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Brian R. Martin (London, UK)
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Prague Fatale: A Bernie Gunther Novel (Bernie Gunther Mystery Book 8)
Prague Fatale: A Bernie Gunther Novel (Bernie Gunther Mystery Book 8)
Price: £4.99

5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent atmospheric thriller., 29 Aug. 2015
The German detective Bernie Gunther has recently returned from the Russian front, where he was obliged to take part in the horrendous massacres of civilian. This has left him morally damaged and hating the Nazis even more than before he went, so he is relieved to be assigned to the regular Berlin police force investigating ‘normal crimes’. His first case involves the death of a Dutch railway worker, but during it he find himself involved with an attractive young woman, Arianne Tauber, after he rescues her from an attempted rape. They become lovers, even though it transpires that she might have been delivering a package to a Czech agent. But before Bernie has a chance to delve further there is a sharp change in the plot when he is summoned to Prague by none other than the loathsome Reinhard Heydrich, who he has met previously, and is now the new Reichprotector of Bohemia and Moravia. Bernie takes Arianne with him.

The ‘invitation’ is to spend a weekend at a palatial country house outside Prague. The other guests are high-ranking Nazi officers, including several generals. Bernie has apparently been invited because Heydrich believes there is a plot to poison him, but soon after Bernie gets started, one of Heydrich’s adjutants is found murdered in his bedroom, locked from the inside. So once again, there is a dramatic shift in the plot, because now Heydrich appoints Bernie to take charge of the investigation and he is given carte blanche to question whoever he likes, regardless of rank. Bernie revels in the opportunity and uses it to insult practically everyone he questions, something that Heydrich seems to enjoy as much as Bernie. While investigating the murder, he learns from an assisting police officer, later confirmed by Heydrich, that one or more of the senior Nazis present are possible traitors. Bernie had been invited to provoke some indiscretion by one or more of them that would confirm the suspicions. So the plot has now evolved into a combination of a classic ‘locked room mystery’ and a spy thriller.

Bernie deduces the killer of the adjutant using classic police methods, but the identity of the murderer is not too difficult to guess; the spy is also unmasked by Heydrich, although how much this is due to Bernie is unclear. In the closing section, Arianne, who has not left Prague as instructed by Bernie, reappears, but to her cost. Heydrich abandons the rather mild permissive persona adopted at the castle and reverts to what we know he really was, a sadistic monster who would not stop at anything, including torture and murder, to get the information he wanted. Finally, as we know, Heydrich is assassinated by Czech partisans, but the book ends with twist about the death that although believable, I assume is conjecture. At the close, Bernie returns to the Berlin police and is left to wonder what might have been had circumstances been a little different. The books end with a short interesting historical summary of what happened to the major historical characters that appear in the book; most met a justified grisly end.

This is an interesting thriller, told in the words of Bernie, where real historical characters are mixed with Kerr’s fictitious ones. The mixture works well and is greatly helped by the quality of the writing. Nowhere did I feel that the language was ‘wrong’. There have been a few minor criticisms. Would Bernie really have trusted Arianne so soon after meeting her, given the atmosphere at the time; and would Heydrich really have allow a junior policeman, with openly anti-Nazi views, to be so offensive to senior Nazi officers, and even to himself. Even if the latter is a deviation from historical fact, in the context of what Heydrich was using Bernie for, it works perfectly well.


Adventures in Human Being (Wellcome)
Adventures in Human Being (Wellcome)
by Gavin Francis
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £10.49

5.0 out of 5 stars The wonder of 'a human being'., 23 Aug. 2015
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Books by doctors and surgeons are becoming more commonplace as the profession acknowledges the need for communication with laymen, and publishers recognise a growing market. Typically, these books attempt to explain something of the science and art of medicine in the context of its practice, by interweaving facts with personal experiences. Gavin Francis’ book treads the same path, but in a way that I have not encountered before. His scope is very wide, the whole body in fact, with chapters arranged to discuss its anatomy from head to toe. Within each there are, as usual, scientific facts and personal anecdotes, the latter written with dignity and in a sympathetic and humane style where they concern patients. But, in addition, there is a rich leavening of information from history, literature, art, anthropology, philosophy and other fields, displaying an impressive depth of research. These are not presented in a ‘look how clever I am’ way, but modestly, so that we appreciate the author’s attempt to relate his medical experiences to a wider context. Not all this material is strictly relevant to the chapter or section it is in, but no matter, overall these ‘asides’ work well, not least because of the clarity and quality of the writing. One criticism is about the illustrations. They are usually historical and beautifully drawn, but being small are often not easy to understand, particularly as they are not referred to directly in the text. Apart from this minor criticism, this is an excellent narrative by a thoughtful and literate doctor who shares with the reader his wide range of experiences. At the end, one remains in awe about the mysterious thing called ‘a human being’.


Post Office
Post Office
by Charles Bukowski
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.74

5.0 out of 5 stars Repulsive, but compelling., 20 Aug. 2015
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This review is from: Post Office (Paperback)
‘Post Office’ is Bukowski’s first novel and sets the style for his later books. It is a semi-autobiographical story of Henry Chinaski, a low-life loser living a day-to-day existence revolving around heavy drinking, gambling at the racetrack and as much sex as he can get. His modest income is derived from uncertain work at the post office, sorting and delivering mail. The job is unrelentingly harsh and boring, but he refuses to buckle under, even when a vindictive supervisor refuses to allocate him work some days and so he is without pay. As a role model Chinaski leaves much to be desired, and is a far from attractive person, with many aspects of his character definitely repulsive. His is a ‘like-me-or-loath-me attitude’; it’s all the same to him. (Perhaps it is a foretaste of Bukowski’s own later life; when he became famous and rich he married several times and also drank heavily.) The writing is direct, sometimes raw, and often coarse, but with humour, not unlike that of Henry Miller, but is just right for the situations described. This, together with a horrified fascination, makes it difficult to give up on him. This is not a gentle read and is often unpleasant, but is well worth reading as an introduction to a unique American writer.


The Naked Surgeon
The Naked Surgeon
by Samer Nashef
Edition: Paperback
Price: £13.48

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Towards transparency in surgery, 20 Aug. 2015
This review is from: The Naked Surgeon (Paperback)
In recent years there has been a steady trickle of books by medical professionals aimed at making the activities of physicians and surgeons, and the dilemmas they face daily, more accessible to the general public, the users of their services. Recent examples are the books by Atul Gawande on, among other things, ‘end of life issues’, and the memoirs of the distinguished brain surgeon Henry Marsh. They are characterised by a refreshing honesty and transparency and are to be welcomed, because traditionally medical practitioners have been like ‘high priests’ whose pronouncements are sacred and not to be queried. This book by cardiac surgeon Samer Nashef is another excellent addition to the genre.

Its central theme is his long study of risk in cardiac operations, which culminated in his own model of risk, called EuroSCORE, now used worldwide. This enables surgeons to realistically compute the risks of a particular procedure weighted by a range of patient-related factors. It makes the comparison of outcomes much more objective and, among other things, will reveal problems, such as underperforming surgeons, more rapidly. It may also allow not just surgeons, but also patients, to make more informed decisions of whether to proceed with a procedure. However, statistics are not so simple as often portrayed, and the author carefully discusses the dangers of a naïve interpretation of, for example, the outcomes for a particular surgeon. He does this with an explanation of the basic statistical idea of confidence intervals in clear simple terms, without losing the essential points.

This topic could have been ‘dry-as-dust’ stuff, but Samer Nashef manages to avoid too much jargon and cleverly interweave his ‘message’ with personal anecdotes, often amusing (such as the long-running ‘battle’ between surgeons and anaesthetists). The result is a fine, well-written book that deserves a wide readership, including, one hopes, journalists looking for a striking headline. Samer Nashef’s work in this area was pioneering, but (very) gradually other branches of surgery are beginning to see the advantages of this approach. We should all hope that it helps to drive up standards and leads to less harm being done to patients. If so, then never again would there be scandals like that in paediatric heart surgery at the Bristol Hospital (which is detailed in a moving Appendix by the leading whistleblower in that tragic saga).


Forefront Cases Leather Case Cover/Stand with Magnetic Auto Sleep Wake Function for Apple iPad Mini - Black
Forefront Cases Leather Case Cover/Stand with Magnetic Auto Sleep Wake Function for Apple iPad Mini - Black
Offered by Forefront Cases
Price: £39.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent 'intelligent' cover, 20 July 2015
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An excellent 'intelligent' cover - puts the iPad into sleep mode when closed - that protects both the front and the back of the iPad Mini. Very easy to fit - just snaps on. Fits snuggly, and accurately cut so that all ports etc are exposed precisely. Has the look and feel of real leather, although of course it is not. Long hinges for front cover that look as if they will last a long time. Front cover has two folds that allows it to be configured as a useful stand. Earlier complaints that this function does not work seem to have been addressed - at least mine works fine. At the RRP of £39.99 it would have been far too expensive, but at the Amazon price of £7.85 and free postage it's a steal.


The Mission Song
The Mission Song
by John Le Carré
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Corruption and betrayal in Africa, 15 July 2015
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This review is from: The Mission Song (Paperback)
When the Cold War ended, le Carré, the master of spy thrillers, turned to writing stories set in the third world, continuing the themes about which he clearly feels very strongly – corruption and betrayal. This one is set largely in an anonymous northern island, and is told in the first person by Bruno Salvador, a British citizen (or at least so he believes) who is sent to translate at a conference between a collection of conflicting Congolese tribal leaders/war lords and a shadowy organisation of nameless individuals called the Syndicate. An unnamed British government department has selected him because his background (an Irish Missionary father and a Congolese mother) means that he has acquired fluency in English, French, Swahili and a range of minor African languages. Bruno is initially pleased to help because of his empathy with the people of his homeland. The meeting is ostensibly about organizing a coup prior to planned elections, so that the ‘real’ democratic forces can seize control and the Syndicate can exploit the rich minerals for the benefit not only of themselves, but also of the Congolese people, who will receive the “People’s Portion”. Needless to say, all is not as it seems.

Bruno’s naïvity (and how can one so intelligent be so naïve?) is quickly stripped away as the relations between the Congolese delegates and the representatives of the Syndicate become clearer, and he becomes privy to an entirely different agenda. He is torn between his ethical principles and his professional duty as an impartial interpreter. When he chooses the former, and returns to London at the close of the conference he carries with him evidence of the coup. But remarkably he is still naïve enough to trust people in authority and so more betrayals occur. He is forced to go into hiding with a politically active Congolese nurse with whom he formed an instant romantic attachment after earlier having met her by chance while interpreting for a dying man in a London hospital. This part of the plot stretches credulity too far for me. In the end morality wins and Bruno, with help, does manage to stop the coup, but with serious consequences for him and his new girlfriend. At least they are alive; in real life I suspect they would have ‘disappeared’.

Overall the book is well-written and most of the characters are believable in terms of their dialogue and speech patterns, but the plot, which bears some resemblance to the notorious botched 2004 attempt to organize a coup in Equatorial Guinea that involved Mark Thatcher, is rather turgid and little more than a polemic against the wickedness of Western influence in Africa, even though most of the Congolese characters are just as venal. Reviewers have pointed out a number of weak plot features, which I agree with. For example: how is it that one of the Congolese ‘war lords’ is brutally tortured by agents of the Syndicate, but within a few hours appears at the conference table full of life and none the worse for his ordeal; why doesn’t Bruno copy his stolen material while on the run; and why was he not searched when he left the island at the end of the conference?

Le Carré has written many marvellous spy novels and some of his later efforts after the Cold War era are almost as good, but this is not one of them.


A Certain Justice (Inspector Adam Dalgliesh Mystery)
A Certain Justice (Inspector Adam Dalgliesh Mystery)
by P. D. James
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.39

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very good traditional thriller, 3 July 2015
What a pleasure it is to read a complex, carefully constructed, and well-written ‘traditional’ thriller with a total absence of serial killers massacring their victims in ever more bizarre and repellant ways, with blood oozing from every page. There are of course murders in this book, two in fact, but the first only appears on page 120, a quarter of the way through the book, and the second much later, at the start of the final quarter. Those 120 pages are used to build up a detailed picture of the first victim, Venetia Aldridge, a very successful divorced QC. She is arrogant and disliked by many people, including her work colleagues and her troubled daughter Octavia, who lives in a basement flat in her house. Relations between them get worse when Octavia becomes romantically involved with an amoral, odious young man called Ashe, who Venetia has just very recently successfully defended on a charge of murdering his aunt. The author uses these pages to explore Venetia’s relations with her friends and acquaintances and to ‘plant’ a number of plausible potential suspects for the murder when it later happens.

It is at this point that the author’s famous detective, Commander Adam Dalgliesh, enters, accompanied as usual by DI Kate Miskin. But this time the third member of the team is DI Piers Tarrant, a rather laid back character with a degree in theology, and Kate has to adjust to a new relationship. The investigation proceeds methodically, but slowly, until a second murder occurs, that of a cleaner in the chambers where Venetia worked. The challenge is then to uncover the relationship between the two crimes. When it is revealed, it leads to the killer of the cleaner, and indirectly to the killer of Venetia, although in this case the outcome is very unexpected.

There have been some negative comments in other reviews. For example, although Kate’s humble and troubled background is mentioned from time to time, the personal lives of none of the three detectives are explored in any depth. This is in contrast to the other characters in the book, where we learn more about their reactions to the daily challenges of life, which makes them more real. Also it has been commented that a policeman of the rank of Commander would not be carrying out a murder investigation ‘on the ground’, and the ending is too abrupt. While these criticisms are true, I think they are minor, and I greatly enjoyed the book.


The Killing Lessons
The Killing Lessons
by Saul Black
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.08

2 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Killing Lessons - good, but not great, 15 Jun. 2015
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This review is from: The Killing Lessons (Hardcover)
This book opens with the sadistic killing of a mother and her son, living in a remote location, by two men, armed with guns and the all-important fish-gutting knife. The psychopathic leader Xander is driven by demons from childhood abuse and has the compulsion to leave specific items in the bodies of his victims. Moreover this has to be done according to an alphabetic ritual, dating back to his childhood. His partner Paulie is a weak character, in awe of Xander and afraid of him. The interaction between these two individuals, both highly disturbed but in different ways, is well described. The other occupant of the house is the 10-year-old daughter Nell who escapes the carnage. Paulie chases her into the woods, but fails to catch her, a fact that has dramatic consequences for both Xander and Paulie at the end of the book.

Then a new case emerges involving the snatching of a young women off the street and Valerie Hart, a police officer who has been examining similar cases that have occurred all over Western America for the past three years, moves centre stage. As a character, Valerie is a bit of a stereotype: obsessed with the cases, depressed after a failed love affair with a fellow officer and borderline alcoholic as a result. She is assisted by FBI agent Carla York, who hates her, the reason for which is not disclosed until the final pages, although it was easy to guess. I didn’t see the point of this very minor subplot, as it added nothing much to the story. Valerie pursues the case with ferocious intensity and through intense police work, aided by a series of remarkable pieces of good luck, identifies the main killer and tracks him to his home. The pace of the investigation and the resulting tension is well conveyed, but from this point, the level of unbelievability increases. Crucially, would an experienced homicide detective, knowing the nature of Xander, attempt to confront him and Paulie before backup arrived?

There are several other brutal deaths and mutilations, some deserved, some not, before the finale, where Nell reappears in the story. The final scenes are a series of long detailed descriptions told from the standpoint of the various characters, but they are too drawn out and do little to conceal the all-too-obvious ending.

Why are thriller writers obsessed with serial killers, preferably the more bizarre the better? There must be more books about them there are actual killers. This one had some original features, but unlike most reviewers I did not find it better than many others of the genre.


The City of Falling Angels
The City of Falling Angels
by John Berendt
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Not the real Venetians, 11 Jun. 2015
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This books starts well with excellent eyewitness descriptions of the fire that destroyed the famous Fenice opera house in January 1996, and this is followed up later by accounts of the long drawn-out investigation of the causes of the fire, with its oscillating conclusions, and the labyrinthine bureaucracy that surrounded reconstruction, and which contributed to long delay of seven years before the opera house was reopened. Both stories tell you much about what is wrong with Venice. These accounts do partly conform to the author's stated aim: to write a book not primarily about the art and architecture of Venice, but instead to tell the story of its inhabitants. But elsewhere this is far from true. Venetians do appear, but they are either a few eccentric characters, or the elite of the city, and they are outnumbered by foreigners, mainly expatriate American, again of a certain class. Thus, for example, much space is given over to the machinations surrounding the papers of Ezra Pound, and the intrigues and squabbles within the rich patrons of the Save Venice movement. These are subjects that are undoubtedly interesting, at least to some, but are remote to the lives of ordinary Venetians. Much of the book resembles material from Hello! magazine: who attended what party in what palace etc. It quickly becomes repetitive and boring and I found that I had little interest in what these people did or thought.


A Beautiful Mind
A Beautiful Mind
by Sylvia Nasar
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.08

4.0 out of 5 stars A flawed genius, 4 Jun. 2015
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This review is from: A Beautiful Mind (Paperback)
John Nash, who died in May 2015, was in many ways the archetypal genius of fiction, obsessive, eccentric, and with a deeply flawed personality. Even as a young man he was anti-social, arrogant and convinced of his abilities. He had little real social interaction with his peers, although he did have a few short-lived half-hearted attempts at homosexual relationships when young. When he fathered an illegitimate son, he didn't marry the mother and his obsession with money surfaced by refusing to support either her or the child. Despite his many flaws, his supreme mathematical abilities were soon recognised, and he moved to Princeton, a mecca for American mathematicians. He was only 22 when he did fundamental work in game theory, that many years later in 1994 earned him a Nobel Prize in Economics, but only after an unprecedented bitter struggle within the Nobel nomination committee, the details of which are, remarkably, given in this book. This led directly to a radical restructuring of the way Nobel Prizes in economics are decided, although the ultra-secretive Nobel Foundation still deny that anything unusual happened.

By the age of 30 Nash was seriously ill with mental problems, usually diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia. These plagued him for more than 20 years, during which he did no work. During these `wilderness' years he was in and out of mental hospitals and was subjected to whatever treatments were in fashion at the time. None really helped him as much as the continued support of his wife Alicia, but even she eventually divorced him when his behaviour became extreme. Against all expectations, after 1970 Nash began to slowly recover and he returned to academic work in the mid 1980s, although of course never at his previous level. He and Alicia were eventually reconciled and he even reunited with his illegitimate son and another son by Alicia, both confusingly called John. The latter tragically also developed serious mental health problems and at the close of the book, Nash is devoting much of his time supporting his son.

This is a long book, based on very detailed research and discussions with many people who knew and worked with Nash, including family members and of course Nash himself. It is primarily about the personality of Nash and his interactions with the people around him, and makes little detailed attempt to explain his mathematical achievements. It has been criticised for this, but I have some sympathy with the author, because Nash's work in pure maths, which many regard as more important than his work in game theory, is undoubtedly highly technical and difficult for a layman to understand. However, the author could have explained in relatively simple terms the significance of the work that led to the Nobel Prize, and this was a missed opportunity to give the reader at least a flavour of his originality. Nevertheless, this is an absorbing story, told with great sympathy for its subject, while not glossing over his undoubted faults.


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