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P. G. Harris

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Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch)
Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch)
Price: 1.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Culture crossed with the Roman Empire, 20 July 2014
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Ancilliary Justice starts with its central character, who goes by the alias of Breq, on a wintery planet in search of a weapon with which she hopes to revenge events from 20 years previously. The story of those events is told in alternate chapters where we learn about a universe which is home to the imperial Radch, whose artificially intelligent starships control networks of telepathic soldiers, created from the bodies of those unfortunate enough to have been conquered and killed by these interstellar Romans.

Breq, it turns out, is one such avatar, One Esk Nineteen, last survivor of the troop carrier Justice of Toren. That sentence is indicative of two of the key features of author Ann Leckie's book. Firstly, that the ships control multiple avatars, all of whom are aware of what each other is/are thinking and seeing. Leckie handles the description of multiple viewpoints and rapidly changing perspective really skilfully. Secondly, this is very much a story of confused identity, as One Esk struggles to understand who and what she is. Crucially for the plot she and her like are not the only multiple entities in the book...... While the confusion created is intentional, it does occasionally step a little too far as, early on, Leckie rapidly introduces races, nations, factions characters, and interchangeable avatars at a pace which left this reader at least, somewhat disorientated.

As well as effectively describing the experiences of the multiple entities, Leckie gives the isolated One Esk a convincing, dispassionate voice, viewing the worlds around her in an unemotional, detached manner. While reading the book, one term which didn't enter my head was 'zombie', but in retrospect, that would be one way of looking at it. If all zombie stories are really about something else, Ancilliary Justice is a zombie story about identity and about what it really means to be human. Here it is One Esk, who, despite her origins, turns out to be the most human character.

In using SF to consider issues of humanity, Leckie joins a long tradition in which, of course, Philip K Dick is the dominant figure. He is not her only speculative literary antecedent. Early on, with its dominant society and intelligent spaceships, it felt a bit like reading about the Culture's dark, imperialist cousin, but by the end, with a seemingly impregnable empire, weakened by internal corruption, and faced with mysterious and faintly sinister aliens, it is closer to Stephen Donaldson's Gap series.

One interesting feature, which echoes both Iain M Banks and Ursula K Le Guin, is the ambiguous and shifting sexuality of the characters. This is society where language is subtly nuanced to express gender but where actual sexual identity seems difficult to determine. The default pronoun is female, but individuals are referred to as both him and her depending on circumstances. This usage gives the impression of a universe dominated by women, which asks questions of the extent to which language echoes, and/or reinforces the balance of power in society. If Leckie is saying anything about the effect of the dominant gender on society, it seems to be that it is of little impact. This is a society every bit as violent and competitive as a male-dominated one.

Finally, I loved the end. I didn't enter into this book in the knowledge that it is intended to be the first in a series, but it is, and that results in a culmination which is like a door being slammed in one's face, and a feeling of "Wow, what next".

In terms of sub genre this is closest to military SF, but it is definitely towards the intelligent end of the spectrum, a long way from ultra-violent, video game inspired, shoot-em-ups, and run of the mill Napoleonic-navy-in-space stories which seem to predominate these days.

This is not a piece of planet-shatteringly original writing, its influences are too obvious for that, but it is a step above the average, and as such, well worth reading.

My Salinger Year
My Salinger Year
by Joanna Smith Rakoff
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 11.89

4.0 out of 5 stars Bridget Jones escapes from Pseud's Corner, 6 July 2014
This review is from: My Salinger Year (Hardcover)
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The blurb on the front flap of the dust jacket suggests that the primary theme of this autobiographical (?) story of a year working at J D Salinger's agent, is the young secretary/aspiring writer entering into correspondence with those who write to the literary great, who has refused to read their letters. In fact, like so many synopses, this is misleading, certainly that is a strand, but it is just one of many, and not the most dominant thread.

The book is primarily about two things, the end of the pre-digital publishing world, but more importantly about a young woman growing into a more self confident adult, with the catalyst for that transformation being, unsurprisingly, the titular author.

As the book opens, Rakoff, having failed to finish a doctorate at London University, has returned to New York and found a job at a literary agency. This is a world of typewriters, poorly illuminated wood panelled offices where work takes place in pools of light from desk lamps, of literary lunches and of a literati, out of touch with reality, handing down missives about what makes good literature from a self conscious pastiche of bohemia. That Rakoff eventually rejects this world, despite having put a first toe on the ladder of success is to her credit.

Outside work, Rakoff's life is that of a middle class girl (as she describes herself), trying to survive in a big city on an inadequate salary whilst her love life is torn between the shining, sensitive knight and the cad. Her Mark D'Arcy is on the other side of America, and Daniel Cleaver's role has been seemingly taken by Malcolm Bradbury's sexually incontinent socialist, Howard Kirk, but I found it difficult not to see parallels with Helen Fielding's comic heroine. Again, it is part of Rakoff's developmental journey that she grows out of this situation.

This is an interesting portrayal of a vanished world of publishing, one in which computers play no part, and where there is the pretence that patrician relationships are more important than commercial reality, even if it does feel strange to be talking about the distant days of 1995! Also I have to say that it is a world, as pictured here, which deserved to die. A bit like Brideshead Revisited, sure it's picturesque and could be seen to have a certain romantic glamour, but when the key players are so dysfunctionally unpleasant, would you really want to live there?

Rakoff has a very easy writing style, one which encouraged me to rattle through the book in a single day. She tells such a good story that I found myself becoming suspicious that it was just too well structured to be real. It was then that I read the disclaimer at the start that she had fiddled with the chronology of events!

The other part of the disclaimer is the changing of names. While, as the Guardian points out in its review, it is easy enough via Google to find the identity of the literary agency and of its head, Rakoff is as protective as it is possible for an autobiographical writer to be of her privacy and that of those closest to her. This is no heart on the sleeve emotionally raw memoir. One gets the impression, as is her right, that Rakoff is a very private person who has decided precisely what she will reveal and what she will not. This makes for more of an intellectually rather than emotionally engaging work. By the end of the book, While I think I know which of three men was her eventual partner, the reader learns virtually nothing about him, nor whether they are still together.

One slightly strange trend in the writing is to introduce what seem to be huge significant events, her father unexpectedly burdening her with debt, tangible proof of her partner's infidelity, and then just to drop them, either entirely or with only tangential later references.

At its end the book is a love letter to Salinger the man, whom Rakoff eventually meets in person, but mainly to his work which she reads for the first time in a cathartic weekend after Daniel Cleaver has abandoned her to "hang with the boys" at a friend's wedding. She has continued to do so ever since and her espousal of his writing certainly encourages the reader to revisit it.

In short, this is definitely a worthwhile read and one I'd recommend to anyone with an interest in literature and its power to affect lives.

by Richard Ford
Edition: Hardcover

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Slooooow burner, 5 July 2014
This review is from: Canada (Hardcover)
In the end I concluded that Canada is a good novel which explores some really profound themes, but boy did I find it hard work at times. It is probably a mark of the quality of the book that despite finding it difficult, and indeed verging on the turgid at times, I never wanted to give up on it, I always wanted to get to the end.

The central character is Dell Parsons, a school teacher on the verge of retirement, but the majority of the book is given over to an account of his fifteen year old self and the momentous events which knocked his life off course. The first part of the book is given over to Dell's life with his family, twin sister Berner, and parents uptight academic Neva, and feckless Bev in the run up to husband and wife becoming the most unlikely, and indeed naive, bank robbers. Revealing this is not giving away the plot as the author announces the crime right at the start of the book, which is therefore less a tale of events and more a story if the consequences of those events.

The second part takes place in the titular nation, when, after the arrest of his parents, Dell is whisked away by a family friend to live in a hotel come shooting resort with the mysterious Arthur Remlinger. This section also culminates in a crime revealed in advance, although not as clearly as that in the first section.

The novel ends with a reunion between Dell and Berner, separated immediately after their parents crime.

What all three sections, share is a tightly constructed sense of impending doom. In the first section, even though the culminating event is well known, Ford still manages to create a sense of tension, seen through the eyes of his innocent narrator. In the second part, even though the reveal comes later, there is still a constant sense of wrongness, of things moving inexorably towards tragedy.

Essentially I found Canada to be a book about the consequences on our lives of taking poor decisions. While the crimes here seem to be extreme examples of poor decision making, there are described in a very low key, every day fashion, almost like deciding what furniture to buy. As well as the crimes of Bev, Neva and a youthful Arthur, the ill considered marriage of Bev and Neva is of fundamental importance to Dell's fate.

While being a novel of consequences it is not a novel of fate and inevitability, Ford is at pains to point out the essentially random nature of events surrounding his characters. This is echoed in young Dell's obsession with chess which seems to be a metaphor for trying to find and impose order in and on the world. In the end the older narrator admits "I was never much good at it" . Ford not seeing our fate as being written in the stars or being the inevitable consequence of events is typified by the very different lives eventually lead by the separated twins

It is also book heavy with symbolism, at times heartbreakingly so. Young Dell has three great aspirations in his life, the order of chess, the society of bees and the bright lights of the fun fair. The first he fails at, the second he gives up on in his Canadian isolation, and the third he is prevented from reaching by his father's failings. When the scene shifts to Canada the slaughter of geese by American hunters is a constant undertone which forms an overture to the culmination of the second section.

So, in summary, I didn't find this an easy read, but in the end it rewarded the effort put in.

The People's Songs: The Story of Modern Britain in 50 Records
The People's Songs: The Story of Modern Britain in 50 Records
Price: 3.49

3.0 out of 5 stars Makes me wish I'd heard the radio series, 7 Jun 2014
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If I could give half stars this would be a three and a half star review. This book isn't bad, and if you are looking for a nostalgic, undemanding read, it's probably worth buying. It's just that it isn't as good as I hoped it would be.

This is a tie in to a BBC radio series and that is probably key to the weakness of the book which, without being a massive coffee-table endangering tome, is going to struggle to have the depth and richness of a 50 part radio series. I didn't hear the radio series, but the blurb about it on the BBC website suggests that it was centred around listeners's views. Crucially that is an element missing here.

On the plus side, Maconie is an interesting and engaging writer, although perhaps not quite at his waspish best. There is nothing here quite as funny or scurrilous as his comparison of Chris de Burgh writing Lady in Red and the leader of the Third Reich, a comparison in which the former fares badly. Furthermore any book of lists always generates the pleasure of disagreeing with inclusions and exclusions. One undoubted strength of this collection is the extent of Maconie's net which spreads from the Bay City Rollers to Black Sabbath, from My Boy Lollipop to Ebeneezer Goode. A fascinating exclusion is a song which, when I got to the end of the book, I thought, "How can he call this the people's songs and omit that?" However the book which claims to be the 50 people's songs only includes 49. For the radio series, listeners were invited to propose the final entry. Given the timing of the final show, the identity of the chosen song was utterly inevitable.

Being that eclectic is also one of the weaknesses of the book. The vox pops of the radio series probably gave it a coherence which this doesn't have. The stated aim in the introduction is that this will be the people's choices, the pop music which meant something to the people of Britain. That is certainly the case with some of the the choices which wouldn't appear in a classic rock history (We'll meet again, Don't cry for me Argentina), but that doesn't tell the whole story. The book is veers between that and
A straight history of British musical genres (heavy metal, punk, goth, rave etc etc)
A history of pale and interesting young men's music, Bowie's Starman, Bronski Beat, and of course the mandatory inclusion, under the Representation of Self-important Misanthropes Act 1986 which states that no British musical book can omit Manchester Miserablist Morrisey, of the Smiths
A social history of post war Britain, Silver Jubilee, miners strike, Labour's 1997 election victory
Songs included simply because the author likes them and/or the artist. The most glaring example of this is Solsbury Hill, excellent song though it is, justified on the wafer thin basis that people like to go on country walks to think things through.

Another disappointment after the descent from breadth into lack of coherence is the fact that one would guess that the target demographic, particularly as this was a Radio 2/6 project, is people in their 40s to 60s, but the book contains very little that has not been repeated many times before and is not already well known to a large proportion of the readership. Again, I suspect the problem here is that the missing new material was in the popular interviews in the radio series. That said, it is always entertaining to be reminded that the guitarist on 60s hit Telstar was George Bellamy, father of Muse's Matt.

One of the pleasures of listening to Maconie is his iconoclastic view the world. Here he seems to adopt some boringly currently trendy views. Prog was actually quite good (thoroughly sound position). Live Aid is rubbished to an extent as ineffective, mainly serving to promote the careers of washed up rock stars, and amazingly being responsible for the birth of celebrity culture and middle class music festivals. Gosh, and I thought it was a bloke trying to do some good after being shocked by a catastrophe. Oasis, rather than being musical magpies who produced two stonkingly good albums and little else of note, were in fact single handedly responsible for the downfall of decent society and the growth of lad culture.

While giving views with which one can disagree could actually be one of the pleasures of the book, lazy inaccuracies are less ambiguous. In the second chapter, there is the stunningly crassly inaccurate description of the Queen of Tonga as being from the Caribbean. He also quotes Jon Savage linking Nick Hornby with laddishness. Anyone who has actually read Fever Pitch knows that while it could be accused of contributing to football becoming more middle class, it is very definitely anti-lad.

In summary, while this book has its faults, it is very readable, and reading it really made me wish I'd heard the radio series. So a request to the BBC, if issues with rights allow it, can we have a download or a CD box set please.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
Price: 1.80

5.0 out of 5 stars A book for both heart and mind, 31 May 2014
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As "We are all completely beside ourselves"opens, the narrator Rosie is a graduate student who finds herself carted off to jail when she gets involved in a domestic argument between two other students, Reg and the volatile Harlow. Rosie's own reaction to the situation, and her attraction to Harlow seem slightly out of kilter, but are the first clues the author drops to what follows.

Rosie tells us that she will start her story in the middle, and this is what she does, as we learn about her childhood, and eventually about her life up to the present day. Everything hangs on the fulcrum of a short period of her student life, as she learns to come to terms with her unusual childhood, a childhood in which her sister, Fern, disappeared when both were 5. The loss of Fern also lead to her brother Lowell fleeing the family.

The book in some ways resembles a huge bucket into which the author, Karen Joy Fowler throws lots of ideas and lets them rattle around together. She raises issues of responsible parenting, of what is and isn't acceptable in the cause of science, of vivisection and animal rights, of sexual politics and of the intricacies of sibling relationships where jealously and love are constantly in conflict.

Fundamentally, though, I would say that this is a book about memory, about how we recall and recount the past. It is a book about how our view of the past changes as we learn of other viewpoints and as we struggle to come to terms with the unreliability of our own memories, both those that we have lost, misremembered, or deliberately suppressed.

Given the uncertain, shifting nature that this gives to the past, it is unsurprising that this is a book of constant twists, as Rosie learns new things about her childhood, admits to a different reality than that which she originally portrays, or is forced to clear another mental block.

Closely linked to the theme of memory is the theme of language and of story telling, as Fowler looks at the impact of telling our story openly, of being closed to others and concealing our story, and of having our story told for us (in this case literally by a ventriloquist's dummy) affects our relationships with those around us.

Fowler has written an intelligent and thought provoking novel, but also an enormously emotional novel. It is a novel which manages to engage both head and heart. It is also very skilfully written, as the twists in the narrative are frequently shocking and unexpected but then in retrospect one can see the hints and clues which she is constantly dropping into her tale.

I found this quite tough going and not an easy read, but that is not a criticism. It is simply a case that at times the emotional intensity is so high that I couldn't take too much at one sitting.

If I do have a real criticism it is in the transition from 1996 to the present day. The end is a satisfying one, but I felt there was something of a hole in how the situation got from then to now. True the very end focuses on a momentous event which must have occurred, but it gives us the what and not the how. Perhaps, in a book which constantly balances reason with emotion, it is the latter which eventually triumphs.

One final note, I have been fairly vague about the actual story, simply to avoid spoilers. I first heard about the book on Radio 4's Front Row, so thank you to them for that. Fewer thanks to them for revealing possibly the biggest plot twist which occurs after about a quarter of the book on national radio!
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 17, 2014 7:35 AM BST

The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Football is Wrong
The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Football is Wrong
Price: 3.49

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Football geeks of the world unite, 31 May 2014
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One might surmise that the final corollary to Chris Anderson and David Sally's Numbers Game is that chance may become, in future, an even greater determining factor in the outcome of top level soccer matches.

In their fascinating book, they give a history of the use of statistics as well as providing an analysis of where the game is going, and what constitutes winning strategies and tactics. In this vision of the future, the top clubs are similarly wealthy, understand the value of defence, appreciate that not turning over the ball is the key to success and concentrate on maximising the ability of their weakest player. The difference between the top teams is then going to come down to a sublime moment of skill, an insight from a manager which gives that sliver of "edge" or most often, pure luck.

On the way to their various conclusions, the authors provide some entertaining and interesting moments. They explain the roots of the long ball game from analysis carried out by a post war accountant, and also demonstrate why his theories were flawed. We see how Stoke City under Tony Pulis survived by adopting an approach radically different from what any other club was doing. Alex Ferguson is described provocatively as being only as successful as should have been expected from a club that wealthy. "It can be harder to play against ten men" is comprehensively debunked.

Overall, Anderson and Sally argue their case convincingly, although the resistance they expect from vested interests within the game is depressing. Their statistical arguments are well presented and generally persuasive. On the odd occasion where their arguments seem a little dodgy, it is probably fair to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that the weakness is in the explanation rather than the method.

In the end, I was convinced that their approach was sound, but also inherent in their belief that we will see greater use of analytics, is the knowledge that there will always be a maverick out there who will buck the trend and win matches through being radically unconventional.

A fascinating read if you like the idea of there being something more than blood and thunder to football. If, on the other hand, you think that England's fortunes can be turned around by a great manager who can instil passion into the players, you'll probably find an awful lot to disagree with.

Rock Stars Stole my Life!: A Big Bad Love Affair with Music
Rock Stars Stole my Life!: A Big Bad Love Affair with Music
Price: 8.70

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Nice guys can finish first, 31 May 2014
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I bought this having heard the author interviewed on the Danny Baker show. I didn't really know who he was but thought it sounded like fun. It was only when I saw the picture on the front of the book in the Kindle store that I recognised Mark Ellen. My impression of him has always been of a enthusiastic, slightly naff, but engagingly so, puppyish figure. That very much accords with the picture he paints of himself in this book. And yet, if the picture is an accurate one, then puppyish enthusiasm has enabled Ellen to be a driving force behind large parts of the music press from the 80s onwards, Smash Hits, Q, Mojo, Select. Add to that, for example, a significant involvement in Live Aid and you have what looks like a very successful career. Live Aid is perhaps illustrative of the whole. One was aware of the hiccups on the day, but overall the impression was of the might of the BBC getting behind a hastily constructed event. Ellen's picture is of a BBC which "didn't do" rock music and so handed the job to the amateurish Whistle Test team. The analogy provided is like asking Radio Cambridgeshire to cover the General Election.

Throughout his career Ellen has met enthusiasts for particular genres, prog, punk, rave etc etc but his own enthusiasm seems to be for popular music as a whole, in any form, any genre, with the possible exception of Cowell manufactured acts. His story starts with a pretty conventional middle class childhood in Hampshire from which the rock music scene was an escape from what he saw as stultifying boredom. Indeed, the theme of father/ son relationships, while not central to the book, is a pleasing and eventually touching background thread.

Having spent late teenage years travelling to festivals, and living in a half hearted commune in France, Ellen went up to Oxford, where amongst other things he was a member of a band called Ugly Rumours. As has been frequently documented, the charismatic but slightly self obsessed singer was one Anthony Blair.

After Oxford, enthusiasm, coupled with real determination, lead to Ellen's association with most of the major British music publications of the last two decades of the 20th century. Starting with a near life threatening encounter with Elvis Costello for Record Mirror, he moves on to NME in the Tony Parsons, Julie Birchall era where his uncynical enthusiasm seems somewhat at odds with the prevailing mood, although he does find a kindred eclectic spirit in the afore mentioned Baker.

This isn't, however, an unerringly positive account, Ellen does on occasion channel his enthusiasm into delivering a damn good kicking. The 70s and 80s Radio 1 pop DJs get a particularly vigorous shoeing, with Dave Lee Travis right on the end of the author's toe cap. Other particular targets are Roy Harper and Jimmy Page (jointly) and Van Morrison.

Inevitably the book contains plenty of celebrity anecdotes, but Ellen's do tend to have the irresistible merit of being funny, interesting, or indeed both. Some fine examples include a surprisingly feisty Sheena Easton, a down at heel Meatloaf, an insecure John Peel, an uninformed Su Pollard, an unashamed Rod Stewart and a remarkably deshabille Lady Gaga.

The final major anecdote is about being on a whirlwind world tour with Rihanna. In some ways Ellen uses this as part of his transition into being a grumpy old man, bemoaning the sense of entitlement of young journalist and the commoditisation of music. But even then, he can't give up his essential niceness, finding a way to recognise that the spoilt diva is under enormous pressure which goes a long way to understanding and even forgiving her brattish behaviour.

So, all in all, this is a thoroughly entertaining memoir, more about music journalism than about the music business itself, although the two are, of course, inevitably close, and the author comes across as a pretty decent chap, a good old english amateur succeeding through a combination of hard work and love for his chosen profession.

A final sign of the overall warmness of the book. In the mid 80s Ellen married Clare. For the rest of the book I found myself worrying when the split would come, showbiz lifestyle and all that. But it doesn't, and the dedications at the start suggest they are still happily together.

Case Logic DSS103 Luminosity Sling for CSC/DSLR
Case Logic DSS103 Luminosity Sling for CSC/DSLR
Price: 99.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Good product with plenty of room, 17 May 2014
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This is a good, well made, roomy camera bag with six compartments. The main compartment has room for three pieces of kit, for example digital SLR, flash, and spare lens. On the inside of the lid are slots for keeping spare sd cards or small filters.

In fact your SLR with standard lens could fit into the second compartment on the top of the bag . The third compartment, in the lid of the second would do for phone, wallet, keys etc. The fourth in the cover of the main compartment would be another possible filter holder.

The fifth compartment is another flat space on the front of the bag, while the sixth, at the back of the bag appears designed to hold a tablet.

The whole thing can be carried as a sling across the chest or as a rucksack, and there are straps down the side which could take a light tripod.

One small quibble, the publicity says it would be suitable for trails or the city. Well, for the former there isn't really a space for a water bottle or food.

The Cuckoo's Calling (Cormoran Strike)
The Cuckoo's Calling (Cormoran Strike)
by Robert Galbraith
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 14.95

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The illegitimate child of Jack Reacher and John Rebus played by Tom Baker, 17 May 2014
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In summary, Cuckoo Calling is the work of a good storyteller, who is less skilled at creating original, three dimensional characters. However despite this being a story which rattles along and definitely gripped this reader, one of the central structural supports is extremely dodgy. It's difficult to explain without creating spoilers, but the murderer knowingly does something which, if s/he hadn't, s/he would've got away scot free. There is an explanation for his/her motives but I found it somewhat thin and some distance from being convincingly credible.

The central character is private investigator Cormoran Strike. I would like one day to pick up a detective novel where the hero is a normal, well adjusted person, with a happy but ordinary family background, a moderately successful career/business, a run of the mill name and no addictions. in short I would like a detective with no USP. And that is precisely what Galbraith/Rowling gives us here. The unobtrusively named Strike is an ex military policeman, who lost half a leg while in the army. He is the son of a rockstar and a super groupie, and has recently broken up with his psychotic girlfriend. His business is in trouble and he regularly over indulges in alcohol. Oh, and he gets to bed a super model. He's a cross between Lee Childs' Jack Reacher and Ian Rankin's John Rebus. Physically, if this book had been written in the 70s / 80s he would've been played by Tom Baker.

Immediately after taking on a new temp (ditzy but intelligent) Strike is visited by a lawyer (pin stripe suit) who wants him to investigate the death of his adoptive sister, a famous model with an indie rockstar (dresses in black)boyfriend, who the police believe to have committed suicide.

This throws Strike into the world of London celebrities, models, musicians and fashion designers (bitchy, screamingly camp). For all that it is difficult to portray the world of celebrity in fiction, with characters too often appearing as pastiches of real life figures, this is one of the stronger parts of the book. I may be reading too much in, given the author, but a description of being "papped' and the disorientation caused by a blitz of flash bulbs did ring true.

I also liked the feel of London in the book. I've recently enjoyed Ben Aaronovitch's PC Peter Grant books. Admittedly those are supernatural stories (now there's a USP) but they have a similar tone of being grounded in a living, breathing modern London.

Less successful are the attempts to write accents phonetically, these come across as somewhat stilted and not a little patronising. There are also what appeared to be some fairly careless errors of detail. A mobile phone receives a text message in a tube train while underground (this is pre 2012). Strike sets up a portable TV and can immediately watch a soccer match which would've been on Sky. They aren't major issues, they're just the kind of things you'd expect to be correct in something as detailed as a detective novel.

So this is an entertaining read. Its a reasonably good example of a detective novel. There are plenty of suspects and plenty of dead ends for the reader to go down before the real villain is revealed. It's just a bit of a shame that one detective continues to have such a massive influence right across the genre. While Strike's parent may be Rebus and Reacher, his grandfather is the inevitable Philip Marlowe.

Frog Music
Frog Music
by Emma Donoghue
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 11.89

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Earthy, carnal, visceral, 11 May 2014
This review is from: Frog Music (Hardcover)
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The blurb on the back of my copy of this book described it as elegant, erotic and witty. The author of that quote either read a different book to me or defines those words differently. If asked for three words, I would probably say earthy, carnal and visceral. That is not to say I disliked it, I didn't, I loved it, but I wouldn't describe it is elegant erotic and witty.

It is primarily the story of exotic dancer and prostitute, Blanche Beunon. The book opens with the murder of her mysterious, cross dressing friend, Jenny Bonnet, and from here the story jumps backwards and forwards in time, to tell how Blanche and Jenny ended up in a seedy, and for Jenny fatal, station hotel, and follows Blanche's search for the murderer and for her missing infant son P'tit.

The setting for this novel, based on a genuine unsolved murder case, is San Francisco in 1876 in the grip of a heatwave and a small pox epidemic. The writing is like a great city in sultry weather, an oppressive assault on all of the senses, as author Donughue bombards the reader with the feel of a metropolis under pressure.

A close up of Blanche's partner suffering from a dose of smallpox, P'tits bodily fluids leaking through Blanche's clothes, and Jennie up to her knees in brackish water hunting frogs contribute to the visceral, earthy feel of the book. The carnal nature comes from Blanche's relationship with Arthur and his friend Ernest, and with her clients. From one angle this element of the story is about sexual power and male exploitation of female sexuality. However, Donoghue is a more complex writer and while Blanche is a victim, she is also a sexual creature in her own right, and there is a strong indication at the end of the book that she will take control.

Beyond exploring a number of themes of gender, sexuality, race (Blanche and Arthur are from the expatriate French community, sneered at by the WASPs, but several rungs above the Chinese community, blamed for the smallpox outbreak), Frog Music is at its heart a rattling good story, or rather series of stories. In that it is almost Dickensian in outlook, both in the multi-stranded story and in its exposure of societal evil, albeit in this case, retrospective.

On a superficial level, this is a detective story as Donoghue puts forward an explanation for the historical mystery. More interesting is the story of Blanche coming to terms with motherhood having rescued P'tit from a baby farm to whose care she had consigned him, only for Jenny to reveal the true horror of such institutions. There is the secondary detective story as Blanche slowly unveils Jenny's history and its links to the second institutional horror, teenage work farms. Add in to the individual stories, the tale of San Francisco as it struggles through heat, disease and race riots to become a civilised city and Donoghue has written a large scale, multi-stranded entertainment.

One final point. I have recently become irritated by authors who seem to hide a thin plot behind a complex structure, chopping between narrators and jumping around in time. At one stage early on I thought I was going to get annoyed by this book in that way. However, eventually I think that Donoghue puts enough into the mix to getaway with the disjointed structure.

Strongly recommended.

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