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S. Bailey "will work for books" (London)
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The Shadow in the North (Sally Lockhart Quartet)
The Shadow in the North (Sally Lockhart Quartet)
by Philip Pullman
Edition: Paperback

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Far too good to be left for the children!, 11 Aug. 2007
This is the second in Pullman's Sally Lockhart trilogy, the sequel to The Ruby in the Smoke. I made the mistake of reading this one first; each of the books contains big spoilers for the previous one, so I strongly recommend they are read in order.

This is another absolute masterpiece from Pullman, but rather darker than its predecessor. The Ruby in the Smoke talked about greed, desire and stupidity; The Shadow in the North addresses the question of evil face on.

Sally has begun to make a name for herself in business, an incredible achievement for a Victorian woman, and to drag Frederick Garland's photography company back from chaos and near-bankruptcy. A seemingly innocent enquiry by a client about a sunken ship and an apparently genuine clairvoyant leads Sally, Fred and Jim off on another trail of deceit and trechery, leading across Europe, and into the very heart of the British government.

If The Ruby in the Smoke was Pullman's homage to Conan Doyle, this one has a lot more of the Wilkie Collins about it. The plot is just beautiful: neatly complex and tight, twisting and with a sting in its tail that has reduced me to tears both times I've read it. There is a sense of justice and moral certitude in his writing that is deeply satisfying. If there is really a better storyteller than Pullman in England right now, I don't know about them.


Why Big Fierce Animals are Rare (Penguin Press Science)
Why Big Fierce Animals are Rare (Penguin Press Science)
by Paul Colinvaux
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Accessible and very interesting, 11 Aug. 2007
It's a bit of a cheek, my writing about this book. My entire scientific training consists of GCSE chemistry, which I passed more by luck than knowledge, and being thrown out of physics classes for being vociferously bored. So I came to this pleasantly unfettered by prior knowledge.

Paul Colinvaux is an ecologist heartily sick of having his subject hijacked by unscientific doomsayers. His aim is to provide an overview of how the planet works, and how human interaction is, or is not, changing that system.

Through eighteen shortish chapters, this manages to cover a fair amount of ground: not to the exhaustion of any one of its subjects, but in enough detail to consider not only fashionable theories, but outdated and outlandish ones too. Colinvaux covers areas such as the food chain (actually pyramid-shaped, hence the big fierce animals at the top are rare), why the sea is blue and not green i.e. covered in plants, the sociology of plants, how organisms which should, by all that is Darwinian, be competing, manage to live peacefully together. I really enjoyed this. It seemed, as the best explanations do, so obvious once I read it, I wondered why I hadn't figured it all out for myself... The book paints a beautiful picture of a smoothly-running planet, self-regulating, adaptable but stable, a picture that makes sense.

And finally, the place of humans in all of this. I understand why Colinvaux has so largely kept conservation matters for this one final chapter ("Ecology is not the science of pollution" [p. 1]), but frankly, I felt it was too much of an afterthought. He is right that overpopulation by one species is the biggest threat to the planet in its history. So for this reason, I'm wondering how we can think about any of the other stuff without simultaneously looking at if and how we're damaging it.

This is well-written, with Colinvaux's informal prose largely managing to strike that delicate balance between avoiding jargon and not patronising his readers. For those who know nothing on the subject, this will be a very useful introduction, and for those who want to know more, the bibliography provides plenty of direction.


The Magician's Assistant
The Magician's Assistant
by Ann Patchett
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Just beautiful, 11 Aug. 2007
On one level, this is an incredibly simple book. Sabine has been the magician Parsifal's assistant for twenty years. After his death, she discovers a family she never knew he had, and they piece together the truth about the man.

Once we discover what some of that truth is, however, we begin to see a more complex situation. Parsifal was married to Sabine, but the two of them lived with Phan, Parsifal's gay, true lover. Guy, the boy his family knew, was instrumental the death of his father. And so it goes on: Sabine, Dot Fetters the mother and Kitty and Bertie the sisters, each adding to the picture and discovering new ways of looking at the man they had loved.

Criticism has been made of this book for its lack of plot, and if big plot is what you are looking for, you had better look elsewhere. This book is about character, about truth and the nature of love; you might think you were looking at an illusion, and then find that you were looking in a mirror instead. As any magician knows, the truth revealed has no impact until the illusion has been well set-up, but the set-up may be a slow and subtle process. That is what this book is about.

I want particularly to mention Patchett's perfect translation to the page of the too-large physicality and grunting non-verbal communication of Kitty's adolescent sons. Witty, literate adolescents are one thing to write, but these rather more realistic ones are a real achievement. Her writing goes beyond words.

Definitely recommended, and responsible, like I needed it, for adding another author to my "get everything she's ever written" list.


Venus in Copper: A Falco Novel (Falco 3)
Venus in Copper: A Falco Novel (Falco 3)
by Lindsey Davis
Edition: Paperback

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Funny, moving and a superb plot: what more could you want?, 11 Aug. 2007
In this third volume of Lindsey Davis' wonderful series, Marcus Didius Falco, the intrepid Roman investigator, has just suffered the utter humiliation of being bailed from gaol by his mother. His classy girlfriend is playing very hard to get, and all he's been paid for his last job for the Emperor is a large fish.

Swearing off ever working for the Palace again, Marcus seeks new clients, and becomes involved with a family of nouveau riche freed slaves, apparently trying to prevent the marriage of one of their number to a woman who has already buried three husbands. And it seems that if she can't have her fiance, she'll quite happily make do with Marcus.

And just when this all seems to be wonderfully entertaining farce, Davis slaps us round the face with pathos and tragedy like a turbot. Falco's relationship with Helena is not just banter; his unintended but terrible insult to her, and then her disappearence bring a lump to the throat, even if it is accompanied by a Greek chorus of the Falco women. And what seemed at first to be a soap opera plot turns out to be subtle and exceedingly clever.

This book has everything required apart from about 200 more pages. Fortunately there are many more in the series to follow.


Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader
Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader
by Anne Fadiman
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The perfect book for any book lover, 11 Aug. 2007
This fabulous little book is a gift for anyone who has ever felt the slightest bit compulsive about books or their collection. The subject matter of Fadiman's essays runs a delightful gamut from fly-leaf inscriptions via plagiarism to her 'odd shelf', the section of books in a library which seem out of place with the rest of the collection, but in fact reveal much about their owner. She inspires many cries of "me too!" as well as genuine laughing out loud. I, too, believe that batteredness is a sign of love for a book, which leaves me terrified to borrow anything from my friend Jill, who, conversely, thinks that no punishment is bad enough for those who cause creases in paper spines. I learned that I am not the only person who corrects spellings on menus, nor am I the only person who longs to be systematic about the housing of her books (unfortunately, though, I am like Fadiman's husband George, and am pathologically incapable of keeping my books in any kind of order). I am supremely grateful, too, that I, like Fadiman, have a husband who appreciates that:

"In my view, nineteen pounds of old books are at least nineteen times as delicious as one pound of fresh caviar."

It would have been incredibly easy for this collection to become unbearably twee; Fadiman has ably avoided this, writing with such joy and kindness of her books and her people, it's impossible not to fall in love with this book. I shall be buying several copies as presents, and my copy is to receive the ultimate accolade of going to live in the bathroom.


Tales Of Murder And Mystery
Tales Of Murder And Mystery
by Susan Howatch
Edition: Paperback

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Gothic tales from the Church's novellist, 5 Aug. 2007
This volume collects three short whodunnits from the author of the "Starbridge" series. Though each is enjoyable in itself, they're collectively not a patch on Howatch's later work, and each feels both dated, and unfinished.

'The Shrouded Walls' is the best of the bunch, set in the early eighteenth century and extremely reminiscent of Wilkie Collins. Marianne is an illegitimate orphan, proposed to out of the blue by Axel Bransen, who must marry in order to claim his inheritance. Initially attracted to her mysterious husband, Marianne comes to suspect him of having murdered his own father to claim the remote estate of Haraldsdyke, and finds herself trapped in a strange world of witchcraft and dark family secrets.

I enjoyed the beginning of this novella very much. The plot was intriguing and original, and the atmosphere of Haraldsdyke wonderfully oppressive. And then suddenly, it was over. Especially to anyone used to Howatch's long family sagas, the story lacked a middle: the beautiful set up was rather wasted on a ending which was over too fast.

And sadly, this set the pattern for the rest of the collection. In the second story, the beautiful April's friends suddenly realise that no one has seen her since the day that her twin sister discovered she was having an affair with her husband. With a reunion now on the cards and the group drawn back to the remote Scottish croft where April was last seen, is a gruesome discovery about to take place, or has April simply run off for a better life? Well, the fact that the story is called 'April's Grave' probably gives that game away. Oops. I'd hoped for some kind of twist, but the "set up, set up, set up - oh, you're the murderer, the end" plot didn't provide.

'Aprils Grave' has the unmistakable flavour of the early seventies about it: people in posh restaurants eat baked alaska, coffee is French not American, and divorce is secret and shameful. But 'The Devil on Lammas Night' owes even more to that decade. It's Dennis Wheatley by numbers, with the all the requisite ingredients: stately home, bevy of beautiful women, charming but mysterious leader, cat familiar and slightly spooky twins.

Nothing here is actually bad. But none of it is as good as Howatch is capable of, and that, ultimately, left me disappointed.


The Husband
The Husband
by Dean Koontz
Edition: Paperback

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Classic!, 26 Jun. 2007
This review is from: The Husband (Paperback)
Koontz keeps the nasties coming thick and fast here: The Husband is not a book for the faint-hearted, but it's classic, wonderfully imaginative horror with an extremely human face.

Mitch, our hero, is an ordinary guy, who happens to be completely in love with his wife. So when he receives a telephone call saying that she's been kidnapped, and demanding a two million dollar ransom, he's prepared to go to hell and back to save her. And he does. Koontz writes a pacy and thrilling plot that's one of his better recent creations: this stays on track much better than, say, Velocity. The twists are unexpected but plausible, and the suspense goes on right to the last page.

I'm happy to admit I'm a fan of Dean Koontz - but not a blindly faithful one: there are some of his books (the Odd Thomas trilogy, for example) which I just don't like, and the less supernatural activity there is in his books, the more effective the plotting is. The Husband does what Koontz does best: takes an ordinary man and puts him up against some extraordinarily nasty bad guys. In the sense that it repeats that basic pattern, this is formulaic: but it's writing to a formula that Koontz does very, very well, and that old fans and new readers alike will love.


Buster's Diaries as Told to Roy Hattersley (With a New Postscript)
Buster's Diaries as Told to Roy Hattersley (With a New Postscript)
by Roy Hattersley
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Buster for Prime Minister!, 20 May 2007
The problem with most books written by people pretending to be dogs is that they are written by people pretending to be dogs, and therefore add little to human perception of a canine existence. Buster, by contrast, shows great insight into both his own ego and the thoughts of the Man with whom he lives. Buster's pithy observations on the Man's attempts to be pack leader should be enlightening to any dog owner, while his pavement-level observations on life in general will touch and amuse in equal quantities. He writes:

"Coming home last night, I smelt an animal next to the water trough where the Man tries to make me wash my feet when it is muddy in the fields. I went to get a closer sniff and it pricked me on the nose...The Man was very unsympathetic. He said 'You were trying to roll that hedgehog over so you could kill it.' That was not true. But it was a good idea. I shall know what to do next time."

For those who don't know, as well as being a prolific writer, Hattersley was an MP while Buster was writing this diary. Where this book scores so highly is in Buster's utter indifference to political events around him: the historic Labour election victory of May 1997 is recorded only for the fact that the Man and She stayed out all night and came home rather excited. Norman Tebbit appears not as a long-term opponent of Hattersley's, but as the owner of two super-trained and scary hounds, utterly bound to Tebbit's will.

It takes a great man to subsume his own ego beneath that of a dog; it also makes one excellent book.


A Morbid Taste For Bones: The First Chronicle of Brother Cadfael (The Cadfael Chronicles)
A Morbid Taste For Bones: The First Chronicle of Brother Cadfael (The Cadfael Chronicles)
by Ellis Peters
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent beginning to a great series, 16 May 2007
Brother Cadfael has left behind a rather turbulent life, and retired to the monastery of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Shrewsbury. If he thinks his life as an herbalist is going to be a quiet one, though, he's much mistaken. The Prior, ever anxious to promote the Abbey's popularity with pilgrims, decides to acquire a relic, and looks about for a likely candidate. Cadfael's ability to speak Welsh is important in the delicate negotiations to acquire Saint Winifred's bones, but soon his abilities as a detective will also be needed, as the Prior's chief opponant is found murdered.

This is the first in the Cadfael series, and I enjoyed it as much as I have the others I've read. I did figure out what had happened quite early on, though I hesitate to say "it was obvious", twists being such a stock in trade of the genre. This didn't actually matter; what is most fun about Ellis Peter's books is the characterisation. Her depiction of a love affair between two people who don't speak the same language was wonderful. And the politics of Welsh villages and English abbeys alike, though naturally no match for Cadfael, are extremely funny. Recommended for history lovers and crime lovers equally.


Fool's Errand (The Tawny Man Trilogy, Book 1)
Fool's Errand (The Tawny Man Trilogy, Book 1)
by Robin Hobb
Edition: Hardcover

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Assassins Trilogy book 4, 16 May 2007
I adored Robin Hobb's Live Ships trilogy, and most of the Assassin trilogy, but it seems that the more she writes, the less she edits (or gets edited). Though this book is good, I would strongly advise you to skip the first ten chapters. This is all you'll miss:

Fitz lives under the name Tom Badgerlock with Hap, who used to be the stableboy, and Nighteyes the wolf. They keep hens. He was sleeping with Starling the minstrel, but found out she was married and stopped. A hedge witch called Jinna turns up briefly. Chade turns up. Chade goes away. The Fool turns up. Now read on...

Prince Dutiful, the son of Queen Kettricken, has disappeared. Due to be betrothed to an Outisland (they of the red ships) princess, believed to have the Wit (the generally-dispised ability to mentally communicate and emotionally bond with animals), the prince would be a prize to many political groups, alive or dead. Fitz is charged to return Dutiful home before the betrothal ceremony, aided Nighteyes's tracking skills and his own Skill (telepathic) link to the boy he fathered. But they reckon without the boy's own desire to stay away, and a use of the Wit that even Fitz finds abhorrent.

Once I'd waded through the first part, this was Robin Hobb at her very best. Her very obvious love of the world she's created, that means at first that she can leave no character's history untold, also leads us into a powerful political drama, about duty and difference, where Fitz is torn between the Farseer line he's sworn to protect, and loyalty to the persecuted minority amongst whom he is numbered.

But ultimately this is not focussed enough to be the beginning of something new. It's not book one of the the Fool trilogy, but book four of the Assassin series. It's a nice continuation of the story for those who liked her previous work, but it demands too much prior knowledge to work as a stand alone, and it won't win Robin Hobb any new fans.


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