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Manda Scott (Shropshire, UK)

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The Spider of Sarajevo
The Spider of Sarajevo
by Robert Wilton
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.91

7 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the best WWI books you will ever read, 7 Jun 2014
This review is from: The Spider of Sarajevo (Hardcover)
Those of you who write will be familiar with the phenomenon where you, the author, are reading a book - for pleasure - and you find yourself editing it in your head as you go. You delete paragraphs that weren't necessary. You shave off the blubber and sharpen the plot points that are hidden in flab, while dialing back the ones that have the metaphorical equivalent of a Post-It note written in capital, bold, 36 point comic sans with the exclamation points in italic cerise.

And then there are the ones where you read through from cover to cover and all you can think is, [expletive deleted], I wish I'd written this. Periodically, you intersperse with 'how the **** did you *do* that?'

Hilary Mantel is one of these. And Robert Low. And, at the peak of the new generation of writers, Robert Wilton whose mix of literate language, concept and plot makes him almost unique in the genre.

His first novel won our HWA/Goldsboro (as it was then) Debut Crown. His second made sense of the English Civil War in ways nothing else has ever done (to be honest, I'd given up on trying to understand, nor did I care: now I at least have some clue and I care far more) and now his new one THE SPIDER OF SARAJEVO opens up the origins of WWI.

It's 2014. We're going to be reading a lot of the period 1914-18 over the next year or three. Already, there are 1,000 novels due to be published this year which revisit thus greatest of Great Wars. Several of those are already really, really good (Rob Ryan's Dead Man's Land/The Dead Can Wait and The Dead Can Wait, or Letters from Skye by new writer Jessica Brockmole are two of the recent stand-outs for me) - but these are 'we're in the war, it's ghastly, this is how we coped' stories (which is fine). Nothing I have read so far has even attempted to make sense of the mess of European and global politics that actually lead us into conflict.

Let's face it, the war was a mess. And incomprehensible. Except, of course, nothing is incomprehensible if you actually understand it. But that doesn't guarantee you can make it comprehensible for the rest of us.

And if you can do both of those, THAT doesn't guarantee that you can make the resulting novel worth staying up late through the night to finish as this one does.

The plot at its most basic is this: two spymasters, one in the UK, one in continental Europe, are fighting a proxy war through their agents on the ground, with the highest of prizes as their stake: the survival of the Comptrollerate General for Scrutiny and Survey, the oldest, most venerable, and arguably the greatest, spy apparatus of all time, which is dedicated to preserving the welfare of the UK.

On the British side, four (extra) ordinary people are sourced and recruited and sent across the water, each to do what he or she does best. They range from a part-Irish wide-boy addicted to risk, through an anthropologist and a Scottish hard-nosed merchant, to Flora Hathaway, a delightfully intelligent, well educated widow with an apparent interest in medieval scripts.
These four, plus Major Valentine Knox who has the unenviable task of shepherding them on occasion, draw attention to themselves, and it is the responses to that attention that forms the core of the novel, the buffered back-and-forth threat and counter threat directed at a distance by two men who can see the broader pictures that other people miss but cannot take to the field in person.

As with all the best novels (Thomas Cromwell, anyone?), it's the people that make this matter. The four agents and those around them are living people, not ciphers. They are real for their time, or it seemed so to me: not 21st century actors dressed in period costume. They are lost, alone, afraid, confident, difficult, conflicted and we come to care deeply about their progress, cheering from the sidelines when they succeed, despairing with them when they fail.

Of course, at some level, we know what will happen: Archduke Ferdinand will die in Belgrade and the continent will lurch into war. The great skill of this novel, is that nothing feels inevitable. And everything feels right.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 20, 2014 1:38 PM BST

The Dead Can Wait (Dr Watson 2)
The Dead Can Wait (Dr Watson 2)
by Robert Ryan
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.91

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant sequel to a brilliant series opener, 5 Jan 2014
I became a fan of Rob Ryan's work at Harrogate History Fest in October, when I heard him speak on a panel about Sherlock Holmes..... Apparently there was a single line in one of the last Holmes books which said that Watson had gone back to his 'old unit' - that being the RAMC, and given that we were on the brink of WWI, that means he went back to war.

Thus arises one of the best post-Conan Doyle Sherlockian series, and a fantastic historical crime series. The Major John Watson we come to know in the trenches in DEAD MAN'S LAND and again here in the UK in The Dead Can Wait is a humane, compassionate, competent individual, who nevertheless appreciates the help of his steadily deteriorating friend, Holmes. The horrors of war are not stinted, but nor are they gratuitous. In DML, we (well, I) learned a huge amount about nurses and the various auxilliaries and how they worked, while in TDCW, we (I) learn a lot we (I) didn't know about 'shell shock' and then, later, about the early development of tanks. It's fascinating, and yet none of it is presented as 'here is the research I did, now suck it up and learn it' which is so often the case in historical novels of this sort. It's all integral to the plot, and carries the dynamic tension even as we're given a virtual tour of the tank testing grounds. There's a truly scary German woman-spy, part of a network called the She Wolves, of whom I'm sure (I hope) we'll learn more, and the very welcome return of Mrs Gregson, the red-headed, motor-bike riding, thoroughly competent nursing auxilliary.

In a year when there are going to be 1,000 ( at least) books about WWI published, this will be one of the first, and I am prepared to bet, one of the best. It's a cracking, fulfilling, utterly satisfying read and you should get a copy now...

Knights of the Hawk (The Conquest)
Knights of the Hawk (The Conquest)
by James Aitcheson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £11.89

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Cracking foray once more into Norman-occupied England, 3 Dec 2013
Battle books comes in all shapes and sizes - there are the shooty-stabby (thank you to outstanding ECW author, Mike Arnold, for that phrase) books of the civil war and on, of which Robert Wilton's Treason's Tide is one of the most outstanding, and then there are the FFF (fighting, fornicating and passing wind, in the censored version) Roman/dark age books that pit Boy's Own heroes against impossible odds and they sweep the bad guys' heads off with a single twitch of a blade six inches long, proving that it's not what size it is, it's what you do with it (in your dreams) that counts.

And then there are the good, solid, well-researched, battle-fests with solidly rounded characters and a strong narrative drive: think Ben Kane, Tony Riches, Harry Sidebottom, Simon Scarrow... and James Aitcheson, who's latest book, 'KNIGHTS OF THE HAWK, has recently launched. Set in 1071, this continues the story of Tancred a Dinant, a Breton knight of the invading, occupying Norman force that is slowly trying to bring England to heel. Tancred is increasingly his own man, setting himself at odds with the king and his lord - and against the rebel Hereward, whose death forms one of the by-plots in a novel that sees Tancred breaking free of his political bonds and following his heart to its logical (and tragic) destination.

Nobody else is even endeavouring to explore this era: James Aitcheson has it all to himself and he's taken the bad guys - the enemy, the people we all fought against in our inner imaginings of Hastings and beyond - and has made them the good guys. Well, some of them are good. Some of the time.

It's a great achievement when we can root for people we've loathed since childhood - and we do. What higher praise can there be? Well written, brilliantly researched (it does help to be a proper historian: not all historians can write fiction, but when they can, it's fantastic), and fast-furious-blood-filled-manic. Perfect. And I love the cover.

Dead Man's Land (Dr Watson 1)
Dead Man's Land (Dr Watson 1)
by Robert Ryan
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.59

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic addition to the Sherlockian oeuvre - Watson on his own at last!, 28 Nov 2013
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Rob Ryan was one of our speakers at the Harrogate History Festival in October this year (it was a blast, did I mention? If you didn't come this year, you should next) and I was so impressed by his talk that I brought one of his books back with me - and have just finished it.

Dead Man's Land is based on the fact that at the very end of the Sherlock Holmes series, we discover that Dr Watson returned to his job in the RAMC - and it's 1914, so guess where he ends up? There may be 1,000 books on the first world war about to hit the shelves, but this one got in early - it's out in paperback already - and it's utterly magnificent. I'm sure there will be others that are 5* and good coming out, but this is an excellent place to start: original, and yet comfortingly traditional, in the style of Conan Doyle, but brighter, sharper - and not a whiff of misogyny. In fact, strong women feature strongly. I had hopes that we'd see a woman/woman relationship, and we did, after a fashion, but I think it was intended to be the female version of the Watson/Holmes relationship - the one where the 21st century Watson has to keep saying, "I'm not gay" because at least one of them is and if it's not him, then... Anyway, we didn't go there. Where we did go is a satisfyingly tortuous piece of detection in the grim, ghastly, mud-filled, gas-filled, sniper-filled trenches: the place we think we know by now (and will certainly know inside out by this time next year) but there's always some new horror to discover.

In this particular case, men are dying in ways that even war cannot entertain - because what better place to pursue a vendetta than in a battlefield where 50,000 men are dying every month. Watson is in the medical tents, trying out his new miracle technique (blood transfusions with citrated blood. I think he needs a brief lesson in agglutination, but that's beside the point) and when one of his patients dies, he is duty bound to find out why. Missing his old friend and mentor, he has to engage his own little grey cells and does so in a satisfyingly roundabout way. We have vignettes from the German trenches, and particularly from a German sniper who does his best to wipe out some of the relevant characters and other input from the nurses and the sub-nurses of the VAD. But most of it is from Watson's perspective and it's cracking vintage stuff: well written, intelligent, illuminating... a perfect addition to the entire Post-Conan Doyle oeuvre of Sherlock Holmes. I loved it and I'll be getting the sequel as soon as there's room on my TBR pile.

Icelight (Peter Cotton 3)
Icelight (Peter Cotton 3)
by Aly Monroe
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brililant: edgy, intelligent, spooky, 8 Nov 2013
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I loved this book - the writing is intelligent, never patronising the reader and leaving plenty of room for thought. This is written of a time when intelligence shone, when it wasn't necessary to spoon feed, when ideas could be explored in all their nuances - Cotton is a sharp, funny, clever spook of the old school and I loved his approach to life while being utterly relieved that I didn't have to live through the hell of post-war Britain.

This is a glorious achievement, thoroughly recommended.

I Am Pilgrim
I Am Pilgrim
by Terry Hayes
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £7.00

116 of 124 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bond meets Reacher: a fantastic read, 27 July 2013
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This review is from: I Am Pilgrim (Hardcover)
If you spend enough time at literary festivals, you come to fear and loathe the 'goody bag' - a delightfully marketed sling-bag full of books you never want to read and don't quite know what to do with.

Until it isn't that: the goody bag at Harrogate Crime Fest last weekend contained a small 'taster' booklet that offered the first chapter of I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes. I read it late on Saturday night, bought the book on Sunday and started reading it on Monday. I finished it late last night and it's been a fantastic week's read: a big, solid, chunky, fast-paced, rip-roaring thriller, the love child of a manic union between Jack Reacher and James Bond.

The pace and international flavour shouldn't be a surprise: from the start, this reads like the book of the film and that film will be a blockbuster. This is a debut novel, and (sorry, this is a cliche, but it's true) an astonishing feat that makes sense when we know that the author has been a journalist for the Sydney Morning Herald, covered the Watergate scandal and went on to be a screenwriter on such luminaries as Mad Max 2, Payback and Bangkok Hilton. So when we have Bondian 'hero escapes from insuperable odds' scenes set in giant warehouses with ships on gantries being sent hither and thither and our hero hanging by one arm, desperately trying not to be recognised by the Turkish police... it's easy to imagine it on a big screen with all the action and adrenaline and testosterone.

But the book isn't all that: the premise is clever. The narrator, whom we know primarily as Scott Murdoch - although we know that wasn't his birth name - is a member of the US's 'Department' - the spies who spy on spies - a kind of Military police for the CIA - staffed with people so deniable that even the department's existence is held secret. Pilgrim (as he becomes) starts of well by executing the corrupt leader in broad daylight in Moscow's Red Square and his life goes downhill from there until the point where he's asked to be the lone 'Pathfinder' sent out to Turkey to discover all he can about a man who seems to be planning a massive bio-terror attack. Actually, it's *the* worst bio-terror attack you could imagine: engineered smallpox which will rip through the world's population and reduced it to a fraction of what it was at the start.

Woven through the spy-hunting-terrorist plot is a secondary spy-helping-NYPD plot which follows the investigation of a murder in a grimy New York hotel. What makes it different was that both the victim and - so our hero thinks - the perpetrator were women. So we have a possible lesbian subplot which is always entertaining and certainly becomes so here.

The two plots inevitably collide in a small Turkish town, but not before we've been to Paris, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Bulgaria and seen side plots in London and Thailand. It's a vast, intricate, wonder of a book, full of clever use of technology and - I'm sure - a lot of research into how smallpox might rationally be spread. It also sounds a loud and clear warning: if the US government's planning is as woefully inadequate as the books suggests, then our civilisation's days are numbered.

I'm sure this will be a stellar hit, but get it early and be one of the pathfinders: It's a fantastic, fun, high-adrenaline read for the summer: just the thing to fill days on the beach or evenings at home.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 31, 2014 8:01 PM BST

by Katy Moran
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.61

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Glorious depiction of Dark Age Britain: the best since Sutcliff - possibly better, 2 July 2013
This review is from: Bloodline (Paperback)
Those of us who grew up with Rosemary Sutcliff as our lodestone, our baseline, our highest bar of excellence in the writing of the ancient world for children (and for adults) have long been looking for someone who might pick up her mantle: someone who could combine the glorious freedom and innocence of childhood with the magic of old Britain and the sense of battling against vast powers, but with a possibility of success.

Lots of authors have tried and some have come close, but Katy Moran's 'Bloodlines' is the first book I've read which carried me the same way the Silver Branch did, or Lantern Bearers ,

Set in the immediate post-Roman world (AD 630) of a Britain where the native Britains are being slowly pushed out by the Anglish, where warring kings vie for power... in this case, where Mercia is pushing into East Anglia, this is a novel of a lost boy, abandoned by his father, seeking his identity while at the same time, seeking not to lose the people he has come to love.

It's an easy enough narrative trope, but done here with a flair that many strive for and few achieve. Essa feels real the way Esca felt real in The Eagle of the Ninth. When his father Cai, the bard, leaves him behind in Wixna, in a village that will be right on the battle lines of the upcoming conflict, his sense of desperation and abandonment are plain without being mawkish. He has his hound, Fenrir, and his horse, and a sword left to him by his father, which has a history yet to be explained. In a pagan village, he is notionally Christian, but prays to the old gods as much as the new and when he begins to fly out of himself, to enter into the bodies of the hawk, the hound, the horse, he is harking back to the ways of Old Britain.

His journey takes him west almost to Wales and north towards Scotland before he returns to East Anglia, to the gathering army that waits for a king who has taken himself to a monastery and is refusing to fight.
The magic, the battles, the sense of a boy on the brink of adolescence... all are brilliant, all are pure Sutcliff, but better, because this is written for a twentyfirst century audience and lacks the innate sexism of Sutcliff. The author studied history at university and so the sense of time and place, are both beautiful (I'm not sure they had stirrups then, but I stand to be corrected) - but so many academic historians are writing leaden prose, aimed at impressing other academic historians. This is so very much better than that. It lifts off the page. It sings. I can't think why it's taken me so long to find it, but I'm so very glad I did. Rosemary Sutcliff said she wrote for children of all ages from 8 to 80 - and this is the same. Anyone who love our past will love it. I'm heading for the sequel as soon as I can.

Dandy Gilver and a Deadly Measure of Brimstone (Dandy Gilver 8)
Dandy Gilver and a Deadly Measure of Brimstone (Dandy Gilver 8)
by Catriona McPherson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £15.51

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Pitch-perfect period piece that knocks 'Downton' out of the water, 2 July 2013
One of the great joys of attending festivals is being scheduled on panels with people whose work I don't know yet. So I'll be at the Theakston's Old Peculier (sic) Harrogate Crime Fest in the middle of this month shadowing Val McDermid who is reprising her role as Chair 10 years after the first one (heck, is it 10 years? It feels like yesterday) so that I know how to run the Historical Festival in October (25th - 27th - put it in your diary). But I'll also be on a panel on Sunday 21st entitled Slaughtering the Sacred Cows.

With me will be Stuart MacBride, Cathi Unsworth and Catriona MacPherson - all of us are apparently iconoclastic in one form or another. As you do before these events, I've just started reading their books - and have just finished Catriona Macpherson's Dandy Gilver novel.

This is the seventh in the series and I can't think why it's taken so long to get around to something so richly, gloriously, wonderfully off the wall. The premise is simple: Mrs Dandy (Dandelion) Gilver is a country house lady living in a grand house in hte Perthshire wilderness, wife to Hugh, mother to two teenaged sons, Teddy and Donald, mistress to a variety of lady's maids, butlers, factors and general factotums - and she's bored. Or I guess she was bored at the start of the series when she joined forces with her neighbour, Alec Osborne for the purposes of solving crimes.

They make a formidable team: not quite Sherlock and Holmes, because neither of them is dim, but they balance each other nicely and in this book's theme of country house spas and mediums, ghosts and murder, they manage between them to run rings round the opposition without ever feeling as if they are either superheroes or implausibly well informed.

It's all told in a first person voice that feels absolutely of its time and its this, the voice, that really hooked me. Dandy Gilver reminds me of the various competent women who run hawking displays at gamefairs. She's completely at home in her rural estate, but can don furs and march about town if she has to. She's not squeamish, but she's not gung ho either. Coupled to this is a sense of time that is absolutely perfect. The setting is 1929, and everyone carries scars from the first world war (Alec, reminiscing at one point with a fellow serviceman, says that 'it was not so bad once the rations started up again', which carries within it such a wealth of unspoken horrors that it could have made a whole portion of the novel itself: it doesn't, it's there as part of the texture, the warp and weft of a time about which I know very little, but in which the author is obviously an expert. Like the best historical novels, this is one from which I learned a lot about a time and a social class without ever feeling I was being taught - this is learned, but it wears its learning lightly.

So all in all, I'm immensely glad I came across this, and am looking forward to delving further into the Dandy Gilver series. And I'll see you at Harrogate if you can make it.

Distant Thunder
Distant Thunder
by T D Griggs
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.80

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful, glorious, passionat writing, 19 May 2013
This review is from: Distant Thunder (Paperback)
I've never been a great lover of Imperial Britain: the stories of heroic men heroically destroying indigenous cultures has never seemed to me all that... heroic. Or good. Or worthwhile. It may be a history of our land, but on the whole, I'd rather not know the gory details.

But then TD Griggs produced 'Distant Thunder' and this is definitely a case of following the author - his "Redemption Blues" is one of the best contemporary thrillers I have ever read and marked him as one to follow. Against natural instinct, therefore - and I have to say against a cover that does nothing whatsoever to recommend the book - I read it.

I am so glad that I did. In brief, this is the story of two people: young Frank Gray lives an idyllic life in Bangalore (1893) when he is the unwitting witness to his mother's assault and death. A man flees the scene and based on minor memories of his uniform and a name said by his mother, Frank is set on a life bent on vengeance.

In England, Grace Dearborn is the heir to the Dearborn industrial inheritance. But she, too, is growing in a changing world and her relationship with the housekeeper, the formidable, politically active Mrs Rossiter (a wonderful foil to Grace's vapid mother), changes forever her view of the world into which she has been born.

I'm not giving too much of a spoiler to tell you that their paths cross and it is in their different priorities that much of the emotional action is grounded.

As with REDEMPTION BLUES, the language, and literacy of this is glorious, and the depth and texture of characterisation is beautiful. Frank and Grace are the kinds of people who lived with me for days after the end of the book and the denouement, particularly of Franks' quest for vengeance is handled intelligently, thoughtfully and came utterly unexpectedly.

I loved this book. Please do buy it and read it - it's a treasure.

Queen's Gambit
Queen's Gambit
by Elizabeth Fremantle
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £11.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Passionate, tender, gritty... everything you could ask for in a Tudor novel, 21 April 2013
This review is from: Queen's Gambit (Hardcover)
My partner has a first in English Lit, my degrees are all in veterinary medicine and I am constantly grateful for the fact that nobody tried to teach me to read. By an large, this means that we have very different tastes in books although inevitably we're overlapping more as the years progress.
Once in a while, a book comes along that I know she's going to love: some of them are entirely not her kind of thing - she spent an entire evening asking me why I'd pressed Tim Griggs' book Redemption Blues on her, and then two days later sat up half the night finishing it. (can I say, 'told you so'?)

Elizabeth Fremantle's book 'Queen's Gambit' fell effortlessly into the double-tick bracket: literary enough to please Faith's love of language, while the characterisation and sense of history are so utterly engaging that I fell into it and had to be dragged unwilling back to the day job and was left with characters not of my own making hovering over the day, clamouring for more attention.

Like Wolf Hall, with which there are obvious comparisons, this book is set in the reign of Henry VIII, although this one deals with the last of his wives, the gutsy, level-headed Katherine Parr who holds her husband's hand as he dies from (I assume) bowel cancer and then is speed-dated by Henry who wants her as his new wife on the strength, so he says, of her willingness to speak the truth to him.

There follows a touching-while-toe-curling portrait of an intelligent, passionate woman in her thirties, forced into matrimony with the aging, ulcerous, overweight, monstrously self-indulgent king. I have yet to read a sympathetic portrait of Henry and while this book does much to make him human - and there is no doubt that the chronic pain from his leg ulcer must have driven him even closer to the edge of madness than he already sailed - but the real punch in this book comes from the knowledge that Katherine Parr is sixth in a line of wives, two of whom have been beheaded, one has died and only those from far more noble families than hers have had the luxury of a divorce. She has her enemies at court, the names made famous in Wolf Hall as Call me and Gardiner. Both hate her and will do anything to bring her down, particularly after she has made such a success of her regency while Henry was away campaigning in France. But more, they hate her because she espouses the new religion and they are trying their hardest to bring Henry back to catholocisim. To lose to them will be fatal and the moments when she seems to fall out of the king's favour - once for daring to quote Erasmus to him in Gardiner's company - are terrifying. The pressure in her household, the grasping after small motes of rumour... this is what happened to 'the concubine' (Anne Boleyn), this is how it happens, the jewels are taken back first.... Her redemption is humiliating, but lightened by the sight of her enemy stepping too far across the line and finding himself banished from court.

Even so, it's an old passion that seems her final downfall and the slide towards the block seems inexorable when Henry falls ill. There's a hint that Katherine, with her knowledge of herbs, and her 'easing' of a previous husband's passage, might have seen the old monster off to save her own skin, but the plot steps back from that. If it did happen, I can't think there are many who would blame her. She fails to gain regency, and is glad of it - free from the politics of court, she can marry her love and find happiness. Or so it might seem. Men, though, do not step well from the pages of this book, and her final love, and her final betrayal seem a heart-breaking end to a life lived so close to the edge, with such striving for integrity.

So... this isn't Wolf Hall, but it bears many of the hallmarks of that book if with easier language and a plot that does not depend quite so much on everyone's knowledge of history to provide the tension. It stands head and shoulders above the general run of Tudor romance/mystery/histories and will be, I'm sure, a run-away best-seller. This is a magnificent endeavour; anyone would have been proud to have written it at any stage of their writing career: as a first novel, it's truly outstanding.

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