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C. E. Utley "Charles Utley" (London, UK)
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The Swimmer
The Swimmer
Price: 4.79

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Tour de Force - A Must Read Novel, 12 Sep 2014
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This review is from: The Swimmer (Kindle Edition)
This book really is an exceptional achievement. It is hard to believe it is a first novel. Zander's prose, perfectly translated (into American rather than English) by Elizabeth Clark Wessel, is a joy to read. The characters are expertly drawn. The plot, though complicated at times (because what appear to be two stories are being told and they only come together towards the end) is genuinely gripping. Zander's ability, in particular, to describe fast moving action scenes is astounding. But there is much more to the novel than mere action.

Although the story starts with a bang (literally), it does not continue, for a while, in that vein. Instead, we are gently introduced to Mahmoud Shammosh (a Ph.D student in Sweden) and his former girl friend, Klara Walldeen, a Swedish girl of great beauty now working in Brussels for an MEP. True, the second chapter recounts some strange email messages, which turn out to be of vital importance to the plot, which Mahmoud has been getting, but nothing spectacular happens immediately.

The descriptions of life in the EU quarter of Brussels are all too credible. The parasitic nature of EU bureaucracy and its hangers on is gloriously portrayed. George Loow, the young lobbyist, is a character anyone who has ever had anything to do with modern politics will instantly recognise. He swaggers around Brussels, performing slightly shady tasks for his firm's clients, revelling in the trappings of "success". There are hot young women galore. There are expensive cars, grand restaurants, seedy nightclubs and a certain amount of recreational drugs. George, whose father is understandably disappointed in him, is in his element. But he is weak, not evil. And one can easily share his distress as he finds himself being drawn into something which appears to be a lot worse than merely slightly shady.

But most of our sympathy must be directed to Mahmoud and Klara. For they, too, are, entirely innocently, becoming involved in something which seems to be horribly sinister, and dangerous. Who are the Americans who seem to be stalking them? What do those Americans intend to do to them? And Why? You will get no answers from me. You must read the book to find out.

But what about that first chapter, the one with the bang? it is set in 1980 (Klara and Mahmoud's story takes place in a few weeks leading up to Christmas 2013). The first chapter is written in the first person in the present tense. The author turns out to be an American. He witnesses an awful atrocity. A car is blown up in Damascus. Its occupant is a woman very close to him. As he watches the bomb explode he cradles a very young baby in his arms. Then we move to 2013. But, every now and again, our mysterious American, writing in the first person in the present tense, reappears. What does he have to do with the terrifying events unfolding in late 2013? Again, I shan't tell you. You really do have to read the book.

I genuinely loved this book. I want you all to read it. But, mostly, I want Zander's next novel to be published as soon as possible.

Charles


Personal (Jack Reacher 19)
Personal (Jack Reacher 19)
Price: 7.49

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Why do we all love him?, 30 Aug 2014
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Looked at coldly and objectively, any decent person ought to hate Jack Reacher. He is horribly violent, often attacking and either killing or seriously injuring people on a whim (fortunately it usually turns out that the victim was a baddy). He is desperately pleased with himself, convinced of his vast superiority over everyone else. And now it seems, I hadn't picked this up before, he is teetotal (even dinner with the attractive heroine of this book in the top floor restaurant of the Park Lane Hilton is only accompanied by black coffee).

And yet there is something about this frightful monster of a man which makes us all root for him.

This story starts, as usual, with Reacher wandering aimlessly around America with nothing more than a toothbrush. He picks up a discarded army newspaper and sees an advertisement asking him to contact a general. He responds. It seems someone has tried to assassinate the French President. Whoever did it was an exceptionally good marksman, a sniper almost without equal in the world. Suspicion has fallen on a former American soldier who, sixteen years earlier, had been arrested by Reacher and who had then served fifteen years in prison. He had been one of the best snipers ever. But there are three other possible candidates, all former servicemen. One is Russian, one is Israeli and one British. In Lee Child's gloriously surreal world it is an accepted fact that those are the only people who could have been such a good shot.

The great fear is that whoever it was who shot at the French President is going to have a repeat performance. This time there are eight possible victims, the leaders of the G8 countries. There is to be a meeting of the G8 in England (in a highly unlikely sounding venue in the East end of London). The world's security services are all desperate to prevent a disaster. The Americans are terrified that the rogue sniper may be their man. For reasons which don't make much sense (but that doesn't matter) it has been decided that the long-retired Reacher should be sent to Europe to sort everything out. He is accompanied by the young and attractive CIA agent, masquerading as a member of the State Department, Casey Nice.

The story is gripping (so long as one is able to cope with the excessive violence). Lee Child, an Englishman who is now more American than any natural-born citizen of that country, is able to set a story in his homeland, and to poke endless gentle fun at his former countrymen and their quaint un-American ways. But his obvious disapproval of all things British (Reacher's objection to an English breakfast as being too full of fatty foods is incredible cheek when one recalls the gigantic fatty breakfasts he habitually eats in America) is never allowed to interfere with the fast-moving plot. This is not a book you will want to put down until it is finished. It is tempting to describe more of the plot, but I must not do so, you must see it unfold for yourselves, as you read it. But I don't think I am breaking any rules by saying that there is a satisfying twist at the end.

I don't think I want to change much about Reacher. It is too late for him to become a civilsed member of the human race. He is always going to be a horribly violent man living a very peculiar and rather silly nomadic life. But I do hope he might be allowed the occasional glass of beer and take a short break from his puritanical coffee drinking.

Charles


Jerusalem: The Biography
Jerusalem: The Biography
Price: 6.49

5.0 out of 5 stars An Extraordinarily Well Balanced Account, 20 Aug 2014
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This was a very brave venture on which to embark. Jerusalem may be the holiest city on earth, acknowledged as such by all three Abrahamic religions (though Islam may put Mecca top of the list), but it has also been the site of appalling brutality throughout the ages. What makes this a brave venture is the fact that the controversies which led to all that brutality are very much alive today. And, what is more, the brutality continues. For a Jew, and one whose family has been closely involved with Jerusalem for many generations, to attempt an objective history of this sad and glorious city is courageous in the extreme.

But Simon Sebag Montefiore has succeeded. And succeeded brilliantly.

Only one of the founders of those three religions actually set foot in Jerusalem. Jesus, of course, did so often. Abraham didn't (because it didn't exist in his time) and neither did Muhammad (though it did). But the Jews founded the city and Muslims ran it for a thousand years. Throughout most of its history it has witnessed grotesque extremes of religious fervour. Jews have slaughtered innocent Arabs. Arabs have slaughtered innocent Jews. Both have slaughtered innocent Christians. Christians have slaughtered innocent Jews and Arabs. And all in the name of religion. The tragedy, of course, is that the slaughter goes on to this day (though the Christians do seem to have discovered, at last, that the founder of their religion - unlike both the others - did not live by the sword).

Sebag Montefiore triumphs because he describes both the vices and the virtues of Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Members of all three faiths can read this magnificent biography of a city in the confident knowledge that none of the religions is being put forward as being superior to the others.

This really is a wonderful read.

Charles


Close Call: A Liz Carlyle Novel (Liz Carlyle 8)
Close Call: A Liz Carlyle Novel (Liz Carlyle 8)
Price: 5.66

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Yarn - and Realistic too, 15 Aug 2014
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Amazon recommended this book to me. I saw it was the eighth in a series and therefore felt I should read the earlier ones first. I have now read books two (number one is not available on Kindle) to eight (this one). I hope I will be forgiven for reviewing them all in one go.

The first point to be made is that these stories are fascinating. They recount the adventures of an agent of MI5, Liz Carlyle. And they are, of course, written by a woman who spent her professional career in MI5, ending up as Director General. One can be confident, therefore, that the plots are realistic. The flights of fantasy seen in most spy stories these days are not to be found in Dame Stella's books. That is a great boon.

The fact that the stories are realistic does not mean they are boring. Far from it. The plots are uniformly excellent. The novels are genuine page turners (I read seven of them in as many days). And our heroine, Liz, is a thoroughly likeable character. That, too, is a boon. The fashion these days is for thrillers populated by characters who are all very disagreeable. It is something of a relief to have a main character (and one or two others) who is not nasty.

But Dame Stella is not, it has to be said, the most accomplished author of all time. That is hardly surprising. Not only has she come to novel writing late in life, but she has done so with a life time of having had to write in the style of a civil servant. It is that, I suspect, which has led to the main problem with these books. In the awful jargon of second-rate creative writing teachers, Dame Stella has not discovered how to "show" rather than "tell".

We are never allowed to work out for ourselves what the characters think about each other. The author feels it necessary to spell everything out for us. The relationship, for instance, between Liz Carlyle and Geoffrey Fane (the rather superior MI6 officer with whom she frequently has to work) would be much more amusing if Dame Stella didn't feel it essential to explain why Fane has just made a sarcastic comment or why Liz is irritated by it.

Similarly, Dame Stella's insistence on giving the back story whenever a character is mentioned is a little tiresome. It really is not necessary, every time Liz's mother appears, for us to be given the potted history of the death of her husband, her decision to run a garden centre in widowhood, her worry about her daughter's dangerous job etc. etc. And we are given that treatment with almost every character. Dame Stella should read the Sherlock Holmes stories, the Hercule Poirot stories and the Miss Marple stories. She would then see that it is possible to have recurring characters in several books without having to repeat all that has been said about them earlier.

But I must not carp. If you want a good story about the modern security services, and are prepared to skim through the repetitive passages, these books are for you. I, for one, cannot wait for the next volume to appear.

Charles


Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife
Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife
Price: 4.35

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting, but you should not found your faith on this, 12 Jun 2014
This is a fascinating story. Eben Alexander (why do some Americans put their surnames before their Christian names and then add numbers at the end?) clearly had a miraculous recovery from an illness which should either have killed him or left him gravely disabled. His recovery seems to me to be the most interesting part of his story. But he disagrees.

Mr (as he is an American surgeon I suppose I should call him "Dr") Alexander was in a coma for seven days. Most of his brain was not working during that time (apparently provable from scans and so on). He claims that, despite having a brain which was not working, he spent those seven days in heaven. He had vivid visions of glorious light and beautiful guardian angels. And he maintains that all those would have been impossible with a brain which had been shut down by such a serious illness, unless there was something greater than the brain. His case, he asserts, provides us with proof of life after death.

I firmly believe in God, in Christ and in eternal life. But Alexander's book does not reinforce my belief. It is obvious that his attempt to persuade us, on scientific grounds, that his visions could not have resulted from activity in his brain is doomed to failure. His case rests on his contention that his visions of heaven happened throughout the seven days he was in a coma. But he plainly can't know that was the case. Which of us can pinpoint the time at which we had vivid dreams? I suppose, if we wake in the middle of a dream, we can say it happened only moments ago. But Alexander is not saying that (indeed, his case is destroyed if he does). He asks us to believe that he knows his visions were happening throughout his seven-day coma. He simply can't know whether that is true.

Alexander devotes many pages to explaining why his brain was not capable, during most of those seven days, of producing dreams. His reasoning is compelling. But, unless he can establish that his visions were actually occurring during that period, the whole exercise is pointless. He never explains why that vision of heaven could not have happened in the moments before he recovered consciousness. It is well known that dreams which seem to us to go on for ever may only last for seconds. Why, I want to ask Alexander, is he so convinced that what he saw some time before he woke up was not a dream which happened seconds before he became conscious?

If, as I suspect it is, Alexander's aim in writing this book is to convince us all that there is a God and there is a wonderful eternal life waiting for us, he may find he has backfired. My own faith is based on my reading of the scriptures. It has been increased by reading books such as CS Lewis's Miracles. But I know that founding faith on such things as the Turin Shroud or Dr Alexander's belief that he saw heaven when he was in a coma would be foolish. It may be that the Turin Shroud is genuine. It may be that Dr Alexander saw heaven. But both may well be demonstrated to be false (I don't mean that Dr Alexander is telling lies: I am sure he really believes that he spent seven days in heaven).

If you hope that reading this book will lead to faith, please don't read it. You need much surer foundations than Alexander can give you.

Charles
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 12, 2014 11:13 PM BST


The Adventures of Inspector Lestrade
The Adventures of Inspector Lestrade
Price: 3.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Delightful, 23 May 2014
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What a wonderful discovery (Amazon offered this book as a free gift for signing up to emails about books). I feared it would be awful (because I didn't have to pay for it). But there was no need for that fear. I adored every page of this immensely charming story of Inspector Lestrade's attempts to solve a series of murders in Victorian England.

Lestrade, of course, was the bumbling Scotland Yard detective who featured in the Sherlock Holmes stories. In this book he is the main character. Holmes and Watson do appear, but they are on the fringes. And Holmes is an incompetent, but very pleased with himself, detective. Arthur Conan Doyle features (he writes stories about Holmes to please his friend Dr Watson). Several famous people from the late Victorian era turn up at various stages of the story.

The book is very funny, and also tells a really quite gripping story. I do hope others won't be put off by its being too cheap (or free if you get an offer like the one I was given).

Charles


The Abduction (The Carnivia Trilogy 2)
The Abduction (The Carnivia Trilogy 2)
Price: 4.79

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Second is as Good as the First, 18 May 2014
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I think I mentioned, in my review of The Abomination, the first volume of this trilogy, that I had almost not bought it because it had been described to me as being "Da Vinci Code meets Girl with the Dragon Tattoo". The idea that there might be another Dan Brown out there, and one who added gratuitous violence to badly written and ludicrous conspiracy theories, rather put me off. Fortunately, I went ahead and bought the book. It was a gem.

One is always a bit nervous about reading the second novels of authors who have done well with the first. The first may turn out to have exhausted the author's talent. The reader may be horribly disappointed by the second.

There is no need to have that concern about Jonathan Holt. The Abduction is, if anything, better than The Abomination. True, Holt does go just a little bit too far with his main conspiracy theory (Catholic Church and American government getting together to commit vile crimes). But the writing is so good, the characters so well drawn, that one doesn't really mind. After all, this is fiction and Mr Holt is not seriously asking us to believe it. Dan Brown, on the other hand, seems to have convinced himself that the nonsense he espouses in the Da Vinci Code is largely true. And he makes it all much worse by being an exceptionally bad writer. Holt's great quality is his ability to write an incredible (though very gripping) story in what appears to be effortlessly well-written prose. I remember reading the Da Vinci Code and feeling, at frequent intervals, an almost overwhelming desire to strangle the author. I have no such desire in Jonathan Holt's case. Indeed, all I really want is to sit with him in a Venetian restaurant of his choice and eat one of the wonderful meals he describes so beautifully in his books.

I should say a little, obviously not too much, about the plot. A teenage American girl, the daughter of a Major in the US forces, is abducted from a rather seedy nightclub in Venice devoted to sex. She has pledged herself, as I understand many American teenagers do, to a life of chastity until her marriage. What was she doing in that nightclub? Was she leading a double life, the picture of innocence at home but a wild and wanton young woman when away from her parents? But those questions pale into insignificance when it transpires she has been kidnapped, apparently, by fanatical Italian opponents of a proposed new American base. And, when the world is subjected to videos of her undergoing American interrogation methods (torture), all are horrified at what is happening.

Our three main heroes join together again to try to track the girl down and rescue her, and to discover who the criminals really are. Captain Kat Tapo, of the Carabinieri, Lieutenant Holly Boland, of US intelligence and Daniele Barbo, reclusive autistic computer genius who created the website Carnivia, pool their talents in a desperate effort to save the girl.

I was a little concerned, in the first quarter or so of the book, by the absence of Holt's glorious descriptions of Venetian food and drink, but I needn't have worried. There are some mouth-wateringly splendid meals to be savoured.

I long for the final volume to be published. I gather I must wait until next year. That wait can only be made tolerable by a visit to Venice and lots of very long lunches.

Charles
Comment Comments (5) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 31, 2014 9:27 PM BST


The Day Of The Jackal
The Day Of The Jackal
Price: 2.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Exceptionally Good Thriller, 10 April 2014
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I will not be alone in having not read The Day of the Jackal (until now) on the silly grounds that I had seen and loved the film. What's the point, I used to say to myself, in reading a thriller when I already know what happens?

But I now know that really was a silly attitude. To start with, and this is no spoiler, it doesn't matter at all that the reader already knows that the plot to assassinate de Gaulle will not succeed. I say that is not a spoiler because, very sensibly, Forsyth tells us, early in the book, that de Gaulle retired and died in old age in his bed. He could, of course, have written a novel about an attempt to kill de Gaulle which succeeded, even though every reader would know that never happened in real life. Wisely, he preferred to produce a story which could easily have been true. His honesty, in making it clear from the outset that he was not re-writing history, is greatly to be applauded. The result is a gripping account of something that really could have happened. Never does the reader have to suspend disbelief.

Another fear I had, before at last deciding to read the novel, was that I would find it much too dated. But that, too, was foolish of me. There is absolutely nothing dated about the author's style. The story, of course, is set in 1963, but it could have been written yesterday. The language is clear, plain and incredibly well crafted. Many much younger writers, now producing best sellers which, compared with this novel, are frankly second rate, could learn a great deal from a story-teller who never tries to be too clever, who simply spins a yarn which grips the reader from beginning to end.

True, I knew, because I have seen the film several times, exactly what was going to happen. But that was no problem at all. Forsyth kept my attention throughout.

This really is a masterpiece.

Charles


Holding The Zero
Holding The Zero
Price: 4.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not Entirely Convinced, 4 April 2014
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This review is from: Holding The Zero (Kindle Edition)
It is probably a fault of mine that I don't much like totally unrealistic novels. I quite like thinking that what I am reading could, in the real world, actually happen. That is not a thought which could occur to anyone reading this novel. But, I hasten to say, it was still not a bad read.

Our hero is a transport manager in an import/export firm. His hobby is shooting at Bisley. But he uses ancient guns and it is clear he has never been taught anything about warfare. His grandfather was once saved in Iraq, in the 1950s, by some Kurds. He was determined to repay them for the sacrifices they made for him. He now does so, by sending his grandson to Iraq, to almost certain death, to be a sniper in an attack on government forces which is plainly doomed to failure. I don't think the grandfather comes out of this story smelling of roses (though I suspect Seymour would disagree with me).

There is another sniper in Iraq. Maor Aziz is definitely a top sniper. We are introduced to him when he is trying to assassinate Sadam Hussein, having been recruited by various generals who are eager to get rid of the "Boss for Life". But then, once it transpires that there is a mysterious foreign sniper helping the Kurds, he is sent to find and kill him.

The stage is set. Two snipers, one a transport manager from England with no experience of military life and one a famous expert in military sniping, are set against each other.

Meanwhile, back in England, the Ministry of Defence and some sort of security service have heard abut the young Englishman who has gone to Iraq as a sniper. They set about trying to find out about him (though we never quite know why). That enables us to be told about his background, his childhood, his interest in shooting etc.

The Americans and the Israelis are also following this odd story. The Americans had done their bit to set it up. They are hoping for a Kurdish success, but it depends on more than the lunatic activities of our hero and his Kurd friends. Everything unravels. The Americans withdraw their support. The poor Kurds are left on their own, with only the transport manager to save them.

Then there is another distraction. Rather like the Watch in Much Ado About Nothing, there are cameo parts for American and European journalists who are eager to witness some fighting. They are there, I assume, because Seymour was once a journalist. But they play no serious part at all in the story.

It's not a bad tale. I admit I read another book after I had got halfway through (the story is not enormously gripping). But I returned and got through to the end. I did quite enjoy it. But it is not Seymour at his best.

Charles


The Fifth Form at Saint Dominic's A School Story
The Fifth Form at Saint Dominic's A School Story
Price: 0.00

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Simply Delightful Novel, 3 April 2014
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Some have suggested that this book is dated. In a way, of course, they are right. The story is set in a boys' public school in the late nineteenth century. Schools were different then. Pupils had vastly more freedom than they now have, and the older boys were largely responsible for running their schools. The modern schoolboy will be amazed by reading of the antics of his ancestors. And, sadly, he will be bound to laugh at the occasional moral lectures to be found in this exceptionally well-written account of school life. But he will also be gripped by the story. He will laugh at the glorious humour. And he will long for the righteous, decent hero to triumph in the end.

This is a book which certainly deserves to be much more widely read than it is.

Charles


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