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Reviews Written by
James Brydon "Eyejaybee" (London, England)

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Fragrant Harbour
Fragrant Harbour
Price: £4.79

5.0 out of 5 stars Historical fiction at its finest, 20 Dec 2014
This review is from: Fragrant Harbour (Kindle Edition)
John Lanchester has, I believe, written four novels to date, all markedly different from each other in tone, and three of them ('The Debt to Pleasure', 'Capital' and this one) would all rank among my all time favourites.

'Fragrant Harbour' is a superb novel spanning seventy years in the history of Hong Kong, told through the differing perspectives of four principal characters who each recount their own story.

Tom Stewart's narrative forms the backbone of the novel and tells the story of a young man, born in Kent in 1913, who decides to try his luck in Hong Kong. While on the voyage he meets two Eurasian nuns (Sisters Benedicta and Maria) and various British men en route to pursue careers in the Far East. Following an argument between one of the other passengers and Sister Maria, a wager is held to test whether Tom can be taught the rudiments of Cantonese within the time span of the voyage. This is to prove immensely useful for him when he lands in Hong Kong and gradually determines to spend the rest of his life there. His idyll is interrupted by the onset of the Second World War and the Japanese invasion. Tom survives, and returns to Hong Kong where he becomes a prosperous hotelier.

Meanwhile Sister Maria has been working for the various Catholic missions spread throughout the colony and also in mainland China. Her path continues to cross with that of Tom.

The third character to provide a narrative is Dawn Stone, an ambitious British journalist who comes out to Hong Kong shortly before it returned to Chinese rule. She begins by investigating the origins of the wealth of the richest members of Hong Kong society, working on the premise that with such billionaires the interesting question is where the first millions come from (- the latter wealth is easy to generate in relatively open and legal ways, but how did they get their start-up capital?).

The fourth narrative is that of Matthew Ho, a thrusting young entrepreneur who makes a cameo appearance early on when he sits next top Dawn Stone on her first flight to the colony.

I recognise that this description might make it all sound rather cumbersome, not to say predictable. Lanchester, however, is a master storyteller and he succeeds in uniting all the various threads of the story with seamless ease, and evokes the reader's sympathy for all of his principal characters. He also manages to impart a huge amount about the history of Hong Kong, though this never impairs the flow of the novel.

Foundation (History of England Book 1)
Foundation (History of England Book 1)
Price: £4.49

4.0 out of 5 stars Once again Ackroyd shows his class as a historian, 18 Dec 2014
Peter Ackroyd must e in the running for consideration as our greatest living man of letters. While his prose style is very different from that of John Buchan, he has that same adroitness and mastery of different fields, moving effortlessly from novels to literary criticism to biography to history, with a fair sprinkling of journalism thrown in. Where does he find the time?

With this book he has embarked upon a detailed history of England, and this volume takes us from the earliest formation of prehistoric tribes through the Roman, Saxon, Danish and then Norman invasions to the death of Henry VII, first monarch of the Tudor dynasty and the last king to leave a budget surplus. Ackroyd doesn't give us anything startlingly new, but his account is beautifully written, and holds the reader's attention throughout. He intersperses some general observations about particular aspects of life (developments in health care, a brief history of children's toys, an analysis of eating and drinking habits) between his meatier chapters on the passage of great events. Ackroyd is particularly impressive in his recounting of the Wars of the Roses, which he summarises with great clarity.

I would be interested to know how much primary research he undertook himself, or whether he has woven his book from a variety of other historians' works. The matter is purely academic, however, because the finished product is so well written, clear and comprehensive. I wish that history books had been as appealing as this when I was back at school.

The Critic (The Enzo Files Book 2)
The Critic (The Enzo Files Book 2)
Price: £2.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Another enjoyable outing for Enzo Macleod, 15 Dec 2014
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Enzo Macleod is an unusual character. Coming from a mixed Scottish-Italian background he had formerly served as a highly qualified and respected forensic scientist in Glasgow before decamping to France where he now lectures in biology at the university of Toulouse. His personal life is complicated and he has two daughters (both predictably beautiful, feisty and drawn to men whom Enzo distrusts) by different mothers.

In the previous (first) novel in this series ('Extraordinary People') Enzo had solved a famous cold case, one of seven detailed in a book by journalist Roger Raffin. Following on from that success Enzo now turns his attention to the murder of world-renowned wine critic Gil Petty who had been found dead in the grounds of a vineyard in the Gaillac region. Peter May clearly does a lot of research for his books, and in this one he manages to convey a huge amount of information about the history and techniques of commercial wine production, though he handles his material deftly, and never lets the stream of facts detract from the flow of the narrative.

I felt that this was, perhaps, a little weaker than the previous novel, but it still held my attention closely and very enjoyable.

And Now the Shipping Forecast: A Tide Of History Around Our Shores
And Now the Shipping Forecast: A Tide Of History Around Our Shores
Price: £8.03

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars What a disappointment!, 12 Dec 2014
I have been listening to the BBC Shipping Forecast off and on for more than forty years, frequently lulled to sleep in the early hours of the morning by its mantra-like incantation. What could be better, then, than a history of the Shipping Forecast, written by one of the radio announcers who regularly read it out, night after night, across a couple of decades? Well, lots of things, actually, including virtually all of the one hundred and forty other books that I have read this year for a start.

Much of the content is exactly what I was looking for - a potted history of how the Shipping Forecast came into being, and a chronicle of how the various shipping areas that it includes have changed over the year. The problem, however, rests in Peter Jefferson's prose style. At best this book struggled to soar to the heights of the vapid, but for much of the time it slumped into the depths of irritation. Jefferson will insist upon trying to be funny, but never once comes within a mile of pulling it off, leaving the reader feeling that same complicit embarrassment that we have probably all felt when someone we love or admire makes a complete tool of themselves in public: watching one's father dancing at a friend's wedding to a current hit song, perhaps, or being caught watching anything with Bruce Forsyth.

I was left feeling relieved that Jefferson merely had to read out the announcements on Radio 4, and wasn't trusted to write them. The process of dumbing down of that national institution would, otherwise, no doubt be even further along its hideous path.

Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures and Innovations
Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures and Innovations
Price: £6.99

4.0 out of 5 stars An enchanting anthology of pices offering am appealing insight into the study of the classics, 11 Dec 2014
A few months ago I chanced to remark to a fellow official in the Department for Education as we queued at the coffee stall in Sanctuary Buildings that I now felt that Latin was the most useful subject that I had learned in school. I hadn't realised that the former Secretary of State, Michael Gove, was standing right behind me, so I was unprepared for the sudden fusillade of questions that he levelled at me, wanting to know where and when I had learned it, and why I had found it so helpful. To the great amusement of my colleague he led me off to one of the nearby tables and grilled me with his customary zest.

Having subsequently studied English and maths in two discrete dalliances in higher education, I was able to explain how my understanding of grammar owed far more upon the relentless (and largely unacknowledged) exertions of Mr Stone, my Latin master for three years at Loughborough Grammar School, than to any of my English teachers or lecturers. Similarly, my (perhaps ill-judged) foray into postgraduate study of philology could not have extended much beyond the starting grid without the headstart in etymology that familiarity with Latin facilitates. Similarly, the habits of deconstruction and rational processing that are such a prerequisite (I'm sorry but I couldn't recall the Latin for 'sine qua non' …) instilled a certain mindset that proved invaluable when studying the arcana of mathematics.

All this, of course, proved to be terrific grist to Mr Gove's mill, though the impact proved short-lived, and did not stop him rejecting some of my draft letters in the most peremptory manner later that same day.

Still, that is all merely preamble to give some vague context to why my eye was caught in Waterstone's recently by the sight of this intriguing volume by Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge. This book is really more of an anthology of various reviews and articles that Professor Beard had published in various periodicals over the last few years (and the civil servant in me was especially impressed by the shameless recycling of previous work for a new market - we do that all the time!), but they demonstrate a great cohesion, fizzing with enthusiasm for her subject and conveyed with an enviable lucidity of thought.

She addresses a wealth of aspects of classical study, and renders the subject immediately accessible without ever patronising her 'civilian' readers. She briefly reapitualtes Greek and Roman colonial expansion, the history of philosophy and, to a considerable extent, the philosophy of history. She manages to debunk Cicero - largely viewed today as a great orator and statesman, though Professor beard suggests that that impression is mainly a consequence of his successful career as a dedicated self-publicist. She also suggests that Shakespeare's representation of the assassination of Caesar might have been closer to the truth than was known at the time. Consideration of contemporary accounts shows that the murder on the Ides of march was almost farcical in its incompetence, similar to the near debacle of the assassination of Archdule Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo 1958 years later.

All too often we seem to feel that an non-fiction work can be either academically rigorous or entertaining and accessible. In this book Professor Beard deftly demonstrates that those characteristics need not be mutually exclusive.

Price: £7.49

3 of 6 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Amnesia? I am certainly trying to forget this book., 7 Dec 2014
This review is from: Amnesia (Kindle Edition)
It had been a long time since I last read a book by Peter Carey and it will be even longer before I read another. It seems difficult to believe that the author of such marvellous novels as 'Oscar and Lucinda' or 'The Illywhacker' could also have produced the trial by ordeal that this book represented. I think Heracles was let off lightly though reading this did sometimes feel like cleaning the Augean Stables with a broken pitchfork.

I readily acknowledge that, like all too many Britons, I am lamentably ignorant of Australian history, and the publisher's blurb for 'Amnesia' sounded very enticing. The reader is promised a tantalising combination of a contemporary plot based around an up-to-the-minute digital crime that sparks an international terrorism alert, with more than a nod towards the plights of Edward Snowden or Julian Assange, and a recapitulation of darker elements of twentieth century Australian history involving largely-suppressed stories of clashes with America.

As the novel opens, Felix Moore, a left-leaning political journalist is about to be found guilty of libel, resulting in the imposition of punitive damages and a requirement that all copies of his offending book should be destroyed. Returning home he finds that his publisher has already sent several cases of his book to his house, for him to arrange destruction. Not thinking clearly Moore decides to burn the guilty works but, owing to his terminal lack of practicability, he also manages to burn down much of his house. His wife does not take this well and departs back to her family, leaving him to fend for himself. Apparent salvation comes from one of his lifelong friends, Woody Townes, an immensely rich property developer, who commissions Moore to write a biography of Gaby Ballieux. She has just been identified as responsible for the release of a computer worm which resulted in electronically controlled prisons across Australia releasing their inmates. The impact spread far beyond Australia, however, as many of the prisons affected were run by an American firm, and the worm compromised its systems back home, resulting in the release of many American criminals too. Ballieux is immediately branded an international terrorist and the USA demands her extradition to face trial on potentially capital charges. Townes believes that the prompt publication of an engaging biography of Ballieux might help to crystallise a sufficiently vocal campaign to prevent her extradition.

This scenarios certainly sounds promising, and in the hands of the Carey of the 1980s would have led to a compelling and engaging book that one might have struggled to put down. Sadly, though, the gripping prose and fluid plotting of 'Oscar and Lucinda' seems to have evaporated. Carey's unyielding current style seems to have pounded any semblance of enjoyment out of the book leaving an unfocused, inchoate shambles I would welcome a dose of amnesia to excise the memory of this book from my mind.

Extraordinary People (The Enzo Files Book 1)
Extraordinary People (The Enzo Files Book 1)
Price: £2.93

4.0 out of 5 stars A rattling good thriller., 28 Nov 2014
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This is the first volume in Peter May's series of novels featuring half-Italian, half-Scottish, Enzo Macleod. Enzo is a difficult character, generally considered as hot-headed, petulant and truculent by most people who encounter him. He also has a complicated family, having two daughters from different relationships. The younger of the, Sophie, dotes on him while the elder, estranged Kirsty purports to loathe him and refuses to see him.

Having trained as a forensic scientist and worked with the Metropolitan Police, Enzo now lives in the French town of Cahors and lectures in biology at the University of Toulouse. He has not entirely relinquished his former life and makes a bet with the local governor that he can solve seven 'cold cases' involving murders around France solely by using his forensic investigative skills.

The first murder that he starts to investigate is that of Jacques Gaillard, former adviser to the government and renowned film critic and bon viveur (sorry, I don't know the French term for such people!), who had disappeared tend year previously. With the assistance of Roger Raffin, an insalubrious reporter for one of the French national newspapers, Enzo becomes enmeshed in a tril that leads him all over France.

At times the book seems reminiscent of a Dan Brown story, as Enzo and Raffin decipher arcane clues, with tantalising references to the Knights Templar. The plot never loses plausibility, though, and the story is never less than gripping, and I also enjoyed the descriptions of the investigator's journeys around France.

A Dark and Twisted Tide: Lacey Flint Series, Book 4
A Dark and Twisted Tide: Lacey Flint Series, Book 4
Price: £2.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Almost, but not quite, a really good thriller, 23 Nov 2014
For some reason, that I can't quite identify, I just didn't like this novel.

Constable Lacey Flint lives in a boat moored in a creek off the Thames, regularly swims in the river, and works on it as part of the Metropolitan Police Marine Unit. As the novel opens she is swimming early one morning, before her shift, and she finds a dead body. Closer inspection shows that it had been wrapped in a shroud and tied to a pier joist. It is only later that Lacey realises that it wasn't there when she first set out on her swim, the inference being that the murderer had wanted her to discover it and had, in fact, been following Lacey's own movements.

I think that one of the reasons that I never properly came to terms with the book was that there just seemed to be too much going on. Sub-plots proliferate, but rather than adding depth and verisimilitude to the main story I found that they just clogged up proceedings. To be fair, the book seemed well-written, and gripped my attention. I just felt slightly disappointed that such a heady mix of plot ingredients and feisty characters never quite gelled into a cohesive book.

Power Trip: A Decade of Policy, Plots and Spin
Power Trip: A Decade of Policy, Plots and Spin
Price: £1.99

4.0 out of 5 stars A surprising candid account, 23 Nov 2014
Damian McBride spent a decade at the heart of Gordon Brown's caucus, during the latter years of his time as Chancellor and then through most of his tenure as Prime Minister. The prevailing public image is of someone who was Machiavellian, brutal, thuggish at times and, above all, someone whom it was best not to cross. This memoir does nothing to dispel that perception, and he puts his hand up to be guilty as charged for many of those accusations.

The book gives a fascinating insight into how 'Team Brown' operated, and the close relationship between Gordon Brown and 'the two Eds' (Balls and Miliband). Brown towers over every aspect of the story, and while it is by no means a hagiography, McBride seems at far greater pains to protect Brown's image than his own. He is also remarkably sanguine about the dirty tricks email fiasco that led to his own disgrace and departure from the Brown caucus.

I was intrigued to read an insider's account of events that I had followed so closely at the time they unfolded, and was left feeling that Downing Street must be an awfully difficult place for all who operate there, senior politicians, civil servants and advisers alike.

I also enjoyed reading about McBride's relationship with Balshen Izzet, his girlfriend throughout much of the period covered in the book, as I had briefly encountered her in my own work at what was then the Department for Children Schools and Families. [Ed Balls, when Secretary of State at that Department, participated in an outdoors 'cook off' with TV chef Phil Vickery on an arctic day at Covent Garden in December 2009 to promote his cookery book aimed at primary school children, and Balshen and I were the departmental officials in attendance.] She would later act as 'getaway driver' helping McBride to escape the hordes of press representative gathered outside his flat when the story of his disgrace broke.

This book hasn't improved my opinion of McBride, but I was impressed by the honesty of his confessions, and gripped by the unfolding stories which read as well as a political thriller.

A Week in Paris
A Week in Paris
by Rachel Hore
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very entertaining, 22 Nov 2014
This review is from: A Week in Paris (Paperback)
A little while ago a friend of mine encouraged me to read Rachel Hore's previous book, 'The Silent Tide'. I was a bit reluctant, foolishly imagining that I might find it too romantic for my taste. I couldn't have been more wrong - I found it a charming and riveting read, and I was very glad to have had it flagged up to me, as I would certainly otherwise have overlooked it.

I was, therefore, keen to read this, her latest offering, and I wasn't disappointed. Ms Hore seems to have a great facility for managing parallel stories. This time the narrative revolves around Fay Knox who, in 1961, visits Paris as a violinist with an orchestra that is due to perform three concerts. Shortly before she is due to travel her mother, Kitty, is taken ill and is admitted to hospital. When she learns that Fay will be going to Paris Kitty asks her to look in a trunk in her home, and to contact someone called 'Meremarry'. Enthralled by being in Paris, Fay does as her mother asks, and gradually uncovers aspects of her own past that she had been unaware of, apart from the odd, discomforting instance of déjà vu.

Meanwhile, a separate narrative unfolds, relating Kitty's own experiences shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War when she had been studying music at the Conservatoire as a promising pianist. During this time she stayed in a nunnery where the Abbess was Mère Marie. Shortly after arriving she meets Eugene Knox, an American doctor working at the American hospital in Paris, and they are soon engaged and then married. Their delight is curtailed, however, by events beyond their control as Hitler's Germany annexes the Sudetenland and then invades Poland. On 3rd September 1939, as Britain declares war on Germany following the invasion of Poland, Kitty's daughter Fay is born.

The dual narratives work very well and the plot grips the attention throughout, complemented by interesting insights into the historical context of the story. I certainly enjoyed reading this.

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