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Annabel Gaskell "gaskella2" (Nr Oxford, UK)
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The Summer of Dead Toys (Inspector Salgado 1)
The Summer of Dead Toys (Inspector Salgado 1)
by Antonio Hill
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £14.99

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good new maverick detective, but a stifling and ordinary setting, 25 Sept. 2012
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Inspector Salgado is a hot-blooded Argentine working in Barcelona. Recently returned from leave after he beat up a suspect in a Voodoo/trafficking ring, he is asked to unofficially look at the death of a teenager from one of Barcelona's richer families, and finds there are many skeletons to be pulled out of their closets, whilst the fallout from the Voodoo case continues.

I liked Salgado, the outsider, but I frequently got confused between the two policewoman working with him. The book was terribly slow to get going - stifling itself in Barcelona's heat, and then once it got going, there was twists and turns galore. A bit more pace in the early stages would have made a more balanced read, and we could have found out more about Salgado during the investigation. Considering that the novel is set over just five days, the first couple seemed more than twenty-four hours long. Barcelona is a city I long to visit, but barely featured in this novel which could have been set in any Mediterranean city.

I enjoyed the book enough to finish it, and would probably read another Salgado mystery, hoping for more development of character and setting in subsequent outings.


The Cove
The Cove
by Ron Rash
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars Quietly devastating, 10 Sept. 2012
This review is from: The Cove (Hardcover)
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The fighting may be happening on the battlefields of Europe, but that doesn't mean that remote rural communities in America don't feel the effects of the Great War too. Young men who volunteered are returning home maimed - Hank Shelton lost a hand, and he's doing his best to renovate the family farm with his sister Laurel. The farm is in a gloomy cove, a hard area in which to prosper, and believed to be cursed. The Sheltons live there quietly which suits Laurel - trips to town are often a trial for her, the superstitious locals taking her birthmark for the sign of a witch. Then one day a stranger arrives from the woods, Laurel finds him in a clearing having heard music wafting through the air from a flute. Walter doesn't talk, he has few posessions, but agrees to help Hank on the farm for a while, and Laurel is attracted to this strong, mute musician. You just know it will end in tragedy when Walter's story is revealed...

Ron Rash has written a novel that is quietly devastating. Although Laurel's life begins to look up, life in the cove always teeters on a knife-edge. It may be gloomy, but there are places the sun can reach. Rash uses these to create passages of lyrical fresh air, before the text has to get down to hard work again. He captures perfectly the strong bond and sibling tensions between Hank and Laurel who are young for farmers. It is left to their kindly neighbour Slidell to give some fatherly guidance, shame that the townsfolk don't feel the same way. It's one of those novels in which not a lot appears to happen, but you're drawn in by the wonderfully descriptive writing of their hard lives, and then you realise that lots has happened.

I chose this book based on the cover quote from Daniel Woodrell, author of the fine novel Winter's Bone. His recommendation was spot-on and Ron Rash is an author I will definitely explore further.


Morgue Drawer Next Door (Morgue Drawer series)
Morgue Drawer Next Door (Morgue Drawer series)
by Jutta Profijt
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.64

4.0 out of 5 stars Who killed the penguin?, 29 Aug. 2012
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This unusual crime novel is narrated by Pascha - he used to be a car thief - the best young one in Cologne. Pascha has become a sort of detective, teaming up with Dr Martin Gänsewein, a forensic examiner for the city. They have a bit of a love-hate relationship, Martin is very good at his job, but is a little set in his ways; Pascha can be like an annoying dog, always nipping at his heels. Martin does believe in justice though, and Pascha's heart is in the right place for an ex-car-thief. They met in the morgue, when Martin was performing Pascha's autopsy - yes, Pascha is a ghost! Martin is the only person he can communicate with, which drives him mad - but the two do work together well. The story of their meeting, in which they investigate Pascha's own murder, is told in the first book of this series Morgue Drawer Four, which I've not read, (but would now like to).

In Morgue Drawer Next Door, the unlikely pairing have a new case to investigate. A convent in the posh area of Cologne, has a fire in which one sister perishes, and another is burned to a crisp, but hangs on in ICU. The run-down convent needs a lot of expensive restoration work done and the police are inclined to think that the fire was an accident. One person knows differently however - the nun who died, Sister Marlene. Marlene's spirit lingers - she has a mission to accomplish before passing on. When Pascha finds her, he takes her under his wing and vows to help. The only problem is that Martin is a) not supposed to be back at work yet after having been stabbed (in the previous novel), and b) would rather Pascha was not around so he can progress his fledgling romance with the lovely Birgit. Pascha becomes go-between, for Marlene can only communicate with him, and goaded on by the two ghosts, Martin grudgingly gets on the case.

Martin is gloriously grumpy and reluctant to get involved in another case - after all, he got stabbed the previous time. He also wants more downtime from Pascha being in his head. He's not a policeman, he's a pathologist, but knowing that the fire was no accident, he can't leave it. He must find a way of getting the right information on how to solve the crime to the police without them condemning him as a crackpot who talks to ghosts! Luckily for Pascha, Martin's new girlfriend Birgit is game for helping him out, and has no idea about the ghosts.

This brings me to Pascha and Marlene. Their interplay is so sweet and funny. You can imagine how a middle-aged nun would react to the testosterone-led mindset of a young man, yet there is no-one else for her to turn to to show her the ropes of being a ghost. Sister Marlene soon realises that, and the chalk and cheese pairing are soon whooshing all over the place and manipulating situations to find the proof they need. Although this all sounds delightful and irreverent, which it is, there is a more serious side to the novel regarding the work of the convent. Amongst other things, they run a night shelter for the homeless, and none of their neighbours like it. The surrounding area has gone up in the world, and the new posh inhabitants don't want bums on their doorstep, nor do the allotment owners nearby, or right-wing groups. The nuns are under pressure on all sides to shut up and ship out.

The novel is narrated throughout by Pascha, who maintains that he is writing a book, and there are frequent asides about his Editor. Initially, this was slightly irritating, but you can't help warming to Pascha. There is a lovely bit where he tries to justify his having been a car-thief to Marlene - generating wealth in insurance, people buying new cars etc, and keeping the manufacturers in work. Marlene too, although pious, is humane and does have a good sense of humour for a nun - something she had needed in her work one surmises.

If you enjoy crime novels with humour and a lot of heart, this may be one for you. Knowledge of the first volume is not necessary to enjoy this one, but I certainly want to read it now I've read the second.


My Policeman
My Policeman
by Bethan Roberts
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars My policeman, your policeman, 10 Aug. 2012
This review is from: My Policeman (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Taking its inspiration from the life of EM Forster, this novel is the story of two people who love the same man. Firstly Marion, who fell for Tom, the brother of her best friend, the first time she saw him as a teenager. The other, later, is Patrick. As the book opens, an older Marion is setting down her story, telling it for Patrick who has had a stroke.

It's Brighton in the 1950s, and Tom, has returned from his National Service to become a trainee policeman. Marion is now a school teacher, and strikes up a friendship with Tom who offers to teach her to swim. They become a couple, but their relationship is not exactly romantic. One day, Tom takes Marion to the museum to meet a friend of his, Patrick, one of the curators. Tom has a naive appreciation for art that belies his tough rugged exterior; Marion goes along with it. Patrick becomes a regular feature of the couple's lives, and still Marion doesn't suspect ... or does she?

Patrick takes up the story in his diaries, and from him, we get to see how circumspect yet brave he has to be to maintain a gay relationship during this time when it was illegal - and with a policeman too. The narrative alternates between the two, each telling us about their policeman. Tom is sometimes quite difficult to read - he has a strong physical presence, but is very laconic, very self-contained and self-absorbed. Our sympathies lie not with him, but with the two people who love him.

As their lives pan out, and things take on a dramatic turn which I can't tell you about, I was so caught up in these lives that I found a tear running down my cheek. Any novel that can move me to tears has to get my recommendation. I loved this book.


Caroline: A Mystery
Caroline: A Mystery
by Cornelius Medvei
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

4.0 out of 5 stars This tale's pinned on a donkey ..., 5 Aug. 2012
This review is from: Caroline: A Mystery (Paperback)
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This short novel is a weird and wonderful thing, slightly surreal in parts, but utterly captivating.

It is the story of Mr Shaw, who takes his family on their annual vacation where he tries to unwind from his day job in insurance, but is fretting internally (as is his wife), over his impending retirement. One day, they're all out for a walk, and in a field up the road, they spot a donkey who is called Caroline, and she and Shaw are instantly smitten. He buys Caroline, sends his family home in the car and takes two weeks to walk Caroline back home to live in their front garden. Soon he's spending every spare minute with her. When the neighbours complain about her braying when he's at work, the solution is simple - he takes her to work with him. Then one day his son discovers his father playing chess with the donkey in her shed ... and this is when the tale takes a more surreal aspect, and here I'll stop to save spoiling things, save to say that there is plenty more to come.

The narrative is interspersed with extracts from Mr Shaw's papers, his researches into donkeys, his opnions on RL Stevenson's classic travelogue Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, together with rather amateurish and grainy photos. They all add to the charm of this strange friendship.

When you think of humans with animal best friends, at one extreme there are the very real close relationships between shepherds and their dogs, (and yes, even the X-Factor winners Ashleigh & Pudsey). At the other end of the scale is James Stewart and his invisible six foot rabbit friend Harvey(from the 1950 film, and 1944 play by Mary Chase). You are never quite sure how real Harvey is, whether he's truly imaginary or a fairy spirit, whereas Caroline is quite clearly a real donkey with winning eyes and a way of getting people to do what she wants - but how real is her chess-playing prowess?

Whatever her skills, the relationship between the donkey and Mr Shaw is lovely, platonic, but also obsessive on his part. He, however, had been wondering how to handle his retirement, and she is both the way to ease him into it, and able to give him a new lease of life at the same time. Full of humour, yet equally touching, this is a gentle but quirky novel that was a pleasure to read. (9/10)


The Collini Case
The Collini Case
by Ferdinand von Schirach
Edition: Hardcover

9 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Short and sharp for a courtroom drama, 21 July 2012
This review is from: The Collini Case (Hardcover)
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The author of The Collini Case, a prominent German defence lawyer himself, honed his writing on short stories - case histories of gruesome and shocking crimes, of people who get away with murder and the like. His first novel, a courtroom drama, isn't long either, but he does pack a whole story into its 160 pages.

It starts with a murder. A prominent German businessman is killed by Fabrizio Collini, a quiet Italian who has worked for Mercedes Benz for decades. Caspar Leinen, a young defence lawyer takes on the case - a good result will make his name. However, after accepting it, he finds out that the victim was known to him and he is unable to get out of the case. Collini admits guilt, but refuses to give a motive - it doesn't look good for Leinen's reputation. We read about how Caspar got to where he is, and his relationship with the deceased. We see how the German justice system works; Leinen's case is surely doomed - and before we know it, we're at page 100. Then he makes a discovery. Everything changes and the rest of the novel is turbocharged by its results towards a dramatic conclusion.

It's a taut little novel. It doesn't get bogged down with court procedure, keeping to the essentials only, and not over-dramatising the lawyers' performances - there's no melodrama here, yet the book works brilliantly as a gripping legal thriller. I enjoyed it so much I almost wished it had been longer, but its brevity is a large part of why it was so good.


On the Cold Coasts
On the Cold Coasts
by Vilborg Davidsdottir
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.64

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A woman's place in 1400s Iceland, 5 July 2012
This review is from: On the Cold Coasts (Paperback)
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At the heart of this novel is the tale of Ragna, a young Icelandic woman from a family with property in Greenland which she will inherit. Still a young teenager, yet betrothed to Thorkell, Ragna becomes unmarriageable when she becomes pregnant by an English sailor who is shipwrecked on their shores. Disgraced, she manages to make a life for herself and her son and is luckily taken on by the new English Bishop Craxton as housekeeper, a role that gives her as much respect as she she can ever now expect. However Thorkell returns, now an ordained priest, and is immediately attracted to Ragna again. Can a relationship work between a priest, who should be celibate but has already sired bastard children, and an excommunicated woman?

So, that's the love interest got out of the way. What was more interesting in this novel were the other themes behind the central romance.

At the turn of the century the Black Death had killed nearly half of the population, and left Iceland a very poor country, reliant on the stockfish (wind-dried cod) trade. Iceland was divided into two political factions - the nationalists, led by the Icelandic Archbishop are loyal to the old regime, as Iceland was owned by Norway and Denmark at this time. Those at Holar, who are governed by the new English Bishop appointed by the Pope, are happy to ply an illegal trade with England, ruled by Henry V at this time of 1420. The English rule the trading though setting the prices which makes for an uneasy relationship.

Thorkell, who has political aims of his own, manages to get promoted to being Bishop of a parish who wouldn't submit to Holar, deposing the sitting Bishop who remained loyal to the Norwegian King. These priests and their people are not afraid of taking up arms, and when some English sailors in Iceland by permission of the see at Holar start to do some raping and pillaging, the scene is set for conflict.

Ragna gets caught between the two sides - her responsible role at Holar working for the Bishop, and her passion for Thorkell, the randy priest. All along she is seen as a commodity, initially destined to end up being owned by a man one way or another, even though she will be an heiress. Men are not subjected to the same standards as women by the church, and Thorkell can easily get away with his behaviour.

I really enjoyed this historical novel, especially the cut and thrust of the episcopal politics in 15th century Iceland. Ragna has some spark to her, and the will-she-won't-she relationship with Thorkell contrasts with the big picture. Some of the romance and dialogue may be slightly cheesy, but you kept rooting for Ragna throughout. If you liked The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, you'll probably enjoy On the Cold Coasts, (which is much shorter too!).


The Devil's Garden
The Devil's Garden
by Edward Docx
Edition: Paperback

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars There is darkness at the heart of this novel, 6 Jun. 2012
This review is from: The Devil's Garden (Paperback)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Set primarily in the last inhabited river station up a tributary of the mighty Amazon, The Devil's Garden conjures up strong visions and parallels. You immediately think of other `jungle' novels - Heart of Darkness being the obvious one of course, and indeed they do share some heavy themes. This novel is billed as a literary thriller, which I suppose it is, but very much in slow-burn Graham Greene mould - I'm thinking The Quiet American meets A Burnt Out Case here ... but first let me tell you a little about the book.

Dr Forle and his assistant Kim, aided by German guide Lothar, work in the jungle carrying on the work of Forle's partner studying a particular species of ant; ones that create Devil's Gardens - poisoning all the plants around their nest except their favoured home making strange glades in the forest - like man of course! One day, the peaceful existence of the station residents is disturbed by the arrival of the Judge and a Colonel and soon a band of soldiers. Officially there to register the jungle tribes to vote, their presence upsets everything, and after Forle witnesses a boy being tortured one night, it is clear that life can't go on as normal, although Forle tries to assert his authority. You just know that it's going to go wrong ...

For the non-indigenous folk, (except perhaps Lothar who seems to know his way around in the jungle), life revolves around the river. The settlement itself only goes skin deep. Everything arrives and departs via the river and the path between the communal building, the comedor, and the jetty is the only highway.

Forle is rather naÔve, like Conrad's view of those Europeans that haven't gone native, he seems to believe that by letting the Colonel and Judge know that he knows what's going on, (although of course he only knows the tip of the iceberg), that perpetrators will be dealt with and life can go on. And go on it does, but only sort of. He doesn't realise the ulterior motives behind the soldier's actions and those of the judge, and the danger that they are all in and this leads up to an all-action thrilling climax.

Told by Forle who, being a scientist, is a trained observer, life in the station contrasts with extracts from his journals about the ants. The ebb and flow of life on, and in, the river also contrasts vividly with the menace within the jungle. This certainly sets the scene, together with a growing suspicion that something bad will happen - there are hints of spies and double-crossing. It really takes its time to get there though. This is where it felt very Graham Greene-ish to me, and I rather enjoyed this aspect.

What I also liked is that life at the station hasn't changed much from other earlier jungle novels. Yes, they have a computer in a laboratory, but that all had to be shipped in boatload by boatload, and they only have the oil to charge the batteries for a few hours use each night. Everything else is done the traditional way, and initially, Forle's biggest worry is that the Judge will drink them dry before new supplies arrive.

I didn't mind the slow-burn at all, I revelled in the foetid darkness at the heart (!) of this novel. I also hoped that Forle would find himself as, at the start of the novel, like a Graham Greene lead character, he was in danger of burning out too soon. Docx can really write, and I will look forward to reading his previous Booker long-listed novel Self Help. The two stars of The Devil's Garden are really the river and the jungle, and they drive the book at their own pace making fascinating reading companions.


HHhH
HHhH
by Laurent Binet
Edition: Hardcover

4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating and irritating at the same time..., 30 May 2012
This review is from: HHhH (Hardcover)
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Although in the end I 'enjoyed' HHhH, I was at the same time rather irritated by this book. The cover proclaims "All the characters are real. All the events depicted are true." It purports to be a novel, however, when you start reading it, it's all about an author - the actual author? - who is researching an operation during WWII. We have a story within a story: the author's framing narrative, and then his version of Heydrich's life and the plot to end it which is really exciting.

The `author' tells us about film depictions of Heydrich (including the rather brilliant Conspiracy [2001]with Kenneth Branagh). He debates with himself about what to leave in and what to leave out. His girlfriend berates him for writing a cheesy sentence which imagines Himmler going red with apoplexy. He wishes that he could have written some better dialogue than documented discussions report. All this made me feel that HHhH is less of a novel, and more of a `making of' type of book.

I normally don't have any problems with this kind of metafictional concept, I am a Paul Auster fan after all! I did have problems reading HHhH as a novel though. It felt more like Anna Funder's book Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall which I read earlier this year; that was a mixture of memoir and reportage - which is what HHhH felt like too. The added assertion that everything is true just added to the non-novel feel.

In particular, I didn't like his snarkiness about other authors who have written around the same subject,(not that I've read the books cited, but that's not the point). Jonathan Littell's doorstop of a novel The Kindly Ones is put down as "Houellebecq does Nazism." He also criticises a 1960 novel by Alan Burgess called Seven Men at Daybreak for waxing lyrical about the flight which will drop the parachutists into Czechoslovakia. Hang on! They're both novels - they're allowed to blend fact with fiction for the sake of the narrative aren't they? Binet's `author' raises himself above them, being "a slave to his scruples".

This was where the book failed slightly for me, because I just didn't like the `author', whether he is Binet himself or a fictional counterpart. I realise that this style was a mechanism for exploring the role of truth in an historical novel, but I found it to be too clever for its own good and even a bit heavy-handed in going on about it so much.


Apocalypse Cow
Apocalypse Cow
by Michael Logan
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Sex-crazed Zombie Cows - Shouldn't work but it does, 13 May 2012
This review is from: Apocalypse Cow (Hardcover)
A comedy thriller featuring sex-crazed zombie cows - The publicity says "Shaun the Sheep meets Shaun of the Dead". Shouldn't work, but somehow it does! It recently won a half-share of the inaugural Terry Pratchett "Anywhere But Here, Anywhen But Now" Prize, set up by Sir Terry with publisher Transworld. So what's it about then?

Strange things are happening in Scotland. Some cows have gone mad in an abattoir, and the situation is being dealt with...Meanwhile: Teenager Geldof Peters, is itching, allergic to the hemp clothes his rabid hippy vegan mother makes him wear; Terry works at the abattoir, and is paranoid a) about getting a girlfriend, who b) is immune to the stench of death that clings to him from his job; and Lesley McBrien is a journalist under pressure - she's being made redundant and only a scoop will do.

These three disparate losers will end up being flung together in a race for their lives to get the full story out of Britain which, as more animals become infected, becomes a martial state and is quarantined by the rest of the world. The story is that the zombie-animal disease is a bio-weapon unleased by terrorists, but Lesley, Terry and Geldof know differently, as does their pursuer, the evil Mr Brown who will do anything to prevent the truth from getting out...

Geldof reminded me rather of Adrian Mole, although not as pompous, and of course his family with their lofty eco-credentials were easy targets for parody. They contrasted with their oafish burger-loving neighbours neatly, which gave plenty of scope for jokes about lentils.

Our team of heroes will, of course, have to transcend their own ineptitudes and personal stereotypes to overcome the forces against them and raise their game to outwit the scheming Brown. Even without the zomboid animals all over the place, there is gore and ultraviolence aplenty, and the plot races through its pages.

It was a fun read and I raced through it. This book reminded me of nothing so much as a Christopher Brookmyre novel with added zombie cows. I'm a big fan of Brookmyre - I don't think this was as good as his debut, Quite Ugly One Morning, but not too far off, and I can see why Pratchett & co liked it.


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