Book Reviews

Welcome to my Book Reviews!
Only my last 20 reviews show up here because in the way of all things techno-babble, every new review pushes an old one into the ether. If you’re really keen, you can see all my reviews on Goodreads here.
In case you’re wondering why I don’t include synopsises synopses a synopsis, it’s because of how I read reviews.
First, when I’m deciding on the next book to read, I read the publisher’s blurb. They’ve put a lot of time and effort into getting that just right so if it doesn’t grab me, no-one else’s summary is likely to do any better, no matter how well written.
Next I scan a few dozen reviews. I like to know what people think about the book: what moved them, what put them off, whether they want to read more. So the last thing I want is a few dozen almost identical summaries to destroy the excitement.
I like to keep the review as short as I can, but as you can tell, sometimes I waffle a bit. Especially if it’s really good. Or really bad not as good.
You can click on any title to be redirected to the original on Goodreads (you don’t need to be a member): then you can access other people’s reviews and the blurb and the many versions of the synopsii I left out. And if you make it through all of this, the graceful Margot likes grasses, insects and snails, but don’t feed her bread.

 

  • Review: Acts Of Vanishing

    Acts of VanishingActs of Vanishing by Fredrik T. Olsson

    My rating: 4 of 5 stars

    This is an outstanding concept. It will make an amazing movie. And, without giving a single thing away, I will be attached to one character (it’s obvious who once you read it – the one I just can’t name or I will spoil everything) forever.

    The start was brilliant – so filled with action and questions and a drive to find out answers.

    But the rest was a struggle of a read. Don’t get me wrong – I have no regrets having read it and I recommend it highly. Do not just sit back and wait for the movie (because this better be a movie! are you listening JJ Abrams?). You must read it. But it was filled with confusions.

    The confusion at the opening of every scene was probably by design – it’s a bit of fun wondering whose perspective we’re in now, waiting a couple of paragraphs to find out. But the occasional head-hopping, a few sudden unexplained changes in character strength and power, huge dead-end red herring plot sub-sections, the constant reversal of motivation and reaction (so many effects were put before their causes that I couldn’t get involved with character motivations – if a character jumps at what they see, panics, runs, almost dies trying to get away, I would like to know what they saw so I can associate with them, not after them), and the often mix-ups between present tense and flashback were frustrating. All in all, this was like listening to someone narrating a movie to me. There was also the odd gaping hole that can’t be explained away as a convenient ‘mosquito bite’ – like why were the conversations in the limo never overheard despite it being the perfect vehicle and knowing who these people all reported to?

    But, now I’ve got that frustration out of the way, please believe me when I say this is interesting and compelling. In hindsight (as all great things are so obvious in hindsight) why hasn’t this ever been thought of before? We came incredibly close, a long time ago, with another outstanding movie, but I can’t name that either, or I will give everything away.

    This is a breathtaking, stupendous story, one that I can’t recommend highly enough. Sorry for the rant, but it really is.

    I received a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

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  • Review: A Funny Thing On The Way To Chemo

    A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To ChemoA Funny Thing Happened On The Way To Chemo by Luke Ryan

    My rating: 5 of 5 stars

    This book is funny on so many levels. It’s the kind of awkward funny of ‘hey – speaking of funny, I’ve got cancer’ and the deep, almost invisible funny of looking on the bright side of life (even if sometimes in a Monty Python way) and my personal favourite (sorry) of ‘oh my god the loo won’t flush and everyone will know it was me’ funny.

    I read it in preparation for a ‘Writing Comedy’ course that Ryan is running. A sort of ‘I want to write funny, he’s going to try to teach me how to write funny, I better read his book’. And maybe because I was wearing my analysing hat rather than my reading-for-enjoyment hat, I didn’t find the ‘gag on every page’ one reviewer found.

    Instead, I found a perfect balance – about six laugh-out-loud moments in total, one intensely shocking jaw-dropping moment that I honestly didn’t know was a thing even though I work in emergency health (you’ll know which one I mean. You’ll just know as soon as you read the words. And then you’ll google it and your jaw will drop even further), and the rest was an honest look at how cancer affects a man and his tight-knit family. Twice.

    It was refreshing in that Ryan never once seemed to want to make me feel sorry for him (even though he has every right to). He may have played the cancer card to the max with friends and strangers, but he made it all into the lightest of troubles in this book. We know cancer is cruel. We know it’s tough and merciless and degrading. Yet somehow he manages to have a beautiful outlook, an amazing self-deprecating attitude, a normal let’s-get-drunk-and-have-fun sense of denial. He brings in such personality – about his inherent lack of sportiness, his apparent drive to make his twenties all about himself – and he just owns his weaknesses (love that five-year-old Hawke joke!).

    This book was the perfect length and went into the perfect amount of detail: it left me wanting to know more rather than being a slogging-to-turn-the-pages-because-I’d-be-a-heartless-human-being-if-I-couldn’t-at-least-finish-it kind of book.

    I have no idea how I’m ever going to pull off the concept of writing funny like Ryan has.

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  • Review: Everything’s Eventual

    Everything's EventualEverything’s Eventual by Stephen King

    My rating: 5 of 5 stars

    Forgive me, but I’m going to say exactly what I mean here!

    If you struggled with The Dark Tower series or The Stand like I did, if you think those stories are outstanding concepts but wish they’d been a whole lot shorter, if you harboured the idea in the back of your mind that Stephen King would do well to read his own On Writing after attempting/struggling/failing to finish any of those, then read this to find your way back on track to the glory that is Stephen King.

    I found myself continually amazed at how good a story-writer Stephen King is. Every story in this anthology left me with the feeling of having discovered something rich and deep, something that will stay with me forever. I literally re-discovered the joys of reading that I first discovered as a child reading the likes of Isaac Asimov’s and Ray Bradbury’s short stories.

    King is possibly the only writer I know who can re-use his old devices in new ways – paintings that appear alive in It are equally alive in The Road Virus Heads North. Undead characters from the grave are there for a hitchhiker in need in Pet Sematary and Riding the Bullet. The me that went before The Dark Tower would not have appreciated that as much as the me that came after does.

    Absolutely outstanding.

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  • Review: Secrets Between Friends

    Secrets Between FriendsSecrets Between Friends by Fiona Palmer

    My rating: 3 of 5 stars

    The opening to this story is a gorgeous and heartfelt meeting-of-soul-mates. Jess and Peter are so obviously meant for each other. So, based on the blurb, I’m thinking this is a story about frustrated love and the journey to either the acceptance of what is, or the courage to change it. And it’s exactly that, a lovely story about Peter and Jess sorting themselves out.

    For me though, the story was written in a passive style that refused to allow me to immerse myself. Bear with me, the story does redeem itself… Feel free to skip the negatives and go straight to ‘Redemption’. It’s underlined for your convenience.

    Telling not showing I’m told every step of the way what the characters were feeling and what was happening, often repeatedly: …the two were like a sugar overdose in a sun-filled room with rainbows and fairies – it’s a lovely line, but we already knew their oneness. …he was her home, her safe place…. Yep, did I mention we knew that already?

    Contradictions Often this telling was at odds with the showing: Jess and Peter are on the beach. Guilt is eating at Jess. She’s confused, she’s keeping more than one awful secret from Peter, she misses her baby, and she’s just managed to get her breathing and tears under control. But their behaviour?! arm in arm they strolled along the beach, kicking sand, towards the coffee shop. This is a girl who wears her heart on her sleeve, not a cold, calculating sociopath able to keep all her troubles repressed.

    Info dumps Such as this forced sentence, a bit much for me on page 6:‘You bet,’ said Ricki van Leeuwin as she passed her colleague Jolene in the hospital corridor.

    Mixed messages …they headed for the walkway, Welcome written along it, their access to the ship. The six orange life boats stood out against the vibrant white of the ship, which she hoped didn’t have to be used. Why are you worried about the… Oh… I see now.

    Head-hopping Jess sits beside Peter, his eyes masked by dark sunglasses. He doesn’t stir, yet she somehow knows he returned his gaze to the pool.

    Weak motivations Jess, Peter, and Abbie run around frantically looking for Ricki, hoping she’s not hurt. But they can’t find her anywhere and their worry increases. So they stop looking for her. And change the subject.

    Redemption But I put these personal dislikes aside, allowed myself to be passively led to where I was supposed to go… and then I found the gem. Abbie, you star! This is not about Peter and Jess at all, but about Abbie and her depth and surprises. She was a mystery unravelling before my eyes, becoming more and more real. Initially hard to tell apart from Jess’s voice, Abbie at first appears as a victim, hiding her light under a bushel, seemingly for some kind of misplaced martyrdom. But her flower unfurls. She single-handedly does all the growing in the story.

    All in all, I’m glad to have read this story – I just wish I knew what it was really about when I started. Abbie will stay with me for some time yet.

    I received a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

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  • Review: Now Let’s Dance

    Now Let's DanceNow Let’s Dance by Karine Lambert

    My rating: 5 of 5 stars

    For a story about two different people living life after loss, this book is striking from page one.

    For the first eight pages, Lambert uses a passive voice and a handful of paragraphs to detail a marriage of fifty-five years. Yep. Such was the marriage. This, people, is exactly how you use passive voice – to describe a dull existence devoid of emotional highs and lows, with as many spare words devoted to the funeral service as were devoted to the marriage. This told me almost everything I need to know about Maggy to understand her.

    By contrast, the next eight pages are warm and passionate, colourful and uplifting, even though they tell the technically sadder tale of Marcel fleeing his homeland. Marcel’s story is real and present, active and exciting. And we haven’t even gotten to the marriage yet, let alone the funeral.

    Already I’m hoping Maggy gets to live before she dies, and hoping Marcel is the one to give that to her.

    This is a delightful story about self-confidence and self-belief, and a timely reminder of the days where women were first something to be married off, then something to bear children.

    How hard it must be at any age to find the courage to live the life you want to live.

    I received a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

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  • Review: The Light Of Other Days

    The Light Of Other DaysThe Light Of Other Days by Arthur C. Clarke

    My rating: 5 of 5 stars

    This is classic Stephen Baxter – the end of the world as we know it, only more positive than most (possibly the Arthur C Clarke influence?).

    It has all the hallmarks of Baxter’s fascination with geology and anthropology and explores the emotional and social changes to humanity that result from advancements to our technology. And despite its science, the result is a warm and human story with parallels to issues of the present – at least, I didn’t see a generation growing up with wormhole technology as any different to a generation growing up with social media. Every generation is misunderstood by the technology-free generation before them.

    I like the thought-provoking answers Baxter and Clarke present to long-standing issues – whether it be the cause of a neanderthal’s death or events in the time of Christ.

    The world in these pages is vivid and realistic, the actions and motivations of people and companies both scary and promising at the same time.

    As usual from either Clarke or Baxter, this story will stay with me for a long time.

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  • Review: Two Little Girls In Blue

    Two Little Girls in BlueTwo Little Girls in Blue by Mary Higgins Clark

    My rating: 5 of 5 stars

    This was such an elegantly simple story, beautifully written and always moving forward.

    With a scattering of red herrings and false leads, plus the thrill of knowing things the characters don’t, Higgins Clark hardly leaves me any time to try to second-guess the suspects. Of course, I did have my pick and yes, my crest fell when I was wrong.

    There were still some questions unanswered – like how did The Pied Piper know everyone’s phone numbers – but these just added to the mystery. Questions in real life go unanswered all the time.

    Anyone interested in studying the format for a whodunnit, this is a great turn-to story. A nice, easy, compelling read.

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  • Review: Traitors

    TraitorsTraitors by Frank Walker

    My rating: 5 of 5 stars

    I have often wondered, did the multi-national companies who aided Nazi Germany know what they were doing, or did they hang their heads in sorrow and shame and hope for mercy when they found out at the end of the war?

    Well, how stupid of me. They knew. And they happily took Hitler’s stolen gold in payment.

    Take Standard Oil, the giant American petroleum corporation that gave the formula for synthetic rubber to Nazi Germany rather than to its own country. But when the US government laid charges against it, its CEO forced them to drop the matter because, it said, the Allies would lose the war without Standard Oil. So, after paying a minuscule fine (and finally providing the US with the formula), this ‘American’ company continued to supply both sides. No wonder the ‘baby Standards’ today, Exxon, Chevron, and Amoco, get away with so much: it’s in their charter.

    Or take IBM. Its CEO was awarded, personally by Hitler, a swastika-bedecked ‘Order of the German Eagle with Star’. Why? Because IBM leased thousands of punch-card machines (computer forerunners) to the Nazis from the time Hitler won power to the end of the war. For thirteen years IBM knew their machines were identifying everyone Hitler wanted killed. IBM helped round them up and send them to the deadly concentration camps, even classified their deaths. How do we know they knew what they were doing? Because IBM developed the telltale string-codes: first three digits for the concentration camp name (Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau, etc); more digits for reason for imprisonment (Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, antisocials, etc); even a digit for manner of death (execution, suicide, gas chamber, starvation, disease, even worked to death). They knew exactly what Hitler was paying them good money for. IBM even did the concentration camp rounds every two weeks to service the machines! Somehow managing to keep their lunches down in the process.

    Everyone involved knew what was going on. Plausible denial is not at all plausible. And it wasn’t just in the Nazi theatre:

    The US government used those same IBM machines to round up civilians of Japanese descent for the western version of race prejudice and war hysteria. And the IBM fatcats happily took all the profits and became literally ‘filthy’ rich off these extraordinary miseries too.

    Or take the Australian dockworkers in 1938 who refused to load pig iron on a ship bound for Japan, as it would be used to make weapons to conquer the south seas – the seemingly unstoppable Japanese forces had already invaded China and killed over a million Chinese troops. But the ‘big Australian’, the ‘quiet achiever’ BHP literally demanded its right to earn a huge profit. It sacked 4000 workers and cried for government help. In a dictatorial step, the Australian Prime Minister himself forced the workers to load the ship. How much of that pig iron was fired back at our brave troops in New Guinea we will probably never know.

    These examples are just a sample of what Walker has put together in this mind-blowing exposé on the hidden priorities of our leaders and our corporations in times of war, and the cold hearts of the manufacturers of Hitler’s ovens. It makes me wonder how their priorities could be any kinder in times of peace.

    It is the kind of book that will never be taught in schools – it raises too many hard questions and threatens a way of life very comfortable for some. But if German schoolchildren have to tour the Camps, then we have to read this.

    Gutsy, ballsy, and heartbreaking; this is a must-read.

    I received a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

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  • Review: After I’ve Gone

    After I've GoneAfter I’ve Gone by Linda Green

    My rating: 3 of 5 stars

    What an intriguing premise! Facebook posts from the future that just keep coming, day after day, week after week. It’s the modern-day equivalent of seeing a gypsy palm-reader, only this one, in the style of Zoltar from Big, seems to be coming true.

    I like Jess’s doubts about the reality of what she’s seeing, her confusion over whether it’s her or the rest of the world who’s going crazy. On top of this confusion, Jess seems to willingly accept the gradual changes forced on her by her partner as he closes down her old way of life, makes her scared to speak in case she upsets his balance, and to consider herself inferior. In her case, it’s because she doesn’t believe the Facebook prophecies (because why would you?!), but it’s also a textbook example of exactly how mental abuse works, and how it escalates into physical abuse, and Green portrays it realistically and cringingly well.

    As for the blurb: ‘what if the only way to save your child’s life was to sacrifice your own?’ I’ve met women who have left a man they love wholeheartedly, crying as they do so because it’s tearing them apart to do it, all for a future baby. A baby that doesn’t exist, and may never exist. So as incredible as Jess’s actions may be, I know it happens.

    I also liked the true present tense of the story:

    I feel a hand on my shoulder. I turn to see Dad standing there, his eyes rimmed red, his cheeks hollowed out, hurt and pain oozing out of every pore.
    ‘I don’t want to leave her,’ I say.
    ‘I know,’ he replies. ‘Me neither.’

    Even the middle of the story, slow enough to make me consider stopping, but with hints of the ending compelling me to continue, may only have reduced the story to four stars. Even though that slowness includes overwhelming detail, such as when we trace the exact movements of a background mug of hot chocolate: from the boiling of the milk, to the mug being put on the table, to the stirring of the hot chocolate, to the shaking of the mug as her father drinks his, to Jess picking hers up to leave, carrying it upstairs ‘careful not to slop the hot chocolate on the carpet’, to putting the mug down on the landing and then coming ‘back to the landing to get my hot chocolate’. It’s the complete opposite of old sitcoms where characters never close doors behind them or need to go to the toilet!

    But the end knocked off another star. For a story that was always about how it was going to end, it lacked resolution. Unanswered questions like ‘where to next’ or ‘I wonder how that plays out’ are delicious and insightful, but unfulfilled promises of a punchy twist (that’s not a spoiler, it’s from the praise on the opening page) are not. And Green feels the same way, if her first Book Club Question is anything to go by: the very key to the story, its very reason for existence and cause for all change in all characters, was ignored from halfway through the story.

    All in all, an interesting read. Maybe a second book can pick up where this one left off: Jess’s timeline gets more future Facebook messages? Maybe Sadie gets them instead?

    I received a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

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  • Review: The Inaugural Meeting of the Fairvale Ladies Book Club

    The Inaugural Meeting of the Fairvale Ladies Book ClubThe Inaugural Meeting of the Fairvale Ladies Book Club by Sophie Green

    My rating: 4 of 5 stars

    The cover of this book is what made me look twice – I can’t go past a good bird reference. Then the title made me look a third time. I mean, it just couldn’t be a book about a book club, so what was it really about?

    In that respect it didn’t disappoint. I liked the layering – of characters, of plot, of landscape. The versions of themselves these women presented to their community, isolated as they were in the Australian outback, concealed hopes, fears, dreams – even domestic violence. The book club was an excuse for them to get together.

    In a time and place (1970’s outback NT) before internet, before mobile phones, when landline phones were party lines (in an eavesdropping sense, not in a fun sense), when women died ‘normally’ in childbirth, this is a warm and exceptional story. Exceptional because women leaving a legally enforced abusive marriage were rare, and inter-racial relationships even more so.

    I like the way Green transitions past whole chunks of time that would only have made the book dull and repetitive, and I love the way she incorporates the landscape as it changes from life-threateningly dry to dangerously wet. Hardest to cope with is her depiction of marriage-breakdown. Its realism makes for difficult reading – I just wanted to tell the woman in question to run away, now, no matter what new hardships that will bring. Easier said than done.

    We are fortunate to have a much broader network to turn to these days, but these women did strong, brave things long before word got out that women could.

    It’s a pity Green’s characters didn’t have her book to help them in their day.

    I received a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

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  • Review: Ready Player One

    Ready Player OneReady Player One by Ernest Cline

    My rating: 5 of 5 stars

    I do not love the eighties and I do not play video games, but I love this book!

    Ok, I get that it’s a tiny bit slow to start. It initially put me off when I tried to read it on my kindle, and I had to try again from a real book.

    I also get that no one person, especially as young as Wade, could ever have watched and played as much TV and video games as Wade has. But it’s fantasy, and it’s at least a little bit feasible. Move on.

    From a writer’s perspective, this had one of the greatest introspection moments I’ve ever encountered. A beautiful 10-14 page detail of how down the character is feeling, what he’s doing to try and compensate, and how the story is still progressing forward (chapters 19-20). Thank you, Ernest Cline, for that if nothing else.

    But more importantly, from a reader’s perspective, this was tense, gripping, and continually flowing forward. This is world-creation at its best. Cline has thought of everything. He must have spent years immersed in his own head living and breathing this to get it so right.

    And I’ll go so far as to say, if you can’t find something in this that makes you say ‘You’re kidding?! Someone else remembers that too?!’ then you need to watch more tv – you’ve missed out somewhere! Here’s a writer who has an opinion on Ladyhawke, or who can make me reminisce about Galaga (and I don’t play, remember), who knows what the Kobayashi Maru is, and who quotes one of the best lines from one of the best movies ever: ‘My God. It’s full of stars.’ Even Blue Monday gets yet another remix.

    Cline’s ‘red herrings’ are as brilliant as his twists. When Wade was contacted by the bad guys, I was stressing. I knew exactly where Wade was going wrong and what he shouldn’t do (how wrong was I!) but other crazier things kept intervening and that stress became so tiny in the scheme of bigger things.

    The layers within layers are absolutely incredibly mastered. If you thought Inception did it well, Ready Player One will knock your socks off. Wade enters the OASIS virtual reality world, goes through a gate into another world, and another, before disappearing into an immersive video game. And still remembers to come out for dinner.

    And on top of all that, the story was fun and enthralling, and the theme was important and relevant. This is one book I’m happy to have given a second go. Great read!

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  • Review: Skitter

    Skitter (The Hatching #2)Skitter by Ezekiel Boone

    My rating: 3 of 5 stars

    Sequels are tough. And where do you go from ‘look out everybody – it’s the end of the world’? Apparently to telling stories along the way and setting us up for Book Three, that’s where.

    Don’t get me wrong. I still love the concept of this book, and if there is a third in the series (or why else did we read so much about the Prophet Bobby Higgs) I’ll probably read it. But I thought Skitter dragged. I have the suspicion we were supposed to be so excited by the couple of really good plot points in here (no spoilers) that we were supposed to turn pages hell-for-leather on trust. After all, it is the sequel to The Hatching, one of the best books I’ve read this year.

    The prologue was awesome: Boone introduces us to a character, warms us up with a few key likeable points, then kills the character off in a complete, well-thought-out Boone-typical scene. But when three people sit in a castle and draw circles on a map around hotspots, only to suddenly go ‘oh look! How’d we miss it?! It’s Peru!’ – that’s a hole-filled convenience that may help meet a writer’s deadline but just doesn’t fulfil a reader’s need.

    It was good to see some of the repetition that I loved so much in The Hatching:

    The Interstate 80 High Times Truck Stop and Family Fun Zone Restaurant and Gas Station Taco Bell Pizza Hut Starbucks KFC Burrito Barn 42 Flavors Ice Cream Extravaganza Coast-to-Coast Emporium, Nebraska

    This chapter title was repeated four times in the next five pages, with a fifth being split out into a story about how each one was added (or how the owner samples each one every day).

    Skitter is worth the read, but it’s given me a spider-load of expectation for the third one that I really hope Boone can exceed.

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  • Review: The Rag Tag Fleet

    The Rag Tag FleetThe Rag Tag Fleet by Ian W. Shaw
    My rating: 4 of 5 stars

    The artillery in the theatre didn’t fly; it floated on barges brought to the front by small Australian fishing boats and schooners, captained and crewed in the main by Australian sailors.

    This is a landmark book containing a wealth of facts and figures.

    Australia’s small ships, akin to the little ships at Dunkirk, served a little-known but vital role in the WWII battle of Buna-Gona. Before MacArthur’s air force could put its ego aside and get itself organised, Australian and NZ small ships crewed not only by Australians and New Zealanders, but by crew as diverse as Chinese, Filipino, and Torres Strait Islanders, shipped supplies and rations to soldiers at the front.

    Their role even continued beyond the Japanese surrender to include humanitarian projects for those left homeless and destitute by war.

    The book brings so many stories into one place and lists plenty of resources, that it’s now only a matter of time before someone with a historical fiction bent uses it to weave together a heart-rending, warm, human tale.

    There is so much emotion to work with here: the loss of good men to friendly fire. Clothing rotting in damp heat, men with nothing to sleep under at night, tired and demoralised, suffering from tropical diseases and vitamin-deficiency. The larrikin way in which one enterprising Aussie makes a deal with the Americans to supply them with cement in return for lumber (after that devastating friendly fire incident, you wouldn’t call it theft but just desserts). The fear-sweat dripping off a lone civilian, camped on the darkened night-time mud flats like a tethered goat, waiting to signal the rise of the tide, every sound amplified into man-eating crocodile attacks. The emotion experienced as the first of the US Navy fleet arrives with sonar and radar, causing the entire small ships fleet to become redundant. The heartache when formal recognition of service was denied for so long.

    My favourite part to this book was the denouement. I had tears in my eyes as these civilians either returned home or were interred. Of their post-war lives, or their widows’ pain. And of the ships themselves, whether burned, destroyed, sunk, or rebranded.

    This has obviously been a labour of love for Shaw.

    I received a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review

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  • Review: The Promise

    The Promise. Benita BrownThe Promise. Benita Brown by Benita Brown

    My rating: 4 of 5 stars

    I owe my thanks to the 2017 Reading Challenge for this serendipitous find: I picked it because I thought it fit the category of ‘set in my [adoptive] home town’, and it does – just in a different country.

    I was immediately immersed in the cold and damp of smog-filled industrial England. It gave me such a solid grounding of time and place that by the time I met the main players I was already comfortable in the story.

    It isn’t just the atmosphere but the level of technology – toast is made by forking it and holding it over an open fireplace. Baths are had in front of the same fire and only on Friday nights. Coal is fetched, horse manure is side-stepped, the poorer parts of town are peopled with desperates and the rich hide avarice and greed behind their prestige.

    Life is harsh but Brown’s characters are warm, solid, and friendly. The story is a cross-genre mix of crime, historic fiction, and romance with Brown building up a Jack-the-Ripper-style of dread on the villainy front as superbly as she does the nervous thrill on the love side of things.

    She also captures the attitudes of the time admirably: the thought that one should not seek to rise above one’s station, and the way this impacts on lives, rich and poor.

    Behind this story’s simple plot lies a richness that could only have arisen out of intense, thorough research. Well worth the happy accidental discovery!

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  • Review: The Fireman

    The FiremanThe Fireman by Joe Hill

    My rating: 3 of 5 stars

    Joe Hill has a way with words that evokes the senses –

    Dead leaves crunched underfoot and their smell sugared the air with autumn’s perfume.

    – and challenges our concept of time –

    He was a big man, maybe a quarter of a century older than Harper…

    He has a skill with weaving plot lines together – the way Harper remembers to ask about Harold exactly when she should, and the way she’s then given Harold’s story without forced interruptions creating a false suspense.

    In fact you could say this book is epic in the true sense of the word.

    You could also say it drags in parts, overflows with detail, and is twice as long as it needs to be – I just wanted the last 200 pages to be over.

    After a dramatic start and an imminent end-of-the-world promise, the story slows and follows a small-town American perspective. Life there belies the promise of the blurb that ‘civilization is disappearing fast into the smoke’ with ‘a fire on every street corner’ by continuing substantially unaffected for most of a year and with zero exploration outside of a local view.

    The premise for the climax felt forced, and the only drama I felt was due to excellent sentence rhythm.

    I think even Hill got a bit bored in the end: when a vehicle with four of the central characters aboard goes into a chasm, but only one character is mourned, I had to force myself to re-read pages and pages of the draggiest bits trying to find where I missed the other three getting off safely. I finally found them: they never left the vehicle – they apparently didn’t warrant the same level of concern.

    But what took me out of the story the most were the Stephen King references – Hill says someone’s ‘forgotten the face of his father’ – just like Roland would say in The Dark Tower. One of Hill’s main characters is deaf and dumb Nick – just like deaf and dumb Nick in The Stand. Worse, Hill’s characters repeatedly insist deaf people can’t lip read, while his father’s characters say they can. Perhaps Hill has forgotten the face of his own father.

    Parts of this book made it hard to put down: it was strangely compelling, like a freeze-frame-car-crash, just before the moment of impact; but I don’t think I’ll invest the time seeing what happens in the next instalment.

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  • Review: Flash for Freedom (Flashman Papers #3)

    Flash for Freedom (The Flashman Papers #3)Flash for Freedom by George MacDonald Fraser

    My rating: 5 of 5 stars

    This, the third in the series, is outstanding! Although fictional, it contains so many elements of truth, and, being written before political correctness became commonplace, is surely a valuable resource on attitudes during the Slave Trade era.

    But first, be warned: it is brutal. It uses dozens of derogatory terms for the poor human ‘cargo’ so callously treated and traded, and describes those scenes in cold detail.

    Colin Mace, as the narrator, is masterful. If he feels any disgust at the events of the story, he suppresses it perfectly and instead conveys the mood and emotion of every character brilliantly.

    And Flashy. Well, he’s still Flashy. At one moment philosophical and learned, the next selfish and spineless, always happy to turn a blind eye to pain and suffering, or worse, to turn it into something with a Flashy-positive outcome:

    It’s always amused me to listen to the psalm-smiting hypocrisy of nigger-lovers at home – and in the states – who talk about white savages raping the coast and carrying poor black innocents into bondage. Why! – without the help of the blacks themselves, we’d not have been able to lift a single slave out of Africa.

    But I saw the coast with my own eyes, you see, which the holy Henriettas didn’t. And I know that this old wives’ tale of a handful of white pirates mastering the country and kidnapping as they chose, is all my eye. We couldn’t have stayed there five minutes if the nigger kings and warrior tribes hadn’t been all for it, and traded their captured enemies. Aye! – and their own folk too, for guns and booze and Brummagem rubbish.

    Why my pious acquaintances won’t believe this I can’t fathom. They enslaved their own kind, in mills and factories and mines and made them live in kennels that an Alabama planter wouldn’t have dreamed of putting a black into. Aye! – and our dear, dead, Saint William Wilberforce cheered ‘em on too, weeping his pious old eyes out over niggers he had never seen and damning the soul of anyone who suggested it was a bit hard to make white infants pull coal sledges for twelve hours a day. Of course, he knew where his living came from, I don’t doubt.

    My point is, if he and his kind did it to their people, why should they suppose the black rulers were any different where their kinsfolk were concerned? They make me sick with their pious humbug.

    If you have the stomach for it (and you should – such truths should never be covered up. If you can’t stand reading it, maybe you’d prefer to imagine how the living descendants of the slave trade might be feeling instead) then this is a gripping, eye-opening read.

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  • Review: Royal Flash (Flashman Papers #2)

    Royal Flash (The Flashman Papers, #2)Royal Flash by George MacDonald Fraser

    My rating: 3 of 5 stars

    I didn’t enjoy The Royal Flash as much as the first in the series, The Flashman Papers: it sagged, bogging down in minutiae and flowery descriptions.

    Nevertheless, it was an interesting story, with Flashy getting himself caught up in another fix that pulls him deeper and deeper in trouble. Ironically, Flashy even suspected a trick right in the beginning when he could still get out of it, but he admits his greed (and sex drive) got the better of him. He just can’t help his incorrigible self.

    And the teasers kept me going: the series is written from the hindsight perspective of old age, so Flashy knows what comes next. He tells us up-front things are about to go from bad to worse, with the occasional ‘if I knew then what I know now’, or by listing some of the wild and dangerous things he’s done and then saying they were nothing compared to what happens next.

    For the sake of completeness of the Flashy story, this book is still a must-read.

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  • Review: I Was Told To Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad

    I Was Told To Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad
    I Was Told To Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad by Souad Mekhennet

    My rating: 5 of 5 stars

    This is a work filled with answers, and yet it asks even more questions. There is much to digest here, but we would all do well to try.

    The world is not facing a clash of civilizations or cultures, but a clash between those who want to build bridges and those who would rather see the world in polarities, who are working hard to spread hatred and divide us.

    I can’t help but draw comparisons between the current ISIS question and times past: the Romans, the Ottomans, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Europeans and their disregard for their own people, let alone for those whom they treated as cattle in the horrendous slave trade. This is not the first time ideology and personal gain have threatened the rest of the known world, although, sadly, it may be the last.

    The rise of groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS is not the problem of any one specific country or group. it is the result of many mistakes.

    The incredible scope of this book, no doubt worthy of an entire degree in Political Science or Anthropology, brings together Mekhennet’s extensive first-hand experience and research and asks hard questions of all of us.

    Is democracy what we really want, or do we instead seek to promote the values we hold dear: the equality of men and women, the rights of minorities to survive and thrive, the freedom to speak our minds and practice whatever faith we choose?

    This is especially true when some, apparently, think “democracy means that the majority will win and has the right to rule over the minority, like in the west.” And how can we possibly disavow such thinkers of this notion? Do ‘all lives matter’ in the west? Do we treat all our citizens equally? Are we willing to perform jobs ‘beneath our station’ or are those jobs the domain of minorities?

    As Mekhennet says of the 1932 democratic elections in Germany:

    Why did people think a voting system was protection against totalitarianism?

    Yet it is also a warm and personal story—I challenge anyone not cry or to feel at least a stab of gut-wrenching pain at the loss of at least one human life in this story, or not to feel the tension as this exceptional journalist is shipped off to an Egyptian prison.

    And who can blame other nationalities for believing our papers to be ‘lying tabloids’ when we know ourselves their behaviours are questionable and questioned? As for our politicians and intelligence services, at one point, even with all the information Mekhennet unearths, even she struggles to ‘know whom to believe’.

    So how can we, as armchair generals, possibly have a black and white opinion on what caused this, or how to solve this?

    This is an outstanding piece of work and a comprehensive report on what ISIS is, how it came about, and why it attracts so many followers willing to die for a cause. And all the time, we come back to the burning question:

    Why do they hate us so much?

    And why do we keep fighting? If there are political experts in the west suggesting we stop retaliating each retaliation, and if ISIS can say “if the US hits us with flowers, we will hit them back with flowers” then why are we still fighting?

    Read this, and you will be a step or two closer to understanding.

    I received a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review

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  • Review: Patient 71

    Patient 71
    Patient 71 by Julie Randall

    My rating: 4 of 5 stars

    There is no doubt that health and emergency services workers see and hear much pain and suffering, but few would ever see the whole picture. This book provides the missing warmth, colour, and life, bringing this insidious, indiscriminate illness into a human focus.

    It’s an easy read that wastes no time getting to the point: the day Julie Randall; fit, happy, and well; has a seizure. From a brain bleed. From cancer.

    Nor does it bog down in medical descriptions or self-pity. Perhaps that’s due in part to Randall’s illness: an increased perception of time and priorities makes for a tightly focused book.

    I did feel like a lab rat at the end of it, but that’s what I signed up for. This was research. It wasn’t all about me. I was just a number…Patient 71.

    I loved the ‘monsters’ in Randall’s head. At first I thought they were the voices that most people have – a voice of reason, a voice of panic, a voice of denial – but after a while I wondered if they weren’t changes in personality caused by the pressure of her tumours.

    All this lends to a compelling story, difficult to put down. Until the flight to America. Flights are flights, and this one, not remarkable enough for 15 pages, was placed right at the critical point, where reaction was changing to action (even Randall admits to becoming jaded shortly after).

    Occasionally, Randall plays the victim card (although I can’t say I blame her, and how would I know how I’d react?), and even though money is an issue, there are less fortunate people out there who would think Randall is super rich – she could afford an international phone call to ask for directions to a restaurant, a two-and-a-half-month stay at the Marriott, and an America-to-Australia flight for mother’s day, all during expensive treatment – but none of this changes her story or the reality of what I can’t begin to imagine she’s going through.

    Randall still sees herself as lucky despite everything, and this is raw and intrinsic throughout. It wouldn’t have been an easy job for her editors, either. Imagine having to ask ‘is this really true?’ when Randall says she played touch football in the middle of her cancer treatment!

    And as for Brian the Brain Surgeon and Biology Bill – two of my favourite characters! The world could do with more Biology Bills, with his wholistic view on the human body. It’s a much more productive view than the divisive modern medicine -vs- ancient healing plants argument.

    This is an emotional and private journey. One that I’m grateful to Randall for sharing with the world. I wish her and every other health-challenged person my absolute best wishes.

    I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for my honest review

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  • Review: In Cold Blood

    In Cold Blood
    In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

    My rating: 5 of 5 stars

    Shame on me for not reading this sooner! It seems like I’ve raved forever about the effect this book had on true crime and the bravery of Truman Capote in breaking new ground, but never did I think there was anything in it for me now. After all, it’s a fifty-year-old book, and true crime has been done, well, to death.

    But Capote’s retelling of the events leading up to and beyond the brutal and senseless murders of the Clutters is nothing short of brilliant. It’s simple yet effective. A warm emotive story of normal life meeting cold violence.

    Capote captures mood – this, a snapshot of the cold-blooded drive across county lines to commit this gruesome crime in a part of the country known as ‘out there’:

    They skirted the southern rim of the town. No one was abroad at this nearly midnight hour, and nothing was open except a string of desolately brilliant service stations.

    And he encapsulates how little we know our friends and neighbours, indeed ourselves, as this quote from a cafe owner shows:

    “One old man sitting here that Sunday, he put his finger right on it, the reason nobody can sleep; he said, ‘All we’ve got out here are our friends. There isn’t anything else.’ In a way, that’s the worst part of the crime. What a terrible thing when neighbours can’t look at each other without kind of wondering! Yes, it’s a hard fact to live with, but if they ever do find out who done it, I’m sure it’ll be a bigger surprise than the murders themselves.”

    I found myself shaking my head in disbelief at the unlikely behaviours, reactions, and beliefs of some of the people involved, and having to remind myself this is non-fiction. These crazy things actually happened. Like the convenient stupidity of one of the murderers, in not only keeping the shoes that made the bloody footprints, but packaging them up with his name on the box. Or the depth of detail some people remembered. Or the way the townsfolk had their own suspicions (the cafe owner even suspected one of the victims; and the grieving, heart-broken, soul-destroyed boyfriend of another of the victims was an early suspect).

    I laughed sardonically at what one of the murderers said when asked why he thought people accepted his bad cheques:

    “The secret is: People are dumb.”

    This from an idiot who did what he did, for the reasons he did.

    I cried when we finally reached the recounting of the killings themselves. I felt the same as the investigator Dewey did – sympathy for Perry, but neither forgiveness nor mercy.

    This is a truly incredible book, worthy of its place in history for so many reasons.

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