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P. G. Harris

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Price: £1.89

4.0 out of 5 stars Losing the peace, 24 Sept. 2017
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This review is from: Dominion (Kindle Edition)
This is an absolutely top notch thriller. It is set in a 1950s Britain which didn't win the war. Unlike books such as SSGB and Fatherland, Germany didn't win. In 1940, Halifax rather than Churchill became prime minister and reached a peace accord. However, having not lost the war, The UK is definitely losing the peace. With Beaverbrook now leading a government which includes Oswald Moseley and Enoch Powell, the country is increasingly falling under Teutonic influence, and morphing into a mirror image of the dominant European power. Meanwhile, an increasingly violent resistance movement lead by Churchill, Macmillan, Attlee and Bevan is making things difficult.

Germany has its own problems. Freed from fighting on the western front, it committed more resources to Russia, Stalin fell, but a murderous war continues deep in Asia. Meanwhile Hitler, suffering from Parkinson's is a remote and fragile figure, while the army and SS manoeuvre for position.

Within this alternate history, civil servant David has become a low level spy for the resistance, partially to escape the sadness of a lost child and a cooling marriage. He is thrown centre stage when a reclusive university friend is given a deadly secret by his brother working in America. The race is on to prevent the Nazis from learning that secret. However, David has a secret buried in his own past which may ruin him.

The book intertwines three stories. Whether David can and will save his marriage to Sarah. The struggle to keep the secret from the Germans, and the larger geopolitical machinations. These give it a very clear link to one of the themes of Sansom's Shardlake stories. The protaganists are swept up into their own deadly struggle, but against the bigger picture, their actions are inconsequential and have little impact on the ultimate outcome.

Just like the Shardlake novels, this book ends with an epilogue, and then with an authors view of his novel. In some ways the epilogue is the least satisfying part of the book, as Sansom allows his carefully lined up dominoes to fall over a little too easily. However, that is a minor grumble in what is a brilliantly imaged different world. I probably enjoyed this more than SS GB or Fatherland.

The author's note at the end is fascinating and a little sad. Written before the fateful referenda, Sansom is vitriolic about the rise of nationalism in Europe and has a real go at UKIP. However, as an Anglo-Scot, the real heat if his dark fire is aimed squarely at the SNP whom he sees, at best as having nothing to say or give beyond the nationalist agenda, at worst as proto-facist.

Price: £14.70

4.0 out of 5 stars Bottom shaking rock and roll, 22 Sept. 2017
This review is from: Dereconstructed (Audio CD)
Take a base spirit of Lynyrd Skynyrd, mix with a good measure of Definitely Maybe-era Oasis scuzzy guitars, add a dash of Springsteen style blue collar Americana, season with some Billy Bragg/Woody Guthrie, and pour into a large glass engarved with the words "Make some noise". That is pretty much the recipe for the Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires cocktail as it appears on this album. It is a good a recipe for bottom shaking rock and roll as I've come across in some time. I heard the band for the first time at a festival this summer and they absolutely blew the other acts off stage.

The recording is resolutely lo-fi, to the point that the vocals get a little lost amidst the distortion. It is a little lyrically simplistic at times, (get to chorus and repeat) but that is made up for by the sheer energy and life affirming nature of the whole thing.

The Vegetarian: A Novel
The Vegetarian: A Novel
Price: £5.98

5.0 out of 5 stars Disturbing and gripping, 20 Sept. 2017
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It would be wrong to say that I liked the Vegetarian. Liked is not a word which sits comfortably with it. It is not a pleasant book. It is a deeply disturbing, horrific, tragic, shocking book. It is however beautifully written and translated, giving the prose a poetic, lyrical, almost dream like quality.

It is split into three parts. In the first a Korean business man tells of his wife becoming a vegetarian. He is a man without empathy for his wife in a marriage of convenience. That is all she is to him, his wife, and his only concern as she spirals towards anorexia is that she is no longer fulfilling the role of being his wife in his professional life.

The second section is written in the third person, from the viewpoint of a rich, spoilt artist who never grew up and who is obsessed by his sister in law, or more specifically, her birth mark. He is desperate to paint on her naked body. The sister in law onto whom he is literally projecting his desires is the wife of the first section, who along the way we have learned is called Yeong-hye.

In the final section, again told in the third person, the artist's ex-wife, In-hye, visits her sister in a mental institution, where she is deep within a form of anorexia, and reflects on her own life in the mirror of Yeong-hye.

The vegetarian is about a lot of things, it is about the place of and expectations placed on women in a male dominated society. It is about the roles demanded of women by that society. It is a book which is both extremely direct in its imagery, the artist painting on the canvas of Yeong-hye's body, and extremely obscure. I still don't think I've fully grasped everything that author Han Kang is saying.

I started by saying that this isn't a pleasant book,but it is utterly gripping, fiercely intelligent, deeply challenging, and highly rewarding.

Shattered Minds
Shattered Minds
Price: £7.12

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Newneuromancer, 10 Sept. 2017
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This review is from: Shattered Minds (Kindle Edition)
There is absolutely no issue with genre definition here. This is an absolutely straight down the line work of cyberpunk. Dystopian future, check. Brain computer interface, check. Individuals risking frying their brains fighting large corporations, check. Central character damaged by previous interaction with said large corporations, check. Noir-ish tone check. This is a novel massively influenced by William Gibson's genre-defining Neuromancer.

While Author Laura Lam is not as talented an author as Gibson (who in the genre is), this is still a highly entertaining book. It is slightly more toward the bio end of the spectrum, rather than the cyber, and could be taken as another retelling of Mary Shelley's bio-punk classic Frankenstein.

It is not a book which suffers from the presence of Basil Exposition. Lam both expects the reader to catch up as she goes along, and uses lack of explanation as a plot device. This is a waorld in which America has split into Pacifica and Atlantica. The book opens with a unexplained scenario in which a brain experiment on a young girl goes badly wrong. It then switches viewpoint between multiple characters. Carina is an ex employee of the monopolistic Sudice Corporation, who is now hopelessly addictive experiential drug, reminiscent of Better than Life in Grant Naylor's Red Dwarf. Ros is a senior Sudice executive who kills an ex-colleague of Carina's just after he hides damaging evidence about the company in her (Candice's) brain. Dax is a doctor who has joined the Trust a disaffected group seeking to bring down Sudice.

These are used to tell a breakneck quest type adventure story as the Trust race to use the secrets hidden in Carina's brain as Ros's pursuit of them gets closer and closer.

As with much sci-fi, Lam extrapolates from our current world, using this device to comment on contemporary mores. Here one of her main targets is the shallowness of modern life, promoted by major corporations. One of the building blocks of her story is the embedding of multiple applications within single products.

Much as I enjoyed the story, it is not perfect. Ros is too much of a two-dimensional villain. The Trust don't so much repeatedly snatch victory from the jaws of defeat as from half way along its alimentary canal. This is particularly true of the final denouement which relies on an actual deus ex machina to save the day.

Fun but flawed.

Heartstone (The Shardlake Series Book 5)
Heartstone (The Shardlake Series Book 5)
Price: £3.79

2.0 out of 5 stars Catalogue for the Mary Rose Museum, 10 Sept. 2017
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Oh dear. In the afterward to this book, author C J Sansom explains his fascination with the sinking of the Mary Rose and his determination to include it in one of these stories. I'm afraid it shows, and not in a way which is beneficial to the quality of his novel.

As this series has progressed, the central cast of characters, both Shardlake's friends and enemies, has expanded as characters return from one novel to the next. We met Guy the Ex-monk in dissolution, sidekick Barak and enemy Sir Richard Rich in Dark Fire, Barak's wife Tamsin in Sovereign, and Bedlam inhabitant Ellen in Revelation.

What Sansom delivers here are two utterly preposterous plots, one involving a convoluted inheritance case, the other the events which led to Ellen's incarceration. He then ties in a ridiculous number of characters from earlier books and crow bars in the story of the Mary Rose in a completely contrived fashion.

In the process, Shardlake himself turns into James Bond, being attacked and shot at by mysterious adversaries, before finally being captured by villains who explain how they are going to kill him before shutting him up and giving him plenty of time to escape.

The main strength of the book is in the meticulous research, much of it coming from the excavation of the Mary Rose. One particularly striking image is of soldiers sitting round a camp fire carving the handles of their daggers. However, a common feature of these books is the accelerating pace. They all start slowly, to the point I frequently want the writer to get on with it. Here, the level of detail weighs extremely heavily, slowing the action down, at times to the point of immobility.

Probably one for the completists only.

Revelation (The Shardlake Series Book 4)
Revelation (The Shardlake Series Book 4)
Price: £3.79

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Silence of ye Lambs, 10 Sept. 2017
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I, have over the last few months, read the (currently) complete set of CJ Sansom's Shardlake novels, and have come to see three core elements in his template - some form of standard detective story, a strong link to tudor history, and two intertwining plots. Generally, I have tended to enjoy the books more where the detective or thriller story takes centre stage while the history provides background detail.

This, for me was probably the best of the series. Just as other books have taken a standard format, a country house murder mystery, a techno-thriller, so this is a serial killer thriller.

Hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake and his robust sidekick, a sort of mediaeval Morse and Lewis are on the trail of a killer who is murdering back-sliding religious reformers in ways inspired by the book of Revelation, hence the title. In the background Shardlake is investigating the case of a teenage boy incarcerated in Bedlam because of his religious mania, a religious mania which threatens to get him burned as a heretic in an England stepping back from protestant reform.

It all cracks along at a good pace, is sufficiently gory for those who enjoy the antics of serial killers, and there is a nice twist in the identity of the killer.

It is also worth noting that Shardlake's friend guy, whom we fist met in Dissolution, continues to grow his part. As the lawyer becomes ever more the unlikely action-hero, so their relationship starts to resemble that between Aubrey and Maturin in Patrick O'Brian's sea stories.

The Music Shop
The Music Shop
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Duplo fiction, 29 Aug. 2017
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This review is from: The Music Shop (Kindle Edition)
Frank runs a small independent record store in an unnamed town. He sells only vinyl, refusing to stock audio cassettes or CDs. The other businesses alongside his on Unity Street are a motley collection, a tattoo parlour, an ex-priest selling religious artefacts, a baker, an undertaker. Frank is less of a shopkeeper,more of a therapist whose medium is music. He instinctively knows what melodies people need in their lives. One day, while this disparate community are gathered in Frank's shop, a woman in a green coat looks in through the window and instantly faints. The rest of the book is about the development of the relationship between Frank and the woman, Ilse Brauchmann. This plays out against the background of the shopkeepers trying to stay in business while an unscrupulous developer tries to buy them out.

The Music Shop is ultimately a sweet little love story. It is a story about the healing power of music. It is a story about odd balls trying to find a place in an uncaring society. It is story about the little person standing up to big business. It is a story about the importance of community.

Those are all laudable themes, but for me the problem is I didn't believe or buy into a single word of it. I always struggle with books which wrap their metaphors round large bricks and throw them in the reader's face. These people are a community who need to stick together, and they live on UNITY ST. Got that? Stick together? UNITY? I couldn't buy into Frank's virtually supernatural ability to change people's lives with one piece of music. I hated the way Ilse couldn't just be a normal person, she had to be, in a Dan Brown sort of way, world renowned. The other characters were shallow stereotypes. Maud the spiky but damaged and sensitive Goth-punk. Father Brown the disillusioned ex-priest, and worst of all, Kit, the eager to please teenage shop assistant,bungling his way to finding himself. He has got to be one of the most irritating characters I've come across in along time.

It is a humorous book,but the humour is either at a base slapstick level, involving accidentally standing in buckets, or it is the comedy of embarrassment and awkwardness. Now, I realise that is a matter of taste, but I found it difficult to read the book for any length of time,so strongly did it make me want to squirm.

I disliked the structure. The author tells her story and reaches a denouement,but then doesn't have the courage of her convictions, and so tacks on a completely different ending, courtesy of some completely unbelievable behaviour by her characters.

I said earlier that the concept of community with the small shop keepers serving the society around them is an important element of the book, but for me, Joyce failed to establish that. She stated that they were a community who provided a service,but the picture she paints is of a group of apathetic shopkeepers who fail to sell stuff which nobody wants to buy while sitting around on each others premises moaning about it. Meanwhile their buildings fall into disrepair. I almost found myself rooting for the developers.

Trying to find positive notes in the elevator music of the book, I am tempted to re-read the sections where Frank describes music to Ilse, or where he recalls his mother introducing him to music,to see if I can hear what he hears. Also, if you approach this as a fairy story, and accept the simplistic style, and primary coloured plot, you may find it an unchallengingly entertaining read. That said,while I earlier said that this could be a sweet little love story, the sweetness gets dangerously close to being sugary.

If you would like to read a well written, credible, and genuinely moving story about the power of music, I suggest Vikram Seth's "An Equal Music". To compare that with The Music Shop is akin to comparing a fine marble statue to a model made from Duplo.

I realise from reading other reviews that my opinions about this book will not be popular and I apologise if I offend, but I honestly can't recommend it. On one hand we have the Music Shop, on the other we have my cup of tea. The two are definitely distinct and separate entities.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 1, 2017 6:17 AM BST

Sovereign (The Shardlake Series Book 3)
Sovereign (The Shardlake Series Book 3)
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Preposterous plot shoe horned into real history, 21 Aug. 2017
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I have rattled through five of the C J Sansom Shardlake novels as my light reading for the summer and for methe fall into two separate camps. Either they take a sub-genre of detective/thriller fiction and cram it with diligently researched detail about tudor England, or they take real events from the period, and shoe-horn in a detective/ thriller plot. For me, the latter are less successful and unfortunately this falls into that category.

After the fall of Thomas Cromwell, lawyer Matthew Shardlake is called into the service of Archbishop Cranmer, and despatched to York to return a prisoner to London for interrogation/torture. This rather artificial errand is created so that Shardlake can witness Henry VIII's real life journey to York to bring the North to heel following a rebellion.

Soon after Matthew and faithful sidekick Jack Barak arrive inYork, the body count starts to rise, as they become involved in a plot to challenge the right of the Tudors to the throne. It is the kind of historical conspiracy about which Channel 4 might,and in fact has, make/made a Saturday evening documentary. Add to that a mysterious young woman pursuing Barak and the events which led to the fall ofCatherine Howard, and it's a somewhat confusing mix.

This has many of the strengths and weaknesses of the other books in the series. It moves along at a lively pace and the historical detail is engaging. The plot however is somewhat preposterous, and the characters are frequently given to long didactic conversations, explaining things they already know to each other for the benefit of the reader.

Dark Fire (The Shardlake Series Book 2)
Dark Fire (The Shardlake Series Book 2)
Price: £3.79

4.0 out of 5 stars Tom de Clancy, 8 Aug. 2017
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This is the second of C J Sansom's novels set in the England of Henry VIII featuring hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake. The first instalment in the series, Dissolution, was structurally a classic country house murder mystery. Here, with a drastic change of pace, Sansom unexpectedly delivers a mediaeval techno-thrller, complete with frantic search for WMDs to prevent them from from falling into the wrong hands. Bolted onto the side is a murder mystery for Shardlake to solve.

The strength of these books is in Sansom's ability to spin a fast paced yarn. His hero is also an engaging narrator, although that is also something of a weakness. Shardlake is very much, like perhaps Brother Cadfael and Marcus Didius Falco, a 20th/21st Century liberal transported slightly unbelievably into an historical setting.

The other main problem is the odd whopping great plot hole. Without wanting to include any spoilers, I would just ask why did the villains not dispose of the evidence? Why did they just leave it In situ for Shardlake to find.

So, it's not great literature, but it is very entertaining.

Price: £4.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoots Macbeth, 22 July 2017
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This review is from: Nutshell (Kindle Edition)
Or a Scot in Dane’s Clothing.

I once read a review of a Tom Stoppard play, Hapgood, I think it was, which suggested that Stoppard’s genius was in making his audience feel more intelligent. I got the same sort of feeling with Nutshell, as Ian McEwan plays with his reader’s knowledge of Shakespeare. Or to put it another way, this is a highbrow (or even middlebrow) version of 1066 and All That, all those dimly remembered bits of Shakespeare.

Much I had heard about Nutshell before reading it suggested that it is a retelling of Hamlet. Well yes it is to an extent, but firstly it is more of prequel, and secondly the characters and the imagery are frequently closer to the Scottish Play.

In this world, the state of Denmark (or Scotland) is a slightly tired but still valuable townhouse in London. (Ger)Trudy has thrown out her husband, poet and publisher, John Cairncross out of the home inherited from his family. She has replaced him with his shallower brother, property developer Claude (ius). The two of them are plotting to murder the unfortunate writer in order to realise the value of this particular property. Their machinations (and copulations) are observed by John and Trudy’s unborn baby.

McEwan then liberally sprinkles this set up with references to both Danish and Scottish plays. Trudy cuts her foot and worries about how difficult it is to clean up the blood. Claude having chosen a poison, wonders if he should have used one about which he read, which can be poured into the victim’s ear. Trudy drives Claude toward murder, and in the immediate aftermath is the more practical, but then quickly becomes the more regretful, to the point where Claude cares little for her. John’s ghost appears, a cross between Hamlet’s father and Banquo at the feast.

This is a slight book, little more than a novella, but it is extremely intense, and Mcewan’s writing style is that of a virtuoso, revelling in complex vocabulary. The first chapter is one of the most stunningly beautiful pieces of writing I have read for some time, but then I found it difficult to progress. That wasn’t because of anything wrong with the story or style, other than its being so dense and intricate. I found it quite it quite tiring, or perhaps a better description might be extremely rich. I wanted to digest one chapter fully before moving onto the next. That said, as things move toward the crime and its aftermath, the pace picks up as it turns from a piece of angsty middle class literary fiction into an out and out thriller.

I suspect that this will be a book which generates pretty binary reactions. A couple of times, I did wonder if it might become irritating, a bit too clever for its own good. I could certainly sympathise with those how might react badly to it. However, in the end, it won me over. It is a surprising, intelligent and entertaining book with a unique and engaging narrative voice. While being set in a very familiar middle class London, it avoids the suffocating smugness of Saturday.

Well worth investing your time and a few of your English pounds.

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