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Manda Scott (Shropshire, UK)
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Into the Valley of Death (Harry Ryder 1)
Into the Valley of Death (Harry Ryder 1)
by A L Berridge
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.99

4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent, gripping, moving read - one of the best of 2012, 4 Jun. 2012
Like some of the previous reviewers, I wouldn't have chosen the Crimea as my idea of a favourite evening's read: I'm not keen on the British Army at the point when everyone dressed in red so they'd make a good target on the battlefield and the officers were clearly idiots: it's just too imperially depressing.
But I am so, immensely glad that I trusted in AL Berridge's outstanding writing style and picked this one up. Her grasp of the history is unparalleled: I have no idea if anyone else has stitched together the data and drawn the same conclusion, but it seemed not only plausible, but obvious: I won't drop a spoiler, but there's a twist in this tale that makes sense of the events in a way that the sheer incompetence of the officers (Lord Lucan is called Lord Look-On by his troops for obvious reasons) simply doesn't explain. In Berridge's hand, the catastrophic and suicidal 'charge of the Light Brigade' becomes an act of necessary heroism by men who had been fatally deluded.
So, the history is accurate, I'm sure and testament to an eye watering amount of research, and the battle scenes are electric, with an immediacy that many strive for and most fail to achieve, but it's the character of Harry Ryder and the small group of men he gathers around him that had me sitting up until 2am to finish this. His progress down and up the ranks, his humanity, his love of the men and the horses (you can be in the cavalry and not love your horse, even when it's been shot out from under you and you're pinned beneath it on the field) his loathing of the officer class and his ability to talk himself out of trouble - or not - is the bright, shining jewel that runs through this book. Chevalier de Roland was a great creation. Harry Ryder is magnificent and you miss him at your loss.
Bottom line: If you like Sharpe, you'll love these. Personally, I hate Sharpe, but I loved this anyway. One of the oustanding books of 2012.


Ballad
Ballad
by Maggie Stiefvater
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars Inspiring, beautiful prose and a truly magical book, 19 April 2012
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This review is from: Ballad (Paperback)
Those of you who are not writers will have to bear with me a moment. Those of you who do make a living writing, will know what it is to hand in a book. Before it, there are the weeks, possibly months, of lock-down, when your friends think you've given up on them, your partner thinks you've fallen out of love, your parents and children think they've lost you to some cult which prevents you from ever contacting the outside world and when they have the bad grace to die before the book's done, and their surviving spouses want some kind of input, they are surprised when you bite their heads of because, don't they get it? Nothing Matters But the Book.

Strangers who think they can just ring up in the middle of a working day (which stretches from getting up to going to bed) are put right with very little sympathy or tact, editors get one-line answers to lengthy emails, planned meetings with agents are cancelled because the book isn't done yet.

And then one day you come to the end of the fifth, or fifteenth draft and suddenly all the pieces have slid into place and the writing is at last coherent and your editor who said, 'the answer is always in the text' was absolutely right and you've put the last full stop at the end of the last sentence and tidied up the presentation and attached it to an email and hit 'send'...

And then there's the vacuum of afterwards. Granted there is a pile of admin to be done that would reach to the ceiling were it not all electronic, but there's a gap when you can't touch the book because it's gone to someone else who is going to edit the version they have and the one thing worse than handing in a poorly finished book is messing with it aftewards: version control is everything.

That's when you need to sit down and devour someone else's writing. You know it took them a year of hard work to create, but you're still going to read it in a day. Or less. You need absolutely stunning, magical, wonderful, awe-inspiring writing, but it needs not to be in your field. It needs to be utterly impossible for you to sit there and wish you'd written it, or wonder why you hadn't written something just like it. It needs to be different. And inspiring. And how hard it is, exactly, to find that kind of a book amidst all the absolute drivel that is printed and published?

Very hard. But Ballad, by Maggie Stiefvater is that book. Granted, it would help if you're read it's predecessor, 'Lament' first, but you don't have to, and actually, it won't hurt if you read them in reverse. Lament was about Dee, who fell in love with Luke - the faerie assassin sent to kill her - and Ballad is about Jamie, who loved Dee, but falls in love with Nuala, who lives by feeding off superbly talented young men. And Jamie is as talented as they come. It's a love story. It's a faerie story, but these are not Tinkerbell 'say-I-don't-believe-in-fairies-and-watch-them-die' kind of fairy, these are faeries, and they kill people. They don't like iron, they can be summoned by burning thyme, they are afraid of Cernunnos, in his guise as the Thorn King, Lord of the Dead (Stag-dreamers, read this; you'll love it) - or they were until the new queen of Faerie, devised a way by which they might ally themselves with Him.

It's a school story too - Thornking-Ash is a boarding school for talented musicians, but the teachers know more than they should do about Faerie and the narrative arc of Sullivan, the coolest teacher in the world, is outstanding.

It's the use of language that sets Maggie Stiefvater's writing apart. The sheer, glorious poetry of every line. The ability to get inside the heads of her characters, so that everyone, even the most minor, is full and rounded and not a cardboard cut-out two-dimensional cipher. These are real people, who can hear the Thorn King singing.

And then there's the plots - she understands the rules of the old Celtic ballads, of the ways They (the faeries) work. But she knows that rules are there to be broken and it's in the breaking of them that she shines.

Read this: it's easy, it's wonderful, it'll make you laugh out loud and wish you were adolescent again. Well, maybe not the latter, but it will make you smile. And it will re-affirm your belief in the power of language and the ability of black marks on a white page to hold someone completely against the lure of computer games and all the internet holds.


Pure (Pure Trilogy 1)
Pure (Pure Trilogy 1)
by Julianna Baggott
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Imaginative, thoughtful, terrifyingly good dystopia, 10 April 2012
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This review is from: Pure (Pure Trilogy 1) (Hardcover)
I bought this book on the basis of a Tweet from a former editor - which has to be a first (tho' probably not a last). She said that 'If you liked Hunger Games, you'll love Pure by Julianna Baggott' and while that's almost certainly true - with certain caveats below - you don't have to have liked Hunger Games to find this book an enthralling, terrifying - and utterly plausible - depiction of a future dystopia.
The action is set after 'The Detonation' which we learn fairly early was a massive, possibly worldwide, nuclear meltdown and our characters are living in the post-nuclear world.
The lucky ones, Partride and Lyda, grew up in the Dome which is the sheltered, air-filtered, pill-eating, indoctrinated world of those whose parents were smart enough to get them out of the way before the big bang happened. Partridge's father is the co-ordinator, and, as we learn, the brains behind the creation of the Dome (I don't count this as a spoiler, it's obvious from early on). Those inside call themselves 'Blessed' and those outside are 'wretches'

Those outside live very different lives and this is where this book departs so very far from Hunger Games.

HG was fine: I reviewed it on Good Reads a while ago. I liked it. I enjoyed it. I read it fast and easily and was impressed by the imagery and concept, at least of the first two. At no point was I scared. HG presents a very air-brushed, Dysney, full techni-colour, super-saturated, saccharine kind of dystopia. It's not nice, but it's clearly fantasy. You could, I imagine, read it to your five year old and while they might not get all the embedded cultural references, they wouldn't lose sleep.
I lost sleep over Pure. Or at least, my dreams took on very Pure-related landscapes. The world outside the Dome is neither Dysney nor fluffy nor in the least Technicolour.

Our two protagonists on the outside, Pressia and Bradwell, were both young when the blast took place and have both been disfigured by it; as has every single living thing in their world. Pressia has a doll's head welded onto her arm - it's become a part of her. Bradwell has living birds embedded in his back. Everyone has something, some metal/plastic/animal/vegetable/mineral something which has welded itself to their body and become a part of them.

The worst affected have become Dusts, semi-autonomous earth-based monsters that can drag a living human down into the earth and devour him/her. Some have become almost-sentient trees. The worst, for me, were the mothers who lived forever with their children attached to them, either as almost-separate kids, permanently hiding behind their skirts, or as in the worst case, reduced to a blink of an eye in one woman's arm. What really got to me was the suggestion in the book that this happened in Japan after Hiroshoma and Nagasaki and was simply suppressed by the various governments of the time who didn't want their populations having nightmares of post-nuclear life. I rather imagine that the CND would have been a lot louder, larger and more vocal if this were true. I have no idea if it is, but it sounds horribly plausible.

So in this terrifying, believable, grey, windy world, four young people, growing to adulthood meet and must find their way. How they do so is the bulk of the book and I'm not going to tell you that, but I do urge you to read it. This is a devour-in-one-breathless-breathtaking-sitting kind of a book. I can't wait for the sequels.


Honour and the Sword (Chevalier)
Honour and the Sword (Chevalier)
by A L Berridge
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Engaging, exciting, thoughtful, and fun, 11 Mar. 2012
One of the great joys of having set up the Historical Writers' Association is that I am being sent a lot of books I wouldn't otherwise read. A great many recently have been entrants for the HWA/Goldsboro Prize for Debut Historical Fiction and for obvious reasons, I can't review them here yet (when the winner has been announced, I may well do).

And then there are the books that are simply sent by thoughtful publicists who want to bring their authors to my attention. Such was the package that arrived recently containing three novels by AL Berridge. None of them was 'my era'. None of them had covers that would have made me pick them off a table, but that was definitely my loss. I'll know better next time.

The first is Honour and the Sword, first in a series concerning the life of one Andre de Roland, from his youth through to his turbulent adulthood.

And the first shock (for me) is that it's written in multiple first person. To non-writers, this is probably an irrelevance, but given that I'm in the midst of writing a multi-first and thought it was fairly unique in the field of historical writing, at least further back than the astonishingly good multi-firsts penned by Laura Wilson - this comes as something of a shock. But having digested the fact that nothing on earth is as original as we (I) would like to think, it's a splendid example of the best that multi-first can be: inspiring, involving, thoroughly engaging, with a fast-paced, intricate plot and a hero who is fully fleshed out, genuine, plausible and thoroughly likeable.

The action is set in 1636 as the Thirty Years War ravages the continent, sending Spanish armies to occupy Spain. The bulk of the narrative comes from the perspective of Jacques, a stable boy on the estate of the local Lord and in the opening scenes, said Lord is slain by the Spanish invaders and Jacques flees with the strange, introverted twelve year old heir, Andre de Roland. Plunged from a pampered, if strictly coded, childhood where everyone tugs forelocks and stares at the ground as he passes, into life as a menial in the local village, hunted by the Spaniards for whom he would be the ultimate hostage, young Andre goes through a series of rites of passage, in which Jacques teaches him how to be a peasant - and Andre teaches Jacques how to fight and to be a nobleman. When they become part of the nascent guerilla army, other characters begin to impinge on their lives, most notably Stefan, the self-appointed leader of the rabble, who claims to loathe Andre and certainly goes about breaking him, while clearly falling in admiration, if not in love. Feminine interest is supplied by the Lady Anne who is a hostage in the local citadel and must, of course, be rescued against insuperable odds with the view into the Spanish side provided primarily by the aide to the local commander.

The tag line under the title says, 'Bernard Cornwell meets the Three Musketeers' which is, I am sure, a great selling point, but does little justice to what is a cleverly written, intelligent, entertaining and above all engaging book. I'd be reading the second one if my partner hadn't stolen it first - she's the one with the First in English Lit and we rarely cross over in our reading likes. There can be no greater testament than that we both thoroughly enjoyed this.


Daughter of Smoke and Bone: Daughter of Smoke and Bone Trilogy Book 1
Daughter of Smoke and Bone: Daughter of Smoke and Bone Trilogy Book 1
by Laini Taylor
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful, lyrical, magical tale for all ages, 25 Oct. 2011
Some of the most original writing these days is being brought out under the auspices of 'Young Adult' fiction: The Left Hand of God, the entire Patrick Ness series that began with 'The Knife of Never Letting Go', the Hunger Games series, Code Name Verity... the list is long and each one is different.
And now we have a new one: 'Daughter of Smoke and Bone' by Laini Taylor is one of the most original 'angel' novels I've read in a long time. The first part is set almost exclusively in Prague, but almost immediately, we find that Karou, the protagonist, is more than just a blue-haired arts student with a difficult ex-boyfriend. Karou (whose name means 'hope' in a language not of this world) has access to 'Elsewhere' through a portal that leads her into a shop where her foster father 'Brimstone' needs teeth for his work. Brimstone is a Chimaera and there are three others who work with him who are all the family Karou needs. Then the portal closes and her routes to Elsewhere are lost and Karou must begin to find who she is, while being hunted by a Seraphim: beyond beautiful, and beyond deadly...
In many ways, this is a 'girl gets boy and finds out who she really is' (hint, she's not entirely human) but it's the freshness of the writing that sets this apart, the imagery, the realism of Prague and the magic of the chimaerical 'shop' that are utterly convincing and utterly transporting. Like 'The Knife of Never Letting Go', Taylor knows how to evoke teenage language and thought without once being patronising or losing the intricate vocabulary that far transcends the standard 500 words of the average YA novel (and The Sun). This is a novel about love and loss and self-discovery, but it's a beautiful lyrical exploration of language and reality too. I tried to ration myself and spread it over a week, but failed - read three quarters of it in one sitting last night, and very glad that I did.


A Discovery of Witches: (All Souls 1)
A Discovery of Witches: (All Souls 1)
by Deborah Harkness
Edition: Hardcover

4 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Intelligent, thoughtful, fun - the ultimate thinking-woman's escapism, 14 July 2011
This is the first in the 'All Souls' trilogy. Its primary protagonist is Deborah Bishop a witch (descendent of Bridget Bishop who was burned in the Salem witch hunts) who is living an academic life as a human, trying not to use any of her powers in order to avoid the fate of her parents - both killed when she was seven years old. It features a vampire - actually, a whole family of vampires, a set of daemons, who are the unstable geniuses - and precious few humans amongst which all of this is set.

When Diana, who is researching ancient alchemical texts for a conference talk, requests the text 'Ashmole 786' from the library stacks, and finds herself in possession of an enchanted text - she sends it back. But in doing so, she has made herself the target of every witch, vampire and daemon around - because the text might contain the secrets of how they are created and how different from humans.

Set in Oxford, France and Connecticut, this is an academic historian's joy - full of references to alchemical texts, old manuscripts and historical factoids all of which I am sure are true (the author is an academic historian with a specialism in alchemical texts and a CV of prizes as long as... the back cover of the book) At a rough guess, I'd say she's also a pagan and if she isn't gay, she has a lot of friends who are - the various sexualities are well represented through the book, never patronisingly and while the central couple maintain the now-traditional celibacy in the face of overwhelming passion, it's explained well.
Where the author veers off her own topic, she doesn't abandon the academic interest. Her vampire may have been a crusader, a revolutionary and a resistance fighter in previous times, but now, he heads a laboratory investigating DNA and she's done her work well - the intricate details of DNA and RNA are well explained and make sense in the context of the plot.

I would have said there was no more room for another vampire-romance, but this is way, way above the norm - it's intelligent, thoughtful, interesting - written by someone who is clearly far, far brighter than the average and doesn't hesitate to use it - but who gives us a joy of a book - something to lose yourself in for a night or four.


Wolf Blood
Wolf Blood
by N.M. Browne
Edition: Paperback

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent - the best writing since Sutcliff, 1 July 2011
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Once in a while, a book comes along that blows me out of the water. "Wolf Blood", a young adult novel by NM Browne is one of those, tho' it shouldn't be surprising because I devoured each of Browne's 'Warrior' series in a couple of sittings and loved them: this is children's writing at its best: literate, engaging, straightforward, yet with characters that come alive in the early pages and grow throughout.

WOLF BLOOD is a werewolf novel - if it's for teens at the moment, it seems it has to have either a vampire or a werewolf, but this one is different. It's set in first century Britain, for starters, and, along with a strong sense of historical time and place, it has all the sense of old magic that wove so strongly through the stories of Rosemary Sutcliff and Mary Stewart. This is a real magic, an earthy, stone-solid, god-drenched magic that adheres to the rules we all know of such things, and yet is new enough to be different.

The story follows the fortunes of Trista: warrior girl and seer of the Brigantes, who has been made a slave of the Parisi. We join her the night her friend, Carys, dies of fever, and she is free to escape her serfdom. Freedom doesn't last long, before she bumps into - almost literally - a pair of legionaries from the XIth legion (long before it disappeared and presumably some time before the Boudica's warriors destroyed it - I suspect that might come in a subsequent book). She might be in trouble but that she recognises something different in one of the men, a Briton (in this book, they are Kelts) called Morcant - he's a shape shifter, but not one of the current TV form, there is 'no cracking of bones nor straining of tendons, just this noiseless swapping of forms' that becomes more frequent as he is needed more.

As is the convention, he doesn't know it and doesn't like it, but soon after their escape, he steps off the conventional track and starts taking a life of his own. Trista's visions combined with Morcant's wolf-self make a formidable pair, however much she doesn't admit it, and their trials as they endeavour each to be true to her or him self make up the bulk of the book. History weaves through with Caradoc (Caractacus in this book) and Cartimandua of the Brigantes joined in their fateful struggle, but we are concerned with the smaller people, the chieftains and tribal druids, and the grey, shifting Wild Weird that Trista can see when she wears a particular arm ring.

The book isn't long - 282 pages (I read it on a 3 hours train journey - half on the way up, half on the way down) and it's perfect for the kind of young adults who have loved Sutcliff or even Alan Garner's "Weirdstone of Brisingamen" - the magic is not as fantastical, but it holds to the same truths. It's perfect, too, for adults who read these books in their childhood and have always yearned for more: these are the books you wish had been around as a child.


The Emperor's Gold (The Archives of the Comptrollerate-general for Scrutiny and Survey)
The Emperor's Gold (The Archives of the Comptrollerate-general for Scrutiny and Survey)
by Robert Wilton
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.99

33 of 37 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Liquid, elegant prose and a plot to die for - outstanding, 8 Jun. 2011
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As a writer, I always got a huge number of historical novels to read (and provide cover quotes if I liked them). As Chair of the HWA, that number seems to have increased exponentially. Some of them, frankly, are dire. Some are OK. Some are quite good. Once in a while, there's one that's so very, very good it leaves me breathless and speechless and at the same time reading bits out to Faith. She has a degree in English Lit- she's far more literate than I am - so it has to be good for me to read things to her.

Only once ever, have I sat by the fire in the evening and read aloud the entire opening chapter of a book. That book is `The Emperor's Gold' by Robert Wilton, published today.

The premise is simple, but clever: there exists a body called the `Comptrollerate of Scrutiny and Survey' - a name so dull that you'd fall asleep just thinking about it - but it's a cover for an espionage agency that existed long, long before MIs 5 & 6, and that may continue to exist long after they have gone. By dint of years of work, Robert Wilton has ferreted out the hidden annals of this organisation and has written his fiction around this framework. And what fiction... The book is set in 1805. Napoleon has taken all of Europe and his forces stand on the French coast, looking across to Britain. All that keeps them from invasion is the British Navy which keeps the French fleet in port and has denied them the channel - until now.
Cue the arrival of one Tom Roscarrock. A shipwrecked mariner, he is rescued - and renamed - by the man who leads the secretive Comptrollerate of S&S. Given little but this new name, he is propelled into the heart of an organisation, a city and a nation which is hovering on the brink of collapse. Around England, men call for the same freedoms as they see in France, in the US, perhaps one day in Ireland. And in the city, where gold traders threaten to bring down the entire economy, those who make decisions are paralysed. Without clue or hint as to whom he can trust, or even for whom he is truly working, Roscarrock must stay alive long enough to make the decisions that will change the fate of nations.

This is a gem of a book: the plot is clean and clear - and entirely opaque. The driving narrative keeps it moving while at the same time giving nothing away - I truly had no idea exactly what was happening until the last pages: which is another all-time first. And I cared what happened - Tom Roscarrock is an engaging, interesting, shadowy character who repays our attention with an intelligence that few fictional characters can match while those around him are always more devious than they seem at first.

So much of the current crop of historical fiction is populated with cardboard cut-out characters, thinner than the pages they're written on, with plots that lurch from one uninspiring battle to the next, that it's a true pleasure to read characters of depth and intelligence and colour, who never fail to surprise, but remain entirely plausible and human: no superhuman fighting abilities, no improbable feats of daring - this has the ring of truth to it aided all the time by the `found documents' that populate the text.

But it's the language that truly sets this apart. Not since Wolf Hall have I come across a writer who truly understood what could be done with the English language - who explored the joys of its poetry with such skill and beauty, while never letting go of the narrative drive. Nothing is unnecessarily flowery, but everything is a joy to read.

If there's a criticism, it's that the cover really doesn't do this book justice. I was sent it by the publishers and read it in default of the others they'd sent, not particularly expecting to like it. In truth, if I'd seen it in a bookshop, I don't think I'd have picked it up - it's not a cover that inspires one to imagine intelligence within the pages, which is sad, because it's there in spades and deserves better. Maybe it'll get it with the paperback.

At any rate, it's my book of the year so far and if you don't read it, your life will be incomplete.
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The Lion Wakes (The Kingdom Series)
The Lion Wakes (The Kingdom Series)
by Robert Low
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Oustanding historical thriller - a whole new level of writing., 7 Jun. 2011
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I loved Rob Low's 'Oathsworn' series - they stood out for me amongst a sea of lesser novels as being intelligent, action-filled books which nevertheless maintained good depth of characterisation and an understanding of the mores and of the times. That said, they were never going to win any prizes for literary fiction.

I think 'The Lion Wakes' could well win some prizes and definitely deserves to be short listed. This is a whole new level of writing, up there with Hilary Mantel's 'Wolf Hall' in its exploration of English, its stretching of language. I'm Scots and I grew up where people spoke the dialect that others apparently find difficult, so perhaps have an advantage, but truly, there's only one passage that's dense and it's deciphered in the author's end notes. For the rest, it's a dialect of English, only a little thicker than most and it's the core and heart of the book - the difference between the nobles, the knights, who went onto a battlefield expecting to be ransomed at worst - and the peasant who owed everything to their lord, who ate porridge mixed with sawdust when times were hard, if they ate at all, for whom the best they could aspire to was the owning of a spear while their lord became a knight.

Other reviews have given the gist of the plot; there's no need for that here, what matters, is that this book is going to be a classic, that it will last when others have melted into the remainder bins. It's reminiscent of Dorothy Dunnett's 'Lymond' series which has extraordinary longevity, but without the slightly fantastic romantic notions. That's not to say there isn't a lot of feeling, and indeed some romance - the slow-burning love between the two central characters is beautifully, carefully, gloriously done; it feels real and plausible - but the rest... the rest is gritty and heartsore and real. The language is a delight, but better is the world that Low paints in all its grim hardship and small pleasures taken in a life that was undoubtedly ugly, brutish and short.

At the bottom line: if you like your historical fiction to have paper thin characters, a one dimensional linear plot and language with the breadth of vocabulary taken from The Sun's 500 words, then there are plenty out there for you and this isn't one of them.

If, on the other hand, you're looking for joyous language - truly great prose - intense, interesting characters who feel as real as anyone living, a multi-layered plot, that weaves to satisfying conclusion while still leaving you open for the next one, and an understanding of the historical complexities of the time with their wavering loyalties and brute force posing as diplomacy, then you couldn't possibly do better than this. It's a fantastic read: thoroughly recommended.


The Anatomy of Ghosts
The Anatomy of Ghosts
by Andrew Taylor
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful, haunting, lyrical prose, 4 Mar. 2011
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This review is from: The Anatomy of Ghosts (Paperback)
I won't re-tell the story; others have done that, but I will say that I started this novel on Monday evening, had to be prised away from it that night and the next, and stayed up until 1 am to finish it on Wednesday. Like all of Andrew Taylor's work, this is a masterpiece of delightful, lyrical language; crisp, perfect dialogue that rings with the particular cadences of the time; an insight in the Cambridge collegiate system that is little short of breathtaking... and all wrapped up in a story that twists and turns with every other page. It feels like a ride down the Cam, but one far more gripping than any I have taken. It's gorgeous: Read it...


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