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C. E. Utley "Charles Utley" (London, UK)
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Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife
Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife
Price: 6.49

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

4 of 5 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: 3.49

1 of 1 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
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1 of 1 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


The Burning (Coroner Jenny Cooper Series)
The Burning (Coroner Jenny Cooper Series)
Price: 6.59

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Suspend Disbelief, 27 Mar 2014
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I am growing rather fond of Mr Hall's dotty coroner, Jenny Cooper. Actually, and this is a great improvement, she is not nearly as dotty in this book as she is in the earlier ones. But she does still have a very strange idea of a coroner's job. Readers should be aware that Hall's description of what coroners do is fantastic in the extreme, but it doesn't matter in the least.

The story opens with a dreadful fire in a house in a village near Bristol. It happens at shortly before midnight. Three charred bodies, assumed to be those of Ed Morgan and his two young step-daughters, are found in the burnt out house. On the following morning a detective inspector turns up at the coroner's house, tells her of the tragedy and goes with her to see the scene, where the bodies are awaiting removal to the morgue. In her strange way, Jenny immediately starts interviewing witnesses. On the following morning she is informed that the police have closed their files on the case and handed it over to her. That is despite the fact that it has transpired that all three victims have gunshot wounds, that they have not yet been identified and the post mortems have not yet been carried out. The Crown Prosecution Service, we are assured, has advised the police that they need not investigate any further (see what I mean by suspending disbelief?).

Still, this odd behaviour of the police and the CPS gives Jenny her chance to act as a detective (what she seems to like doing most). As is her habit, she charges round the country interviewing all sorts of potential witnesses for the inquest (real coroners leave that to the police) and uncovers all sorts of strange goings on, especially when there are some more violent deaths which, yet again, the police can't be bothered to investigate.

This is a satisfying, if very far-fetched, story. There is, as with its predecessors, a disappointing lack of humour, but we can't have everything. And at least Jenny's extreme psychiatric illness (she was practically certifiable in the early stories - though that didn't stop her undertaking important judicial work) has now resolved. But Mr Hall clearly has a thing about psychiatric illness and Jenny's on off boyfriend, Michael, is now undergoing therapy. The wholly unbelievable civil servant, Simon Moreton, whose job seems to be to bully coroners into ignoring their judicial oath, makes another cameo appearance. But, all in all, this is quite a fun read. I recommend it to you.

Charles
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 3, 2014 2:11 PM BST


A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal
A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal
Price: 0.51

4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating, 25 Mar 2014
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If you are my age (I'm 61) the Kim Philby story probably passed you by. I was born the year after Burgess and MacLean defected to Russia. I was ten when Philby followed them. Of course, I heard about the Philby scandal, but I didn't really take it in. Actually, even those older than me, who may have had a livelier interest in current affairs, would have had only a vague idea of what Philby had done.

Philby had been named as the "third man" by Marcus Lipton several years before he fled, but the allegation had then been withdrawn. When he finally went to Moscow, in 1963, the British public were told nothing for some months. Then, when the newspapers started to pick it up, we were just told that Philby had spied for the Russians during, before and for a very short time after the war. The truth was hidden from us for years. In fact, Philby had worked for the USSR from the 1930s right through to 1963. And he had been directly responsible for the deaths of many hundreds of innocent people. But all that was kept under wraps. Even the Americans, the CIA and the FBI, were assured by MI6 (which doesn't come out of this story very well) that Philby had given up his work for the Soviet Union before he became head of the MI6 station in Washington in 1949 (a job which he used to pass on many American secrets to Moscow).

The theory the secret service wanted us to swallow was that Philby had become a communist spy at about the time of the Spanish civil war and had retained his allegiance to the USSR only until shortly after the second world war. We now know that was a blatant lie: he continued to help Moscow right up to the time, in 1963, when his cover was finally blown. It is not surprising that most of us, until we read this excellent book, only had the dimmest idea of what Philby was up to during all those years.

MacIntyre's book is a wonderfully easy read. It tells Philby's story in a way which is splendidly illuminating for those of us who knew little more than that he had helped Russia during the war and then defected nearly twenty years later. Of course, because the government still refuses to allow us to see the official documents, a lot of it, as the author explains, is speculation and conjecture. But it is well-informed speculation and conjecture, and it rings true.

I am not sure whether MacIntyre entirely succeeds in explaining why it was that Philby, an intelligent and apparently civilised English gentleman, stuck so firmly, for so long, to his conviction that the Soviet Union was heaven on earth, that there was nothing wrong with killing innocent people in large numbers in order to advance its cause. But that is probably because it is almost impossible to think of any rational explanation, other than the rather boring one that he was too arrogant to accept he had been wrong in the first place.

The modern reader will be struck by how easy it was, particularly in the cases of Burgess and MacLean (two obviously rather nutty men), for oddballs to get on in government service in the 1940s and 1950s. MacIntyre puts it all down to the old boy network: anyone, however nutty, who had been to a public school could get a job, just because he was a gentleman. But I am not convinced he is right about that. There was another side to the old boy network. For every Burgess, MacLean and Philby who was employed by the government there were many others, public school boys, who were rejected because the other "old boys" knew of their weaknesses. These days, I suspect, we have gone too far the other way: I doubt whether any eccentric can ever get an important job in government service; the rest of us are probably the losers.

The real problem, of course, was that all those Cambridge spies were recruited by Russia at a time when many young people (not all stupid), understandably appalled by fascism, were convinced that communism provided the only hope of world peace. And then there came the war against Hitler which, after the Soviet Union's brief pact with Germany, put the UK and Russia on the same side. It is not wholly surprising that young idealists in Britain convinced themselves that there was nothing wrong with helping our ally.

But we are still left wondering why Philby, in particular, refused to accept, long after almost everyone else did, that the Soviet Union was evil. He knew that information he was providing to Moscow was being used to kill innocent people, but he apparently saw nothing wrong with that. And yet, at the end of his life, in his flat in Moscow, he was still avidly reading the Times's reports of cricket matches. Maybe we will never understand him.

But this book does go a long way to explaining a very odd phenomenon. I have no hesitation in advising you to read it.

Charles


Be Careful What You Wish For (Clifton Chronicles Book 4)
Be Careful What You Wish For (Clifton Chronicles Book 4)
Price: 5.31

8 of 12 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not Nearly as Bad as the Last One, 15 Mar 2014
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It is always tempting to be superior about Archer's novels. They are easy targets. The stories are unbelievable. The characters are cardboard. The writing is curiously wooden. But he does have a knack for telling a gripping story, however ludicrous it may be, in a way which grips the reader.

This series of stories (originally meant to be a trilogy but now into the fourth and with a fifth yet to come) has had its ups and downs. The third, the one immediately preceding this one, was truly awful (though still, because of Archer's one talent, unputdownable). This one shares a lot of the third's faults. The characters are either angels or devils. The villains are particularly incredible. Lady Virginia is still a sort of three-year-old's idea of a witch. Don Pedro could have horns growing out of his head without anyone being surprised. Major Fisher remains weak and nasty (though for reasons which are wholly inexplicable almost succeeds in persuading the good directors of Barrington's Shipping whom he has let down horribly in the past to elect him as chairman of the board).

There are lots of errors. Though I don't suppose they matter very much. People are described as buying third class tickets on the railways in the 1960s, even though third class was abolished in 1956. The Chelsea Magistrates, and the advocates who appear in front of them, apparently wear gowns and transfer criminal cases - without any investigation of the facts - to the High Court (they might have committed them to the Assizes, Central Criminal Court or Quarter Sessions but not to the High Court and never without first hearing committal proceedings). Allegedly civilised people are described as drinking Bristol Cream sherry before lunch (what a horrific idea). The Queen Mother, having been properly addressed earlier as Your Majesty, is then described as HRH the Queen Mother. Archer tells us that Lady Virginia is suing in "both defamation and slander" when he clearly means libel and slander (both of which are defamation). There were other similar errors, but I neglected to make notes about them as I was reading.

And there are the usual gratuitous and pointless references to contemporary news stories.

But, a very big but, this episode in the seemingly endless Clifton chronicle, really is rather well put together. It is a very easy read. The reader's attention never flags. He might sometimes wish the author had made an effort to create three dimensional characters. He might, once or twice, raise his eyebrows at the more ludicrous story lines. But he forgets about those faults, though faults they definitely are, because he is desperate to see what happens next.

I do wonder, though, how long these chronicles can continue without Archer's readers getting very cross. Every episode ends with a cliff hanger (this one certainly does). I suspect there will be quite a few readers who begin to express exasperation at Archer's refusal to end the story and tie up all the loose ends. Nevertheless, I will buy number five and review it here. I just hope it is the last in the series.

Charles
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 16, 2014 11:24 PM GMT


The Madness of July
The Madness of July
Price: 4.19

14 of 18 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars He needs an editor to rein him in, 11 Mar 2014
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James Naughtie is best known as the stuttering, stammering Scottish presenter of the Today Programme on Radio 4 who is convinced that his listeners are much more interested in his views than they are in those of the people he interviews. He is well qualified to write a novel about politics and politicians. Not only has he been a political journalist for decades, but he is also very close to the leadership of the Labour Party.

This thriller is set in the 1970s (though it takes the reader quite a while to work that out). The hero is a Minister of State in the Foreign Office who used, before going into politics, to be in the secret service. Sensibly, Naughtie never reveals which party Will Flemyng (the hero) represents. He, and other characters, are politicians, but the book is not about politics.

What is it about? That is rather difficult to answer without spoiling the story. That is because Naughtie is determined that we should have practically no idea at all what is going on until right at the end of the novel. I have to say I found that maddening. We know that the characters have important knowledge, but they are never allowed to reveal it. Flemying is apparently desperately worried about something (could be a family problem, could be a political problem, could be something to do with national security) but Naughtie is not prepared to elucidate, and the events which he does deign to reveal certainly don't seem to be the sort to lead Flemyng to be as upset as he is. Indeed, even when all is revealed, one can't really understand why Flemyng got in such a state about it all.

There is a great deal of padding in this novel. Some of it is not too bad. But the bright lower sixth form English essays about Scottish scenery become a little wearing after a while, if only because the reader would really like something about the plot to be revealed.

That is the real problem with the novel. It is meant to be a thriller, but it is not thrilling at all. Indeed, it was not until I had ploughed through about three quarters of the book that I even really wanted to know what was going on. Naughtie had made everything so obscure that I completely lost interest.

But, to be fair, once my Kindle told me I was 80% into the book, my interest was revived and I found I did want to know what it was all about. Many readers, however, will not have my robust constitution and will probably give up before the reasonably satisfactory conclusion.

My guess is that Naughtie could do much better than this, but he needs to be told by a good editor not to indulge in such a lot of padding. Whether his publisher will dare to be tougher on a "celebrity" next time must be open to doubt.

Charles
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 30, 2014 12:10 AM GMT


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