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Uncommon Enemy
Uncommon Enemy
by Alan Judd
Edition: Hardcover

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars his first love at university, 13 Aug. 2014
This review is from: Uncommon Enemy (Hardcover)
Frank Bowley's review Aug 12, 14 · edit
2 of 5 stars
bookshelves: espionage, fiction
Read from August 02 to 12, 2014

The book was billed as an espionage thriller. Unfortunately it had little espionage and was rarely thrilling. And while it was reasonable well written in places, the story suffered from being somewhat cliched and implausible in roughly equal measure.

The story follows Charles Thoroughgood, a retired MI6 office who has been asked to return to tracked down an ex-agent. In the intervening years, MI6 has been merged with MI5 to create a new Single Intelligence Agency (SIA), his old boss is dying, and old spying practices has been replaced by modern management theory. And someone is trying to get rid of witnesses which may hinder their rise to the top.

The story suffers many faults. It has little to do with spying and focuses many on Charles relationship with Sarah, his first love at university, who is now the wife of Nigel the new head of SIA (who Charles new also at university), and the mother of the missing agent; to complete the implausibility Charles is the agent's father. The villain of the story is obvious from the start, and doesn't show sufficient brilliance to get to the height suggested in the novel. At no point is Charles challenged or under real threat, the conclusion of the story just happened without any great effort. And the bureaucratic incompetence of the SIA, relative to the bureaucratic success of MI6, was overplayed.

After recently reading the first two novels of John Le Carre's Karla Trilogy, as well as Ben MacIntyre's study of Kim Philby, Alan Judd's Uncommon Enemy was thin gruel.


The Spellwright Trilogy (1) - Spellwright: Book 1 of the Spellwright Trilogy
The Spellwright Trilogy (1) - Spellwright: Book 1 of the Spellwright Trilogy
by Blake Charlton
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars A fast, fun and exciting fantasy story with no epic pretentions, 18 May 2010
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I am always slightly nervous when I start a new fantasy novel. I have read too many where the author is concentrating on creating an epic tale in a wonderfully detailed world with strange creatures; they're thinking about the next two books of the obligatory trilogy and forget to write a decent story. This book did have some warning signs: a map in the first few pages and quotes from reviewing highlighting the "original magical system". But, though it is clear that Spellwright is planned as the first novel of a series, the story was a pacy adventure story of a trainee wizard called Nicodemus Weal.

This story was wisely confined to one place, a wizard academy called Starhaven, and just a few main characters. The main protagonist, Nicodemus, is put into mortal danger by a evil powerful monster and some over-zealous wizards. Cue wizard duels, sword fights and fleeing in the dark; good uncomplicated fun. Some of the magic set-pieces, with enchanted artefacts are wonderfully well described. And the suspense and action is maintained while the broader context of the world is introduced subtly.

The magic system of literally spelling spells with magic runes is original and gives the author the chance of some amusing puns. The subtext around Nicodemus dyslexia (called cacography in the novel) and is difficulty casting spells is interesting, though it does get a bit preachy by the end. The books author, Blake Charlton, has severe dyslexia, and one of the purposes of the book seems to give inspiration to other dyslexics (I feel my own dyslexia gives me some cover to offer some criticism here). It does go slightly over the top at times; when Nicodemus talks about curing himself of cacography, you can see that at the end of the series, he will learn to accept his disability and become stronger for it.

The only real weak part of the book was the last 20 pages, where the story has finished and the rest of the series is being set up. Having no real narrative of its own, it does really add anything.

Overall though, a good and promising story of what is likely to be the first of many.


A Seaman's Book of Sea Stories
A Seaman's Book of Sea Stories
by Desmond Fforde
Edition: Paperback

3.0 out of 5 stars An interesting and fun read, but not Master and Commander, 13 April 2010
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This book, put together by Desmond Fforde to raise money for the Prostate Cancer Charity, is an interesting anthology containing nine short stories about ships and naval men. I did enjoy reading the stories. None of the stories were very long, and most were light and well written. They presented novel perspectives on the lives of naval men in a very accessible way, and were by no means repetitive. But, if you came to this book, like me, after reading the Patrick O'Brien Aubrey-Maturin novels (dramatised in the Russell Crowe "Master and Commander" film), the stories can come across a bit too light.

The front cover shows a picture of a tall ship which gives it a similar look the O'Brien novels. It is therefore a bit surprising went six of the nine stories concern the Second World War, with only three focusing on the Age of Sail. Also, though the title is a Book of Sea Stories, the stories revolve primary about sea men. Only two, "Peter Simple" and "Through the Gap" told adventurous sea exploits, both describing desperately attempts to avoid being wrecked. The majority of rest seemed to focus on sea men put in periods of stress, and how they coped. For example, the Fforde included a Hornblower story about the dilemmas faced when Hornblower has to guard a condemned man; it had little direct relevance of the sea or naval life.

Focusing on sea men is not of course uninteresting. Comparing these stories to the excitement of Nelson's battles is probably unfair when Fforde set out to more unusual tales. And there was only one of the stories I did not like; "On Camouflage and Ships Names", a gripe about ships names that only would be interesting to a select group of people. But, a bit more excitement would have been good.

So overall, there are probably other books that give the layman more gripping sea tales. But, given this book is for charity and it was enjoyable, I think it would be a good thing to buy a copy.


Life Of Pi
Life Of Pi
by Yann Martel
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A magical book, 20 July 2004
This review is from: Life Of Pi (Paperback)
The Life of Pi won the Booker Prize a couple of years back, so it should be of no surprise that its a good novel. However, as a person who, probably unfairly, avoids prize-winning novels on the assumption that they are judged on the quality of the literature, I was surprised that the book is a great and unpretentious read.
The book itself is quite difficult to describe, never mind categorize. At its simplest, it follows a boy called Pi attempt to survive being cast adrift in a lifeboat with a adult tiger, after being shipwrecked as he emigrates with his family from a zoo in India to Canada. That is about the extent of the plot and any normal direction. However, within these confines, Yann Martel manages to create such wonderful experiences, described beautifully, that you don't miss a traditional narrative. Its style is similar to the traditional fantastic journey stories, or the more modern South American magic realism stories by Louis de Bernieres. And whilst the book is strange and imaginative, it doesn't lose a complete grip on reality, and fully reflects Pi feelings of desperation, grief and fear during his harrowing journey across the Pacific.
Finally, at the end of the book, Pi experiences are put into another, more realistic perspective. Some reviewers have suggested that this ending was an anti-climatic 'and then I woke up'. However, I felt that this ending was not a cop-out, but allowed the reader to understand Pi real suffering more fully than a literal description would be able to achieve. For me, the ending lifted the book from just being another Berniere clone to a great book.


The Catcher in the Rye
The Catcher in the Rye
by J. D. Salinger
Edition: Paperback

4 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good literature, but a poor story, 4 Jun. 2004
This review is from: The Catcher in the Rye (Paperback)
I picked this book up from Waterstones (sorry Amazon), in one of their price reductions. I knew very little about the story, but I thought it would be worthwhile reading one of the 20th Century classics. After finishing it, I can see why it may be held up as a fine work of literature, particularly given the more conservative time it was first published, but I did not really enjoy the book and can hardly recommend it.
Essentially, the book is a first-person narrative of Holden Caulfield, a disaffected teenager who is about to be booted out of school and decides to go AWOL and bum around New York. The strength of the book is the convincing and interesting perspective of looking at the world through a troubled boy's eyes and follow his descent into some form of depression or similar mental illness. The telling of the story using the word and vocabulary of a teenage also help to link the writer to the charater.
However, this narrow perspective was also the book's major weakness, which left me ultimately unsatisfied. The story as little purpose or plot, as Holden had little purpose when he went to New York; he just didn't want to stay at his school until the end of term and didn't yet want to return home to tell his parents that he had been throw out. And given that Holden was disaffected, neither he, or the reader through him, can relate to anyone else. This left little for the reader to cling to or develop an interest in, apart from the clinical examination of writing style.
So, The Catcher in the Rye may be a 20th Century classic, and may also have been useful in the development of more realistic modern novels, but its not an exciting read.


Chasm City (GOLLANCZ S.F.)
Chasm City (GOLLANCZ S.F.)
by Alastair Reynolds
Edition: Paperback

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An epic tale let down by the small bits in between, 28 Mar. 2004
This is the second book by Alastair Reynolds I have enjoyed, having read Revelation Space last year. Though this story was a slight offshoot from the Inhibitor Trilogy that Revelation Space started, Chasm City does maintain the epic, imaginative story telling that the author had established. Indeed, I thought that Chasm City was a better book that Revelation Space. This story was concentrated on a few days, unlike the many years (decades) that the first book sprawled over, allow a tighter plot. However, many of the flaws of the first novel remain.
Alastair Reynolds seems I be a fine author of the new breed of high science fiction. His stories make novel use of the ideas coming out of physics. The space ships seem to be relativity proofed, and he makes good use of nanotechnology. He does occasionally show off his science knowledge a wee bit too much - the story becomes obscured by the cosmological jargon. However, given the interesting universe he has woven, you can about let off such bravado.
What you cannot forgive so lightly is his poor characterisation and implausible plotting. The author seems to be viewing the grand design of his creation, without studying the minutiae of what is happening on the page. He could probably get away with it if he was writing a straightforward space opera, but he has attempted a complex story within an ambitiously set series of novel, and I'm afraid he does not carry it off.
The main problem is that too little is explained in the novel; too few loose ends are tied. For instance, the motivation of most of the group of characters that Tanner collects is never explained. They were either hired to waylay him or he kidnapped them, but by the end, for no particular reason and on their own initiative, ended up placing them in danger to help him. Also, why was Tanner helping Zebra find out where Dream Fuel came from? Okay, he had encountered in once in the past, but he did not show any interest in it, or its creators then. And give the significance of Sky's madness to the novel, why was its origins explained. One moment Sky was a clever child, the next he was a psychopathic genius wanting to rule a world. His father may have died, but I find that, and the further revelation, insufficient to explain the sudden change.
Two more books have been published, and I imagine that I will read them. But, I'm afraid that the author has spoiled an imaginative science-fiction novel with attention to story detail.


Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self
Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self
by Claire Tomalin
Edition: Paperback

16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The book did make me mightly merry., 23 Feb. 2004
I am not a big reader of books about history - I have a terrible memory and quickly forget dates and the names of Kings. Also, whilst I had heard of Samuel Pepys, I had no real idea of who he was nor any great desire to learn more about him. However, after reading Jim Naughtie's "The Rivals", a very good biography about Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, I had decided that I should read more political biographies. And I chose Claire Tomalin's book on the back of a good review.
Well, I was very fortunate to have chanced upon the book. Ms Tomalin not only described Samuel Pepys, an extraordinary man from an extraordinary time, but brought him and his world to life.
Pepys was an upwardly mobile civil servant at the time of the English Civil War and the Restoration. He was corrupt, using his position as a Naval Administrator to make his fortune. He was also a serial womaniser, sometimes pressuring wives of trademen that required his favour to enter affairs with him. However, in spite of his obvious faults, he also was one of this country' best diarists, who illuminated a time crucial to the development of much of Western liberal democracy. He also reformed the Royal Navy, creating a professional body based on merit and not patronage.
Ms Tomalin wonderfully explains Pepys life. Never glossing over his darker side, she obviously loves the character, repeatedly calling him Sam. The book, arranged in themes and not chronologically, not only uses Pepys own Diary, but also other historical research, to lay out Pepy's whole life and time. And even with all this research, with copious notes for the more academically minded, the book reads easily - even for novices such as me. If my history lessons were this interesting, I may have remembered more.


Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Book 5)
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Book 5)
by J. K. Rowling
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.34

8 of 14 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An increasingly flabby Harry, 11 Jan. 2004
In common with many of the fans of Harry Potter, the publication of the fifth novel after such a long wait was a wonderful moment. The suspense created by the raising of Lord Voldemort at the end of "The Goblet of Fire" helped to only heighten the excitement. The resultant book was therefore a distinct let down.
This is the worst Harry Potter of the series, and if the first books were of similar quality, I would not have bothered to invest to much time into the magical goings-on at Hogwarts.
The main problem with the book is that it was continued a couple of worrying trends that could be detected in "Goblet of Fire" - increasing length and a decline in charm. The expanding size of these novels after the excellent "Prisoner of Azkaban" is obvious and regrettable. This has allows J.K. Rowling to bulk-out the story, seriously diluting its drama. This book plods slowly on between the occassional exciting scene. Much seems to have no immediate relevance to the plot and could be safely pruned - the first third for instance. I have the suspicion that given the global success of Ms Rowling, her editors are now too circumspect.
Secondly, the series seems to be losing some of its charm. I think this is in part due to the admirable decision by the author to allow Harry to grow up and confront teenage issues - girls, career choices, exams, disillusionment with his parents. Also, a darker, more suspenseful is attempted. Unfortunately, it hasn't been pulled off, so we have lost the boys-own adventures and humour, without adequate compensation.
Finally, the scenes in the Ministry of Magic were a bit of a messy. There seemed to be much running around and wizardry zapping, which may look good when the novel is finally released on the big screen. But on the page, it was just confusing and slightly dull. Actually, at a number of points, I felt that the author was writing for the film audience and not her readers.
Overall, I can only give the book three stars, possibly a generous number based more on my affection to the character after the previous four novels. Of course, I will wait for HP6, but not with as much impatience as before.


Cryptonomicon
Cryptonomicon
by Neal Stephenson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

2 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good fun, but a bit too sprawling, 18 July 2003
This review is from: Cryptonomicon (Paperback)
I did approach the book with a slight hestitation. It did, after all, weigh in at a hefty 900-odd pages of relatively small type. However, it was, in fact, a fairly easy and enjoyable read. But, I do think its size did cause one problem, giving the author too much space, resulting in a somewhat confused, sprawling book.
The story is mainly about code, encryption and code breaking, and Neal Stephenson obvious has done much research. Actually, he made the subject so interesting that I fired up my computer and started writing some Visual Basic encryption programmes, though I suppose that makes me an "amateur dilettante" that one of the characters of the book was so scathing about. Occassional, the book did get quite technical and even threw in some mathematical equations (in defiance of the literary rule that any equation halves a books readership), but this was generally used to good effect.
As well as the geeky stuff, there were plenty of good comical moment. Okay, the humour seems particularly aimed at those with nerdy disposition, but I imagine that Stephenson knows his audience reasonably well.
Where the book falls down and leaves me slightly disappointed, is that it doesn't seem to know what sort of book it is beyond a book about codes. It is hard to classify - it doesn't seem to be a thriller as there's no really enemies for the protagonists to battle, it's not a war novel as WWII doesn't feature much beyond a useful backdrop, and its not the next Illuminatus Trilogy as its no conspiratorial or subversive enough. But, whilst not being able to classify a novel is no criticism, what weakens this book is that it tries to be all of the above, zig-zagging around, and diminishing any impact.
But that said, I did enjoy it and finish it - so it must have been a half decent read. But I would only recommend it to someone with geeky tendencies.


The Sexual Life of Catherine M
The Sexual Life of Catherine M
by Catherine Millet
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.02

17 of 21 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars The Empty Life of Catherine M, 14 Mar. 2003
It is said that to write a good memoir, you have to have lived an interesting life. Catherine Millet easily passed this test, unfortunately she dismally fails the second implicit requirement, an ability to write well.
The book portrays, in a seemingly random sequence, the author's uninhibited experiences of group sex; where no man, woman or sexual practise was taboo. Surprisingly, given the potential gold-mine of salacious stories, the resultant book managed to make orgies as exciting as going to the toilet. There rarely seems to be any attempt to provide anything more than the shallowest description of the mechanics. Ms Millet maintains that her sexual pursuits do not revolve about pleasure, something I find easy to believe as enjoyment, excitement and emotion of claringly missing from the book. Where she does occassionally discuss her pleasure, it just becomes another cold facet of intercourse; an orgasm without feeling.
I also suspect that Ms Millet is trying to provide some philosophical underpinning to her experiences; an attempt to provide some insight into how people relate. However, her style is so jumbled and opaque - with some of the most ridiculous metaphors - that it would be impossible to identify anything of value.
Overall, do not buy this book! The most jaded bodice-ripper would be a better buy than "The Sexual Life of Catherine M"; at least it would have some excitement.


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