Reading Log

These I have loved

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The titles are listed immediately below, alphabetically by author.
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The reviews are inserted in reverse date order of reading, latest on top.

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Adams, Douglas. The salmon of doubt: hitchhiking the galaxy one last time.
Adiga, Aravind. Between the assassinations.
Aiken, Joan. The windscreen weepers, and other tales of horror, suspense and fantasy.
Albom, Mitch.  The five people you meet in heaven.
Albom, Mitch.Tuesdays with Morrie: an old man, a young man, and life’s greatest lesson.
Aldridge, James. A sporting proposition.
Allende, Isabel. City of the beasts. .
Almond, David. The savage.
Ammaniti, Niccolo. I’m not scared.
Anderson, Laurie Halse.  Fever, 1793.
Anderson, Laurie Halse. Speak.
Ardelius, Gunnar. I need you more than I love you and I love you to bits.
Asimov, Isaac, ed.  The thirteen crimes of science fiction.
Atkinson, Kate. Behind the scenes at the museum.
Avi. The book without words: a fable of medieval magic.
Axelrod, Alan. Profiles in folly: history’s worst decisions and why they went wrong.
Balfour, Sandy.  Pretty girl in crimson rose (8): a memoir of love, exile and crosswords.
Banks, Lynne Reid. One more river.
Barclay, Linwood. No time for goodbye.
Barker, Pat. Border Crossing.
Barry, Dave. Dave Barry is not taking this sitting down!
Barth, John. The development.
Bergman, Ingmar. Private confessions.
Bertagna, Julie. Exodus.
Bertagna, Julie. Zenith.
Best, Joel.  Damned lies and statistics: untangling numbers from the media, politicians, and activists.
Billingham, Mark. In the dark.
Billingham, Mark. Sleepy Head.
Billingham, Mark. Scaredycat.
Billingham, Mark. Lazybones.
Bisson, Terry. Greetings, and other stories.
Bisson, Terry. The pickup artist.
Blackman, Malorie. Checkmate.
Blackman, Malorie. Knife edge.
Blackman, Malorie. Noughts and crosses.
Booth, Stephen. Blind to the bones.
Bowen, Rhys. Evan can wait.
Bowler, Tim. Midget.
Bowler, Tim.  Starseeker.
Boyd, William. Restless.
Boyne, John. The boy in the striped pyjamas.
Breslin, Theresa.  Divided city.
Breslin, Theresa. A homecoming for Kezzie.
Breslin, Theresa. The Medici seal.
Breslin, Theresa. The Nostradamus prophecy
Breslin, Theresa.  Prisoner of the Inquisition.
Breslin, Theresa. Remembrance.
Breslin, Theresa. Saskia's journey.
Brooks, Geraldine.  Nine parts of desire: the hidden world of Islamic women.
Brown, Dan. The Da Vinci Code.
Bryson, Bill. I'm a stranger here myself: notes on returning to America after twenty years away.
Bryson, Bill.  In a sunburned country.
Bryson, Bill. The lost continent: travels in small-town America.
Bryson, Bill.  Shakespeare: the world as a stage.
Bryson, Bill. A short history of nearly everything.
Bryson, Bill. A walk in the woods: rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail.
Burgess, Anthony. Napoleon symphony.
Burgess, Melvin.  Bloodtide.
Carey, Peter. True history of the Kelly Gang.
Chambers, Aidan. Breaktime.
Chambers, Aidan. The kissing game.
Chambers, Aidan. Now I know.
Chambers, Aidan. Postcards from no-mans land.
Chambers, Aidan. This is all : the pillow book of Cordelia Kenn.
Chambers, Aidan.  The toll bridge.
Charney, Noah. The art thief
Chevalier, Tracy. Burning bright.
Chevalier, Tracy. The girl with the pearl earring.
Chevalier, Tracy.   The lady and the unicorn.
Chevalier, Tracy. Remarkable creatures.
Chevalier, Tracy. The virgin blue.
Cilauro, Santo, Tom Gleisner and Rob Sitch. Molvania: a land untouched by modern dentistry (Jetlag Travel Guide).
Clark, Mary Higgins. I’ll be seeing you.
Cleave, Chris. Incendiary.
Cleave, Chris. The other hand
Coetzee, J.M. Disgrace.
Coetzee, J.M. Waiting for the barbarians.
Connelly, Michael. The poet.
Cormier, Robert. The rag and bone shop.
Cornwell, Patricia. Trace.
Courtemanche, Gil. A Sunday at the pool in Kigali.
Creech, Sharon. The wanderer.
Crew, Gary. Mama's babies.
Crew, Linda. Brides of Eden: a true story imagined.
Crichton, Michael.  Prey.
Crichton, Michael. State of fear.
Crombie, Deborah.  A finer end.
Crutcher, Chris. Angry management: three novellas.
Crutcher, Chris. Deadline.
Crutcher, Chris. Ironman.
Crutcher, Chris. King of the mild frontier: an ill-advised autobiography.
Crutcher, Chris.  The sledding hill
Crutcher, Chris. Stotan!
Crutcher, Chris.  Whale talk.
Curtis, Christopher Paul.  Bud, not Buddy.
Cushman, Karen. The loud silence of Francine Green.
Cushman, Karen. Matilda Bone.
Davidsen, Leif.   Lime's photograph.
Davies, Martin. The conjuror’s bird.
Davis, Devra. When smoke ran like water: tales of environmental deception and the battle against pollution.
de Bernieres, Louis. Birds without wings.
de Bernieres, Louis. Notwithstanding: Stories from an English village.
de Bernieres, Louis. Senor Vivo and the Coca Lord.
Deaver, Jeffery.  The blue nowhere.
Deaver, Jeffrey. The bodies left behind.
Deaver, Jeffery. The bone collector.
Deaver, Jeffery.  Garden of beasts.
Deaver, Jeffery. The stone monkey.
Deaver, Jeffery. Twisted: the collected stories of Jeffery Deaver.
Dickinson, Matt. Mortal chaos.
Dickinson, Peter. Angel Isle
Dickinson, Peter.  The lion tamer's daughter.
Dickinson, Peter. The ropemaker.
Dolnick, Edward. The forger’s spell.
Donnelly, Jennifer. A northern light.
Donoghue, Emma. Kissing the witch: old tales in new skins.
Drew, Alan. Gardens of water.
Druett, Joan. A watery grave..
Dumas, Firoozeh. Funny in Farsi: a memoir of growing up Iranian in America.
Dumas, Firoozeh. Laughing without an accent: adventures of a global citizen.
Eastaway, Rob and Jeremy Wyndham. Why do buses come in threes? the hidden mathematics of everyday life.
Eco, Umberto. How to travel with a salmon, and other essays.
Eco, Umberto. Mouse or rat? : translation as negotiation.
Ellis, Deborah.  The breadwinner.
Esler, Gavin. Power play.
Ethem, Azize. Beyond the orchard.
Faulks, Sebastian.Engleby.
Faulks, Sebastian. The girl at the Lion d’Or
Faulks, Sebastian. A week in December.
Fine, Anne. The road of bones.
Fine, Cordelia. A mind of its own: how your brain distorts and deceives.
Flegg, Aubrey. Wings over Delft.
Fleischman, Paul. Mind's eye.
Forsyth, Frederick. The Afghan.
Forsyth, Frederick.  The avenger.
Forsyth, Frederick.  The cobra.
Forsyth, Frederick. The veteran.
Francis, Dick. 10 lb. Penalty.
Francis, Dick. Knock down.
Francis, Dick. Shattered.
Frost, Mark.   The greatest game ever played: Harry Vardon, Francis Ouimet, and the birth of modern golf..
Frost, Mark. The match: the day the game of golf changed forever.
Funke, Cornelia. The thief lord.
Gallo, Donald R., ed.  On the fringe.
Garfield, Leon.House of cards.
Garner, Alan. Red shift.
Gavin, Jamila. Coram Boy.
Geras, Adele. Troy.
Gibbons, Alan. An act of love.
Gibbons, Alan.  Caught in the crossfire
Gladwell, Malcolm. Blink: the power of thinking without thinking.
Gladwell, Malcolm.  What the dog saw, and other adventures.
Goldacre, Ben. Bad science
Gopnik, Alison, Andrew N. Meltzoff, and Patricia K. Kuhl. The scientist in the crib: what early learning tells us about the mind.
Grass, Gunter.  Crabwalk.
Grass, Gunter. My century.
Greene, Graham. The end of the affair.
Grisham, John. The associate.
Grisham, John.The innocent man: murder and injustice in a small town.
Haddix, Margaret Peterson. Turnabout.
Haddon, Mark.  The curious incident of the dog in the night-time.
Haddon, Mark. A spot of bother.
Haffner, Sebastian.   Defying Hitler: a memoir
Harris, Robert.  Fatherland
Harris, Robert.  Imperium.
Harris, Robert. Pompeii.
Harris, Thomas. Hannibal.
Harris, Thomas. Red dragon.
Harvey, John Flesh and blood.
Hearn, Lian. Across the nightingale floor.
Hearn, Lian. Brilliance of the moon.
Hearn, Lian.  Grass for his pillow.
Heath, Chip and Dan Heath. Made to stick: why some ideas take hold and others come unstuck.
Hentoff, Nat. The day they came to arrest the book.
Hiassen, Carl.  Basket case.
Hicyilmaz, Gaye. Against the storm.
Hicyilmaz, Gaye. Smiling for strangers.
Hill, Reginald.  Asking for the moon.
Hill, Reginald. The death of Dalziel.
Hill, Reginald. Midnight fugue.
Hill, Reginald. Pictures of perfection.
Hill, Reginald. The woodcutter.
Hislop, Victoria.  The island.
Horowitz, Anthony. Eagle strike.
Horowitz, Anthony. More Horowitz horror: more stories you’ll wish you’d never read.
Horton, Lesley. Devils in the mirror.
Horton, Lesley. On dangerous ground.
Horton, Lesley. Snares of guilt.
Hosseini, Khaled. A thousand splendid suns.
Hrdlitschka, Shelley. Kat’s fall.
Irving, John. The cider house rules.
Irving, John.  The fourth hand.
Irving, John. Last night in Twisted River.
Irving, John. Until I find you.
Irwin, Hadley. Jim-Dandy.
Ishiguro, Kazuo.  Never let me go.
Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer.  The householder.
Kadare, Ismail. The palace of dreams.
Kass, Pnina Moed. Real time.
Kay, Guy Gavriel. The lions of al-Rassan
Keillor, Garrison. The book of guys.
Keillor, Garrison. Homegrown democrat: a few plain thoughts from the heart of America.
Kerr, M.E. I stay near you.
Khorsandi, Shappi.  A beginner’s guide to acting English
Kingsolver, Barbara. The lacuna.
Kneale, Matthew. English passengers.
Kohler, Sheila.  Cracks.
Koja, Kathe. The blue mirror.
Konigsburg, E.L.  Silent to the bone.
Kwan, Michael David.  Things that must not be forgotten.
Laird, Elizabeth. A little piece of ground.
Lal, Ranjit. The battle for No. 19..
Larsson, Asa. The savage altar
Larsson, Asa. Sun storm.
Larsson, Stieg.The girl who played with fire.
Larsson, Stieg. The girl with the dragon tattoo.
Larsson, Stieg. The girl who kicked the hornet’s nest
le Carré, John. Absolute friends.
Le Carré, John. The constant gardener.
Lee, Tanith. The secret books of Paradys: the complete Paradys cycle.
Lee, Tanith. The silver metal lover.
Lelic, Simon. A thousand cuts
Lewycka, Marina. A short history of tractors in Ukrainian.
Livaneli, O.Z. Bliss.
Lodge, David. Thinks...
Longden, Deric.  The cat who came in from the cold.
Lovelock, James. The revenge of Gaia: why the Earth is fighting back - and how we can still save humanity.
Lowry, Lois.  Messenger.
Mandery, Evan. First contact: or, it’s later than you think (parrot sketch excluded).
Mankell, Henning.  Before the frost.
Mankell, Henning. Chronicler of the winds.
Mankell, Henning. Daniel, translated by Stephen Murray.
Mankell, Henning.  Faceless killers.
Mankell, Henning. One step behind.
Mankell, Henning.  Secrets in the fire.
Marcantonio, Patricia Santos. Red Ridin' in the hood.
Mark, Jan.  Stratford boys.
Marsden, John.  Darkness be my friend.
Marsden, John.  Tomorrow when the war began.
Masters, Alexander. Stuart: a life backwards.
Matthee, Dalene.   Fiela's child.
McDonald, Janet. Spellbound.
McGann, Oisin.The gods and their machines.
McGowan, Anthony. The knife that killed me.
Merullo, Roland. Golfing with God.
Millar, Peter. 1989: the Berlin Wall: my part in its downfall..
Miller, Walter M. A canticle for Liebowitz.
Milton, Giles. Paradise lost: Smyrna 1922: the destruction of Islam’s city of tolerance.
Mole, John. It's all Greek to me!
Moore, Alan and Dave Gibbons. Watchmen.
Morpurgo, Michael. Private Peaceful.
Morpurgo, Michael. Singing for Mrs Pettigrew: a story-maker’s journey.
Mortimer, John. Rumpole and the reign of terror.
Moulton, Deborah. Children of time.
Muller, Herta. The land of green plums
Nadel, Barbara.  A chemical prison.
Nesser, Hakan. Borkmann’s point
Neufeld, John. Boys lie.
Newberry, Linda.   The shell house.
Niffenegger, Audrey.  Her fearful symmetry.
Niffenegger, Audrey. The time-traveler’s wife.
Nix, Garth. The keys to the kingdom, book 1: Mister Monday.
Nobbs, David. Going gently.
O'Farrell, Maggie.  After you'd gone.
Oliver, Lauren. Before I fall.
Orga, Irfan. The caravan moves on
Paretsky, Sara.  Ghost country.
Patchett, Ann. Bel Canto.
Pattison, Eliot.  The skull mantra.
Peck, Richard. A year down yonder.
Peet, Mal. Life: an exploded diagram.
Peet, Mal. Tamar.
Pepper, Dennis, comp. The young Oxford book of nasty endings.
Perry, Thomas.  Death benefits.
Petterson, Per. Out stealing horses; trans. Anne Born.
Plum-Ucci, Carol. The body of Christopher Creed.
Plum-Ucci, Carol.  What happened to Lani Garver.
Poole, Steven. Unspeak.
Prasad, Chandra, ed.Mixed: an anthology of short fiction on the multiracial experience.
Pratchett, Terry. The fifth elephant.
Pratchett, Terry. I shall wear midnight.
Pratchett, Terry. Making money.
Pratchett, Terry. Nation.
Pratchett, Terry. Strata.
Pratchett, Terry. The truth.
Pratchett, Terry. The wee free men.
Pratchett, Terry, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen. The science of DiscworldIII: Darwin’s watch..
Pressfield, Steven. Gates of fire: an epic novel of the Battle of Thermopylae.
Proulx, Annie. Bad dirt: Wyoming stories 2.
Proulx, Annie. Fine just the way it is.
Proulx, E. Annie. The Shipping News.
Proulx, Annie.  That old ace in the hole.
Pullman, Philip.  The amber spyglass.
Rand, Ayn. Anthem.
Rankin, Ian. The falls.
Rankin, Ian.  Fleshmarket Close.
Rankin, Ian. Set in darkness.
Rankin, Ian.Strip Jack.
Reed, John. Snowball’s chance.
Rischard, J.F. High noon: twenty global problems, twenty years to solve them.
Riehl, Gene. Quantico rules.
Robinson, Peter. Aftermath.
Robinson, Peter. Bad boy.
Robinson, Peter.  Cold is the grave.
Robinson, Peter.  Not safe after dark, and other works.
Robinson, Peter.   Piece of my heart.
Robinson, Peter.  Playing with fire.
Robinson,  Peter.  The summer that never was.
Roeper, Richard. Debunked! Conspiracy theories, urban legends, and evil plots of the 21st century.
Rossoff, Meg. How I live now.
Roth, Philip. The plot against America.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the goblet of fire.
Rowling, J.K.  Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

Ruiz Zafon, Carlos. The shadow of the wind
Sachar, Louis. The cardturner: a novel about a king, a queen, and a joker.
Schlink, Bernhard.  The reader.
Shepherd, Joel. Crossover.
Shreve, Anita.  Resistance.
Singh, Simon. The code book.
Smith, Alexander McCall. The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency.
Smith, Alexander McCall. The 2½ pillars of wisdom (The von Igelfeld trilogy).
Sobell, Dava. Galileo's daughter: a historical memoir of science, faith, and love.
Soto, Gary. Petty crimes.
Spinelli, Jerry. Loser.
Staples, Suzanne Fisher.  Under the persimmon tree
Steinmeyer, Jim. Charles Fort: the man who invented the supernatural.
Steinmeyer, Jim. Hiding the elephant: how magicians invented the impossible and learned to disappear.
Stephenson, Pamela.  Billy.
Stine, Catherine. Refugees.
Stone, Nick. Mr. Clarinet.
Stratton, Allan. Borderline.
Suarez, Daniel.  Daemon
Surowiecki, James. The wisdom of crowds..
Tekin, Latife. Berji Kristin: tales from the Garbage Hills.
Tey, Josephine.  To love and be wise.
Thomas, Leslie. Other times.
Thompson, Damian. Counter-knowledge: how we surrendered to conspiracy theories, quack medecine, bogus science and fake history
Tower, Wells. Everything ravaged, everything burned.
Townsend, Lawrence G.  Secrets of the Wholly Grill.
Townsend, Sue. Adrian Mole and the weapons of mass destruction.
Townsend, Sue. The public confessions of a middle-aged woman, aged 55 ¾.
Ventura, Jesse, with Dick Russell. American conspiracies: lies, lies and more dirty lies that the government tells us.
Verghese, Abraham. Cutting for stone.
Verne, Jules.The meteor hunt: the first English translation of Verne’s original manuascript (La Chasse au météore).
Voigt, Cynthia. Elske
Vreeland, Susan. Clara and Mr. Tiffany.
Vreeland, Susan. The forest lover.
Vonnegut, Kurt.  Galapagos.
Vonnegut, Kurt. A man without a country.
Vreeland, Susan. Girl in hyacinth blue.
Vreeland, Susan. The passion of Artemisia.
Waites, Martyn. The mercy seat.
Walter, Jess.  Over tumbled graves.
Ward, Andrew. Golf’s strangest rounds: extraordinary but true stories from over a century of golf.
Waugh, Evelyn. Black mischief.
Waugh, Evelyn. Scoop: a novel about journalists.
Weaver, Will. Claws.
Weaver, Will.  Defect.
Weaver, Will. Full service.
Williams, Robin and John Tollett.  The non-designer's web book: an easy guide to creating, designing and posting your own web site.
Willis, Connie. Doomsday Book.
Willis, Connie. Remake.
Winchester, Simon. The map that changed the world: the tale of William Smith...
Winchester, Simon.  The professor and the madman: a tale of murder, insanity, and the making of the Oxford English Dictionary.
Wolff, Virginia Euwer. This full house.
Wolff, Virginia Euwer.  True believer
Woodson, Jacqueline. From the notebooks of Melenin Sun.
Woodson, Jacqueline. I hadn’t meant to tell you this.
Wyss, Thelma Hatch. Bear dancer: the story of a Ute girl.
Zephaniah, Benjamin. Gangsta rap.
Zusak, Marcus.The book thief.
Zusak, Markus.I am the messenger.
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Dickinson, Matt.  Mortal chaos.  Oxford: OUP, 2012.

Dickinson takes the notion that the beat of a butterfly’s wing can cause change (and chaos?) on the far side of the world – he weaves together eight or ten unrelated stories, and draws connections, showing they are all related.

There’s the newly-emerged butterfly, whose flutterings startle a young rabbit, which startles a racehorse out for its morning gallop, and from there the ripples spread. There’s Bakili, whose brother is attacked by famine-starved famine-emboldened baboons; Sophie, whose birthday treat unwittingly causes disaster (though not to her); a horse-race at Newbury; Kuni, a Japanese teenager climbing Mount Everest, and Ito, her father; Tina, a pilot delayed by several incidents in her journey to Heathrow Airport; Will and Jamie playing truant from school; Shelton, seeking revenge on his wife who left him for another man, and many more. They are all connected, though they do not know it. It is chaos theory, writ large.

Their stories are told in short chapters, each taking the story further forward as the web of connections tightens, people in the wrong place at the wrong time... This is the most exciting novel I have read in several years, one of those that has me wanting to tell everyone about it. It is a MUST-READ novel.

I have been fortunate to read this in a pre-publication version. Stand by when it does come out. Wow! (16 December 2011)

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de Bernieres, Louis.  Senor Vivo and the Coca Lord.  London: Vintage, 1998.

This is a black comedy, the story of Dionisio Vivo, a South American university lecturer who is prepared to protest the coca trade in his local area. He seems invincible, immortal, as he escapes attempts on his life (though in truth his escapes are due to the incompetence of would-be assassins). It is the story of Anica, with whom he falls in love, and she with him, a beautiful fun-filled romance which has tragic consequences.

It is a vicious satire, with vivid descriptions of torture and love. And sadly, it seems so true, so inevitable. (13 December 2011)

McGowan, Anthony.  The knife that killed me.  London: Definitions, 2008.

This is a black story, a tale of bullies and outsiders and growing-up in an English town, of gangs and violence and a reaching out for love. A twist of fate, a twist of the knife. Black, and exciting. (8 December 2011)

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Sachar, Louis.  The cardturner: a novel about a king, a queen, and a joker.  New York: Delacorte Press, 2010.

Alton Richards, the narrator of this story, tells how he is persuaded by his fortune-seeking family to play cards for his blind (and rich) uncle Lester Trapp. Trapp is a bridge fanatic who, despite his blindness, once told the cards he holds and the cards in play, can remember and plan and play the cards, to championship standard.

As in so many Sachar novels, what seems true may be hiding deeper stories, nothing is really as it seems, and all stories are tied together by the end. Also typical of Sachar, the story has much humor, and this has teenage romance and angst as well.

Remarkably, Sachar attempts to teach his readers how to play bridge (though marking the technical passages so that those who do not want to know can skip those paragraphs). I am not certain how well this works. As a bridge player, I very much enjoyed the story, at all its levels. (4 December 2011)

Vreeland, Susan.  Clara and Mr. Tiffany.  New York: Random House, 2011.

Vreeland’s writes spellbinding fictional biographies of female artists. Her previous work has concentrated on painters, but in this book, she tells the story of Clara Driscoll, a designer for Louis Comfort Tiffany’s company which specialised in producing stained glass and glass mosaic art work. Tiffany was a character in himself, a lover of things ornate, and Driscoll was one of his finest designers. Her women’s workshop produced much award-winning work, though often too expensive to mass-produce at a price patrons could afford.

The story is set against a backdrop of poverty, New York at the turn of the 20th century, and a time when women might work, but their work was not always recognised. This was a man’s world, and Driscoll had to fight hard for the recognition she did receive in her lifetime.

Vreeland has brought her to our attention, as she has done so well with so many other forgotten women. (30 November 2011)

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Peet, Mal.  Life: an exploded diagram.  London: Walker Books, 2011.

This is an explosive story indeed. It tells the story of Clem Ackroyd, and a large part of it is narrated by the character. It also tells the story of his parents and earlier generations, of Clem’s romance with Francoise (shortened to Frankie), the daughter of the wealthiest man in the district (in rural Norfolk) – with much comment on the world around all these characters.

In particular, Clem and Frankie’s romance is set against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the impending doom that had the world holding its breath as Khrushchev and Kennedy stared each other out. Those were terrifying days indeed, the end of the world really was – certainly seemed to be - just one false step away.

I must admit a little disappointment at the climax of the story. While in character and inevitable, I felt the deus ex machina could have been hinted at earlier. Unless it was, I shall say no more. A tremendous coming-of-age novel. (26 November 2011)

De Bernieres, Louis.  Notwithstanding: Stories from an English village.  London: Vintage, 2010.

These too are short stories, again told with compassion, and humour, and a certain ... not bleakness this time, because the characters in these stories are not all losers. Some even win. At the same time, again, these are human situations, so even the winners lose. A time and a place not quite gone. (10 November 2011)

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Tower, Wells.  Everything ravaged, everything burned.  New York: Farrar, Straus and Giraux, 2009.

Nine short stories, losers all, told with compassion, and humour, and a certain bleakness. These are very human situations, you ache. (13 October 2011)

Pratchett, Terry.  I shall wear midnight.  London: Corgi, 2011.

Another Tiffany Aching/ Wee free men novel, they get ever better. The baron has died, the new baron reigneth, and the world is suspicious of witches, even if their magic is seven parts wisdom and three parts common-sense (or maybe it’s the other way around). (25 September 2011)

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Ward, Andrew.  Golf’s strangest rounds: extraordinary but true stories from over a century of golf..  London: Portico, 2010.

Ward relates the stories of unusual rounds of golf, not all golf as we know it, Jim. Thus we read of marathons, in terms of distance, or of rounds played on the same golf-course. There are stories of big money won, and lost. The occasional death. Greg Norman comes into several chapters, at least six, “novel ways to finish second”. Humour and fascination. It’s one for the enthusiast. (10 September 2011)

Gibbons, Alan.  An act of love.  London: Orion, 2011.

I don’t often write to authors, but I was impelled to after reading Gibbons’ Caught in the crossfire. I remarked that it was written before 7/7 – and I wondered what changes he would make had it been written after. Gibbons wrote back to say that, funnily enough, he was currently writing a novel in which 9/11 figured strongly. And here it is.

It’s the story of two lads, inseparable blood brothers, growing up next door to each other – until 9/11 and a dividing of the ways. Chris grows up and joins the army; Imran grows up and joins a jihadist group. Chris is wounded in Afghanistan and repatriated; Imran becomes disillusioned. And then discovers details of a plot to explode a bomb – and Chris, he feels, is the only one likely to listen to him and stop it exploding.

It’s all very credible until, perhaps, the climax, which is a little OTT, thoroughly exciting nevertheless. Reading it in the midst of the spate of rioting, looting, violence and vandalism which so recently hit England, I couldn’t help but admire Gibbons’ fictional account of mob rule taking over (at one point in his story), people just getting carried away in the madness of the moment. Very readable, very provocative. (31 August 2011)

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Chambers, Aidan.  The kissing game.  Oxford: Bodley Head, 2011.

This collection of short stories is sheer delight. Chambers proves his versatility, with longer short stories with a touch of mystery/ horror/ supernatural, as in “The tower” or the many-faceted “Sanctuary,” and there are some delightful flash stories (written in under 1000 words): “Expulsion” is in letter form, a student explaining why he hasn’t been attending compulsory sports, but still achieves the school’s requirement that students engage in at least three hours of physical activity a week, easily exceeded if sex is included. The title story is cosy, shy boy meets agoraphobic girl, cosy until a very unexpected end.

Chambers at his best. (24 August 2011)

Hill, Reginald.  The woodcutter.  London: Harper, 2011.

Yes and no. On the one hand, this is a rattling good read, a mystery-thriller which keeps us on our toes as twist after twist is revealed. Wolf Hadda is imprisoned for the most heinous of crimes – but he doesn’t remember committing them. Was he set up?

He convinces the prison psycho-therapist that he is no longer a threat to society and so gains parole – and she is left wondering whether Wolf has played her for a fool. Certainly, he appears to be trying to prove his innocence – and at the same time he is showing that he is not an innocent man...

It’s an exciting story, very well done and with lots of well-researched background – but I am not sure it is up to Hill’s usual exacting standards. Maybe it’s 20% too long, could have done with editing; maybe there are one or two unlikelihoods in the basic premise. Strings are being pulled, and somehow it’s a touch too glib. It is a super read, but ... it left me wondering. Not quite there. See for yourself! (20 August 2011)

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Waugh, Evelyn.  Black mischief.  London: Penguin, 2000 (1965).

Waugh again – Africa again, this time the kingdom of Azania. This is a blacker story than Scoop, but Waugh chooses his targets well. Another amazing over-the-top satire which still rings true today. (5 August 2011)

Waugh, Evelyn.  Scoop: a novel about journalists.  London: Penguin, 2003 (1943).

In this classic tale of misadventure, William Boot is pulled from an obscure corner of the Daily Beast to report on a possible war in the African Republic of Ishmaelia. It’s a story of journalists aiming to get the better of journalists from rival papers, in an age when the news was less than instant... Inept Boot gets left behind – and becomes privy to the biggest scoop of all. And the misadvenyture continues.

A good read, a little dated – but still good fun. (3 August 2011)

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Townsend, Sue.  Adrian Mole and the weapons of mass destruction.  London: Penguin, 2007.

Naive, soft, gullible, and ever-the-optimist, Adrian Mole goes through life, bounces through life, Michelin Man crossed with PacMan. Great fun. (1 August 2011)

Mankell, Henning.  Daniel, translated by Stephen Murray.  London: Harvill Secker, 2010.

We know from the start how the story ends, with the discovery of the corpse of a murdered girl.

And then, a flashback. Molo, whose family has been slaughtered by white colonialists in the Kalahari Desert, is “adopted” by Hans Bengler and taken back to Sweden. The well-meaning Bengler, who names the child “Daniel”, has no notion that the young boy might have a life and culture of his own, nor do most of the people with whom they come in contact. Daniel interprets this new strange land as best he can, but misunderstanding is rife: he doesn’t always understand what is happening, and he in turn is often misunderstood.

And all the time, Daniel yearns to go home, to go back to the world he knows.

It’s a sad novel, a bleak tale with tragic undertones and overtones – and very readable as we race to discover how the girl from the prologue died, who was responsible ... and how the story will end. Beautifully and simply told. (29 July 2011)

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Robinson, Peter.  Bad boy.  London: Hodder, 2011.

Banks is a minor figure for the first half of this novel. He is holidaying, recuperating after his last case, in the United States. Which means he is not there when Juliet Doyle, an old friend of the family, goes into Eastvale police headquarters, seeking his help. She has discovered a gun in her daughter’s bedroom, what should she do? Whatever Banks might have done, Annie Cabbot plays it by the book. But things go wrong, and Juliet’s husband dies after being immobilised by a police marksman using a taser gun.

It seems that saughter Erin had taken the gun from her boyfriend after falling out with him – she had seen him kissing her flatmate, Francesca Bank. Francesca is Alan Banks’s daughter, but she has given up her name and family in an act of rebellion. Pretty soon, Tracy is on the run with Jaff, Erin’s ex-boy-friend, hiding out in her absentee father’s cottage. Then two more things go wrong: Jaff discovers that Tracy’s father is a policeman, and Annie, coming to the cottage to water Banks’ plants during his absence, is shot by Jaff. Tracy is no longer Jaff’s new girl-friend – suddenly she is a hostage as the two go on the run.

And then Banks comes home.

This is a romp of a read, violent and black, and great fun.(2 July 2011)

Rand, Ayn.  Anthem.  New York: Signet, 1995.

In this novella, Rand pictures a world in which the word, the concept “I”, has disappeared. Every thought and everything is done for the collective society, which is in total control of one’s life and destiny. Individualism has totally disappeared. But one member of this society, Equality 7-2521, is a deviant. He has a mind of his own; even at school, he asked too many questions. He discovers love, in a society which has banished love, and so becomes a rebel, his own man.

This is a very short read. It was written in the 1930s, a grim time in Soviet Russia, in Nazi Germany, even in the USA of the Great Depression. And it is just as relevant today. (24 June 2011)

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Oliver, Lauren.  Before I fall.  New York: Harper, 2010.

Samantha Kingston has it all, boy-friend, girl-friends, self-assurance, grades, a future. That she or her friends are not really very nice people, that doesn’t come into it. Who is? But on the night of the Valentine’s Day party, she dies in a car crash ... and wakes up on the morning of the Valentine’s Day party, with a chance to live the day again. And again. And seven times over, chances to understand who she is, and why she is, a chance to make amends.

It’s an unusual story which could have gone wrong in the telling. It doesn’t. Instead, one reads on, wanting to know why... and what happens... and much more. A good teen read. (20 June 2011)

Adiga, Aravind.  Between the assassinations.  London: Atlantic, 2010.

There is no story here, just a set of cameo short-stories, set in the fictional city of Kittur, in south-west India. Nevertheless, the stories paint a picture of life in the “real” India, the sub-world under-world of poverty and desperation and hope and corruption, plentiful examples of all. It is a depressing picture and a real picture, and every story painted with Adiga’s compassion and humour and very keen eye for what is. (16 July 2011)

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Ventura, Jesse, with Dick Russell.  American conspiracies: lies, lies and more dirty lies that the government tells us.  New York: Skyhorse, 2010.

Conspiracy theory writ large. Ventura, former independent Governor of Minnesota, puts forward a unified theory that the US Government, the CIA and the FBI, the big banks and the media have separately and together been behind some of the biggest events in US and world history, including the assassinations of JFK and Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King jr, Watergate and Jonestown, 9/11 and global financial meltdown, the second Gulf War and the rigging of both GWB elections, and more. Behind them, supporting them, suppressing the facts, failing to investigate and properly report on them, and more.

It’s theory, supported by quotations and references and interviews and much speculation. The CIA, for instance, might have been engaged in hypnotism and auto-suggestion, of individuals and of masses, which could explain the far-away looks reported in some killers’ eyes, and could explain the mass murder at Jonestown. Evidence seems to have disappeared, crime scenes contaminated, facts undisclosed. In some cases, autopsies showed that purported killers could not have fired the shots which killed the victim. More than 600,000 ballots cast in Ohio in 2004 conveniently disappeared before they could be recounted, and the Florida 2000 ballot was and is flawed in the extreme.

The lack of any record of electronic votes cast renders the whole system open to hacking and the introduction of software which might not record certain votes accurately, not a good situation when the companies responsible for providing the balloting hard- and software are heavy supporters of the Republican Party.

It’s an ugly picture Ventura paints. Some of it might be true, and if any of it is, we should quake. And demand justice? (6 June 2011)

Stratton, Allan.  Borderline.  New York: Harperteen, 2010.

Sami is an American youth born of Iranian parents, now long-naturalised American citizens. His world comes apart when he discovers that his father has secrets. He fears that he is having an affair – but worse is to happen. His father is arrested as a suspected terrorist, along with others tied up in a terrorist plot. The leader manages to evade arrest.

It’s Patriot Act time, with the charges against his father , as is the evidence against him, and the consuming fear that any evidence which might prove his innocence will be hidden and never revealed. These points are telling, as is the raid in which his father is arrested. Less believeable is the way Sami manages to find and talk with the escaped leader of the group. The truth is perhaps more credible. An easy read, at times a terrifying read. (2 June 2011)

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Heath, Chip and Dan Heath.  Made to stick: why some ideas take hold and others come unstuck.  London: Arrow, 2008.

This easy-to-read inspiration book gives clues as to how to make ideas memorable, workable, credible, usable. The Heaths look at what we remember, and what we forget, and distil the lessons for us. We remember that which is Simple, or Unexpected, or Concrete, or Credible, or Emotional, and we remember Stories. The more of these elements we can bring in, in our teaching, in leadership, in mission statements, in life, the more sticky is the idea, the more likely to catch on.

They take their own advice, especially with the stories they use to illustrate their arguments and the points they make. Worth serious consideration. (26 May 2011)

Verghese, Abraham.  Cutting for stone.  New York: Vintage, 2010./b>

This is a remarkable story. It is narrated by Marion Stone. Stone and his twin brother, Shiva, were Siamese twins whose birth killed their mother. They were born in a mission hospital in Ethiopia. Their mother was a nun who worked at the hospital, their father a surgeon at the same hospital who disappeared when the twins were born.

Stone tells the tale of their growing up in the hospital compound, their boyhood and their manhood, intertwined with the stories of their biological parents and of the couple who brought them up, their foster parents. It is also the story of modern Ethiopia, rising from the ashes of Italian conquest, ruled by an Emperor, and then by those who ousted him. The scene moves to the United States, where Marion becomes a respected surgeon, and back again to Ethiopia.

It is a story of love and life and ordinary events writ large. It is a remarkable story, an amazing story, very enjoyable and very unputdownable. (22 May 2011)

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Soto, Gary.  Petty crimes.  Orlando FL: Harcourt, 2006.

Soto offers ten short stories of youth and teenage crime, big and small, set in Mexico. Some of the criminals are redeemable, some are not, and some commit crimes only in their minds. There is lots of humour here, and compassion and understanding, and lessons for us all. (21 May 2011)

Deaver, Jeffrey.  The bodies left behind.  London: Hodder, 2009.

Brynn McKenzie is called on to investigate an interrupted call to the emergency services – and stumbles upon a double murder, and the killer/s have not left the scene. She finds a survivor – and they both find themselves hunted, the killers cannot allow anyone to survive. The chase across the Wisconsin wilderness is exciting enough; in the hands of Jeffrey Deaver, the reader is guaranteed twist after twist, horror and breath-stopping cliff-hanging moments galore.

It’s a fast read, unputdownable. (1 May 2011)

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Faulks, Sebastian.  A week in December.  London: Vintage Books, 2010.

A week in December, and we follow the lives and doings of a very mixed set of characters. There’s the lime pickle king about to receive an award from the Queen, and his son, an about-to-be terrorist/ suicide bomber. There’s the London tube train driver and her budding romance with the lawyer whom nobody wants to hire. An embittered writer-reviewer manipulating his own reputation and a hedge-fund manager manipulating the markets while his son loses his mind to drugs. A porn queen and a mysterious cyclist and a dinner party thread the various characters together as their lives cross and cross again...

It is very much a story of our time, with some very recognizable characters and companies and events, as manipulative bankers and wankers race headlong into global financial meltdown... and who are the bigger terrorists? Those who set the bombs – and cause a few, or a few thousand, to lose their lives, or those who play with money they haven’t got and wreak havoc and misery on the world, now and for how many years to come?

A racing pace, much humour, and very telling because very real. (21 April 2011)

Chevalier, Tracy.  Remarkable creatures.  New York: Dutton, 2010.

This novel is a fictional account of Mary Anning, and of her friend and champion, Elizabeth Philpot. Philpot was one of three unmarried – and unmarriable – sisters, sent to live in Lyme, far cheaoer than London. There she met Anning, a collector of fossils, who made many finds and discoveries. Together, they managed to revolutionise the still young science of paleontolgy, at a time when women were treated as brainless creatures, and fossil finds were interpreted so they fit the biblical account of creation.

It’s well told, and exciting. (31 March 2011)

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Lewycka, Marina.  A short history of tractors in Ukrainian.  London: Penguin, 2006.

A very funny novel, which tells the story of 84-year-old Nikolai Mayevska, who announces his intention to marry a 36-year old blonde – and his daughters’ attempts to persuade him that she wants only British nationality and his money. Through their exploits, the attempts to have her deported and the attempts to secure a divorce, we see much of the darker side of the Mayevska family. Good fun, serious fun. (10 March 2011)

Kingsolver, Barbara.  The lacuna.  London: Faber and Faber, 2009.

Harrison Shepherd’s story, told by his biographer... Shepherd is a fictitious character, but through him we see many of the big events which shaped the USA and Mexico in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. When young, Shepherd is employed in the household of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. We see their lives, and the last days of Leon Trotsky; when he moves on to the United States and becomes a best-selling novelist we see the time of Joseph McCarthy and fear of communism in the raw. A telling novel. (3 March 2011)

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Gladwell, Malcolm.  Blink: the power of thinking without thinking.  New York: Little Brown and Company, 2005.

Gladwell’s thesis is not that intuition is always better – but that some people have intuitive insight which works far better than more intense scrutiny and analysis. And that there are conditions in which the inability to process information rapidly and intuitively can be dangerous to health and life. It’s a persuasive tour-de-force, many anecdotes (all referenced) adding strength to his theme. When we are faced with a situation in which decisions need to be made, and quickly, some people seem more able than other to focus on the points that really matter, and to ignore distractors. other impressions and signals which might mislead and which get in the way of quick decision making. Focus on the three or four points which really matter, and we can save lives, be more successful, get more from life.

Amongst the most telling of his relations is the story of Paul van Riper who, in a war game simulation managed to destroy American war power in the Persian Gulf because he did the unexpected, which the Pentagon expected him to behave differently (to the point of requiring the war game to be replayed a few days later, with the enemy playing by “the rules” – resulting in a Pentagon wipe out of the enemy, well, fancy that) to the sad case of four New York policemen shooting 41 times at an innocent bystander, because their intuition went badly wrong. From how to decide which heart attack symptoms show the patient really does need immediate treatment and which patients are not in serious or immediate danger, to auditioning for major orchestras, if we can only concentrate on what is important... If... (25 February 2011)

Willis, Connie.  Remake.  New York: Bantam Books, 1996.

A futuristic look at the movie industry, which has run out of ideas – new movies are remakes of old movies. Technology has advanced to the stage where it isn’t even necessary to re-act the movie, just capture new faces in a variety of poses, and the computer can do the rest. Or change the ending. Or the dialogue. A nice touch is the narrator’s job of re-touching old movies to remove all shots and references to alcohol and other substances, rather like Turkish television’s touching-up of tobacco products, but in far more sophisticated fashion.

Throw into this mix a dancer who really wants to dance, with whom our hero falls in love... and a fun novel results. (20 February 2011)

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Petterson, Per.  Out stealing horses;. trans. Anne Born. New York: Picador, 2003.

This is a highly atmospheric novel, involing the feel of the Norwegian hinterland, today, and seventy years ago. The time-scale is mixed as Trond Sander recalls events of his past, as he resolves and reconciles his story. It’s a beautiful read. (15 February 2011)

Cleave, Chris.  Incendiary.  London: Sceptre, 2009.

I was so taken by The other hand that I just had to seek out Cleave’s earlier novel. And found it. In a bookstore in Dubai.

Like the later book, this is a disturbing read. Unlike the later book, it is not beautiful at all. This is pure horror, the mental deterioration of a woman whose life changes in one devastating moment. Like the later book, one does not want to give anything away and again, like the later book, it is compelling and unputdownable. I hardly did. (6 February 2011)

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Cleave, Chris.  The other hand.  London: Sceptre, 2009.

I picked this up, intrigued by the back-cover blurb: “We don’t want to tell you what happens in this story. It is a truly special story and we don’t want to spoil it.”

I wouldn’t want to spoil it either, other than to say that it is the story of an Englishwoman and a Nigerian girl; they meet on a beach in Nigeria, in horrifying circumstances, and then, two years later, they meet again, in England. This is not a horror story, yet there is horror and compassion and fortitude abounding, love and compassion. It’s a beautiful; story and very, very disturbing. (3 February 2011)

Lelic, Simon.  A thousand cuts. New York: Viking, 2010.

And which was the unkindest cut of all? Samuel Szajkowski, history teacher, walks into the assembly hall of his school, shoots three students and a teacher, and then kills himself.

The CID officer investigating the motivation behind this open-and-shut case discovers reasons not so obvious for the tragedy, the culture of the school. And in turn, she realises that the school’s pervasive culture is not so different from her own in the police force.

The story is told in a series of witness statements and occasional narration, and with each new witness we gain new insight into what drove Szajkowski over the edge. It’s a compelling read. (27 January 2011)

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Breslin, Theresa.  Prisoner of the Inquisition.   London: Doubleday, 2010.

This is the story of Saulo, child of a family fallen on hard times, and Zarita, daughter of the town magistrate. Their paths cross when Saulo’s father accidentally touches Zarita and is arrested – and hung – for assault, and Saulo himself is nearly hung alongside him. Instead, he is sentenced to the galleys. He survives, manages to rise to a position of trust – and then to escape. For a long time, his vows to revenge himself on the magistrate and ghis family have looked forlorn – now they might be realised.

Meanwhile, Zarita’s fortunes change as the Inquisition comes to the town, and plunge even further when her father remarries, just a few months after her mother’s death.

Saulo’s and Zarita’s paths cross once more – and unexpectedly they fall in love. And then the Inquisition returns…

The story is told by Zarita and Saulo alternately, and this enables a fast-paced story, very exciting and, as always with Breslin, well-researched and very real. (3 January 2011)

Weaver, Will.  Defect.  New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.

David looks different. His eyes, his face, his hearing aids (which, rather than amplify so that he can hear, in fact blank sound, for he has super-sensitive hearing) – David is different. He also has a secret he has managed to keep hidden from his foster-parents; he has managed to keep his secret hidden from most of the world since a very early age: he has wings which, not strong enough to help him fly, do help him glide rather than fall from heights. David is different.

Cheetah is different too. She too looks different, and she is epileptic. And Brandon, dying, but coping with his black sense of humour. In a novel filled with compassion, Weaver shows how difference can be extraordinary. (24 December 2010)

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Mandery, Evan.  First contact: or, it’s later than you think (parrot sketch excluded).  New York: Harper, 2010.

What happens when ambassadors from the galactic system Rigel-Rigel come to earth, with the explicit intention of warning the planet that if people don’t change ther ways and look after the planet better, the world will come to an end within two years? What happens when the President of the United States takes this as a threat , and calls for a pre-emptive attack?

In this clever satire, much in the style of Kurt Vonnegut jr, Mandery explores possibilities (and a few impossibilities too). Black humour galore. (20 December 2010)

Niffenegger, Audrey.  Her fearful symmetry.  London: Jonathan Cape, 2009.

Take twins who have done everything together all their lives. Take their mother and aunt, themselves twins. The aunt dies, and leaves her London apartment to the twins, on condition that their parents do not enter the flat. There is a mystery behind why the older twins had parted and never met again… Throw in some odd characters, upstairs and downstairs. And a lot of fancy and romance – and the ghost of the dead twin.

It’s beautifully written, the twins discovering themselves, one wanting to break free of the other, and her tortured achievement of this aim. It’s clever too, though unlikely (even within Niffenegger’s own world). What about the autopsy? one screams. Never mind. Suspend disbelief and enjoy. (14 December 2010)

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Steinmeyer, Jim.  Charles Fort: the man who invented the supernatural.  New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/ Penguin, 2008.

Charles Fort does not seem to have been an engaging man, but his legacy has been a foundation of at least one branch of science fiction, if not science fact. Fort really came to fame with his collections of unexplained (and perhaps unexplainable) phenomena, showers of frogs and fishes, tales of men who disappeared in full public view… Fort collected strange accounts and presented them as evidence that there might be more than is dreamt of in Horatio’s (or anyone else’s) philosophy.

Fort’s fortune was to happen at the right time (the late teens and twenties of the 20th century) and to have impressed many of the right people – Theodore Dreiser was a particular champion, and enabled the publication of many of Fort’s works. Crank or serious anti-scientist? Forteana lives on. (1 December 2010)

Forsyth, Frederick.  The cobra.  London: Bantam Press, 2010.

“Destroy the cocaine industry.” That is the order from The President. In a novel set slightly in the future (2012), Forsyth details the workings of the cocaine trade, and how it might be destroyed by a group set up with appropriate orders and power. And it all looks as if it could work, thanks to underhand dealing, blackmail, clever tricks, money, and intelligent, determined resourcefulness. It’s dirty – and as a novel, fast-paced, credible and … doomed? Very well done indeed. (9 November 2010)

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Wolff, Virginia Euwer.  This full house.  New York: HarperCollins, 2009.

This is the last of the Make Lemonade trilogy, and worth the wait. LeVaughn is high-flying her way to college, twice a week taking after-school classes for a highly select Women in Medical Science (WIMS) course, and doing very well. She is almost over her disappointed love for Jody, being wooed (though she won’t recognise it) by Patrick – and in the thick of an ethical dilemma when she suspects that her WIMS teacher might be Jolly’s mother. Pressing forward, she endangers relationships all round – but all comes well in a satisfying ending. (4 November 2010)

Suarez, Daniel.  Daemon.  London: Quercus, 2009.

This is the ultimate computer game, a game which becomes real life. It’s a battle between good and evil, and somehow the technology stays at least one step ahead. Techno-horror galore, preying on conspiracy theory and our fear of what we do not understand, this novel grips and won’t let go. (27 October 2010)

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Roeper, Richard.  Debunked! Conspiracy theories, urban legends, and evil plots of the 21st century.  Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2008.

A good read immediately after Malcolm Gladwell, continuing some of the same themes. Roeper attacks many conspiracy theories, from the many 9/11 theories to why the casino tends to win, from whether television talent shows are rigged to whether George W Bush was wired during the 2004 television debates, from Donald Rumsfeld’s interest in Tamiflu to the gagging of right-wing media outlets – it’s all there. Often amusing, often sad (do people really believe this?). (14 October 2010)

Gladwell, Malcolm.  What the dog saw, and other adventures.  London: Allen Lane, 2009.

This collection of essays from The New Yorker invites the reader to turn the world upside down, to look at events with a new eye and through a new lens. Gladwell asks, amongst other things, why there are dozens of mustards on the market, each with different tastes, but tomato ketchup tastes more or less the same over the world, how too much information can lead to information blindness (or why six college students could forecast the fall of Enron when the world’s foremost economists couldn’t) and other things going wrong, including Greg Norman’s collapse in the 1996 Masters and the Challenger space disaster, and how to recruit the best person for any job. Eye-opening. (11 October 2010)

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Irving, John.  Last night in Twisted River.  New York: Ballantine, 2010.

Irving’s latest is a rambling saga which ranges across half-a-century and more in the life of Danny Baciagalupo, his father, their loves, their friends and their enemies, and the world (and in particular of the United States). It’s a beautiful, poignant, humour-ful, compassionate and compelling tale of two men on the run (from the ghosts which shape their lives and which haunt them) (more than metaphorically). An amazing read. (27 September 2010)

Gibbons, Alan.  Caught in the crossfire.  London: Orion, 2003.

Written soon after 9/11 and reissued in 2007 (soon after 7/7, one wonders?), this story is bang-up-to-date. A dying town, as so many towns in northern England seem to be, racial tension is never far below the surface. Then John Creed, leader of the Patriotic League (not far removed from British National Party), comes to town, set on turning discontent into extremism, but in such a way that the white community seem blameless, trouble always seems to be started by the coloured community.

The story centres on the Khan family and Rabia and Tahir, children of a mixed marriage, and the Kelly family and Mike and Liam, growing apart as Liam is wooed by the right-wingers and Mike is level-headed indeed, and a grand mix of other characters, including John Creed, and Colin Stone, right-wing thug, groomed for leadership as Creed’s right-hand man in Oakfield. There are many who try to stand up for peace and community, but they get trodden aside – and there are Mike and Rabia, slowly falling in love, to the disgust of their respective brothers.

And what a read this is. It’s quite explosive, short cliff-hanging episodes told in a breathless present tense, impelling action, compelling reading, to the confrontation at the climax of the tale… And so very much of the moment. A thrilling read. (28 August 2010)

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Larsson, Asa.  The savage altar; translated by Marlaine Delargy.  London: Penguin, 2008.

Another Swedish mystery-writer, and this time the hero is a lawyer, Rebecka Martinsson. Martinsson is called back to her home town, Kiruna, in the north of Sweden to help a childhood friend in trouble. Sanna’s troubles aren’t just because she discovered the mutilated body of her brother, and comes to be suspected of and arrested for his murder. She is psychologically damaged, and Martinsson always looked out for her when she lived in Kiruna, until she was chased out by the local clergy.

The memories come back, the old demons have not departed. As so many Swedish who-dunnits, this is black and bleak and very real. I’ll look forward to the next ijn the series. (20 August 2010)

Khorsandi, Shappi.  A beginner’s guide to acting English.  London: Ebury, 2010.

Khorsandi is a well-known British standup comic. She went from Iran to Britain with her family in the 70s. Her father, a writer and journalist, was a satirist and a dissident – and this led to the family’s expulsion from Iran. This book tells of Shapi’s early years, growing up foreign in London. In many ways, it is similar to Firoozeh Dumas’s story, though perhaps told more chronologically, and without the humour (the throw-away lines Dumas delights in). Instead, there is understatement, as, for instance, when eight-year-old Shappi writes to the newly-installed Ayatollah Khomeini, telling him that her father is not a wicked man so please stop hunting him – and being a well-taught pupil at school, she carefully adds the family’s address in London. Within days, the police had bundled the family into hiding.

We get many glimpses of life in Iran too, through the memories and stories of the family, and through the telephone calls of the time. Especially worrying was the horror of the Iran-Iraq war, and the nightly bombing missions on Tehran. Warmth, compassion and humour. (31 July 2010)

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Goldacre, Ben.  Bad science.  London: Fourth Estate, 2009.

Goldacre takes a number of urban myths and quackery and exposes them for what they are, from homeopathy to the MMR vaccination scare to fashion and food fads and deliberate fraud… Goldacre painstakingly teaches us, science background or science-blocked, how to deconstruct claims, ask the right questions, see beyond the hype and the hyperbole and the vested interests to get to the truth of scientific claims. His examples are all recent, and he battles against giants. A disturbing and revealing book. (20 July 2010)

Muller, Herta.  The land of green plums.  London: Granta, 1999.

A serious tale and a difficult read. This is growing up in Ceausescu’s Romania, a land where anyone and everyone could be a spy, a betrayer, your parents, your children, your lover, your friend. It’s a grey world full of suspicion and subterfuge, hiding one’s feelings, having feelings deadened, forced into treachery and villainy.

It's not an easy read. It is very episodic, and much of the meaning is hidden and in code, for to speak the words could betray someone you love, or tie you to someone you hate or fear. Yet there is hope and survival, friendship and love, even odd touches of humour. It is not an easy read. It is a book to be read. (2 June 2010)

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Orga, Irfan.  The caravan moves on.  London: Eland, 2002.

Orga tells the story of three weeks he spent with the Yoruk of the High Taurus mountains in central Turkey. It’s a trip into a world fast-disappearing (and the book was originally published 50 years ago), a people complete in themselves, not intruding on the rest of the country and rarely intruded upon. Fascinating. (26 May 2010)

Faulks, Sebastian.  The girl at the Lion d’Or.  London: Vintage, 1990.

Faulks is a master story-teller. Here he takes three (seemingly) unrelated incidents in France in the 1930s and weaves them together in an always readable romance. Anne falls for a married man, and their brief but brilliant affair in a quiet provincial town feels very real. (20 May 2010)

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Dickinson, Peter.  Angel Isle.  London: Wendy Lamb Books, 2007.

This huge quest-adventure takes up the tale 20 generations after the Ropemaker. Once more the magic is fading, and the Valley – and the world beyond - is threatened, the Empire could fall. Saranja, Maja and Ribek have to seek out the Ropemaker – if he is still alive and in their world. Dickinson brings in characters and devices which keep us reading, his fantastical world is very real, the stuff of nightmares. There is romance too, Saranja and the one-time sheep’s-head spy, and child Maja and the much older Ribek. And humour and compassion, and a love of life and of tale. (16 May 2010)

Woodson, Jacqueline.  I hadn’t meant to tell you this.  New York: Delacorte, 1994.

Marie doesn’t mean to befriend Lena: after all, Lena is white and poor, totally outside Marie’s black middle-class world. Both girls find they have a lost mother in common, and this provides common ground. And then Marie learns that Lena is hiding a terrible secret, and is faced with the problem of how best to help her friend.

Chillingly good and very real. (12 May 2010)

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Grass, Gunter.  My century; translated by Michael Henry Heim. London: Faber and Faber, 1999.

In a set of 100 episodes, Grass tells the story of Germany’s 20th century. Each episode relates to a particular year. Characters recur throughout to make for threads in the stories and together make for a brilliant social history. (10 May 2010)

Woodson, Jacqueline.  From the notebooks of Melenin Sun.  New York: Blue Sky Press, 1995.

Melanin, almost 14, finds his world turned upside down when his mother revelas that, not only is she gay, but she is in love with a white woman. On the verge of his own first romance, Melanin struggles to cope. Compassion and humour, and an open ending make this an enjoyable, though-provoking read. (1 May 2010)

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Ruiz Zafon, Carlos. The shadow of the wind; translated by Lucia Graves.  London: Penguin, 2004.

This is a swash-buckling novel, a tale of quest and revenge, full of dark mystery. Set in Barcelona after the Second World War, the story tells of Daniel Sempere’s quest to track down books written by the largely unknown author Julian Carax, and in the process, to discover his life and uncover the mystery of his death. While there are startling parallels between Carax’s life and young Sempere’s, there are also great differences. The story sometimes has the flavor of a gothic cartoon epic, dark and yet deliciously funny.

Much of the action is narrated as memories by various of the characters, and the tale falls into place, the mysteries are solved, it comes together so very well. A grand read. (29 April 2010)

Lee, Tanith.  The secret books of Paradys: the complete Paradys cycle.  New York: Overlook Duckworth, 2007.

Paradys is a cross between a fantasy Paris and Ankh-Morpoth, magical, Gothic, dark, brilliant, brutal, erotic, fantastical. All kinds of human-creatures roam this dark city, and the stories cross time and space and reason. The stories collected here were originally published as three separate books, but bringing them together must surely aid the connections and the differences. There are links between many of the stories, the characters featured in some recalled as legendary or mythological characters in another, and sometimes touching events.

It is all very mysterious and poetic and black, and will bear a second (and more) read. (16 March 2010).

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Crutcher, Chris.  Angry management: three novellas.  New York: Greenwillow, 2009.

Three long short stories by the master, each featuring characters drawn from earlier novels. Sad cases all, misfits in a world of misfits, but as always with Crutcher’s tales, amidst the depression and often hate, there is always hope, and love. (7 March 2010)

Esler, Gavin.  Power play.  London: HarperCollins, 2009.

A political thriller: the Vice President of the United States disappears in Scotland, triggering a constitutional crisis in a post-Bush America; the incident threatens the fragile US-UK “special relationship” (if it still exists), and pushes the US to the brink of war with Iran. The UK Ambassador to Washington plays a key part in relating the drama (first-person) while gaps are filled with third-person narrative, this is a fast-paced novel of political intrigue, twists in the tale (and the tail), and lots of spin. All too believable. (27 February 2010)

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Axelrod, Alan.  Profiles in folly: history’s worst decisions and why they went wrong.  New York: Sterling, 2008.

Axelrod takes a look at some 35 moments in history when things went wrong. Disasters all, but preventable disasters, thanks to bad planning, gambles which did not work out, refusal to face facts or listen to advice, misinterpretation of the facts, “messianic arrogance” and blind obstinacy, and more. From the Trojans happily accepting a gift from the Greeks through to Hurricane Katrina, taking in the Titanic and the Challenger, Watergate, Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement, Iraq, Buchanan’s limited vision of his Presidency, new “Coke,” the Edsel and far more, Axelrod points out the mistakes and why they happened, along with lessons for today (and how some of those lessons have not been learned and the mistakes repeated).

Axelrod believes that “all people are fools some of the time, and some people are fools all of the time…” – and finds examples a-plenty to prove his thesis. Interesting, fun, and cautionary (if only the right people would read and learn). (2 February 2010)

Surowiecki, James.  The wisdom of crowds.  New York: Anchor, 2005.

Surowiecki’s thesis is that collective wisdom is very often more accurate, more wise, more aware than the notions of individuals and small groups or teams, no matter how expert or experienced or respected those individuals and small groups are.

He cites examples galore to illustrate the point. In Galton’s “Guess the weight of the ox” competition, for example, the average of the guesses was just half-a-kilo off the actual weight. When a US submarine mysteriously disappeared in 1968, navy personnel, mathematicians, oceanographers, salvage specialists and people from many other fields were asked to guess its location on the sea-bed knowing only where it had last been reported: the average of the estimates was closer than any indivual had guessed, and was within 200 meters of the actual wreck. When the Challenger space shuttle exploded in 1986, the stock market seemed to know within minutes which of the four main contractors was responsible – even though it took more than six months for the official investigators to pinpoint the cause of the disaster.

Surowiecki looks at any number of fields, from economics to science, psychology to politics to warfare to show how the experts so often get it wrong, and how the wisdom of the masses so often gets it right. The democritization of knowledge: Wikipedia, anyone? Google?? (26 January 2010)

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Ardelius, Gunnar.  I need you more than I love you and I love you to bits, translated by Tara Chace..  Asheville NC: Front Street, 2008.

A sparsely written novel of first-love, full of passion and wonder. Morris and Betty, both children of dysfunctional families, meet, romance, part. Written in breath-takingly short episode/chapters, this is steamy stuff, fast-paced, and all so very true. (24 January 2010)

Pratchett, Terry. Nation.  London: Corgi, 2009.

Mau has successfully completed his initiation rites and is returning to his island when a giant wave destroys his land, his nation, everything he has known. Ermintrude, Daphne for short, is the sole survivor on board a schooner which is thrown onto Mau’s island. They meet, manage to communicate (opportunity for much humour here), manage to survive – and thrive. They find themselves regarded as leaders as survivors from other islands come to join them, and the nation slowly comes to new life.

It is not always straightforward, for the gods have a say too – and Mau rails against the gods (in which he does not believe) for they allowed his way of life to be destroyed. It is not an easy path. And then evil-minded Europeans arrive, and Raiders and …

This alternative history is Pratchett at his best, a sharp look at the way we live, funny, sad, mystical, and sometimes terrifying. (4 January 2010)

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Larsson, Stieg. The girl who kicked the hornet’s nest, translated by Reg Keeland.   London: Maclehose Press, 2009.

The wait was worth it, the third volume in the Millenium trilogy is as explosive as the first, raises questions, and the whole series demands rereading.

For much of the story, Lisbeth is in hospital, fighting for her life and then recovering from the serious injuries she endured at the end of the second volume. She is accused of serious crimes, including the attempted murder of her father, Zalachenko, who is also seriously ill in a room just two doors away. Meanwhile, a secret section of the state secret police (Sapo), the section which allowed the monster Zalachenko to prey and to flourish, is threatened if the truth comes out, so fights to keep Lisbeth silenced. She is insane, as determined by the dark psychiatrist Teleborian, and therefore her every word cannot be believed, and needs to be locked away.

But if she is not insane, then her crazy claims are insane, her truth too terrible to be believed, so she must be insane.

Meanwhile, Blomkvist fights to prove her innocence, asssisted by a grand group of characters, from policemen to journalists to the private security firm for which Lisbeth once worked. Indeed, the lively character of Susanne Linder, hired to guard Erika Berger, is revealing: she joined the firm after resigning from the police after beating up someone who had repeatedly abused his wife.

There are three underlying themes here: the power and the secret strength of the secret services, the power of (and our need for) fearless investigative journalism, and above all, the violence (not always physical) done to women, in Swedish society if not worl-wide.

Which makes the book, and the series, sound serious stuff. It is – but it is also hugely entertaining, thought-provoking, and well worth the read. (1 January 2010)

Vonnegut, Kurt.  Galapagos.  New York: Dell, 1985.

This is vintage Vonnegut, a satire narrated by a ghost, recalling the near-destruction of the human race a million years earlier, in 1986. War and financial collapse and plague did for most of the world, but a handful of survivors managed to get to a remote Pacific island where, out of contact with the rest of the world, they evolved…

The characters are well-drawn caricatures, and our ghost-narrator tells their stories. Wry, black humour abounds, along with throw-away lines. It’s a non-sequential story which all comes together in true Vonnegut fashion. Fun. (27 December 2009)

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Milton, Giles.  Paradise lost: Smyrna 1922: the destruction of Islam’s city of tolerance.  London: Sceptre, 2009.

In this very readable but often highly distressing account, Milton presents the history of the events which led up to, and a very detailed account of, the destruction of Smyrna in 1922. At the time, Smyrna was one of the richest cities in the Middle East and home to myriad nationalities and religions, but it did not survive the rivalries and expansionist ambitions of nations following the First World War. Smyrna was but one aspect of tragedy on the grandest scale. The brutality of the Greek war on the Turks in the Anatolian heartland is told, the brutality of the Turks as they turned the tables and started a mass attempted emigration bordering on annihilation is also told. The refugees converged on Smyrna, but found no relief there.

The city’s destruction by fire, and the brutality and inhumanity of man to man (and woman), is vividly told in an account based on interviews and memoirs and diaries. The human tragedy, which came out of centuries of intertwined Turkish, Greek and Armenian history, was exacerbated by the determination of British, American , French and Italian politicians to take no sides, to remain neutral and leave the refugees and the citizens of Smyrna to fend for themselves. Nevertheless, accounts of the humanity of individuals determined to save lives make for occasioal glimmers of light in a history which blackens the history of the nations involved.

You need a strong stomach to complete the course, but it remains a readable history and a lasting warning. (A warning which has not been taken to heart.) (26 December 2009)

Barclay, Linwood.  No time for goodbye.  London: Orion, 2007.

This is a black thriller. In 1983, Cynthia Bigge wakes up to find that her mother, father, and brother have all disappeared. The house is empty. There is no trace of them. The questions are huge, and unanswered. Twenty-five years later, now married to Terry Archer and with a young daughter of her own, the past begins to come to life. Cynthia thinks she sees her brother in a mall. Her father’s hat appears in the kitchen. Her Aunt Tess tells Terry that Cynthia’s university education was funded by mysterious and anonymous donations. The Archers hire a private detective to see if anything can be found of what happened to the Bigge family – and he is murdered. So is Aunt Tess.

It’s a black story which unravels chillingly and with some neat twists. (19 December 2009)

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Almond, David.  The savage illustrated by Dave McKean.  London: Walker Books, 2008.

Life is good for Blue Baker, while his father is alive. He is even able to cope with the local bully, Hopper. But then Blue’s father does die… Blue finds consolation writing about a story about The Savage, who knows no fear – and finds himself able to conquer his fears and to best the bully.

This is a strange story, vividly and almost visiously illustrated, full of fear and of mystery. Beautifully done by both writer and artist. (12 September 2009)

Dumas, Firoozeh.  Funny in Farsi: a memoir of growing up Iranian in America.  New York: Random House, 2003.
…. Laughing without an accent: adventures of a global citizen. New York: Random House, 2009.

Firoozeh Dumas is a born story-teller. These two books are a collection of her stories which tell of her and her family’s adventures and misadventures as immigrants to the United States. Told with love and compassion, Dumas has a keen memory and a wicked sense of throw-away lines. This is not an autobiography, for there is too much scooting from story to story, but it is nevertheless a telling account of her childhood – and her adulthood too, in the later book, where many of the stories feature her husband, Francois Dumas. It’s a romp of a read which rings so true. (6 December 2009)

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Kay, Guy Gavriel.  The lions of al-Rassan.  New York: Eos/ HarperCollins, 2005.

A far-ranging, far-reaching tale of love, ambition, revenge, power, corruption, war, loyalty and betrayal and much much more in a land somewhere in an alternative earth, which looks a lot like medieval Spain. It is a grand sweep, violent and passionate. And worth the read. (16 November 2009)

Millar, Peter.  1989: the Berlin Wall: my part in its downfall..  London: Arcadia, 2009.

Peter Millar was a young journalist in the 1980s, a foreign correspondent for Reuters, then the Sunday Telegraph and later the Sunday Times. For much of the decade he was based in East Berlin, and spent a few years in Moscow too. He saw much of the revolution of those years from the inside.

This book is part autobiography, and a fascinating look at British journalism before the Murdoch revolution, and part social and political history, brought to vivid life. Those were crazy years, exciting years, and when the Wall was opened, by accident and by popular demand, nobody could believe it was a permanent breech, nor how quickly the rest of the Eastern bloc would come tumbling down. Very readable, this is good fare for those who weren’t there, and highly evocative for those who were. (6 November 2009)

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Larsson, Stieg.  The girl who played with fire(translated from the Swedish by Reg Keeland).  London: MacLehose Press, 2009.

This, the second in the Millenium trilogy, is mainly Lisbeth’s story. Thanks to her computer skills, Lisbeth managed to salvage a fortune from the case she worked on with Blomkvist in the firstof the series. Dispapointed in love (though Mikael does not know it), she no longer wants anything to do with him. And, as ever, she likes her privacy.

She gets caught up in a murder. A young couple researching into human trafficking for Millenium are found murdered, and Lisbeth’s fingerprint is found on the gun. The hunt is on, and only Blomkvist believes she is innocent.

We learn much about Lisbeth’s early life, including the cruel event at age 13 which caused the breakup of her family and her institutionalisation a s a ward of court, and her refusal to accept authority. The plot is complex and hugely enjoyable, and the story ends with a chase across Sweden, villains that might have come from any Ian Fleming novel, complete with chain saws and ultra sophisticated security devices, and one particular villain who is cruel and incapable of feeling pain… A tremendous romp. Roll on number three! (1 November 2009)

Bergman, Ingmar.   Private confessions(translated from the Swedish by Joan Tate).  New York: Arcade, 1997.

A sad story. Headstrong Anna rushed into marriage with Henrik, and finds herself trapped. She falls in love with a younger friend of the family but, despite the joy, is wracked with guilt. She confesses, to her pastor, to her husband, to her mother, to a friend, hoping for exoneration and a path to happiness. Told in five sequences, the last reveals that Anna has always been headstrong, as exemplified by the confession she missed, her first communion when a teenager.

Beautifully told, compassionate and honest. (12 October 2009)

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Lal, Ranjit.  The battle for No. 19.  New Delhi: Puffin, 2007.

Eight schoolgirls drive into Delhi on the day Indira Gandhi is assassinated. There are anti-Sikh riots, and the man driving their mini-bus is killed. The girls manage to evade the rioters and, running away, break into and take refuge in an empty house. Unfortunately, the house, owned by a Sikh, is targeted by the rioters. The girls need to defend themselves, by cunning and with courage, aided by masks and spears and arrows found in the house. But what defence can eight young girls put up against a rioting mob?

This is an exciting story, well-paced and very real. (5 October 2009)

Dolnick, Edward.  The forger’s spell.  New York: HarperCollins, 2008.

This tells the story, the true story, of Hans van Meegeren, a second-rate artist who managed to fool not only would-be conoisseurs of art (such as Hermann Goering) into believing that his forgeries were genuine – he also fooled the real art world. This is an amazing story, full of twists and ironies. Van Meegeren appears to have stumbled on some of his ploys and carefully thought out others. Specialising in “Vermeers,” his most difficult task was to persuade the experts that his Christ at Emmaus represented an unknown period in the artist’s history, using new techniques and effects. Having done that, his later work could be seen as the development of Vermeer’s style in this period, even though veering further and further from the real artist.

Van Meegeren was arrested soon after the end of the Second World War, and was faced with the choice of confessing to collaborating with the Nazis who had occupied his country for so many years, or confess to forgery. The problem was that the art experts were reluctant to recognise that the Van Meegeren paintings were not Vermeer’s! An interesting tale, well-told. (30 September 2009)

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Barth, John.  The development.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008.

This collection of related short stories is based on the people who live in a gated community, practically a retirement village, in Chesapeake Bay. The stories are told with great humor, often black, and great compassion, and all too much truth about the pleasures and the pains of growing old. (22 September 2009)

Larsson, Stieg.  The girl with the dragon tattoo (translated from the Swedish by Reg Keeland).  London: MacLehose Press, 2008.

This, the first volume in the Millennium trilogy, is a hard-hitting thriller. Disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist, part owner of the Millennium magazine, is hired to write the biography of the head of the family, while secretly finding out what happened when Harriet Vanger disappeared nearly thirty years before. The Vanger family is dysfunctional and hugely powerful, with many secrets they want to stay hidden.

Blomkvist is assisted by Lisbeth Salander, a woman with a history, the victim of much abuse and non-understanding as she grew up, and in womanhood, still a victim. As with many Swedish detective novels, there is much social comment along the way, which adds to the realness and the horror of the situation, as the story evolves and the true horror of the Vanger family emerges. Volume two has just been published, and I can’t wait to get hold of it; volume three is still being translated. (20 September 2009)

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Moore, Alan and Dave Gibbons.  Watchmen.  New York: DC Comics, 2008.

Take an alternative history, set in the 1980s, in which masked superheroes of the kind popular in comic books in the 1940s and 50s and 60s have been forced to retire. When one of these ex-crimebusters is murdered and it seems that other ex-heroes are being targeted, former hero Rorschach begins investigating. We find human truths about the ex-heroes as the story swings from past to present and back. A present in which the Soviet Union and the United States are inching towards MAD nuclear war, Mutually Assured Destruction, with the Soviets on the brink of invading Afghanistan, and President Nixon has just been re-elected for a third term.

The story is vividly told in graphic comic-book format, with chapters from reports and biographies intertwing each chapter and provising background informnation, filling in the gaps. The truth behind the killings is devastating, an attempt to alter the course of history. This is a complicated novel, well-worth reading. (12 September 2009)

Lee, Tanith.  The silver metal lover.  New York: Bantam, 1999 (1981).

What happens when robots are produced, so human that they cannot be told from the real thing? What happens when an impressionable girl falls in love with a robot programmed to be a lover? What if the robot discovers feelings that his makers did not intend?

Jane falls for Silver, so badly, so madly, that she is prepared to give up her way of life to be with her metal man?

It’s an impossible, doomed, romance, beautifully told by Lee. The outcome is inevitable, but along the way the reader feels for the two lovers, identifies with them. Highly romantic and highly improbable, yet avoiding cloying sentimentality, this is a lovely, lively read, (6 September 2009)

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Pratchett, Terry.  Strata.  London: Corgi, 1988.

This is the precursor to Discworld. It isn’t a prequel, it is a novel in which many of Pratchett’s ideas of a world, very similar to Planet Earth but flat, were first formulated.

It is not as light as the Discworld series, but it is an entertaining fantasy, tightly knit and tightly told. (3 September 2009)

Grisham, John.  The associate..  London: Century, 2009.

Kyle McEvoy, about to graduate from law school, is blackmailed into recruiting for a law firm about to be embroiled in one of the biggest civil cases ever. His role will be to spy on his firm and to leak documents and other information. His blackmailers are ruthless, with huge resources of manpower; the stakes are so high that their funding seems limitless.

What chance does a young, inexperienced rookie fighting alone have to overcome his blackmailers, without his guilty past being revealed and without compromising his legal standing or his firm? Every chance, when guided by Grisham! It’s an easy-to-read legal thriller, the kind Grisham tells so well. (30 August 2009)

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Proulx, Annie.  Fine just the way it is.  London: Fourth Estate, 2008.

Proulx at her finest, short stories told with never a wasted word, long sentences, rambling diversions which always have point, language to make you jump. Some of the stories are fun, notably the two stories set in Hell, some are sad, hard, very human. Some manage to be both. Proulx makes her characters live, and us (her readers) as well. Garner’s Red shift (just read) is one of my desert books, but Proulx is one of my desert island authors. (23 August 2009)

Garner, Alan.  Red shift.  London: Lions, 1973.

This remains one of my desert island books, it raises questions and leaves many unsolved. Three stories intertwine: Jan and Tom in the present day, young lovers forced apart, by distance and by Tom’s parents (who refuse to accept that he is no longer a child), Margery and Thomas, during the English Civil War, when Irish mercenaries lay siege to their village, and Macey and an unnamed girl, trying to survive during the Roman occupation of Britain, Macey being a member of a gang of deserters (or possibly survivors) from the Ninth Legion, which famously disappeared. What links the stories is a thunderstone, a meteorite which appears to give its holder extraordinary powers.

The three stories are briskly told, mainly through dialogue, the narrative description is sparse; the past appears to affect and have parallels in the future but (echoes of one of Vonnegut’s essays recently read) it could be that the future affects and has parallels in the past. It is all very intriguing, not necessarily hopeful.

The book’s endpapers include a code which, thanks to a recent visit to Bletchley Park, I have at last cracked! (20 August 2009)

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Hill, Reginald.  Midnight fugue.  London: HarperCollins, 2009.

Hill writes effortlessly; afficonados will be at ease with his style, know his characters, and enjoy the Fat Man’s refusal to fade out gracefully. The novel covers 24 hours, and tells the story from a number of viewpoints: it is important to keep an eye on the times noted at the head of each chapter. Gina Wolfe, whose policeman husband disappeared seven years earlier and is now presumed dead, is about to marry a senior policeman; but when she is sent a photocopy of a newspaper story which appears to show her husband alive and well, she enlists Dalziel’s help.

Meanwhile, a rising Tory politician with a father whose wealth may or may not have been obtained illegally, is the target of an investigative journalist, and the trail coincides with Dalziel’s own private investigation. Dalziel may be past it, still weak after being grievously injured in the previous story – but he does have hidden strengths. The tension and the humour never let up, although the story becomes more serious when one man is murdered, and DC Novello nearly becomes a second victim.

A very pleasant addition to the Dalziel-Pascoe canon. (16 August 2009)

Vonnegut, Kurt.  A man without a country.  London: Bloomsbury, 2006.

This collection of essays is pure Vonnegut: often disapproving and despairing of man and his ways and deeds, and especially of America’s leadership, Vonnegut takes an alternate view of what we are doing to ourselves, to each other, to our planet, to our grandchildren’s future. Wry and with humour, Vonnegut holds out a degree of hope. Not a lot. Vonnegut’s epitaph (for planet Earth): “The good Earth – we could have saved it, but we were too damn cheap and lazy.”

So it goes. (8 August 2009)

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Billingham, Mark.  In the dark.  London: Sphere, 2009..

This is not part of the Tom Thorne series, although Thorne does make a token entrance in one scene. Young Theo, to prove himself worthy of initiation into his gang, shoots at Sarah Ruston as she drives home; Ruston swerves onto the pavement at a bus-stop, running down and killing one of the people waiting there. The victim is a policeman, DS Paul Hopwood; his partner, DC Helen Weeks, is eight months pregnant.

Trying to gain more insight into her partner’s life, and death, Helen soon finds things are not quite what they appear. Meanwhile, gang members who had been in the car with Theo are themselves gunned down.

Billingham gives us a picture of gang life and mores, as well as a gripping work of detection. Things are not as they appear, and there are twists all the way. (5 August 2009)

Greene, Graham.  The end of the affair.  London: Penguin, 1951.

A sad story. Novelist Maurice Bendrix cannot understand why his love affair with his friend’s wife has broken down. They were faithful lovers until, during the Blitz, Bendrix is nearly killed when his house is hit – and Sarah ends the affair.

Two years later, the friend he has betrayed persuades Bendrix to discover whether his wife is straying, and Bendrix discovers the truth about the end of his affair and in so doing, discovers new truths about himself and of the depth and intensity of love. A nice twist, a sad end. (16 June 2009)

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Waites, Martyn.  The mercy seat.  London: Simon & Schuster, 2006.

A full-blast journalist-detective-procedural novel, lots of twists, turns and horror thrown in. It is labelled “a Joe Donovan” thriller, with plenty of room for more of the same, as ex-journalist Donovan teams with former colleagues, a private investigation company and even the police to nail a child prostitution ring, a drugs dealer, and industrial espionage on the grand scale. A good read, but it’s amazing anyone survived to tell the tale, let alone get well enough to feature in the presumed second novel in the series. (24 May 2009)

Stone, Nick.  Mr. Clarinet.  London: Penguin, 2006.

Private Investigator, ex-cop, convicted murderer Max Mingus is hired to investigate the disappearance and probable kidnapping of Charlie Carver, grandson of one of the richest and most powerful men in Haiti. It is a dangerous trail he follows, with the equally powerful Vincent Paul, avowed enemy of the Carver clan, looming ominously at every turn.

The novel is well-researched, a deep look at life, religion and superstition in Haiti. There is black magic and voudou here, but it never interferes with the credible, as Mingus inches his way closer and closer to an amazing denouement. Exciting and hard, recommended. (9 May 2009)

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Pratchett, Terry.  The wee free men.  London: Corgi, 2004.

The wee free men are back. Tiffany’s young brother has disappeared. Tiffany has yearnings to become a witch. Tiffany has a lot of common sense. And in her search for her lost brother, she encounters a heap of bad magic which can only be overcome with the help of the Nac Mac Feegle (wee free men, independent fighting spirits all) and her common sense. It makes for a wonderful spin through the witch-y part of Discworld. Even more delightful is that I caught early on clues to the Richard Dadd painting which inspired much of the story (well, mid-story). Not that you need to know the painting to appreciate Pratchett’s clever turn of phrase and his grasp of the absurd. (30 April 2009)

Drew, Alan.  Gardens of water.  New York: Random House, 2008.

The story starts in a town near Istanbul in August 1999. It is the story of Sinan Basioglu and his family, who lose everything but their lives in the great earthquake. Ismail, the son, survives, thanks to an American woman who keeps him alive when they are buried together ijn the rubble. It creates ties with the American family, but is a debt of honor because the woman dies. Irem, Sinan’s daughter, is attracted to Dylan, the American’s son, and the stage is set for a grand tragedy.

The story is made more vital (for me) in that I arrived in Istanbul just four days after the earthquake; the author arrived just four days before the earthquake. It is very close, very real. The ending may be a little contrived, but it is a right ending. (22 April 2009)

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Crutcher, Chris.  Deadline.  New York: Greenwillow, 2007.

Seventeen-year-old Ben Wolf is told he has an incurable disease and at most just one year to live.

Ben wants to keep his illness secret; he does not want any pity, he does not want to be molly-coddled, and he refuses the treatment which might debilitate him yet give him, at best , just a few more months. He wants to live as best he can, be a football hero, catch the girl of his dreams, and kick ass. It’s a year of truths for Ben, and he learns he is not the only one in town with secrets. He learns how to live, and to die.

Crutcher has been building towards this, and it is explosive. Not as intense as Stotan! perhaps, but a riot of a read. (2 November 2008)

Pratchett, Terry, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen.  The science of DiscworldIII: Darwin’s watch.  London: Ebury Press, 2006.

This is a mix of straight science and Discworld. Pratchett posits an alternative history of Roundworld, one in which Charles Darwin writes The theology of species to affirm intelligent design; this is where future history will have gone awry, and Roundworld will have been doomed. It is for the wizards of Unseen University, who after all are responsible for Roundworld in the first place, to restore order, and have Darwin write Origin of species, refuting divine design and suggesting instead a theory of the evolution of species.

Interspersed with the chapters of the Discworld novella, Stewart and Cohen interpret Pratchett’s story (or perhaps Pratchett’s story puts a human face to Stewart and Cohen’s commentary) in discussions of evolutionary theory, general and special relativity, the math and the physics of infinity, the nature of change and the notion of railroading time, and much else besides. They discuss alternative histories and alternative worlds and the trousers of time, including many of the paradoxes of time travel (if a traveller to the past accidentally kills that butterfly, will the future have been different? if Abraham Lincoln had survived assassination, would the future have been the same? if there is an infinity of alternative possibilities, all coexisting, is it possible to use a wormhole to travel, deliberately or inadvertently, to an alternative world? İndeed, how big is infinity, and how to calculate the value of infinity plus one?)

Much of the science is beyond me, despite the simplifications and Pratchett’s analogies through story. Nevertheless, this is a rivetting read, both the scientific discussion and the Discworld story behind the theory. As well as discussions of infinity and time travel, I especially enjoyed the notion of steam engine time, a concept that Robert Heinlein made much of. Widespread adoption of steam engines does not happen until its steam engine time: a lot of factors have to come together to make practical exploitation viable, acceptable, commercially worthwhile. The science (of steam engines) has been known since at least ancient Greek times, but it was not until social, economic, political, religious and many other factors came together at the right time to make for the huge changes attributed to Watt and Boulton. Britain at the time of the Industrial Revolution was a special kind of melting pot, they suggest. It made possible the boom in steam engines, and it made possible Darwin’s theories. Watt and Darwin were not just original thinkers; they were original thinkers, moulded by their societies, and there at the right time. Boom. I must re-read James Burke’s Connections, which has many more examples of the right conditions at the right time.

And I must re-read this. Great stuff! (21 October 2008)

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Niffenegger, Audrey.  The time-traveler’s wife.  London: Vintage Books, 2005.

The “rules” of time travel include such notions as the traveler cannot interact with himself/ herself, cannot change the future, and cannot change the past. There are exceptions (which the author must explain; these often lead to new histories, or suggest an infinity of parallel universes, or the wrinkes must iron themselves out and become inconsequential) but these are few. The paradoxes are many, and the mind is all too easily boggled.

This novel breaks all the rules! Henry meets and remeets himself as he travels through his life, and he lets slip details of the future, though he can never change the past, only look on. Clare ages in real time, while Henry flits in and out of her life. He lives in the present, but his future self knows what has happened in the meantime, while his younger self has yet to live the events. Which all goes to make for a beautiful love story, full of the paradoxes of time travel, and very cleverly written. (28 September 2008)

Willis, Connie.  Doomsday Book.  New York: Bantam, 1994.

In this time-travel novel, Kivrin is sent back to the Middle Ages to study what English village life was like, before the Black Death swept through Europe, killing millons. Her trip is rushed before she and the team are really ready; not only does she find that she is not yet totally immune to all disease, but her translator does not work – and Middle English is totally different to mid-21st century English! Kivrin is taken in care by a family and begins to fit in, begins to learn the language and their way of life. Her main problem is that she is unsure where she “landed”, and so unsure about the rendezvous point for getting back to her own time.

Back in the future, just as doubt is raised about where and when Kivrin had been sent back to, the team is hit by a virus which soon spreads; Oxford is placed under quarantine, and people start dieing. Did the plague get through the net when Kivrin was sent back? Will they be able to meet up with Kivrin at the right time and place?

All seems set for disaster. This is a fast-paced novel, an exciting read and a pleasing resolution, even if many of our favourite characters die along the way. Many of the characters are somewhat stereotyped, but the pace of the story papers over the joins. Very enjoyable. (9 September 2008)

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Livaneli, O.Z.  Bliss.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002.

Meryem is raped (by her uncle), and is locked away for disgracing her family. But as she refuses to take her own life, she is put into the care of her cousin, Cemal. Cemal, recently discharged from the Turkish army on completion of his national service, is given the task of taking her to Istanbul – and killing her. Meanwhile, Professor İrfan tires of his life-style and seeks a simpler life, sailing in the Aegean. Their paths cross.

To say more might be to give away too much. Enough to say that this is a startling glimpse into many of the problems and taboos of modern Turkey, very readable. (27 August 2008)

Pratchett, Terry.  Making money.  London: Corgi, 2007.

One-time con-man and Postmaster General Moist von Lipwig is “persuaded” to become Master of the Royal Mint – and turning its losses into profit. He is also responsible for the continuing good health of the Chairman of the Bank, who happens to be a dog. Meanwhile, the Lavish family is determined to oust him, his criminal past is about to be made public, his girl-friend’s recovery of a cache of golems may lead to world war ... it’s all good clean fun. Slicker than ever, and very, very funny. (16 August 2008)

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Billingham, Mark.  Sleepy Head.  London: Little Brown, 2001.
... Scaredycat. London: Little Brown, 2002. ... Lazybones. London: Little Brown, 2003.

These are the first novels in the Tom Thorne series, a hard-hitting police procedural. Lots of swearing, lots of violence. The killers are clever, the plots are intricate, and there is usually a thread in which we look inside the mind of the killer. Billingham is new to me, but I enjoyed the first enough to buy several more and go on a Tom Thorne reading jag. (July & August 2008).

Thompson, Damian.  Counter-knowledge: how we surrendered to conspiracy theories, quack medecine, bogus science and fake history.  London: Atlantic Books, 2008.

Thompson believes that we are too easily taken in by quacks and charlatans, acting on what we would like to believe true and disregarding evidence. Counter-knowledge is often boosted by entrepreneurs and big business. His particular bug-bears include creationism, pseudo-history, and alternative medicine, any and all of which can be literally dangerous when carried to extreme. He cites a report which claimed that some teachers were dropping the Holocaust from their history lessons, for fear of the reaction of (Muslim) Holocaust deniers; he discusses the Gavin Menzies’ best-selling book 1421: the year China discovered the world, and claims that despite the subsequent discrediting of Menzies’ theories, the book remains hyped and over-promoted in the stores; he discusses Gillian McKeith’s best-seller You Are What You Eat; he discusses the widely-distributed film Loose Change, which claimed an alternative version of 9/11. And much more.

For those (me too) who believe in “satisfiction”. (4 August, 2008)

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Bertagna, Julie.  Zenith.  London: Young Picador, 2007.

A follow-up to Exodus. Mara leads the escape, but is still in contact with Fox. More adventures, and very readable. (26 June 2008)

Reed, John.  Snowball’s chance.  New York: Roof Books, 2002.

Animal Farm moves on, evolving into an intensively capitalist state, throwing open its borders to animals of all kinds (very much a bone of contention). The exiled Snowball returns to lead it to wealth and empire. The rich get richer and ever more powerful, the poor are fobbed off with luxuries which appear to make their lives easier – and in some cases really do. It is not a perfect society, of course. Some suffer, of course, and some, feel exclusion and resentment. And above the farm is built the symbols of their success and power, the Twin Mills. Until one day ...

I do not recognise all the allusions of this micro-history of the United States, but much stands clear. An absorbing read. (21 June 2008)

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Frost, Mark.  The match: the day the game of golf changed forever.  New York: Hyperion, 2007.

Frost is at it again, writing the story of one important match, while weaving a history of golf and its players and its fascination. The match described here was the basis of a private bet between Eddie Lowery (who as a ten-year-old had caddied Francis Ouimet in his thrilling Open Championship) and George Coleman. Lowery claimed that two amateur golfers working for his car sales empire could beat any two men nominated by Coleman in a four-ball better ball match. Lowery’s two nominations were the rising amateur stars Ken Venturi and Harvie Ward, Coleman’s two were Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson, two of golf’s giants.

As well as a really exciting match, we get the biographies of these men, an inside look at their personalities and at what made them tick. The match started out as private, but by the 18th of a close and hard-fought competition, there were thousands watching the close of what was probably the last great match featuring amateurs in golf history. From this time, the difference between amateur standards and professional grew ever greater, and amateurs who showed that they could keep up with the pros soon became professional themselves.

It was a match of its time, recreated here in never-failing fascination and detail. (19 June 2008)

Cushman, Karen.  The loud silence of Francine Green.  New York: Clarion Books, 2006.

Francine’s Catholic school does not tolerate students who think too much or who ask awkward questions, and Francine certainly tries not to make herself noticed. All the more surprising then when she befriends Sophie, new to the school, and very unafraid to be noticed. Sophie’s father values questions and thoughts and opinions, and they live next door to a movie scriptwriter who is finding it more and more difficult to find work. For this is Hollywood, and McCarthy is just geting started, building on a climate of alarm and fear and isolationism, the early years of the Cold War.

Cushman offers shades of grey to get us thinking, and to get Francine thinking too. Very much needed. (14 June 2008)

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Bertagna, Julie.  Exodus.  London: Young Picador, 2003.

Nearly a century on, and the melting icecaps have changed the maps. Much of Britain is underwater; new cities have been built above the waves while isolated communities (isolated because they are now cut off from the mainland, and isolated because the new cities have rejected them) are ever forced to retreat as the waters rise ever higher. It is a new age of haves and have-nots, with refugees forced to live in shanty-boat-towns which are occasionally attacked by new citizens needing new slave labour.

Mara Bell is a refugee who reaches New Mungo and, because of her intelligence and leadership qualities, is believed to be the Stone-Teller returned to save her people. Mixing myth and current environmental issues with a strong dose of imagination, Bertagna creates a gripping vision of a future not too far distant and all too believable. The story is continued in Zenith, and I hope soon to read it. (30 May 2008)

Morpurgo, Michael.  Singing for Mrs Pettigrew: a story-maker’s journey; illustrated by Peter Bailey.  London: Walker Books, 2007.

Here are eleven of Morpurgo’s short stories, interspersed with details of the author’s life, what made him a writer, how he writes, details which add to the stories and their meaning for the writer as well as for the reader. Morpurgo is a master at pulling on the heart-strings, almost every one of these will bring a tear to the eye and maybe more. Here also is great understanding and compassion, a love for the country and for the people with whom Morpurgo grew up and lived with, loved and knew.

I have heard Morpurgo read, and there was not a dry eye in the house, including his own. Yet the sentimentality is never overdone, it is finely measured. Good for adults and good for younger readers too. (23 May 2008)

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Mankell, Henning.  Chronicler of the winds, translated from the Swedish by Tiina Nunnally.  New York: The New Press, 2006.

Here is a beautiful story, that of Nelio, ten-year-old street child, dying of bullet wounds, and his voice, José Antonio Maria. Nelio’s voice, and the voice of a lost generation, a lost, bewildered country. The story is set in Eastern Africa, probably Mocambique; the white colonial power has been thrown out and a new, black anarchy come in. Corruption and banditry abound.

We hear the narrator’s tale, but it is the story of Nelio and his gang of street children that he tells, and tells movingly, with great compassion and fearless lack of sentimentality. We hear how Nelio’s life turned upside down when his village was attacked by bandits, how the bandit leader killed his baby sister when his mother would not, how her example helped him avoid shooting his own cousin. Much brutality here, and none of it made up. Nelio escaped, came to the city, where he became part of a gang of street children, beggars, thieves, philosophers and disturbed human beings. No holds are barred. This is a disturing book, beautifully written, beautifully translated, at times sheer poetry. (21 May 2008)

Mortimer, John.  Rumpole and the reign of terror.  New York: Viking, 2006.

Sometimes it seems that, to defend liberty and the rights of man, we must all forego our normal liberty, and human rights can be trampled on willy- nilly. Governments, defending themselves (and their countries) from terror, resort to terror tactics. Rumpole finds himself representing a man imprisoned in Belmarsh. His defence is somewhat hampered by the fact that no charges have been brought, no evidence offered. The prisoner protests his innocence, the security services insist on his guilt, and Rumpole is himself seen as a traitor for daring to protest the man’s incarceration on these terms.

And meanwhile, Hilda has started writing her memoirs behind Rumpole’s back. Dangerous ground indeed! It is a serious novel, told with compassion and wit. (12 May 2008)

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Thomas, Leslie.  Other times.  London: Arrow, 2000.

This may not be the best of Thomas’s tales of England in the Second World War, in that there is no real story running through it. Instead, we get a series of sketches of life in the days of the phony war, paralleled with tales from the First World War, and here is the book’s strength. We find similarities and differences, told with perfect pitch and humour, love and bravery and humanity. Very worth reading. (24 April 2008)

Bryson, Bill.  Shakespeare: the world as a stage.  London: Harper Perennial, 2008.

Remarkably little is of Shakespeare’s life is documented, much of what we know of his life and his writings and performances is the result of conjecture and detective work. In this biography, Bryson shows just where much what we know comes from – and how little there is. He tells the tale with typical Bryson humour, building a new understanding of Shakespeare, his life, his work, and his times. (16 April 2008)

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Breslin, Theresa.  The Nostradamus prophecy.  London: Doubleday, 2008.

Having given us a new look at the life and work of Leonardo da Vinci, Breslin turns her attention to Nostradamus, the French prophet whose dark vision is said to have foretold events through to the present day. This is an amazing work, bringing to life the years of religious turmoil in late sixteenth century France. Told around Melisande, forced to flee her life on the fringes of the royal court and seek refuge in Nostradamus’s household, we are involved ina story of love and suspicion and intrigue, lust and desire and nobility – all the qualities of a cracking good story! (30 March 2008)

Ishiguro, Kazuo.  Never let me go.  London: Faber and Faber, 2005.

Kathy gently tells her story, her childhood, her days at boarding school, the intimtions that she is different (Kathy and her classmates), that they are being prepared... This is an alternative England, an alternative future (though perhaps it is our England after all); there is an air of secrecy, a sense of things left unsaid, a lack of detail which makes it all too possible that this is our England. Hints are left, Kathy is a carer and then she’ll be a donor, and the chilling truth comes clear, this is what she was born to.

This is a story of growing-up, of pain and of love and loss and of resignation and of triumph. (16 March 2008)

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Verne, Jules.  The meteor hunt: the first English translation of Verne’s original manuascript (La Chasse au météore), translated and edited by Frederick Paul Walter and Walter James Miller. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006.

It seems that Jules Verne was done a great disservice by his son, Michel, and by his publishers: while it has long been known that Michel Verne had edited many of his father’s writings, the extent of his editing, rewriting, changing of characters and wholesale changes of story-line did not become clear until the late 1970s when many of Verne’s original manuscripts were discovered for the first time. It is clear that many of Jules Verne’s works are really not his at all, and many of the faults and shortcomings noted by critics were in fact introduced by his son.

This novel, then, is a translation of the original The meteor hunt as written by Jules, as against The chase of the golden meteor, Michel’s pastiche. And a fine novel it is. It is a rollicking, fast-moving comedy, which opens (almost) with the simultaneous discovery of a metero orbitting the earth and the rivalry this inspires between the two discoverers, hitherto good friends. The first half of the story centers on Whaston, Virgina, but widens as it becomes clear that (1) the meteor is falling and will eventually crash to earth, and (2) the meteor is made of gold. The world becomes interested. Who will own the meteor, larger than all the gold reserves known to man – and what effect will it have on world economies if there is a sudden gold glut? The novel gets wilder and the satire more biting.

This is up-to-date stuff, perhaps helped by a liberal sprinkling of colloquialism (“But the issue, like the shooting star, was still up in the air...” p.127). It’s nicely done, a fun piece of fluff. (13 February 2008)

Harris, Robert.  Imperium.  London: Hutchinson, 2006.

The years leading to the end of the Republic were not the proudest in Roman history. Greed, treachery, corruption and ambition were commonplace, and the golden rule held (“he who has the gold makes the rules”). The city and the lands it ruled seemed democratic, with strict procedures and annual elections, but votes could be bought, citizens could be terrorized, and strong honest men (and women) seemed to be thin on the ground.

Marcus Tullius Cicero was a strong, honest man. Ambitious too, for he had his eyes set on consulship as he made his way to fame (and fortune too) in the law courts. Told by his slave, Tiro, this novel is firmly grounded in the historical record. The story is one of political intrigue and legal shenanigans, and Harris makes this bleak period come to life. It is a story of the past – and it is very much a story of today. It’s big, and I raced through it in three evenings; say no more! (10 February 2008)

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Prasad, Chandra, ed.  Mixed: an anthology of short fiction on the multiracial experience..  New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006.

The definitions of multicultural literature are many; stories may portray people of different races, cultures and / or creeds, mixed within the same book, they may portray people of races, cultures and / or creeds other than the reader’s own; they may feature people of just one race, culture or creed other than the reader’s own. The term “culture” is particularly open to debate, and some critics suggest that books about subcultures within one’s own culture will make a book multicultural. Throw into the quandary of definition the debate between authors, one group proclaiming that one should write only within one’s own experience and that it is not genuine (for instance) for a white writer to write inside a black man’s shoes, as opposed to the camp which proclaims that literature is work of the imagination, so it is perfectly legitimate for writers to imagine themselves inside other people’s shoes, otherwise one is always writing of oneself.

And then comes this book, crashing into the debate: the authors here are not just multicultural, they are multiracial, and they write of the multiracial experience, what it is like to be considered black when in England or New England, but white when in Nigeria or New Delhi. Many of the stories are disturbing, most really are eye-opening, delving into very personal levels. Some of the writers have come to terms with their mixed persona, mixed identities, some still fight to find out who they are and where they fit. Especially effective is the last story in the book, the same story repeated using different characters, the differences very small but very telling. In a footnote to the story, “Triad”, author Danzy Senna addresses the experience debate outlined above: “Stay true to your race, stay true to your experience, write what you know runs the mantra. But why would any writer choose to contract when she could expand instead?” (6 February 2008)

Horowitz, Anthony. More Horowitz horror: more stories you’ll wish you’d never read. New York: Philomel, 2006.

Horowitz has a wicked sense of humor; when combined with the short story format, he produces twists in tails which remind me of Roald Dahl’s Kiss kiss. From “The hitchhiker”, with a new twist on a familiar situation, through to “Howard’s end” and a new view of what happens when the narrator arrives at the Pearly Gates, there are delightful twists and squirls – squirms? – all the way. As I write these notes, “Flight 715” has become all too real, with two similar incidents in the last few weeks. Yes! (17 January 2008)

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Chevalier, Tracy. Burning bright. New York: Dutton, 2007.

The Kellaways come from Dorset to London, looking for a change of fortune. Jem and sister Maisie are befriended by urchin Maggie, and father finds favor with circus master extraordinaire Philip Astley. Across the Channel, the French Revolution is in full swing, and war will soon break out. And William Blake, poet, engraver, free-thinker, touches their lives.

This is an episode in Blake’s life, told as a back-drop to the adventures and misadventures of the three children as they move from innocence to experience and back again. The feel of Georgian London and the times is there, Chevalier’s research very evident but never intrusive nor artificial. This must class as a crossover novel, to be enjoyed by changing teens as well as by adults. Recommended. (5 January 2008)

Funke, Cornelia. The thief lord. Frome (UK): Chicken House, 2005.

Prosper and Bo are on the run. Newly orphaned, they have run from Hamburg to Venice to escape the clutches of Aunt Esther, who wants to adopt Bo, but not his older brother. While Esther hires a private detective to track them down, they are befriended by a gang of street urchins who live in a disused cinema. The gang survives thanks to the cunning of their leader, the Thief Lord.

But the Thief Lord may have met his match, for he is commissioned to steal something which can be used to play with time itself, and things start going wrong.

The story moves at a rolicking pace, and so do the characters. Funny and thoughtful and full of delightful detail, this is a popular novel, and deservedly so. (1 January 2008)

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Charney, Noah.  The art thief.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 2007.

Three paintings are stolen: a Caravaggio altarpiece disappears from a church in Italy, and two works by the Suprematist painter Kasimir Malevich are stolen in Paris and in London. Malevich is famous for his minimalist series, White on White, while Caravaggio’s works are of course well known for their religious and anti-religious symbolism. Three investigations start but it soon becomes clear that they are linked. The trails blaze with clues, and it is soon clear that not all is as it seems. But who are the double-crossers, and who is being double-crossed? The novel needs careful reading, but it is worth it. (29 December 2007)

Forsyth, Frederick.  The Afghan.  London: Corgi, 2007.

Typical Forsyth: the training and the sting. Chasing the perpetrators of the July 7 atrocities, the intelligence agencies gain inkling of plans for an even bigger terrorist operation. A retired British special agent with an Afghan background undergoes training so that he can infiltrate the terroriest group.

Carefully told and well-paced, this account strikes as all too possible. (30 November 2007)

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Albom, Mitch.  Tuesdays with Morrie: an old man, a young man, and life’s greatest lesson..   New York: Doubleday, 1997.

In this hugely sentimental memoire, Albom relates the last few months in the life of Morrie Schwartz. Morrie had been Albom’s mentor at college. When Albom graduated, he said he would stay in touch with his tutor, but it was twenty years before they met again. By that time, Morrie was dying, smitten with amyotrophic lateral scelerosis (Lou Gehrig’s Disease).

Morrie was determined to die with dignity, difficult to do as he wasted away. His mind stayed to the last, and for several months Albom flew from Chicago to Boston every Tuesday to be with his master, and to record his words and his thoughts. We are given some wonderful aphorisms (“Death ends a life, not a relationship”) and reminded that we are but small parts of the universe. This is a healing book, full of love and compassion and a tear or two. (23 October 2007)

Gopnik, Alison, Andrew N. Meltzoff, and Patricia K. Kuhl. The scientist in the crib: what early learning tells us about the mind.  New York: Harper Perennial, 2001.

In this account of cognitive science, the authors present evidence for their theories of how babies learn, why they do what they do, and why adults do what they do as well. They believe that learning begins a lot earlier than is suggested in traditional theories of early childhood development. They suggest that, right from birth, babies learn about themselves and about other people. They play, and they try to find out what works, and try to work out why, and they test their theories. At ages much earlier than previously thought, they are aware that other people, children and adult, are different, that they have different likes and dislikes. Babies act and react and they learn, from themselves and from others.

And this, though in ways much less structured than their adult counterparts, is exactly what scientists do. What is more, babies are programmed to be inquisitive. They imitate (and adults love it), as they work out what works and what doesn’t.

How do we know what is in the minds of babies? They are too young to report on what they are doing and why they are doing it. Studies of young children often work on interest/ boredom factors. Babies spend more time doing things they enjoy, and react to change. So in some experiments, eye movements are recorded: when babies have a choice of what they look at, they will look longer at things they enjoy or interest them than at things which do not. In other experiments, babies are given a choice of dummies which cause different things to happen according to which is sucked on; the baby is presumably more interested in the sound or image produced by the dummy which is sucked the most. Babies are quickly bored, but will become interested when a stimulus changes, when a happy face becomes sad (or a sad face becomes happy), or when a sound changes.

This last notion is, for me, the base of one of the most interesting notions to come out of this book. Until age six months or so, babies can recognize and respond to differences between the sounds of language. At some time between six months and ten to twelve months, a baby will develop a marked preference for the sounds of the language/s the baby hears most, and the ability to distinguish sounds used in other languages may be lost.

At the same time, adults seem to be programmed to help babies learn. We smile at babies and they get to know people and expressions and reactions, we play peek-a-boo with them and they learn cause and effect and what works and what does not, we talk cuchy-coo talk we would never talk with another adult, and we make sounds slowly and clearly, and we repeat the sounds, and it all helps children’s language development.

This is a very readable account, made all the more lively by the accounts the authors bring in of their own children as well as babies in general. We can see ourselves in their accounts of children’s behavior and in their account of adults’ behavior too. It is very well done. I would recommend it to anyone who has had a child, and to anyone who has been a child. (10 October 2007)

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Faulks, Sebastian.  Engleby.  London: Hutchinson, 2007.

When the novel opens in the 1970s, Mike Engleby is a second year university student. When it closes, it is 2005. Engleby, narrator, traces his life over thirty plus years, adding memories of childhood and especially of his years at boarding school, fundamental in shaping the man he was to become. Engleby is at first a likeable enough hero, though self-centred, lacking in empathy. He has blind-spots which become more and more disturbing as we realise how much of the story he is leaving out. It is cleverly done. Not Faulks best, perhaps, but an easy-paced very readable psychological thriller nonetheless. (25 September 2007)

Fine, Anne.  The road of bones.  London: Doubleday, 2006.

The Czar is gone, the revolution has come, but it’s not yet won. Enemies of the state still threaten the Glorious Revolution, everyone must stay alert, ready to denounce their neighbor, or even their family. It’s a state of terror, and anyone can be sent off to the labor camp for letting slip the wrong word, or not saying the right word, or on the word of an informer, or just for being.

Yuri’s mouth tends to get him in trouble; several times he is on the run until, too slow, he is sent north to a labor camp. It’s a slow road to death, but again he manages to escape, this time much harder, more careful, aware that the state is his enemy, and determined to put things right. Only, as let slip in the closing pages, come the revolution he will be as ruthless as those he condemns. It’s a chilling thought but very true to life, to historical precedent.

And while it all sounds like Russia under Lenin and Stalin, could it also happen in a land of ASBOs and CCTV? (12 September 2007)

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Peet, Mal.  Tamar.  London: Walker Books, 2006.

Tamar was named after her grandfather, who was one of a team parachuted into occupied Holland towards the end of the war. When he commits suicide, Tamar is left a box containing clues to his story, and she begins trying to solve the puzzles. Simultaneously with Tamar’s story in modern times, we read of Tamar’s time in the Dutch Resistance, the messages radioed back to London, the ever-present fear of discovery, the increasing fear of Nazi reprisals. Against this backdrop, there is love and jealousy: Tamar and his fellow-spy both love the same woman. It makes for an intense story, building to a shock climax, all revealed as the present-day Tamar discovers the secrets of her grandfather’s box. Excellent. (8 September 2007)

Grisham, John.  The innocent man: murder and injustice in a small town.  London: Century, 2006.

Grisham turns his attention to a real case of murder, and the imprisonment of an innocent man. The police and the attorney never quite found any solid evidence other than the testimony of jailhouse snitches, they forced a confession from a broken man, and never looked back. Ron Williamson spent eleven years on Death Row, until the final appeal when he was finally proven innocent. Williamson was not the only victim of this police-legal team, as Grisham makes clear: never mind the evidence, we’ve got the man. Chilling. (1 September 2007)

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Rossoff, Meg.  How I live now.  New York: Wendy Lamb Books, 2004.

After the heaviness of the last few reads, something lighter. Daisy, a New York teenager, is sent to stay with her cousins on a farm in England. She soon finds they are no ordinary family, in many different ways. Soon she also falls in love with Edmond – and war breaks out. England is occupied (we are never told who the enemy is) and life changes abruptly.

There are holes galore in the story line, but this may be because narrator Daisy is not all-knowing. The story moves at a ripping pace, with huge sentences leaving one gasping in the exciting moments. Neat. (14 August 2007)

Hosseini, Khaled.  A thousand splendid suns.  London: Bloomsbury, 2007.

This is the story of Mariam, barely recognised by her family, sent to Kabul to marry Rasheed, a man thirty years older than she is. Such freedom as she had when growing up is lost in her new life. Her husband has tragedies of his own, and is a bitter man, cruel, and life is hard in a hard country, constantly at war with other countries, constantly at war within itself. It is also the story of Laila, whose childhood was happier than Mariam's, yet also with unhappiness and tragedies. New tragedy brings the two women together, and they become close as the wars make ever more victims.

To say more might give too much away, and this is a story worth discovering for oneself. It gives personality to the headlines, puts faces (fictional as they are) to the problems and the tragedies and the raw brutality of Afghanistan, and especially of the position and role of women in this sadly torn country. It is a story of family and friendship, love and survival. (11 August 2007)

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Zusak, Marcus.  The book thief.  London: Doubeday, 2007.

The cover promises "an incredible novel", and we are not disappointed. The story starts with 9-year old Liesel Meminger being left with foster parents in a village near Munich, and ends nearly five years later as Hitler's Germany and Lisa's world fall apart. Lisa's new mother is a harridan with a heart, while her new father has enough humanity to make you weep. Not that the sentimentality is cloying, for the novel is narrated by DEATH (though unlike Terry Pratchett's Grim Reaper, this one prefers a lower-case appellation), and we know what is coming. What comes through more is the irony of life (and of death), with much understated humour, much love – and, indeed, humanity all round, even in the darkest moments. Zusak's use of language is a joy in itself, totally appropriate in the context of the novel. Although the story is centred on Liesel, making death the narrator is a useful device: it allows the storyteller to be all-knowing, to bring in details and story elements that Liesel would not know about but which all tie together and add coherence and credibility to the story.

Is this a teen novel or an adult novel? It is probably a crossover novel, to be enjoyed whatever one's age, possibly even by pre-teens. Enjoyed? Can one enjoy a novel as black as this? Definitely. Despite its length, it is an immensely enjoyable novel, one to be celebrated, one of those must-tell-everyone reads, definitely five-star, definitely incredible, surely destined to be recognised as a major piece of 21st century literature. This is a MUST-READ. (8 August 2007)

Hill, Reginald.  The death of Dalziel.  London: HarperCollins, 2007.

Constable Hector, probably the most inept policeman in all of Yorkshire, if not all of England, if not all of fiction, appears to stumble upon a bomb-factory. Dalziel and Pascoe investigate further, and Dalziel is terribly injured when the bomb goes off. He spends most of the novel in hospital, drifting in and out of coma, while Pascoe tries to chase down the terrorists. He stumbles into dark places, treading on the toes of the security services, discovering secret groups in high places with their own secret agendas. Coincidences and abound, bringing the unconscious Dalziel back into the story, while Hector proves to have hidden depths.

This stretches the bounds of credibility but never quite oversteps them, making for a romp of a read and satisfaction with the outcome. (15 July 2007)

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Haddon, Mark.  A spot of bother.  London: Vintage Books, 2007.

This is very different to The curious incident... Everyone in the family has problems. George is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and discovers a lesion on his hip, which he thinks is cancer. Daughter Katie is about to be married, though her family is not keen on Ray, and she is unsure whether she really loves him either. George and wife Jean are worried, for different reasons, that son Jamie will come to the wedding with Tony, his lover, and the invitation causes Jamie problems as well. Meanwhile, Jean is having an affair with someone George used to work with.

It is a complicated tangle of relationships, real spaghetti. With humour and compassion, Haddon sets them up for a fall, and fall they do, to a low from which all lives seem ruined. And then he brings them up again to a happy and fit ending. Humour? It is great fun all the way, a romp of a read. (10 July 2007)

Zusak, Markus.  I am the messenger.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.

When 19-year old Ed Kennedy manages, accidentally, to catch a bank-robber, he becomes an instant hero and his life changes. Not just his own life: he begins receiving mysterious messages which impel him to help other people change too. Some are bad guys and undeserving, some are good people who do not deserve their fate, all are in trouble. This reluctant hero often gets hurt for his efforts, but he always finds the right thing to do.

There is much humor here, and the story just about manages to stay on the right side if fantasy. The problem is, those mysterious messages: who is sending them, and why, and why Ed Kennedy? When the truth is revealed in the final pages, it all comes together, very neat. A fun-filled read for young adults. (3 July 2007)

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Bisson, Terry.  Greetings, and other stories.  San Francisco: Tachyon, 2005.

Ten short stories, all sci-fi and futuristic. Many deal, they may all deal in one way or other, with death “Death’s door” is a new take on the concept of DEATH taking a holiday, while “The old rugged cross” looks at a Death Row prisoner who finds religion and chooses his method of execution, a grisly way to go. “Greetings” imagines a world where the over-70s may be drafted to take part in a Kevorkian experience, whether they want to or not, while “Dear Abbey” takes us to the end of time, the end of the universe. I particularly enjoyed “Almost home,” a journey to an alternative universe where things are almost the same as ours, but not quite; some interesting, thoughtful paradoxes here. Futuristic in so many ways, but they are all firmly grounded in the present. (31 May 2007)

Kadare, Ismail..  The palace of dreams.  New York; Arcade, 1998.

This must be the ultimate in police-state persecution scenarios, for it is not the thought-police who have absolute control, it is the dream police. Mark-Alem is recruited to work in the palace of dreams, a huge ministry, a huge building, a huge labour force, whose task is to sift through, classify and analyse every dream by every person in the empire. Most dreams are meaningless, but a few reveal treasonous thoughts and plots against the state, and these need to be invesigated so that the plots might be foiled.

Mark-Alem rises through the ranks, quickly promoted to ever more important tasks, and we see the ever more intricateness of the sultan's megalomania and fear. The setting is the Balkans in Ottoman times, but it could be anywhere, anytime, hell on earth. (21 May 2007)

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Boyd, William.  Restless.  London: Bloomsbury, 2006.

This is a spy story, neatly told. The main narrator, Ruth Gilmartin, is a single-mother. During the long, hot English summer of 1976, her mother, Sally, starts giving her chapters from her autobiography. It seems that she is not the very-English person that Ruth had grown up with, but a Russian emigre who, just before the Second World War, was recruited in France and trained to become a British spy. The chapters alternate between Ruth's life and her mother's story.

We follow Sally / Eva as she is trained to serve in a disinformation department, which aims to mislead and deceive Germany and its allies as to the allied war effort. She is almost captured in a mission which goes very wrong, and then sent to the US to continue disinformation activities, in an attempt to persuade isolationist America to enter the war. Meanwhile, Ruth is embroiled in her own life as well as coming to terms with her mother's story and her belief that somebody out of her past now wants to kill her. The story climaxes with the realisation that somebody in the disinformation department is a double-agent, working for the enemy - and that person has resurfaced. Danger or revenge? Well-told, by a master. (18 May 2007)

Lovelock, James.  The revenge of Gaia: why the Earth is fighting back - and how we can still save humanity.  London: Allen Lane, 2006.

A short guide to climate change, by the man who gave us the Gaia concept. Gaia is a whole spectrum of interrelated forces which govern life on earth, including organic life, rocks, life, ocean and atmosphere. The theory is that Gaia is a self-regulating system which attempts to make for the best favourable conditions for life in all its aspects. The present problem is that man's activities have been interfering in this self-regulating system: our population is burgeoning exponentially and we change natural land use to provide food and other resources to keep our population alive, growing, and developing. Our attempts to correct imbalances, says Lovelock, are doomed because we touch only single aspects at a time, and fail to see that changing single aspects may create further imbalances: we need to be looking at the whole, and it may already be too late.

It's a frightening scenario, one which is well documented and its predictions proving valid; it is a political nightmare and until the politicians accept responsibilities and consequences we are headed for extinction. Not earth, not Gaia, but man, and thousands and millions of life forms in our wake until Gaia finds equilibrium once more. (4 May 2007)

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Wyss, Thelma Hatch.  Bear dancer: the story of a Ute girl.  New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2005.

Here is the story of Elk Girl, also known as Ute Susan, captured by the Cheyenne, sold in slavery to an Arapho leader, rescued by the US cavalry and eventually returned to her own people. She is brave, she is resourceful, and she sees the downfall of her people; the white man will win, one way or another, and the Indians can only lose. They may be killed in open warfare, they may be killed by smallpox laden blankets, given as gifts, they may be killed as their hunting grounds dwindle and the animals die away. Whatever, their lives are changed in this time of change. An easy read, and a necessary one. (30 April 2007)

Fine, Cordelia.  A mind of its own: how your brain distorts and deceives.  Cambridge: Icon Books, 2006.

After the heaviness of my last read, a book which suggests that too often we delude ourselves. Often light-hearted and with a look at her own and her family's foibles but always backed up by real research, Fine shows us how the brain so often deceives itself, and us. Things are not always what they seem. Selective memory, the way questions are phrased, our occasional refusal to have our minds changed despite all the evidence, the labels we make and the short-cuts we take, it's all here. Most of all, once we decide on an opinion, we proceed to find the facts to support the opinion, cognitive disonance. Know ourselves, and we may just know ourselves. (20 April 2007)

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Poole, Steven.  Unspeak.  London: Little, Brown, 2006.

Poole's thesis, in this frightening look at language and spin, is that language is often used to in ways which make it difficult if not impossible to raise objections. Unspeak is the opposite of double-speak, which is saying what it isn't (eg. A Ministry of Peace responsible for making war, or the one-party Democratic Republics of the Cold War). Unspeak says what it is, making it difficult to object and while hiding the true meaning. It is the language of persuasion, persuading us to accept the politically and morally unacceptable, and to give away our rights and freedoms.

The terms we use say so much. Take, for instance, "Friends of the earth". Nicely chosen, in that anyone who objects to their views must surely be an "enemy of the earth". Take "pro-life", and you push those who support abortion into the "pro-death" camp - skilfully averted by the selection of the term "pro-choice" which in turn implies that objectors would do away with choice, expecially your choice. From basic definitions, Poole targets loose use of the term "community", and the growth of ASBOs (anti-social behaviour orders) in Britain, which make illegal actions which are not illegal, merely objectionable but which render perpetrators of even the slightest misdemeanour liable to hefty punishment. He looks hard at the loose use of the term "tragedy" (especially in relation to the gunning down of Jean Charles de Menezes, a sly gloss which seems to take responsibility from the police, possibly to polace it on Mr Menezes himself). He investigates the term "operation", and the loose use of "terror". Our very freedom is being eroded by those with interest in control, and we are controlled oh so skilfully. The fear of fear may be turning UK and US into police states...

It's not a book to enjoy, but it is a book to make us all the more aware, on our guard. The good guys aren't necessarily good, their interests are not necessarily ours. Reader beware! (14 April 2007)

Roth, Philip.  The plot against America.  New York: Vintage International, 2005.

Roth presents an alternative history, one in which President Roosevelt loses the 1940 presidential election to the isolationist Charles A: Lindbergh. It becomes clear that Lindbergh's mission is not just to keep the United States out of the wars which are devastating Europe and Asia, but also to isolate the Jewish population of America. Slowly at first and gently, they are marginalised, uprooted, dispersed. And then the pace gathers as the riots and the pogroms begin.

Roth uses many real figures in his drama, remaining true to their published and public statements. It's a frightening book, all too real, all too close to what indeed might have happened and could still happen. There is humor and compassion too, in this very readable story. (27 March 2007)

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Breslin, Theresa.  The Medici seal.  London: Doubleday, 2006.

This is a departure for Breslin, a landscape as broad and far-ranging as any of Leonardo's works. Matteo escapes the clutches of the murderous Sandino, and is taken in by companions of Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo realises the boy's intelligence and takes him under his wing; through Matteo's eyes we see many of Leonardo's interests and the events in his life take shape. There is politics aplenty, for these are dangerous times, the age of Machiavelli and the Borgias and the Medici, times of plunder and mercenary armies. It is also a golden age of discovery, the renaissance. The canvas is broad, and Breslin takes us across the landscape in a well-researched novel, in which the background history is skillfuly intertwined with the main story, Matteo and his past, Matteo and his friends, Matteo and his survival. (15 March 2007)

Irving, John.  Until I find you.   New York: Ballantine, 2006.

When the story opens, Jack Burns is four years old, trailing his mother around Europe in search of his father. Mother is a tattoist, able to find work anywhere, while father, a church organist with an eye for the ladies, is running towards new organ experinces, and away from his responsibilities.

The novel follows Jack through his life. Giving up the pursuit, Jack's mother returns to Canada. Jack goes to St Hilda's School, one of the first batch of boys allowed to enrol in the girls' school (though only until grade four). He is taken in by Emma Oastler, and several other girls who become strong influences in Jack's life. On to boarding school, into adulthood. Jack's father's reputation seems to cling to Jack as well, as he becomes a movie star and ladies man in his turn - or is he just laid?

And then, as Jack retraces his mother's chase through Europe, he learns the other side of the story, he sees things from the other side. It's the events which make us and mark us and mar us, and which may not even be what we thought at the time, and our sympathies change dramatically.

This is a rollicking, raunchy and very funny book, simultaneously thought-provoking and introverted, and very worth reading. (8 March 2007)

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Boyne, John.  The boy in the striped pyjamas.  London: Black Swan, 2007.

This is a chilling read, if only because it is all so obvious, the events as they unfold so inevitable. Nine year old Bruno and his family move from Berlin to the village of Out-With, and life is never the same again. Bruno no longer has good friends to play with, but discovers a boy, about his age, living on the other side of the wire fence near his house. Just like everyone else on the other side of the fence (except for the soldiers), Schmuel wears striped pyjamas.

Clue follows clue, although the full situation never is spelt out. It is cleverly done and chillingly done, and deserves to be read and re-read. And not forgotten. (10 February 2007)

Rischard, J.F.  High noon: twenty global problems, twenty years to solve them.  New York: Basic Books, 2002.

Rischard, World Bank Vice-President for Europe, takes a look at 20 problems which are truly global issues. Global warming, poverty, deforestation, declining fish stocks, loss of bio-environment, water shortages, terrorism, education, global infectious diseases, biotechnology, and more: these are problems too big for any government or nation to resolve, too big for big business, too big for the international bodies. The old institutions cannot solve them by themselves, and we don’t have any structure in place which can.

Rischard discusses the problems and offers a number of possible ways to handle them for the good of humanity and of the world. Many of his suggestions do not require huge amounts of money, either, just the will and international goodwill, mutual cooperation and determination. The problems are now, of today; Rischard we cannot wait 20 years before we start to solve them. In short very readable chapters and sections, Rischard sounds a wake-up call. It may already be too late... (23 January 2007)

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Larsson, Asa.  Sun storm.  New York: Delacorte Press, 2006.

Another Swedish crime novel. Sanna Strandgard discovers the mutilated body of her brother, and immediately is the number one suspect. She calls on childhood friend Rebecka Martinsson who left the town years earlier, in disgrace. She is an overworked attorney in Stockholm, but returns to help her friend and her two daughters. The events of the past bear heavily on them all, in a story redolent with darkness and tragedy. (20 January 2007)

Davies, Martin.  The conjuror’s bird.  London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2005.

Two stories interwoven: the story of Joseph Banks, biologist and member of James Cook’s first expedition in 1768, and the story of John Fitzgerald, biologist, living today. The link between them is several accounts of a now extinct bird. A drawing of the bird exists, and there are references to a stuffed mounted specimen once in Banks’ possession. Fitzgerald is hired to chase down and identify the bird – but big money is involved and there are others on the trail.

The past has its mysteries too. Why did Banks suddenly withdraw from Cook’s 2nd expedition? Who was the mysterious Miss B? And why did Banks break off his engagement? Skilfully weaving known history and speculation past and present, Davies presents a mystery with a difference. (24 December 2006)

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Avi.  The book without words: a fable of medieval magic.  New York: Hyperion Books, 2005.

Another atmospheric novel, though interspersed with much humor, mostly black. The book without words holds the secret of eternal life, and aging Thorston has discovered the secret. When he falls down, apparently dead, the alchemist’s talking raven, Odo, and his newly acquired servant girl must themselves discover the secret or face death themselves. They are aided by two green-eyed youths (for part of the wordless book can be read only by a boy with green eyes) and hounded by the reeve of the town, greedy for the alchemist’s gold. Indeed, all the characters are selfish, but some learn that preservation lies in selflessness. It’s another Avi triumph, a great romp and some breathtaking moments. (12 December 2006)

Nesser, Hakan.  Borkmann’s point.  New York: Pantheon Books, 2006.

A detective novel set, like the Wallender series, in Sweden – at least I think it’s Sweden. Many of the names used are Dutch, the policeman leading the case is Chief Inspector Van Veeteren, there is mention of De Journaal and Telegraaf which are surely Dutch newspapers – am I just showing my ignorance? Not that it matters.

Van Veeteren is called in to help the local police solve a series of murders in the small city of Kaalbringen. The victims seem to have nothing in common other than the way they are killed, their heads almost severed by a single blow from an axe. The police team amasses a lot of evidence but seems to be getting nowhere. But Borkmann’s Point is reached: a time when, according to the theory, enough clues have been gathered that further evidence will just muddy the waters; what is needed is clarity to discover the answer from the clues they already have. The reader too. Which Van Veeteren does, though not before the leading female detectives goes missing, possibly kidnapped by the murderer. It’s an atmospheric novel, but the ending is a little unlikely. Or do I say that because I guessed the murderer and found I was right? (9 December 2006)

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Horton, Lesley.  On dangerous ground.  London: Orion, 2003.
-----              Devils in the mirror.  London : Orion, 2005.

The British excel at this type of police novel.  It’s Inspector Handford again, this time (in On dangerous ground) following a trail which seems to indicate that his Chief Inspector may be a serial killer. It’s a dark tale of child prostitution set in a racially delicate city, ready to explode. Sergeant Ali is here too, following his own nose, torn by divided loyalties, to the police and to his family and culture. Constable Warrender is here too, a racial bigot only too happy to stir the mix.

A heady mix it is too. From this, straight to number three in the series, and I hope it’s not too long a wait for number four! (23 November 2006)

And straight into number three, Devils in the mirror.  The past features heavily here, a past which shapes us and makes us, and in some cases, breaks us.  It's black, as two child murders resurface and continue to devastate.  Warrender's past, too, leading to more understanding of a complex character, and his relationships with Ali and Handford.  Roll on, number four!  (25 November 2006)

Stine, Catherine.  Refugees.  New York: Delacorte Press, 2005

Johar’s life is changed when the Taliban come raiding his village; with his niece, Bija, little more than a baby, he escapes from Baghlan in Afghanistan to the refugee camps of Peshawar in Pakistan. There, because he speaks some English, he is employed by Dr Louise Garland, an American doctor working for the aid agencies.

Louise’s foster daughter Dawn escapes from her middle-class suburban life in San Francisco, and treks across the United States. She witnesses the fall of the twin towers, and discovers that her music can bring release of a kind to those who lost relatives and friends in the attack.

Both are refugees of a kind, of very different kinds but they have much in common.

Another two-voice book with a powerful story. (14 November 2006)

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Clark, Mary Higgins.  I’ll be seeing you.  New York: Pocket Books, 1993.

A complex whodunnit whodunnwhat mystery, as reporter Meghan Collins tries to unravel the story behind the killing of a woman who could have been her twin sister. Meghan’s own life is shrouded in mystery, for her father disappeared in a bridge acident a year before, but neither his body nor his car have been found, and the insurance company is refusing to pay up; they suggest he has simply disappeared. Trying to clear her father’s name and also to identify the dead girl, Meghan finds possible answers in a story she is currently researching on in-vitro fertilsation clinics – answer it is too dangerous for anyone to know.

A roller-coaster of a horror story with twists in every chapter to keep the reader guessing to the end. (21 November 2006)

Horton, Lesley.  Snares of guilt.  London: Orion, 2003.

A detective story set in Yorkshire; a Detective Inspector and a Detective Sergeant who don’t get on. A woman murdered, and an abundance of suspects.

But there are a nice set of twists, for the white DI is blamed for causing race riots the previous year, is teamed with a Muslim DS; the woman who died is a Sikh, married to a Muslim and both sets of families have disowned their offspring. Throw in a small-time drug baron, a single teenage mother and her loving brother, a desperately bereaved husband and an all-too smooth doctor, and it’s quite a mix. It adds up to a very readable story. (8 November 2006)

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Masters, Alexander.  Stuart: a life backwards.  London: Harper Perennial, 2006.

The biography of Stuart Shorter, sometime homeless person, sometime thief, sometime drug addict, sometime very sick person, long time dead. Stuart was a victim and a loser. Masters, tells Stuart’s story, forwards in real time, and backwards, as he traces how each event in his life seemed to follow inevitably from past circumstance. Stuart was not born homeless and violent and abused. But at various stages of his life, he lost and he lost out.

It’s a warming story and a chilling story, and it hasn’t got any better for those in similar situations. An extraordinary book. (8 October 2006)

Chambers, Aidan.  This is all : the pillow book of Cordelia Kenn.  London: The Bodley Head, 2005.

It has been a long wait for the sixth (and last) in Chambers’ series of novels dealing with teenage sexuality. The word “series” should be used loosely, because there is very little to connect the stories – and the wait, it has been worth it. This is all is Cordelia’s book of thoughts, poems, diary, story of her family and friends, and most of all story of her awakening sexuality and her great love for William Blacklin. Chambers, through Cordelia, touches upon life, the universe, and almost everything.

The novel is 800 pages long, and it is not an easy read. The narrative is broken up by the recurring, personal passages – and different styles of narration too. The background thoughts add depth to the characters, make them and the story all the more believable. Chambers has experimented with time and the novel form in much of his writing, and he excels here. There is much humour too; Cordelia’s tips for exam revision will ring bells with many students, at all levels. And the dialogue – long passages, entirely dialogue and back-chat, sometimes monologue, as in Mrs Blacklin’s attempt to get Cordelia to stay away from her son. The last book, that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up...

There is much to remember and think about, and I think it won’t be long before I read this again. (6 Septmber 2006)

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Hislop, Victoria.  The island.  London: Headline Review, 2006.

This is billed, on the front cover, as “a beach book with a heart”. It’s certainly light reading, a pleasant story that is very real – and possibly just what I needed as counter-weight to the book I was reading simultaneously (Chambers’ This is all). It’s a family story set in Crete, mainly in the mid-20th century. There is passion here, and tragedy, as first Eleni, then her daughter Maria, catch leprosy, and are exiled to the island of Spinalonga. This is the era when medicine was making great advances in treatment and prevention of leprosy – and also the era of the Second World War. Nicely researched, it makes for a warming read. (4 September 2006)

Crutcher, Chris.  The sledding hill.  New York: Greenwillow Books, 2005.

Crutcher breaks new ground in this novel. It is narrated first person by the dead Billy Bartholomew. Being dead has its advantages, it’s the next best thing to a cloak of invisibility, and lets you get in the minds and memories of the various protagonists. The main living character is Bill’s friend, Eddie Proffitt, a typical Crutcher hero with not a lot going for him – and hit hard by the death of his beloved father and then best friend Billy from needless accidents, and within the space of weeks. To make it worse, Eddie was the person who found both of them.

Throw in a book-challenge, and things liven up. The book under review is Warren Peece – by Chris Crutcher. It’s another neat device, this one allowing Crutcher to intrude into the story, even to make an appearance towards the end. The challenge is mounted by a fundamentalist Christian group, several members of which have connections with the school and the school board. This is a highly political, highly intelligent read, and also great fun with some brilliant twists, conundrums and paradoxes. (17 September 2006)

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Robinson, Peter.   Piece of my heart. .  London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2006.

Robinson does it again! Here are two murders, thirty-five years apart. The victim in the first, at the tail-end of the sixties, was a young girl who had, it turned out, some connection with the Mad Hatters rock group. The victim in the second, very much in our time, was a journalist doing some background research on the Mad Hatters. As the inverstigation proceeds, DCI Banks feels that there might be more than coincidental links between the two murders, and begins to wonder whether there was a miscarriage of justice in the earlier case.

With detail, wit, and a great feeling for the times, Peter Robinson again spins a story which grips and has us guessing to the end. (31 August 2006)

Staples, Suzanne Fisher.  Under the persimmon tree.  New York: Frances Foster Books, 2005.

Najmah is a young Afghan girl whose father and older brother are abducted by Taliban fighters, and whose mother and newborn younger brother are killed in an air-raid. Disguised as a boy, she makes her way to Peshawar, in Pakistan. There she meets Nusrat, an American who took her name on conversion to Islam; Nusrat married an Afghan doctor, and went with him to Pakistan to help his country-men when the Americans s tarted the war which led to the overthrow of the Taliban government. That war started soon after 9/11, that dreadful day when al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four planes and wreaked destruction on New York and Washington.

Told in alternate voices, Majmah’s story in first person and Nusrat’s in third person, this gripping gritty story relates the horrors of war and terrorism as they affect real people, ordinary people. There are horrors here, and it is sometimes difficult to determine whose crimes are greater; there is great humanity too. The story finishes at the right point as well, a moment of acceptance and hope and change for both Nusrat and Najmah. It is not the perfect, happy ending but it is, as Staples suggests, a good ending, a right ending, a possible ending. (26 August 2006)

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Haffner, Sebastian.   Defying Hitler: a memoir.  London: Phoenix, 2003.

Unintentionally, another book about Nazi Germany. Unlike the previous book, this is real, an autobiography. Haffner explains Germany after the First World War, how the Nazis came to power, how many Germans knew just what was going on, and how they either stood aside and let it happen, or joined in, reluctantly or with relish, and helped it happen. Not all Germans. Haffner relates how many were killed or disappeared, how some escaped.

Haffner himself, training as a lawyer, was early on revolted by what he saw happening to his country. He got out in 1933, but returned the following year, eventually escaping to England in 1938. This is a history of human weakness in the light of inhuman and dehumanising brutality which brooked no opposition. The parallels are too easily to be seen in the modern world: give up your freedoms for the sake of security and the state; if you are not with us you are against us. (6 July 2006)

Harris, Robert.  Fatherland. London: Arrow, 1993.

This is an alternative history, one in which Germany won the war, King Edward and Queen Wallis reign over Great Britain, and Adolf Hitler is about to celebrate his 75th birthday. A corpse is found, drowned, and the signs begin to suggest that this is the latest in a series of killings. A Kripo investigator begins to find evidence linking the victims, and he uncovers nasty truths about the past.

It is very cleverly done, based on real people and what they might have done had their fortunes and fates been different. The story builds to a breath-holding can’t-put-down climax. A good read! (26 June 2006)

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Weaver, Will.  Full service.  New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005.

Sixteen-year-old Paul Sutton, son of a farming family, takes a summer job in town so that he will get to meet people. Meet people he does, including a Chicago gangster, now retired, Is and family, travelling through town but stranded when their vehicle is sabotaged, heart-throb two-timing Peggy and her two boy-friends, and many other small town characters. Paul almost gets to do a lot of things, and actually achieves some in a very readable novel set in mid-60s Minnesota. Good fun. (17 June 2006)

Merullo, Roland.  Golfing with God.  Chapel Hill NC: Algonquin Books, 2005.

An unusual novel. Herman Fins-Winston thought he had found Paradise – until he is summoned to help God improve His game; the Almighty is suffering the yips, and goes to pieces when He – though sometimes She - is faced with short putts. It was a hell that Herman, preferring to be called Hank, had himself suffered when alive; he was forever haunted by a missed putt early in his career, and he never achieved the early promise of potential champion.

In the course of several rounds of golf with God, and with Buddha, Mohammed, Jesus and Mary as well, in heaven and back on earth, Herman learns far more than he teaches. Lessons for all of us, lessons in living life and fulfilling our own potentials – delightfully set in some of the most perfect golf courses we’ll never meet. (13 June 2006)

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Cilauro, Santo, Tom Gleisner and Rob Sitch.  Molvania: a land untouched by modern dentistry (Jetlag Travel Guide).  South Yarra (Victoria, Australia): Hardie Grant Books, 2003.

This is a grand spoof read, a travel guide to Molvania, an ex-Soviet bloc country somewhere in the Balkans. We get shown its history, its sometimes unusual cuisine, an insight into the people, where to stay and where to eat and what to do – the usual stuff of travel guides. How many times are we told that this region, area, city, is gernerally overlooked by tourists – and given good reason why. I particularly enjoyed the description of the one-hectare international airport, so small that it is the only airport in the world where the runway is curved.... (10 June 2006).

Hicyilmaz, Gaye.  Against the storm.  Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1992.

Another Hicyilmaz story, this one set mainly in Ankara, Turkey. Mehmet’s father takes his family from their village, to the big city, where he hopes to find his fortune. Life is tough. Animals die. People die. There is one telling episode in which Mehmet realises the hopelessness of those around him. “They were expert in dying and they knew how to bury their dead and they knew how to mourn ... they knew a million ways to die, but they did not know how to live.”

Mehmet is not like them, and Mehmet fights back. It’s hard and it’s telling, and it tells a story worth reading. (29 May 2006).

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Hicyilmaz, Gaye.  Smiling for strangers.  New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.

Fourteen-year-old Nina Topic lives with her grandfather in a village in the hills. They have witnessed much horror, and although their families have been hit hard by the war in Yugoslavia, so far they have survived most of its horrors. Their luck cannot hold, and Nina is lucky to escape with her life. She is smuggled out of the Balkans, and finds herself in England. She sets out to find a friend of her mother, but the way is not smooth.

The story is grim and realistic, for the most part. War is horrific, and it degrades and dehumanizes. Even safe, Nina does not easily adjust to peace and freedom. There may be cause, but Hicyilmaz is coy about, for instance, Nina’s relationship with the aid workers men who take out out of Yugoslavia. There is just a hint that at least one of them may have raped her, still in their company someone else calls her a slut, but otherwise Nina comes across as demure and very young. And puzzling. Nevertheless, a sobering adventure, worth the read. (26 May 2006).

Crichton, Michael.   State of fear.  London: HarperCollins, 2005.

A conference on climate change and global warming is about to start in California. To emphasise the catastrophes which global warming might well cause, a group of eco-terrorists are set on manufacturing a few artifical disasters. Only super-heroes can save mankind and make the world a safer place...

It’s all over-the-top action with the unlikeliest of heroes (and heroines), and at times it may be difficult to tell who the good guys are and who the bad guys – if only because this book upsets a lot of “conventional wisdom” about global warming. It is very well documented, and Crichton almost convinces that the evidence for global warming and climate change verges on the non-existent. But it’s not just the soft left which goes in for dirty tricks, Mr Crichton, and some of the arguments are weak. Nevertheless, a grand read and thought-provoking too. (17 May 2006)

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Connelly, Michael.  The poet.  New York: Warner, 1996.

A serial killer is on the loose. Young children are horribly mutilated and, just a short time later, the homicide detective leading the murder hunt commits suicide. It takes a reporter to notice the pattern, and when he finally persuades the FBI he accompanies them in their investigation.

A good story and some nice twists make this a riveting read. (29 April 2006)

Mankell, Henning.  Secrets in the fire.  Toronto: Annick Press, 2003.

Mankell is known (to me) for his Inspector Wallender novels. He has also written several children's and young adult novels, and this is one.

Sofia and Maria are sisters, some of the few survivors of a raid on their village by the sea in Mozambique. They escape inland, and look set to be building a life for themselves when a landmine kills one and takes the legs of the other. Against the odds, Sofia battels to build a new life for herslf. Not the usual stuff of young adult fiction, but this is well and compassionately told, another story of the evil that men do to each other - and the lasting effect on the innocent - made all the more real and poignant because based on the story of a friend of the author. (8 April 2006)

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Marcantonio, Patricia Santos; illustrated by Renato Alarcão.  Red Ridin' in the hood.  New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2005.

This is a collection of eleven fairy tales, myths and legends, retold with a Latin-American slant. Some are straight retellings, such as “The piper of Harmonia”, in which the piper rids the town of an infestation of lizards, and then lures away the children when the townsfolk refuse to pay his full fee. “El dia de los muertos” tells the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, with a background of Aztec gods. In “Alejandro and the spirit of the magic lampara”, the Aladdin story receives a fresh twist, while in the title story, the wolf drives a shiny chevy – but still fails to seduce street-wise Red.

The pictures add to the horror and the humor, and make this a fun read for adults and children alike. (7 April 2006)

Kass, Pnina Moed.  Real time.  New York: Clarion Books, 2004

I seem to have read several novels set in Israel / Palestine just recently, and have re-read both Banks' One more river and Laird's A little piece of ground. In some ways, this present story is a counterbalance to Laird’s novel. Where Laird shows the effects of Israeli occupation on a Palestinian family, Kass shows how a suicide bomber wreaks devastation on an Israeli community. The novel is told in the voices of five or six main characters, with most of the action leading up to the bombing (the first half of the book) taking place on one day and in “real time”. Thomas Wanninger is on his way from Berlin, volunteering to work on a kibbutz; he hopes too to discover the truth about his grandfather, suspicions aroused by a wartime photograph of him in Nazi uniform. He will be met at the airport by Vera Brodsky, a refugee from Russia who joined the kibbutz to establish her Jewishness once she discovers that her father has changed his name to disguise his origins. Indeed, many of the kibbutz residents have come to hide from something, or to discover something, including the elderly Baruch Ben Tove, a concentration camp survivor with his own demons to fight.

It is well and graphically told, no punches pulled. Again, it tells only one side of the story – recognize its bias. The sad thing about the situation, one sad thing about the situation, is that there are no winners, the real victims are the people, on both sides, of both countries and cultures. (5 April 2006)

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Ethem, Azize.  Beyond the orchard.  Istanbul: Citembik, 2005.

Azize is an Englishwoman who married an Ottoman prince, eventually to settle in a small village in southern Turkey and later to move to another small village near Iznik. This is a simple retelling of her move to that first village, the simplicity of a lifestyle already succumbing to tourism an dother 20th century benefits.

The way was not exactly even, but Azize’s story is told with love and humor, and for those who have lived in Turkey, it is so recognizable. (1 April 2006)

Blackman, Malorie.  Checkmate.  London: Doubleday, 2005.

At last, the third volume of the Noughts and crosses trilogy, and well worth waiting for. I put it aside until I had a clear week ahead, and then devoured it over four evenings.

The voice of the story again switches from character to character, and the time of the story switching from the “present” to the past, ten years earlier, and moving forward to an exciting finale. Here is Callie Rose’s childhood, loving the father she never knew and slowly being twisted by circumstance and prejudice and evasion; here is Sephy, struggling to hold on to memories of Callum, to hold on to love for Callie Rose, and her struggles to free herself from her past. The Liberation Movement is planning a major act of terror, and Jude is planning a major act of revenge.

It is all very black, but there is humor too, and the real feelings of growing up, no punches pulled. Excellent stuff. (12 March 2006)

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Anderson, Laurie Halse.  Speak.  New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1999.

When thirteen year old Melinda was raped at a party, she called the police. By the time they arrived she could not speak about her ordeal. Instead she withdraws into herself, ostracised by her friends and less and less able to communicate with teachers or parents either. She becomes more and more isolated, her only interest is the tree she is struggling to design in her art classes.

This is a powerful story, made all the stronger by acute observation of the ironies of school and of home for the growing teen. There is a lot of humor here amidst the pain, and a lot of strong characters: David, her classmate, Mr Neck, a bullying teacher, Mr Freeman, the art teacher she so wants to please. There are a lot of weak characters too, very real, well drawn. And in the end, Melinda finds her voice, finds she is not alone, becomes whole again. (3 March 2006)

Hrdlitschka, Shelley.  Kat’s fall.  Victoria, Canada: Orca, 2004.

This must come close to being the ultimate problem book. Darcy is an at-risk fifteen year old, who relieves his tensions through self-injury. His eleven year old sister, Kat, is deaf from birth, and suffers epileptic fits. Their mother is about to be released from prison, having served ten years of a fifteen year sentence for dropping Kat (as a baby) from a fifth-floor window; she had been a drug addict and prostituted herself to pay for her habit. Kat’s fall had been broken by bushes. Their father has a raging temper, does not like his children, and hopes that mother will take Kat back and move out of town. Darcy hates his mother and loves his sister.

That’s the background. Within pages of the story opening, Darcy has an involuntary erection when Kat climbs into bed with him. He is disgusted with himself. Kat has her first period and has no idea what is happening. When mother’s parole is announced, it is clear that the town will not welcome her back, and Darcy dreads his sister having to leave such family as she has. And then there is Ms LaRose, teacher with a heart of gold who believes that dropout Darcy can be saved. Even when he is accused of a terrible crime, and everyone else is so ready to believe him guilty because of his background and the family history.

This should be a very bleak book. It isn’t. The story is told with humor and sympathy, and there are some nice twists on the way to a satisfying ending. An unlikely ending, but very acceptable. We are left with hope, good hope. (26 February 2006)

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Townsend, Sue.  The public confessions of a middle-aged woman, aged 55 ¾.  London: Michael Joseph, 2001.

I don’t seem to have had much time for reading just lately, so this collection of Townsend’s articles for Sainsbury’s The Magazine was just right. It is very dip-into-able, east to take up and put down. Townsend, creator of Adrian Mole, several novels featuring other characters (including The Queen), and at least half a dozen plays, is easy to read, easy to enjoy.

Written over eight years, the column mainly details the thoughts and deeds of Ms Townsend. A lot of it is very everyday, but she finds new things to say about the everyday, new angles from which to look at it. She has a lovely touch of humour, and the whole thing is made more poignant as she occasionally informs us, still in everyday tone, of the encroachment of blindness and other problems, side-effects of diabetes. (25 February 2006)

Flegg, Aubrey.   Wings over Delft (Book 1: the Louise trilogy).  Dublin: O’Brien Press: 2003.

This, the first volume of a trilogy, tells the story of the painting of Louise Eeden’s portrait. Louise is the daughter of the owner of a very successful pottery business, and , according to rumors circulating in Delft, is betrothed to the son of a rival company owner. Louise has known and liked Reynier since childhood, but has no intention of marrying him.

While the portrait is being painted, Louise finds herself more and more attracted to Pieter, the painter’s apprentice. Close friendship seems out of the question, and there are forces at work which aims to make sure that any romance is nipped in the bud, to be sure that the marriage with Reynier really does happen. Apart from anything else, Pieter is Catholic, and Catholics are not well-appreciated in a country so recently freed from Spanish occupation.

We get a lot of detail about painting, and life in early 17th century Netherlands in general, skilfully woven in to a gentle romance – which makes the climax, a religious riot which nearly turns into a massacre, all the more shocking and violent. I look forward to the next two volumes. (14 February 2006)

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Banks, Lynne Reid.  One more river.  New York: Morrow Junior Books, 1992.

Despite the date of this edition, One more river was written soon after the Six Day War in 1967, when Israel, against seeming overwhelming odds and a build-up of armies on all of her borders, managed to wipe out the opposing forces and enlarge her territory, including the Golan Heights and Jerusalem. Banks wrote from experience. As a child in World War 2, she had been evacuated to Canada. during the Second World War. As an adult, she lived in Israel for ten years, worked on a kibbutz, was there during the Six Day War.

Here she tells the story of Lesley Shelby, uprooted from a pleasant teenage in Canada when her parents decide to emigrate to Israel, to work on kibbutz. Lesley goes extremely reluctantly and has a hard time settling in. We learn of the struggle and the pride in making a life in the desert. The Six Day War enters everyone’s lives, and Lesley is at last assimilated.

The story is very one-sided, for there is little attempt to tell the Arab story. There is a smattering of contrast with the Arab village on the other side of the river, and the picture is largely unsympathetic: “they” beat their donkeys, they can’t grow crops, they just want to steal from the Israelis. Our sympathies are wholly with Israel.

It is a story of its time, for the Second World War and revelations of the Holocaust were still relatively recent. Its one-sidedness does not make it a bad story, but we must be aware of where the biases lie. It makes sharp contrast with Elizabeth Laird's A little piece of ground, written almost wholly from the Palestinian point-of-view and thirty years later.

Both stories need to be told, and read. I write having only recently read of the controversy which blew up when Laird's novel was first published - the problems of a story which showed the situation from the Palestinian point of view, with hardly a mention of the Israelis, and their suffering under Intifada. Engaged in writing a piece on international literature as a road to understanding, I realise that not everyone wants to understand, that there is a vested interest in ignorance. This is, of course, one of the problems in the Middle East, where it often seems that whenever peace threatens, a militant fundamentalist from one side or other blows the whole thing up again. (14 February 2006)

Courtemanche, Gil.  A Sunday at the pool in Kigali.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003.

If Coetzee's novel Disgrace was black and bleak, how to describe this? It's the story of the last few weeks before the Rwandan civil war broke out into open conflict, a time when the Hutus were gaining strength, the writing was clearly on the wall, and the international agencies, including the UN, were stymied by complacency and reluctance to recognise what was happening around them.

Around the romance of Bernard, a Canadian journalist, and Gentille, a Rwandan waitress at the hotel in which Bernard is quartered, Courtemanche builds a picture of a country making speedy descent into the abyss, hell-bent on revenge and genocide. Yet amid the horrors, graphically described, there is so much dignity and bravery. There is genuine love for the land and its people. And we all stood by and let it happen.

And in the end? Bleak, no, definitely the wrong word. Black, perhaps, and horrific, that word again. This is not a book to be enjoyed, but it is a book to be read, for civilisation is but a thin veneer, we are all so close to mass madness, it could all break out again, there – or there – or there – and even here. (2 November 2005)

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Zephaniah, Benjamin.  Gangsta rap.  London: Bloomsbury, 2004.

Ray is excluded from school after yet another confrontation with his teachers. His life is headed nowhere; he does not get on with his family and constantly argues with his father. His friends, Tyrone, and Prem, are no-hopers as well. Two blacks and an Asian who don't and won't fit in to life in East London. The three friends share a love of rap and hip-hop, and with the help of Marga Man, the owner of a music shop, and the support of a Social Inclusion Project, they begin to make a name for themselves in the music world. Unfortunately, their success leads to rivalries and violent gang warfare between their fans and those of a rival band.

Zephaniah tells the story carefully, with love of the underdog and always aware of the importance of the music. It may seem unlikely at times: the boys don't do drugs, are not promiscuous with their many fans, but the stereotypical picture of youth in similar situations may well be wrong (that's the problem of stereotypes and of prejudices). The tale still grips, you want to find out what happens to them. There is, of course, strong language at times. Which does make it more real. A book for the boys. (26 October 2005)

Keillor, Garrison.  The book of guys.  New York: Viking, 1993.

After the heaviness of Disgrace, this collection of short stories, skits and satires is welcome. Here are men, real men, doing (and sometimes getting away with) real men stuff. None of this new man nonsense. When a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do, these men try and go do it. There's Buddy, who catches leprosy in the Congo, whose mother is permanently drunk - but he discovers the secret of attracting women; there's Winthrop, so new man, so understanding he helps his wife run off with her chiropractor; there's the country mouse and the town mouse who fall madly in love, only the country mouse can't adjust to city life, and a host more…

Good fun. (23 October 2005)

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Coetzee, J.M.  Disgrace.  London: Vintage, 2000.

This is a tremendously bleak novel, the story of a disgraced university professor who will not compromise himself. Guilty of a liaison with a student, he retreats to his daughter's house on a remote farm. He comes to enjoy a simple existence until a band of bandits beat him up and rape his daughter. Needless to say, the and their lives are changed forever.

It is brutal and it is strong, elegantly written. Not a book to enjoy, perhaps, but certainly a book to linger over and reflect upon. (19 October 2005)

Francis, Dick.  10 lb. Penalty.  New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1997.

Published in 1997, the year that Tony Blair took New Labour to victory in the general election, ending 18 years of tory rule, this novel must have seemed very topical. Eight years on, it remains as lively and as possible, such is our mistrust of politicians and the shadowy figures behind them.

Benedict Juliard, amateur jockey, is compelled to leave racing to help his father in his campaign to be elected to Parliament in a bye-election. There are many who do not want George Juliard to succeed, a least one of them badly enough to make several attempts to kill the man. They don't succeed, Juliard is elected, but the would-be killer is not found. And then, several years later, when Juliard faces an even more important election, his life is threatened once more.

Once again a romp of a read, and, given that we know a lot more now about shadowy figures in the background than we knew then, one just can't help wondering if there is anyone Francis had in mind… (16 October 2005)

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Koja, Kathe.  The blue mirror.  New York:   Frances Foster Books, 2004.

In this short tale, disenchanted teen Mags falls under the spell of a handsome, homeless youth. He provides an escape from her drunk of a mother, an alternative to school, excitement and romance. But Mags is not his only victim, though it takes her time to see this and to see through him. Can she escape when he won't let her go, when half of her doesn't want to be let go?

This is breathless prose which verges on poetry on occasion, very real. (9 October 2005)

Keillor, Garrison.  Homegrown Democrat: a few plain thoughts from the heart of America.  New York: Viking, 2004.

Published before the 2004 presidential election, this is Garrison Keillor speaking from the heart. He not only tells why he is a Democrat, he explains the fundamental differences between Democrats and Republicans. The difference? Democrats care for other people, Republicans care only for themselves.

This is a sweet-bitter book, with humor and irony and much straight-talking. It's Michael Moore without the punch and the drama and the hyperbole. It won't persuade Republicans to become Democrats, but it will bolster those who prefer to think for themselves, rather than to have their thinking done for them. (8 October 2005)

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McGann, Oisin. The gods and their machines.   New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 2004.

On one side of the border lies Altima, on the other lies Bartokhrin. Altima is a rich country, Bartokhrin is poor. Yet the Altimans fear their neighbors, occasionally invade their territory, bomb them from on high, and the Bartokhrians retaliate with guerilla warfare and send suicide bombers into Altiman cities, and the cycle goes on.

It sounds desperately like Israel and Palestine, and probably is. And in this situation, young pilot Chamus Aronson is crash-lands in enemy territory. He is found by Riadni Mocranen, a teenage girl with romantic dreams of the fight against the oppressors. They are both to learn uncomfortable truths about each other, and about their countries noble causes – the fighting i s dirty, and it seems it is in nobody's interests to stop.

The novel ends in hope. Not much, but any grain could grow… (3 October 2005)

Mole, John. It's all Greek to me!  London: Nicholas Brealey, 2004.

Mole buys a ruin of a house in the middle of nowhere. It has no roof, no floor, no water, no electricity. There isn't even a road to the house. But the village is pretty and the view is what he fell in love with.

His family is slower to come round, but come round they do, as Mole struggles with local traditions, rivalries and suspicion of outsiders, with bargaining, with manana attitudes and make-do is good enough attitudes, and, most of all, the perils of not speaking the language. This is the perennial expatriate problem, having managed to gain a basic grasp of the language, you are still faced with locals' inability to make the mental jump when you use the wrong vowel or make a long vowel short, or put the stress in the wrong place…

Great fun. (25 September 2005)

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Hearn, Lian.  Brilliance of the moon.  New York: Riverhead Books, 2004.

This is book three of the Otori series, read very soon after book two. Takeo and Kaede are now married, and it is time to consolidate their inheritances and their heritages. The way is not easy, and their enemies are many. There is much blood and violence, along with treachery and vengeance. This is not a tender, sentimental society, and death can be violent, sudden and cruelly delivered.

There is also much love and friendship, and some of the heroes are stirring, and often unexpected. Behind all is the prophecy, “Five battles will buy you peace, four to win and one to lose.” And which is which?

One of the most exciting reads of the year. (5 September 2005)

Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer.  The householder.  New York: W.W. Norton and Co, 1960.

This lively little tale relates a few months in Prem’s life, shortly after his marriage to Indu. Prem is not the strongest of characters, and he is very unsure of his place in society. His attempts to ask for a rise in salary from the Headmaster of his school, or a reduction in rent from his landlord, are just a few of the things which go wrong for him. His wife is pregnant, with strange food fads; his mother comes to stay; he is losing his friends, and gets mixed in some strange company. It all makes for a delightful comedy which rings as true today as it did when I first read this book, thirty or so years ago.

The story ends with gentle hope. A gentle, very pleasant, read. (3 September 2005)

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Eco, Umberto. How to travel with a salmon, and other essays. New York: Harcourt Brace and Co, 1994.

This is a collection of sort pieces, culled from a newspaper column of parodies, interspersed with occasional longer forays into commentary on life and its ironies. Many are firmly based in Eco's linguistic and literary life, but most of the shorter pieces are pure exaggeration and imagination. His relation of the problems encountered when he lost his driver's licence, for instance, ring all too true; anyone who has experience of bureaucracy in the third world (or the second) (or the first) will empathise. The advice on buying gadgets, a commentary on useless inventions, rings all too true. And of course the piece on organizing a public library (to the greatest discomfort of anyone who might want to use it) is a masterpiece of customer relations. (1 September 2005)

Hearn, Lian.  Grass for his pillow.  New York: Riverhead Books, 2003.

Part two of the Otori trilogy, and though it has been a year since I read part one, the characters and their setting soon came back to me. Again, a vivid read as Hearn tells the story, third person relating what happens to Kaede, first person relation of Takeo's tale. They live their own lives, growing ever stronger in their different ways, surviving very dangerous times until they can find each other again. It is a tightly told story, the violence often so sudden that the reader is past it before the horror sinks in. I won't have to wait a year for part three, I have it in front of me, but I will find some more gentle reading for the week ahead. (27 August 2005)

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Cornwell, Patricia. Trace.   London: Time Warner Books, 2005.

I see this is the first Cornwell novel in this list. That cannot be because I haven’t read any in the last four years because I know I have. I suspect I just haven’t enjoyed the last few novels, especially the Scarpetta series, as much as her earlier output (and this log records only the books I have enjoyed, not those I haven’t – see the title of the page). This is back on track.

There’s a serial killer on the loose, a stalker. But who is he stalking? Kay Scarpetta, niece Lucy, Lucy’s latest girl-friend – or are his motives entirely random? And why has Scarpetta been recruited as Consultant Pathologist by the Richmond ME’s office so soon after being sacked from her post as Chief Mediacl Examiner? Politics, forensic detection, and a touch of horror: Cornwell getting good again. (21 August 2005)

Deaver, Jeffery.  Garden of beasts.  London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2004.

Deaver’s latest novel is set in Berlin, 1936, just before the Olympic Games, with Germany building up its armaments, preparing for war. As one expects from Deaver, this is a story with twists galore, and many of the characters are not quite what they appear. Paul Schumann is an American professional killer, recruited to kill one of Hitler’s closest advisors. Reinhard Ernst, his intended victim, seems least worthy of Hitler’s henchmen to deserve assassination, not given Himmler and Göring and Goebbels. Many other characters are also not quite what they seem.

It makes for a taut thriller, and the suspense is held as Schumann gets close to his intended victim, though Willi Kohl, a German policeman, is hard on his tracks. I was occasionally annoyed by Deaver’s translation of absolutely every German expression – surely “Heil Hitler” does not need translating, does “Gruss Gott” need translating every time it is used, why call the car the “Folks-Wagon” – but these were small irritations. It’s cleverly done, well worth reading. (17 August 2005)

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Druett, Joan. A watery grave..  New York: St Martin’s Minotaur, 2004.

This is an unusual setting and an unusual situation. Wiki Coffin, half-Maori, half-American, is arrested for the murder of a rich Virginia woman, but proves his innocence. His arrest delayed his joining his ship, but after the sherrif appoints him deputy sherrif with the charge of discovering the real murderer, he manages to catch up with the ship.

His ship is part of the United States Exploring Expedition which explored the Pacific islands in 1838-1842, and we get a good picture of life on board these vessels, as Wiki finds the picture getting muddier and muddier, before all becomes clear and he gets his man. An unusual read, and cleverly done. (21 June 2005)

Mankell, Henning.  Before the frost.  London: Vintage 2004.

This is billed as “A Linda Wallender Mystery”. It features Kurt Wallender in a big way, but it is his daughter Linda, newly out of training school and about to join the police service, who is center-stage. Anna, a friend of Linda, goes missing, shortly after telling Linda that she has seen the father who disappeared from her life more than twenty years before. A head and clasped pair of hands is discovered, a series of fires breaks out across the land, and the police are too busy with the murder to take any interest Linda’s friend’s disappearace. Then more murders, more fires, and Anna returns - and Linda disappears… All is set for a grisly conclusion and Mankell does not disappoint.

There will be more Linda Wallender stories. Good-oh! (21 June 2005)

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Proulx, Annie.  Bad dirt: Wyoming stories 2.  New York: Scribner, 2004.

Here’s a collection of Proulx’ short stories, told as only she can tell them, dry-humor and acid observation and, as ever, that chilling choice of words which brings the reader up short, surely that word cannot be used like that, oh yes it can and it is so right, adds a whole new realm of meaning. Many of the characters here recur, reappear from story to story, makig for a tidiness and a tie-in, and a sense of development too. All very satisfying with a uproarious tale (“Florida rental”) with which to end. Great fun. (14 June 2005)

Breslin, Theresa.  Divided city.  London: Doubleday, 2005.

The city in question is Glasgow, divided by religion, loyalties, and traditions. Protestant and Catholic, Glasgow Rangers and Glasgow Celtic. The divisions are deep.

Joe and Graham are either side of the divide. They might never have met, were it not for the Glasgow City youth football team for which they were both hoping to be selected. But thrown together they are, for together they form an outstanding footballing pair. They also become involved when an attack on a Muslim Croatian asylum seeker reveals new prejudices existing alongside the old hatreds.

We learn some of the reasons behind the old prejudices, see the irrationality of some beliefs and some believers. Perhaps more could have been made of the role of “the system” here, and the poverty and the lack of opportunity and of outlet and the inequalities which make for prejudice and give opportunity for displays of hatred and brutality. (Or perhaps not, for that might take from the story-line, make this unreadable to its target audience.) We do learn that not everyone hates, that some people live for the future, not for the past. Therein lies hope.

This is a fast-moving story which challenges us to think about our own beliefs and prejudices. This is a book which will engage thought and provoke discussion. (4 June 2005)

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Harvey, John  Flesh and blood.  London: Arrow, 2005.

Frank Elder is a retired police detective, who becomes involved in the investigation after a rather nasty rapist-killer he helped convict some fifteen years earlier is released from prison, and soon after a similar murder is committed. There was another case from that earlier time, another disappearance, but no body ever discovered. Can the latest murder shed new light on the unsolved mystery? The pace becomes tighter as Elder’s ex-wife and daughter are drawn into the action. Tighter, and ever more taut. A gripping read. (3 June 2005)

Perry, Thomas.  Death benefits.  New York: Random House, 2001.

John Walker is an analyst for an insurance company. When a colleague goes missing after authorising a multi-million death benefit to an imposter, he becomes involved in the attempt to find her. The lead investigator, Max Stillman, is a super-hard super-hero, so thrills and horrors are very much the order of the day. The trail takes the pair from San Francisco to Chicago, then on to Florida and finally to New Hampshire. The mystery thickens but the pace never lets up as the unlkely pair find themselves involved in a conspiracy far larger and more dangerous (and truth to tell far more unlikely) than they had ever expected. A romp of a read. (21 May 2005)

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Ammaniti, Niccolo.  I’m not scared.  Edinburgh: Canongate, 2004.

This is one of those books where to tell anything about the story may give too much away. Nine-year old Michele makes a discovery which changes his life. He is too young, too innocent to understand what he sees, and yet it is to change his life and his appreciation of the adults, and the other children, in his life. The reader understands before Michele does, and the horror builds relentlessly. Very readable, highly recommended. (15 May 2005)

Schlink, Bernhard.  The reader.  New York: Pantheon, 1997.

Originally written in German, this story tells of the relationship between Michael Berg and the woman who seduced Michael when he was fifteen, Hanna Schmitz. Their relationship lasts several years, and then Hanna disappears suddenly. When Michael fnds her again, several years later, Michael is a student of law, and Hanna is one of a defendent. She is accused of being a guard at a concentration camp, one of a group of female guards who had, in the final days of the War, done nothing while a group of Jewish prisoners died in a fire in a church as they all attempted to escape to western lines.

But it’s not all as it seems to be, as Michael comes to realise, and he shares in Hanna’s guilt when he fails to betray her secret. This is a thoughtful tale, well-crafted and intense to the end. (19 April 2005)

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Lowry, Lois.  Messenger.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004.

Lowry is a masterful crafter of other worlds, often magical, but always true to themselves. Matty’s world is changing. He lives in Village, on the edge of Forest. Village has long been a home to the persecuted and other refugees, but many of its inhabitants are becoming selfish and twisted, wanting to close its borders. Forest itself is becoming more malevolent, making passage through more and more difficult, seeming even to turn on those who try.

In a land in which many have gifts, Matty is able to travel through Forest unharmed, and is the messenger for the community. His hardest task is to carry a message to Kira, daughter of the blind man who took care of him when he came to the village six years earlier, to persuade her that she must come to Village before it closes completely. And in the doing, Matty discovers his real gift.

It’s a short story, but well-told, well-crafted, and has us reading faster and faster as we race to see if Matty succeeds. (16 April 2005)

Deaver, Jeffery. Twisted: the collected stories of Jeffery Deaver. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003.

I know Deaver through his Lincoln Rhyme stories, black novels of forensic police investigation into some of the most horrific killings outside Patricia Cornwell and Thomas Harris. Here Deaver presents sixteen short stories, only one of which features Rhyme but all of them piling on the tension, and each of them having a surprising twist in the tail – or should that be tale?

The twists are strangely satisfying, sending one thumbing back for the clues missed. The villains are not always whom they seem to be, and the victims may surprise as well. Amid the blackness there is often humor, and not all the tales are black. This is a neat collection, well worth the read. (24 February 2005)

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Blackman, Malorie.  Knife edge. London: Doubleday, 2004.

Much as I enjoyed the first part of the trilogy (Noughts and crosses), I was not looking forward to reading the sequel: one of my favorite characters was written out at the end of the first book.

I should have had more trust in the author. This book gripped from page one, and did not let go until I had finished! This is an even more violent novel than the first, as it delves ever deeper into issues of race and prejudice. The pace is brilliant, and the twists grab and grip. It could be a long wait before the third volume is published. I won't be the only person anxiously waiting for it. (19 February 2005)

Smith, Alexander McCall.  The 2½ pillars of wisdom (The von Igelfeld trilogy).  London: Abacus, 2004.

From the author of the The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series comes this compilation of three short novels based on the exploits of Professor Dr. Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld, a German academic and author of the 1200 page study, Portuguese Irregular Verbs. Von Igelfeld is a man very much aware of his importance to the world of linguistics, a view not always shared by his colleagues.

Things keep happening to the professor, life mostly, but he manages to sails on with resolute bearing and a german stiff upper lip. Yes, the english have stiff upper lips as well, but they also have a sense of humor very different to that of a german with aristocratic blood in his veins. As he observed, "The English were very difficult to read; half the things they said were not meant to be taken seriously, but it was impossible, if you were German, to detect which half this was." The humor throughout is gentle, although there is one black episode in which the good Doctor is mistaken for a a world-renowned veterinary surgeon with a similar name, and he supervises a life-or-death operation to save the life of a sausage dog hurt in a road accident. But all is well, and even better. Very clever, very readable. (11 February 2005)

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Eco, Umberto. Mouse or rat? : translation as negotiation. London: Phoenix, 2004.

Eco looks at the art of translation, from the basic question of whether to translate literally or into idiom which makes equivalent sense in the target language, to very deep problems such as the preservation of literary structure (such as rhyme and metre and rhyme scheme), and discussion of the translation of concepts for which there is no equivalent in the target language. Pure translation is often not possible, and translation may be a weighing of what is lost against what is gained.

On the way, he compares different translators translations of set pieces over time and across languages. While some of his text requires more theoretical understanding of linguistics than I have, the work remains readable. I particularly enjoyed the section on literary structure, for here were several conceits new to me; the word-game elements of lipograms and monovocalics, difficult enough withot translation, struck me as particularly delightful. This is not a book for everyone, but those who tackle it will find it rewarding. (9 February 2005)

Blackman, Malorie. Noughts and crosses. London: Corgi, 2002.

This is a world in which the noughts have only recently been freed from slavery, but are still very much an under-class. It is a hard world, a bitter world, a world in which the color of your skin determines your life and defines the opportunities which might be open to you. It is Palestine and Israel, moslem and christian, and most of all overtones of the IRA-Loyalist Northern Ireland conflicts as the rebels engage in violence in the hope of eventually achieving equal rights.

And the twist is brilliant, for the crosses are black and the noughts (echoes of John Brunner's blanks and nie-blanks) are white.

This is a daring novel which explores its issues in language and situations which teens will readily understand. First in a series, and succeeding episodes will be eagerly anticpated. (23 January 2005).

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Breslin, Theresa. Saskia's journey. London: Doubleday, 2004.

Saskia visits her great-aunt, who lives alone on the Scottish coast. She becomes involved in the lives and the livelihood of the local community, and realises the depth of mysteries in her own and her family's past. This is a multi-layered story, beautifully rendered as the tale comes full-circle, both Saskia's tale and the deeper realisation of how so much of life is inter-twined and interdependent.

This is not an easy read, but it is worth the effort. And it is time, perhaps, for Breslin to put her mind to writing an adult novel (which might or might not be read by younger readers) as opposed to a teenage tale which can be read by adults! (18 January 2005)

Vreeland, Susan. The forest lover. New York: Viking, 2004.

Emily Carr was an early painter of native American artefacts. She set out to paint every totem pole she could find at a time when Indian culture and life was despised, and determined effort was made to convert the heathen to Christianity and to wipe out every trace of the the old ways and customs. Carr was for many years a lone voice in the Canadian wilderness, until eventually and belatedly the importance of the Indian life-style was recognised, nd so too were Carr's efforts to preserve and to record.

Vreeland throws herself into the mind of the times, and in a sensitive and very real relation tells Carr's story and depicts the culture of the times. This is a fictional biography, granted, but it is wonderfully researched and feels very real indeed. (14 January 2005)

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Nix, Garth. The keys to the kingdom, book 1: Mister Monday. New York: Scholastic, Inc., 2003.

After the weighty matter of my last two reads, this came as great relief. It is exciting fantasy, escapism of the highest order. Arthur Penhaligon is transported to another universe where he has to engage in a quest; his journey is beset by strange creatures, some aiming to help him and many more to stop him in his tracks.

It’s inventive, it’s exciting, and it’s a great, light-hearted read. If this was Monday, we can expect six more. Good-oh! (5 January 2005)

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le Carré, John.  Absolute friends.  Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2003.

At the close of the entry on Fleshmarket Close, the book logged immediately prior to this one, I asked, "Who is pulling whose strings?"

And immediately comes an answer, even more scary and just as believable, possibly more so.

Here are two stories. We have Ted Mundy, former spy and down on his luck, suddenly given the chance to rejoin in the Big Game, and also to make his protest about the way the world seems to be going. Best of all is the chance to work again with Sasha, long-time friend and fellow spy.  The second story is the history, the tale of Mundy's life and the events and the people who shaped his destiny, the days and the years leading up to his present near-penniless position.

The first part, then, is a charming romance set in the present, but we know that Mundy has a past.

The second part is vintage le Carré, doing what he does so well, as he paints the portrait of the not-quite so perfect spy coming in from the cold and then sent out again. The language is sparse and immediate, and what is unsaid is often as graphic as what is said; le Carré knows what his readers know and are capable of.

And then it comes together again as we move back into the present time, and Mundy and Sasha work together to protest America's seeming determination to have her way, disregarding all the rules in the post 9-11 world. It comes together tragically and inevitably and all too believably, and again leaves the reader wondering about connections and motivations, and, above all, "Who is pulling whose strings?" Very much a story of today.   (31 December 2004)

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Rankin, Ian.  Fleshmarket Close.  London: Orion 2004.

Rebus is engaged in solving the murder of an illegal immigrant; Siobhan is looking into the murder of a newly-released rapist, and Edinburgh is the scene.

There is humor here, acute observation, compassion and grim reality, a blackness and a bleakness and much inhumanity, and it's all wrapped up in a well-paced krimi of the highest order. This is scary stuff, culminating in one of the major questions of our time; who is pulling whose strings? (23 December 2004)

Albom, Mitch.  The five people you meet in heaven.  New York: Hyperion, 2003.

The five people you meet in heaven are there, waiting to tell you what it all means, how your life impinged on theirs, and how their experiences shaped you into what you were and what you did. Eddie lived a very ordinary, humdrum life, never amounting to much, never achieving anything noteworthy, but his life still had a purpose. In finding out why, we have a nice, gentle read, and a double-twist denouement. Rather lovely. (6 December 2004)

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Steinmeyer, Jim.  Hiding the elephant: how magicians invented the impossible and learned to disappear.  New York: Carroll and Graf, 2003.

In one of his performances and in full public view of 5200 people, Harry Houdini had an elephant walk into a box and disappear.

This book sets out to tell the story of magic and magicians over the last 150 years. It tells how magic has evolved and how the nature of performance changed in the course of time. It's all done by mirrors, Steinmeyer avers, and the diagrams show just how the tricks were achieved. Tricks, yes, but mostly showmanship and performance art. There are tales of jealousy and thievery here, and of honest sweat and loyalty to the craft. It's all done by mirrors, and even when the audience knows how it is done, the eyes are still deceived. (28 November 2004)

Robinson, Peter.  Not safe after dark, and other works.  London: Macmillan, 2004.

Robinson is best known for his Inspector Banks novels, books in which he can define his characters and his plots at length and in detail. This, however, is a collection of short stories. Some are police and crime stories (and three of them feature Alan Banks), but many are not. Most are set in our time, but some are set in earlier times, sometimes far back in history.

The result is a thoroughly good read, a nice mix of the light and the dark, very dark in some of the tales. There are some poignant stories too; "April in Paris" stands out, whie the rightness of "Some land in Florida" is utterly pleasing. Nicely crafted. (23 November 2004)

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de Berniere, Louis.  Birds without wings.  London: Secker and Warburg, 2004.

This novel takes as its canvas Turkey in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a time when Greek Christians and Turkish Moslems lived side by side in the same villages, sometimes suspicious of each other, sometimes very understanding, and sometimes intermarrying. Much of the story takes place in what is now Fethiye (and as, so often, knowing the locale, one finds the book even closer and more enjoyable). It is a large canvas, and a large cast of characters, faithfully rendered. There are laughs here, and tragedies, and as a backdrop we see episodes in the life of Mustafa Kemal.

This is an amazing book, and is thoroughly recommended. (10 November 2004)

Ellis, Deborah.  The breadwinner.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

When Parvana's father is arrested by the Taliban, her family is left without means of support; Parvana has to have her hair cut short, disguse herself as a boy, and set out to earn pennies in the local market. It is a highly dangerous thing to do, of course, but Parvana succeeds. The story brings home the real effects of life under the Taliban, and especially the effects on women. Carefully told. I look forward to reading later books in the series. (3 November 2004)

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Mark, Jan.   Stratford boys.  London: Hodder Children's Books, 2004.

This is also great fun, though of a quieter, subtler variety. When he hears that no traveling company will be visiting Stratford this Whitsuntide, young Will Shakespeare sets out to write a play for his townsfolk. He has to take what he can get by way of would-be actors, and he has to write with them in mind. He learns a lot about playwriting, it does not come easy, but it does come with humor - for the reader. (12 October 2004)

Horowitz, Anthony.  Eagle strike.  London: Walker Books, 2003.

This is a rip-roaring non-stop James-Bond-for-teenagers novel. It is highly exciting, and don't let the fact that it's also highly unlikely spoil your enjoyment. There are a couple of set-piece chase scenes; Alex Rider's race through Amsterdam, pursued by a pack of highly-trained thugs anxious to do him harm, is nail-biting stuff, and great fun. Don't worry about reality; don't worry about anything. Just enjoy. (9 October 2004)

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Morpurgo, Michael.  Private Peaceful..  London: Collins, 2003.

This is set in the First World War. The narrator, Thomas Peaceful, spends the night looking back on his life, his family, his growing-up in a tied cottage on an estate in rural England. In each chapter, a paragraph or two sets the present mood, and then we flash back to episodes in young Tommy's life as he and his elder brother, Charlie, lose their father, grow up, fall in love, fall foul of the landowner on whose estate they live and work, join the army, fight in the Flanders trenches.

It is clear that something momentous is set to happen once dawn breaks. Is Tommy going to go "over the top" into battle? It slowly becomes clear that it is something much more personal than this. Both Tommy and Charlie have a rebellious streak, and both have a deep sense of right and wrong, of fairness and of justice. They fall foul of the landowner in their younger days, certainly; they also fall foul of the officer who trains them, and who later joins them in the trenches. Tommy is whiling away the last hours, lost in memories. Either he or his brother faces death in the morning. But which one?

Highly recommended. (2 October 2004)

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Proulx, E. Annie.  The Shipping News. .  New York: Scribner Touchstone, 1994.

This was the first of Proulx's works which I read. I loved it then, and it has grown since.

It is the gentle story of Quoyle, a giant of a man who, for the first thirty-six years of his life, was constantly told he was a failure, and consequently believes it implicitly. His marriage was disastrous, and, suddenly left with two young daughters, he is taken from New York State to Newfoundland by an aunt he did not know he had. And there, writing for a very local newspaper, he is praised for the first time in his life, and he blossoms.

There are no great events in this novel, it is ordinary people living ordinary lives, but the ordinariness is something we can all relate to. Not so the language: Proulx writes sparsely, with humor, with irony, with compassion. The sentences are short, often non-sentences, lacking verbs. There is a whole mass of poetry in the relation of the story, some strange and often very-apt images. It is evocative. I like this place, I like these people. I like this book. (4 September 2004)

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Chevalier, Tracy.  The lady and the unicorn. .  New York: Dutton, 2004.

I have not enjoyed Chevalier's last few novels as much as Girl with a pearl earring, possibly because of her attempts to meld present and past, but in this one she gets back on track, staying firmly in the past. She takes an actual tapestry, and spins the story which could lie behind it.

The central character is Nicolas des Innocents, a French painter who enjoys his women. Nicolas is hired to design a tapestry for a wealthy Parisian courtier, and is required to go to Brussels with his designs to consult with the tapestry-maker. Nicolas touches the life of everyone he meets and most especially the women - and we see just how as each chapter in turn is told by a different character in the story. The device works, and makes for a very pleasant read in which we learn a lot about the people of the time, a lot about art and artists, and enjoy a very possible, happy tale to boot. (28 August 2004).

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Weaver, Will.  Claws.  New York: HarperTempest, 2003.

Everything was going right for Jed Berg, a privileged preppy sixteen-year student with a golden future – until he is given evidence that his father is having an affair. Suddenly, Berg's world falls apart as he struggles to come to terms with the discovery, not made any easier when he discovers the truth about the girl who led him to this truth – and falls for her.

The subject matter and its treatment won't please all teens, but it is definitely worth the read. (26 August 2004)

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Davidsen, Leif.  Lime's photograph. London: Vintage, 2001.

In this action-packed story, photographer Peter Lime finds himself caught up in a world of high politics, espionage, and terrorism. Shortly after taking photographs of an eminent Spanish politician in flagrante delicto, Lime finds himself hunted and haunted. He thinks he knows his enemy, but he is wrong. He thinks he knows his frends, but even that is certain, as he is forced to recall his past and decide whether there is something there to give a clue.

Fast-moving, violent, and credible, this is not for the squeamish! (24 August 2004)

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Booth, Stephen. Blind to the bones. New York: Scribner, 2003.

This is a complex crime novel, set in the English Peak District. There's a murder to solve, the victim a possible suspect in the case of a student who went missing two years earlier and whose whereabouts, alive or dead, have never been traced. There's a family of no-gooders, despised by the police, and obviously to blame for all the petty crime in the area. There's a family who seem to believe that their missing daughter will turn up at any moment. And there are local rituals and superstitions which go back centuries, kept alive through the strength of tradition. The police are a mix, some with troubles of their own.

It's a well-crafted multi-layer story, with all the threads of the various plots coming togther and satisfactorily resolved. (16 August 2004)

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Hearn, Lian. Across the nightingale floor (Tales of the Otori, book 1). New York: Riverhead, 2002.

Set in Japanese feudal society, with cruel overlord, vanquished underdogs, identifiable heroes, unrequited love, illicit lovers, secret societies, assassins, compassion, revenge, conflicting loyalties, touches of magic and illusion, and lots of action and lots of violence, this story has everything - including two thirds of the trilogy to come.

It's a story which should grab boys as well as girls, and have them anxiously asking "When's the next one due?" (12 August 2004)

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Davis, Devra. When smoke ran like water: tales of environmental deception and the battle against pollution. New York: Basic Books, 2002.

Michael Moore for the thinking person! Davis is an epidemiologist. In this book she details a number of cases of environmental pollution which probably affected the health of thousands of people around the world. Sometimes the connections between pollution and affect were unknown at the time, but the pollution continued - and in many cases continues - even after suspicions were raised. Even after suspicions were proved.

One of the problems of epedemiology is proving those affects, often many years after the event, often in a population which has moved on - or been moved on. Another problem is getting big companies to accept those proofs, to change their ways, to accept their responsibilities. In many cases, big companies spend a lot of money trying to discredit the statistics and the research, buying politicians, and frightening off whistle-blowers. This is conspiracy theory writ large and the evidence presented is damning.

Davis manages to make a book which sometimes gets very technical remain readable and provocative. Much of the success here is due to the use of personal accounts, often from her own background. This is a book of heroism and heroes. Her cry throughout is that when we should learn to err on the side of caution, to accept that when we don't know it should be for the perpetrator to prove absence of side effects rather than the other way rund. She deals solely with environmental pollution, so makes no reference to, for instance, the causes and spread of BSE and its effects, and makes only side references to the tobacco industry, but these seem similar cases. As I read this, there was much discussion in the UK press about animal rights and animal rights activists, and I could not help wondering if there are pharmaceutical companies backing some of those groups, companies with a vested interest in seeing research on some of their drugs stopped... Read this book and you'll view the world with new eyes, if you can see through the smog of subterfuge, politics and big business. (30 July 2004)

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Matthee, Dalene. Fiela's child. New York: Alfred A.Knopf, 1986.

This is the story of Benjamin, a white child brought up in a black family. He had just appeared one day, and Fiela Komoetie, hearing no word of a child gone missing had simply taken him in. Twelve years on, suspicion arises that Benjamin might be Lukas van Rooyen, who had gone missing from his home two days journey away, beyond the forest and the mountain. Had a three-year-old realy managed to wander so far, and survive?

Benjamin is taken to the town where Barta van Rooyen identifies him immediately, and for the next few years Benjamin becomes Lukas. But he cannot lose his sense of identity, and needs to find the truth. This is an evocative story, tenderly told, with an ending most satisfactory. (29 June 2004)

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Smith, Alexander McCall. The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. London: Abacus, 2003.

This is a gentle set of detective stories, set in Botswana. Mma Ramotswe is the perfect lady detective, intelligent, persistent, human. She solves her cases with a gentle touch, not losing her dignity and often allowing the wrong-doers to maintain their dignity as well, to make amends without pain. At the same time, Smith tells the story of modern Botswana, the real people, just as gently, and with much love. (26 June 2004)

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Bryson, Bill. A short history of nearly everything. London: Black Swan, 2004.

As the title says, Bryson covers nearly everything in this short history. Had Douglas Adams not already used the title, I suspect Bryson might have been tempted to call this "Life, the universe, and everything". This is science on the grand scale, written for the layman and very readable. Coming soon after reading Winchester's Krakatoa and Dan Brown's Angels and demons (neither reviewed here), this makes those all the more understandable. (I might go back to Krakatoa and read it with new understanding, but I doubt I'l re-read Angels and demons - the adventure there was a little too unbelievable.) (15 June 2004)

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Longden, Deric.  The cat who came in from the cold.  London: Corgi, 1992.

Nermal, to be renamed Thermal, comes into the lives of Deric and Aileen, and does not leave. He is well blessed with lives, getting through many of them in the course of the story, for life in the Longden household is fraught with peril, most of it of Thermal's own making. Thermal is supported here by a wonderful cast of characters, from motherly Tigger to Ralph the Sultana, from the milkman who answers the notes left for him to blind Aileen, from Mrs Crampton the cleaner to Arthur who knows only fear. It's a wonderful story, cleverly told by radio-jurnalist Deric Longden, who knows just what Thermal is thinking and saying, and has us giggling out loud. Uncontrollably, at times. Not a bus to read on the bus, nor anywhere public; read it in the company of a fellow cat-lover, preferably one who does not mind your occasional explosions of laughter.   (15 May 2004)

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Coetzee, J.M. Waiting for the barbarians.  London: Vintage, 2000.

Forget the dateline above. This book was first published in 1980, and that was before the first Gulf War. A year after the second Gulf War, and reports of prisoner abuse are increasingly common-place, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Guantanemo Bay. Not that this is new; prisoner abuse, breaches of the Geneva Convention, assaults on dignity and humanity, torture, gratuitous violence, there is nothing new there.

There is a timeless feel about the setting, which makes this simply written novel all the more of our time, of any time and every time, makes it all the more violent although the violence is understated, the story told through gentle eyes. Ostensibly this is the story of a magistrate governing a remote border post; soldiers arrive from the capital, with news of impending invasion by the barbarians outside the walls. Defences must tighten, and so must discipline and self-discipline. A force is sent out to beat the barbarian into submission, and the town goes onto a war footing. Which means, inevitably, that freedoms are curtailed and that the innocent may suffer. Is the threat real or imagined? Does it matter? Is excuse ever needed for barbarity, and the question becomes, who are the barbarians?

Very much a story for today. (13 May 2004)

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Grass, Gunter.  Crabwalk.  Orlando: Harcourt inc., 2002.

This novella is based on the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, attacked by a Soviet submarine in January 1945 and sinking with the loss of 9000 lives, mainly civilian. It is the greatest sea disaster ever, yet is relatively unknown.

The narrator of the story is Paul Pokriefke, a middle aged journalist born in a lifeboat as the ship went down. Fifty years on he is separated from his wife, his son appears to be a neo-nazi, reliving on the internet the events which led to the assassination of the original Wilhelm Gustloff. This is thus a story set in at least three times, and time affects the future as we try to make sense of the past.

It is cleverly done, but Grass is a master of time and of history.   (10 May 2004)

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Deaver, Jeffery. The blue nowhere.  London: Coronet, 2001.

This is a dark story, white hat hacker versus black hat hacker. The white hats are, of course, the good guys, and the black hats are the bad guys. In this case, the white hat is worn by Wyatt Gillette, serving time in prison for breaking into a software company's machines and stealing its source code, but now enlisted by the police to help stop the serial killings of a hacker who can no longer tell the difference between virtual reality and life. Death is just part of the game.

The technical material is perhaps a little simplistic at times, written down to make it understandable to the ordinary reader, but the psycho-thriller is all the more tense for that. Several twists at the end make this a very readable read. (4 May 2004)

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Harris, Robert.  Pompeii.  London: Hutchinson, 2003.

The story of Pompeii is well-known, at least the outlines of the story of Pompeii are well-known. Over a couple of days in August AD 79, Mount Vesuvius, the quiet mountain behind the city, erupted, showering the city and other nearby towns, with deadly ash and sulphur and lava. Many died, their corpses petrified, until discovered hundreds of years later. Much of our knowledge of the life of ordinary romans came from the excavations of the site.

The story is told in history books and novels and film. Well-known it may be, but Haris manages to say something new, fresh and exciting of the story. Mingling historical and fictitious characters, he tells the story of the city's last two days. The tale is of a young water engineer, sent from Rome to Misenum after the then post-holder disappears. Attilius realises that the city's water is not flowing as it should; tracing the problem he solves the mystery of his predecessor's disappearance. He uncovers much corruption in the city, and much that is noble as well. He discovers why several of the towns in the bay of Naples are suffering water problems - but the reason is, of course, the awakening volcano.

It is a grand view of life at all levels of Roman society, and even though one knows how it is going to end, the story grips. The end may be inevitable, but the ending is satisfactory indeed.   (10 April 2004)

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Crutcher, Chris. King of the mild frontier: an ill-advised autobiography.  New York: Greenwillow Books, 2003.

It will be clear to any reader of this reading diary that I am a great fan of Crutcher's work. I enjoy it all the more since attending several workshops Crutcher gave during last year's ECIS Conference. Here Crutcher tells of his early life, and especially the childhood years. He was never a winner, at least so it seemed, and especially not in the sporting sense. But Crutcher's compassion comes from a belief that the winners are not those to whom winning comes easy; they are those who have to fight against life's n astinesses and who do not always win.

There is much here to smile and laugh about, for Crutcher is a grand raconteur who can tell a good story against himsel, no hiding anything here. There is also much ache here, for Crutcher also tells of some of the family therapy cases which also helped firm his feelings for his fellow man, and many of these stories formed characters or incidents in his books. You do not need to know his books to appreciate this autobiography, but whether you know them or not you may well be sent scurrying to read more by this very likable man and author. (2 April 2004)

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Donnelly, Jennifer.  A northern light..  Orlando FL: Harcourt, Inc., 2003.

The story here is sombre: the drowning of a young woman in the early years of the 20th century, and the effect on young Mattie Gokey, a very bright farmer's daughter who dreams of going to college, despite the lack of money and her father's insistence that she stay and look after the rest of the family.

In fact there are several stories here, for we simultaneously see Mattie's home background and her schooling, and also her passage into womanhood and her mixed feelings for Royal Loomis, marriage to whom would end Mattie's dreams of college and independence.

Other supporting characters are drawn as vividly as the main characters, especially Weaver, descended from slaves and who too dreams of college, and Miss Wilcox, a free-thinking teacher who discovers Mattie's potential and is herself a victim of the times.

It is a dark book, and yet delightful, beautifully told with a real feeling for the times. It ends with hope, and it ends with the reader - me, at least - putting this into my must-recommend-this category of a good book, a satisfying read.   (30 March 2004)

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Brown, Dan. The Da Vinci Code.  New York: Doubleday, 2003.

This is a fast paced action adventure, man and woman on the run, pursued by powerful enemies anxious to obtain their secrets, secrets they do not even know they have.

The story takes place inside 12 hours, thus the fast pace. They are trying to discover the meaning of the coded message left for Sophie Neuve by her dying grandfather, which may reveal the ultimate secret of an ancient templar society which in turn may relate to the long-sought and never-found Holy Grail. Sophie seeks the help of art-historian R obert Langdon, who finds himself number one suspect in the old man's death. The Police are involved, and so too is the Church. But are they more intent on discovering the truth – or in keeping it hidden? (27 March 2004)

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Riehl, Gene.  Quantico rules.  New York: St Martin's Minotaur, 2003.

FBI agent Puller Monk is investigating the background of a nominee to the Supreme Court. If she proves squeaky clean, she gets the appointment, and squeaky-clean she appears to be - until a discrepancy in her background thirty years before becomes apparent. Monk is not himself squeaky-clean; he carries a whole load of baggage including an unforgiving father and an addiction to high-stakes gambling.

The stakes are high indeed: Monk appears to be taking on the FBI itself. Fast moving and highly credible.   (20 March 2004).

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Pressfield, Steven. Gates of fire: an epic novel of the Battle of Thermopylae.  New York: Bantam Books, 1998.

The ancient Greeks had many good tales to tell. Some were mythological, some were firmly based in history. The Battle of Thermopylae really happened. It was good guys against bad guys. The good guys were the Greeks, a few thousand warriors facing Xerxes' conquering army of half a million. The terrain was in the Greek's favor, a narrow pass through which only a few hundred could advance at a time, but this advantage could not last long, for each attack reduced the number of defenders. In the end, all but the Spartan defenders were sent home, honorably, to mount a later defence against the Persians. Those Spartans who remained fought to the inevitable end.

Not a Spartan survived, except here, a lone Greek to tell the tale leading up to the glorious defeat. Glory it is, and honor too, and we learn much of the ways of the ancients, of their military training and their codes of honor. It is a brutal book, with much blood and earthy language, but an uplifting story. Mass killing it was, but these were the days of man-to-man combat, and of heroism. It is very much part of our history. (12 March 2004)

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Best, Joel.  Damned lies and statistics: untangling numbers from the media, politicians, and activists.  Berkeley CA: University of California Press, 2001.

Best shows how numbers and statistics, especially those regarding social problems, can be misinterpreted, misunderstood, misrepresented and mutilated, sometimes deliberately, sometimes accidentally.

Best shows how statistics are compiled, and discusses the decisons that must be made regarding their collection; these include matters of definition, of survey construction, of interpretation. He declares that statistics about social problems are used by activists, so they will choose only those statistics which support their cause; often the same set of data can be used by both sides of an argument, to show the problem is huge, or to show that the problem is minor. Best warns the reader to be careful not to compare ornagles and apples, and cautions that many activists do.

Above all, Best warns us to think carefully about statistics and the way they are used, always to question the survey instrument, the sample, the question/s investigated, and the statistical analysis. One should be just as careful when the statistics are used in respect of a cause the reader supports as when they are used against. There is very little mathematics in this book, it is written for the layman, and is very readable.   (29 February 2004).

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Robinson, Peter. Playing with fire..  London: Macmillan, 2004.

This was a good one to read. Robinson never fails to thrill, his characters develop and grow.

In this mystery, two fires in two days leave three people dead. The forensic investigations suggest that both fires were deliberately set. There are several people who could have done it, several who might have done it, but the evidence is not strong… There are some great twists in the story, as Banks gets ever closer to the truth. (10 February 2004)

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Forsyth, Frederick.  The avenger..  London: Bantam Press, 2003.

The main story here is that of a hunter, seeking revenge on behalf of a client whose grand-son was brutally murdered while serving as an aid-worker in Kosovo. But there are other stories too, especially of the World War Two veteran, and of the Vietnam commando working to smoke out the killers in the tunnels beneath the killing fields.

There is a grand showpiece setpiece ending in which the Avenger, having tracked down his man, tries to take him alive from his fortress, as impenetrable and as well-defended as any James Bond villain might have built. Nicely done.   (7 February 2004)

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Crichton, Michael.  Prey.  New York: Harper Collins, 2002.

The predator is a swarm of nanoparticles which has escaped from a laboratory in the Nevada desert. It is evolving fast. It learns fast. It kills. And its prey is man.

Crichton weaves together trends in nanotechnology, genetic manipulation and artificial intelligence to make a frightening, readable, and all-too-real horror story. (24 December 2003)

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Spinelli, Jerry.  Loser.  New York: Harper Collins, 2002.

Donald Zinkoff is a born loser. From his earliest days, he is clumsy, a clown, a jinx and a jonah. He rarely shines, rarely wins anything, is often the cause of team-mates' and class-mates' losing. At first, it does not matter, but as he gets older people begn to notice. But his heart is in the right place, he never feels bitter, he almost rejoices in standing out for all the wrong reasons. He never loses his sense of humor, nor his compassion. He becomes a hero for all the wrong reasons, and for all the right reasons.

This novel traces Zinkoff's progress from pre-school to sixth grade, and his story is told with humor and with warmth. It's in the tradition of Ramona and Anastasia. It's great fun.   (18 December 2003)

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Newberry, Linda.   The shell house.  London: Red House Definitions, 2002.

This is two stories in parallel. In modern times we meet Greg, uncertain of his sexuality, and Faith, very certain of her faith. Faith's father is leading a group doing research and restoration work into an English estate house in the country which burned down towards the end of the First World War, leaving just a shell, the shell house of the title.

In the war sequence, we meet Edmund, a young officer in the trenches, a poet in the mold of Owen and Sassoon and the other FWW greats, and he is very certain of his sexuality, his love for his fellow-officer Alex.

It is a story with twists and surprises, finely told. In the end it leaves, perhaps, a few too many questions unanswered, but many of these, and many of those raised in the course of the story, do keep the reader alert and wanting to know more. (28 November 2003).

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Adams, Douglas.  The salmon of doubt: hitchhiking the galaxy one last time.  London: Pan, 2002..

This is a collection of Adams' essays, thoughts, opinions notes and ramblings, plus the first eleven chapters of his last book, possibly a third in the Dirk Gently series, or possibly the sixth book in the Hitchhiker's Guide trilogy. It is thought-provoking and fun at every turn, biography and philosophy, a touch of science and a love affair with technology, a wonderful way with words. Here is life, the universe, and everything.   (25 November 2003).

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Frost, Mark.   The greatest game ever played: Harry Vardon, Francis Ouimet, and the birth of modern golf. .  New York: Hyperion, 2002.

This book covers a lot of ground It is a sports biography, a sports history, a social history, and most of all the account of just one tournament, the 1913 US Open. As a biography, it tells the stories of the British player, Harry Vardon, who rose from a background of poverty, to become one of the greatest professional golfers of all time, and of American Francis Ouimet, who likewise rose from a background of poverty, to become one of the greatest amateur golfers of all time. Vardon was already great, the greatest player of his day, when they met in the 1913 Open; Ouimet was just starting out, the local player whose house was just across the road from the 17th fairway, starting to make a small reputation for himself, but totally unfancied. They were to play to a three-way tie, and then play a full 18 holes play-off. And the excitement never lets up.

In the telling we meet many of other early golf greats: Old and Young Tom Morris, Ted Ray, Walter Hagen, and many, many more. There is also the story of Ouimet's young caddie, Eddie Lowery, who truanted from school to carry Ouimet's bag. We find many points where the game was different to that of today – but the similarities are sometimes even more surprising. We meet odd characters and odd incidents. Arthur Hunnewell, for instance, who played an exhibition match to demonstrate the then unknown game to the people of Brookline in 1893. On the very first shot of the match, on the very first tee, Hunnewell hit his shot, a perfect hole-in-one, greeted in silence; the crowd did not know any better, that's what golfers were supposed to do and that's what the man had done. (Hunnewell played for 30 and more years, but that was the only ace he ever made.) Or there is Fred Brand, in that great Open: on a par four hole he smashed his second shot into a tree, for the ball to roll back to his feet; his third shot smashed into the same tree, and went back twenty yards behind: his fourth shot found the cup, par four, the hard way.

But most of all, it is the great duel that holds our attention, and like the great golf match it portrays, we can hardly bear to miss a moment. (13 November 2003)

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Allende, Isabel.  City of the beasts. .  New York: Harper Collins, 2002.

This is a lost in the jungles of the upper Amazon adventure, a story in which lost tribes move invisibly through the undergrowth and giant beasts of unknown variety dwell in the higher hills. It is a story of mystery and oneness with nature, and of greed and alienation. Some of the characters are larger than life, somewhat unreal caricatures, but this is lost as the magic of the simple life takes hold. The good guys win, some of the bad guys die, and there are a few neat twists as the story unfolds   (8 November 2003)

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Geras, Adele.  Troy. . London: Scholastic Point, 2001.

This is a re-telling of the last days of Troy. It is told mainly through the eyes of two Trojan sisters, both in love with the same man. Then it gets complicated. That is not fair. This is a gripping story in which the gods walk (or fly, or just appear). Great deeds are done and lives are lost. As servants in the palace, the two girls may not get to see all that is being done on the battlefields outside the walls, but that is acceptable. There is enough blood in the story as it is. There is also poetry and wonderful imagery, and the fact that we know how it is all going to turn out makes for growing tension throughout. (1 November 2003)

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Plum-Ucci, Carol.  What happened to Lani Garver. San Diego: Harcourt, Inc., 2002.

What happened to Lani Garver is revealed early on in the book: he drowned. Or did he? The body was never recovered, so perhaps he survived.

Lani Garver's problem is that he appears to be openly gay, and that is not acceptable in a homophobic community like Hackett Island. He is also wise, compassionate, tolerant. Some call him an angel, and perhaps that is not so far from the truth.

Claire, the narrator of the story, has problems of her own. She is recovering from chemo-therapy, has an eating disorder, has a drunken mother, has remarkable musical talent, and is also an outsider.

What happens when they meet is explosive. The brutality is graphic and the language is strong. Not a book for the faint-hearted or weak-stomached, this is a gripping and relentless read.  (28 October 2003)

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Crew, Gary.  Mama's babies.  Toronto: Annick Press Ltd., 2002.

This story, set in Australia, tells of a baby farmer who fosters unwanted children. The tale is told by Sarah, oldest child in a large family, who gradually becomes aware that there is something not quite right about their mother, something not quite right about the way one of her brothers or sisters is suddenly taken sick and disappears just before another baby arrives.

It is a grim story, based on several actual cases of baby farming. It is easier to read than Coram Boy which deals with much the same background, written for a younger audience. It will go down well. (15 October 2003)

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Paretsky, Sara.  Ghost country..  New York: Delacorte Press, 1998.

This is very different to the Warshawski series, yet many of the characters have come off those pages. There are the down-and-out homeless people and the uncaring, unaware, money rich and spiritually poor leaders of the community, some of them churchmen. There are several heroes and a fair few villains, often well-meaning but wholly ineffective and blinded by their prejudices. And the story is both very funny and very tragic, a parable for our times.

Homeless Madeleine sees water dripping from a rusty pipe and is convinced that it is the blood of the Virgin Mary. Others believe her - and still others refuse to believe her, want her and the drip tidied away. Then a mysterious woman joins them, unspeaking yet charismatic, and strange things start happening. Miracles? Not in this day and age? The believers are a nuisance, to be cleared off the streets and out of sight, but they are championed by a young psychiatrist and the grand-daughter of the grandee of the hospital where our psychiatrist works.

It becomes a fast-paced read, gripping and provocative and very telling.   (13 October 2003)

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Mankell, Henning. One step behind. London: Vintage, 2003.

One of the advantages of a heavy tome like the latest Harry Potter is that one is forced to have a second book on the go at the same time, a book one can read in the bath and in bed. This proved a perfect counter-weight to Rowling's revels.

Three young Swedes go missing, and one of Inspector Wallender's detectives is found dead in his apartment. For a time it looks as if it might have been suicide, especially when there seems to be some connection between the missing teenagers and the dead policeman, even more so when three corpses are found. But the murders do not stop, and the chase is on for a ruthless serial killer.

Once again, highly atmospheric and wth some very real, very human characters. My only criticism is the size of the print - way too small! (7 September 2003)
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Rowling, J.K.  Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. London: Bloomsbury, 2003.

As the characters grow, so do the books: the fifth in the Harry Potter series is more than 760 pages long. As the characters age, so they develop, and this too is to the good.  Potter is now a rebellious sixteen year old, studying for his OWL exams, faced with his first romance, and surrounded by all kinds of danger.  He has to survive a kangeroo court at the Ministry of Magic, which it seems has already condemned him for using magic in front of Muggles. He finds that Dumbledore no longer seems to support him, that Hagrid has disappeared, that the toad-like Professor Umbridge seems determined to overturn education at Hogwarts, and has ministerial backing to do so.  He discovers that his parents were not quite the blameless heroic characters he has till now imagined them.  And all the time,  he finds that he is getting into Voldemart's mind - or that Voldemart is getting into his...

There are many twists in the many stories and sub-stories here, but it s a rewarding read.  It is a long read, could perhaps have been even better were it 200 pages fewer.  It is also a mature read; just as the characters are maturing, so too are the situations and the vocabulary.  Rowling's early fans will have matured too, but those only just getting into The Philosopher's Stone may need to wait a while before they are ready for this one.  (7 September 2003)
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Balfour, Sandy.  Pretty girl in crimson rose (8): a memoir of love, exile and crosswords. London: Atlantic Books, 2003.

Balfour is a crossword enthusiast who reckons that the best clues tell stories, about the setter or about the solver. In exploring this thesis, he tells his life story, enlivened by clues which bring back memories and y memorable clues. He tells how his girlfriend at last managed to get him interested in cryptic clues as they traveled from South Africa to England, and then around the world; he meets other crossword enthusiasts, he meets crossword compilers, he meets crossword historians. His adventures and the people he meets, they all have stories to tell, and he illustrates all with clues, explaining as he goes for the benefit of those whose insight into cryptic clues is as non-existent as was once his own.

It is a very clever book, very well done. Whether non-crossword-lovers will become enthused and aware is a moot question, but those who do like word-games, and those who already enjoy crosswords, will certainly enjoy this.   (31 August 2003)

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Laird, Elizabeth. A little piece of ground. London: Macmillan Children's Books, 2003.

Laird writes of a Middle East she knows well; she has lived in several Middle Eastern countries, and she researches meticulously. Just as well, for her stories can be very political.

This story is set in Palestine, not yet a country, occupied by Israel. It is Karim's story, an ordinary boy, going to school when he can and not always liking it, good at football, good at computer games. It tells of his family and his friends, their feelings and the general oppression of they suffer. They are not heroes and they are not terrorists, and they want, desperately, to live "normal" lives.

We get a view of what it means to be under 24 hour curfew, unable to go to school, the shops, the pharmacy; we see them react with horror as another suicide bomber forces the Israelis to reintroduce curfew; we see the effect of Israeli settlement in Palestinian territory; we see the shame and humiliation wrought on a subject people. Laird treads a difficult path and she does it well. There is no sensationalism here, no tear-jerking sentimentality. It is credible and it is tragic. (17 August 20)
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Haddon, Mark.  The curious incident of the dog in the night-time.  London: Jonathan Cape, 2003.

When Christopher finds that a neighbor's dog has been killed, he is determined to discover who killed it.

Christopher is autistic.  Although he is brilliant at mathematics, has a logical mind, and has a sharp memory for detail, he has very limited imagination and cannot relate to other people, has difficulty understanding other viewpoints. In setting out to solve the mystery, he learns new things about himself and his family, and the reader too learns much as well. It is eye-opening and shattering and unputdownable.

This is a very human story, the characters very real, and told with great understanding.  Sheila Egoff once said that a poor book made her laugh, a mediocre book set her teet on edge, but a good book made her want to tell anyone and everyone else to read it. By that criterion, this is very much one of those good books.  READ IT! (August 9, 2003)
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Deaver, Jeffery. The stone monkey. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002.

This is the fourth in the series - I'll have to catch up with the second and third.  Quadraplegic Lincoln Rhyme is no longer as unhappy with his state as he was, and his brain remains as sharp as ever.  Just as well, for in this story he is matched against The Ghost, a ruthless Chinese killer with friends in high places.  A boatload of illegal immigrants sinks.  A few of the immigrants escape and go into hiding in New York.  The Ghost too escapes, and appears to be aiming to kill those survivors.

Enter Lincoln Rhyme and Amelia Sachs.  This is without some of the more horrific detail of The Bone Collector, but it is just as exciting, well-paced, gripping. (30 June 2003)
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Walter, Jess.  Over tumbled graves. London: Coronet Books, 2002.

This is a hunt for a serial killer.  It is quite a cast of characters: a disillusioned detective, a female detective he trained years before, the ambitious up-coming detective, and two rival profilers who have little respect for each other.  And somewhere out there, somebody is killing off prostitutes, someone who may have read up on serial killings and knows how they work - and how the police work.

The hunt narrows to one man - but when the killings do not appear to be so random after all, our hero detectives begin to have doubts.  Twist after delightful twist, right to the last page. The violence is carefully ungraphic. This is a fast-paced delight. (17 June 2003)
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Marsden, John.  Darkness be my friend.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999.

This is the fourth story in the Hell saga, the story of an Australia after it has been conquered by a foreign power.  After they have escaped the country, Ellie and her friends are taken back to Hell, guiding a group of New Zealand commandos intent on sabotage.  Things go wrong very quickly, grimly.

Again fast-paced, vivid, plausible, once more a rattling good read.  (10 June 2003)
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Burgess, Melvin.  Bloodtide. London: Penguin, 2001.

This is an amazing adaptation of the Icelandic Volsung saga.  It is set in a London of the future in which the gangsters have taken over.  Two ganglords rule over all, and the story starts with a treaty and a marriage between the rival families.  Betrayal is in the air, helped along by a vengeful Odin and a mischief-making Loki.

The characters are well-drawn indeed, and there are some very inventive monsters, half-men and half-beast, the result of breeding and cloning experiments gone awry.

There is graphic violence, and Burgess does not spare his readers.  But then, nor is he likely to lose them.  The story rattles along to an inevitable ending, all too vivid, despite the fantasy all too real. (8 June 2003)
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Townsend, Lawrence G.  Secrets of the Wholly Grill.  New York: Carroll and Graf, 2002.

This is a fast paced read,  a chilling, hilariously-told tale of how THEY are out to get you, capture you, control you.  A software corporation, ThinkSoft,  markets a new concept in information systems, the Wholly Grill.  It may look and work like a barbecue grill, but it is far more than that.  And the shrink-wrap license requires that only meat marinated in ThinkSoft's Smoke Crystals may be barbecued on the grill, and that meat marinated in ThinkSoft's Smoke Crystals cannot be cooked on any other grill; failure to abide by these conditions could lead to dire consequences, and ThinkSoft cannot be held liable for any undesirable consequences resulting from breach of the license conditions.

Many Wholly Grill users find themselves quickly addicted to the product, and find too that ThinkSoft is serious about those licensing conditions.  Legal or not?  This becomes a legal drama, a marvellous spoof on big business, on personality professionals with a care for their tv ratings, on computer games, on the American legal system and on blind justice herself.  (21 May 2003)
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Robinson,  Peter.  The summer that never was.  London: Macmillan, 2003.

If there is a gap in the reading record, it is due to my catching up on the Banks' series.  With this, I am up to date, I've now read all that have been written.

The previous story in the saga was good, though horrific and violent.  Aftermath was in the Silence of the lambs tradition, with a lot of Moors Murders history thrown in.  Child murder is the theme of this novel too, with Kray twins' lore combining with Brady/ Hindley history.  When he was in his teens, one of Banks' friends disappeared.  Forty years on, another teenager disappears.  Banks investigates the latest disappearance, and with knowledge he did not declare at the time is also involved in the earlier investigation.  Both turn nasty.

Thrilling stuff, very much on track. (17 May 2003).
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Stephenson, Pamela.  Billy.  London: HarperCollinsEntertainment, 2001.

This is Billy Connolly's biography, told with great zest by actress turned psychologist Stephenson, who is also Connolly's wife.  It is a revealing story, very sad though all too typical in Connolly's early years, a story over triumph despite the many personal nightmares in his life.  Talent helped, of course, and Connolly clearly has great natural talent, great compassion, and a brand of wicked cynicism which helps him see through false fronts and fake feelings. 

As a boy, Connolly was made to feel unloved and unwanted: his mother ran away, leaving her children to the care of two aunts with no love for children. They told Connolly he was worthless and useless, and he believed them. They gave him verbal and physical abuse.  His father, returning from the war, gave him sexual abuse.  It seems that many abused children grow up to force the same kinds of abuse on their own children.  Connolly managed to escape the trap, and his musical and comic talents made their mark.  And the rest, as they say, is history.  (17 April 2003)
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Proulx, Annie.  That old ace in the hole.  London: Fourth Estate, 2002.

One of Proulx's strengths is her ability to string a set of unconnected anecdotes and short stories together to make one continous story, the parts relating and inter-relating.  She does it well, and you can't see the joins.  Grand stuff here, a big novel, the story of a little man in a big corporation,seeking Panhandle land owners who will set out for the hated hog industry to move in.  As one of the characters says, if what our hero is doing is right and moral, then why must he lie about his reasons for being there?

There is history here, economics, human misery and human interest, and human triumph too.   A lot of wit as well.  Though Bob Dollar has always been a failure, and continues to fail, he comes out top in a highly satisfying ending. (16 March 2003)

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Deaver, Jeffery. The bone collector. New York: Signet, 1998.

This is a forensic detection thriller, from the Patricia Cornwell and Thomas Harris stable.  In this case, the forensic criminologist is quadraplegic, longing for release. His legs and eyes are provided by a rookie police detective who hates the task, hates the grisly discoveries of mutilated corpses and dying victims, hates the ruthless dehumanisation necessary to preserve the crime scene, possibly at the risk of a still-living victim's life.

The story is fast-moving, the details skilfully drawn, the research meticulous.  Nicely done. (28 February 2003)

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Chevalier, Tracy. The virgin blue. London: Harper and Collins, 2002.

Haunted by a recurring dream, American Ella Turner traces her family's roots back to France and Switzerland in the 17th and 16th centuries, a time when Catholic and Protestant were divided in bitter enmity, the times of the Huguenot dispersions.

Alternating with Ella's story is that of Isabelle du Moulin, shunned by her fellow villagers: there are suspicions of witchcraft in the family, and also suspicions of lingering catholicism, especially after Isabelle's hair turns red, traditionally the color of the Virgin Mary's hair. The Tournier family is forced to leave their farm and head east.

The two trails converge, coming together in a final dramatic and horrific chapter, inevitable and almost satisfactory. The love element of Ella's story did not appeal as much as the story of her quest and the historic detail of Isabelle's life. A nice, neat ending ties it together and makes for additional credibility. (15 February 2003).

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Vreeland, Susan. The passion of Artemisia. London: Review, 2002.

Vreeland again takes art, and Art, as her theme. In this telling of the story of Artemisia Gentileschi, she paints a vivid picture of 17th century Italy, and especially life for a woman at the time. It is not a pretty story but it is full of detail, of compassion and of passion.  Artemisia's passion is for her painting, for painting, for glorification of God through artistic acheivement. It is a wonderful celebration of life despite those who would wish to circumscribe and belittle and deny. Artemisia, at the end of this story, realises that she too must let loose to avoid being just like those who have tried to set her boundaries. An absorbing read. (13 February 2003)

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Kneale, Matthew. English passengers. London: Penguin, 2001.

A rolicking read. The English passengers were a group of 19th century amateur explorers and scientists, the ship's crew were Manxmen, taking on their passengers in an attempt to evade curious customsmen getting too close to their cargo of contraband. A series of misdaventures and rushed escapes leads the crew to fulfil their charge, to take their passengers to Tasmania.

Interwoven with this story is that of the Tasmanian aboriginals, forced into subjection by the white conquerors of Australia, treated no better than the convicts who also settled these lands.

There is great humor here, and much irony as the evildoers gain their just, and appropriate, desserts. Worth reading, and again. (8 February 2003)

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Bryson, Bill. A walk in the woods: rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail.  New York: Broadway Books, 1999.
-----               I'm a stranger here myself: notes on returning to America after twenty years away.   New York: Broadway Books, 2000.

Not quite coincidence (see the comment on my previous read below) - having found one Bryson on the shelf I just had to find the others.  These confirm my view that Bryon is warmer about other nationalities; he can be very cruel about fellow-Americans.  Cruel?  Or just more perceptive?  A walk in the woods tells of a hike along the Appalachian Trail, along with his friend Katz.  Parts of it, anyway; they didn't get to walk the full trail.

As well as descriptions of many of the people they meet, there are asides aplenty on the people responsible for America's national and natural heritage, not always nice because many times they have not done a good job.  Trees and other plants and animals are dieing, have died, because of poor management, lack of financing,  and lack of imagination.  It's a curious commentary on American attitudes.  But most of the people they meet are warm, most of the hike worth doing - or at least, reading about when handled by such a marvellous raconteur. (21January 2003)

Stranger is a series of essays, originally written for a British newspaper after Bryson's return to the States.  Warmer, less cruel but more ironic, for a Brit it certainly sounds true and for an American too the comments should strike fair.  Both good reads.  (25 January 2003)

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Marsden, John.  Tomorrow when the war began.  London: Macmillan, 1995.

It isn't intentional, two books set in Australia in a row.  Just coincidence. 

But having read Bill Bryson's descriptions just makes the wilderness setting of this novel all the more real.  They called it Hell, even if it was very close to the city.  Close enough for seven teenagers to go adventuring for a few days - and when they went back they found their homes deserted and their livestock and pets in agony. Or dead.

This part of Australia has been invaded, and survivors of the battle are held captive at the local fairground.  The seven teenagers go back into hiding, aiming to survive and perhaps strike small blows at the enemy.  This is an imaginative survival story, the first in a trilogy.  It is cleverly told, quite credible.  I look forward to reading the other two stories. (17 January 2003)

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Bryson, Bill.  In a sunburned country. New York: Broadway Books, 2000.

Bryson loves Australia, and it comes across in this very warm travelogue.  Bryson details four visits/ trips to the largest island in the world:  a railway journey from Sydney to Perth, a tour of the south-eastern corner of Austraia, exploration of the north east coast, and a journey from Darwin down to Alice, flying on to Perth and the the south-western corner of the continent.

It seems there is hardly a corner of the country which Bryson has not visited, but he is at pains to say that he has visited very little indeed of this huge and still very unknown continent.  New plants, new animal species, sometimes even new geological oddities are discovered all the time - and sometimes disappear as well.  Bryson visits places man tourists never reach, and sometimes few Australians either. He knows his history too, he read up about the places he visited before he got there, and knew what to look for once arrived.  He explores boldly, always with an eye on the interesting or the odd, the bizarre and the just plain stupid.  He can be very funny, but he is rarely cruel; when he is you feel it is jusly deserved.  His description of cricket is a delight, but then so is so much of this odyssey.  Bryson is a kind traveler, compassionate and appreciative.  He found Australians very friendly, on the whole, and on the whole he is very friendly in return.

This is typical Bryson, plus.  One word of warning: do not read this book on the bus or train or you could get some very funny looks when you collapse into giggles or guffaws. (9 January 2003)

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Asimov, Isaac, ed.  The thirteen crimes of science fiction, edited by Isaac Asimov, Martin Harry Greenberg, ad Charles G. Waugh.  New York: Doubleday and company, 1979.

Asimov posits that there are thirteen types of crime story: the whodunit, the howdunit, the locked room mystery, the courtroom drama, the spy story, and so on.  For each of these types of story he and his co-editors sought out a science fiction short story which used one of these themes to build this anthology.

Good examples they are too.  I enjoyed most of them, especially 'Mouthpiece', 'How-2','second game', Asimov's own'the singing bell', 'Arm' - the list goes on and on, almost worth naming the few I did not really enjoy.  But then there are some really great names collected here: Larry Niven, William Tenn, Philip K. Dick, Avram Davidson, again the list goes on and on.'time in advance' is perhaps my favorite story, right now (though that could change later) and possibly because as the last in the collection it is the freshest in mind: it is set in a time when would-be criminals are permitted to serve their time in advance, in dangerous community service projects on the outer fringes of the galaxy, and then serve no time when rehabilitated into society they commit the crime and earn the punishment which they have already served.  Some neat twists and good humor here - but in true krimi and short story style there are twists and wry humor in so many of these stories.

The collection is more than a quarter-century old, but the stories - and the situations and the science fiction - remain fresh, illustrating just how far-sighted were the authors and how well-chosen the select;on.  (28 December 2002)

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Robinson, Peter.  Cold is the grave.  London: Pan, 2001.
-----                 Aftermath. London: Pan, 2002.

Robinson writes detective stories which just get better and better.  Alan Banks, always very human, always very credible, is one of those policemen whose methods verge on the unorthodox, whose private lives are a mess, who drink too much and smoke too much, who are (in short) poor role models except that they side with the underdog and have a lasting, often naïve, belief in justice.

In earlier novels, Banks has often fallen foul of his superiors. In Cold is the grave, however, Banks finds himself coming in from the cold when his Chief Constable swallows his qualms and asks him to discover the whereabouts of his runaway daughter.  Banks is, of course, chosen for the task because of his unconventional methods.  And succeed he does.  He finds Emily, and then helps her escape from the hell-hole into which she has fallen.  And then events take a nasty turn...  (19 December 2002)

Banks redeems himself in Cold is the grave, and is rewarded with even more responsibility in Aftermath.  This starts with the tracking down of a serial killer, but takes some surprising turns.  Why are they a body short? Did the arresting officer use unreasonable force in immobilizing the killer?  Was the killer's wife a victim or just as guilty as her husband?  All too real, with elements of fictional and true serial killings echoing throughout, this is one of the most horrific and enthralling police stories I have read in recent years.  It puts Robinson in the same rank as Rankin and Hill - well worth reading. (24 December 2002)

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Tey, Josephine.  To love and be wise.  London: Arrow, 2002.

First published in 1950, this is a delightful detective novel of the period.   Fashionable photographer Leslie Searle comes to stay in Salcott St Mary, where he disrupts the lives of the local village folk, many of whom are national celebrities in retreat. Then Searle mysteriously disappears, without a trace.

Nearly everyone has a motive for wishing him ill, nearly everybody had an opportunity to do away with him, if only there was a body!  Enter Inspector Grant.

Nicely plotted, nicely told. (8 December 2002)

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Dickinson, Peter.  The lion tamer's daughter. New York: Delacorte, 1997.

Dickinson is a master story-teller. Here he presents four short stories, each of which deals with problems of identity, each with a supernatural twist.

The shortest story is the first. Many readers will have wondered, if my parents had not met, I would not be here today, I would be someone completely different, and how would I ever know?  Dickinson takes this a step further as his hero wakes up to find he is one of twins...  "Touch and go" is a story very reminiscent of "Tom's midnight garden";, a time-slip story with a couple of extra twists in the tale - and the tail!

"Checkers" is a ghost story with a difference. Dave, kidnapped for ransom his father is unwilling to pay, feels he is becoming less real, as the ghost of his fellow-prisoner becomes ever more real.  The last story, "The lion tamer's daughter", is romany magic become horrific as the spell begins to wear out.  Melly and Melanie discover they are twins who had been parted at birth, until they begin to suspect that in fact one might be a clone of the other.  Their need to learn the truth takes them down a dark and sinister path.

Excellent stuff!  (3 December 2002)

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Atkinson, Kate. Behind the scenes at the museum. London: Black Swan, 1996.

Curious how so often, and usually unintentionally, one reads similar types of book, one after another. This is another story told in flashbacks, though this time the flashbacks are more defined, the basic story more continuous.  Again it is the story of a dysfunctional family.  Ruby is the main character, the "I"  who tells her story from conception (yes!) through to her fortieth year.  Each episode alternates with a footnote which traces significant events in the lives of her mother and earlier generations of the family, each event making its mark on the characters and the outlooks of those it touches.

The characters are not lovable, but they are very real.  They are also, characters and events, very funny and very telling, giving the book its charm and fascination. This is evocative and memorable and very worth reading.  (31 October 2002)

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O'Farrell, Maggie.  After you'd gone. London: Hodder Book Publishing, 2001.

Alice Raikes travels to Edinburgh to see her sisters, but hardly has she arrived before she gets on the train back to London.  She is obviously distraught when she gets back, so much so that she walks under a passing car and is taken to hospital in a coma.  The rest of the novel is told in flashbacks, to and fro through her own life and that of her mother and her grandmother and the people in their lives.  They each have secrets to hide, secrets which affect their lives and of those they touch, and they are skilfully drawn out for the reader.

It's a very cleverly constructed story, very funny, wholly abandoned, and totally satisfying. (27 October 2002)

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Forsyth, Frederick. The veteran. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2001.

This is a collection of five stories, though the last, "Whispering Wind", is surely long enough to make a novella or a short novel.  I particularly enjoyed the first two: revenge stories with neat twists as the victims get their own back. The third was fun, though perhaps a little obvious especially after the first two; the fourth story is dark and devious and again good fun.

The novella is a fine reconstruction of Custer's Last Stand, not the romantic Errol Flynn version but a more realistic, dusty story of incompetence and survival. For one man survives the massacre, and his story is told here.  It is a romantic story which touches lives a century later.  Nice touch.  Forsyth's short stories tend to be less dramatic than his longer novels, but he still has a great way of telling them. (20 October 2002)

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Bisson, Terry. The pickup artist. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 2001.

This was a very timely reading, the week of the U.S. Supreme Court hearing into the Copyright Term Extension Act.  It seems to be raising quite a furore, with one side claiming that 75 years and more after a work was originally published the copyright holder should maintain control, even unto perpetuity (?), while another side maintains that the vested interests of about 50,000 copyright works is preventing 3.3 million other works from ever reaching the public domain where they might be more widely enjoyed, adapted, extended.

Terry Bisson's novel is set not too far into the future, a future when there is concern that information glut has reached saturation point: new creative works are stifled because of the mass of existing creative works: works of all kinds including painting and sculpture, music, film and television, as well as printed matter. A committee selects works suitable for deletion, and government agents known as pickup artists roam the U.S. collecting these works for disposal from collections both public and private. Compensation is paid to those surrendering deleted works, while those who hide them or try to preserve them are committing illegal acts and may be hunted down and prosecuted.  The bootleggers are a growing group of renegade preservationists, and Hank, our hero, is a pickup artist who manages to find himself on the wrong side of the law and on the run.  His journey across America, trying to restore his credibility and get back on the right side of the law makes for a surreal chase adventure in a futuristic society.

What makes the story especially intriguing is the story of the deletion committee, the Alexandrians, told in a parallel story. Ostensibly working for the good of mankind and especially for the future of creative art, they are led by "a secretive and eccentric billionaire philanthropist known to the world as 'Mr. Bill'."  Stop and think about it - and why he's doing it. Wow!  (15 October 2002)

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Miller, Walter M. A canticle for Liebowitz. New York: Bantam, 1972.

I cannot remember how many times I have read this, but it never stales.  It opens not long after a major world nuclear conflagration which has tipped the world back into the dark ages; feudal lords and robber barons rule precariously, while the Roman Catholic church continues to balance faith and politics.  Some of the writings of the "ancients" survive, and it is the task of a small monastic community to preserve them until they can be read and understood and used once more.  But does understanding bring wisdom?

The novel is set in three ages: soon after the conflagration, at the dawn of a new renaissance, and as the world heads once more for another conflagration. Is the world really doomed to repeat earlier mistakes?

There is black humor a-plenty in this remarkable novel, first published in the Eisenhower years.  It remains true and believable and far too close to home.  (6 October 2002)

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Patchett, Ann. Bel Canto. London: Fourth Estate, 2002.

When rebels attack the house of the Vice President of a Latin American country, they expect to capture the President and hold him hostage until a number of political demands are met.  Unfortunately, the President cancels his invitation at the last minute; he prefers to stay home to watch the latest episode of his favorite soap opera on television.  This leaves the rebels holding more than 200 people hostage, and there is no pressure on the government to act quickly.

So it is that, after releasing a number of hostages, we settle down to a four month siege. It is a chance for relationships to develop and for love to blossom as the new way of life becomes familiar and comfortable for all involved.  Characters discover unexpected talents and new depths in their closed garden of eden paradise.  It cannot go on, of course, all things come to an end.

This is a charming story, delightfully told, without setiemnt and with much love and humor. (5 October 2002)

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McDonald, Janet. Spellbound.  New York: Frances Foster Books, 2001.

Raven left school when she found she was pregnant. But she is a bright girl, determined to escape the housing project.  When she finds out about a spelling bee competition which is designed to help deserving kids get to college even if they have not completed high school, she determines to win the top prize, afull scholarship.

It is a story very reminiscent of Make lemonade, told with much the same compassion and humor, but without the abbreviated, poetry-like lines.  Recommended. (30 September 2002)

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Cushman, Karen. Matilda Bone. New York: Clarion, 2000.

Cushman writes evocatively of medieval England; her books are well researched one can feel the dirt and the bugs and the cold, taste the rotting food and the mouldy bread, feel those rheumatic aches and broken bones. Cushman's main characters are often unhappy with their lot, and Matilda is no exception; brought up in a holy household, she resents the worldliness of the bonesetter to whom she has been "apprenticed", hates her lot, until she eventually realises just how unhappy she was, and how happy she is, in her new life.

Lots of humor and easy to read. (17 September 2002)

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Williams, Robin and John Tollett.  The non-designer's web book: an easy guide to creating, designing and posting your own web site, 2nd ed.  Berkeley, CA: Peachpit Press, 2000.

I do not usually write up the books I read for professional interest.  I prefer to keep this page for books I have read for pleasure.

But it was a pleasure to read this book.  Granted I know something about the subject, and I have created, designed and posted this web site.  But I am the first to admit to whole areas I know nothing about, I have blind spots galore, and I am graphically challenged.  This book filled in a lot of the gaps, has inspired me to do better, and to revisit some of my pages and give them a makeover. This is web design for dummies, in the nicest possible way.  The humor is appropriate.  The good examples are from real sites and the not-so-good have been rendered anonymous, nobody is made to feel small.  There are some great graphics, and some great ideas.  Each section opens with some thoughtful almost-poetry, and reminders that prediction is difficult (especially prediction of the future).

It's not just good-looking pages, either. The functionality of a site is very much a concern, how easy to navigate, how easy to transport from one platform to another, readability and legibility, and similar issues are tackled.

Watch for changes in these pages. They 're already happening!  (16 September 2002)

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Shreve, Anita.  Resistance.  London: Abacus, 1996.

Just a straight-forward tale of an American pilot who crash-lands just outside a Belgian village. One of the villagers takes him in and hides him. Her husband is forced to go into hiding when someone kills the Germans left to guard the crashed plane and reprisals are taken against the villagers. Inevitably pilot and village girl fall in love, an explosive, intense part of the saga. Inevitably too, the pilot begins to understand and appreciate the very different lives of the people he is fighting for.

Then comes the moment when he is well enough to be passed down the line, helped to escape back to England.

The ending is a puzzle and a surprise, carefully explained in the epilogue.  A love story with a difference. (11 September 2002)

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Crombie, Deborah.  A finer end. London: Pan, 2002.

I seem to have read several mystical mysteries just lately, stories in which the unexplained plays a central role, calling for a willing suspension of disbelief, take-it-on-these terms approach.  Here is another one: Jack Montfort is experiencing bouts of automatic writing through which he is apparently communicating the needs of a Saxon monk.  Automatic writing is a documented phenomenon, so this is well within the realms of the acceptable. As are the occult beliefs of several of the characters. 

While trying to understand the messages and why he is the channel for them, Jack meets Winnie and romance develops. Then somebody attempts to kill Winnie, and another member of their group is killed. Enter Duncan Kincaid, a London detective and Jack's cousin.

The story rolls at a cracking pace, very readable indeed.  It is the seventh in a series of Kincaid novels, but nothing was lost by not knowing the characters.  I 'll be sure to try some of the earlier stories. (1 September 2002)

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Carey, Peter. True history of the Kelly Gang. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.

Ned Kelly's story is told here by Kelly himself, in a semi-literate Irish voice. Kelly attempts to justify his deeds, and to show that he was a victim of circumstance and of lies.  It seems that everyone was a rascal in those wild, colonial days, the transported convict, the prison warders, the police, even the magistrates and the governors were corrupt, open to the highest bid.

In his youth, Kelly was several times acquitted of crimes he had committed, often on perjured evidence from police and magistrates, but then again he was found guilty for crimes he had not committed, again on perjured evidence. It all balanced out, and none of the crimes were felt to be particularly serious.  Things took a turn for the worse when Kelly's sister was seduced by a policeman and his mother imprisoned.  Events got out of control, and Kelly killed a policemen. Now there was no going back, the hunt very much on. Kelly, his brother and two others took to the hills, took to robbing banks, became a Robin Hood figure for the police were not loved or respected.

Humor and excitement and a touch of romance. This is not an easy read until you pick up the poetry of the text, but then grips and won't let go. (18 August 2002)

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Breslin, Theresa. A homecoming for Kezzie. London: Mammoth, 1996.

This is a weepie. It's a follow-up to Kezzie, but stands alone, you don't need to have read the first book.

It starts in the summer of 1939. Kezzie and her young sister Lucy are returning to Scotland, having lived some years in Canada. They live in a small tenement apartment with their grandfather. War breaks out, and Kezzie and Lucy have fierce battles to fight.

Somehow you always know that Kezzie is going to win through, but the story takes you along, delightfully told and not a dry eye in the house. She shames the neighborhood into putting right the damage after a mob ransacks the café she works in because the owners are Italian; she meets an old friend fallen on hard times, and transforms her life; she and Lucy are rescued when their tenement block collapses; she teaches Lady Fitzwilliam the meaning of compassion and friendship.

It's a lot to ask of one girl, but it is all quite credible, and the reader is left with the feeling of having had a really good read. (8 August 2002).

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Barker, Pat. Border Crossing. London: Penguin, 2002.

Tom is a psychologist. He meets a young man who, many years earlier as a ten-year-old, had been put into secure accommodation after killing an old lady.  Tom had been an expert witness at his trial, had testified that the lad was adult enough to be responsible for his actions.

So begins a tale of mystery and horror. Danny is extremely intelligent, and Tom cannot be sure whether he really wants to find out what had driven him to murder, or is bent on revenging himself on the expert whose assessment was wrong. 

The novel moves at a cracking pace, and the tension builds throughout to a gripping climax.

Between the novel reviewed below and this, I had read a psychological novel in which I found it difficult to care for any of the characters, could not care what happened to them. Admittedly it got better in the second half or I would definitely have abandoned it, but the ending was a cop-out.  This was a delightful antidote.  This is another unputdownable must-read. (7 August 2002).

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Irving, John.  The fourth hand.  London: Black Swan, 2002.

Irving writes of real people in difficult situations, and as ever he writes with empathy and love. In this novel, Patrick Wallingford is a television journalist.  Some years ago he attained a degree of fame when he had a hand torn off by a lion, on camera.  Now he is given the chance of a hand transplant. The widow of the donor demands visitation rights as a condition of the transplant, but when Wallingford falls in love with her his love is unrequited.

Irving writes as deeply, and humorously, as ever.   His humor is often ironic and often black, but then Irving's situations are never as white and bright as they might be, too involved with the moral and ethical dilemmas of the surface story and the background.  Here the background is of cheap 24-hour television news and the people who decide what is news and newsworthy, here the background is the thrill of being a medical first, here the background is of childless women and of womanising men.

All in all, it makes for a grand read.  (3 August 2002).

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Bowler, Tim.  Starseeker. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Luke is a talented teenage musician.  He has become difficult since the death of his father two years earlier, and his mother's friendship with a newcomer to the area seems a betrayal of her love.   Luke drifts into bad company, and to prove his loyalty to them, the gang want Luke to break into a local house.  There Luke discovers a mysterious presence, there is terror in the house.  Then Luke is discovered, and the story begins.

The story seems sometimes to verge on the edge of horror and fantasy, the mystic and the supernatural, but Bowler always keeps in contact with reality.  There is mystery indeed, and the occasion when Luke is beaten up by the gang is told in horrific detail, but that does not make this a horror novel.  There is much that is imaginative and fantastic and metaphysical, but again Bowler stays true to the reader and the mystical, supernatural element is marginal and in the mind. Perhaps.

This really is unputdownable, one wants to know why the events are happening and what happens next, one is concerned for the characters, in sympathy and feeling for them. It is definitely a MUST-READ.  (30 July 2002).

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Haddix, Margaret Peterson. Turnabout. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.

In an age of bio-chemical and genetic revolution, experiment, and ethical uncertainty, Haddix considers the consequences of a drug which un-ages people: take the drug and you start to become young again.  Scientists discover the secret of eternal youth!  There are just two problems in Haddix's story: the search for the drug which will halt the un-aging process is unsuccessful, and the un-aging characters find that their memories of age in their former lives disappear as they get younger and younger.

The story switches from the past (year 2000) when the experimenatal group are first given the un-aging drug, to the present (year 2085) as the two lead characters become teenagers again, and look to be heading for childhood and infancy with nothing to stop the process.

It's an intriguing scenario, one very pertinent to current issues of GM foods and cloning and other forms of genetic engineering.  There are minor irritations: technology in the world of 2085 has advanced hardly at all over today, but this is minor. It's the struggle to survive independently which is of interest, and it works. (9 June 2002)

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Bowen, Rhys. Evan can wait. New York: St Martin's Minotaur, 2001.

An entertaining police detective mystery, set in North Wales.  The village policeman, it appears, has solved several murder mysteries before, to the chagrin of his superiors.  Light, tight, and full of twists.  Neat denouement.  (9 June 2002)

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Curtis, Christopher Paul.  Bud, not Buddy.  New York: Delacorte Press, 1999.

A quickly read tale of an orphan in Michigan in the mid 30s.  Bud runs away from his latest foster parents, determined to find the man he believes is his father, the leader of a jazz band.  On his journey, he meets other victims of the Depression. It's a skillfully woven story with a happy ending. (8 June 2002)

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Eastaway, Rob and Jeremy Wyndham. Why do buses come in threes? the hidden mathematics of everyday life. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1998.

This book shows how even the most mathphobic of us needs and uses math to solve everyday problems - or at least to appreciate why everyday events occur.  Why is it, for instance, that traffic builds up on the freeway, even when there is no accdent, road works, or other obstruction?  Why do buses come in twos (and sometimes even in threes)?  Why is what a politician does not say sometimes even more revealing that what s/he does say?  Why do accidents come in threes?

The examples are fun. The examples are meaningful, most of us have experienced the types of event described. The explanations make sense, even if the math does sometimes get a little complicated. A nice read. (3 June 2002)

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Crutcher, Chris. Ironman. New York: Greenwillow Books, 1995. 

Having recently read Crutcher's latest, I was moved to re-read some of his earlier work.  The ironman of the title is a typical Crutcher hero: honest but flawed, a champion of the underdog, a lively sense of humor, and some wonderful friends and mentors.  He is in training for the ironman competition, an endurance test of cycling, running and swimming.  His foes include some bigoted jocks, a biased coach, his own father. His friends include his peers in the anger management class he is forced to attend, led by one of those supremely wise, inscrutable Asian-Americans Crutcher delights in.

It's a delightful story with the right ending, and a glimpse of reconciliation on the horizon. (23 May 2002)

Crutcher, Chris. Stotan! New York: Greenwillow Books, 1986.

Elements of the Stotan! theme are found in many of Crutchers later novels, including Whale Talk. It introduces the stotan/ ironman ideal, and centers on the swimming pool.  Where Whale Talk deals with a no-hope swimming team, the Stotan team have everything going for them, including a determination to win and the natural abilities to do it - and the humility to remain human.  More humor and some tears in a throughly good book which fifteen years on bears any amount of re-reading. (25 May 2002)

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Crew, Linda. Brides of Eden: a true story imagined. New York: Harper Collins, 2001.

Another novel set against a historical background, though this time more recent and this time the characters were real. Crew gives an account of the cult which built up around Franz Creffield, who came to a small town in oregon and set himself up as a prophet of the Second Coming.  He built a following, mainly female, whom he seduced into believing his message - and also seduced more literally.  Creffield was at one time imprisoned, and his followers lost their certainty, but soon after his release he began preaching his doomsday message again - and an eruption of Vesuvius followed very soon after by th San Francisco earthquake  seemed to confirm that the end of the world was indeed nigh, and his followers returned to the fold strengthened in their faith.

The novel is fictional, but the events were real, and Crew gives shows us how a charismatic person can win minds and souls, convincing those who doubt that the fault lies in them, not with the message or the messenger.  (18 May 2002) 

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Anderson, Laurie Halse.  Fever, 1793.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.

The story is set in Philadelphia, August 1793, at the time of the yellow fever epidemic. 

Mattie works in the family's enterprise, a coffeeshop.  As the death toll rises, she is sent to a farm outside the city - but is prevented from getting there. Her struggle to survive forms the backbone of the story.

The epidemic was real, and the background situation is highly authentic. The novel is easily read, a good relation of the time and the events. ( 17 May 2002)

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Hiassen, Carl.  Basket case. London: Macmillan, 2001.

Our hero is a newspaper reporter, exiled to the dad-end obituaries department for speaking his mind to the newspaper's new owner.  The victim is just dead, a punk singer much respected by our hero when much younger.  His death is mysterious, though of course there is no evidence to arouse suspicion; the singer's widow is a nasty piece of work.  But is she the villain?

A fluffy and sometimes very funny novel with some nice touches of the macabre.  (16 May 2002)

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Dickinson, Peter. The ropemaker. New York: Delacorte Press, 2001.

The story-line is not new: a mythical medieval landscape, a magical land where the magic is dying.

The Valley has been protected by magic for twenty generations, protected from the evil empire to the south and marauding barbarians to the north.  And the magic is dying.  Tilja is apart from the magic, and the lonelier for it, yet this is her strength.  Along with her aged, aching grandmother, a youth her own age and his blind grandfather, she travels south to find the magician who can - they hope - remake the magic.

This, then, is a quest novel, rich in invention, and taut with action.  It is also a long novel, but the pace of the story carries the reader headlong to an exciting, satisfying, right conclusion. (12 May 2002)

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Wolff, Virginia Euwer. True believer. New York: Atheheum Books, 2001.

Having thoroughly enjoyed Make lemonade, my first thoughts were that I was going to be disappointed in the sequel.  The opening pages seemed very concerned with establishing that LaVaughn is a virgin and determined to say that way, to make sure she gets to college and does not become a teenage mother like Jolly in the earlier story. And then Jody returns, a boy with whom who LaVaughn was close when they were much younger, who moved away and has now returned, and looks as if he could weaken LaVaughn's resolve just by looking at her.  Was this going to turn into a formula sequel, obvious plot and obvious outcome?

No chance! LaVaughn has battles to fight, her feelings for Jody just one of them. She is being pushed in school, pushed to make something of herself for she really does show potential, pushed by her peers with similar potential and determination, pushed by other childhood friends who have become involved in a very closed and intolerant religious group. Meanwhile, her mother is diverted by feelings for another man, Jolly pops into the story as well, and LaVaughn learns new avenues for caring and compassion. 

The whole is written in Wolff's not-quite-poetry, very readable because it reads so naturally.  There is humor here and humanity, excellent reading, and I look forward to the last in the trilogy. (28 April 2002)

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Brooks, Geraldine.  Nine parts of desire: the hidden world of Islamic women.  London: Penguin, 1996.

Brooks spent six years as a journalist in the Middle East.  Increasingly interested in women's issues and puzzled by the often contradictory attitudes towards women, she interviewed women from all over the Islamic world.   She talked to peasant women and sometimes their husbands, she talked to royalty and to presidents and their wives.  She talked to women soldiers and to women who had, since marriage, never left the confines of their husband's house.  She read the Koran and the Hadith.  She asked many questions.

What Brooks relates is indeed a tale of contradictions, for attitudes towards and the position of women varies from Islamic state to Islamic state.  Some countries encourage women's participation in sports and in politics, some encourage wife-beating and the view that a women is but a chattel.  Sometimes the most fundamentalist of Islamic states - or at least the most anti-western - hold surprisingly tolerant attitudes while many which support the West have very different values.  The paradoxes are many, and it seems often to be a matter of culture rather than of religion.

Brooks offers much insight into the world of Islam, in a very readable book.  (23 April 2002)

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Cormier, Robert. The rag and bone shop. New York: Delacorte Press, 2001.

This novella proved to be Cormier's last.  It is, in many ways, highly reminiscent of his I am the cheese, a novel which remains high on my Desert Island Books list.  The basic story is the interrogation of a 12 year old boy, suspected of the murder of a 7 year old girl.  The boy is an outsider, rejected by his same age peers, the interrogator an aging and policeman who has recently achieved success in obtaining convictions from some notoriously hard-to-break murder suspects.

The story explores too the nature of relationships and of trust, the power of words and how they can be used to say what we do not intend.  The boy is weak;  Trent asks the wrong questions but Jason answers them and not the questions which do need to be answered; even when the right question is asked, the boy is often too embarassed to tell the full truth and admit what a weakling and an outsider he is.  The confession, when it comes, is inevitable, and both Trent and Jason are changed as the truth is revealed.

A powerful, provocative, last message from the master.  (22 April 2002)

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Gallo, Donald R., ed.  On the fringe.  New York: Dial Books, 2001.

This Gallo collection of eleven original sort stories centers on the theme of loners and losers and outsiders.  I am not sure that the short story is the best medium for this, there is not always time or space to gain sympathy for some of the losers depicted here, but some stories certainly do shine. 

The losers are losers in so many ways, too fat, too tomboyish, too smart, too dim.  They do not share the same values as the rest of the crowd, they are diferent.  These are the tales of the rejected and the bullied, friendless except (in several cases) where the losers band together in self-protection.  Some of these stories end in the expected tragedy, some offer no hope. I particularly enjoyed Will Weaver's "What would Jesus do?", the story of a teenage born-again Christian whose turning of the other cheek brings her to a position of power over the school bully, and Ron Koertge's "Geeks bearing gifts" which demonstrates that we are all different.  Chris Crutcher's "Guns for geeks" is interesting and different, for the loser here is lost from the outset, a bullied boy who takes guns and seeks his revenge in the classroom.  The story explores the effect of the incident on one of the survivors, guilty because he has survived, guilty because he might have been able to prevent at least one of the deaths. 

An interesting collection, a dangerous collection.  (20 April 2002)

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Winchester, Simon.  The professor and the madman: a tale of murder, insanity, and the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. New York: HarperCollins, 1998.

Winchester tells the story of the making of the OED, a huge project a century in the age before computers;  nearly 50 years passed between the publication of the first volume and the last, and that does not include the yars spent in planning and prepration before the publication of that first Volume.   Winchester focuses on two men, the dictionary's chief editor, Professor James Murray, and more especially on one of the main contributors to the dictionary's success, Dr. William Minor. 

Minor had been a surgeon in the American Civil War, but spent the greater part of his life locked up in Broadmoor House in England, an asylum for the criminally insane:  Minor had killed a man he believed responsible for the torments he suffered in his dreams.  As a man of some means, he was able to make himself comfortable and collected a library.  When Murray put out a call for readers who could collect words and quotations for inclusion in the dictionary, Minor proved himself able indeed. His method of collecting pertinent quotations was very different to that originally advised by the dictionary compilers, and proved faster, more prolific, yielding far more of pertinence and appropriateness. 

It was twenty years before Murray met and discovered the truth about the man so useful to the endeavor, and their friendship lasted until Murray's death.

This is a remarkable work of historical research, interesting because of its poignancy, the tale of real characters engaged in achieving great things.  (18 April 2002)

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Crutcher, Chris.  Whale talk.  New York: Greenwillow Books, 2001.

Crutcher's tales always feature loners and losers, usually against a background of school and of sports.   In this story, he brings together a collection of unlikely losers: a brain-damaged youth, a social pschopath, a lad with so little self-esteem he is invisible.  They are led, not by a loser but by a loner, an outsider-hero who dislikes the emphasis his school places on sporting achievement, dlislikes the hunting lobby, is a supporter of the weak and the friendless.  There is wife beating here and child abuse, and race issues too.  Crutcher is taking on some heavy-weight concerns.

Our hero, TJ, gives his group of losers self-esteem, builds them into a swimming team despite one major disadvantage they share: they do not have a swimming pool in which to practise. Nevertheless, the team goes on to great things, making a mark in the state swimming league and gaining self-respect, as well as a measure of respect from those who allow them to be on the outside.

The characters are a bit larger than life, both the outsiders and the "insiders", the "goodies" are sometimes too good and the "baddies" sometimes too evil;  some of the incidents are spelt out vividly and at times unrealistically.  It is all a little larger than life, including the ending. But it works.  The book scores because of its humor and its tragedy.  Very readable, highly thought-provoking.  (April 15 2002)

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Francis, Dick. Shattered. London: Pan, 2001.

This is standard Dick Francis, a romp of a read from first to last.  A little too predictable, perhaps, a little too pat, but Francis's humour gets over the weaker moments.  It's not great literature and it's not amongst his best, but it was probably just what I needed after reading Remembrance). Call it a Sunday afternoon book, on a par with those Sunday afternoon films, light, fluffy, unlikely, and good fun.  (26 February 2002).

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Breslin, Theresa. Remembrance. London: Doubleday, 2002.

There is nothing new about a novel set in the First World War, and much superior children's and teen lit follows the tradition.  As I read this book, I could not help making comparisons.   Peyton and Morpurgo came to mind. Then Westall, though the wrong war. And then came Graves and Masters, Brittain and Barker.  Breslin here is in good company, up there with the literary masters. 

Nor are those adult writers chosen lightly, for this book matures as its characters mature.  The scenes become more explicit, more gruesome.  Breslin does not hold back, in her descriptions nor in the relation of the tale, nor in her language.  I wrote an article some 25 years ago on children's literature that adults could enjoy, and were enjoying, literature that crossed the divide. Watership Down, sold in an adult cover at £1 more than the children's version, Peyton's Flambards trilogy, Garner's Red shift.  I remarked on Susan Cooper's unawareness of her audience, thinking Mandrake suitable for children, and The dark is rising series as more suitable for adults.  There is nothing new in adults enjoying the best of teen lit, Rowling and Pullman notwithstanding, just as many teens are ready and happy to take on fully adult novels.  And there is Breslin herself, for her Kezzie was serialised in a woman's weekly magazine (and would have been, in my opinion, a better choice for the Carnegie Medal than the novel with which she later won, Whispers in the graveyard).

If Breslin wins another Carnegie for Remembrance it would only be just.  It is a deeply moving story, the tale of five teens in a Scottish village, two families, one rich and one poor, both knowing their place though the social divide is beginning to weaken even as the story starts.  One lad, gung ho to go to war, his sweetheart going into nursing to help the war effort.  Another lad, a pacifist who enlists because his survival emphasises the futility of war to a village losing too many children in the trenches;  his sweetheart, a lass who stops working in a munitions factory as she realises that she is prolonging the war, a pointless, stupid war, and too becomes a nurse. And the youngest lad, who joins up underage to avenge a death and finds revenge impossible. There are high moral principles underlying this complex story.

There is a lot of desolation too, bleak despair. And compassion, and great dignity, virtues which prevent the tale becoming too black, which leave us with hope, a quiet hope as the tears stream down.  It's well told, too. Stories told from numerous viewpoints and in a variety of forms often suffer from their attempts to be clever.  This one gains. The use of different cursive typefaces to represent the letters some of the characters write is a device which works. The interrelationships of the characters, the fact that they change and grow through the story and through the war makes them the more likeable and the more believable. One is concerned for them.  The descriptions are vivid, the events real, the story lives on in the mind. (24 February 2002)

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Lodge, David. Thinks... London: Secker and Warburg, 2001.

Lodge, the master of the academic comedy and of the comedy set in Academe, sets this story in Gloucester Universty.  Successful novelist and newly widowed Helen Reed is appointed to teach Creative Writing for a semester; she is wooed and pursued by the womanising (and happily married) Ralph Messenger, Director of the Cognitive Science Unit.  Their conversations are witty and thought-provoking, there are some nice literary set-pieces, but the main interest is of course whether Messenger can and will seduce the vulnerable Helen - and will his wife find out?

Thoughts are ever uppermost, thus the title and we explore the thoughts of the players from "their own" as well as the author's third person point of view. There are some delicious twists and a lot of fun before the story comes to a satisfying, right, conclusion. (21 February 2002)

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Irving, John. The cider house rules.  London: Black Swan, 1986.

This is a saga set in Maine, and tells the strange story of Homer Wells, brought up in an orphanage by Dr. Wilbur Larch, a man of rare compassion and humanity. Larch cares for the orphans in his care, but he also caters for pregnant women who want their pregnancies terminated. He raises Homer Wells to succeed him in this work, but Wells believes in the sanctity of life.

This is the unlikely background to what is a lively comedy, carefully researched and carefully told. The characters are warm and human, and the story sheer delight.  (9 February 2002)

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Kwan, Michael David.  Things that must not be forgotten: a childhood in wartime China.  New York: Soho, 2001.

This is both biography and autobiography.  It tells the story of David Kwan's early years in China, and inevitably it tells the story of his father and his step-mother.  It was not an easy childhood, for Kwan was of mixed race, and "half-castes" were not fully accepted by Europeans nor by the Chinese.  Kwan paints a detailed picture of life in-between, of the social customs and boundaries.  The family went from relative luxury to absolute penury, especially after the War when Kwan's father was accused of collaborating with the enemy and spent long months in prison, awaiting trial and vindication.

Kwan later became a successful and acclaimed dramatist and translator.  He won the Kiriyama Award for this book, but sadly died shortly after collapsing at a public reading.  It's a fascinating story.   I taught alongside Kwan's son for several years; from the loving tales Nick told of his dad, I felt I knew the man in person, and this makes the reading all the more poignant. (25 January 2002)

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Vreeland, Susan. Girl in hyacinth blue. New York: Penguin, 2000.

Following an object through a succession of owners is a fairly common literary device;  Annie Proulx did it for instance with Accordion crimes.  It 's a neat way of writing a series of short stories, using the object to link them. This is what Vreeland does here but she does it backwards, starting with a story set in late 20th century America and working back to the object's creation in the Netherlands in the middle of the 17th century.

The object in question is a painting, possibly by Vermeer.  The backward development of the story enables Vreeland to keep the reader guessing about the painting's provenance, just as she keeps her characters guessing.  The various protagonists fall in love with the picture, or with the girl in the picture.  So there is a Nazi thug on the run, the Jewish family from which he looted the painting, a comedy of erotica from the early 19th century, memories of an old man's first love, the desperation of a peasant family marooned when the dykes break, and more. We get a cameo of social life across the centuries and across societies, delightfully drawn.  And also there is Magdalena, the subject of the painting, and she too comes alive for the reader as we learn the truth of Vreeland's creation.  (3 January 2002)

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Donoghue, Emma. Kissing the witch: old tales in new skins. New York: Joanna Cotler Books, 1997.

These are a collection of fairy tales retold, the tales behind the tales before they were glamorized by Brothers Grimm and others.  Here we have Beauty discovering that the Beast is a woman, Gretel happy to betray brother Hansel, a blind Rapunzel, a mad, incestuous king.  There are maidens discovering lust and passion, princesses and poor girls, witches and wise women, monsters and poor innocent maidens, they 're all here and their stories are delightfully entangled.

The stories flow as if made to be read aloud, there is a storytelling quality and rhythm and simplicity to them, and they each speak with an individual voice. A delight.  ( 1 January 2002)

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Pattison, Eliot.  The skull mantra.  London: Century, 2000.

This is a detective novel, and begins with the dscovery of a headless corpse.  That said, there are no other hooks or labels. It is set in the mountains of Tibet. The chief investigator is an ex-police inspector, one of the few Chinese prisoners in a Tibetan labor camp. For the Chinese masters, all crimes are political; for the Tibetans, both prisoner and free, all life is religious and everything, murder and other crimes included, are meaningful or meaningless.  It is a clash of cultures, neither of which is easily grasped by the western reader, set in a setting so alien that this could be a science fiction novel.  Indeed, it may be read more easily as a science fiction novel, and Frank Herbert's Dune came to mind more than once as I read this.

It is a gripping tale and right is done come the end.  It is not easy reading, but it really is worthwhile.  (24 December 2001)

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Chambers, Aidan. Now I know. London:  Red Fox, 2000.

This is the third of Chambers' novels. It is probably the most intense. Like all his work, this book deals with some of the pressing of teenage concerns, in this case the nature of religious belief and knowledge. There are two stories here, skilfully told and gently interwoven: policeman Tom's search for the body seen dangling, crucified, from a crane, the other relating Nik's research for a film about the life of Christ, and the girl he falls in love with.

As ever, there is humor here, humor and word-poetry, plus the added delight of recognizing the Gloucestershire derivation of the names of many of the characters. But there is a bleakness here too, a hardness not found in his other novels. Was this novel more difficult to write, just as it is more difficult to read? It needs reading again, but so does the rest of the Chambers' canon. I look forward to doing just this. (8 December 2001)

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Bowler, Tim. Midget. New York: Aladdin Paperbacks, 2000.

Some horror stories feature a victim, unable to speak, able to move only with difficulty.  Others feature a repulsive creature from whom humans reel back in terror.

This horror story has elements of both - except that the monster and the victim are the same person, known throughout only Midge or Midget.  Midget was born disfigured and disabled, and his mother giving birth to him, a deed for which his older brother, Seb,  has never forgiven him.  Now Midge is in his teens, bullied and abused by his brother - who presents a face of love and compassion when in public with his brother.  Midge has great difficulties with most things - except sailing, at which he excels.  When he has the chance to sail.

He gets his chance when he is unexpectedly left a sail boat, gets his chance to shine - and to wreak a terrible vengeance on Seb.  This is that rare novel, a horror novel for teens that really does shock. It pulls the reader in, goes at a cracking pace, and leaves one limp at the end.  Much recommended. (31October 2001.)

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Konigsburg, E.L.  Silent to the bone.  New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2000.

The story is based on the Louise Woodward case, where an English baby sitter was accused of shaking a baby to death.  In this story, the chief suspect is the baby's half-brother, and he is so shocked by the baby's death that he is struck dumb and is both unable and unwilling to communicate.  His best friend manages to break down the silence, get him to care and to live again, and the truth is revealed.

The story explores complex relationships and the problems and feelings of children, and parents, who feel themselves unloved and unwanted, or betrayed by divorce or similar circumstance.  It's thoughtful but easy to read, and will be enjoyed. (7 October 2001)

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Nadel, Barbara.  A chemical prison. London: Headline, 2001.

The Çetin Ikmen series, of which this is the second, is set in Istanbul. Nadel knows her city and knows the people, and she weaves a tale which makes it all come alive.

This is a psychological thriller steeped in the magic and the mystery and the history of the city.  Dark places, not for the casual visitor or tourist. Unknown places, all too real through Nadel's insight.  There's depth and detail here, and a rattling good detective novel.  (5 October 2001)

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Pratchett, Terry. The truth. London: Corgi, 2001.

Neither Mr Pin nor Mr Tulip is playing MrNice Guy. William de Worde doesn't have to play, he is a nice guy, even if he is a journalist.  Editor and chief investigative journalist of Ankh-Morporkh's first daily newspaper, indeed, and more interested in The Truth than in selling newspapers - the sensational press is a niche soon filled by Mr C.M.O.T. Dibbler.  The investigation is into Lord Ventori's alleged murder of his still living Chief Adviser, a crime which even Commander Vimes cannot immediately solve.

There's dwarves and vampires, trolls and wizards and the odd werewolf, the usual motley crew and Foul Ol ' Ron and friends, they 're all here in a rollicking tale and gentle satire. Indeed, The Truth Shall Make You Fred. (And I know that's true; I read it in the paper!) (18 September 2001)

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Barry, Dave. Dave Barry is not taking this sitting down! New York: Crown, 2000.

And what is Mr Barry not taking sitting down? Anything and everything! And especially the Government Conspiracy to waste water by legislating toilets which flush just 1.6 gallons a time instead of the standard 3.5 gallon flush loos, and because they aren't powerful enough to wash away the waste, waste water by needing repeated flushing...  Anything and everything - and especially the absurd - is a potential target for Barry's dry wit and wry humor.  This is definitely not a book to be read in solemn surrounds. (21 September 2001)

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To the top Winchester, Simon. The map that changed the world: the tale of William Smith and the birth of a science. London: Viking, 2001.

William Smith was born into a farming family in the mid-18th century; his father was in fact a mechanician. Interested in rocks and fossils from an early age but with just elementary schooling, Smith learned enough to become a surveyor in the days of the canal-building boom. His awareness of rocks and landscape brought him great success, building canals, draining marshes, siting mines. He was ever interested in stratigraphy, and his work enabled him to travel the length of England, always learning more.  He realised that fossils were the key to identification of the strata, and set out to write a book, and also to compile a map demonstrating the geology of England.

The book was abandoned, the map took more than fifteen years to complete. Smith had great success; he also fell upon hard times, and spent several weeks in debtors ' prison.  His poor birth may have hindered him from becoming recognised and accepted by the gentlemen scientists who founded the Geological Society; some of its members plagiarised Smith's work but gave him no credit.

Smith's story had a fairy-tale ending, for he finally achieved recognition, earning the Geological Society's first Wollaston Medal and receiving an honorary doctorate from Trinity College, Dublin. He was enabled to live out the last years of his life in relative comfort. This is a fascinating story. Even if the science occasionally left me baffled, this is still a very readable story, part of our social and scientific heritage. (2 September 2001)

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Chambers, Aidan.  The toll bridge.  London: Red Fox Definitions, 2000.

Chambers writes superb rites of passage novels for teenagers.  In this edition, the theme is spelt large on the cover where the series' conceit, a definition of a key word, is rehearsed on the very cover: "TOLL ... the cost of crossing over...", echoed so obviously by "bridge" that to spell this out as well would be overkill.

Not that any of this gives anything away. This is a tense psychological novel, told mainly in two voices, those of Jan and Tess, interspersed with comments from Adam, and others. Jan, trying to escape a claustrophobic romance, takes a gap year job looking after a toll bridge, trying to find himself. Tess finds him a changeable character, calls him Janus or Jan for short. Not that Tess is Tess's real name, and Adam isn't Adam either.

All is made very clear in this disturbing novel, told with the pace and flair we have come to expect from Aidan Chambers, the wit and the word play there too. It relates the joys and pains of adolescence, gets right there. I've got two of Chamber's six novels to go; one I have by my bedside, waiting to be read, the other is yet to be written. I look forward to both! (30 August 2001)

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To the top Gavin, Jamila. Coram Boy. London: Mammoth, 2001.

A historical novel set in the mid-18th century, set in Gloucester and in London.  It tells of two friends, Alex and Thomas, students at the Cathedral Choir School, and of Alex's rich family, the Ashbrooks. Alex's father wants him to leave the school, and after a night of requited passion with his cousin, Alex runs away to make his way as a musician. The novel tells too of Otis and his son Meshak, wandering peddlars, and one of the items they peddle is unwanted children. Often they are paid to take the child to London, to the Coram Hospital, where they will be looked after and educated until they reach adulthood. Of course, few of the children they take actually reach Coram - though the son whom Alex knows nothing about survives to get there.

The tangle gets even more complicated in the second half of the story (which takes place nine years later) before it all begins to unravel to an almost satisfactory end. A bit too pat, perhaps, but a fun read nevertheless. It is a well researched story, well told and very readable. (13 August 2001)

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Shepherd, Joel. Crossover. Sydney: Voyager, 2001.

Cassandra Kresnov is a supertrooper, created as the ultimate soldier, capable of superhuman feats and endurance but very much a thinking, feeling person. Weary of killing and of the political situation which got her platoon killed, she tries to lose her identity and settle in Tanusha. No chance: opponents of human/ android engineering discover her and she is soon embroiled in a fight to save both herself, the Tanushan president, and the forces of good, light and decency.

This is a good, old-fashioned sci-fi novel, full of vivid, visual action;  the society and politics portrayed here in many respects mirror 21st century Earth politics and society: is this where we 're headed? It's a big novel, 600 pages, but that will not present a problem to traditional science fiction enthusiasts. It is also a first novel, but more Kresnov novels are promised.  I look forward to them.  (6 August 2001)

Postscript: There are some amazing similarities between Shepherd's novel and the world post-September 11.  There's the terrorist attack on a society comfortable with itself and which threatens to change the whole pattern of world order, the problems of tighter control and security in a free and emocratic society, even Kresnov herself can be seen as symbolizing the data-crunching forces sifting through the evidence of myriad particles of data.   It is chillingly prophetic, though distant enough still to be enjoyed.  As a footnote to this footnote I would add that I had to give up on Caleb Carr's Killing time, but that is set only 20 years hence. It tells of a US attack on Afghanistan following a major terrorist outrage in the States...  It's just all too close...  (30 September 2001)

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Plum-Ucci, Carol. The body of Christopher Creed. San Diego: Harcourt, Inc., 2000.

Christopher Creed has gone missing. He left behind a farewell message, an email to the Headmaster. The trouble is, it's not clear whether Creed intended to run away or commit suicide.  Then suspicion falls upon one of the town's less savory characters, a teenager with a record of violence and unsuccesful break-ins; did he murder Creed and send the email to deter suspicion?

Other characters become involved, including the narrator. Many questions are raised, including the nature of prejudice and crime. It's a gritty story, very much founded in the real world, a world which never claimed to be fair.  It's an exciting story as well, one very much recommended. (14 June 2001)

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Peck, Richard. A year down yonder. New York, Dial, 2000.

This is a sequel to A long way from Chicago.  At the height of the Depression, Mary Alice is sent to live with her grandmother in rural Illinois. This book simply chronicles her adventures, as fools get their come-uppance and Grandma always comes out on top.  No-one gets hurt, and everyone (Mary Alice and Grandma Dowdel in particular) has a lot of fun.   Add to that particular list, the reader. (6 June 2001)

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Creech, Sharon. The wanderer. New York: Joanna Cotler, 2000.

Creech enjoys these finding-oneself travelogs, exploring the world and finding oneself. In this, possibly her best novel since Walk two moons, Sophie and Cody take turns to tell the story of their voyage from America to England, in search of their grandfather along with Brian and three uncles. It soon becomes clear that Sophie does not really belong in this family, and that none of them really likes or respects the others.

The story matures as it rolls along and their situation becomes more dangerous and they become ever more estranged. The storm sequence is sheer poetry, totally gripping and very real, and the let down after is gentle and not at all sentimental. Great stuff! (4 June 2001)

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Rankin, Ian. The falls. London: Orion, 2001.

The latest in the Rebus series features John Rebus on the outside and becoming ever more isolated. And drunk. Making mistakes, though often not as serious as the mistakes made by his superiors!  Typical rebel detective, in fact.  Untypical in that these books are very cleverly written, very entertaining, and always keep you guessing to the end. 

Many fictional villains enjoy taunting the police by sending messages and dropping heavy clues, intending to show their power or their cleverness. Here the villain is sending messages by email, a role-playing solve the puzzle game which has one of the players ending up dead. Then a toy coffin is found which seems to tie in with other toy coffins found every five years or so, at the time of a still unsolved murder or disappearance. Suddenly, Rebus is on the track of a serial killer, a killer who is laughing at the police's puny efforts!

Readable, fun, and all the better for being set in Edinburgh.  (1 June 2001)

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Chambers, Aidan. Breaktime. London: Red Fox Definitions, 2000.

First published in 1975, this is the first of Chambers' projected six-part series exploring aspects of adolescence. The stories are completely unconnected and each book stands alone.

This is teenage rebellion, youth trying to break free from the ties of family. It's a good read even at the simplest level, but there are layers here, subplots and subtexts which question the nature of story and the nature of time. The deeper one reads, the neater the humor and the more delightful the twists. Clever, and very readable.  ( 15 May 2001)

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Burgess, Anthony. Napoleon symphony. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974.

Burgess was, to my mind, one of the most readable greats of 20th century English Literature. He was inventive, creative, explosive, provocative, sometimes difficult but always rewarding, always worth reading. He was also a clever man, and I well remember how his critique of Finnegan's wake almost made the book understandable!

The jacket of Napoleon symphony bears the sub-title A novel in four movements. Many of Burgess's works bear witness to his love and understanding of music; this novel attempts to tell Napoleon's story as a piece of music. I think it comes off. Certainly one can feel the different paces of the narrative, if narrative be the right word. The story is mainly told through conversation and speeches and curses, through thoughts and dreams and stream of consciousness free-wheeling writing and poetry, full of allusions and humour. Burgess uses language to change pace and mood and make this a musical experience; as in music, the story and its reading are sometimes slow and dreamlike, sometimes staccato, somet?imes romantic, the book becomes absolutely unputdownable as the reader crescendoes to a climax and is then left limp and breathless and awed.

This is not an easy read. It is certainly worth the effort. (16 April 2001)

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Irwin, Hadley. Jim-Dandy. New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books, 1994.

This simply-told tale tells of Jim-Dandy, a new-born horse, and his master, young Caleb. Caleb's step-father, Webb Cotter, is an unsuccessful farmer in Kansas, and life is harsh.  Caleb secretly breaks in the horse, and finds a measure of freedom and joy. When Webb sells Dandy to the nearby cavalry post, Caleb runs away form home and is employed to look after the horse. The commander of the cavalry division, General George Custer, takes a liking to the horse; although he bought the horse for his wife, he likes to ride Dandy himself. When the cavalry goes hunting Indians, Dandy goes with them, and so does Caleb.

Custer came to a sticky end, and the suspense is whether Dandy and Caleb die too at Little Big Horn. Caleb probably not, because the story is written in the first person. Dandy?

It's a pleasant, quickly-read story, unusual for Hadley Irwin in that she (they, actually) often writes about Big Issues. Worth reading, nevertheless. (11 April 2001.)

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Aldridge, James. A sporting proposition. Boston: Little Brown and Coy, 1973.

This was the ideal next read after The amber spyglass: it's a gentle story, a wild Australian boy and a handicapped Australian girl both claiming that a wild pony is the one that they caught and tamed.  Their dispute pulls a town apart, for some support the boy's claim and some support the girl's.  They are both likeable characters, so someone is going to be hurt when the case goes to court and a decision has to be made.

Aldridge writes with love and humor and warmth and compassion, and the ending is just right. (27 March 2001)

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Pullman, Philip.  The amber spyglass. London: Scholastic, 2000.

This is the third part of the His dark materials trilogy, and well worth the wait.  Lyra and Will have a mission to accomplish, the overthrow of evil. This is in part a re-performance of Paradise Lost and the revolt of the angels, though it isn't always easy to tell who are the good guys and who are the bad ones. It isn't even easy to tell whose side Mrs Coulter is on: when she is wicked she is deliciously evil, and then she manages to surprise with a good turn.

Will and Lyra travel from alternate world to alternate world, some very familiar and some amazingly inventive. They travel to the land of the dead, a wonderfully told sequence that feels very real and very close. The mother of all battles which climaxes the novel grips and won't let go. This is fantasy at its best, it's a novel on the grand scale, it just has to be read, and then read again.  Which I will, the entire trilogy in sequence. Readers new to the saga are fortunate - they won't have to wait five years between the first book and the last! (24 March 2001)

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Chevalier, Tracy. The girl with the pearl earring. E.P. Dutton, 2000.

The cover picture is exactly the same as on Cynthia Voigt's Elske, but the story is very different.  Where Voigt's tale is set in her imaginary kingdom, this story has a real historical background, 17th century Holland, and tells what could be the story behind Vermeer's picture of The girl with the pearl earring.

It's well researched and well told; as in the best historical novels, one learns so much about the people and the place and the culture and the customs and the beliefs of the time, without ever feeling that one is being taught: the story is too gripping. There is much conflict here, for Vermeer is a Catholic painter and the girl who comes to his house as a maidservant and becomes his model is a Protestant. Vermeer's wife and family have little regard for their new servant, and she never quite fits in with the family. What keeps her there is a growing respect for Vermeer's art and a growing love for the man. A satisfying ending, and although the story is fiction it could have happened, might have happened... (17 March 2001)

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Pratchett, Terry. The fifth elephant. London: Corgi, 2000.

Pratchett at his best, a stirring story of werewolves and dwarves and trolls and friends. Vampires and Vimes. This is new territory for the Disc World characters, a real mystery, and Sybil saves the day. (3 March 2001)

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Nobbs, David. Going gently. London: Arrow, 2001.

Nobbs is the creator of Reggie Perrin, a very funny series in print and on television,  and also A bit of a do, a television series.  This is the gently told story of Kate Thomas, approaching her 100th birthday when hit by a stroke; she is in hospital, paralysed and unable to communicate, but her mind strong enough to recall the key points and periods of her life. Most of which centre on the men in her life.

It's told with nicely timed humor and compassion, and the ending is just right. (20 February 2001)

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Harris, Thomas. Red dragon. London: Arrow, 1993.

This novel precedes The silence of the lambs and Hannibal, and is billed as "The novel that launched Hannibal Lecter". In point of fact, Lecter plays a minor role here, already in prison and as cool and as dangerous as in the later stories. Here too is Jack Crawford, but it is Will Graham who plays the major part, the empathic detective whose task it is to form a profile of our vicious serial killer.  Question is, can he get inside the madman's mind before the next, planned killing? Or the next, unplanned killing? For the killer is becoming increasingly deranged, increasingly clever, increasingly vicious.

There is as much blood and detail as in the later stories, as much tension and drama. Not for the squeamish. (16 February 2001)

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Le Carré, John. The constant gardener. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2001.

When Tessa Quayle is brutally murdered in Kenya, her husband begins a voyage of discovery, and finds how little he really knew his wife. More importantly, Justin takes over her mission, the search for the truth behind one of the pharmaceutical giants, a search which got her killed, a search which, if successful, could threaten big business and governments around the world.

One of le Carré's many strengths is his ear for conversation, the way people really speak, and he is as sharp as ever. This story is le Carré at his best, all too credible, dark and often violent, told with touches of humor; it bears close reading. (10 February 2001)

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To the top Bryson, Bill. The lost continent: travels in small-town America. London: HarperCollins, 1990.

I discovered Bryson when this book was serialised on British radio, read by Bryson himself. It told of a journey Bryson made around the United States, looking at the country and relating what he saw and found, a simple travelogue. Bryson had a wonderfully laconic deadpan voice, just right for those throwaway lines he uses so delightfully. It was such a good reading that when I read the book soon after, I was disappointed; I put that down to a realisation that the radio reading would have skipped the duller bits, made more of the interesting visits and the humorous anecdotes and Bryson's one-liners.

I have enjoyed every one of Bryson's other books, including those related to language rather than travel, so ten years on I am pleased to say that The lost continent has at last come alive. Bryson travels from Des Moines to the east and back, then to the west and back, meeting people and seeing places, and telling us the best and the worst of what he finds. Nothing deep but very enjoyable. (2 February 2001)

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Harris, Thomas. Hannibal. London: Arrow, 2000.

This is a follow-up to The silence of the lambs, and if anything it is even better, more exciting, more gripping, more detailed and just as believable.  It is also very gruesome indeed, possibly the most gruesome novel I have read since Patricia Cornwell's The body farm. Can one say "delightful" of a story like this? Never mind. I just had to stay up to finish it, couldn't put it aside with only 200 pages to go. (7 January 2001)

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To the top Singh, Simon. The code book: the secret history of codes and code-breaking. London: Fourth Estate, 2000.

A fascinating book, starting with the simplest of substitution codes and leading up to the present day and into the future. The explanations are simple and full, and there are exercises for the reader to test her or his understanding. Of especial interest are the details of UK cryptography; many British contributions to this arcane art were kept secret and undiscovered and sometimes destroyed, thanks to the Official Secrets Act. In many cases, other workers are credited with innovations; in the case of modern computer security methods, the original discoveries were made many years before those generally credited with them.

Very readable, and can be taken in small doses. (2 January 2001)

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Rowling, J.K.  Harry Potter and the goblet of fire. London: Bloomsbury, 2000.

The first half of this book (the fourth in the series) is very ordinary. Ordinary J.K. Rowling, that is: fun, easy-to-rad, formulaic. The humor is forced and does not quite come off, but the action never stops and Rowling's inventive fantasy just has to be admired.

The second half, though: what a corker of a story. It explodes, becomes unputdownable It is black, and it is violent, and it is very, very real. Real? Yes, within Harry Potter's universe it is very real indeed, true to itself and the laws and limitations of this magic world. It is authentic, and exciting, and right.

Rowling has set herself a tough task : follow that. She shows here that she's very capable of doing just that. (30 December 2000)

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To the top Kohler, Sheila.  Cracks.  Cambridge, MA: Zoland Books, 1999.

This is an unusual story, set in South Africa in the '60s and today. A group of girls is holding a reunion, reliving the time when one of their room mates disappeared - and in the end revealing the nasty truth.  This is Jean Brodie with the gloves taken off, tautly tod and beautifully evocative of the veldt. (5 October 2000)

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Voigt, Cynthia.  Elske.  New York: Atheneum Books, 1999.

This series gets better and better!  Voigt has invented a medieval country; her stories are set here, each independent and sometimes several centuries apart.

In this novel, Elske escapes from the Volkaric, a fierce, primitive people, and finds refuge in Trastad.  Elske does not know who she is or what she wants of life, for her upbringing taught her that women are of no consequence in the Volkaric culture.  But she becomes servant to Beriel, a woman who is very aware of who she is and what she wants.  What she wants is her rightful queenship, which her brother threatens to take from her when their father dies. Indeed, she is already in danger, for her brother sent a gang to rape her and she is now pregnant and in disgrace.

Together, Elske and Beriel grow stronger, learning things about themselves and about each other, and of the costs of getting what one wants.  There is a thrilling account of the war to regain Beriel's crown, and a very satisfying ending. (25 September 2000)

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Hill, Reginald.  Asking for the moon.  London: HarperCollins, 1994.

In this set of four short stories, Hill gives us two "ghost" stories in which things are never quite what they seem, and also a first and last: Pascoe's first meeting with Dalziel, and Dalziel's last case. As usual, the interplay between the policemen is a delight, and the stories leave one guessing and gasping and laughing. (18 September 2000)

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Mankell, Henning.  Faceless killers.  London: The Harvill Press, 2000.

This is a detective novel set in Sweden; it was written and set in the early nineties, when the borders were coming down and refugees were fleeing repression and fleeing retribution.  The detective here is investigating a particularly brutal double murder.  The farmer died quickly, but his wife survived long enough to whisper the word "Foreign...".

And so starts the manhunt, in a brave new world in which the not-so-brave fear anything foreign. This is a clever novel, very atmospheric, one can feel the chill of this cold country. ( 15 September 2000)

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To the top Hill, Reginald. Pictures of perfection. London: HarperCollins, 1995.

The novel opens with a beserker, strolling through a Yorkshire village, firing at everyone he sees. He ends up in the Old Hall, being advanced on by the three policemen, Dalziel, Pascoe and Wield.  He has one charge left in his gun...

The story then moves back two days, relating the events leading up to this violent opening, a comedy and several romances, and just a crime or two.  This is one of the most perfect of Hill's Dalziel novels, a thoroughly good read and a very satisfying ending.

It is also one of the most perfect of Hill's novels, a gripping story and beautiful Yorkshire humor. There's some lovely political asides as well; my favorite is Hill's description of Thatcher yuppydom at its ugliest, "The days of swine and Porsches"! (10 September 2000)

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Kerr, M.E. I stay near you: 1 story in 3.  New York: Harper and Row, 1985.

This is two love stories and a comedy. The novel tells the story of three generations of the Storm family, linked through the character of Mildred Cone, who had an ill-fated romance with one of the Storm boys. History seems doomed to repeat itself in this carefully crafted story, in which it is all too easy to identify with the characters. (4 September 2000)

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Moulton, Deborah. Children of time. New York: Dial Books, 1989.

This is a post-nuclear disaster situation, with fewer and fewer children being born, and those who are shared out a month at a time to foster homes.  David Bennet finds himself adopted by Lady Anastasia, who turns out to live in a castle, along with hundreds of children. She has kidnapped them over many years, and kept them young by a form of suspended animation. Her aim is eventually to conquer the world once the present governments have finished eliminating one another.  David escapes...

Although some of the characters come across as cardboard caricatures, this is a well-told tale, with several unexpected twists and surprises. (1 September 2000)

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Tekin, Latife. Berji Kristin: tales from the Garbage Hills.  London: Marion Boyars, 1983.

A most unusual book: here are the stories of the low-life of Istanbul, the outcasts and the cast-outs, the squatters and the homeless, the unemployed and the exploited. They make a home for themselves in the garbage dump, amid the stench of a city's refuse and the pollution of cheap fake factories.  Amid the humor and the despair, the life-stories and the death-stories, there is always a glimmer of hope that one might rise above the bottom of the garbage heap. (19 August 2000)

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Chambers, Aidan.  Postcards from No Man's Land.  London: The Bodley Head, 1999.

I looked at Postcards when I was home in February. It was in several shops, but I decided its cover was too gimmicky, and I bought another of Chambers' novels instead.  Then Postcards won the Carnegie, and I could NOT find a copy while we were home in July, not till the very last day and the very last bookshop - and it was the last copy!

Especially ironic here is that, in the very first chapter, one of the characters (whom Jacob fancies until he discovers that "she" is a "he") warns Jacob that things are not always what they seem to be, you can't judge a book by its cover!

And what a book.  It tells two stories in parallel, Jacob Todd's visit to the Netherlands on the anniversary of the WW2 Arnhem disaster, and Geertrui's story of how she hid and cared for a soldier wounded at Arnhem, Jacob's grandfather. This is an adult book for teenagers, dealing with life themes and life choices: sex inside and outside marriage, the nature of sexuality, family love and loyalties, life, death and euthanasia, the gamut of issues which are of burning interest to teenagers and which adults often wish teenagers should be totally unaware of.

It's a gripping book and two gripping stories. I'm glad I got there. (14 August 2000)

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Neufeld, John. Boys lie. New York: DK Ink, 1999.

Three young teenagers plan their first sexual experience; they convince themselves that Gina is "experienced" and that she is lusting for male bodies. Their plan is simple: seduce her or rape her, her choice. In fact, Gina is not experienced, but she is recovering from an earlier assault. When two of the boys drop out, the third attacks Gina. He does not get very far, but he lies about his success, lies which threaten to ruin Gina...  The truth can save Gina, but first Gina must accept the truth about herself.

This is not a pretty novel, but it is a very readable story, told by a master. (11 August 2000)

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To the top Hentoff, Nat. The day the came to arrest the book. New York: Delacorte Press, 1982.

This is a book I keep coming back to. It's the story of a black student, assigned to read Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, who takes exception to Twain's continual use of the word "nigger". Huck Finn is, of course, one of the great stalwarts of American  literature; it is also one of the most frequently challenged. The student's objections become a cause celebre and threaten to split the school and the community.

In this story, Hentoff takes us through the various arguments for and against, for and against not just Huckleberry Finn but also the arguments for and against censorship in general. He does so persuasively, and the verdict is always in doubt until the end. And in the end, in this particular case, it comes down to the intention and purpose of education: should it be to teach children (to do) what is right, or is it to teach children to think for themselves?

It's a very funny book and a very telling story. One of the arguments used is that, at the time Twain was writing, "nigger" was an accepted and acceptable term. Interesting to think that, at the time Hentoff was writing, "black" was the accepted and acceptable term. No more. Could Hentoff's novel one day meet the same fate as the novel here challenged? (10 August 2000)

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Rankin, Ian. Set in darkness.  London: Orion, 2000.

Yet to be published in UK, this novel is bang up-to-date, set against the background of the new Scottish Parliament. Rebus is even more on his own, conducting his own investigation and cutting corners as usual, making no new friends and losing old ones. As always, very believable, even his new rival, a whizz-kid with no imagination and friends in high places. It may be longer than usual but it's as unputdownable as ever. (9 August 2000)

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To the top Garfield, Leon. House of cards. New York: St Martin's Press, 1982.

I can't think how I missed this first time around, Garfield has long been one of my favorite authors. I am glad I've caught up at last. The story is as intricate as any of Garfield's novels, all those ends satisfyingly tied up by the close. It's as black as any of his novels, the descriptions of low-life both chilling and graphic.  The whole novel is graphic, Garfield's gift of words making for a very visual story, even the bits he does not put into words are writ large and can clearly be visualised. Humor again, and poetry, and irony. Not an easy read, but a rewarding one. (7 August 2000)

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Rankin, Ian. Strip Jack. London: Orion, 1993.

John Rebus isn't a rogue cop, but he is roguish. He takes short-cuts and he gets results, and he does not care whose toes he treads on on the way. The humor is black and the story line gripping and real. Rebus, indeed all the characters, grow from book to book and there's no holds barred. (1 August 2000)

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Aiken, Joan. The windscreen weepers, and other tales of horror, suspense and fantasy.  London: Gollancz, 1969.

Joan Aiken is a master of the absurd and of the quietly horrific. With an ever-present sense of the absurd, inventive parody and superb irony, she takes every day situations and paints them black. Her writing bears close scrutiny; when she can't find the word, she invents one, and the meaning is clear. Her stories are usually funny, which makes the occasional unfunny ending all the blacker, all the more nasty. She can't be trusted! Yes she can, the twists may be unpredictable but the quality of these tales never flags. (26 June 2000)

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Francis, Dick. Knock down. London: Pan, 1975.

Dick Francis writes a rattling good yarn, easy to read, unputdownable, and they stand the test of time. Although they are always set against a horse racing background, the foreground often breaks new territory, and they are always well researched. Only one novel has ever disappointed - and it's not this one!  It's not Great Literature, but 25 years on it's still a Great Read. (22 June 2000)

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To the top Fleischman, Paul. Mind's eye. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1999.

A short book, written in play form, the struggles of Courtney coming to terms with being paralyzed after a fall from a horse.  One of her companions in the nursing home teaches her to use her imagination to escape, and to find her new self. It's not an easy journey for either of them, or for the reader, but it is a journey worth making. (17 June 2000)

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Pepper, Dennis, comp. The young Oxford book of nasty endings. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Horror stories do not have to be horrific, you don't need blood and body parts and detailed descriptions of mutant monsters doing nasty things.  Indeed, horror stories may be more horrific when they leave the horror to the imagination, leave it to the reader to fill in the gaps...

Many of the stories do just that, end with .... leaving it to the reader to work out what happens next.  And the beauty of many of these stories is that these endings are inevitable - but you don't realise it until you get there; then you realise how the writer has made this ending so obvious even though you never guessed.  Until that nasty twist in the tail.  Or is it a twist in the tale?

It's an interesting mix of stories as well, some written for an adult audience, some for children, some by well established writers (Dahl, Prince, Brown, Bradbury, Wyndham, Hunter, Christopher, and many, many others).  They fit well together, and they are arranged well too, one story often linking in some way with the next.  As is to be expected, one may not enjoy every story, but there's plenty here for everyone, some horrific, some funny, some short, some long, all with that nasty ending, that moment of thought and reflection, that aaahh!  Aaaagggghhh!  (16 June 2000)

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To the top Sobell, Dava. Galileo's daughter: a historical memoir of science, faith, and love. New York, Walker and Company, 1999.

I must admit I probably would not have bothered with this book had I not already read and thoroughly enjoyed Longitude.  That was an exciting history, the competition to come up with a method of accurately calculating one's position on the globe, with the underdog proved right in the end.  That was science made real, science, enjoyable and understandable, for the layman.

Galileo's daughter is also scientific history for the lay reader, and if the story lacks something of the immediate excitement of Longitude, it makes up for it with a very readable account of life and science and religion in the early seventeenth century.  These were tumultuous times indeed, the catholic church losing its grip on Europe as protesters and protestants pushed the boundaries of knowledge and of freedom of thought.  There is drama and excitement in Galileo's story, as he delicately trod a dangerous path telling of new scientific truths in such a way as not to upset his rivals or his opponents or the Church - had he failed it could have cost him his life.  We get here too a picture of life in a nunnery; his eldest daughter was placed in a convent at age 13, but ever stayed close to him and he to her.  Science, math, art and history all owe a lot to Galileo, and he may not achieved all he did, may not have lived into his late 70s, without her love and support, evidenced by the many letters they wrote each other, letters used to great effect here.  There's a neat, satisfying, ending to their story, nice historical research, and confirmation that truth can indeed be stranger than fiction. (7 June 2000)

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John Royce, BA, MLib, MCLIP
Library Director, Robert College
Arnavutköy, TR-34345 Istanbul, Turkey.

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