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Brown's Requiem
Brown's Requiem
Price: £4.35

4.0 out of 5 stars Vintage Ellroy, 12 Jan. 2015
This review is from: Brown's Requiem (Kindle Edition)
This was James Ellroy's first novel. In the introduction, the author writes that it is `heavily beholden' to Raymond Chandler, but also that imitating the 1940s noir genius was 'a dead-end street on GenreHack Boulevard'. With this, all is said: Brown's Requiem is a transposition of the L.A. private eye classics to the late 1970s. With its sour and flawed but gritty hero, its excursion through vice-ridden Mexican border towns, its vortex of corrupt policemen and crazed criminals, it hits all the nails on the head. At the same time, stylistically it is not Chandler, lacking the crackling dialogue, the bygone polish, the inimitable poetic sarcasm - it is tempting to plot based on Chandler, but it is a far harder thing to write like him.

And yet Brown's Requiem is a great read. Fritz Brown, a cop turned detective and classical music buff, is hired by a golf caddie to spy on his cello-playing sister and her patron. But the caddie is not what he looks, and Brown soon finds himself investigating a far wider conspiracy involving organised fraud and arson. As a disgraced ex-cop, moreover, he comes to be at a dangerous disadvantage when he finds that powerful policemen are involved. Violent and dark but not exceedingly so, this is a thriller of the first class. It also draws from the world of golf caddies, in which Ellroy apparently did a spell as a budding writer. Its style, finally, is far different than his later novels: much less clipped and laden with slang, lacking the staccato directness of the author's 'American Underworld' trilogy, but also more fluid and easier on the reader. Ellroy remained, when he was writing this, in his formative years. For Chandler-obsessed fans, this is actually an advantage.


The Eustace Diamonds
The Eustace Diamonds
Price: £0.00

4.0 out of 5 stars Muted sparkle, 12 Jan. 2015
The Eustace Diamonds is the third in the six-novel Palliser series, a group of books brought together by a set of common characters, but that does not need to be read in order. Though Trollope is always good, I would not recommend it as the best in that series, however, that prize going to the two Phineas Finn novels - Phineas Finn and Phineas Redux, the exceptions in the series in that the second of these two is a sequel to the first. If you have already read the Phineas books, however, you will enjoy The Eustace Diamonds, and indeed find two of their peripheral characters acting as central protagonists here.

The Eustace Diamonds has the social climber Lizzie Greystock make an earlier marriage to a sickly heir, Florian Eustace, and promptly inherit. Lizzie is set up for life but, being shallow, selfish, and manipulative, she fails to find this enough and soon becomes embroiled in further dubious society intrigues. Part of the Eustace inheritance, moreover, was a valuable diamond necklace, and Lizzie, falsely claiming she was given the diamonds by her late husband, finds herself under attack from the family lawyer, who seeks to recover them on behalf of the estate. Inevitably, at some point, the jewels get stolen, causing the heroine to tie herself up in an even thicker web of lies. Trollope's novel deals with the familiar concerns of London, or English high society at the time, namely property, politics, and reputation among a small coterie of the glamorous and powerful. Laced with a burglary story, it is endowed with a good plot and involves the typical ironic situations and dialogues at which Trollope was a master. Perhaps because it is overladen with unsavoury characters, nevertheless, I found that it engages the reader slightly less than the rest of the series, which is otherwise a masterpiece of nineteenth-century English literature.


Abaddon's Gate: Book 3 of the Expanse
Abaddon's Gate: Book 3 of the Expanse
by James S. A. Corey
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Cracking, 19 Dec. 2014
Abaddon’s Gate is the third book in the expanse trilogy by James S.A. Corey, so if you have not read the first two (Leviathan Wakes and Caliban’s War), stop reading this review here. For those who are looking to move on to the third volume of what currently stands as a quadrilogy (but remains in progress), Abaddon’s Gate flags very slightly in pace from the first two books, but remains en excellent read. Jim Holden and his crew remain at the helm, at least at the beginning of the book, and Miller even makes a comeback. But enough said: the expanse series is consistently good science fiction, and there is every reason to continue with it.


Caliban's War: Book 2 of the Expanse
Caliban's War: Book 2 of the Expanse
by James S. A. Corey
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

5.0 out of 5 stars Cracking, 19 Dec. 2014
Caliban's War is the second book in the expanse trilogy by James S.A. Corey, so if you have not read the first (Leviathan Wakes), stop reading this review here. For those who are looking to move on to the second volume of what currently stands as a quadrilogy (but remains in progress), Caliban's War does not flag in quality or pace from the first book. Jim Holden and his crew remain at the helm, and the proto-molecule has not disappeared. But enough said: the expanse series is consistently good science fiction, and if you enjoyed Leviathan Wakes there is every reason to continue with it.


Leviathan Wakes: Book 1 of the Expanse
Leviathan Wakes: Book 1 of the Expanse
by James S. A. Corey
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

5.0 out of 5 stars Cracking, 19 Dec. 2014
This is the first book in the expanse trilogy by James S.A. Corey, a new science fiction author who is in fact two writers. The plot begins with the hijacking of a spaceship and soon moves on to the discovery of a highly dangerous alien artefact somewhere around Jupiter. Leviathan Wakes is set is an indeterminate but not so far future in which humanity has colonised the solar system, itself culturally and politically split between Earth, Mars, and the asteroid belt. The recovery attempt by the pirated ship's second, Jim Holden, soon intersects with an investigation by detective Joe Miller into the disappearance of heroine Julie Mao, daughter of an interplanetary trade magnate. Meanwhile the artefact threatens to run out of control, with horrific consequences.

Leviathan Wakes is well written, with consistent characterisation, imagination, and occasional humour. The gloomy but unflappable Miller works particularly well as an archetype taken from another genre, namely noir, transplanted into a science fiction setting. I also like that it offers a progressive vision of technology, and a sober but in many ways positive peek at the future, unlike the gloomy dystopias that have become fashionable today. While politics remain as fraught as they ever are, and economic relations, there is progress of a sort. And humanity at least seeks to learn from its mistakes. Leviathan Wakes is well worth reading, and though readable as a standalone, it is the first set in a series of novels (running to four to date) of equal quality.


The Coming of the Third Reich: How the Nazis Destroyed Democracy and Seized Power in Germany
The Coming of the Third Reich: How the Nazis Destroyed Democracy and Seized Power in Germany
by Richard J. Evans
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.24

3.0 out of 5 stars Reich instalment, 15 Dec. 2014
The Coming of the Third Reich is the first instalment in Pr Evans's trilogy on the subject, the second being on the 1930s Reich and the third on the Reich in WWII. As Evans himself points out at the beginning of this series of three books, published material on the Third Reign runs into the tens of thousands, more than even a professional historian can expect to master in a lifetime. Evans's trilogy, coming from a specialist in the field, is probably the most complete one can expect to find in a single book or set of books. It forms an exhaustive survey, covering social, economic, cultural, and political history, and the student should look no further. All that said, nonetheless, this first volume is less strong than the other two, it overlaps substantially with the second volume, and it can conceivably be skipped over.

The issue with The Coming of the Third Reich, indeed, is that it is neither a history of the Weimar Republic nor a survey of the Reich's origins, but something between the two. As a result, the book has too much of an air of inevitability to it - even if Evans warns against that once in a while. The Weimar regime simply looks doomed from the start: perhaps a fair conclusion, but one that looks too obvious in a book that is explicitly about its Nazi successor. The set of chapters about German history and Nazism at the beginning are likewise awkward. A history of Nazism's ideological antecedents would have worked better, or alternatively a simple, and more neutral, survey of historical works on the question. This volume, finally, overlaps with the next in its account of the Nazi seizure of power from Hitler's appointment as chancellor. The material isn't exactly the same, but the story is, making the whole account repetitive from one book to the next. Overall, finally, I would still recommend the classic account that is Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich to the general reader. Yes, it is far less complete than Evans's trilogy and it focuses more narrowly on political history, but for sheer narrative verve, it remains the book to read - or perhaps a combination of Shirer and Evans's second volume, which covers the typically less well known aspects of Nazism.


Marriage Material
Marriage Material
by Sathnam Sanghera
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Dances with Wolverhampton, 28 Nov. 2014
This review is from: Marriage Material (Paperback)
As a journalist, Sathnam Sanghera regularly mentions that he is from the disadvantaged and down-at-heals Wolverhampton, and this is the novel. The plot follows the parallel stories of Arjan, from a Sikh family but now living the yuppie life in London, and of his aunt Surinder as an adolescent and young adult forty years before. The lens is on their family, the Bains, who, after immigrating from the Punjab, run a corner store in Wolverhampton. The broader subject, moreover, is the difficulty of immigrant integration in Britain and the troubled nature of its race relations.

The better of the two stories, though they eventually intertwine, is that of the young, smart, and attractive Surinder and her tribulations. Sadly, though, this tends to get curtailed and more space given to the crypto-Sanghera that is presumably Arjan. The novel contains fascinating information about the local Indian community and its origins, as well as on the difficulties of the retail trade. But this was otherwise a mild disappointment. The race-relations issue, based on my own experience, seems overdone for effect. The humour that generally characterises Sanghera's articles is mostly missing. Indeed, the problem may be that the adaptation from journalism to fiction is stylistically challenging. Journalism requires directness because it must fit in so few words: that doesn't always work in fiction. Every so often, the formulations are awkward, the witticisms ineffective, presumably because the text fails to build up to them. Though the novel is readable, I found that Marriage Material fell a little flat.


The Third Reich in Power, 1933 - 1939: How the Nazis Won Over the Hearts and Minds of a Nation
The Third Reich in Power, 1933 - 1939: How the Nazis Won Over the Hearts and Minds of a Nation
by Richard J. Evans
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.24

4.0 out of 5 stars Reich manual, 25 Nov. 2014
As Evans himself points out at the beginning of this series of three books, published material on the Third Reign runs into the tens of thousands, more than even a professional historian can expect to master in a lifetime. Evans's trilogy, coming from a specialist in the field, is probably the most complete one can expect to find in a single book or set of books. The second volume runs from the Nazi takeover of power in 1933 to the very eve of WWII, and I found it somewhat superior to the first. This is an exhaustive survey of the Reich in peace time, or rather in its preparation phase to long-planned hostilities. Social, economic, cultural, and political issues are all covered in great detail. The student should go no further, or rather should begin here and move on to the extensive bibliography. This is the product of many years of teaching and research activity, and it shows.

At the same time, a few minor weaknesses are in my view worth raising. The practice of translating everything from German, even familiar terms and expressions such as Heil Hitler! is sometimes odd. Evans has the Völkischer Beobachter as the racial rather than the popular observer, which doesn't sound right. More substantially, I found that the chapter on economics lacks clarity. Evans, in a laudable effort not to grant the Nazis anything, dismisses their reduction of German unemployment, but actually by his own numbers, even allowing for obfuscation and forced enlistment and labour, one is bound to conclude that their policies did reduce unemployment substantially. Overall, finally, Evans rarely is concise, though that is hardly blameable considering the mass of his material. At the same time, I would still recommend the classic account that is Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich to the general reader. Yes, it is far less complete than Evans's trilogy and it focuses more narrowly on political history. But for sheer narrative verve, it remains the book to read.


The Twelve Caesars (Penguin Classics)
The Twelve Caesars (Penguin Classics)
by Robert Graves
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.79

5.0 out of 5 stars Great account, 25 Nov. 2014
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Suetonius' Twelve Caesars is a key narrative source for the period it covers and, unlike Tacitus, it has survived entire and is uninterrupted. Beginning with Caesar himself, in the mid first century BC, it ends in AD 96 with Domitian and covers the reigns of such emperors as Tiberius, Caligula, and Nero. Organised according to each of these twelve emperors' lives, it contains more or less self-contained if unequal chapters (long reigns are given more space). Thus the story progresses from the civil wars that surrounded Caesar's rise to power, the establishment of the principate under Augustus, and on to the more debauched reigns of their descendents in the early first century AD. It closes with the establishment of a new dynasty, the Flavians, represented by Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian.

The introduction appositely remarks that Suetonius was following, in this work, the classical format of eulogy or biography, rather than history, according to classical forms. As a result, each reign is organised topically, beginning with ancestry, going on to civic achievements, then military campaigns, then the given emperor's vices or crimes, and the manner of his death complete with warnings and omens. This means that a reader completely unacquainted with the period may find the overarching story hard to follow, and it is best to be armed with basic knowledge of it. At the same time, firstly, Suetonius does follow a loose chronological progression within each topic he addresses and within each life, and secondly his writing is really clear and easy to follow. Suetonius as historian was impressive, moreover: in addition to testimonies and oral sources, he examined written sources including letters written by the protagonists, e.g. Augustus, and official Roman records, e.g. the treasury's. This is exceptional, indeed to my knowledge unprecedented, for a classical writer. Though sometimes his sources appear to fail him, this is rare and his account is authoritative. Twelve Caesars, in addition to being easy to read, is an essential source on the early Roman Empire.


The Day Commodus Killed a Rhino: Understanding the Roman Games (Witness to Ancient History)
The Day Commodus Killed a Rhino: Understanding the Roman Games (Witness to Ancient History)
by Jerry Toner
Edition: Paperback
Price: £13.00

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The real Gladiator, 18 Nov. 2014
We may all have seen and enjoyed the Ridley Scott movie but historically it is, sadly, hopelessly inaccurate. The Day Commodus Killed a Rhine tells the real story. Amazingly Commodus did fight, and kill animals, in the arena, and this was related to his eventual downfall. Senators, and his sister, were involved in the plot and there is even, like in the film, a story about an indiscrete little boy playing at fighting - but I don't want to spoil the first few chapters for you. Toner has the full story, or rather he begins with that in what turns, in later chapters, into a fascinating exploration of the games and their role in Roman society. The games were central to the Roman world, he shows. Under the empire, they replaced the political processes by which the popular classes had been able to participate in politics. They consumed huge resources - to the point of having caused some animal species to become extinct - and they were central to Roman identity. While they involved a type of violence we would find repugnant, even unbearable, they were nevertheless not the scene of unrestrained bloodlust or hooliganism. They even had their critics, not least the Christians, though as Toner shows even martyrs were apt to internalise at least part of the circus's ethos. Most importantly, they had their rules. This is a great book, whether for its details on the games themselves or for the wider points it makes about Romanness. Now if only Scott had used Toner as his historical adviser.


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