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Book reviews O to U

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John O' Farrell
bookicon
An Utterly Impartial History Of Britain
hardcover
498 pages
Funny attempt at popularizing history, no doubt inspired by Bill Bryson and his A Short History Of Nearly Everything. It is funny and interesting, but does get a bit repetetive towards the end..

Cramming 2000 years of history into lss than 500 pages is going to be a challenge, and this is a valliant attempt at covering most of it, although there's large bits missing, and the it's leaning rather distinctly towards the last 500 years.

Also seem there's been some cherry picking of the juiciest bits from the tale to tell, rather than an effort to relay historical fact accurately. The history itself is rather superficial, never going much beyond the surface.

Towards the end the jokes do get a bit tedious and repetetive, although with 2 world wars to deal with there's only so many jokes one can make..

Fun read nevertheless, and definetely worth reading for someone who could do with a quick readup on english history.

Worth a try
7/10
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Joseph O'Connor
bookicon
Star of the Sea
softback
410 pages
Intriguing novel regarding the voyage of a famine ship at the height of the Irish Famine. Essentially a murder mystery, most of it's pages are filled bringing to life the suffering the potato famine brought to Ireland..

Thomas David Nelson Merridith, Lord Kingscourt, along with his wife Laura and two sons, is one of the fortunate passengers traveling first class, occupying several of the fifteen staterooms. He is the ninth generation of his Protestant family to live in Ireland, governing the extensive family holdings at Kingscourt and the hundreds of workers who are dependent upon him. Unfortunately, his father's mismanagement, their cruel estrangement, the failure of the potato crop, and the callous eviction of his tenants by someone to whom he sold some land have left his tenants starving and him bankrupt, with ruffians threatening his life and no alternatives except flight from debt. Though Merridith's accommodations are physically more comfortable than those of the steerage passengers, we discover through his story that his future in America is almost as bleak as those of his former tenants.

Accompanying Lord Kingscourt's children is their nanny, Mary Duane, a woman who has recently joined the family after having grown up on the estate as the child of hardworking tenants. Mary's stories of her past loves, her marriage, and her loss of her own children illuminate the bleak prospects available to this warm and intelligent, but desperately poor, woman, who must make choices between equally unpleasant alternatives in a frantic effort to stay alive.

G. Grantley Dixon, an American reporter, also traveling first class, is a caricature of the liberal American do-gooder whose reports about the plight of the Irish poor are influenced by his own socialism and by the reform-minded traditions of his family. Self-centered in his attitudes and limited in his social graces, he is detested by Merridith and resented by many others aboard the ship.

Pius Mulvey, missing part of a foot after an attack by a carnival lion, is the mysterious ex-convict whose presence on the ship is crucial to the action. Coming from the same town as Merridith and Mary Duane, he is directly connected to both of them. Physically tortured by a group of violent rebels in Ireland before his departure, he is assigned to kill Merridith while he is on the ship, or be killed himself. Mulvey haunts the ship's decks at night and sleeps all day as he tries to stay alive long enough to reach New York. One of over 400 passengers who have paid $8 per person for passage, he is crammed into the fetid and dangerous quarters known as "steerage," expected to stay alive on one quart of water a day and half a pound of hardtack.

O'Connor pulls out all the stops here in this big, broad melodrama, which is filled with the agony of the famine, the drama of the crossing to America, the social upheavals of the fledgling independence movement in Ireland, and the love stories and lost loves of the main characters. Were it not for the fact that the famine really was as devastating as O'Connor portrays it, the reader might be tempted to think that he is manipulating events for their dramatic value. But there is an honesty of emotion and a fidelity to the facts here, which save the novel from bathos and gives the reader cause for thought. O'Connor's ability to create genuine emotion and high drama keep the reader turning the pages furiously to find out what happens next.

Changing points of view allow the author to introduce each character's past and set up future actions and conflicts on the ship, as the relationships in the present are connected to the characters' pasts. Moments of ineffable sadness are presented, among them an illiterate lover receiving letters from her admirer which she is unable to read, a child seeking emotional refuge with the tenants on his farm rather than with his parents, and a father killing his own child to save her from a worse fate. O'Connor's imagery, especially his sense imagery, is arresting: Mulvey's dead foot was "dragging like a sack of screws," and his knuckles and fingertips "were smoulders of cold." The "strangled blaring of the uillean pipes," contrasts with the "endless chirrup of the chattering women" aboard the ship.

O'Connor is particularly perceptive in his descriptions of the creative process. At one point Mulvey tries to compose a ballad and finally gets an inspiration, "a butterfly of words that might escape." When he decides to improve the resulting song, he learns that it is more important to create a "singable song. The facts do not matter: that was the secret." When Charles Dickens hears him sing a ballad, he interviews Mulvey for information about the working man which he can use for background in his own books, and, in a wonderful touch of humor, Mulvey provides him with a description and the name of a man he dislikes. He is the priest who convinced his brother to join the priesthood -- Fagan.

O'Connor sometimes provides more information than the reader wants or needs. Details about Dixon's family and his Jewish background, along with their legacy of saving the slaves in Louisiana, has very little relevance to this story of the famine ship, and the inclusion of a character's battle with syphilis, complete with descriptions, seems gratuitous. His compression of time, for the sake of story, occasionally leads to anachronisms -- several mentions of evolution, with parallels between monkeys and men, do not ring true. Darwin's Evolution of the Species was not published until twelve years after this famine. Some of the starving Irish who came ashore in 1847 and had difficulty finding jobs are said to have formed Irish units to fight in the Civil War, almost twenty years later.

Still, O'Connor presents a compelling story with many details of Irish history that the reader will not soon forget. His characters, the social strata they represent, and the ineluctable destinies they face are vividly portrayed and poignant in the emotions they elicit. The ending involves some polemics -- Dixon, who writes the conclusion, is a dedicated socialist, after all -- and those statements were jarring (to me, at least) and out of character with the tone of the story. He does provide a follow-up to the characters after their arrival in America, however, so the reader knows what happens to them. The fact that at least one character becomes a politician (later accused of misappropriation of funds) will surprise no one.

The language and style of the novel really makes the reader feel like it was written in the time it was set, whcih really helps to set the mood whilst reading it. One novel you will not want to put down.. Highly Recommended!
9/10
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Victor O'Reilly
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Games of the Hangman
hardcover
471 pages
Detective/Thriller novel starring Hugo Fitzduane as our hero, a combat photographer and former Irish Airborne Ranger who lives between assignments at his family's ancient castle on an island just off the west coast of Ireland. He discovers a student from Draker, a small private college on the island, hanging from a tree. As he feel personally involved because it happened on his home soil he decides to start his own investigation of the young man's death.

At first the police isn't too keen to help him out but when many of the people Hugo plans to interview as part of the investigation are killed by terrorists before, during, or after his visits they start to offer him some assistance. Eventually they find out that they're up against your average stereotypical criminal genius mastermind, nicknamed "The Hangman" who, through the power of money and fear, controls a collection of terrorist organizations.

Not a bad effort, although the sex and voilence are a little too much, too often perhaps. The dialogue is good however and the book is well structured and quite easy to follow, with a rapid fast and furious pace, and a complex and action-packed final showdown. The plot is pretty good and believable overall although somewhat overstretched at certain points, but in general it should definitely prove to be entertaining.
Great read!
8/10
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George Orwell
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1984
hard cover
336 pages
The famous story about a totalitarian state where everyone's being watched and your fate is determined by the state. From birth to marriage to death life's controlled by the state, and individual's thinking for themselves is not appreciated.

When Winston Smith finds himself doubting the system and even falling in love his life goes from bad to worse. Not only does he get arrested and tortured into denunciating his new found beliefs but he also looses the love of his life..

Rather dark tale of despair and a bleak future. It gives one a chilling feeling about the possibility of a future like that.. It's not the most energetic of novels however, and sometimes feels a little slow. Makes a very impressive read, although not something to pick up when feeling too down..
7/10
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Richard Osborne
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The Universe
hardback
122 pages
Little introduction to the enormous subject of the galaxy. A rather poignant guide to the universe in a mere 122 pages.

Richard Osborne's style is relentlessly chatty and cheery. "This is the funny thing," he says. "Here we are wafting around in the middle of nowhere and we try to make the Universe fit our bug-eyed small-brained view of everything." Or "Thales of Anaximander is credited with pointing out that an eclipse of the sun was not a mystical thing but probably due to the movement of the planets - and bingo! you have the beginnings of a scientific theory of the Universe." Or again, in a breathtaking series of mixed metaphors, "Space is like the glue in which time sloshes about and sometimes it sticks in different ways; it gets bedy like when you're really really drunk."

However, if this sort of writing is the glue in which difficult concepts slosh about and somehow get stuck in the mind of the timid lay reader, that must be to the good. Since "in the last 50 years, almost everything people had thought about the nature of the Universe has proved to be wrong", therer is the excitement of some very open-ended questions. Richard Osborne has the frankness to admit that he can do no more than introduce the various scientific and intellectual controversies.

Recommended!
8/10
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P

Michael Palin
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Sahara
hardcover
256 pages
Michael Palin, former Monthy Python member, is the master of travelling to wonderful places that even the most ardent backpacker will never reach. For this trip the plan is to travel 10,000 miles across the world's largest desert, the magical and mythical Sahara..

He manages once again to bring life into the most inhospitable of locations, whether it's eating camel with displaced people, watching the Dakar Rally from a sand dune or sharing a meal with a national poet, Michael Palin writes and narrates in a fashion that allows you to drift into complete absorption and feel like you're right there with him, and wishing you were there.

Sahara is his latest expedition into the unknown and builds strongly on previous voyages around the Pacific Rim, from North to South Pole and the original grand journey, Around the World in Eighty Days. Although it lacks some of the visual spectacle of the TV series thanks to some wonderfully vibrant photo's and great writing the book nevertheless manages to captivate the reader..

Palin takes you to the back of the back of beyond. Far away from the world of the normal travel writer and right into the homes and lives of the people he meets. Whether they're living in shacks make from old oil drums hammered flat, or sharing a library with a cockerel, all of the characters that he meets are real and full of life.

Writing with his usual dry humour this is a great traveling novel and offers some wonderfull insights into the mysterious world that is the Sahara.
Recommended!
8/10
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Sara Paretski
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Indemnity Only
hardcover
211 pages
Indemnity Only is the first of Sara Paretsky's thrillers starring V. I. Warshawski.

Victoria Iphegenia ("Vic" to her friends) Warshawski,the daughter of a Chicago policeman and a graduate of the University of Chicago, started of as a former public defender. Trying to find a more satisfying way of helping people than practicing law, she became a P.I.

A mysterious client asks her to look for a young girl. Her investigation soon uncovers a dead boy and signs of a criminal conspiracy. V.I. confronts her client with this and promptly gets fired. Her client and the police want her to think that the murder is related to leftist terrorism or drugs; but V.I. is leaning more towards suspecting the large insurance company where the victim worked...

Great Thriller, mostly due to the excellent way the lead character is presented. Those interested in strong, independent female characters will enjoy the book, and although the plot is not that exceptional or distinctive it still makes for excellent reading...
Great Choice!
9/10
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Robert B. Parker
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A Savage Place
hardcover
138 pages
One of the early Robert B. Parker mystery novels, starring P.I. Spenser.
He heads out to Los Angeles to guard a tv-reporter doing a piece on organized crime and corruption and extortion in Hollywood. Unfortunately she's not very good at investigating and too good at attracting the wrong kind of attraction from the local crime scene..

Spencer is basically a white knight with issue. He's struggling to stick to his own principles and morals and often crosses the line..

The story itself it quite transparent and no real challenge, it seems most of the book is dealing with Spencer and his ideas on women and society.. The ending smewhat surprising perhaps and makes it worth wile, but it's stil more of an easy read rather than a recommended..
7/10
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James Patterson
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1st To Die
paperback
471 pages
Cop drama about a group of female professionals in the San Francisco law enforcement and media community, who come together to sort of solve cases using their respective abilities. The group consists of a homicide detective, an assistant D.A., a medical examiner, and a reporter from one of the S.F. newspapers. The first case they tackle involves the killing of several brides and grooms during or shortly after what should be one of the happiest times of their lives.

Great fast paced read, and doesnt disolve quick into your usual cliches. Some good plot twists and keeps the tempo up throughout, hard to put down and certainly recommended.
8/10
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James Patterson
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4th Of July
paperback
415 pages
In a late-night showdown, Detective Lindsay Boxer has to make an instantaneous decision: in self-defence she fires her weapon - and sets off a chain of events that leaves a police force disgraced, a city divided and a family destroyed. Now everything she's worked for her entire life hinges on the decision of twelve jurors. To escape the media circus, Lindsay retreats to the picturesque town of Half Moon Bay. Soon after, a string of grisly murders punches through the community. There are no witnesses; there is no pattern. But a key detail reminds Lindsay of an unsolved murder she worked on years ago. As summer comes into full swing, Lindsay and her friends in the Women's Murder Club battle for her life on two fronts: in court and against a ruthless killer.

Somehow didn't work as well as the previous books, feels a little rushed perhaps. Farfetched and unexplained things people do that break the case open, especially at the end, feel like a quick solution to get the book out. Entertaining enough nevertheless
6/10
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James Patterson
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Third Degree
paperback
352 pages
Detective Lindsay Boxer is jogging along a beautiful San Francisco street when a fiery explosion rips through the neighborhood. A town house owned by an Internet millionaire is immediately engulfed in flames, and when Lindsay plunges inside to search for survivors, she finds three people dead. An infant who lived in the house cannot be found - and a mysterious message at the scene leaves Lindsay and the San Francisco Police Department completely baffled.

Then a prominent businessman is found murdered under bizarre circumstances, with another mysterious message left behind by the killer. Lindsay asks her friends Claire Washburn of the medical examiner's office, Assistant D.A. Jill Bernhardt, and Chronicle reporter Cindy Thomas to help her figure out who is committing these murders-and why they are intent on killing someone every three days.

Even more terrifying, the killer has targeted one of the four friends who call themselves the Women's Murder Club.

Which one will it be?

While the investigation rages furiously, Lindsay works very closely with a federal officer assigned to the case. At the same time, she learns that one member of the Women's Murder Club is hiding a secret so dangerous and unbelievable that it could destroy them all.

Fast paced, slick thriller following the recipe of the the first, captivating time filler..

Recommended
8/10
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Iain Pears
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The Bernini Bust
paperback
218 pages
Part of a art history series featuring an Italian art police woman and English art historian/dealer. Unlike the prior books, this one takes place in Los Angeles rather than Rome.

The Bernini Bust is one of the more enjoyable of the series.
Is there a bust or not? Is it a forgery or not? At least the reader is sure there was a murder early on in this thoroughly enjoyable novel.

Mr. Pears' all-to-human heroes go through their usual mistakes and miscues and end up solving the crime. There is also a bit of shaving the ethical edges that always adds an interesting twist or two to these books.

What adds to this series is that Mr. Pears keeps the characters - and their relationship - developing. He also adds humor - one can imagine that when Mr. Pears writes about Argyll and Flavia he does so with a wry grin.

There's no heavy-lifting in these books, but this book, like the others is a great light, quick read.

Recommended
6/10
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Iain Pears
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The Dream Of Scipio
paperback
384 pages
A historically based novel with some murders thrown in for good measure. Mostly it's a deeply philosophical book concerned with what defines civilization. It makes the reader confront the age old questions - is it an evil act in itself to stand by and let evil happen - is it ever justifiable to do a wrong in order to achieve a right - can you preserve civilization by acting barbarically ? I don't go along with criticisms which I have read that Iain Pears should have written a learned treatise rather than a novel on this subject. Like several of the characters in the novel, the reader is led subtly on a path towards understanding. The novel is never didactic, and rather works towards the conclusion that there are no answers, but it is possible for human beings to arrive at a deeper understanding.

This is not to say that you have to tap into these deep and philosophical levels to ejnoy the novel. There are actually three intertwined stories here, set in Provence in three seperate time periods. These tell the stories of Manlius, living at the time of the crumbling of Roman rule in Gaul, of Olivier, living in papal Avignon at the time of the Black Death, and of Julien, living in Petain's Vichy France. The three interwoven narratives are told with skill, and each held my interest. Iain Pears has the ability to effortlessly recreate the flavour of a particular place in time - readers of "An Instance of the Fingerpost" will not be disappointed on this score. His prose is clear and engaging. The endings of each of the three strands of the narrative contain twists which will leave you satisfied.

For all of that I do have one small moan. The title of the book is "The Dream of Scipio" which I originally thought was a reference back to the "Somnium Scipionis" by Cicero . The commentary on this real work, by Macrobius , ensured that it became highly influential upon late medieval literature and thought, spawning a whole poetic tradition of the "Dream Vision" . The fact is though that "The Dream of Scipio" - a version written by Manlius, a main character, promises to be at the heart of the novel, and yet it really isn't. Iain Pears really builds it up throughout a stupendous first part of the novel, then conveniently drops it.This is my only real criticism of the novel, but it did leave me a little unsatisfied. This is not , for me , a mystery centered on a historical manuscript in the way that Perez-Reverte's "The Dumas Club" is.

Make no mistake, this is a very serious novel, and its not for you if all you're looking for is a little escapist fun - and there's nothing wrong with that, either. However, if you don't mind being given serious food for thought, then this may well be the one for you.
8/10
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Thomas Perry
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Fidelity
paperback
392 pages
Crime novel with a twist, dealing with events happening after the death of a PI..

When Emily Kramer wakes up at 5:30 in the morning and realizes that her husband, Phil, has not come home, she makes a few frantic phone calls but fails to find any answers. Later she goes to Phil’s office, but his employees have not seen him since the night before. Then a phone call from the police informs Emily that Phil has been found dead in his car, shot.

Before long, she learns that their bank accounts, personal and office, have been all but emptied, any life insurance policies long since lapsed. With no idea what or who caused her husband’s death, Emily determines to keep the business afloat, at least temporarily, while she does her best to discover exactly what her secretive husband has been up to. While the couple has had their share of personal tragedy, they have been content with their lives, Phil’s business thriving.

In contrast, Jerry Hobart long ago wasted whatever potential the future might have held for him. Leaving a long-term girlfriend behind, Jerry has spent years in prison, belatedly returning to the woman he loves, realizing that their time has passed. Drawn back to Valerie, Jerry can only spend brief amounts of time with her before mutual disappointment leads both to petty recriminations that once more drive the couple apart.

Hired to murder Phil Kramer, when he is tapped to return to L.A. and kill Kramer’s widow, Jerry decides there may be more profit for him if he can find exactly what information Kramer had that would cause a powerful man to hire an assassin. Slipping into a familiar role as burglar and general sleuth, Hobart decides to spend some time investigating Kramer’s information before taking out Emily Kramer.

In a cat-and-mouse game played out beyond the bounds of police investigation, Emily and Jerry are after the same result but with far different intentions. The police have done all they can, but Emily wants to know what happened to Phil. Jerry intuits a profit if he is clever enough to sidestep the man who hired him, a man who has no tolerance for being thwarted.

Three unlikely protagonists act out their fates, Phil’s actions bringing about his death, his wife left to navigate an uneven playing field, a case of the good, the bad and the ugly. Emily is, of course, the good, Jerry the bad, relatively speaking, and the third character, the mastermind who lives in wealth and social prominence, the truly ugly, a perpetrator of great harm protected by excessive arrogance and the power of position. Contrary to expectations, Perry manipulates the disparate energies of each character in a satisfying twist.
8/10
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Elstob Peter
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Warriors for the Working Day
paperback
320 pages
WWII Novel telling the tale of tanksoldiers during the final stages of WWII, following squad of soldiers on their way through Europe. Mostly focussing on the duality that war brings to those involved..

Following a group of tank soldiers from the buildup to D-day a tale unfolds on friendship, courage, and fear as our soldiers battle their way against germans, superiors and general disasters. One by one they dissapear, only to be replaced by others, each with their own history, and their own tale on how to became to be a tank soldier.

Peter Elstob should know how it feels to be a tank soldier as he served in WWII as one, and it shows. There's a sense of realism and understanding that clearly can only be achieved from experience. This makes it a rather touching experience to read, and the atmosphere isn't so much gung-ho but more a struggle for survival and an attempt to make sense of a senseless situation.

Definetely recommended!
8/10
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Ellis Peters
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One Corpse Too Many
hardcover
176 pages
Second crime novel about Cadfael, monk, herbalist, and detective. In 1138 King Stephen and Empress Maud, grandchildren of William the Conqueror are fighting a civil war to decided to will inherit the throne. Shrewsbury Castle is a bastion of Maud's forces under FitzAlan and Adeney untill it's conquered by Stephen's army. 94 of Maud's soldier are killed and Brother Cadfael is called upon to prepare the 94 corpses for burial.

Things get interesting when discovers an extra dead body, which clearly shows signs of murder. Now he must discover the murderer's identity and purpose..

All the characters are having quite a modern feel to them which might not be quite historically accurate. The plot is perhaps a bit thin, but the characters are built up well and it's rather enjoyable altogether really
Recommendable!
6/10
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Suzanne Power
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The Lost Soul Reunion
paperback
318 pages
Tale about a woman and her life story. Number 1 on the list of the worst book I have read this year! I have to admit I did not actually finish it in the end; I read 200 pages of it and could not bare it any longer. A far too long continuous stream of drivel, far fetched coincidences and ethereal crap all loosely linked together by constant referrals to tarot cards.

Sive, a 42 year old woman sits in front of her fireplace and tells the tale of her family, running through the lives of her grandmother, her mum, herself, etc. All the men are either bastards or stupid and the women are all suffering immense were it not for the strong sisterly bond between them.

Her grandmother married the wrong guy and got pregnant; the daughter fled to London and became a prostitute after also getting pregnant, lost the child and got another one, Sive. They survived all these ordeals thanks to Myrna, a mysterious ethereal woman and card reader who always comes up with all the right answer, and Gran who comes to London after her husband dies to save them.

They go back to Ireland where Sive ends up working in a mental institute where she gets hooked up with a 70 year old guy who she saves from lethargy and who coincidentally turns out to be the same guy that took her photograph years ago when she was still living in London with her mum. All this takes 200 pages, mostly filled with talk about destiny and tarot cards. I thought that perhaps it was down to this being a book for women but even Vicky didn't like it so it is probably just because it is really a waste of time to try and read this book..
Not even worth picking up from the bargain basket!
1/10
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Terry Pratchett
bookicon
Thud!
hardcover
368 pages
Another Discworld Novel, again starring Commander of Ankh-Morpork City Watch, Sam Vimes. This time it's war, and Sam's in the middle..

Married to dragon breeding Lady Sybil (who has also taken up Sock Darning: She isn't very good at it, but it is the sort of thing one ought to do, as a wife), and with a young son, Sam, expecting his dad to deliver a daily, 6 o'clock reading of, 'Where's my cow?' - complete with sound effects, The Commander is faced with a situation of developing 'inter-species intolerance' which threatens the very existence of Ankh-Morpork itself.

With Lord Vetinari pressing him to take on a Vampire as a member of his force (which doesn't go down too well with the resident Were-Wolf - or with Sam himself, for that matter) and with several of his Dwarf officers leaving, Vimes is forced to try to ease the situation as the Battle of Koom Valley anniversary approaches - and the hundred's of years of bickering (and worse) the anniversary has brought with it.

A murder in the closed world of the Dwarf Deep-Downers complicates matters, as do threats to his family.

Drug sniffing Trolls don't make matters any easier.

And why was a very large picture stolen?

On one level this is an enjoyable detective romp through (and under) the streets of Ankh-Morpork, driven by a twisting, turning plot and a cast of regular Disc World characters.

But if most detective tales are, `Who-done-its'; and Agatha Christie's Poitrot stories are, `How-done-its'; Thud is a very much a, `Why-done-it?'!

What is driving the characters to behave the way they do?

This is explored most thoroughly in Vimes himself - who is not immune from the petty prejudices of humanity and who exhibits a growing anger as the story develops.

The all too easily justified anger is the most threatening thing in the story and brings Vimes, the Trolls and the Dwarfs to the very edge of destruction.

The book is a comedy, however, and like all comedies, it leaves the reader with a satisfying optimism.

On Disc-World, conflict will never be far away, but it can be resolved.
As in most of Pratchett's books, the themes and observations he makes reflect very much on the real world we find ourselves in.

Koom Valley, to me, has deep echoes of Kosovo and the `Field of Blackbird's' in 1389 - a battle which has had murderous repercussions down through history and well into our future. (Ismail Kadare's, Three Elegies For Kosovo, explores the same issues as Pratchett, but in a very different genre).

And if some of the characters in Thud are almost clich' - so too are some of the real people driving religious, gender and political intolerance (from whichever side).

For those who know the Disc-World stories, this is very much in the tradition of the earlier books - no chapters, footnotes, strong clear plot line and lovably eccentric characters (a 5 star Butler in this one, and totally `heart-of-gold, dumb-blond' pole dancer).

Not exactly the best in the series, but still worth a read..
7/10
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Q

R

Philip Reeve
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Predators Gold
paperback
330 pages
Reeve's story of cities on wheels, flying over a ravaged future Earth is compelling. With characters that you care passionately for, action that leaves you lost for words and inventiveness that takes some beating.

Two years after their escape aboard the airship (the Jenny Haniver) at the end of Mortal Engines, Tom and Hester, now lovers, find themselves the twin objects of attention of a terrorist organisation called Green Storm. In the misguided belief that the grotesquely incomplete preserved body of their hero, Anna Fang, can be resurrected to ensure their anti-traction goals, they cite Tom and Hester as essential capture targets.

But when they take shelter aboard the once-magnificent city of Anchorage, after a bruising air battle with some of Green Storm's gun ships, Tom and Hester encounter a whole new set of problems. This prestigious ice city is heading disastrously towards America, the fabled Dead continent, under the guidance of the fraudulent explorer Pennyroyal. There is danger everywhere and the travellers must be careful to survive.

Eventually they find themselves uncovering a plot to change the course of the world.

As this is a sequal and I haven't yet read the first part, it took some getting used to how their world works, but it does so surprisingly well. Perhaps somewhat illogical, and a little light, but despite (or perhaps because of) this being a kids book, I really enjoyed it.

Recommended!
7/10
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Kathy Reichs
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Virals
paperback
464 pages
Fourteen-year-old Tory Brennan is as fascinated by bones and dead bodies as her famous aunt, acclaimed forensic anthropologist, Tempe Brennan. However living on a secluded island off Charleston in South Carolina there is not much opportunity to put her knowledge to the test. Until her and her ragbag group of technophile friends stumble across a shallow grave containing the remains of a girl who has been missing for over thirty years. The question is, did whoever was responsible for the girl's death have anything to do with the sick puppy they rescued from a secret laboratory on the same island?

With the cold-case murder suddenly hot, Tory realises that they are involved in something fatally dangerous. But events take a turn for the bizarre when they escape some would-be attackers by using physical powers more akin to a dog than a human... Could the puppy hold the key not only to the murder, but also the strange changes that are taking place in their bodies?

Sounded good, but the execution is somewhat uninspired, and why it's got to go all weird and involve mutations, wolf viruses, special powers... Won't be reading the others!
4/10
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Anthony Riches
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Empire Wounds Of Honour
paperback
389 pages
Aiming for a cross between the old-fashioned adventures of Rosemary Sutcliffe's classic young adult adventure stories and the grittier approach of Bernard Cornwell's novels, Anthony Riches' Wounds of Honour gets off to a terrible start with an atrociously written opening chapter. It's not so much what happens as how it's described, which reads like a collection of every pulp cliché you thought had been drummed out of service years ago. Thankfully, while the editor must have missed that chapter, the rest of the book is a huge improvement - the writing may not be high literature but it is very decent storytelling that doesn't let clichéd writing make the plot seem even more clichéd than it is too often. And the plot is rather familiar, to put it mildly, with a disgraced young Roman officer sent to the end of the Empire to be executed after his father falls from grace and the Emperor orders his family wiped out. Instead he finds himself hiding out in a hardened regiment stationed along Hadrian's wall, having to - almost - work his way up from the non-commissioned ranks, earn the respect of his untrusting men and survive to clear his name at just the same time as the local natives are getting restless...

7/10
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Gregory David Roberts
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Shantaram
paperback
933 pages
Really enjoyable if slightly too long story of a man on the run who hides out in 80's Bombay and ends up a street hustler, a slum doctor, a prison inmate, a gangster, a bollywood stuntman and extra, a Mujahideen fighter in Afghanistan and a smuggler. The story is apparently based upon the authors own experiences.

This may be a love it or hate it book and I guess I am more on the love it side of things. The book provides a vivid account of Bombay life at the time and very good descriptions of the different parts and elements of the city. You really feel you get to know and like Bombay and its people. As well as that it has many different stories within it that keep it interesting.

That said the book is too long and does drag at times but never enough to skip parts or give up on it. I feel much of the extra length is due to the authors own attempts to prove himself by being overly wordy and given his early troubles in life maybe that is understandable. If you read the negative reviews of the book (I often find its the best way to judge if I'd like something) most of the complaints are that his prose is poor and overly descriptive and it is quite often. There is also a lot of self aggrandising not so subtly disguised as being humble. However, none of this takes away from the overall story which is very entertaining. Although there's no way all of it is true!

Recommended!
7/10
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Luis Miguel Rocha
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The Holy Assassin
paperback
574 pages
Deep in the Vatican's inner sanctum lies a dark and terrifying secret.. a secret that has been concealed for decades, and one that its keepers will stop at nothing to protect.

In 1978 Pope John Paul I dies in mysterious circumstances. His successor, John Paul II, emerges from the conclave unaware that he is in mortal danger. It is only through the actions of a few loyal operatives that his assassination is prevented.

Thirty years later journalist Sarah Monteiro begins to uncover the sinister machinations of a covert agency, whose web of lies and injustice hides the true power behind the throne.

It would seem that the dark forces are still at large, and Sarah faces a life-or-death struggle in the name of truth and faith.

Really not the best novel I've read all year, the story is somewhat interesting, but the style is dreadful, with constant lecturing intrusions by the author, along the lines of "...we need not concern ourselves where the man had come from, suffice to say that he was there...". It might be due to the translation, as it was originally written in portuguese, but it really didn't work very well in english..

Don't bother
4/10
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James Rollins
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The Last Oracle
paperback
434 pages
Bog standard over the top 007/da Vinci code rip After a prologue containing a compelling peek back at the Oracle of Delphi, Commander Gray Pierce is approached by a man only seconds before he's shot and dies in Pierce's arms. The callous murder sends Sigma Force into motion to try to figure out what's going on. Especially since the dead man seemed to know about Sigma Force, one of the most closely guarded secrets in the United States espionage network.

The man turns out to be Dr. Polk, one of the men who helped create Sigma Force. As soon as that mystery is cleared up, the team realizes that Polk - not Pierce - was the intended target all along. Even more mysterious, Polk was a walking dead man, already dying from radiation poisoning.

Rollins plants his clues deftly, charging into the adventure vigorously. A coin clutched by Polk leads them to the museum, and to Dr. Polk's daughter, Elizabeth. I love the pacing of these books, but Rollins strips the characters down a lot, leaving them more blocked-out than filled in. Sometimes I miss not getting to know more about them, but then I realize with the headlong pacing of the books there's no real way to explore any kind of personal life.

In short order, Rollins has got his plot up and running, separating Sigma Force into teams and branching out with different avenues of action. Director Painter Crowe and his group try to figure out the mystery of the Russian girl that falls into their hands while Gray Pierce follows up on the trail of bread crumbs Dr. Polk has left behind. On another front, we pick up the story of yet another Sigma Force member who's fighting for his life to escape enemy clutches with a cadre of the psychically gifted children. And then there are the machinations of the bad guys.

Although I finished the book in a couple sittings, I admit I had to take a breath now and again to figure out who was doing what to whom from time to time. Rollins introduces all the elements of his adventure, from the Oracle of Delphi to the Gypsy culture to Punjab history, then kicks in a lot of psychic spying (remote viewing that the Russians spent so much time with) as well as archeological and scientific background.
5/10
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Kenneth Royce
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The Stalin Account
hardcover
269 pages
Short spy novel about the heir to an old ladies possesions, who discovers her old diary. He thinks nothing of it untill he start noticing people following him around and people around him start dying in suspicious ways.

When a Secret Services agent then turns up at the front door asking question he decides it's time to investigate further. He discovers a strange number in the old ladies diary which turns out to be connection to a secret bank account of someone rather infamous, and some people who'd rather not have anyone find out the truth..

Great thriller, although the plot seemes a bit thin at times. Atleast it's got plenty of twists and turns to keep the reader entertained.
Recommended!
7/10
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Jed Rubenfeld
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The Interpretation of Murder
paperback
544 pages
Somewhat overhyped mystery novel with a guest appearance by Sigmund Freud. Set in NY 1909 it's basically your basic murder with some psycho babble thrown in. The period provides some interesting characteristics to the tale and it's well written overall, but the occasional use of big words just for the sake of it makes it feel a bit pompous..

The novel begins as Dr. Sigmund Freud arrives in New York to deliver a series of lectures on his – at that point – very controversial subject. Dr. Stratham Younger, an American psychoanalyst, is appointed by the university to act as liaison officer for Dr. Freud. Several key members of Freud’s group of therapists are with him, including Carl Jung, who seems to be there only as an annoying sideline and for name dropping sake.

Soon after Dr. Freud’s arrival, Dr. Younger is summoned to a case involving an attack on 17-year-old Nora Acton, daughter to two influential people in the city’s high society circles, who is of course elegant, beautifull and vulnerable..
The victim of a sadist, Nora was choked, whipped, and cut with a knife. The experience has left her with amnesia and bereft of voice. Dr. Freud offers the opinion that her case would be an excellent choice for Dr. Younger.

Predictabily Dr. Younger finds himself entranced with Nora’s beauty and vulnerability, blah, blah, blah. Nora’s returning memory proves false when she accuses the mayor’s friend, George Banwell with attacking her. Banwell is a married man and a rejected suitor of Nora’s who – she says – won’t take no for an answer. However, the night Nora was attacked, Banwell has the perfect alibi: he was with the mayor.

The mystery goes on and on and on as investigating detective Littlemore (the best character in the book) proceeds on a parallel course that turns up other, mostly seemingly pointless clues. As it turns out, Nora wasn’t the only woman attacked, tied up, strangled, and whipped in such a manner. At least one other woman was, and she’s now dead. However, her body has gone missing from the morgue.

The story progressed from the luxury hotels and high society events to the narrow, twisting alleys, and to houses of prostitution and police holding cells, those scenes filled without thousands of extras came alive.

In the afterword, Rubenfeld acknowledges using the New York City geography as he needed to, but very few changes took place. The book could have done with some more changes to it, involving and integrating the theories and person of Freud more, which would have made this a much more unique novel, and worthy of the hype, rather than the somewhat bland standard murder-mystery novel it is now..
Still an enjoyable read however!
6/10
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Chris Ryan
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Extreme - Hard Target
paperback
438 pages
Former SAS Warrant Officer Joe Gardner has fought the Regiment's deadliest enemies, in some of the most desolate places on earth. And he's always won. Now he's about to face his toughest challenge yet.

After losing his hand whilst on a covert operation in Afghanistan, Gardner is forced to stand down from active duty. Now he lives off the grid. But trouble finds him in the shape of a phone call from an old friend. Ex-Regiment legend John Bald is trapped in a bullet-ridden favela in Rio de Janeiro and a violent gang is out to kill him. Unless Gardner helps, Bald is a dead man.

What begins as a simple rescue mission soon descends into a desperate struggle for survival as Gardner finds himself caught up in a conceit that stretches from the slums of Brazil to the frozen steppes of Siberia. Stalked by elusive MI6 agents and ruthless ex-Blades, Gardner must draw on all his training and instincts to hunt down the hardest target of all - before disaster strikes...

Rather corny tale which lacks credible authenticity to epic proportions, it reads like someone's first attempt at thriller writing which would never have been published under an unknown authors' name. The hero of the tale has one arm, why? It just makes the reader doubt the veracity of the many fight sequences and the author also seems to often forget the limb deficiency; "he rubbed his palms together", really? Don't think I'll bother with any more
5/10
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S

John Sandford
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Hidden Prey
paperback
393 pages
Sometimes you don't need a fresh idea. You just have to leave a stale idea on the shelf long enough, and it becomes fresh again.
Take the basic premise behind Hidden Prey, John Sandford's 14th novel in his Prey series featuring Lucas Davenport. Thirty or 40 years ago, you couldn't come up with a more tired idea for a thriller than Russian spies living undercover in America.
But to resurrect the idea now, years after the Cold War ended and Russia is ostensibly our ally? That's a nice hook.
In Sandford's novel, the cabal of Russian spies living in rural Minnesota has been largely forgotten about by both their former Soviet minders and United States intelligence. They're now senior citizens, pillars of their communities, and figure that their espionage days are long behind them.
What sets things in motion in Hidden Prey is the murder of a well-connected Russian on the shores of Lake Superior. Davenport, who is now a sort of all-purpose crimebuster for the state, is sent up north to investigate, partnered with a female Russian investigator who clearly has secrets of her own. Then a homeless woman who may have witnessed the murder is killed in Duluth, and the trail becomes more complicated.
Sandford's series started essentially in the vein of Thomas Harris (Silence of the Lambs). Tortured detective Davenport hunted down gruesomely creative serial killers on the streets of Minneapolis. But around the seventh book in the series, Sandford wisely began moving away from the serial-killer formula, sending Davenport out to catch different species of killers.
And he's also lightened Davenport up considerably, giving him a happy home life, a more engaging voice and, most importantly of all, a sense of humor. At this point in the series, Sandford's thrillers seem more inspired by the police procedurals of Ed McBain than by the slasher fiction of Harris.
In fact, Hidden Prey may even be a little too sedate for Sandford's longtime fans. Although there are bursts of violence here and there, including a dizzying foot chase, most of the novel follows Davenport and his allies as they interview witnesses and patiently piece together clues. Even the climax, with the killer holed up in a mountain cabin, fails to produce the expected bang-up ending.
But what the thriller lacks in cinematic fireworks it more than makes up for in careful plotting, believable characters and tough, witty dialogue. I also love the uniquely Minnesotan details that Sandford, a longtime Twin Cities journalist, brings to his novels. For example, when the residents of Hibbing, Bob Dylan's birthplace, refer to Dylan, it's not in the context of a famous musician or political voice. His name is shorthand for "extremely wealthy," as in "he's got more money than Bob Dylan."
Sandford's also got a fascinating and unorthodox pair of villains for Davenport to contend with. The killers (and we find this out right away, so I'm not spoiling anything) are a 92-year-old man and his 17-year-old great-grandson. The teenager is the trigger man, while his great-grandpa, who was the leader of the spy ring, gives pointers like he was teaching him how to fly-fish. They're like something out of an Elmore Leonard novel, adding a bizarre splash to another entertaining entry in one of thrillerdom's most enduring series.
8/10
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Winter Prey
hardcover
350 pages
Dark thriller situated in the remote, dark Wisconsin woods during mid-winter. A murderer stalks through the forests and the local sheriff is in way over his head with the extravagance of the crime; the murdered man, woman and child; the machete-like knife through the man's head; the ashes of the fire-consumed house spread over the ice and snow.. Luckily for him Lucas Davenport happens to be on holiday in the area. Lucas, police detective extraordinaire reluctantly agrees to take on the case and hunt down the murderer, but it turns out even he might have met his match..

For this is a kind of criminal new to him, too. As he tracks down the killer he finds evidence of more crimes, crimes shocking even to Lucas carefully hardened shell.. As more and more people turn up dead the clocks ticking for Lucas to find his man..

Stylish thriller with a well developed plot and a good sense of suspense. Real page turner!
9/10
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C.J, Sansom
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Revelation
hardcover
550 pages
The fourth in CJ Sansom's superb Tudor detective series. A serial killer is on the loose in 16th century England, and serjeant Matthew Shardlake has to catch him.

The year is 1543 and the hunchbacked lawyer and sometime detective Matthew Shardlake has sworn not to involve himself in any more affairs of state after his last brush with the factions of King Henry's court in Sovereign (2007). But his quiet working life is shattered when his old friend Roger Elliard, a fellow lawyer, is found with his throat cut in Lincoln's Inn fountain. When the king's coroner seems to be covering up the murder, Shardlake promises Elliard's widow that he will find the killer, a mission he shares with Archbishop Cranmer, who must keep the investigation a secret from the king. If it fails, they could all lose their heads.

What Shardlake begins to uncover is more horrifying than anything he and his hot-blooded young assistant Jack Barak have yet had to face. There have been multiple killings in previous books, but this is the first time Shardlake has found himself on the trail of a serial killer in the modern mould, one who treats killing as both a holy mission and an art form, and takes as much pleasure in teasing his pursuers as in the murders themselves.

It would not be giving too much away to say that the killer is basing his murders on the prophecies of the Book of Revelation, whose apocalyptic visions have recently been opened to the common people through the king's reforms. I suspect a homage to David Fincher's 1995 film Se7en - the murders are every bit as imaginatively gruesome and symbolic. As with the previous books, Sansom's narrative is highly visual and Revelation will clearly make a white-knuckle film (a BBC series is reportedly in development starring Kenneth Branagh).

Shardlake has been dubbed 'the Tudor Morse'; like Morse, he is solitary, cerebral, occasionally flawed and driven by a belief in an ideal of justice that stands above the petty rivalries of his profession. He has the same fierce moral core, but he also has a warmth that Morse lacked, which leaves the reader feeling torn whenever a potential love interest appears; you'd like it to work out for him, but he just wouldn't be Shardlake if he ended up in cosy domestic bliss.

The other great appeal of these books, apart from the cast of regular characters, is the richness of Sansom's historical research. He has a doctorate in history and a previous career as a lawyer, but wears his considerable expertise lightly. He also achieves the rare alchemy of combining characters who are sympathetically modern in their psychology with a setting that is authentically historical. He leads us through 16th-century London as confidently as if he lived there himself and even without the helpful endpaper maps, the reader can immediately visualise the muddy streets, the marshes along the South Bank and the ancient City walls.

Revelation takes a little time to get its main plot rolling but it is very skilfully structured - not an incident is wasted - and once the killer's intentions become clear, don't expect to put the book down until you've seen it through to the apocalyptic finale.
9/10
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C.J. Sansom
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Sovereign
paperback
660 pages
This is the third Matthew Shardlake novel, following on from Dissolution and Dark Fire. Shardlake is now a much more established character, with Jack Barak as his foil and sidekick, and this is a much more assured novel (which, considering how excellent the first two books are is very impressive). It is 1541 and, after the fall of Cromwell, Shardlake has gone back to his law practice and has taken Barak on to work with him. They are not the only ones to remember Thomas Cromwell though – it is rumoured that the King himself regrets losing such a loyal and competent servant. Shardlake had hoped his days of being involved in the Court are behind him, but he is asked by no less than Archbishop Cranmer, who had been told by Cromwell himself of his discretion, to escort a prisoner from York to London.

Henry is making a Progress in the North. A conspirator, Sir Edward Broderick, is being sent from York to the Tower of London and Shardlake is told to ensure he arrives safely within the Tower walls. However, shortly after arriving in York, Shardlake hears a scream and finds a glazier has been killed. Before he dies, he tells Shardlake, “no child of Henry and Catherine Howard can ever be true heir.” Unwillingly, Shardlake is told to investigate by Maleverer; a crony of his old enemy Richard Rich. Soon, Shardlake is trapped in an unenviable situation – forced to deal with a conspiracy which strikes at the very heart of the succession to the throne, embroiled in treason and with his life in increasing danger, whilst also having to try to keep Broderick alive and well in order to face torture in London.

The characters in this novel are a mix of real and fictional, but they are all so well cast, that it is impossible to say which is which. There is the sadistic jailer, Radwinter, Jennet Marlin, a member of the Queen’s servants, young Tamasin Reedbourne, who catches Barak’s eye, Lady Rochester – former wife of George Boleyn – the new young Queen Catherine, who is way out of her depth, the arrogant young men who surround her, including Culpepper and Dereham, and the elderly lawyer, Giles Wrenne, who befriends Shardlake. Indeed, Shardlake needs a friend in this book. With Barak busy being in love, under pressure from Maleverer and Rich, with several attempts on his life and humiliated by King Henry himself, this really makes you face the reality of the Tudor world. We are taken behind the pomp to the backstage of Court life, from the grandeur of the King to the vicious reality of power; even to the real fear and horror of torture in the dungeons beneath the Tower itself. A wonderful read in a brilliant series.

Recommended
8/10
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Winter in Madrid
hardcover
536 pages
Marketed as a Zafon-esque journey through wartime Madrid this historical effort by historian/novelist CJ Sansom doesn't quite deliver. Still an altogether different and enjoyable experience.

Having greatly enjoyed Shadow Of The Wind (like so many other people) I was lured to this book by promises that it was in a similar vein. I feel that Sansom has been done a great injustice by this, since it builds an expectation of a very different novel from that which is delivered.

However, while not as good as SOTW, it is, in a very different way, a pretty enjoyable read still, even if a bit overly long perhaps. It's far starker and more descriptive, immersing you in a largely accurate portrayal (the author pens an apologetic historical note where the plot has forced certain inaccuracies) of 1940s Madrid, and particularly of the suffering endured by the Spanish people under Franco.

The story focuses around three British citizens pursuing very different agenda. Sandy Forsyth is a small time con man turned entrepreneur, working with Franco's delicately balanced government on a secret project; Dunkirk survivor Harry Brett is his former public school roommate, hand picked by the security services to investigate Forsyth's business dealings; and in the middle is Barbara Clare, Forsyth's girlfriend, who still holds out hope of finding her lover, Bernie Piper, who everyone else believes died in battle at Jarama.

Their respective adventures mostly take place in cafeterias and bars across Madrid, before eventually ramping up to an unexpectedly fast paced conclusion. The trysts and meetings in various places are played out with excellently penned dialogue, and Sansom displays a true gift at conveying emotion in the characters.

While this book does not have the darkness, confusion and, frankly, beauty of Zafon's work, it is still good enough to be recommendable.
7/10
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Steven Saylor
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A Murder On The Appian Way
paperback
622 pages
A Murder on the Appian Way deals with the death of Publius Clodius Pulcher, a famous populist rabble-rousing politician of the late Roman Republic. There's a lot of foreshadowing of the Republic's fall in this book; especially in the early conversations Gordianus has with his daughter Diana.

The murder of Clodius sparks riots and the burning down of the Senate house. Gordianus is eventually approached by his widow, Fulvia, to investigate what happened and also to check if Marc Antony had anything to do with the murder. He also runs into Clodia again, who also wants to know what happened. However, he doesn't really commit to working for Fulvia, and winds up getting hired instead by Pompey Magnus, usually referred to within the book as "The Great One." Heh.

So Gordianus and his son (along with Gordianus' new slave, Davus), set off to the Appian Way to investigate what happened. I'm not really going to get into the details of the investigation except to say that they eventually wind up being kidnapped, except for Davus, who is left for dead, and that while Milo was ultimately behind it, Cicero knew what had happened and let it happen (though he did convince Milo not to kill them).

To which my reaction was "Whoa. Steven Saylor really hates Cicero!" He had certainly portrayed him as the epitome of the scummy lawyer in past books, with some justification. But I really hadn't thought that his portrayal of him could get any more unsympathetic, but clearly I was wrong. Which is interesting to me, since while Gordianus' and Cicero's relationship had been deteriorating for quite some time now, this really marks the end of good relations between them presumably, and I wonder what means for future books. While I can certainly understand Gordianus' (and probably Saylor's) problems with Cicero's methods, I think ultimately Gordianus and Cicero want the same thing: which is for the Roman Republic to stay a republic. And we all know it's not going to for very long.

A few other items of note: we get introduced to Marcus Antonius for the first time in this book, and I was nerdily disappointed (and somewhat surprised) that Saylor has chosen to call him "Marc Antony." I figured if anyone was going to refer to him by his proper Roman name, it would have been Saylor, as he did so with Catalina after all (who's usually referred to as Cataline). Ah well. Most of the Marc Antony stuff seemed like obvious setup for future novels, including a somewhat shoehorned reference to a young Cleopatra.

We also get a broken Minerva statue being used as a rather obvious metaphor for the broken Republic, complete with a detailed description of how it must have had an internal flaw that was invisible on the outside but that ultimately made it vulnerable enough to get broken where it did. Really, Saylor? That was rather anvilicious of you.

I don't mean to bash this book though; it was pretty good. And I always enjoy Saylor's take on Clodia. He manages to never quite settle the question of whether or not she and her brother were having "improper relations," while at the same time portraying her as a definitely lusty, but ultimately sympathetic character, who in this book was genuinely grieving for her brother. I liked the scene at the end when Gordianus delivers Clodius' ring to her; a nice touch.

Recommended
8/10
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Catalina's Riddle
hardcover
409 pages
Solid thriller, the third in a series of historical mystery novels featuring Gordianus the Finder. Set during ancient Roman times the plot is concerned with several murders occuring after Gordianus has withdrawn from Rome. He is asked to return to investigate the case as a personal favour, but at first he's unwilling to do so. Then more people get killed and he's forced into returning to Rome to investigate the case when things threaten to get personal.

The story is set to occur during the "conspiracy" of Catilina, with the confrontation between Cicero and Catilina seemingly taking most of the attention.

This somewhat muddles the plot making it feel more like a historic novel describing the political situation of the period rather than a thriller.
7/10
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Steven Saylor
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Last Seen in Massilia
paperback
320 pages
Steven Saylor's latest outing with Gordianus The Finder takes Ancient Rome's Philip Marlowe to the besieged city of Massilia (present day Marseilles). This time however Gordianus' mission is personal - to find his son Meto who has been acting as a spy for Julius Caesar (whose forces are besieging the doomed city). Once inside the city Gordianus and his son in law are drawn into the claustrophobic intrigues of a dying city. Although the pace is initially leisurely, Saylor easily draws us into his superbly evoked ancient world and gradually an enthralling mystery tale unwinds.
The characterisation is excellent and at times poignant, the period detail and color is vivid and accurate, the story well plotted - with one or two suprises and twists in the tail!
8/10
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Steven Saylor
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Rubicon
hardcover
272 pages
Gordianus the Finder is now in his sixties, but his two able-bodied sons are not available to perform the task an imperious Pompey has forced upon Gordianus. On his own, he must find the murderer of Pompey's kinsman Numerius.

Not even Davus, the husband of Gordianus' daughter can help because Pompey has illegally conscripted him as hostage-bodyguard.

Gordianus determines to free Davus and for that reason agrees to accompany Tiro, the freedman slave and scribe of Gordianus' former ally Cicero. Tiro has a passport from Pompey that will cover Gordianus in their travels through land loyal to Pompey.

In turn, Gordianus should be able to provide safe passage for Tiro when they are in Caesar's territory because Gordianus' son Meto is a highly placed and possibly too well-loved member of Caesar's forces.

Despite these assurances of safe passage, there are plenty of hazards on the road. As a result, a bodyguard and a driver are sacrificed for the travelers.

Saylor shows both sides in the civil war as ignoble. The soldiers in both armies demean citizens with strip searches. Cicero who has been a lifelong friend of Pompey but is reluctant to pledge his allegiance contrasts with Gordianus who hates both leaders, but cannot decide whether he hates mad Pompey or Caesar the catamite more.

Pleasant read, nothing too taxing, but never boring either.

Recommended
8/10
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The Seven Wonders
hardcover
321 pages
This addition to the Roma Sub Rosa series is a deviation from the norm in many ways. First, it is a prequel, going back in time to when Gordianus was eighteen and showing the process of the boy becoming the man and Finder returning readers know so well. Second, it purports to be a novel but is much closer to a short story collection. Third, it is a bit of a travelogue, focusing on places over anything else. The execution of each of these three things is largely responsible for how well the book succeeds or fails.

As a prequel, this left me rather underwhelmed. Gordianus is, in many ways, far too advanced in his trade already. We are told at the start that his father, the man currently known in Rome as the Finder, has taught young Gordianus all the tricks of the trade and that is really all the development of his skills we are given. The father disappears from the book entirely after a few short pages. While Gordianus occasionally thinks of his father's lessons as he uses his detective skills, there is no real sense of him being anything other than the professional readers of the series already know. We are told in the end that while he had the skills, he lacked one critical aspect of his adult personality and really of maturity and he has now developed that, but we are told that rather abruptly without it really having been demonstrated previously. The only area in which Gordianus grows and matures throughout these tales is in his sexual awakening and those were fun little moments that amused me but have no heft to them.

As a blend of novel and short story collection, this almost succeeds, but ultimately I was again disappointed. Most of the tales here, seven of ten chapters if my count is correct, were published in various magazines and anthologies as individual short stories before being collected here. As such, each chapter is a contained story with characters, stand alone plot, and completed mystery. The mysteries are necessarily much less complex than those of the full novels in this series, but roughly on par with the previous short story collections. I of course enjoyed some stories more than others and personally prefer the previous collections over this one, but as short stories I have no real complaints with them. The attempt to unite the stories into one novel, however, was much more problematic. There is an overarching plot lingering in the background of the stories, articulated most clearly in the first and last proper chapters (ignoring the epilogue for the moment) which were not previously published as stand alone tales. The problem is that this overarching plot is rather weak and the twist or mystery reveal that comes in the last chapter was obvious to me at most one-third of the way through the book.

The one thing that does successfully unite these stories is the travelogue theme of the collection. Gordianus is traveling the known world, visiting each of the Seven Wonders in turn and encountering a mystery at each place. The physical descriptions of the wonders themselves were a bit flat, but the overall sense of place and time with all the little details that I consider to be one of the hallmarks of Saylor's series are here and as fantastically done as ever. Gordianus's journey gives him and the readers a sense of the culture and history of multiple places around the Mediterranean and the background is as vibrant, entertaining, and educational as Saylor at his best.

Recommended
7/10
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Steven Saylor
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The Triumph Of Caesar
paperback
311 pages
Steven Saylor returns to his Gordianus series and the result, although welcome is something of a disappointment. A somewhat slender and short story offers only transitory pleasures. But Saylor is a master storyteller and sage on all things Roman, so a sub par Roma Sub Rosa novel still eclipses his many rivals. A minor entry in the series and not the best starting point for newcomers, but for completists and fans a must buy.
6/10
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Albert Sánchez Piñol
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Victus: Barcelona 1714
hardcover
606 pages
Why do the weak fight against the strong? At 98, Martí Zuviría ponders this question as he begins to tell the extraordinary tale of Catalonia and its annexation in 1714. No one knows the truth of the story better, for Martí was the very villain who betrayed the city he was commended to keep.

The story of Catalonia and Barcelona is also Martí’s story. A prestigious military engineer in the early 1700s, he fought on both sides of the long War of the Spanish Succession between the Two Crowns—France and Spain—and aided an Allied enemy in resisting the consolidation of those two powers. Politically ambitious yet morally weak, Martí carefully navigates a sea of Machiavellian intrigue, eventually rising to a position of power that he will use for his own mercenary end.

Epic Novel which asks the important questions in life, what is it all about, and why do people do what the do.

Trying a little too hard to be like Umberto Eco, but nevertheless a entertaining read

Recommended!

8/10
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Simon Scarrow
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Praetorian
paperback
496 pages
The city of Rome in AD 50 is a dangerous place. Treachery lurks on every corner, and a shadowy Republican movement, 'the Liberators', has spread its tentacles wide. It is feared that the heart of the latest plot lies in the ranks of the Praetorian Guard. Uncertain of whom he can trust, the Imperial Secretary Narcissus summons to Rome two courageous men guaranteed to be loyal to the grave: army veterans Prefect Cato and Centurion Macro.

Tasked with infiltrating the Guard, Cato and Macro face a daunting test to win the trust of their fellow soldiers. No sooner have they begun to unearth the details of the Liberators devious plan than disaster strikes: an old enemy who could identify them, with deadly consequences, makes an unexpected appearance. Now they face a race against time to save their own lives before they can unmask the mastermind behind the Liberators..

Interesting fast paced Roman novel, good number of little plot twists, great read.

Recommended
8/10
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The Eagle And The Wolves
hardcover
441 pages
Historic novel in the Eagles Series. It's AD 44, and Vespasian and the Second Legion are forging ahead in their campaign to seize the south-west of Britain. Macro and newly appointed centurion Cato are ordered to provide Verica, ruler of the Atrebatans, with an army. They must train his tribal levies into a force that can protect him and take on the increasingly ambitious raids that the enemy is launching.

But despite the Atrebatans' official allegiance to Rome, open revolt is brewing, for many want to resist the Roman invaders. Macro and Cato must win the loyalty of the disgruntled levies - but can they succeed whilst surviving a deadly plot to destroy both of them?

Usual quality of work, historically accurate it seems, and with a constant pace and well defined characters, not immensely stereotyped.

Recommended!
8/10
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Simon Scarrow
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The Eagles Prophecy
hardcover
376 pages
It is AD 45, and Macro and Cato are in Rome, waiting for their involvement in a fellow officer’s death to be investigated. But is is not just their future that hangs in the balance. Ruthless pirates have captured three scrolls vital to the future of Rome. The devious Imperial Secretary, Narcissus, orders Macro, Cato and their old enemy Vitellius to set sail with the imperial fleet to crush the pirates. But the pirates have been forewarned and the Romans pay a heavy price. Amidst all the chaos one thing is certain: the Empire will fall if Macro and Cato fail.

Another brilliantly written adventure in the Roman Army, fighting pirates this time. Bit of a seemingly pointless subplot regarding Macros mother, but nevertheless e real page turner!

Recommended!
9/10
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Simon Scarrow
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The Gladiator
paperback
374 pages
Roman legionnairs Macro and Cato find themselves on Crete after a huge earthquake and tidal wave. Law and order on the island have fallen apart, and they find themselves having to help re-establish order, and deal with a slave rebellion led by someone who they have encountered before.

All in all, the story moves along well, and keeps you entertained, but it feels rather similar to the other stories in the series
7/10
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Simon Scarrow
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Under The Eagle
hardcover
256 pages
It is 42 AD, and Quintus Licinius Cato has just arrived in Germany as a new recruit to the Second Legion, the toughest in the Roman army. If adjusting to the rigours of military life isn’t difficult enough for the bookish young man, he also has to contend with the disgust of his colleagues when, because of his imperial connections, he is appointed a rank above them. As second-in-command to Macro, the fearless, battle-scarred centurion who leads them, Cato will have more to prove than most in the adventures that lie ahead. Then the men discover that the army’s next campaign will take them to a land of unparalleled barbarity – Britain. After the long march west, Cato and Macro undertake a special mission that will thrust them headlong into a conspiracy that threatens to topple the Emperor himself..

First novel in the series, and clear to see things for better as the series progressed. Nevertheless, entertaining enough read for those with a thing for Romans..

Recommended
7/10
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Lloyd Shepherd
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The English Monster
paperback
432 pages
Lloyd Shepherd's debut, The English Monster, begins with a puzzle: six pirates are hanged from the gallows by a river; five of them are dead, but one of them is only pretending to be dead.

It is an enticing hook - macabre and gory - and sets the tone for a yarn which is part pirate adventure, part detective story, part historical fiction and part horror.

The novel is broadly set over two time periods, with two narratives.

In 1564 (during the reign of Queen Elizabeth) a flotilla of ships, captained by John Hawkyns, is on a clandestine trade mission; his crew includes Billy Ablass, a young man seeking his fortune.

In `the present' (1811), the local officials in Shadwell and Wapping bungle the investigation into a set of apparently motiveless killings, which will go down in history as the Ratcliffe Highway murders. The jaded magistrate, John Harriott, undertakes to catch the perpetrator, with the assistance of Waterman-Constable Charles Horton.

John Hawkyns's voyage, a real historical event, was the first official attempt to exploit what Shepherd chillingly refers to as `African treasure'. Rumours fly above and below decks as Billy Abless pieces together the purpose of their grizzly assignment. It will spawn a global trade, generating fabulous wealth for some - and unimaginable suffering for a great many others. The riches seem to be guaranteed; the question becomes whether Billy will return to his beloved wife, Kate, with his body and soul still intact?

Meanwhile, the 19th century murders take place in a filthy maritime metropolis on the Thames. Trade (with a capital `T') is the lifeblood of the riverside community now living in fear. Law and Order, by comparison, is still in its infancy. There are no established procedures to run an effective murder investigation, only the intuition of Waterman-Constable Charles Horton, a character with a shady past and an undignified fascination with the facts that is ahead of his time. It is he who discovers the killer's calling card, a silver piece of eight.

Shepherd's imagination is dark and disconcerting. He has knitted together two distinct episodes from British history (or rather, English history) to make a ghoulish exploration of greed, bloodlust and perceived entitlement. Though historical, this novel is very much a post-Credit Crunch work; it is a story of how the mindless pursuit of wealth - at the expense of people - is ugly, immoral and devastating.

The corruption of young Billy Ablass is more successfully drawn than the Regency murder mystery. Occasionally, Shepherd is distracted by his admiration of the historical figure of John Harriott, when he has actually created a compelling new detective in Charles Horton who deserves more time centre stage.

Despite this, The English Monster is atmospheric, gruesome and gripping. With Shepherd as their quartermaster, readers who enjoyed `Perfume' by Patrick Suskind will find plenty on this voyage to appal and intrigue them.

Recommended
8/10
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Dan Simmons
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Hyperion
hardcover
352 pages
SF/fantasy novel based on a John Keats poem and the Shrike, a mythical creature guarding the Time Tombs, he distant future to hunt down a group of people who are on their final pilgramage accross the galaxy to the outback world of Hyperion.

Unbeknown to them they are all part of a greater scheme to rescue the universe. We get slowly introduced to each of the characters and their stories as layer by layer a story unfolds against a backdrop of a religious militaristic society..

Great story with elements of horror and sf, wonderfull character building and the way the story unfolds just begs for more.. Good thing you'll have to read the sequal to find out how it all ends..
Excellent
8/10
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Tom Rob Smith
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Child 44
hardcover
473 pages
Crime story set in 1953 amid a Stalinist-Orwellian nightmare. The politics are starkly Soviet, but the atmosphere is old-school Russian. How Russian? Russian enough for an Andrei, an Arkady and an Anatoly all turn up cryptically in the book’s early stages.

Andrei appears during the book’s 1933 prologue, a vignette about the terrible disappearance of a young boy during a famine. Then 20 years later, with no explanation for such leapfrogging, Mr. Smith tells the story of another boy’s bleak fate. That victim is Arkady. And while Arkady turns up dead on Moscow railroad tracks, an adult fugitive named Anatoly happens to be suspected of other kinds of misdeeds. Anatoly is accused of spying, and he is on the run from the State Security force, the M.G.B.

Thriller conventions being what they are, this opening material amounts to mere vamping. Nobody whose name starts with an A will turn out to be this book’s central character. Andrei, Arkady and Anatoly merely lead the reader to Leo Stepanovich Demidov, an M.G.B. officer with relentless ambition and an unquestioning nature. Leo is busy pursuing Anatoly when he is annoyingly sidetracked by a family matter. He is begged by Fyodor, Arkady’s father, to find out how Arkady went astray.

Here comes Mr. Smith’s most marketably perverse angle: It is not morally possible for Leo to contemplate such a question. As a loyal Soviet ideologue, he must believe that violent crime is a function of capitalist decadence. In a worker’s paradise only political-thought crimes matter. So unguarded children have nothing to fear. And Arkady’s story must be forgotten.

Here are some pro forma book-group discussion questions about “Child 44,” since it is looking like this summer’s most hotly promoted thriller: Will Leo question his blind loyalty to Stalinist Russia? Will he decide that crime can happen anywhere because it is part of human nature? Will his life be at risk when he begins to question authority? Will his indifferent marriage to Raisa be strengthened or weakened as Leo becomes his own man? Will there be anything sexy about Raisa’s realization that she is not married to a ruthless automaton?

Will thugs threaten to rape Raisa at any point in this story? Will “Child 44” escalate into action sequences and violence? Will we find out why one of the book’s characters never goes anywhere without a serrated knife, which is said to be good for cutting tough salami? And will Leo turn out to have a big, murky secret lodged somewhere in his past?

Before answering this last question, consider Mr. Smith’s explicit gratitude to Robert Towne, who wrote the film “Chinatown.” Under Mr. Towne’s influence “Child 44” takes on a “Chinatown” whiff of long-buried, psychologically devastating menace.

Here’s a good moment to note that Mr. Smith originally conceived of “Child 44” as a movie. And he had based it loosely on the real, gruesome Russian story of a man nicknamed the Rostov Ripper. The screenplay may well have been this author’s best format for this story, since Mr. Smith is very handy with small, nifty plot tricks but is also very long-winded when summoning Stalin-era atmospherics.

Only when the Stalinism yields a clever jolt — as, for instance, the sight of a telephone in somebody’s apartment revealing that person to be working for the state, since a telephone is such a rare and exotic perk — does Mr. Smith’s slightly ponderous style truly serve his high-voltage story.

As for its characters’ various relationships, the one between Leo and Raisa is by far the most interesting. Leo’s dealings with co-workers are rendered almost cartoonishly simple. (It’s not clear why the book’s one-note villain hates him.) And his love for his parents, while unexpectedly poignant, remains essentially unchanged.

But Leo and Raisa go through a phase of mutual mistrust, during which Leo is asked to spy on his wife and treat her as a possible enemy of the state. Here is where Richard Price, who is reportedly writing the screenplay for “Child 44,” will come in handy: The book delivers Hitchcockian moments like Leo’s secretly trying to track his wife — and, he thinks, her lover — through a crowded train station. The bold dynamics of the sequence are strong, but its turbulent inner workings are even better.

Sooner or later, though, Mr. Smith must reveal what has been at the heart of all the life-changing events in this story. And its denouement feels surprisingly phony. Motivation counts for nothing among the book’s characters; it’s just an excuse for the author to put them through the elaborate paces of a far-flung chase through Martin Cruz Smith country. This book’s version of the Rostov Ripper is a guy with ugly personal quirks, but very little imagination.

If there’s one single development in “Child 44” that has the most lingering effect, it is Leo’s choice at the end of the story. What will he do next? He needs a new career. Suffice it to say that Stalin has died during the course of the story, that Leo has traveled far and wide, that Moscow now looks like a good home base, and that it will be needing a batch of homicide cops, now that homicide officially exists. So Leo Demidov pulls what fans of this genre (and of the author Michael Connelly) will recognize as a Harry Bosch. Expect to see him again, jaded yet indefatigable, figuring out what evil lurks in the dark heart of his chosen city.

Starts of rather disturbing, but fizzles out into a run-of-the-mill thriller out the end with a rather far-fetched plot twist to tie it altogether

Worth a read.
7/10
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Wesley Stace
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Misfortune
hardcover
530 pages
"Misfortune" is more than a promising debut; it's a fulfilled promise. It's an astounding literary undertaking, and Stace pulls it off masterfully.

Stace is an extremely gifted storyteller. His fiction writing is well served by his talents as a songwriter. His prose is lyrical, direct and momentous; his timing and sense of pace are impeccable. Rose's story is often heartbreaking, just as often hilarious, and always fascinating. She and the people who surround her occupy not only another century, but the furthest and most extraordinary reaches of that century, and yet we recognize them instantly.

I can't think of another novel I've read in recent years with such well rendered scenes of childhood. The scenes with Rose and her playmates capture all the idyllic feelings of wonder, vitality, laughter and the seemingly endless possibilities of childhood--as well as the creeping onset of recognition that things cannot and will not remain this way. Rose's bewilderment--at her loss of invulnerability and her departure from a world where everything is more or less as it should be--is utterly transcendent.

Each character in "Misfortune"--even those who appear for only a page or two--is exquisitely rendered. The Loveall family is populated with some of the most gruesome, petty and awful extended family members imaginable, yet they always remain human--and always hysterical. The scenes with some of the most infuriating and despicable members on the periphery of Rose's new family stand out as the moments of highest comedy in the book.

This is one of the finest, most touching, funny and utterly enthralling novels I've read in years. I found myself wanting to leave social engagements early to get home and continue reading. The book itself also happens to be a design masterpiece: The cover of the hardback edition, and the sublime illustrations are befitting the classic it is destined to become.

In his original first novel, Mr Stace tells the tale of Lord Rose Loveall of Playfield House, affectionately known as Love Hall, which is set in 19th century England. It is the story of an abandoned male child who was thrown on a dust heap in the wastelands of London one night. He was found by Lord Loveall, a man on the verge of mental sanity, who gave him the name of Rose and dressed him in girls' clothes to satisfy a deluded impulse of his own after the death of his sister Dolores and made him/her heir to his fortune. Rose was kept in complete ignorance of her true being with the connivance of her adopted mother.
This rather long novel features a flurry of characters, families, plots and subplots and readers will find quite a challenge to keep track of the relationships between the protagonists.

Fortunately a family tree is provided in the novel, which is quite a welcome help. Nevertheless, it is astonishing what captivating an effect a so-called Victorian novel can have on the reader in the 21st century. Mr Wesley's novel is very well documented and every detail of the complex story-line falls elegantly into place at the end of the narrative.
8/10
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Nick Stone
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King Of Swords
hardcover
560 pages
King of Swords is Nick Stone's follow-up to his critically acclaimed, multi-award winning bestseller, Mr Clarinet.

Not that I've read that one yet.. But having read King Of Swords I think I definetely will!

King of Swords is set in the Miami of the early eighties, when the city had gone from being "America's playground" to "Murder Capital USA". Having just been to Miami ourselves really helps visualizing the story.

We meet Max Mingus, who works for an elite unit of the Miami PD called the Miami Task Force (MTF), which operates more like a private army than an actual police division. If this sounds far-fetched, it's not. There were not one, but two such police units in Miami at the time, known as CENTAC, which operated a shoot to kill policy on drug traffickers.

Max and his partner, Joe Liston, investigate a seemingly routine death in a monkey-only zoo called Primate Park. The victim is a Haitian man, who, an autopsy later reveals, was either fed or swallowed a potion containing a shredded tarot card - the King of Swords. When Max and Joe go to visit the man's family, they find them all slaughtered.

As Max and Joe investigate, they are sucked further and further into a vortex of murder, ritual sacrifice and black magic, getting ever closer to the man rumoured to be behind it all - Solomon Boukman, a Haitian gang leader.

Stone has opened up the narrative to tell the story from the point of view of one of Boukman's gang members as well, a vain but ultimately hapless pimp called Carmine. When you first encouter him Carmine seems to have rolled straight from the pages of a great lost Iceberg Slim or Donald Goines novel, but several pages in and you get under the facade. You meet Carmine's real boss - his VERY scary mother, Eva. Eva is a fortune teller with a highly refined sense of smell (you must really read it); she's also a Haitian Lady Macbeth, with a sadistic streak.

One of the incredible things about King of Swords is how you initially loathe Carmine, but finally - grudgingly - wind up rooting for him as he tries to dig his way out of the morass of evil that is his life. In many ways his grasping towards some kind of salvation, mirrors Max Mingus' attempts to do the right thing, despite being mired in a similar kind of corruption himself.

Carmine and Eva aren't the only unforgettable characters populating King of Swords either. There's Solomon Boukman - deeply sinister, but only ever glimpsed in shadows - a man whose mythology is somehow left intact at the very end of the book. Then there's his sweet-munching obese hitman, Bonbon (who wears a variety of dentures, including a set based on pirahna teeth). And there's Risquee, Carmine's nemesis - a prostitute he double crosses - think Lil Kim with even more attitude, who, in one of the funniest chapters in the book, tells Carmine he has no "pimp etiks", before concluding "You ain't no pimp - you a PIMP-el!".

But Stone isn't just good at writing bad or at best conflicted guys. Max's friend - and, in King of Swords, partner - Joe Liston is the book's conscience: an African-American cop in a then predominantly racist force (at the start of the book, the city is recovering from an infamous race riot where four white Miami PD officers were acquitted of killing an African-American man called Arthur McDuffie in cold blood, after a car chase - shades of Rodney King here), trying to stay true to both himself and his ideals while everything and everyone around him is going to hell in a bucket. Joe Liston is a carefully drawn character - dignified and moral, yet without a hint of self-righteousness. There's a speech towards the end of the book where he tells his redneck boss where to go that is surely the kind of thing anyone who's ever hated their boss has wanted to say at some point or another.

Apart from the narrative structure and the location (turn of the 80s Miami is a shabby, rundown place - faithfully brought back to life), where King of Swords differs quite substantially from Mr Clarinet is in the pacing. It's a big book, but boy does it FLY! Virtually from the first page. I read it in two days. It's also - in parts - very very funny. Check out the monkeys at the beginning, practically every part with Risquee, some of Carmine's hapless misadventures, the locker room dialogue between Max and Joe when Joe tells Max that churches are better places than nightclubs to meet women.

OVerall, I can definetely say this is the best books I've read this year, and one of the best ever, and therefor..

Highly Recommended!
9/10
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Kate Summerscale
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The Suspicions Of Mr Whicher
paperback
314 pages
This is a wonderfully done true crime story of a murder in England in 1860. If that were all, we'd have an eminently enjoyable book. But this is also a social commentary and a history of the early detective story: you'll learn how and when the words "clueless" and "sleuth" entered the language, for example. You have a horrible murder of a 3-year-old boy in a manor house in the country. The outside doors, windows, and gates are all locked--and also, unusual for us nowadays, many of the interior doors were locked as well--preventing access to the larder, cellar, drawing-room, etc. So suspicion perforce falls upon the family and servants. This is before the days of forensic science--so it isn't even clear whether the child was killed by stabbing, throat-cutting, suffocation, or drowning. The local constabulary in this west England area are inadequate to the task in what very quickly becomes a sensationalist case, and so a detective from London is called in to investigate.

Detectives are new, only a couple of decades old, as are detective stories. Detective-Inspector Jonathan Whicher is Scotland Yard's best investigator (at the time, there weren't all that many). The child's family is not very well liked in the area, and the family itself has many unsavory secrets--including insanity. Summerscale relates Whicher's detective work and his growing fixation upon a 16-year-old sister. But what makes all of this particularly enjoyable is how Summerscale relates the sensationalism in the press, the plethora of theories as to the murder, the coming-forth of outsiders to confess, the initial belief in Whicher's abilities (followed by growing disbelief). There are wonderful descriptions of the detective novels of the time--including ones with female detectives--the public appetite for these stories, and the additions to the language (you'll see where clue/clew comes from). The child's nanny slept in the room with the child, who was taken during the night. Charles Dickens was one of the numerous people who put forth the theory that the child had discovered his father in bed with the nanny and had been killed to prevent him telling Mama. Actual solutions, however, were not readily forthcoming.

Whicher fell out of favor in the public eye--but he did pop up again in the other sensational case of the era--the Tichborne Claimant. (Hopefully, Summerscale will turn her prodigious talents to that case next). So what you get here is a fascinating view of the early days of detectivedom (if that's a word), the detective in fact and fiction, and the public's taste in literature. The book reads like a good detective novel, with well-portrayed characters: there are arrests, trials, maps, drawings, and photographs. A great book indeed!
8/10
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T

Donna Tartt
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The Secret History
paperback
640 pages
As I was reading this novell I slowly realized that I had read it once before. Such is the impression this tale of doom and gloom has that decades later I could still remember it. Not well enough not to enjoy reading it again though!

The Secret History tells the story of the classical Greek class, six students and their teacher, at a liberal arts college on the east coast of the United States, through the reminiscences of one of those students. These seven characters dominate the novel completely, standing forth with the clarity and intensity of actors in a Greek tragedy. The usual events of college life - sex, drugs and rock 'n roll.

A young Californian student Richard Papen frustrated at home gets a scholarship to study at Hampden College in an isolated part of Vermont in the North East of the US. Having already an interest in languages, especially Greek, he decides to enlist for a classics course run by the famous but rather mysterious academic Julian Morrow. This is not as easy as he at first imagines since Morrow a wealthy and independently financed tutor doesn't accept just anyone in his class, he always has the final decision.

Rebuffed at first Richard by accident befriends the other students in the very selective group. They unlike Richard are all well off but seem to be of their own accord isolated from the rest of the students on campus. They feel superior and are regarded with suspicion by the other students. In order to emphasise their special status they wear old-fashioned clothes and are to varying degrees quite obsessive about ancient Greek culture and rituals. The self appointed leader' of the group is Henry, calculating and unemotional, he is also Julian Morrow's favourite. Francis is the complete opposite, a spoilt rich kid who is apt to fly of the handle at any moment, The Twins' Camilla and Charles are quiet and very friendly towards Richard and seem to have a very close bond with each other. Finally making up the group is Bunny in many ways the odd one out. Academically he is inferior to the rest of the group and he's also the only one to have friends outside of their clique. Richard ashamed of his poor background tries desperately to fit in and eventually the group accepts him although he always has the feeling that they have something, a secret that they are keeping from him. After a series of tragic events a terrible crime takes place and their world begins to crumble around them.

Donna Tartt embarked on a very difficult task when she wrote this novel since this story deals essentially with the nature of crime, guilt and retribution many other stories deal with these same themes but the one that comes quickest to mind is Dostoyevsky's brilliant Crime and Punishment'. Is it fair to compare the two books, does she really mean for them to be compared? I wasn't sure until half way through the book one of the characters quotes a line from Crime and Punishment' thus we can safely assume that the similarities between the two stories are more than mere coincidence. The question is as a study of the psychology of crime and an examination of guilt and remorse how does it compare?Well it's not in the same league.

Donna Tartt manages initially to successfully draw you in to the story, you quickly begin to understand the characters and the interplay between them is very well observed and outlined. Although in effect we know what is going to happen we are intrigued to know why it has happened and this part of the novel is an addictive read. We then come to the murder and soon after the other characters begin to go through a myriad of emotions, fear, guilt and paranoid illusions. A lot of drugs are taken and lots of alcohol is consumed, but not much else happens and this seems to go on for about 200 pages!

I can understand that the exploration of the characters feelings and actions after the crime are essential to the story but the author goes about the task in a narrative vacuum. To go back to a comparison with Crime and Punishment', in that novel the central character spends most of the book torturing himself over the terrible crime he has committed BUT around him there are complex subplots developing, we have blackmail, a love interest, tragedy strikes other characters. The key elements of the main characters guilt are examined partly through his relationship to other characters and the events that are going on around him. This is essential to keep the story vibrant and to keep the reader enthralled by the hero's plight. This is what Donna Tartt fails to do. She does try to introduce some external plot devices, there is an hint of a love story developing, there is a racist element to one of the characters that takes centre stage for a while there are two very clich FBI agents who investigate the crime and that might begin to interact with Richard his friensds in a similar way that the investigator Porfiry Petrovich does with Raskalnikov in Dostoyevsky's masterpiece. Unfortunately all these different threads fail in keeping the reader interested, like a dying fish out of water writhing this way and that, gasping for air the plot of The Secret History' equally is thrashing about from one underdeveloped subplot to another desperately trying to find some cohesiveness, trying to alleviate the boredom of so much futile introspection by the main characters.

Eventually something does happen towards the end of the book that changes the nature of the story once again and for the last third of the story we are again taken up and led speedily through to a thrilling finale. Tartt also includes a prologue that allows us to discover the fate of some of the other main characters that seem to have been jettisoned in the course of the story.

It seems to me that authors of modern fiction these days believe that for a publisher or critic to take a novel seriously as a work of literature as opposed to just pulp fiction then the novel has to be a long, a real door stop'. Consequently we have many good stories becoming bloated with unnecessary narrative. It took Dostoyevsky just over 400 pages to give us an in depth exploration of guilt and at the same time keep us entertained and totally absorbed by the story. Ms Tartt takes up over 600 pages and doesn't come close to the insights or the narrative thrills of Crime and Punishment'.

Still enjoyable, so recommended!
8/10
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Dustin Thomason
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The Rule of Four
hardcover
384 pages
Excellent sort-of thriller about two college students who are both intrigued by an ancient mysterious book, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. One because he is doing a thesis about the book and is fascinated by it, the other because he dislikes the effect the book had on his father, who spend his whole life trying to work out the hidden meaning behind the obscure Renaissance book.

Together they manage to get closer and closer to cracking the secret.. But then people start to die around them, and all the evidence points to them...

Excellent story with a fascinating subject. Considering the time it took to write it it must be a labour of love. The attention for detail is examplary, and the way the various secrets in the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili are uncovered is ingenious. It does feel a but like the whole murder plot is a bit of an add-on to make the whose story more of a popular read however, but it's well done atleast. Recommended!
7/10
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Harry Thompson
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This Thing of Darkness
hardcover
640 pages
Fictitious historic novel about the journey's of Robert Fitzroy. As captain of the 'Beagle' he ferried a young Charles Darwin around the globe. Darwin, young, in debt, a conventional believer due to become a parson, made a journey that was supposed to take two years. It lasted five. He was ill for ever thereafter (probably from a disease contracted in South America), but raised a large family while dissecting, observing and speculating about nature in his Kent garden. He gathered proofs and illustrations for a theory begun on that voyage, and on the way lost his belief in God. Twenty years after the voyage of The Beagle, On the Origin of Species pitchforked him into public battles with the Church.

But Darwin had a happy marriage, money, success. The action-packed life of the secretly manic-depressive captain who invited him onto The Beagle ended in suicide.

It is a brave, sad tale. Socially, practically, Robert Fitzroy was far ahead of his time. He championed the rights of people whom Victorian gentlemen and rapacious white settlers in New Zealand called savages, believing they should be treated equally. He brought Fuegian natives to England and returned them home at his own expense. He promoted meteorology and weather bulletins, which saved many lives but were halted in England by vested interests. Owners lost money not when fishermen died, but when boats did not go out because of forecasts.

Fitzroy constantly fought for ideals and lost. The Fuegians were damaged by coming to England. His young sailors died. And despite his scientific interests, he passionately defended biblical truth. Mutation of species, as they called it then, threatened belief in the literal truth of Genesis.

This became a dangerous issue on The Beagle. It later divided Darwin and Fitzroy. And this conflict drives Harry Thompson’s fictionalised picture of Fitzroy’s life.

Harry Thompson's style of writing is engaging, although the overbearing use of nautical terms is somewhat confusing and at first intimidating. Once you get to grips with the fact that not understanding the nautical terms exactly won't interfere with the story much things get a lot better. Still, this is a rather confusing tale nevertheless, it feels a bit like 3 novels in one...

Firstly there's the issue of the influence of the industrial revolution on english society. Then there's the discussion on the issue of the attitude and treatments of indigenous populations by the western civilizations. And finally there is the main argument of the book, the creation of the evolution theory!

Each of these points could and perhaps should warrant it's own novel, rather than trying to squeeze them all in one...

Nevertheless, despite it's shortcomings this is still a book to remember, one that makes you really think about it's topic(s), and therefor most definetely recommended!
8/10
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Brad Thor
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Backlash
hardcover
320 pages
When local authorities are called to a rural community in New Hampshire, they discover four bodies, carelessly slain. The names raise a red flag in the Intelligence community, beginning calls high up the chain of command. With ties to all those slain, one name being suggested as a potential shooter is Scot Harvath, but could he really have killed these people? It turns out not, as Harvath is aboard a covert plane somewhere in Russia, chained to a seat by mercenaries who have no worries about treating their prisoner poorly. When the plane goes down, Harvath is the only survivor, but perhaps not for long. He is in the middle of the Russian wilderness during the height of winter, with only the howling of the wind and wolves to keep him company. If he wants to stay alive, he will have to use all his training to find safety. In Moscow, the news of the crash raises the ire of senior officials, who had hoped for a smooth ‘snatch and grab’ of the Intelligence operative. Now, they will have to locate the wreckage and capture Harvath again. In Washington, those close to Harvath cannot believe that he would be responsible, but know that he was in New Hampshire. They discover that he may have been covertly removed from the country and begin their own mission to extricate him, while not tipping the balance of international diplomacy. Russia has all but declared war on America with such an act, but that is for the politicians to iron out. While working on a plan to get to safety, Harvath will have to survive and stay off the proverbial radar. When he comes to a small community near the Finnish border, he does all he can to stay alive and one step ahead of his captors. The race is on to find Harvath and to the winner comes the spoils. With an international disaster looming below the surface, the new Cold War could be close.

Secret agents from all sides just flying around the world killing people randomly without repercussion, feels like a plot that's taking liberties with reality a little, if it weren't happening in reality..

Still, enjoyable read if not a little over-the-top
8/10
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Paul Tremblay
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Survivor Song
hardcover
283 pages
In a matter of weeks, Massachusetts has been overrun by an insidious rabies-like virus that is spread by saliva. But unlike rabies, the disease has a terrifyingly short incubation period of an hour or less. Those infected quickly lose their minds and are driven to bite and infect as many others as they can before they inevitably succumb. Hospitals are inundated with the sick and dying, and hysteria has taken hold. To try to limit its spread, the commonwealth is under quarantine and curfew. But society is breaking down and the government's emergency protocols are faltering.

Dr. Ramola "Rams" Sherman, a soft-spoken pediatrician in her mid-thirties, receives a frantic phone call from Natalie, a friend who is eight months pregnant. Natalie's husband has been killed—viciously attacked by an infected neighbor—and in a failed attempt to save him, Natalie, too, was bitten. Natalie's only chance of survival is to get to a hospital as quickly as possible to receive a rabies vaccine. The clock is ticking for her and for her unborn child.

Natalie’s fight for life becomes a desperate odyssey as she and Rams make their way through a hostile landscape filled with dangers beyond their worst nightmares—terrifying, strange, and sometimes deadly challenges that push them to the brink.
7/10
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John Trenhaile
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Kyril
hardcover
269 pages
Cold War thriller with a twist, as it's not about the West but about the KGB side of things.

Stanov, a seasoned KGB-official suspects that one or more of his high-ranking officers are double-crossing them. To sniff them out he sends a disgraced spy named Kyril to dig out the moles

Whilst he's busy doing his research Stanov spreads the rumor that Kyril already knows the identity of the mole, hoping this will get him out of hiding. But there are more people that seem to have some interest in seeing Kyril dead, and it's not long before secret service's from all over the world are chasing Kyril around..

Excellent thriller, great storyline with a good portion of twists and turns and tension. Nice to see a different point of view for a change..
Great!
8/10
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Trevanian
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The Summer Of Katya
hardcover
215 pages
Psychological thriller about a Young graduate MD who, in the golden summer of 1914, comes to the small French village of Salies to assist the village physician. His first assignment is to treat the brother of a beautiful woman named Katya Treville. As he and her family become friendly, he realizes they are haunted by an old, dark secret, and that he's falling madly in love with Katya.

Even though he is warned by Katya's brother that she is delicate and that he should curb his attentions, he is young, hopeful, and in love . . . and he is certain that Katya returns his affections. Then he finds out that the the Trevilles are planning to leave the village forever, and he insists on a final meeting with Katya. Then the idyllic romance into an unending nightmare....

This thrilling tale that is part love story and part psychological thriller is full of tension and a real page turner, and the chilling climax will certainly be something to remember for as a shocker to most readers..
8/10
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Harry Turtledove
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The Grapple
hardcover
616 pages
Harry Turtledove's Settling Accounts: The Grapple continues his alternate history of the Second World War. A world where the Confederate States still exist and are run by a Hitler-like madman intent on wiping out the black population.

Having not read the other novels in this series, I found it was rather easy to get the plot, although I was getting a bit of a vibe that Mr Turtledove wasn't trying too hard to reinvent the wheel, as everything sounds rather familiar.

The Confederate army is retreating in disarray from Stalingrad…I mean, Pittsburgh. The United States destroyed a whole army in that inferno and has now taken back the momentum. General Irving Morrell, the flashy "barrel" (tank) commander, wants to continue driving a wedge through the entire Confederacy - and it's becoming apparent that he can do it.

The Confederates are on their heels, retreating so they don't get cut off and losing ground in huge chunks. Could the war be over soon? Meanwhile, the "final solution" for the black people in the Confederacy continues, though U.S. troops are coming close to the biggest extermination camp, Camp Determination, which may add impetus to the attempt by some people in the North (notably, Senator Flora Blackford) to get the word out about what is going on.

Jake Featherston, dictator, madman, and president of the Confederacy, can't allow that to happen. But the more troops he sends to defend the camp, the less he has to defend the rest of the country. Things look incredibly bleak for the Confederacy. But the race to build a "uranium bomb" may hold the key to the end of the war.

The repetition in this book is somewhat monotonous. Turtledove insists on introducing characters again and again, having them say the same things (I don't know how many times we are told that the Confederates were supposed to win a one-punch victory, or that Featherston should have listened the first time to the scientist who brought the idea of the uranium bomb). There is some justification for introducing characters multiple times, but there is none for repeating the same actions, phrases, or figures of speech over and over again.

I did love the plotting, wondering what Turtledove's going to do with the war. His inclusion of car and "people" bombs brings a contemporary feel to the book, and the fear they imbue is palpable. I loved the scenes with the two black groups of rebels rampaging through Georgia. Turtledove introduces a few new characters to make up for a couple of deaths, though he then kills a couple more main characters off. You have no idea who will live or die in this series, and all of the deaths seem unforced by the narrative. They bring a touch of humanity to one of the characters, overwhelmed enough by what he is doing that he finally makes the final decision.

One thing I would have liked to see more of was the Canadian rebellion. Of course, the book is bloated enough as it is, so maybe it's a good thing he didn't add more.

Despite the predictability, repetition and rather easy plot it is still a pretty good read, mostly due to Mr Turtledove's rather engaging style of writing, and I shall be looking forward to reading the final part in this series shortly.

Recommended
6/10
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John Twelve Hawks
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The Traveller
paper back
608 pages
Excellent mix between Da Vinci and Matrix, one of those books you can't wait to finish and wish you never would... And also part of a trilogy so atleast part of your wish will come true, for now..

Based in the near future, a time where it is safer to live off the grid, unconnected to the vast technology, because unseen people are watching our every move, employing technology we have barely imagined. Worse, they are controlling our every move. Those we think are running the country, rather the world, are mere beards for the true puppet masters. This is the world John Twelve Hawks has envisioned in his debut novel, The Traveler. Like the best science fiction, the story begs the reader to question the reality in which we live.

In John Twelve Hawks world, the Tabula control the world from behind the scenes, ensuring a world governed by strict order. Their chief enemies are Travelers, people born with the ability to ascend our world, to other realms and achieve enlightenment and gain wisdom. In their ability to achieve wisdom and enlightenment, the Travelers bring chaos to the strict order the Tabula seek. Throughout the years, Travelers have been protected by the Harlequins, sword-wielding bodyguards of the highest order. The story opens with Maya and her father Thorn, both Harlequins, discussing Maya's "retirement" from the Harlequin life-style. Maya no longer wished to be part of the eternal struggle between the Tabula and Harlequins, unfortunately for her, she is pulled back into the life to search for what her informants feel is the last Traveler. In this case, the last Traveler could be Gabriel Corrigan, or his brother Michael. Their father was a Traveler, and their memories of him and of growing up are ones of continual movement and relocation. Maya is not the only one searching for the last Traveler, agents of the Tabula are in pursuit as well. They want to either kill or control the last Traveler.

So briefly, this book mixes the paranoia of the powers that be in secret societies; ancient enemies who have been battling for centuries; out of body experiences; martial arts and sword fighting; and the veiled idea of an ultimate savior. Hawks peppers more throughout the novel, but discovering each is part of the fun of reading the book. He builds up the characters quite well, Maya is very believable in her reluctance to come back into the fold of the Harlequins and the Corrigan brothers play off of each other's personalities quite well. The members of the Tabula come across very convincing, too, and perhaps this is one of the more scary elements of the story.

The novel I found the most parallels with while reading The Traveler was George Orwell's masterpiece, 1984. The sense of paranoia, of powers in control we can't see is a running theme in both novels. Orwell's novel, in many ways, was a reaction to the Cold War paranoia of the age, and whether Hawks intended The Traveler to be a reaction to the Post 9/11 World, it is difficult not to read it as such. The government's secretive manner, the stronger presence and increased threat of censorship, and the increasingly masked loss of personal freedom, in the real world, are very much paralleled in Hawks frighteningly realistic world.

Hawks spins a riveting tale made all the more frightening by how similar his world is to the one in which we live. It was a well-written novel, so much so that I wonder if this is his first novel or John Twelve Hawks has published under another name.

This book should make waves upon publication, with it's eerily resonant parallels to where our society could be headed, and with the loss of identity and personal freedoms posited by a world in which we only think we are individuals. John Twelve Hawks' impressive novel will really make you pick your head up and wonder how fictitious the world of The Traveler actually is.

Excellent!
8/10
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