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N. Young (London, UK)
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The Edge of Me
The Edge of Me
by Jane Brittan
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Absorbing and compelling, with an entirely believable heroine, 14 Jun. 2015
This review is from: The Edge of Me (Paperback)
A thoroughly absorbing thriller that grips the reader from the start. The narrator is Sanda, a 16 year-old girl who lives and goes to school in North London; her parents moved to England after the Bosnian War in the 1990s. They do not speak of what happened before they moved to London, and the mother is unpredictable to say the least. It isn't long before Sanda comes home from school to find that they have vanished, with all traces of them gone. She is then kidnapped - along with a boy from school who she rather likes - and is taken to Serbia where she is forced to confront some brutal truths about what happened to her family during the war.

The central character is entirely believable as a somewhat awkward teenage girl who is forced into an extraordinary situation in which she struggles to cope while discovering the worst of what humanity has to offer. She's an unlikely heroine but then the best ones often are! I found echoes of John Buchan and Linwood Barclay in this story, a clever novel which deals very well with the legacy of a war from Europe's recent past. This book may have been written for young adults but there is much for adults to enjoy too in this compelling coming-of-age story.


Too Much Information: Or: Can Everyone Just Shut Up for a Moment, Some of Us Are Trying to Think
Too Much Information: Or: Can Everyone Just Shut Up for a Moment, Some of Us Are Trying to Think
by Dave Gorman
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.33

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Slightly disappointed, 13 Nov. 2014
Gorman's take on badger-based glove-puppetry represents an interesting departure...

Seriously, though, I bought this book after thoroughly enjoying DG's latest TV show 'Modern Life is Goodish' and was intrigued to find that some of the pieces he's done for this show are presented in the written form within the pages of this book. However, the mock outrage that he does well on TV (or on stage, for that matter) doesn't work as well when written down, so what we have here is, to be honest, a series of exasperated rants about modern life which at times overdoes it on the pedantry. Some parts of this I liked, and even found myself nodding along to, others less so. At no point did I laugh out loud, though, which was a shame; as a result, I found myself slightly disappointed.


Walk the Lines: The London Underground, Overground
Walk the Lines: The London Underground, Overground
by Mark Mason
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Highly enjoyable, 15 April 2014
This book is a travelogue about walking the length of all eleven London Underground lines. In other words, London – and a fair bit of its outskirts – by foot. It’s undoubtedly an eccentric challenge, but it presents us with a very insightful view of modern London in all its forms – suburbs, industrial estates, open fields, the inner city and the point at which a poor area ends and an affluent one begins.

It’s not just about the places, mind you. On the way, Mason meets an interesting range of people, including the City of London planning officer, a novelist, a trainee cabbie and an actor from The Archers who did the ‘mind the gap’ announcements for part of the Piccadilly Line. He gets to climb up the NatWest Tower and Barnet Church. And he even manages to walk to Heathrow Airport.

As one would expect, there are some great pieces of Tube trivia here – for example, when the Metropolitan Railway opened in 1863, the Prime Minister (Lord Palmerston, who was 78 at the time) refused to attend on the grounds that at his age, he preferred to spend as much of his time above ground as possible. There is also an explanation for the convention of standing on the right on escalators. On a wider note, there’s a useful definition of what constitutes a modern-day high street from a man who, over the course of this book, has walked along rather a lot of them: “A high street ain’t a high street unless it can sell you a rawlplug.” (By this definition, I am pleased to report that High Road in East Finchley meets his requirement.) There is also plenty of food for thought for people who like maps, and in this sense Mason goes beyond the ‘I went to Stanfords to buy my maps’ travel-writer cliché.

Now an account of a series of walks, however interesting, may get dull after a while but Mason mixes things up to keep the reader interested. He is at various stages accompanied by fellow-walkers. He turns his Circle Line walk into a Circle Line pub crawl. Later on, he does the Jubilee Line by night, offering a nocturnal perspective on London. And by spreading his walks over several months, we see the city (and environs) through different seasons as well. Each walk tells a different story about the same metropolis.

I really enjoyed this book, despite the fact that Mason is rather disparaging about Edgware (perhaps inevitably, it gets compared to that other Northern Line northbound destination, High Barnet, and comes off second-best). This was a good idea for a book, and in Mason’s hands it’s a very good read. If you live in London, or are interested in London, you’ll find something to like here.


The Holmes Affair
The Holmes Affair
by Graham Moore
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not particularly impressed, 15 April 2014
This review is from: The Holmes Affair (Paperback)
This story is an attempt to balance two parallel plots – the first is set in 1900 and involves Conan Doyle himself, while the second is set in the present day (well, 2010) and concerns members of a Sherlock Holmes appreciation society (itself quite the contemporary topic, what with the increase in interest in the stories thanks to the TV series). In 1900, Arthur Conan Doyle (he didn’t get knighted until 1902) investigates a series of murders in London after receiving a letter-bomb in the post; meanwhile, in 2010 avid Holmes fan Harold White attends a prestigious ‘Sherlockian’ gathering in a New York hotel, which is marred when one of the society’s leading members is found dead in his room; this leads onto a hunt for a missing part of Conan Doyle’s diary which covers the part of his life which is being played out in the 1900 plot.

Now I’m not a fan of this split-plot device – I’d much rather just have one thread to concentrate on. That said, it can make for a very good story if it’s done well.

This, alas, isn’t. Of the two plots, I personally preferred the 1900 adventure with Holmes’s creator. Still trying to move away from the shadow of Sherlock Holmes seven years after killing him off, Arthur (as he is referred to throughout the proceedings) finds himself having to use the detection skills he bestowed upon his fictional creation, with his friend Bram Stoker acting as a sort-of ‘Watson’. Throughout his adventure, during which he visits Whitechapel, dresses up as a woman to infiltrate a women’s suffrage meeting and is temporarily incarcerated in Newgate Prison, he meets people who tell him how much they enjoyed the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, much to his own irritation.

By contrast, the 2010 plot stutters and I for one found it to be less interesting; like Arthur back in 1900, Harold is forced by circumstances to have a go at being a detective, and uses his knowledge of the afore-mentioned Canon to make his deductions while dealing with a freelance journalist (who, naturally, may not be all that she seems) and a (fictional) descendant of Conan Doyle himself.

Stories centring on Conan Doyle are not unknown – these are usually about how he came to write The Hound of the Baskervilles, the first Holmes adventure he wrote since he’d given the detective the Reichenbach Falls treatment. Moore’s story touches on this, as the events that take place do indeed prompt Conan Doyle to resurrect his famous detective.

There are also a few things Moore gets wrong; American words and spelling abound, and while I don’t find this as distracting as I used to there are a couple of howlers which jar the 1900 plot; Moore manages to have a London policeman in 1900 addressed as ‘officer’ rather than ‘constable’, and there’s a laboured joke at the expense of women’s suffrage campaigner Millicent Fawcett that centres on the assumption that Londoners in 1900 would have used the word ‘faucet’ instead of ‘tap’. More seriously, in the present-day story Moore somehow manages to have the body of a man found dead in suspicious circumstances in New York repatriated to Britain and buried within two days. This is obviously impossible, and it’s the sort of detail that a crime novelist needs to iron out before sending the manuscript to the publisher.


The House of Silk: The Bestselling Sherlock Holmes Novel (Sherlock Holmes Novel 1)
The House of Silk: The Bestselling Sherlock Holmes Novel (Sherlock Holmes Novel 1)
by Anthony Horowitz
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good effort, better-than-average Holmes pastiche, 15 April 2014
As with my Holmes pastiches, The House of Silk is presented as having been written by Dr Watson in old age (and subsequently consigned, as these things are, to his tin dispatch box in the vaults of Cox & Company at Charing Cross), when he looks back on a case that he couldn’t write about in the 1890s because of the sensitive nature of the case, although there are no Victorian celebrity appearances here. Moriarty plays a cameo role, but he’s not central to the plot.

Instead, the sensitivity concerns the nature of the mysterious establishment of the title – which I will not divulge here for fear of spoiling what is a pretty good plot, but safe to say that it’s a dark secret that is as offensive to our own time as it would have been to the Victorians.

When it comes to crime writing, Horowitz has a good pedigree, having worked on the screenplays for TV shows like Agatha Christie’s Poirot and Foyle’s War in addition to his fiction which is mostly aimed at the teenage market.

Conan Doyle’s style was well-mimicked, although some modern-day sensitivities did creep in. For example, the Baker Street Irregulars, Holmes’s gang of cheeky street-urchins, are portrayed in a way that shows the harshness of their lives, living rough on the mean streets of late-Victorian London. Indeed, this version of Watson makes much of the social issues of the day which adds a new dimension to the story.

My quibbles are minor. Horowitz says in the notes at the end that he wanted to portray Holmes going into an opium den because Conan Doyle had never done this, although I seem to recall Watson discovering Holmes undercover in one in ‘The Man with the Twisted Lip’ (which in turn formed the basis for the crack-house scene in the most recent series of Sherlock). He also presents a list of rules for anyone else wishing to have a go at writing their own Holmes adventure, although he does spoil the effect of these by admitting that he didn’t entirely keep to them himself.

All in all, a good effort that is certainly superior to most Holmes pastiches that have been published over the years.


The Labyrinth of Osiris
The Labyrinth of Osiris
by Paul Sussman
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Cannot recommend it highly enough, 3 Jan. 2014
There are various ways by which one can hear that an author that you like has died. Sometimes, you read a short article about his or her passing in the paper on the way to work. Sometimes there will be something on the Today programme. In one case I have received notification of a favourite writer's death by email because I subscribe to a website devoted to his works.

In the case of Paul Sussman, however, notification was received by way of picking up a copy of his fourth and (as it turns out) last novel, The Labyrinth of Osiris, in a charity shop and noting from the author blurb that he died in 2012. He was 46.

I only came across Paul Sussman by chance a few years ago after working my way through a thriller by another writer that, although OK in itself, appeared to have been written with a view to cashing in on the success of The Da Vinci Code (it concerned a secret about the early history of Christianity which was being concealed by the Vatican, who were in cahoots with the Mafia). At the end of the book was an advert - on the lines of `if you liked this, you might enjoy this' - for another author who shared the same publisher. Intrigued, I looked for it in my local library and thus did I find The Last Secret of the Temple by Paul Sussman.

It was a superb read - a refreshingly intelligent, complex and fast-paced thriller that combined a murder investigation, archaeology, the Nazis and the present-day conflict in the Middle East. There was not one protagonist but two, both of them more believable than Professor Langdon. Both were cops, one Egyptian (Yusuf Khalifa of the Luxor police) and the other Israeli (Jerusalem-based Arieh Ben-Roi), and they ended up being forced to work together to uncover a secret that could hold the key to peace in the Middle East. The novel looked even-handedly at serious issues such as racial hatred, religious fanaticism, morality and power, and did so without resorting to bias, sentimentality or treating the reader like an idiot.

Sadly, I didn't follow this up with any more Paul Sussman's books as they did not appear to be on the library list and his wasn't a name that was readily available on the shelves of WH Smith's. But when I saw that copy of The Labyrith of Osiris, I knew that I had to buy it.

Do you know what? It's brilliant.

The story begins eighty years ago when a man disappears near Luxor, his body being found in the early 1970s. It then jumps to a murder of an investigative journalist in present-day Jerusalem - in the Armenian Cathedral of all places. Arieh Ben-Roi starts to investigate, and it's not long before he contacts his old friend in Luxor to ask for some assistance from the Egyptian end. Yusuf Khalifa, meanwhile, has been trying to investigate some mysterious well-poisonings out in the desert while trying to come to terms with a family tragedy.

At just over 750 pages, it's a big book and Sussman didn't flinch from dealing with some big issues. Over the course of their investigations (which are of course connected), Ben-Roi and Khalifa encounter sex-trafficking, anti-capitalist protests (both of the online and direct-action varieties), cover-ups and multi-national corporations acting as though they're above the law. On a more personal level, the demands of family life and the enduring power of friendship feature heavily. There are so many threads that at times you'll wonder how they're all going to come together.

And there's history, of course - the novel is littered with references to ancient Pharaohs and the Arab-Israeli conflict (although this isn't as central a theme as it was in The Last Secret of the Temple), and the likes of Herodotus and Howard Carter briefly get drawn into the plot. Then there's the litany of Arabic and Hebrew slang that requires a glossary at the back.

As well as this, Sussman treats the reader to portraits of two great cities - Jerusalem and Luxor - both depictions going beyond what the tourists see and showing us what life is like for the people who actually live there, in stark contrast to some thrillers set in interesting locations that seem to have copied a lot of the descriptive stuff from a guidebook (as he worked on archaeological digs in the Valley of the Kings, Sussman's take on the redevelopment of Luxor in recent years is particularly interesting).

The pace was unrelenting, although as I got to within a hundred pages of the end I felt the need to slow down as I didn't want the story to end. It's a novel that requires time for the reader to absorb everything, but it's also one that you just can't put down.

If you're looking for some intelligent holiday reading this year, I really cannot recommend this book highly enough.


A Prisoner of Birth
A Prisoner of Birth
by Jeffrey Archer
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars A pacy, well-written retelling of an old classic, 3 Jan. 2014
This review is from: A Prisoner of Birth (Paperback)
Recently, this book was my reading material of choice on my daily commute on the Tube. You occasionally get strange looks when you read Jeffrey Archer novels in public - the odd raised eyebrow from the lady sitting opposite, an unspoken way of saying: "Really? Him?" - and I can think of at least three reasons why people might frown on people who read Jeffrey Archer novels, although two of those concern who he is rather than the sort of books he writes.

As for the novel itself, well I can report that it was pretty good - although if you want my honest opinion about Jeffrey Archer, I'll tell you that he's better at the short story as opposed to the full-length novel.

Published in 2008, A Prisoner of Birth is a modern retelling of Alexandre Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo, and Archer has included several references to Dumas in acknowledgement of his source material. Archer, by the way, is not alone in retelling this classic, if somewhat long-winded adventure story; back in 2000, Stephen Fry did the same with his novel, The Stars' Tennis Balls, and back in the nineteenth century Dumas himself openly admitted that he got the idea from a (possibly apocryphal) story he'd heard. It will therefore come as no surprise to learn that the plot is about a man who is framed and imprisoned for a crime he didn't commit, is befriended by a sympathetic and rich fellow-inmate, manages to escape when said fellow-inmate conveniently dies, obtains his late friend's money and uses it to wreak his revenge on the people who'd stitched him up in the first place.

As you'd expect, Archer is particularly good at the prison scenes, which take place at Belmarsh (where he himself was incarcerated at the start of his sentence; Belmarsh also features in some of his short stories written after his imprisonment).

Class is a key factor of this novel. The protagonist and his fiancée are working-class East Londoners, while the men who stitch him up are upper-class types who live in Chelsea. However, the upper classes don't just provide the villains, as the helpful prisoner (to whom our hero bears an uncanny resemblance, of course) is upper-class too, and it is he who teaches our hero to read, and shows him how to act like a toff - the latter being an essential plot point as he has to pass himself off as one in order to exact his revenge.

There are a few things that don't ring true. For example, what sort of barrister lets his client go on trial for murder wearing a football shirt, and who would take an A-level exam after obtaining an Open University degree? These, though, are minor quibbles. On the whole, this is a pacy, well-written thriller in which, as with all the best thrillers, the last twist is saved for the final few pages.

I find the benchmark of a good thriller to be one that I struggle to put down, and once I have put it down I start to wonder when will be the next time I can pick it up again; in extreme (or rather, extremely good book) cases I've still been reading at 3am. I didn't go that far with A Prisoner of Birth, but it was still very good.


Sovereign: 3 (The Shardlake Series)
Sovereign: 3 (The Shardlake Series)
by C. J. Sansom
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars Well-written, well-researched, definitely worth reading., 3 Jan. 2014
Secrets concerning the stability of Tudor-era England are key to the third book in the excellent Shardlake series of detective novels set during the latter part of Henry VIII's reign. The protagonist, Matthew Shardlake, is a hunchbacked London-based lawyer who has come to privately doubt his faith and this, combined with having to endure endless mockery for his physical stature, causes him to regard the sixteenth-century world he inhabits from a cynical viewpoint - thus allowing us readers to identify with him as an outsider.

Sovereign sees Shardlake and his assistant, Jack Barak (the brawn to Shardlake's brain), in York. Henry VIII's 1541 progress to the North - a region still seething with discontent following the Pilgrimage of Grace - is about to arrive in the city but Shardlake is actually on a secret mission to ensure that a key anti-Henry prisoner in York Castle gets taken to the Tower of London for questioning (obtaining information by torture being nothing new under the sun). Things start to become rather complicated when a local glazier is found dead, and Shardlake stumbles across a cache of documents that cast doubt on the legitimacy of the Tudor claim to the throne (I'll say no more to avoid spoilers, but it's based on an historical rumour that's been given TV airtime before now).

It's always interesting to see how famous people from history are represented in the pages of historical novels. Here, Archbishop Cranmer appears to fulfil the role of the senior figure who gives Shardlake his instructions (in the first two novels of the Shardlake series, Dissolution and Dark Fire, this task fell to Thomas Cromwell). But where Sovereign takes things to a new level is with the appearance in its pages of the larger-than-life man whose personality and actions dominated the Tudor era.

I refer, of course, to Henry VIII. Even as an unseen character in the first two Shardlake novels, he dominated the story and left the reader with the impression that getting close to his royal personage was inherently dangerous (Dark Fire, of course, ended with the execution of Thomas Cromwell). I'd previously though that Samson was doing well to resist drawing him into the story, but for his third novel he takes the plunge, and brings out the big man - but only for a walk-on part at the gates of York, with the stench from his infected leg (if nothing else, the Shardlake books convey the smell of Tudor England to an unsurpassable extent) hitting the nose before he deigns to ridicule the man who is in fact working to save his realm.

Accompanying him is wife number five, the doomed teenager Katherine Howard (not so much young enough to be Henry's daughter as actually several years younger than his eldest) who gets an unusually sympathetic portrayal here, and the impression we are given via Shardlake of her fall from grace is that she was more sinned against than sinning (this is made more explicit in the afterword - all good works of historical fiction have one of these nowadays - where Sansom does his best to clear her name of the charge of adultery that is usually thrown at her). Sovereign is a well-written and well-researched novel (Sansom holds a PhD in History), but his obvious erudition never stifles the plot - as, for example, the author's learning does in The Name of the Rose and to a lesser extent Wolf Hall.

Sovereign is worth reading even if you haven't already read the first two Shardlake novels, Dissolution and Dark Fire. It has timeless themes running through them that are as valid today as they were in the sixteenth century: The uses and abuses of power, the question of royal succession and religious conflict all feature. It also pose some very modern questions. Can the state be trusted? Is information obtained by torture valid? Does the end really justify the means? And finally, if you have information that will probably plunge your country into chaos if it's released, what do you do with it?


Sword and Scimitar
Sword and Scimitar
by Simon Scarrow
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Top marks for plot, historical detail and issues raised., 3 Jan. 2014
This review is from: Sword and Scimitar (Paperback)
This is a standalone novel about the 1565 Great Siege of Malta - when the island fortress of the Knights of St John was besieged by the Ottoman Turks. At stake was the future not just of Malta - then as in the Second World War, a key strategic position in the Mediterranean - but of Christian Europe. Quite frankly, this is a key event in European history that should be more widely known about than it is.

Even so, there is of course more to Sword & Scimitar than the defence of what would become The West. The novel's protagonist, an English knight called Sir Thomas Barrett, is a disgraced former member of the Order of St John who is summoned from rural Hertfordshire to return to help defend Malta. In addition to risking life and limb for a cause he has tried to forget about, he is given a secret mission to carry out on Malta by Sir Francis Walsingham, spymaster-in-chief to Queen Elizabeth I (and playing much the same role that M does in the James Bond books in this instance). There's a certain document in the Order's archive on Malta that needs to be recovered at all costs, and to help with this task Sir Thomas is given an assistant who has a few secrets of his own.

In a sense, then, this is a spy novel that happens to be set against the backdrop of one of the most significant battles of the sixteenth century. There are dire consequences for England if the document falls into the wrong hands (far be it from me to spoil things by saying what the document is, as Sir Thomas is as much in the dark as the reader for the best part of the novel), although for much of the novel this is of secondary importance to the battle for control of the island - and should the Turks win, the consequences for all of Europe would in themselves be catastrophic.

Thanks to his `Eagle' series of Roman-era novels, Simon Scarrow has a proven track record when it comes to describing historical fight scenes and he's clearly in his element as the Knights' situation becomes ever more dire in the face of unrelenting attacks by the numerically superior Turks.

This being a modern novel, blind faith is treated with some degree of scepticism by the main protagonist who, having seen at first hand the destructive power of religion - both in terms of the all-out war between Christianity and Islam and the persecution of Catholics in England - has lost his faith, something which enables the modern reader to identify with him.

This novel has themes running through them that are as valid today as they were in the sixteenth century: The uses and abuses of power, clashes between civilisations and religious conflict all feature. It also pose some very modern questions. Can the state be trusted? Does the end really justify the means? And finally, if you have information that will probably plunge a country into chaos if it's released, what do you do with it?
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 19, 2014 8:51 AM GMT


The Hidden Oasis
The Hidden Oasis
by Paul Sussman
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A superb adventure which brings Egypt to life, 3 Jan. 2014
This review is from: The Hidden Oasis (Paperback)
This novel begins with two events that seem to be related only by geography; a group of Egyptian priests committing ritual suicide after transporting an unknown object to a secret place in the desert in the year 2153BC, and a plane-load of smugglers crashing over the same area in the 1980s. In the present, an American rock climber called Freya travels to Egypt for the funeral of her sister, a desert explorer from whom she has been estranged. She quickly becomes convinced that her sister's death is not all it seems, and the situation escalates when a Bedouin turns up with some objects that he found in the desert, swiftly followed by a helicopter-load of thugs who'll stop at nothing to get their hands on said objects.

The plot then shifts to Cairo where Freya teams up with an English archaeologist called Flin who has some secrets of his own, and from there things develop at speed, with car-chases, dramatic escapes, outlandish torture threats, espionage and some impromptu archaeological excavations. There's a supporting cast of Bedouin, CIA agents and an arms dealer whose henchmen are rather creative when it comes to killing people, and the subject-matter (always substantial in Paul Sussman novels) takes in the international arms trade, the underside of contemporary (albeit pre-Arab Spring) Cairo and the Iran-Iraq War as well as archaeology, Egyptian football teams and Ancient Egyptian myths and legends.

What with an archaeologist with a potentially dodgy past being one of the main protagonists, the feel here is very much that of a modern-day version of Raiders of the Lost Ark (that character's surname, Brodie, is an obvious nod to this). This was a superb read; if you've never read a Paul Sussman novel then you've been missing out. I love the detail, which really brings Egypt, and especially Cairo, to life. Heck, I even saw bits of the city I recognised from the only time I visited the place; at one point, the English archaeologist goes for a drink in the Windsor Hotel in downtown Cairo - I've been there myself, and I can confirm that Sussman's description of it is spot-on.


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