three of Truman, Stalin and Churchill (until the latter was replaced by Atlee after losing the General Election) gathered in the wealthy and largely untouched Berlin superb of Potsdam in July 1945 determined not to repeat the mistakes of 1919. At stake was the future of Germany, the borders of eastern Europe, Poland in particular, reparations, war crimes, the United Nations and the refashioning of Europe into some sort of viable, peaceful entity. Each party came with their own agendas and more or less definite goals, and the conference came down to much horse-trading, largely between the US and the Soviet Union, as a bankrupt Britain found itself increasingly marginalized. In the end the Russians got pretty much what they wanted, the US largely happy with the outcome, and Britain embittered and fading. While not exactly an entertaining read, Neiberg throws in enough personal vignettes of the leaders’ personalities and interactions to break up the ponderous descriptions of the dealing and keep the attention. The portraits of the leaders are all arresting, Churchill morose and erratic, drinking heavily and looked down upon by both Truman and Stalin, Truman, earnest and folksy, on a steep learning curve after having been completely kept in the dark by Roosevelt, and Stalin as Stalin always was, suspicious, amoral, calculating, but very well-informed about the strengths and weaknesses of his partners. There is even humour in some of the interactions, such as Churchill edging his seat closer to Truman’s so they might appear to be bosom buddies, and Truman  in turn, irritated, moving his seat closer to Stalin, or Truman, while hosting a  dinner, ordering Chopin to be played because he knew Churchill disliked the composer. It all makes for a very worthwhile read, informative if unexciting and a very good introduction to a small piece of history which has been largely forgotten in the grand scheme of things.

8.5/10

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The Hanged Man

The Hanged Man, by P.N. Elrod

Tor Books (2015), Kindle Edition, 334 pages

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A really fun read that never takes itself too seriously. Elrod, an author mainly known for vampire stories, has invented an alternative Victorian London where women have been emancipated and given the vote by the mid 19th century, air travel is viable, and the existence of psychic powers is not only accepted but they are used to fight crime. Miss Alex Pendlebury is a Reader with the Psychic Service, tasked with visiting the sites of violent death to “read” the psychic emanations surrounding the victim. When she is called out on Christmas morning to the body of a man found hanged in his bedroom, Alex has little idea that the seemingly routine suicide will lead her into a monstrous and dark conspiracy that threatens to overturn the established order in England. Her own life will be threatened many times as she careers through London dodging faceless assassins and a “ghost” killer who leaves no psychic emanations whatsoever, but along the way she discovers a potential love interest, with which happy note the book ends in a cliffhanger, paving the way for the romance to develop further in later books. Alex is a very likeable heroine, outwardly the model of a virginal, prim and proper Victorian spinster, but revealing herself to be brave, feisty and not overly fond of being told what to do. Being set in gaslit London, there is obvious potential for Elrod to slyly work in some Holmesian references and she does (Alex lives in Baker Street, one of her key allies is a Colonel Sebastian Mourne, like Doyle’s Sebastian Moran, he is a crack shot). In fact, the relationship between Alex and her main offsider, the tall, handsome, but not overly bright Lieutenant Brooks, is very much a Holmes and Watson type partnership, excepting the fact that Alex eventually finds herself falling in love with her partner, an interesting twist on the traditional trope. I really loved this book, its a rewarding, rollicking, easy-reading adventure, not overly credible but a real page-turner. I look forward to the next installment in Alex’s saga with great anticipation.

9/10

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Day Four

Day Four, by Sarah Lotz

Little, Brown (2015), Hardcover, 352 pages

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I’ve only been on a cruise once in my life. It was enjoyable, but I can’t say it was one of my more memorable travel experiences. There’s just something about the canned entertainment nature of a cruise, the endless exhortations to have fun, the frenetic (and somehow false, you always feel they are going be laughing at you afterwards in the crew bar) bonhomie of the staff, that I find faintly disturbing and never sure whether I should enjoy it or not. These feelings are likely to be amplified after reading this chiller from Sarah Lotz. Basically she takes all the fears that anyone going on a cruise is likely to have (bad weather, sickness, mechanical faults, psychotic passengers, really bad food) and throws them all together into a grand confection of horror. The story is outwardly simple enough. A third-rate fun cruise on an ageing liner filled with some really unpleasant people goes awry on the fourth day when the ship loses power completely. As the hours tick over and the food goes bad, the toilets stop working and the crew gradually desert their stations, the ship descends into chaos. As if that is not bad enough, a girl is murdered, there are reports of strange apparitions prowling the lower deck and a popular psychic takes it upon herself to form her own cult of survivalists. To be honest, the idea of a marooned cruise ship facilitating the descent of supposedly civilized humanity to its beastly roots is not exactly new ( I had moments of amusement amid the chills when the novel unconsciously echoed a recent episode of the Simpsons dealing with a very similar situation). Where this novel stands out is its conclusion, which to say the least is ambiguous. In fact, as far as I could see, the author leaves it very much up to the reader to decide what really happened. Its quite possible, I believe, that different readers may find different answers to the mystery. After some thought I think I worked out what happened to my own satisfaction. In a way it’s good not to have a neatly wrapped solution presented to you on a platter, and in fact there are hints that this may not be the end of the story. The book functions as a kind of sequel to Lotz’s earlier work, The Three, the story of which is referenced a few times here, and I’m pretty sure that the events of Day Four will in their turn figure in Lotz’s next work, so more revelations are possible. All in all, a satisfyingly chilling read, worth the effort of finding.

8/10

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Pelquin’s Comet

Pelquin’s Comet, by Ian Whates

NewCon Press (2015), Kindle edition, 289 pages

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I believe, although I have been running this blog for nigh on two years, that this is the first genuine sf book I will be including. This is not, it must be emphasized inn the strongest possible terms, because I don’t love sf, I do, passionately, and have done since the time I could read. It is just that when I come to science fiction literature, I simply cannot commit to reading a book unless I’m reasonably assured I’m going to a. finish it, and b. enjoy it. Why I have this quirk, I have no idea. It certainly does not apply to sci-fi of the TV or movie kind, because I can quite happily sit through dreck of the worst possible kind (and have done many times). I think it comes down to reading sf, I only really like space opera of the old-fashioned kind. This is almost certainly due to my reading upbringing, as I cut my teeth on E.E. (Doc) Smith, Arthur C. Clarke, and Isaac Asimov, and these three luminaries remain the personal holy trinity of my sf universe. Which brings me to Pelquin’s Comet, a lovely little tale reflecting the purest elements of space opera. Some reviews have likened it to popular TV shows such as Firefly, effectively dismissing it as pop fiction akin to those endless written additions to, say, the Star Trek universe. This is unfair, as I think this book’s roots hearken back much further to the grand old days of pulp sci-fi, where so many of the great authors got their start. There are definite overtones of both Clarke and Asimov in this story, perhaps more of the former. The plot as befits genuine space opera is simple, and reflects the great tropes of the genre. Pelquin’s Comet is a tramp spaceship crewed by a motley collection of misfits, all with secrets in their pasts, who are tasked with locating a cache of artifacts left behind by a long-vanished race. The cache is defended by a guardian entity who will kill to defend it. Needless to say, getting past this guardian constitutes the most exciting and suspenseful of the story. The rest of the book is largely concerned with establishing character and setting up further developments down the line. In fact the book is decidedly slow-moving for the most part, with little action really, which would be annoying except for the fact that its is merely the first book in the series. What would be ridiculously drawn out scene setting in a sub 300 page book is perfect for what may be a 1000 page trilogy. The book is easy to read, the writing is smooth and accomplished, the characters are interesting and for the most part likeable. I finished it off inside a day and half and am eagerly looking forward to the next installments and the eventual tying up of the many loose ends. Well worth reading

9/10

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The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot

The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot: The True Story of the Tyrant who created North Korea and the Young Lieutenant Who Stole His Way to Freedom, by Blaine Harden

Mantle (2015), Paperback, 256 pages.

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Parallel stories of the rise and rise of Kim Il Sung from shabby guerrilla to unchallenged despot of the most brutal and secretive regime on earth, and one of his young air force pilots, No Kum Sok, who for years concealed a deep hatred of Communism under a cloak of excessive patriotism and party loyalty while dreaming of the day he could fly his MiG15 over the South Korean border to freedom. His plans were stymied several times due to his caution and determination not to fail. At one stage he was even face to face with Kim Il Sung with a loaded pistol at his side and contemplating whether or not to kill the dictator. When the opportunity finally came, he took it and made a daring 17 minute flight to the US airbase at Kimpo, landing the wrong way on the airstrip and scaring the life out of the complacent Americans who were caught embarrassingly unprepared.  No’s flight caused a sensation in the west and considerable embarrassment for the US, who had promised $100000 for the first Red pilot to deliver a MiG to them, only to discover that No had never heard of the reward and didnt particularly want it anyway. Despite this the US government tied itself in knots trying to avoid paying it without seeming like backsliding cheapskates. How this young man planned and undertook his desperate flight and how he constructed a new life for himself in the US is a terrific tale of determination and desire for freedom, contrasted with the utterly sordid rise of Kim Il Sung through unparalleled ruthlessness and brutality, adept political skills and an uncanny ability to bounce back from near disaster, aided by copious fawning to his Chinese and Russian masters even while he was outwitting them. His brutality including executing five of No’s fellow pilots, including his best friend, as retaliation for No’s escape, the young pilot having no close relatives left in the North to take vengeance on. Really good demonstration of the best and worst of human nature, as well a great adventure story. Great stuff.

9/10

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Death of a Scholar

Death of a Scholar, by Suzanna Gregory

Sphere (2014), Hardcover, 464 pages

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I think I intimated in previous reviews of this long-running series (no. 20 and counting) that it had plateaued some time ago and was coasting on past glories. Well, this edition has managed to raise at least a modest peak above the plain. Death of a Scholar is quite the best in the series for quite a few years, although its hard to put a finger on exactly why. Perhaps the plot is less convoluted than other recent examples, the characters more resonant and interesting, and even the usually vapid Bartholomew this time exhibits a bit of belly fire. The plot revolves around the establishment of a new College in Cambridge, whose foundations start to crumble (literally), the murder of several individuals tied to the College and the possibly sinister Guild of Saints, and the theft of Michaelhouse’s precious hutch containing all its money, valuables and documents. As always, Bartholomew and Brother Michael manage to tie up the loose ends in around 400 pages or so with the requisite thrilling denouement as the doomed college crumbles around them. The strength of this series remains its faultless evocation of the medieval mindset, interesting, sometimes almost comical confrontations between the characters, and the fact that Gregory uses the names of real people from the Cambridge of the times, carefully gleaned from examination of the city and university’s records, to add a touch of verisimilitude that is lacking from similar books in the genre. Despite its failings, the series continues to be a must read for me, and this particular example demonstrates even more clearly why this is so. Formulaic, yes, but if the formula is good, as it is here, then why change?

8/10

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Deadly Election

Deadly Election, by Lindsey Davies

Hodder & Stoughton (2015), Paperback, 400 pages

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I have said it before in a review of the previous book in this series, but I’ll reiterate my belief that Davies’ new protagonist in Flavia Albia is not as interesting as her venerable predecessor, her father Marcus Didius Falco. I can’t put my finger on exactly why, since Flavia Albia appears every bit as cynical and worldly-wise as her pater, perhaps it is because as a woman in Rome she simply can’t get as down and dirty in the stews of Rome as Falco did with such obvious relish, or perhaps because she has a distressing streak of morality and romanticism that her father would have scorned. However, I do admire Davies’ courage in making a woman the chief protagonist in a detective series set in Rome, I believe it’s a first. The simple fact is that it is extremely unlikely that a woman in Ancient Rome could have undertaken the job of informer (ie private dick), since there were so many places and situations in Rome barred to women. That includes politics, which plays a leading part in this story, as Flavia Albia is engaged in assisting the friend of her heart-throb Manlius Faustus in getting elected to public office, at the same time as she is endeavouring to get Faustus in the sack and solve the mysterious murder of a man found stuffed in a antique chest. As I said, this is historically unlikely, but it makes for an entertaining enough story. A worthwhile read, and Davies’ intimate knowledge of both late 1st century Rome and the peculiarties of her characters is superb. Still, I do miss Falco.

8/10

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The Royalist

The Royalist, by S.J. Deas

Headline, (2015), Paperback, 336 pages

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I have read quite a few murder mysteries set during the Restoration, and I know of some set during the Commonwealth, but I believe this is the first I have encountered set during the Civil War itself (or as it now known due to political correctness, the War of Three Kingdoms). It an unremittingly grim tale, set during the bitter winter of 1645, and the book ‘s tone perfectly matches the bleakness of the weather and England’s shattered society. The story revolves around William Falkland, a war-weary Royalist awaiting execution in a Parliamentary prison. At the last moment he is plucked from his dismal surroundings by Oliver Cromwell himself, who requires someone to get to the bottom of a spate of unexplained suicides bedeviling his prized New Model Army. Sent with a surly companion, Warbeck, to watch over him, Falkland arrives in the army’s winter camp to find nothing is as is it seems. Assisted by a young local woman, he eventually gets to the bottom of the mystery, after coming close to death on more than one occasion, but questions whether he has actually solved anything at all. While the plot is nothing to write home about, the book’s atmosphere and a society riven by hatred, suspicion and fear is well-handled. Falkland is an agreeable enough, if somewhat cliched, protagonist. His tentative blossoming of feeling for Kate Cain remains frustratingly unfulfilled, and it is hoped they are reunited in subsequent books. The other characters are suitably sinister, or downright twisted, and all have secrets to hide. It’s not quite what I would call an enjoyable read, but as a slice of England’s darker history rendered into passable fiction, it’s a worthwhile expense of your time.

7.5/10

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KL

KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, by Nikolaus Wachsmann

Little, Brown (2015), Paperback, 896 pages

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A previous book I read on this topic was entitled “The Theory and Practice of Hell”, and I can think of no better way to describe Wachsmann’s amazing scholarly, yet emotional work. It is very rare to find a serious scholarly work, dauntingly massive, that manages to also capture and convey the horror of its subject matter. This is a book that simultaneously educates with fascination about every facet of the organisation of the Nazi concentration camp system, while at the same putting the reader through the emotional wringer. I can only say, as you read this book, you will learn, you will be enthralled, you will also quite possibly cry and quiver with rage. The book encompasses the full horror of this most grotesque crime from its ramshackle beginnings in 1933, through its development into a meticulously organised and supervised exercise in stripping people of all dignity and humanity, making them suffer the most intense agony and humiliating painful death, through to its catastrophic climax in the last days of the war, when even with all hope of victory gone and nemesis bearing down on them the heavily-indoctrinated SS killers could not stop themselves murdering hundreds of thousands. Wachsmann meticulously covers not only the outright horror at the coalface of the camp system, but also the bureaucracy in the background that kept it ticking over up until the end. Some of the worst war criminals never actually laid a hand on a prisoner, but contributed to the murder of millions through paperwork, organisation and resource management. The culmination of the story records that many of these criminals escaped justice, or received light sentences, although there is some satisfaction at reading of the executions of some of the worst offenders. But many who should have joined them, were able to spend the rest of their lives comfortable and safe, usually expressing no remorse whatsoever for their crimes. This is a brilliant book, but by no means an easy read. There is a substantial emotional price to be extracted by reading it, but it is certainly worth it.

9.5/10

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Last Days of the Incas

Last days of the Incas, by Kim MacQuarrie

Piatkus (2012), Paperback, 522 pages

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A popular topic of discussion in European intellectual circles over the last couple of centuries has been the so-called Black Legend. Largely formulated in northern Protestant Europe, the Black Legend holds the the golden age of the Spanish Empire was a nightmare of brutality, repression, fanaticism and exploitation, and that the Spanish, both in Europe and in their American colonies, gloried in unspeakable acts in the name of God and the Spanish king. Not surprisingly, this belief was particularly strong in Britain and the Netherlands, two countries who had plenty of history with the Spanish. Equally unsurprisingly, the Spanish strongly reject the Black Legend, to the extent that some scholars now refer to a White Legend, a Spanish-sponsored revisionism which goes to the other extreme and portrays the Spanish as, if not exactly enlightened colonizers, as certainly much more humane than they have been portrayed. I’m not versed enough in Spanish colonial history to offer an educated  opinion one way or another on the validity or otherwise of the Black Legend, however, after reading this book, I am quite comfortable saying that on the basis of Spanish activities in Peru, the Black Legend seems much more likely than the White. You will seldom find a more horrifying account of greed, brutality, venality and treachery than the history of Francisco Pizzaro’s conquest of the Inca Empire. There is really no saving grace for Spain here. In the space of four decades, a few thousand Spaniards wiped out a great and cultured civilization, murdered uncountable numbers of its inhabitants and subjected the rest to slavery, all in the name of God, Gold and Glory. The noble side of the story is the heroic resistance the Inca, using spears and swords against horses, muskets, armour and cannon, put up for those forty years. This is an extremely well-written account of horrors beyond imagining, an ugly and brutal story that is nonetheless enthralling. It is topped and tailed by an exciting account of the discovery of the lost Inca cities of Macchu Picchu and Vilcabamba and the eccentric characters who believed enough in the legends to go out and find them. I guess we wait now for Spanish revisionism of this story. I can’t see how it can be done, but it will be some job of restoration if it is achieved.

9/10

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The Anatomy Lesson

The Anatomy Lesson, by Nina Siegal

Anchor Books (2014), Paperback, 288 pages

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Somehow I enjoyed the idea of this book more than the actual reading of it. Intermingled stories of six people on a single day in Amsterdam in 1632, all intimately concerned with the public dissection of a criminal, simply doesnt gell. The six are the doctor carrying out the dissection, the condemned man whose body is to be dissected, his pregnant lover desperate to save his body from the scalpel, the flamboyant curio dealer whose job is to procure the corpse after the hangman has done his job, the great philosopher Rene Descartes, who is to be a reluctant witness to the dissection, and the young artist Rembrandt van Rijn, who is destined to immortalise the dissection for all time. Also awkwardly inserted, and seeming to play no real part in the story, are the notes of a modern conservator working on the painting.  It remains basically six different stories, none of them strong enough to carry the narrative on their own. While it is beautifully written, with an economy of prose and a real feeling for the world of 17th century bourgeois Amsterdam, unfortunately, its a plot in search of a story. I dont regret reading it, it’s certainly not a bad book, but its not one of those books destined to stick in the memory for long.

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