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G. Bell (Brittany, France)
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The Thrill of it All
The Thrill of it All
by Joseph O'Connor
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 11.89

4.0 out of 5 stars Thrilling, 12 July 2014
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This review is from: The Thrill of it All (Hardcover)
O'Connor is one of the finest writers around at the moment, and as he's clearly seriously into his music it's obvious that he enjoyed writing this tremendously. It's certainly great fun to read.

A fictional rock memoir is an unusual and challenging beast, and O'Connor nearly pulls it off. A major part of the appeal of music memoirs is the name-dropping, the 'war stories' and esoteric trivia that every music fan enjoys. For me the enjoyment was tempered slightly by the nagging irritation that of course all the tales in this book are made-up, even when they involve real musicians. Every time Robbie Goulding tells us about supporting Brian Wilson, drinking with Elvis Costello or visiting Patti Smith at home, you think "er.... no, that never happened - because you don't exist".

O'Connor's deep Irish roots are both a great asset and an occasional handicap. On the debit side he doesn't wear his Irishness lightly - it does seem rather implausible that 3 people who form a band in Luton should all have some kind of Irish connection.... and that despite those connections being tenuous to say the least in some cases, the band should unthinkingly adopt an Irish identity. Hint Joe: other nationalities are available.

However the wonderfully playful and inventive use of language which springs from Ireland's bilingual culture is employed to devastating effect in the early part of this book - O'Connor is a maestro who wrings unexpected depths from the English language in the same way that Hendrix produced startling and unforeseen results from an electric guitar.

Anyone who enjoys music, enjoys a good story and enjoys some of the best contemporary writing will be shouting "More!!" by the end of this book.


A Spy by Nature (Alec Milius 1)
A Spy by Nature (Alec Milius 1)
by Charles Cumming
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

4.0 out of 5 stars Worth sticking with, 18 Jun 2014
I do sometimes wonder what on earth literary editors do to earn their salaries. This is a unique and gripping novel which feels amazingly authentic...... but as others have already mentioned, I wouldn't blame anyone who gave up on it before half-way.

Rarely have I read such a poorly-paced and oddly-structured book, and I'm astonished that Mr Cumming's editor didn't sit him down and asked him to cut out huge swathes of the first half which turn out to be utterly irrelevant to the excellent study, in the second half, of a man finding the life he has chosen disintegrating under pressure. My advice would be - if you're finding the interminable descriptions of every aspect of the SIS recruitment process dragging, simply skip past them - you miss absolutely nothing relevant to the rest of the book.

Cumming very clearly knows his stuff in relation to the world of espionage which he portrays (no doubt accurately) as grubby, not in the least glamorous, unprincipled and exploitative - destroying the lives of those it sucks in without compunction. And unlike many other writers, Cumming doesn't have to pepper the text with jargon or clunky spy clichés - you simply know that he knows what he's talking about.

Do stick with it.


Clean Cut
Clean Cut
by Lynda La Plante
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.59

1.0 out of 5 stars By far the weakest of the Anna Travis series, 30 May 2014
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This review is from: Clean Cut (Paperback)
I've greatly enjoyed reading most of the Anna Travis series, albeit out of sequence. Yes, La Plante's style is unique, reading more like a draft screenplay than a novel, but my god she knows how to build tension and keep the reader turning pages.

Which is what made this book all the more disappointing. Frankly there's a shortage of plot development - despite a series of serious linked crimes, nothing much seems to happen for chapters on end. There is a ridiculously large and confusing palette of interlinked characters, and a weird, convoluted and seemingly pointless sub-plot involving voodoo.

But that's not the end of this novel's problems - La Plante seems determined to make Langton appear a cruel bully, and Travis a doormat, without quite understanding how much that undermines our sympathy with these key characters. All very odd.

And the book is also punctuated by repeated tirades about immigration and alleged systematic undue lenience in the criminal justice system, which read like a rant lifted straight from the Daily Express. You don't have to be a Guardian reader to find this unnecessary, unpleasant and rather boring..... especially when few readers will have missed what La Plante seems blind to - that her version of the Met, policing a multi-cultural city, is 99% white.


Backlash
Backlash
by Lynda La Plante
Edition: Paperback
Price: 3.50

4.0 out of 5 stars Grit your teeth if you're Scottish, 28 Oct 2013
This review is from: Backlash (Paperback)
Having enjoyed La Plante's TV output, this was my first of her books. What a superb, taut and gripping read! La Plante's dry style (it does read like a screenplay) takes a little getting used to, but is well worth it.

I do have to gripe about one aspect however - the attempt to portray the dialect of two Glaswegian characters is simply excruciating - teeth-grindingly awful. For example La Plante seems under the bizarre misapprehension that "nae" as in "there's nae milk in the fridge" can also be used in "nae, I didn't do it". I'm pretty sure even Brigadoon didn't get it that badly wrong.

It seems barely believable that neither La Plante nor her editor knows one single person from Scotland who they could have run this dialogue past.

If La Plante wants her characters to venture beyond Gretna in the future she'll need to be a little more diligent in this respect - however after enjoying this so much I've already ordered my next Anna Travis thriller!


Are We Nearly There Yet?: A Family's 8000 Mile Car Journey Around Britain
Are We Nearly There Yet?: A Family's 8000 Mile Car Journey Around Britain
by Ben Hatch
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Half a good book roughly welded onto half a not-so-good book, 14 Aug 2013
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This odd book is like one of those second-hand car trade scams where the front half of one written-off car is welded onto the back half of another write-off. The good half deals with Hatch's father's sudden terminal illness, which arises during the son's road trip, the rollercoaster many of us have been on of good news followed by bad news, and Hatch's often searing self-examination which is honest to the point of acute embarrassment at times.

Unfortunately the larger half of the book - a road trip round the UK which seems ridiculously long and pressured considering that 2 toddlers are involved -is a bit of an ordeal at times for the reader as well. Hatch's honesty about his own shortcomings certainly doesn't extend to his children, who appear to cause irritation and havoc everywhere they go, yet are endlessly indulged. Or his wife, a woman with an astonishing range of apparent phobias, and a rather insular and judgemental view of the world.

But it's the one-sided nature of the Hatch family's transactions with the rest of the world which really grates. The entire trip is based on "blagging" accommodation, meals and entrance to attractions - i.e. getting freebies in exchange for a possible mention in the guide book they're writing. How staying (free) in 5-star or boutique hotels fits in with a guidebook about family-friendly tourist destinations is anyone's guess, but there's little evidence of any gratitude from Hatch for their astonishing good fortune in being able to do this. Indeed the family gleefully nick stuff from breakfast buffets to make a cheap lunch later. But this seems to be the Hatches' modus operandi - we're told they "blagged" a free fortnight in Mauritius for their honeymoon, and even "blagged" an upgrade on the flights.

They are touched by being offered small acts of kindness in Liverpool, but throughout the book never reciprocate once. Indeed they make money out of a snippet of news they pick up at a charity attraction, selling the story to a newspaper. It never seems to occur to them that perhaps the proceeds should have gone to the charity. Yet while they're taking what they can get from the rest of the world, they're researching a guidebook they'll get paid for, plus of course this second book they also benefit from, and are selling stories to the national press. It's not attractive.

However in the end I marked this book down to one star simply because of the sheer dishonesty of putting an endorsement by John Cleese on the cover. As becomes clear during the book, Cleese is an old family friend, and the two meet again at the father's deathbed. Cleese is thus hardly likely to be less than complimentary about Hatch's work, and drawing in potential readers through "blagging" the apparent endorsement of such a well-known public figure is utterly shameful.


The Various Haunts Of Men: Simon Serrailler Book 1 (Simon Serrailler 1)
The Various Haunts Of Men: Simon Serrailler Book 1 (Simon Serrailler 1)
by Susan Hill
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.59

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A superbly intelligent crime series - despite the central character!, 9 Aug 2013
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Anyone coming to this series for the first time should be warned that A) they'll probably get hooked on this superbly written series, and B) that will be despite the 'central' character, Simon Serrailler, not being particularly central to the books, and being one of the least sympathetic characters I've ever encountered.

These books use major crimes as a 'hook' on which to hang a series of related 'slices of life' involving various related characters, their lives and the dilemmas they face. If that sounds disjointed and uninteresting, nothing could be further from the truth. Hill's writing is so good, with such a 'light touch', that you quickly start to care about the characters and can't wait to find out how the various strands are resolved. Indeed at several points I skipped a few pages to get to an impending denouement, then backtracked to fill in the lead-up to it.

The most puzzling aspect of the series is Serrailler himself - a cool, detached character who has major issues with relationships and commitment, and is not particularly likeable. There's nothing actively dislikeable about him, he's just very difficult to care about. We're told that he's highly regarded by his colleagues and superiors, but there's little evidence of particular commitment to his job, or any special talents or insights that he has. To be honest his second interest outside work, which he keeps totally separate, seems unlikely - echoes of P D James' Adam Dalgleish and his ridiculously unbelievable second persona as a poet.

To be honest Serrailler could fall under a bus and the series could continue perfectly well on autopilot, as famously did Taggart.

So this is a crime series like no other - the quality of the writing is brilliant, and as soon as you stop worrying about not caring about the central character you get drawn into very compelling narratives. You may find yourself up half the night, unable to put it down!


Not Dead Yet (Ds Roy Grace 8)
Not Dead Yet (Ds Roy Grace 8)
by Peter James
Edition: Paperback
Price: 3.85

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The most boring detective in the UK?, 13 Mar 2013
I've been an avid reader of the Roy Grace series, but I'm afraid this latest instalment was perhaps the weakest yet. It felt shoddy, as if Peter James couldn't be bothered putting his usual effort into it. There are a couple of plot holes so large you could fall into them, one of which has a major bearing on the outcome of the investigation.

But a nagging feeling which has been building up for a while came to a head in this book - namely the conviction that Roy Grace is the least interesting and least likeable lead character in any current British crime fiction series. It's not just that he doesn't have any interesting or quirky character traits, but I'm getting a bit fed up of hearing what an all-round excellent person he is - generally respected by his superiors, liked by all his colleagues. Despite the wearisome 'back-story' about his "missing" wife, it also starts to get rather grating after a while to hear about his "wonderful" "beautiful" girlfriend Cleo, the lovely house they live in, their great sex, their smugly comfortable lifestyle.

Compare Grace to Rebus, or Mo Hayder's Jack Cafferty, or Dalziel, Jack Frost, or even the smooth and urbane Adam Dalgleish, and he appears a 2-dimensional wooden character who could equally be a photocopier salesman living in Swindon. We keep being told that he runs the police rugby team, but even that avenue is never explored - there's not one scene in any book set at the rugby club, training session or game.

It may well be that this is a deliberate strategy on the part of James - that by making Roy Grace a bit of a 'blank slate', quite nice, a bit boring, ordinary, pleasant life, that he intends readers to identify with his character. Ironically he HAS created a genuinely interesting, likeable, "real" character in Glenn Branson, while Norman Potter may not be a very sympathetic character, but he does feel 100 times more like a real person than Grace.

I'll certainly give the next Roy Grace book a go, but I think it's high time that Peter James made Grace a character you WANT to read about, not just a peg to hang another cunning plot on.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 18, 2014 2:35 AM GMT


Hope and Glory: A People's History of Modern Britain
Hope and Glory: A People's History of Modern Britain
by Stuart Maconie
Edition: Paperback
Price: 3.86

4.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining and insightful - but with a few flaws, 20 Oct 2012
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I have to declare an immediate interest - I regard Stuart Maconie as one of the best broadcasters and chroniclers of everyday life currently around. He's incredibly witty and funny, and as always that is what makes this book sparkle. He also appears to be an incredibly nice bloke, a humane and sypathetic commentator, and someone who would provide unbeatable company down the pub. This is an interesting concept for a book, occupies a niche I've not seen filled before, and is written with Stuart's usual attractive blend of acute observation and accessible explanation of what in other hands would be dry historical context.

However I'm not sure why someone (presumably at the publishers) decided to add the subtitle "A People's History of Modern Britain" - as this simply points up a couple of weaknesses in the book. Namely that it's not really a "People's History", and it's not really "of Britain".

It's a series of explorations of aspects of everyday life which help shape the society we live in, each cleverly hung on the peg of a key date from each decade. However Maconie makes no bones about his personal perspective in all these areas, and his accounts are - by his own declaration - far from impartial. That makes for a fun read, but anyone expecting an authoritative reference book should look elsewhere. For example it makes a very pleasant change (as opposed to the usual tabloid agenda about immigration and race) to read a positive and truthful account of how those living in areas filled with people from around the world generally get on well with each other - because underneath all the cultural differences, most people wherever they're from are nice, considerate and decent. But there's a niggling doubt that Stuart really should have mentioned - even in passing - that not everything is rosy in every corner of multi-cultural Britain. That is also a fact of contemporary life, and Stuart does the noble cause of tolerance no favours by ignoring it.

And although all the themes explored apply to Britain as a whole, this is essentially a book about England. It's not just Maconie's slightly irritating tic of using the word "England" when he means "Britain" and vice versa, and it's not just that he makes only one single foray outside of England, to Snowdon. It's the fact that he appears disappointingly unaware of the different perspectives from different parts of the UK on almost every theme in the book. An obvious untold story, an unusual 'take' I've never seen chronicled, would be the reaction to 1966 in the bits of the UK outside England. Were people cheering on their neighbours? Were they in fact supporting Germany? Or - as I suspect - were they really not much bothered one way or the other? Same with the chapter on rambling and the 'right to roam' - there's literally no mention of the fact that this issue was pioneered under entirely separate legislation in Scotland.

The final chapter - the weakest of the book - illustrates the problem perfectly. In 100 years' time what will be remembered about the 1990's won't be a landslide election (what Stuart concentrates on), nor even the mass grief following a royal death. What the history books will record will be the end of 40 years of violence in Northern Ireland, and the biggest shake-up of the British constitution for 300 years in the form of devolution to Wales and Scotland. But because these aren't English phenomena, Stuart can't find even one word to mention them however fleetingly.

It's a shame, because despite all that I would heartily recommend this as an entertaining, insightful and very funny book by a gifted writer and top bloke.


Moranthology
Moranthology
by Caitlin Moran
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 15.19

3 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Check the dictionary folks!, 29 Sep 2012
This review is from: Moranthology (Hardcover)
Almost every review of this book so far expresses some degree of surprise that it's a collection of Moran's newspaper columns.

This is more than a little mystifying given its title. Do people really not know what an 'anthology' is??
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 20, 2012 7:42 AM BST


The Treatment: Jack Caffery series 2
The Treatment: Jack Caffery series 2
by Mo Hayder
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.59

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The problem with Jack Caffery, 16 Dec 2011
I've read Hayder's other Caffery novels published before and after The Treatment.... and loved them all. In some ways this is the pivotal book of the series. So why didn't I enjoy it very much?

I think there are several problems with this book - firstly the violence is particularly unremitting and grim, and dog-lovers should be warned that some scenes are distressing. It's also for me a hallmark weakness of the series that victims' suffering is described in horrifying detail, but once the ordeal is over the victims are essentially written out and it's back to Caffery.

That's the other problem. Other central characters in crime series one can warm to, and care about (e.g. Rebus, Roy Grace and Jackson Brodie)... but while it's clear that Hayder fancies the character she's created, he is rather flat and a cold fish - even accounting for his 'back story' and the fact he's very obviously emotionally damaged. He lacks warmth and quirkiness, and frankly it's rather hard to care about him. His behaviour is often difficult to empathise with, and in this book he is infuriatingly illogical and self-defeating at several crucial points. Combine that with his girlfriend Rebecca - another flat, quirk-free character who it's difficult to like - and you have the curious void at the heart of this novel.

I'm convinced that Hayder started to realise how unsympathetic Caffery was, and created the Flea Marley character in subsequent books to give readers someone to empathise with - but that then leads to the odd situation where you're not quite sure who is the central character.

Despite filling the text of this book with a convincing plethora of police procedural detail, there is also a strange 'skipping over' of a major police failing early in the plot, one which would in real life have led to a media frenzy which would undoubtedly caught up the two major investigating officers - but it dissipates unconvincingly quickly, and media interest is virtually non-existent in the rest of the story.

I will continue to read any further Caffery novels, and I certainly think he benefits from the 'change of scene' in later novels in the series, but for me I'm afraid this is the weak link in the chain.


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