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R. Nicholson-morton "Nik Morton" (Alicante, Spain)

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Red Sparrow (Dominika Egorova 1)
Red Sparrow (Dominika Egorova 1)
by Jason Matthews
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: £7.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Insider knowledge about the Russian system and psyche, 20 Jun. 2016
The Cold War isn’t dead and buried, it’s still with us, very much so, if Jason Matthews’ debut thriller Red Sparrow (2013) is to be believed. And since Matthews is a retired Operations Executive of the CIA, the tradecraft and information letter-drops suggest authenticity.
We first meet CIA agent Nate Nash in Moscow, clandestinely meeting with his asset, code-named MARBLE. The Russians are aware that a mole exists, but have no clue - so far. The meeting seems to go as normal, then mere chance thrusts them both into danger. The manhunt is on – and Nash is identified by the Russians as a foreign agent. The fact that he evaded the hunters is good news, but the bad news is that his asset, a major general in the SVR, the successor to the KGB’s First Chief Directorate, the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, is at risk if Nash arranges to handle him further.
At about the same time, Dominika is a new member of the SVR, her recruitment engineered by her uncle, Vanya Egorov. Her career leads her to the Sparrow school, where she learns the techniques of seduction, then suborning targets by blackmail. Dominika’s background is veined with tragedy, her parents’ and her aspirations smothered by the system. Strangely, she is able to view coloured auras around people’s heads, signifying their moods, but keeps this arcane knowledge to herself. It comes in handy when dealing with conspirators, and even her uncle. Considering the controversial lineage of the Kirlian imagery of the 1960s-1970s, this is not too far-fetched, perhaps! Certainly, Dominika is depicted as a strong, sympathetic and convincing character.
Nash is redirected to Helsinki. His new boss is Forsyth, a no-nonsense kind of guy, aided by Gable, a quick-talking, apparently glib yet cunning agent, very much in the mould of Tom Arnold’s character Albert Gibson in True Lies, providing light relief.
Before long, Dominika is tasked with going there to ferret out any clues to the mole suspected to exist in the SVR. A fascinating cat-and-mouse affair begins between the attractive pair, each planning to recruit the other.
Disaster strikes and almost at the point where Nate and Dominika become lovers, they are brutally parted.
Dwelling in the shadows is Sergey Matorin, a ‘mechanic’, an executioner of the Russian secret service. This is a dark, unpleasant creation, his deadly cruelty given release in Afghanistan.
Matthews has imbued the story with authentic settings and knowledge about the Russian system and psyche. There are tense, suspenseful moments, and a few brutal interludes, and throughout there’s the constant stench of betrayal hovering. Even though it has 546 pages, it’s a fast read, because you become involved with the characters and want to know how their stories are resolved. If you like espionage books, then Red Sparrow should greatly satisfy, though I cannot fathom why he has inserted recipes at the end of each chapter, admittedly relevant to the food eaten in that chapter; I got to the point where I stopped reading them as they affected the narrative flow!

Truth Lies Buried
Truth Lies Buried
by Lesley Welsh
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Dirty hands, clean soul, 10 Jun. 2016
This review is from: Truth Lies Buried (Paperback)
First off, I like the clever title, juxtaposing Truth and Lies. The addition of Buried is made very clear at the outset when a local gangster is interred in a shallow grave, thanks to Sam Riley, ex-Army, who’s doing it for a very potent reason. We’re not privy to the fact that Sam is a woman until page 25, but I don’t think this can be a spoiler: Samantha wants to spend the rest of her life with the deceased’s wife, Monica. Unfortunately, Monica also has a son, Brando – ‘Reservoir Pup’, Sam calls him: ‘just eleven years old and already a greedy, heartless little tosser.’

There are some great lines dropped in the narrative, too many to list here, such as: ‘Carver’s voice always threw me, that high-pitched squeak emanating from his bulky body. Years before, a bullet in the throat had left him talking like a mouse on helium.’ Some more: ‘The Gangster, His Wife and The Lesbian.’ (p36); ‘…your knight in shining Armani,’ (p47); and ‘They say Orientals are inscrutable but they’ve got nothing on lawyers.’ (p80) Acute observation is evident, and couched in fine prose, for example: ‘Rubbish flew about like tattered birds…’ (p225)

Throughout, Welsh captures Sam’s voice to perfection, her emotions and strength of character, notably when she undergoes a transformation as she gets to know Brando, a great wise yet vulnerable character, eleven going on thirty. A number of chapters are third-person, and these enable the reader to get into the minds and under the skin of other characters, particularly the despicable Monica. Lenka is a fine surprise, too! As Sam says, ‘She really was something else.’ (p315)

To relate the storyline in any detail would be to spoil the discoveries along the way. For there’s a dark incident in Sam’s past that has poignant bearing on her present situation. Twists and turns in the plot kept me flipping the pages, whether that’s the good suspense, the cat-and-mouse with the DI, the confrontations with the other gangland members out to carve up Monica’s inheritance. There are many instances where the tension is raised in fraught moments. Deaths lead to more deaths, and it all starts spinning out of control among the godless… The local gangsters have to contend with Chinese triads and Russian mafia, as well. I found the action scenes to be well-choreographed, tense and believable.

Irony, pathos, it’s all here, and Welsh is superb on relationships – the good and the bad. ‘Maybe we are all haunted in one way or another. But some of us have more persistent ghosts.’ (p248)

I’d offer one caveat: if you’re averse to raw language, then don’t read gangster novels. Truth Lies Buried contains quite a lot of swearing; this is about raw gangster environment, after all, but it never came across as gratuitous, but character- and situation-driven. And of all the gangsters we meet, perhaps Monica the Moll is decidedly the worst!

As hinted at already, despite the grimness of gangland violence and threat, there’s plenty of humour, black and light. ‘He was straight from the Ugly Agency. Looking for an interesting character for a new film are you, Mr Spielberg? Want to frighten the living daylights out of the kiddies, do you? Then I know just the man for the part.’ (p314)

There are dark moments, since this is the underbelly of what passes for the human condition: ‘… an uneasy feeling settled on her shoulders like a dark shroud and she couldn’t shake it off.’ (p337) We sense that as we read on, wanting Sam to overcome the many obstacles in her path.

Welsh has created an intriguing and likeable heroine in Sam. ‘…Some people have clean hands but dirty soul. You have dirty hands but clean soul, I think.’ – (p382) It would be a shame if we were not to meet her again.

A brilliant novel that deserves to do well, giving the likes of Martina Cole a run for her ill-gotten gains.

In Honour Bound
In Honour Bound
by Gerald Seymour
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Seymour never disappoints,, 29 May 2016
This review is from: In Honour Bound (Paperback)
SAS Captain Barney Crispin is meant to train Afghans to deploy Redeye rockets against a Soviet killer Mi-24 helicopter, with the intention of bringing back to the UK secret parts of the crippled craft. Sadly, their mission goes catastrophically wrong and the guerrillas are killed. Driven by guilt and bloody-mindedness, Barney determines to disobey orders and infiltrate Afghanistan and do the job himself – with the aid of Gul Bahdur, a teenage Afghan boy as guide, and a couple of donkeys. This foray into danger is well told, so we can feel the privations suffered by Barney – and the Afghans he meets.

In parallel with his mission is the dilemma of the Soviet commander in charge of the Mi-24s, Major Pyotr Medev, who is tasked with clearing out the Afghan villages without losing any craft. So far, he’s managed this (and thousands of refugees in Iran and Pakistan attest to it): until one of his aircraft is shot out of the sky…

Another protagonist is Italian nurse Mia Fiori who spends her leave helping the guerrillas in the Panjshir Valley. Unfortunately, this time around she is baulked before she can get there…

Lastly, there’s disenchanted ex-sergeant Schumack, a soldier of fortune who is intent on fighting for the Afghan cause until he dies.

Their paths will cross and they will be in great danger. Pressure pushes Barney to use his Redeye missiles to down a helicopter and retrieve the vital parts before the snows block off half the country. He only has eight missiles. He is begrudgingly accepted by the Afghan fighters, though he has to walk a knife-edge between total rejection and death at their hands. It’s a battle of wills and wits, leading to a tense showdown.

Research and detail piled on detail lend believability. We feel we were there, in the Soviet airbase at Begram, the dangerous streets of Kabul, the treacherous mountains and passes of Afghanistan.

Seymour never disappoints, though I sometimes feel he unfairly condemns his heroes and heroines in the final stages. I won’t say what happens to the hero of this one; it’s worth reading to find out!

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. [DVD]
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. [DVD]
Dvd ~ Henry Cavill
Price: £5.00

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Cavill did well, 9 May 2016
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Disappointing. Cavill did well, but the storytelling was patchy, contrived and the origins of our heroes took up too much story-time. As a set-up for a sequel, it might work. Slick, exotic. Retains the humour of the original.

Handa's Hen
Handa's Hen
by Eileen Browne
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Ten out of ten..., 9 May 2016
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Handa's Hen (Paperback)
Our grand-daughter loves this! Colourful and instructive.

Flash Chronicles, Volume 1
Flash Chronicles, Volume 1
by Various
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent artwork, 9 May 2016
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Quality product and good value. Excellent artwork, of course!

I KILL (André Warner, Manhunter Book 2)
I KILL (André Warner, Manhunter Book 2)
Price: £3.99

5.0 out of 5 stars The details so convincing that it must be ‘real’, 4 May 2016
André Warner, manhunter is back, and with a vengeance. That’s what he deals in, sometimes – vengeance. Most of the time, he’s an assassin for hire, as we learned in End as an Assassin. Lex Lander’s sequel to that fast-paced traumatic thriller is a page-turner, and again no holds are barred.

It begins with a death – one planned, one unplanned. An echo of the start of End as an Assassin, almost; but with a difference. This time he really has retired from his deadly profession. Or so he thought. As his employer/contact says, ‘Some professions are not for quitting.’

So, his latest hit was in Tangier, with an alias. While sorting out his hardware issues for the hit, he encounters Clair Power, who is staying at the hotel with her teenage daughter, Lizzy. Before long, he’s helping them to ward off the unwanted attentions of Dutchman Rik de Bruin.

Yet again we’re immersed in the faux reality of Warner’s world, the details so convincing that it must be ‘real’.

There’s abduction, gunplay, brutal violence and sex in roughly equal measure. And poignancy, and death too.

Another highly enjoyable breathless tale told in Warner’s own words.

End As An Assassin (André Warner, Manhunter Book 1)
End As An Assassin (André Warner, Manhunter Book 1)
Price: £3.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Lander has the knack of creating believable characters, 1 May 2016
I enjoyed Lex Lander’s first outing, Another Day, Another Jackal, so thought I’d try his latest, with a new anti-hero, the intriguing André Warner, Manhunter, assassin for hire. As before, Lander has the knack of creating believable characters, immersing them in real places where he seems very knowledgeable. His knowledge also stretches to cars and guns.

Warner wants to retire and this is to be his last job. He has been given a new target to kill. One rain-sodden night, crime boss Fabrice Tillou is surprised when Warner confronts him; it will be a clean kill. Unfortunately, it isn’t – because Tillou’s mistress interrupts…

From that moment on, Warner’s future is highly uncertain.

Warner is not modest, by any means. He knows he’s good at what he does; he also believes that he’s popular with women: a lady-killer, though not in the literal sense, of course: he’s definitely not politically correct! However, his reason for being cold and calculating where the fair sex is concerned can be traced to the loss of his wife, Marion. He’s surprised to find that his heart can be still be stirred; and perhaps his brief encounter with Georgina will prove it. Could this new love be the one? To end his career as an assassin? Life’s not that easy, or that kind, it seems.

Warner is a rounded creation, and gradually evokes your sympathy as he becomes entangled in events that threaten to crush him.

There’s sex, violence and death aplenty. So be warned. And there's promise of more with I KILL, which I've also bought!

Beyond the Oxus: The Central Asians
Beyond the Oxus: The Central Asians
by Monica Whitlock
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating history of a relatively unknown region, 30 April 2016
Besides personal accounts, Whitlock gives us fascinating history of a relatively unknown region.

Here, in 973, was born one of the greatest Muslim scholars, Abu Rayhan Muhammad ibn Ahmad, called Biruni, thankfully. ‘His study of the rotation of the earth was revolutionary. He calculated longitude and latitude, observed solar and lunar eclipses in detail, and was an early cartographer, mathematician, physicist, geographer and anthropologist. He spoke Aramaic, Greek and Sanskrit as well as Arabic and Persian.’ (p14)

Another important figure was ‘Abu Abdullah Muhammad ibn Musa, who disseminated through his treatise written in Baghdad in about 825, the Indian counting system that included decimal places and the concept of zero. This system reached Muslim Spain about a hundred and fifty years later, his treatise being translated into Latin in 1120 by an Englishman, Robert of Chester, who visited Spain to study mathematics…’ It took some seven hundred years after that treatise before the concept was widely used in Europe. He brought us the word ‘algebra’, not to mention Arabic ‘sefr’ which gave us ‘cipher’ and ‘zero’. (p15)

There are several tragic stories about lives ruined. One individual is Damulla Sharif, who fled to Afghanistan in 1927, along with almost half the population of his town. Some seven years later he chanced returning and crossed the border, but he was caught. ‘Before he was taken away, he made a hurried bonfire of his hundred-book library, rather than give them the pleasure. He spent the next twenty years in and out of prison, accused at one point of writing “anti-Soviet poetry”. By the time he was finally released in 1955 he could neither see nor walk properly, and was tormented by the memory of his burnt books. He resumed his studies none the less…’ He worked as a night watchman and in his free time taught and wrote poetry. (p97)

When Ella Ivanova was two, ‘Stalin ordered the evacuation of her village… about 450 miles south-east of Moscow, a solidly German corner of Russia ever since the first pioneers arrived at the invitation of Catherine the Great…’ Ella heard from her mother and sister what happened. They had 24 hours to get out, leaving their cow, and everything but the clothes they wore. They killed a pig, cut it up and took it with them. They were taken by train to Siberia, and her father was put in a concentration camp while her mother brought up four children in a one-room hut. Her mother was almost killed in a fight over a radish. When their teacher left, the replacement never arrived, she was eaten by wolves on the road. ‘Wolves hardly ever attack humans, and it tells you how hungry even they were.’

After Stalin’s death the family was reunited and headed for Tajikistan to find work. ‘We found a paradise on earth here!’ (pp99/100)

Stalin forcibly moved hundreds of thousands of families, many to Soviet Central Asia, presumably for fear that they would collaborate with the Nazis or the Japanese. Indeed, ‘compulsory migration had begun in the 1920s, as a means of moving labour to where it was needed.’ In order to increase the production of cotton, whole villages of Tajiks were moved to the plains, a forced migration that lasted from 1952 until the 1970s. Remarkably, one man hid his small library under the hay in the cattle shed and even when forcibly migrated, he took his books with him. Many had to construct their living quarters, families perished and starvation was normal; the workers didn’t get paid for six years. ‘They were set to work in the plantations in one of the hottest inhabited places on earth, and forbidden to return to their mountain homes for fifteen years.’ (p109)

This is but a very brief overview/review of an interesting book that takes the history up to 2002. What shines through is the indomitable spirit of people to surmount the depredations of despots, to survive in spite of incredible hardship throughout a turbulent history.

Recommended reading.

Nosferatu: The Vampyre
Nosferatu: The Vampyre
by Paul Monette
Edition: Paperback

3.0 out of 5 stars "Darkness is all about us", 27 April 2016
This review is from: Nosferatu: The Vampyre (Paperback)
The novelisation of the 1979 movie Nosferatu the Vampyre directed by Werner Herzog was written by Paul Monette, based on Herzog’s screenplay, which paid homage to the original movie, Nosferatu (1922) directed by F.W. Murnau and starring Max Schreck as the evil count.

In the 1922 film it’s 1838 and Jonathan Harker became Thomas Hutter, living in the German town of Wisborg. Hutter is sent to Transylvania by his employer, Knock, where he meets a new client, Count Orlok. Hutter left his wife Ellen in the care of his friend Harding’s sister Annie.

By 1979, Dracula (1897) was no longer in copyright. The novelisation opens in the town of Wismar in 1850 and Jonathan Harker has recently married the love of his life, Lucy. Harker’s employer Renfield asked him to visit a client in Transylvania, so he reluctantly leaves. Lucy has the company of her brother and his wife Mina. A family friend was Doctor van Helsing.

Monette is a poet as well as a writer. Several phrases suggest his poetic roots, which is especially necessary since the screenplay does not have a great deal of dialogue, it seems, but relies on imagery, mood and atmosphere. For example I liked his sentence: ‘The night was in his heart’. Another phrase: ‘He grasped at fear like a falling man at the empty air.’

Harker arrives at the client’s castle. ‘From the darkness beyond, a figure began to approach, so rigid it seemed to have come through a region of ice to reach him. He was wrapped in a tight-fitting black cape as final as a shroud. His shoulders were hunched and his hands were cramped together at his chest, one on top of the other, as if he didn’t dare to let them swing free at his sides. Jonathan… stared at the terrible hands. Long and bloodless, limp and slightly quivering by turns, they tapered into nails as horned and yellow as claws…’ The description goes on, detailing the visage of Count Dracula.

At one point, when Harker has escaped the castle, and while Dracula is on his way to despoil Wismar and Lucy, Harker recovers from injuries and faces a local convent’s Mother Superior: ‘We pray against the darkness, Mr Harker. The darkness is all about us, of course, but we try not to inquire too deeply into it. We find that we do more good when we turn our faces to the light…’

Unlike Dracula, in Nosferatu Dr van Helsing is no expert in vampirism, and indeed scoffs at the idea; to the detriment of the town of Wismar. The passages concerning the rat-infested ship’s arrival at Wismar, the madness and plague that ensued are hauntingly portrayed. Only Lucy, it seems, is capable of ending it by destroying the count. Much of the denouement is retained from the original film, though the ending is less conclusive, but no less poignant.

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