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Diogenes (London)

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King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa
King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa
by Adam Hochschild
Edition: Paperback

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars King Leopold's Ghost; Adam Hochschild, 26 Mar. 2010
The Congo, despite immense and abundant natural resources, is one of those benighted parts of the world about which we only ever seem to hear bad news.

This book traces the history of these troubles to the colonial experience under King Leopold of the Belgians, and his insatiable desire first for ivory, and later for rubber.

We learn of a catalogue of abuses against the native population, of Leopold's machinations to keep them quiet, and of the international movement to stop the atrocities. It is a fascinating story, told in a very engaging and accessible way.

A couple of quibbles, which are minor. The book is relatively short, and one feels in many areas it could have benefited from greater depth. The author's thematic, rather than chronological approach, is a little confusing to those not already familiar with the period; people who died earlier in the book pop up, alive and well, in much later chapters. Finally, it does seem to lack a little colour; one certainly imagines that, like Leopold, the author himself has never visited the Congo.

City of Dark Hearts
City of Dark Hearts
by James Conan
Edition: Mass Market Paperback

3.0 out of 5 stars City of Dark Hearts; James Conan, 23 Mar. 2010
Chicago in 1893 was a pretty dangerous place to be a woman, as Anna Zemeckis and her would-be rescuer, Emily Strauss, soon find out.

This is a curious novel, and one quite difficult to rate. On the one hand, it is an interesting window into a city and time about which I knew little, and a plot which, though beset by holes and coincidences, undoubtedly rattles along at a good rate.

There are, however, problems. Characters are thinner than a Dunning inmate, and often inconsistent in behaviour. Anna Zemeckis' unborn baby must be the most resilient ever to be conceived, Ben Latham is dull, John English loses his speech impediment before he has to do any speaking, Mr Crazy is (wouldn't you know it) an eccentric millionaire etc etc.

Nor is it easy to work out precisely who is doing what, none of the Darke-Hartz family are drawn well enough to make it easy to distinguish between them, or their motives. The (presumably fictional) OAA is awkward and ill-defined, as are those Meisters.

Feels like a chink of a great idea rather messed up in the execution; but remains a fun way to pass a plane journey.

Presumed Guilty (MIRA)
Presumed Guilty (MIRA)
by Tess Gerritsen
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Presumed Guilty; Tess Gerritsen, 23 Mar. 2010
This review is from: Presumed Guilty (MIRA) (Paperback)
Miranda is in a real pickle; her sometime lover has been murdered in her own house, and not only is she charged with the killing, but someone is trying to bump her off as well.

Enter romance-lead-stereotype Chase, an off-on-off-on-off-on romance, a few dramatic moments, a brief moment of suspicion for all lead characters and an unlikely culprit and we have a paint-by-numbers thriller that is perfectly readable (and shortish) for a lazy afternoon, but nothing more than that.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist
The Reluctant Fundamentalist
by Mohsin Hamid
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5 of 15 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars The Reluctant Fundamentalist; Mohsin Hamid, 23 Mar. 2010
Changez, as a young man, flies to America. He receives an education, a prestigious career, a salary and a lifestyle all of which would have been completely out of reach to him in his own country.

The result? He hates America and rejoices in the murder of her citizens.

Hamid produces a book of two halves. The first half is extremely pleasurable in describing the (non-violent) clash of cultures experienced by both Changez in New York and the American stranger in Lahore. we can appreciate both the faded grandeur of that fine Pakistani city and the ultra-modern chaos of New York.

Then, for reasons inadequately explained, we have a tome of jealousy and hatred. Set against a romance with a girl with 'issues', Changez descends into an ill-defined but all-consuming hatred for the West.

What could have been a lovely, lyrical book about two very different cultures instead becomes a needless apology for terrorism. Is it OK to delight in 9/11, because your Lahori mansion is showing a few cracks and someone in a car park was rude to you? Hamid seems to think so.

Wolf Hall
Wolf Hall
by Hilary Mantel
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.49

5 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel, 23 Mar. 2010
This review is from: Wolf Hall (Paperback)
Thomas Cromwell has not always enjoyed the best historical reputation, traditionally drawn as a shadowy figure, crowning queens, bankrupting aristocrats and dissolving monasteries.

Wolf Hall takes us back to Tudor England to meet Cromwell and judge for ourselves. In a society where birth counts for all, can we criticize a man who has come from nothing to the right hand of the King?

The book is really volume 1 of a life of Cromwell; we leave him at Wolf Hall, at the height of his powers. Therein we have one of the major problems with the work - that an existing knowledge of the period, if not a necessity, would be a major advantage in understanding and appreciating the novel. Particularly, knowing the subsequent life stories of minor characters like, say, Mark Smeaton the musician, greatly enhance the experience.

Dialogue is always a problem for works of this sort. Actual Tudor speech would be pretty much incomprehensible to the modern reader, but Mantel's efforts feel genuinely plausible (although why on earth she couldn't have made it more obvious who is actually speaking, I can't imagine).

This isn't a quick read, nor a particularly easy one, and I wouldn't be surprised if many people without an interest in the period gave up. However, for a unique viewpoint on Tudor times (and a lovely portrait of 'the other Boleyn girl'), this is a wonderful, if difficult, book.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Millennium Trilogy Book 1)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Millennium Trilogy Book 1)
by Stieg Larsson
Edition: Paperback

37 of 42 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; Stieg Larsson, 13 Nov. 2009
This is a very enjoyable, if slightly flawed, start to the highly-publicised 'Millennium Trilogy'.

The book suffers, in my opinion, from a lack of editing and from a somewhat pedestrian translation. Both of these become apparent in the first 70-odd pages, in an often dull introduction that needs to be persevered with to enjoy the action to come.

'Kalle' Blomquist (an Astrid Lindgren character, one of many Swedish references awkwardly dealt with by the translation) is clearly a sexed-up version of Larsson himself; and is convicted of libel against a businessman which has something to do with an over-long account of industrial fraud in Eastern Europe. He eventually decamps to the frozen wastes of Norrland to investigate a decades-old disappearance.

He is eventually, inevitably, joined by Lisbeth Salander, an 'investigator' with severe social dysfunction (apart from when conning international businessmen and financiers).

There are plenty of 'first novel' type holes in the plot which surely a good editor should clear up. The opening chapter concerns a clue that is completely ignored until the very end, when the author remembered it and had to clear it up.

However these criticisms should not mask what, for 75% of the book, is a cracking good read. It becomes sort of Agatha Christie meets Val McDermid, a locked room mystery crossed with sadistic serial killer(s). As a frequent visitor to Norrland myself, the life of a small community is impeccably rendered, and it was a personal pleasure to recognise favourite towns like Umea and Skelleftea in the narrative.

The first 50 pages are a bit dull, the last 50 become a bit absurd, but in between you will find a fine 4-star thriller that saw me enjoyably through a week's tube journeys to work. Hopefully the author will grow into his characters, and I look forward to meeting them again in the two remaining books.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 7, 2011 1:16 PM BST

by Ian McEwan
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Saturday, by Ian McEwan, 26 Mar. 2006
This review is from: Saturday (Paperback)
Henry Perowne leads a wonderful life; wealthy, with a respected, challenging job and a happy, close-knit family. Naturally, this idyllic situation does not last the course of the single day in which this novel unfolds.
McEwan is clearly fascinated by how much we attempt to wrap ourselves up in safety and comfort, and yet are so defenceless against the ire of the outside world. Whether that is a brain suddenly threatened by disease, a country suddenly threatened by invasion or a family suddenly threatend by a violent thug, he shows that our safe havens are mere fig-leaves.
Perowne is a well-drawn character, a man with as much self-doubt as self-worth, believable in his professional confidence and private worries.
Other characters are less well rounded. Baxter, the villain, works better as a metaphor than as a believable person, whilst none of Henry's family (save his father-in-law) really ring true.
However, this is a novel of ideas more than characters, and on that level it works very well. McEwan is pleasingly equivocal about the war in Iraq, recognising better than many the moral case for action against Saddam.
A highly recommended, if at times extremely uncomfortable, read.

One Step Behind: Kurt Wallander
One Step Behind: Kurt Wallander
by Henning Mankell
Edition: Paperback

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars One Step Behind, by Henning Mankell, 26 Mar. 2006
In this latest outing for his tortured detective, Kurt Wallander, Mankell adopts all of the tactics that have made his books so successful.
A series of gruesome murders take place, painted on the dark, forbidding canvas of the southern Swedish landscape. Once again, Wallander is overworked and under pressure, and when a colleague is shot dead, the threat becomes uncomfortably personal.
The death of Wallander's colleague here illustrates one of the minor criticisms of the series; whilst Wallander is brilliantly drawn, the lesser characters are rather perfunctory and lack depth. Therefore, despite having met the murdered detective in several previous novels, we know almost nothing about him, and find it hard to empathise with the shock of his death.
However, this is to quibble with the excellent standard of the novel. One of Mankell's great skills is to make tedium fascinating, so that the long days Wallander's team spend without getting anywhere keep the reader captivated, and of course when the breakthrough comes, the reader is as excited as any of the shattered detectives.
This is not the best Wallander novel. The killer is a less believable, less frightening enemy than some; and the set-piece ending feels a little contrived. There is more than enough here to sustain the commited fan, though first-time readers would benefit from tackling the series in order, beginning with 'Faceless Killers'.

Arthur and George
Arthur and George
by Julian Barnes
Edition: Paperback

15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Arthur and George, Julian Barnes, 26 Mar. 2006
This review is from: Arthur and George (Paperback)
Between them, the two subjects of this fine novel by Julian Barnes embody most of the abiding characteristics of the Victorian English gentleman; Arthur is a bold, chivalrous sportsman, George a reticent, well mannered introvert.
That neither man is actually English by ancestry is one of the surprising number of similarities between men ostensibly so different. Barnes produces a beautiful study of both men, and of turn-of-the-century England.
Many if not most readers will come to the book as a result of Arthur, or more specifically Sherlock; however Holmes is reduced to a minimal role here, almost as a millstone round Arthur's neck. Instead, we find Arthur a man both driven and held back by his bullish personality; he is a man given to great projects, and to bashing down doors.
George, conversely, finds most doors locked to him, although whether this is more due to his race or to the crippling shyness engendered by his upbringing is for the reader to decide. When George is the victim of an appalling miscarriage of justice, Arthur takes him on as one of the many projects of his life. The two men spend almost the entire novel apart, indeed the book is at its strongest when each man is entirely alone with his thoughts.
There is something here for all; Holmes fans will delight in both the obvious and oblique references to the canon (surely Arthur's trip to Great Wyrley confirms the well-known Copper Beeches quote that "It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside." ) Others will simply enjoy the characterisation of two men whos lives unexpectedly intersect, with splendidly understated results.

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