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FictionFan (Kirkintilloch, Scotland)

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Breville VKJ953 Vista Polished Stainless Steel Jug Kettle, 1.7 Litre, Silver
Breville VKJ953 Vista Polished Stainless Steel Jug Kettle, 1.7 Litre, Silver
Price: £19.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Some reservations..., 1 May 2016
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
The kettle comes well packaged in the usual cardboard box, with however the usual unnecessary and environmentally damaging plastic bags inside. There is a short instruction leaflet which is clear and well laid out.

It's a neat and attractive looking smallish kettle with a short cord, not a problem so long as you can position it within a couple of feet of a power point. It's easy to open and fill, and boils reasonably quickly.

Now for the downsides. The first is that the water gauge is under the handle making it almost impossible to see, especially while filling it. Very annoying – almost no point in having one, and a simple design fault that surely must have been obvious to the manufacturer on testing.

The second issue is that the wall of the kettle gets extremely hot – burning hot, in fact. So the user will always have to be careful not to touch it accidentally. The instruction leaflet says that it's suitable for use by children from 8 years or up, if they're supervised and understand the dangers. In my opinion, this is not suitable for a child of that age to use at all. The heaviness of the kettle when filled would lead any child to touch the wall with their free hand to support it when pouring, and this would be dangerous. A personal opinion, obviously, but I wouldn't let a child use it till they had the strength to lift it confidently one-handed when full. (Actually, I can't imagine me allowing a child of 8 to use any kettle...) It would also have the same issue for anyone with dexterity problems who may need to use both hands to support the kettle when pouring.

So recommended, but with reservations, and only for people who can easily lift and pour one-handed.

The Sans Pareil Mystery (The Detective Lavender Mysteries Book 2)
The Sans Pareil Mystery (The Detective Lavender Mysteries Book 2)
Price: £3.98

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars The Regency world in a parallel universe..., 29 April 2016
Regency London 1810: Bow Street detective Stephen Lavender and his colleague Constable Ned Woods are called to a derelict building about to be demolished. A neighbour insists there's a woman in the building, but when Lavender's men search it, they find no one. The demolition proceeds and when the wall falls down, the corpse of a beautiful young woman is revealed beneath the floorboards. It's not long until she is recognised as one of the actresses at the Sans Pareil theatre...

This is a light-hearted romp, as much a romance novel as a crime novel really. In the beginning it looks as though April Divine has been murdered during a botched attempt to kidnap her and hold her for ransom, but gradually the plot widens out to take in aspects of the ongoing Napoleonic Wars with spy rings and secret documents a-plenty. The plotting is undoubtedly the best bit of the book, though it's not a mystery – the reader learns and understands what's going on at the same time as the detectives.

I look for a couple of things in historical crime fiction. Firstly, the detection element must be in line with the time it's set in – no amazing foresight to 20th century science, for instance. Secondly, the time period must feel right – the characters should either fit in to the contemporary rules of society or they should be obviously misfits and seen as such by the other characters. Sadly this book fails fairly spectacularly on both of these requirements. I stuck it out for about 70% and then couldn't take any more, so skipped ahead to the end... I was interested enough in the plot to want to know who the baddies were, hence my generous 1½-star rating.

The whole thing around the Bow Street runners felt completely inauthentic somehow. It's not something I know anything much about, especially in this period, but I couldn't believe in Lavender's character. He is highly intelligent and well educated, mixing with the aristocracy on terms of near equality, and yet working as a policeman in 1810? And also mixing socially with the constables who are clearly way down the social ladder? Even the use of the word “detective” feels all wrong for that period. Dickens was still hesitant enough to be using quotation marks around the word decades later than this period, long after Bow Street had given way to Scotland Yard. The Oxford Dictionary dates it to mid-19th century. That piece of in-depth research took me roughly 30 seconds.

The female lead is Dona Magdalena, a Spanish lady who has fled the war and is living in near-penury in a run-down part of London. Despite her aristocratic background, she is the love interest for Lavender. This is just so wrong for the class-ridden British society of the time. She too mixes with both nobs and the hoi-polloi – I'm guessing the book must have been set in a parallel universe, because it simply couldn't have happened in this one.

The book is stuffed full of anachronisms in manner, behaviour and speech. The aristocratic women are all feisty, independent types out there in the world earning their own living. The amount of kissing and canoodling that goes on would have shocked Ms Austen's heroines into fits of the vapours, and I get the impression that more than kissing went on during the bit I skipped. My question is – why set something in a time period and then have the characters all be 21st century people? Surely the point of historical settings is to show us how different society was, not to pretend it's the same but have them in horse-drawn cabs rather than cars? People talking about feeling “challenged” by their jobs, aristocrats offering to help out the hoi-polloi in the kitchen – ugh!

And, you know, if you're going to talk dirty, at least get it anatomically correct. Propositioning Constable Woods, a good-hearted prostitute offers him a special deal for quantity...

"Martha and I can do you the beast with the two backs for an extra shillin’"

Er... three backs. And I hasten to add the only research I did for that one was to learn arithmetic.

Enough already. Not my kind of thing, and I fear I can't recommend it to anyone who likes historical fiction to feel well researched and authentic.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Thomas and Mercer.

The High Mountains of Portugal
The High Mountains of Portugal
Price: £8.54

5.0 out of 5 stars Risen apes, fallen angels..., 27 April 2016
In a few short days in 1904, young Tomàs loses his lover, his child and his father to unexpected deaths. In the turmoil of emotions that follows, he begins to walk backwards everywhere he goes. People think this is his way of dealing with grief, but Tomàs sees it not as grieving but as objecting. Objecting to the unfairness of life and of God. Tomàs works in a museum and has come across an old journal written by a priest who lived amongst the slaves in one of Portugal's African colonies centuries earlier. Father Ulissis was building something he referred to as 'a gift'. Tomàs believes this gift ended up in a church in the High Mountains of Portugal, and decides to track it down...

So begins the first section of this three part novel, each very different but with common themes running through them, and all linked to a small town in the High Mountains, Tuizelo. The writing is nothing short of brilliant. It flows smoothly, feels light and airy, but is full of insight into grief and love and heartache. This first section also has lots of humour as Tomàs sets off on his journey in a borrowed car – a newfangled thing in 1904 that causes consternation everywhere he goes, especially since his driving is reminiscent of Mr Toad's.

Beneath the humour, though, Martel never lets us forget Tomàs' grief, showing it with great empathy but never descending into mawkishness. The search for the gift has become an attempt for Tomàs to find some kind of catharsis. On the death of his beloved Dora, Tomàs found himself feeling that at such a time one must either accept or reject faith totally. His search is as much to find the answer to that question as the gift itself. The journey gradually darkens and takes on elements of the surreal before Tomàs reaches his destination, physical and emotional. The middle of this section drags a little, but the end makes up for the length of the journey.

The second section is considerably more surreal. Normally surrealism and I don't get along, but Martel's storytelling is so beautiful my cynicism was swept away. Late one evening in 1938, Eusebio Lozora, a pathologist, is visited in his office by his wife, who has come primarily to discuss Christ's miracles, which she does by comparing the gospels to the works of Agatha Christie. In the context of the book, this is not as off the wall as it sounds – well, it is! But her argument makes a kind of sense – she suggests that the importance of both is in the witnessing. When she leaves, another woman turns up, a woman from Tuizelo, who wants Eusebio to carry out an autopsy on her dead husband.

It's always difficult to know how much to say in a review, and I'm not going to reveal any more about this section because the wonder of it is in the revelations that come about as it progresses. I found the whole section stunning. It flows superbly, and the fundamental ludicrousness of it is entirely dispelled by the excellence of the writing and the insight into love and grief. Quite beautiful.

And yet still not as wonderful as the third section. It's 1981 and Canadian Senator Peter Tovy is grieving the death of his wife. On a trip to Oklahoma, he visits the Institute for Primal Research, where he makes a sudden connection with a chimpanzee, Odo – the chimp looks straight into his eyes in a way people have avoided doing since his bereavement. He buys the chimp and the two of them set off to make a new life in Tuizelo, where Peter's family originated.

It's in the observation that this section excels. Odo is not anthropomorphised; in fact, if anything, it is Peter who tries to ape the lifestyle of the chimp. Their interactions are beautifully realised – Odo always projects an element of slight menace to Peter; although the chimp is happy to share his life with the human, he retains his fundamental wildness. In time the villagers, who initially feared him, begin to accept Odo as a unique presence within their community. Again I don't want to reveal too much, except to say that links between this section and the others are gradually revealed, and the ending is a thing of perfect beauty that left me sobbing – not for sorrow, but for joy.

The whole book is deliciously enigmatic and I'm sure could be read in a hundred different ways. It is a subtle discussion of the evolution vs. faith debate, with the old evolutionary saw of “risen apes, not fallen angels” appearing repeatedly. Chimps appear in some form in each of the sections, but symbolically rather than actually, except in the third. I feel Mantel is suggesting that the two sides of the debate are not irreconcilable, and that faith itself is the thing that is required to reconcile them. Small miracles are possible, but we will only see them as that if we let reason take a back seat for a bit. Perhaps he's also reminding us that religion and faith are not always the same thing. And ultimately it seems to me he is saying that just because we are risen apes doesn't mean we couldn't be fallen angels too. I did feel some aspects of the chimp symbolism might offend some Christians, but I found the whole thing an original and insightful approach to the question that provokes thought without forcing any specific answers on the reader.

But meaning aside, the sheer quality of the writing along with the more overt themes of grief and love make it a wonderful read. It gets my highest recommendation - one that has left some indelible images in my mind and will undoubtedly be in the running for my book of the year.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Canongate Books.

Fear Is the Rider
Fear Is the Rider
Price: £8.54

5.0 out of 5 stars He's behind you!!, 26 April 2016
This review is from: Fear Is the Rider (Kindle Edition)
It's 50 degrees centigrade outside, as John Shaw is driving over one of the most dangerous roads in the Australian outback, and there isn't a house within two hundred kilometres. A terrified girl has run out in front of his vehicle, running for her life. Now they're racing along the track, but someone is behind them, and he's catching up...

Woo! A non-stop thrill-fest indeed! The author jumps right into the story so that from the first paragraph the tension starts ratcheting up. John's driving a Honda, not built for this terrain. The Man has taken Katie's Land Cruiser – bigger and tougher. The only advantage John and Katie have is that their car is faster, so long as the road is good. But this road doesn't sound good at all...

“Danger. Obiri track. From here to Obiri heat, shifting sands, soaks and various other hazards make travelling extremely dangerous. There is no drinking water or petrol for the next 600 kilometres.”

Neither of them have any idea why the Man wants to kill them. In fact, they can't even be sure he's a man – he's huge and hairy and smells rancid, like decaying flesh. And he doesn't seem to be in a very good mood. They don't have time to speculate – all they can do is keep driving and hope they can put enough distance between them to get to safety before they're caught. But they're heading the wrong way – straight into the danger zone – and they can't turn round because HE'S BEHIND THEM!!!

Brilliant stuff – pure action from beginning to end. Cook doesn't give us any explanations or much character development, either of which would just serve to slow the pace. Fortunately John knows cars and is a skilful driver. Once Katie gets over her initial terror, she pulls her weight too, and she knows more about the Outback than John. But neither of them is a superhero – just two ordinary people caught up in an insane terror. The pacing is great – it never lets up! It's novella length and definitely one to be read in one sitting – no chapters, just a heart-pounding race with a new peril thrown in every few pages, leading up to a truly fab climax. Phew! A thriller that's actually thrilling and isn't trying to be anything else – great stuff! I'm off to lie down in a darkened room for a while now...

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Text Publishing.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
Price: £5.55

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Sweet and sour..., 26 April 2016
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Not long after the end of WW2, London-based journalist Juliet Ashton is looking for a book idea to follow up on the success of her humorous war-time columns. Coincidentally, she is contacted by Dawsey Adams, a man from the Channel Island of Guernsey, who has found her name and address in a second-hand volume of Charles Lamb, and asks for her help in finding more of his work, since the only bookshop on Guernsey closed during the German occupation of the island. He mentions the importance that the titular Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society had in keeping up morale during the Occupation. Fascinated, Juliet asks for more details, and so starts a correspondence that gradually spreads to include more of the Guernsey residents. And after a time, Juliet realises that she wants her book to tell the story of the islanders and their Society...

The entire book is told in the form of letters, mostly between the Guernsey people and Juliet, but also including her existing friends and publishers. This technique works pretty well for the most part, though it does begin to feel a bit contrived, especially once Juliet decides to visit the island for herself. In the early part of the book, the tone is light, with a lot of humour, and Juliet's letters give what feels like an authentic description of post-war London beginning to rebuild after the war – authentic, but with the tragedy carefully sanitised. The letters from Guernsey are equally light at first, as the islanders tell Juliet how the Society came about, and how they each found books that helped them in the dark days.

And the days for the islanders got very dark indeed under the German Occupation, as the food they farmed was taken by the occupiers, leaving them hungry to the point of near starvation, while other necessities became unobtainable with the islands being cut off from mainland Britain. The islanders tell about the sadness of the children being evacuated just before the Germans arrived, a separation that lasted till the war was over. And any infringement of the rules laid down by the Germans could lead to severe punishment, including being sent to the prison camps in Europe in the most serious cases.

The book is an odd combination of almost sickly sweetness combined with tales of terrible inhumanity and suffering. The characters are all too good to be true, dripping with 21st century political correctness, except for the baddies who are very bad. Not, as you may expect, the Germans, who when they're not being cruel and vicious are all oddly nice, sensitive chaps – sending the islanders off to prison camps one minute and sharing their last potato with them the next. No, the real baddies are the ones who show what felt to me like more authentic 1940s attitudes – the ones who aren't deeply sympathetic to women who had affairs with the German occupiers or had children out of wedlock, or who don't think that homosexuality is a wonderful thing, etc. Whatever one might think of these attitudes, they ring truer to the time than the attitudes of tolerance and unselfish sweetness the authors give to the main characters. So that overall the Guernsey side of the story feels too fictional – inauthentic – even if the historical events are described accurately, as I assume they are. All the saccharin lessens the impact of the tougher stuff – an uneasy mix.

The characters are quirky, almost caricatures in some cases. The voices in the letters are all very similar, so that I constantly had to check the headings to see who was writing. There is a love story at the heart of the book which is quite enjoyable so long as your disbelief in the compatibility of the participants can be left to one side.

Overall, the humour and writing style make it entertaining enough to help the reader past the difficulties in character and credibility. I didn't love it as much as the literally thousands of people who have given it glowing reviews, but I enjoyed it enough to recommend it as a light, heart-warming read for those grey days when grim realism may not be what you're looking for. 3½ stars for me, so rounded up.

The Easter Parade
The Easter Parade
by Richard Yates
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The sins of the mother..., 23 April 2016
This review is from: The Easter Parade (Paperback)
"Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents' divorce."

Sarah and Emily Grimes have a disrupted childhood, moving from place to place as their feckless, alcoholic mother struggles to settle anywhere. Their father, who loves them, is mainly absent from their lives and they give him a kind of mythic quality, believing him to be a more important man than the reality suggests. The girls come to adulthood around the time of WW2, and their lives diverge. Sarah follows the conventional route of marriage and motherhood, while Emily has a succession of sexual relationships of varying depth and intensity, but never lasting long. In a sense, there's a sibling rivalry going on, with each of the women somewhat envying the lifestyle of the other. But as the first line, quoted above, makes clear, both are destined to miserable existences.

I loved Revolutionary Road, declaring it almost the equal of Gatsby for what it had to say about the American Dream. That book was certainly not a happy one, but Yates' insight into his characters and their society, combined with his starkly beautiful prose, made it a profoundly emotional and intelligent read. I came to this one, then, with high hopes and expectations.

To be honest, I'm not sure what Yates is trying to say in this one at all. Simplistically, the message seems to be that children from broken homes are doomed to misery, doomed to repeat the failures of their parents. He seems to be doing a compare and contrast exercise, conventional versus unconventional lifestyle, and concluding that whatever choices the sisters made, the end result would be the same - to die unhappy and unloved.

The writing is fine, plain and with no stylistic flourishes, but somehow I felt it lacked the penetrating beauty of the prose in Revolutionary Road. When reading a paper copy for review, I stick little post-it notes at passages I may want to quote, usually because I think they're either beautiful or profound or, with luck, both. To my own surprise, when I finished this book, I found I hadn't marked a single passage. The problem is not that it's in any way badly written, it's just rather unremarkable.

I also struggled to accept the characterisation. The main viewpoint is Emily's, the unconventional sister. We follow her as she fails at one relationship after another, always because she seems to pair off with damaged men – the failed poet, the man who still loves his ex-wife, the man who has issues with his own sexual performance, etc. But I found that rather annoying and, dare I say it, a little misogynistic. Emily is intelligent, educated and successful in her career, but Yates makes it clear that this isn't what a woman needs. She needs a relationship with a man, otherwise she will go to drink and the devil, probably ending up mad. Emily is doomed, however, never to find a decent man, though why this should be so is entirely unclear.

But meantime Sarah, who has gone the conventional route by marrying, has a husband who beats her – so she spirals into drink and despair, ending up in a psychiatric home. The same home as their mother – abandoned by her man – ended up in when she spiralled into drink and despair. (One wonders if they got a discount for quantity.) I'm pretty sure that Yates didn't mean to imply that the only hope for women to escape the clutches of insanity is to marry well, but that leaves me wondering just exactly what he was trying to say.

I suspect the book may have been written at the height of the great 'it's all the parents' fault' craze, which people used as a method of absolving themselves of responsibility for their own actions; and, of course, at the height of the great psychiatry phase, when going to a 'shrink' was seen as the fashionable norm, rather than the exception, for the richer portion of society (a particularly American craze, that one – never took off to quite the same degree over here). In that sense, perhaps it does say something insightful about the time of writing, but it never felt wholly authentic to me.

I did find it very readable – the quality and flow of Yates' writing ensured that. But when I got to the end, I felt I had simply spent time watching two sad and failed lives spelled out in great detail for no particular purpose, and without that sense of truth and insight that raised Revolutionary Road from commonplace misery to devastating tragedy. 3½ stars for me, so rounded up.

Sunset Song
Sunset Song
Price: £9.99

13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Film of the Book comparison - a real disappointment..., 21 April 2016
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This review is from: Sunset Song (Amazon Video)
Apparently the making of the film has been a long-term labour of love for director Terence Davies, his first attempt to bring it to the screen having failed in 2003. It has been one of the films I've been most eager to see since I fell in love with the book all over again when I recently re-read it after a gap of many years. The book is a profound and deeply moving portrait of a rural society caught up in the changes brought about through modernisation and war at the beginning of the 20th century, culminating with the characters coming together to face an uncertain future in a world that will never be the same again.

I wish I was about to rave about the film, but I'm not – well, not in a good way, at least. It's the most disappointing adaptation I have seen on either big or small screen for years. The book is widely recognised as one of the most significant Scottish novels of the 20th century, and I hoped the film would faithfully reproduce the themes and culture that give it that deserved status.

Imagine my disappointment then to discover that Davies had decided to cast an English actress in the central role of Chris Guthrie – a 32-year-old English actress at that, to play a character who is a child at the start of the book and no more than mid-20s at its end. Agyness Dean does her best in the role, and her accent is reasonably authentic sounding at points – enough to fool a non-Scottish audience anyway, I would think – but she is totally miscast. She is a former model – tall, fragile and delicate looking. Hardly what one expects an early 20th century Aberdeenshire farmer's daughter to look like, I fear. However, there's no doubt she looks good in her underclothes or naked, which is presumably why that's how she appears for a goodly proportion of the time. But the young girl's sexual awakening is handled in the book with a kind of harsh integrity which is lost completely by having a mature actress play the role.

Many of the other cast members are Scottish and some of the performances are excellent. Peter Mullan as Chris' harsh and brutal father is entirely credible, and Kevin Guthrie does well with the character of Chris' lover and husband, Ewan Tavendale – though Davies' interpretation of Ewan's character gives him an innocence and charm in the early days of their relationship that he doesn't really possess in the book, making his later transformation about as realistic as Jekyll and Hyde. Daniela Nardini, one of our finest Scottish actresses, stands out as Chris' mother – unfortunately, the character's early death means this is a tiny role. And Ian Pirie works wonders with the severely reduced role that Davies leaves for Chae, one of the central characters in the book, perhaps as much its heart as Chris herself, but here sidelined to the periphery, as Davies converts the ensemble piece of the book to a narrow concentration on Chris' early life and love for Ewan.

One of the central themes of the book is the loss of Scottish language and culture due to the anglicisation of the education system, forcing children to speak English rather than their native dialects. What an utterly odd directorial decision then for Davies to anglicise the speech in the film! He uses a rather annoying voiceover to explain all the bits of the book that he fails to portray on the screen, and mentions the question of anglicisation in that, so clearly he didn't miss the point in the book. He gives as his reason that using authentic dialect would have made the film difficult for viewers unfamiliar with it – I suggest that's why they invented subtitles. Would he make an Icelandic film in English too? Sadly, perhaps he would.

I won't even bother to mention my horror at finding that much of the film was shot in New Zealand.

The real disappointment though is the narrowness of the focus of the film, it's concentration almost entirely on Chris. The book also has Chris at its centre, but through her lets the reader see the whole community. It's the discussions between the men that show the beginnings of the rise of socialism, the attitudes towards the war in this community so detached from the seat of power, the social strata and structures that must yield to change. Davies allows us about three minutes of this in one scene of the community getting together, with the result that when some of the men decide either to go or refuse to go to war, the viewer is left baffled by their motivation, unable to differentiate between cowardice and principled pacifism. And he takes the community completely out of the ending, leaving us with Chris standing alone – totally wrong and distorting the entire point of the book.

Perhaps it works as a standalone war-time love story for non-Scots. There is some lovely scenery and some of it is even Scottish, but it crawls along from one set-piece scene to another with the camera lingering far too long on overly staged tableaux, never flowing nor achieving a true portrayal of the characters or the culture. By all means, see the film, but please don't think it is anything other than the palest reflection of the excellent book.

Gandhi and Churchill: The Rivalry That Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age
Gandhi and Churchill: The Rivalry That Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age
by Arthur Herman
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Cometh the hour, cometh the men..., 21 April 2016
Two of the most iconic figures of the 20th century, Gandhi and Churchill met only once, but spent much of their lives locked in a battle over the future of India, a battle that would have repercussions far beyond the borders of that nation and long after both men had quit the political stage.

The scope of this book is huge. Herman gives us parallel biographies of both men from birth to death, a full political history of India under the Raj, and a wider look at the impact the battle for control of India had on the British Empire in the East and on the course of the bloody history of Europe and, indeed, the world in the first half of the century. He handles it superbly, remaining even-handed throughout, showing both men's failures and weaknesses as well as their strengths, and how the intransigence of each grew out of their personal histories. There's no sycophancy here, but neither is there an attempt to vilify either man – Herman suggests that neither deserves the reputation for unalloyed greatness that they tend to have been given in the popular mind in their respective nations, but both worked hard all their lives to achieve what they genuinely believed was for the best, for both nations.

Born just five years apart in the middle of the 19th century, both men grew up with the Victorian attitude to Empire. Churchill's father had been Secretary of State for India and been instrumental in annexing Upper Burma, and Herman suggests that Churchill's lifelong desire to live up to the expectations of the father he lost in his youth affected Churchill's attitude to maintaining the Empire throughout his life. Gandhi, like most high-caste and educated Indians of the time, was a supporter of the Empire in his youth, and indeed for much of his political career, fighting for equality for the races within the Empire rather than independence from it, until quite a late stage in his life.

Equality for the Indian races, that is – both men were fundamentally racist, as was pretty much the norm at the time. Churchill believed in the innate superiority of the white races, happy to give self-ruling Dominion status to the white colonies populated by good Anglo-Saxon stock, but believing in a more direct form of rule of the other colonies, since he believed they were not capable of governing themselves. The British attitude was to differentiate even between those other races, in India seeing the Muslims as a fighting people who were the backbone of the Indian Army, while Hindus were seen as having weaker, less manly attributes. Gandhi believed that Indians, or rather Hindus, were spiritually superior to other races; and his racism is further shown during the period he spent in South Africa, fighting for equality of the educated Indians in the country, but appalled at being expected to use the same doors as Africans. At this time Gandhi's desire for equality didn't include the low-caste Indians in South Africa either. Herman clearly shows the parallels between the class and race attitudes of the Britons and of the Indians – the idea that the British Empire was in some way exclusively racist is shown as a too simplistic belief. Indeed, one of Churchill's motivations in denying Indian independence for so long was his somewhat prophetic belief that the withdrawal of the Raj would lead to appalling consequences for the minorities or politically weak groupings in Indian society – specifically the Muslims and the Untouchables.

Herman draws other parallels. Both men knew what it was to fail – Churchill in the disastrous Dardanelles campaign in WW1, Gandhi in his various satyagraha (non-violent resistance) campaigns which rarely achieved any real gains and frequently descended into violence and riots. Both men lost the trust of their colleagues and were politically sidelined, to be later recalled at moments of crisis. Both men knew how it felt to ask other men to give up their lives for a cause. Both men could be brutal in pursuit of their aims – Gandhi refusing to compromise on full independence, even as violence, massacres and mass movements of refugees devastated the nation; Churchill allowing vast numbers of people to starve in the famine of 1943, unwilling to divert resources from the war effort elsewhere.

And Herman concludes that, despite successes along the way, in terms of their hopes for India both men ultimately failed. The partitioned India that finally achieved independence was not the one Gandhi had dreamed of and worked for, neither politically nor spiritually. And Churchill lived long enough to see the dismantling of his beloved Empire, which he had hoped that victory in WW2 would preserve, and the diminishing of Britain as a global force. But after death, both men would become almost mythic in their native lands – Churchill as the great war leader who stood alone against the Nazi threat, and Gandhi as the great spiritual leader of his nation – two formidable forces who influenced the world, though not always perhaps in the ways they intended.

The book covers so much it's impossible to give even a real flavour of it in a review. In short, it is a stunning achievement. Herman writes brilliantly, making even the most complex subject clear. He has the gift of knowing what to put in and what to leave out, so that the reader feels fully informed without ever becoming bogged down by a lot of irrelevant details. Even on the bits of history that he mentions more or less in passing – the background to the Suez crisis, for example, or Kashmir – his short explanations give a clarity often missed in more detailed accounts. And his writing flows – the book is as readable as a fine literary novel, a great, sweeping saga covering a hundred years or more of history, populated by characters we come to know and understand. Quite possibly the best biographical history I have ever read, and one that gets my highest recommendation.

A Dark Redemption (Carrigan & Miller Book 1)
A Dark Redemption (Carrigan & Miller Book 1)
Price: £1.89

4.0 out of 5 stars Strong start to the series..., 19 April 2016
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Three young men take off to Uganda for one last adventure holiday before they put their student days behind them and venture into the world of work. But Uganda is in the grip of civil unrest, with gangs of rebel soldiers, many of them children, making the country a dangerous place for Ugandans and visitors alike. Jack, Ben and David are horrified by some of the things they see and, when they get lost and are stopped at a rebel roadblock, they realise they're in serious trouble.

Years later in the present, Jack Carrigan is a detective in the Met, tasked to investigate a horrific murder of a Ugandan student living in London. Still haunted by his own experiences in Uganda, Carrigan is reluctant to consider a possible political motive and tries to convince himself this is a straightforward sex crime. But his new partner, Geneva Miller, isn't so sure – the girl had been researching one of the worst of the rebel groups and there are features of the murder that make Miller think there's a connection.

I freely admit am excessively tired of current trends and clichés in modern crime novels, so let's speed quickly by them. Carrigan is typically angst-ridden – in fact, so is Miller, to a lesser degree. Miller drinks too much. Each detective has a quirk – Carrigan, a coffee addiction with every cup described; and Miller, a rash brought on by stress, and this is kind of a stressful case, so she scratches. Constantly. (However, I've actually previously read Eleven Days, the second in the series, in which Carrigan seems to have got his coffee addiction under control and someone must have told Miller about antihistamines, so it's good to know that these annoying traits disappear.) The book is unnecessarily gory – the murder methods are brutal and sickening in the extreme and told in far too much detail, enhanced by some added gruesomeness in the autopsy room. And vomiting. (No-one ever vomited in crime fiction prior to about 1990 – now they all do it. Or urinate/defecate with fear. What has happened to the human race? Can I really be the only person who doesn't want to read about people losing control of their bodily functions? Harrow my soul, dear authors, not my stomach...)

Now for the positives. Sherez writes very well – way above average standard in contemporary crime writing. He has clearly done his research on the situation in Uganda thoroughly and that whole element of the book is completely convincing, adding a considerable amount of depth to what would otherwise be a fairly standard police procedural. The prologue, with the three students in Uganda, is very well done, building a great atmosphere of tension in a few pages and making the reader immediately care about the outcome. Although we are only taken back to Uganda occasionally throughout the book, this strand is the one that held my interest most and felt most authentic.

Both Carrigan and Miller are well-drawn characters, likeable despite their angst and quirkiness, and with plenty of room for future development. Carrigan is still mourning the death of his wife, and Miller's marriage has just broken up, but neither of these elements is allowed to dominate the story. This is the first time Carrigan and Miller have worked together, and we see them developing a respect for each other that looks like it may in time blossom into friendship, or perhaps more. There's a lot of office politics going on – too much for my taste – but it's well done, even if there are parts of it which don't quite come over as believable.

The main plot and investigation elements are interesting and convincingly written. The detectives play within the rules for the most part except, of course, for the obligatory police-officer-beats-up-suspect scenario. The writing slips a little when it goes into dialogue, with people expressing themselves with an eloquence that doesn't ring true to their characters. Unfortunately the ending does the usual thing of throwing credibility away in order to achieve a dramatic dénouement.

I know I've been critical of several things in the book, but partly, that's down to my personal taste, and partly, the preponderance of well-worn clichés is the kind of thing that often happens in the first of a series – sadly, may even be necessary for a first book to find a publisher in these days when what they seem to want is for every book to be identical to the last best-seller. Overall, I like Sherez's writing style very much, though I do wish he would tone down the gore. The characterisation is very good, especially of the two central characters. And, as in Eleven Days, the quality of research shines through, with the secondary story providing a strong backdrop for the main action. Recommended, and I'll be looking forward to seeing how the series develops in future.

Mrs Maybrick (Crime Archive)
Mrs Maybrick (Crime Archive)
by Victoria Blake
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £7.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Small but perfectly formed..., 12 April 2016
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In 1889, Florence Maybrick was tried in Liverpool for the murder by arsenic poisoning of her husband, James. This deceptively small book tells the story of the crime and its aftermath. It's well-laid out, with a clear linear structure divided into short chapters. Blake takes us from Florence and James' first meeting and hasty marriage, hasty perhaps because each thought the other was a better financial catch than turned out to be the case, through their marital problems, James' illness and death, and the legal aftermath of trial and appeals, and finishes with the story of what finally happened to Florence.

Victoria Blake is a regular visitor to my blog, so obviously you will have to assume that there may be some bias in my review. But I shall try to be as honest as I can – not difficult, since I thoroughly enjoyed this little book, finding it both interesting and well presented.

While these old murder cases are often interesting in themselves, what I most enjoy about them is what they tell us about the society of the time. This case has all kinds of fascinating angles and Blake explores and explains them thoroughly. Both Florence and James were suspected of having had affairs, but we see clearly the double standards that were in operation, with men being much more readily forgiven for this kind of transgression. Blake shows us how the growing newspaper industry first demonised Florence and then later took up her cause – all too familiar to readers of today's tabloid journalism.

Although arsenic was known as a poison used for murder, it was also used for medicinal and even cosmetic purposes, and Blake shows how that confused the evidence. James was a bit of a hypochondriac, who took arsenic along with many other drugs on a regular basis. Florence claimed to use arsenic in a preparation for a facial lotion. And it was easily obtainable – even flypapers contained arsenic which could be released by soaking. So could the prosecution prove that James' death was definitely murder? Could they even prove that arsenic was the cause of death? As in so many cases, then and now, both prosecution and defence could find expert witnesses giving opposing testimony on the evidence.

But the interest in this case is less on whether Florence did murder James or not, and more on what it showed about the justice system of the time. The judge had decided that Florence was guilty and his summing up left the jury with little option but to bring in that verdict, despite the fact that many people in the legal profession felt the case had not been proved satisfactorily. But at that time there was no right to appeal against a capital conviction. The only recourse was to petition the Home Secretary. The government, however, had to consider the loss of confidence in the justice system if they were to overturn the verdict of a jury and the sentence of a judge. The question of Florence's guilt or innocence became lost as the establishment closed ranks around its own. And Blake shows how Queen Victoria's own disgust at the idea of an adulterous wife put added pressure on the government not to show clemency.

An intriguing story and, despite having only 108 pages of text, the book is by no means too short to present all the arguments, due to the concise, clear writing and well-marshalled presentation of the facts and theories. Blake gives both sides equal weight, presenting the evidence of both prosecution and defence without bias. Only at the very end does she express her own opinion as to Florence's guilt or innocence, and leaves it to the reader to decide whether she's right.

The book itself is a pleasure – small but with excellent production values. The paper is good quality and there are over 20 plates, including photos of the main participants and locations, and some of the documents in the case. Many of the references in the book are to Home Office files and documents, appropriate for a book published under the auspices of the National Archive. This would be ideal gift material for anyone interested in true crime – I'm off to investigate the other titles in the series now...

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