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C. E. Utley "Charles Utley" (London, UK)
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Vagabond
Vagabond
Price: £7.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Good Writer Decides to Become Dan Brown - Very Sad, 14 Oct 2014
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This review is from: Vagabond (Kindle Edition)
Seymour is talented. But he needs to try to keep his feet on the ground.

This is a silly story. We are required to believe all sorts of complete nonsense. I must try to explain.

Danny Curnow was in the British army during the troubles in Northern Ireland. He was a sergeant. He ran agents (meaning he was responsible for looking after Catholics who were prepared to snitch on the IRA). As far as one can gather, he was a disaster at that job. All his agents ended up dead. But, for some unaccountable reason, he was thought to be the best. Then he walked out. He deserted. The army didn't mind about that. No one tried to catch him and prosecute him. He just wandered off to France and took up taking tourists round war graves.

A few decades pass. The Good Friday Agreement has led to most IRA members joining the establishment. But a few of them hold out. They want to go on bombing and killing. But they are short of arms. They need to get guns, grenades, missiles etc. A man who has made them money by smuggling cigarettes into Ireland says he can get them the arms they need. Unknown to them, he is an MI5 agent. Someone is needed to "run" him. A top chap at MI5 decides that the obvious choice is Danny Curnow, the sergeant who deserted about thirty years earlier having built up a reputation for getting all his agents killed. Curnow, despite having hated everything so much that he deserted, immediately agrees to help. And it gets even more incredible as the story continues (I shan't reveal more of it in case anyone wants to read it).

It is sad that Seymour, whose first novel, Harry's Game, was set in Northern Ireland and was brilliant, has descended as low as this. But I suppose we are now in what one might call the "post-Dan-Brown-age". Even competent writers think it is now perfectly all right to churn out wholly incredible stories Readers are now assumed to be stupid.

Oh, all right, this book is not quite as bad as I have painted it. Seymour writes well. He is miles better than Dan Brown. If you are good at suspending disbelief you will probably enjoy Vagabond. I just think it miserable that Seymour has given up on writing believable fiction.

Charles


The Girl Next Door
The Girl Next Door
Price: £6.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Slightly Unrealistic, 14 Oct 2014
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There is nothing wrong with revealing the murderer at the beginning of a murder mystery story. That is not my complaint about this book. And it has to be said, at the outset of this review, that the novel is very well-written and has some fascinating characters. I hope I don't put people off reading it because I, for one, found it rather fun. But I do have to say that I thought there were some problems with it.

All the main characters were around during the last war. Most were children then, though the villain, who is still alive, was an adult and is now approaching his hundredth birthday. So the main cast is made up of men and women who are now in their late seventies or early eighties, with one being ninety nine. They are brought together, decades after the events with which the story is concerned, by the discovery of a tin containing two hands, one of a man and one of a woman, in the tunnels in Essex in which the younger of them played during the war. We know, because we are told at the outset, that the ninety nine year-old murdered the two victims. The question is whether the police, and the former children who were around at the time, will work that out. And there is a subsidiary question: who was the male victim?

Baroness Rendell has decided to give us an extraordinarily unrealistic story about geriatric promiscuity. I know she will say I am being "ageist", that I am wrong to think men and women in their late seventies and eighties tend not to jump in and out of bed with each other at the drop of a hat. But that politically correct response simply won't wash. I accept that I am only sixty two and can't be expected to know how those who are fifteen or more years older than I am behave. But what Lady Rendell doesn't understand is that we youngsters know many people who are older than us and we know they simply don't behave like her characters in this book do.

It was an amusing idea and, as I say, the book is a good read. But it is miles away from being Rendell's best. I think you should all read it, but you should not have high expectations.

Charles


The Lake District Murder (British Library Crime Classics)
The Lake District Murder (British Library Crime Classics)
Price: £2.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Another Enjoyable Mystery - Though not so much of a mystery, 13 Oct 2014
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This was Bude's second murder story. Unlike the earlier one, however, no attempt is made to conceal the identities of the killers. We know from the start who is to blame, but what has to be worked out is how it was done. All the crooks seem to have perfect alibis. Inspector Meredith sets about painstakingly pulling them apart.

Although the Inspector is clearly an able detective, he does take an awful lot longer than the average reader of this book will to work out what is happening at the petrol pumps. It is slightly irritating that one has to wait so long to be told what one already knows. But that is a minor complaint.

Like the Cornish Coast Murder (the first), this is a light and pleasant read.

Charles


The Cornish Coast Murder (British Library Crime Classics)
The Cornish Coast Murder (British Library Crime Classics)
Price: £2.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Pleasant Read, 13 Oct 2014
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This is an enjoyable read. It is a gentle murder mystery set between the wars on the Cornish coast. The Vicar sets about solving the crime using talents he has developed by reading fictional detective stories. Bude describes the delightful location splendidly and his depiction of the Vicar and the doctor (in particular) is well done.

But I am afraid Bude is no Agatha Christie. The end is disappointing, not because one loses interest in who the murderer was, but because the author cheats. The clues which lead to the denouement are simply never revealed to the reader until the Vicar explains all. The first rate writer of old-fashioned English murder mysteries will always ensure that, hidden amongst a great many red herrings, there will be the real clues. Bude has not done that.

Nevertheless, this is a pleasant read.

Charles


The Long Ships: A Saga of the Viking Age
The Long Ships: A Saga of the Viking Age
Price: £2.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Masterpiece, 13 Oct 2014
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I am embarrassed. I have to admit that, until a kind friend guided me to it, I had never even heard of this novel. Now that I have read it I can't believe that I have lived for so many years without having done so before.

Many will, I suspect, be put off by the subject matter of the book. Tales of Vikings are not everyone's cup of tea. But this is not just a story of Viking adventures. It is much more than that. Yes, many a head is severed, many an innocent man's worldly goods plundered and many a young woman raped. But any story of late tenth to early 11th century Vikings can hardly ignore such activities.

This is a story of a man, Orm, going on long metaphorical and real journeys. As it begins, we see Orm as a rather molly-coddled young man with a mother determined that he should stay at home under her protection rather than go out a-Viking with his brother and father. He is something of a hypochondriac, constantly afflicted by minor ailments. In a conventional way, he worships various heathen gods. So, the only unusual thing about him is his enforced abstinence from the enjoyable pastime of going a-Viking.

But then everything changes. He is captured by men who steal some sheep belonging to his family. He is taken to their boat and so starts the longest of his journeys. In the course of it he comes across many fascinating characters. Then he is captured again and finds himself in the service of the regent of the Caliph of Mordova. Upon his master's instructions, he embraces Islam and becomes a worshipper of Allah and his Prophet. He then escapes and makes his way to the court of the great King Harald Bluetooth where he falls in love with the King's daughter. His next great adventure takes place in England where he plays a major part in the Battle of Maldon and sails to Westminster in order to be baptized a Christian. From a rather shaky start, his faith increases as the story progresses.

I should not reveal any more of the story, but what I can say with absolute confidence is that this is one of the most delightful books I have read for a very long time. There is adventure, there is love, there is a clash of religions but, above all, there is constant gentle humour. The reader, unless he is totally devoid of humour himself, will chuckle on pretty well every page.

If there is anyone else out there who has not read The Long Ships, he or she must do so immediately.

Charles


The Swimmer
The Swimmer
Price: £0.59

5 of 5 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: £7.47

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

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
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: £6.64

2 of 2 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


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