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Thomas Holt

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Puppet on a Chain
Puppet on a Chain
by Alistair MacLean
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Weak by Maclean's standards, 24 Feb. 2013
This review is from: Puppet on a Chain (Paperback)
I remember reading this when it first came out and thinking, this is not MacLean. On re-reading it, I can see why I made that assessment, but the book is considerably better than I thought it was in the '60s. So, how is it different from earlier MacLeans? For a start, the tension is much more unevenly controlled - thus losing much of what made MacLean so successful - having the reader on a taught string, and keeping them there. Then, the characterisation is weak, almost as if the author was losing what little interest he had in writing - I suppose concentrating on screenplays does that to writers. Most tellingly, I formed no relationship with the hero - not really caring much what happened to him - he's just another pretend person in a book. In all previous MacLeans with a first person hero, I actually liked the character, identifying with his humour, for example. On re-reading, this made me remember certain dialogue and situations. When it came to this book, no such triggers remained. Given the drug-fuelled psychopathic nature of some of the characters in this book, I found them genuinely shocking in the '60s and didn't particularly enjoy reading of their sadistic excesses.

On the positive side, having visited Amsterdam several times since then, I can see that the scene-setting is well up to standard - something I didn't appreciate on a first reading. The shocks are still shocks - but less so. With decades featuring episodes like the Balkan conflicts under my belt, I am more accepting that some people are just plain bad and capable of anything. By the standards of modern thrillers, where I sometimes wonder if it is the readers and authors who are the sadists, I am sure it is tame stuff. I also found that, although I criticise the pace of this novel, it is still an exciting read, just not up to the exacting standards MacLean had set himself. The surprise ending is everything we've come to expect from MacLean, and helps enormously with the overall tension of the book. In this novel, particularly, it does make you go through a retrospective of certain characters - possibly an indication of weak character development and/or weak plotting, but maybe just the skill of a master hoodwinker. This book may signal, in a small way, the declining powers of the author; but it is still a very enjoyable and worthwhile read. It is immeasurably superior to almost all of the post Bear Island novels.


When Eight Bells Toll
When Eight Bells Toll
by Alistair MacLean
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Another enjoyable yarn from MacLean, 17 Feb. 2013
This review is from: When Eight Bells Toll (Paperback)
Although this story probably only merits 4 stars as a thriller, I gave it 5 because of the added interest of the Bond context. The hero, Calvert, a Government agent, is clearly a deliberate attempt to show James Bond as MacLean thought he should be. Here is no vacuous snob, or sexual predator - no, this is Bond with a brain, from a similar background to you or I, a Bond with wry humour, with a compassion for others - irrespective of station. Calvert, too, is a killer - but a killer with a conscience and a keen sense of justice. He usually gets things right - unlike Bond, who seems to make a mess of everything, before somehow stumbling upon a way of defeating the villain. Most of all, Calvert is a planner - he uses his intelligence and experience to reduce the odds against him and to develop a winning strategy. The only odds Bond seems to understand are those in a casino. And as for forward planning .....!

I like the setting of the Western Scottish coast, to some perhaps not as exotic as Bond locales. But if you've ever walked in the area around Skye you'll know that it is every bit as beautiful as any Bond location, and that it is an area where more or less anything could happen and remain hidden for days. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and even found parts of it quite moving! - not what is expected from MacLean. The equivalent of Bond's M - Uncle Arthur, is an altogether more interesting character - upper-crust, the perfect foil for Calvert's persona, usually in control, and ready to back his agent to the hilt if needed. Calvert's relationship with his boss is complex; he has considerable freedom to do what he regards as necessary, but there is considerable resentment - essentially class-based, and a surprising cynical admiration and trust. This tale of kidnapping, murder, piracy, and bullion robbery moves at MacLean's typical pace, but every now and then slows - usually to allow some added insight into Calvert's character. This makes Calvert much more interesting than the normally wooden Bond and, if this does lower the momentum of the novel somewhat, it doesn't seem to matter too much since it makes Calvert more likeable and comprehensible - rare in such a character.

Not the greatest of MacLean but a very well-written, exciting, and interesting novel, nevertheless. One of the best 'not-Bond's that I've come across and well worth a read.


Full of Flavour: Create . . . How to Think Like a Chef
Full of Flavour: Create . . . How to Think Like a Chef
by Maria Elia
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £19.99

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great book for cooks who think - or want to!, 14 Feb. 2013
The contents of this book have been more than adequately covered in other reviews. I want to tell why I like it and, hopefully, identify like-minded home cooks who should also add it to their collection.

I have a lot of very good cookbooks, and literally thousands of recipes to chose from every day. Great! - isn't it? Well, no - because I'd become lazy. With access to so much information I tended to pick a main ingredient, found a recipe I fancied, and shopped for it. I'd stopped really thinking about my food and fitted my menu into somebody else's pigeon-hole.

Maria Elia's book challenges this approach by taking you through the thought processes she goes through professionally when devising a dish. With a section for her 18 favourite main ingredients, each section starts with a mind-map illustrating some associations conjured-up by a particular ingredient. Then, using her knowledge of flavours, Maria presents several recipes based on the ingredient, together with suggested variations and some explanatory text about the flavour combinations chosen. I use "The Flavour Thesaurus" by Niki Segnit to help me with this phase of devising a recipe. The book concludes with a section listing each recipe with a sample mind-map postulating different flavour and texture combinations to change the recipe. There is also space for you to jot down your own mind-map for the recipe variations.

This wonderful book succeeds on every level. The design and presentation by Kyle Books is quirky but extremely attractive and effective. It also works as yet another recipe book. The recipes are interesting, modern, full of flavour, and, although not too difficult, most will challenge less-experienced cooks. They are restaurant quality rather than Jamie's 15 Minutes. But, to me, the essential value of this book is that it inspires you to create by optimising what you already know and ensuring that your kitchen experience gradually and painlessly improves and grows. Rather than cooking what you are told to cook, you learn how to create an infinite selection of dishes, and how to adapt them to available ingredients.

Beginners would not find this book immediately useful, it does assume a few skills and quite considerable knowledge. It also has a few typos that seem to upset some people more than others. However, those with some experience, who are finding cooking more of a chore than the pleasure it used to be, will find that this book could set them well on the way to recovery. I will certainly be using it for years to come. It will save me a fortune in buying cookbooks - Enjoy!


The Flavour Thesaurus
The Flavour Thesaurus
by Niki Segnit
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.91

34 of 39 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Useful, but ridiculously over-hyped by people who should know better, 10 Feb. 2013
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: The Flavour Thesaurus (Hardcover)
It's taken me 18 months to review this book. Largely because the only illustration - the flavour wheel - completely baffled me initially and I couldn't be bothered to work it out. I'm a scientist and firmly believe that illustrations are either an invaluable blessing or a pointless curse - too often the latter, particularly in cookbooks. The main value of a good illustration is that it presents complex information in a simple way - much clearer than words, for example. The flavour wheel does the opposite! It takes simple information and presents it in a complex way that completely muddies the waters. All it does is present the arbitrarily chosen 99 flavours, grouped into very subjective categories, in a graphical, very pseudo-scientific way. It gives you no useful information about how any of the flavours might be combined, or how they should not be combined. Compare this, for example, with a colour wheel - from which, presumably, this pointless graphic was derived. Colours can be grouped scientifically, and the wheel is invaluable in showing what colours work with others, which clash - and why. I'm not at all sure that the concept can be usefully translated to flavour pairings - it certainly isn't here. Calling the book a Thesaurus doesn't help either - it isn't! So, what about the text?

The Pairings Index, 17 invaluable pages tucked away at the back of the book, is the main really useful element of this book. It takes the 99 ingredients and lists suggested flavour pairings. Generally, these work well, although omissions should not be taken too seriously, and are presented simply and usefully. Each pairing is referenced to pages in the main text that discuss the pairing in more detail, sometimes with terse, but useful, recipes. Bearing in mind that, for most courses, two or three main elements is all you need, the Pairings Index can be invaluable for creating your own menus. However, it does assume a lot of understanding of cooking options to get an appropriate balance of textures and an interesting and complementary sauce. Like many reviewers, I can take or leave the chattier bits of the text, but the stuff expanding on why flavour combinations work can be extremely interesting and useful.

Some reviewers criticise the limitations of the 99 ingredients, but you have to stop somewhere! It is easy to find something similar to your favourite missing ingredient and use the pairings listed for that. For leeks (missing), reference onions, for example, or fennel (missing) - anise, and so on.

So, a really useful reference, let down by a silly diagram, inaccurate title, and unnecessary padding - that some obviously find entertaining. Hence, three stars and a recommendation to buy it if you are an experienced cook that wants a more complete understanding of what goes with what, and why. This is not a succinct scientific reference because there is little science behind flavour combinations. Understand that, and you'll find the book useful.


The Golden Rendezvous
The Golden Rendezvous
by Alistair MacLean
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Timeless, masterly thriller, 5 Feb. 2013
This review is from: The Golden Rendezvous (Paperback)
This book was published 51 years ago, yet it is remarkable how little it has aged. The technical details might have changed, but the scenario could easily be imagined now. If one took it the other way, and imagined a book written in 1911 being read in 1962, the changes in technology and living would date the book immeasurably. Have we really advanced so little, in things that really matter, since the early 1960s?

A bunch of terrorists, led by a terrifyingly callous and determined villain, take control of a luxury cruise vessel in the Caribbean. But this is not your average such thriller; the cruise only caters for the exclusively rich and the tale of these pampered patrons incorporates murder, piracy, the theft of a nuclear device, a massive bullion robbery, a ship sailing at full speed towards a hurricane - all these elements woven together with MacLean's highly entertaining self-deprecating humour. The First Officer tells the story - a typical MacLean hero - indescribably brave, gets about 80% of the problem right, does most of the right things, and is the source of most of the irony. The tension in this novel is built with all MacLean's considerable skills, but with more care and empathy than in most of his works. For example, there is a section where the hero comes round from being sand-bagged, that takes a couple of pages to cover - in which you learn more about the character than in the whole of the book beforehand. The passengers on the ship, all extremely wealthy or very important, are described in considerable detail, although they are mostly incidental to the plot - they are used skilfully to develop the portrayal of the main players and to create atmosphere. The human responses of all the players to the various traumas imposed on them are entirely consistent with their characters, making them very believable and allowing the plot to flow at a frenetic pace - unhindered by such doubts as 'he wouldn't do that'. The romantic element - yes, in a MacLean! - is dealt with in a less than the usual ham-fisted manner - has its tender moments and is emotionally consistent with the people involved and the circumstances they are in. Readers familiar with MacLean will be shocked to learn that the woman is also permitted to do some heroic things and can cope with injury like a 'real man' - well, almost!

The thrills in this tale are handled magnificently, MacLean extracts the maximum amount of tension from every situation with such skill that it is literally impossible to stop reading. I rate this as Maclean's second best book, a close runner-up to the magnificent realism of HMS Ulysses, but very different from it. This is Maclean at the peak of his literary gifts, writing with particular patience and attention to detail. For once, the reader gets the distinct impression that he enjoyed writing this - just as you will enjoy reading it.


Gordon Ramsay's Ultimate Cookery Course
Gordon Ramsay's Ultimate Cookery Course
by Gordon Ramsay
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £22.99

9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A much better book than I originally thought - silly title!, 4 Feb. 2013
Before anything else, I must say that I don't watch TV chefs or like Gordon Ramsay. I've always thought that anyone who pretends to be an uncouth lout just to earn a bit of extra money must have a serious contempt for the rest of the human race. So, I only bought this book because, at a glance, it seemed quite good and my local Australian bookshop was flogging it off at half price. A move I regretted once I got it home and had read more of it. You see, this is not a cookery course - it lacks any tutorial structure. Therefore, it cannot be 'Ultimate' anything - obviously bettered by Nick Nairn's Cook School and Darina Allen's wonderful Ballymalo School cookbook. This view seemed to be confirmed by the negative reviews on Amazon - I always ignore very positive reviews (I have a suspicious nature!).

I was on the verge of throwing it out when I thought I'd try a couple of recipes. These are nothing like as basic as some reviewers suggest. Most require some technical skill, and the ones I tried featured unusual, but very successful, combinations of flavours. I also found that, buried deep in the recipes, is a wealth of technical tips - Gordon's Gems! I've since tried a dozen more recipes - all have worked well and passed, some with flying colours, the judgement of my sternest critic of 30 years - my wife. Fair enough, I had to accelerate some, and substitute readily available ingredients for Gordon's London exotica, but that's par for the course with cookbooks. Those people who dismiss this book saying the recipes are too basic, either haven't tried them or are suffering from a severe case of personal over-estimation. This is probably Gordon's best cookbook to date. The recipes are exceptional, but the main value lies in the little nuggets of professional expertise that are buried within the recipes and in the introductory blurb to each section. This is a cookbook to use - a lot. And the more you use it, the more you will learn. That experience has taken me from assigning a very reluctant 3 stars to an enthusiastic 4 stars. The information you want is here - but not easily accessible. You will have to cook from this book to get the most from it - but, isn't that what a good cookbook is for?


Fear is the Key
Fear is the Key
by Alistair MacLean
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5.0 out of 5 stars MacLean at the peak of his powers, 1 Feb. 2013
This review is from: Fear is the Key (Paperback)
By the time this was published, MacLean had an established and growing readership and had developed a gently sardonic style of writing that perfectly suited his frenetically paced subject matter. He also pokes a bit of fun at himself by, for example, in this book pointing out that the idea of shooting accurately from the hip is strictly for the birds. This is a thinly disguised allusion to the Bisley marksman in 'South By Java Head' who disables a gun on a submarine by firing from the hip down its barrel to explode the shell before it was fired!

This exciting narrative is a tale of revenge, with a twist, on a group of gangsters who hijack an oil millionnaire and his family to recover treasure from a plane crashed in the Gulf of Mexico. Things are not always as they seem as this typical MacLean yarn belts along to a terrific conclusion. The characters are, unusually for MacLean, mostly very well-developed and almost believable. Many more recent 'thriller' writers owe an incredible debt to these early MacLean novels. This one in particular, seems to have hardly dated at all.


Kings Go Forth [DVD]
Kings Go Forth [DVD]
Dvd ~ Frank Sinatra
Offered by A ENTERTAINMENT
Price: £2.37

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Appalling travesty, 26 Jan. 2013
This review is from: Kings Go Forth [DVD] (DVD)
In spite of the stellar cast, this is probably the worst movie version of a novel ever made. Why? Well, let me tell you about the novel first. In 1957, J.D. Brown (he also wrote the novel on which the excellent movie Paper Moon was based) produced his seminal work - Kings go Forth. Based in the last year of WW II in northern Italy, it tells the story of two GIs - one an ordinary guy and one a wealthy, educated socialite - who become great friends but then fall for a beautiful young woman they meet. She is also American but her wealthy parents chose to live in Italy. You can't tell by looking at her, but the woman's father was black and her mother white - they left the pre-war USA for obvious reasons. The rest of the story combines war action with the tragic development of the woman's relationship with one of the men. It is one of the most heart-rending tales you could ever read, told with the most incredible passion and understanding.

For some reason, Hollywood decided it didn't want passion and understanding - thereby removing all the dramatic impact of this wonderful novel. The result is a series of cardboard cliches, the most predictable mush you could imagine. Even the great actors involved can't redeem this one. Avoid the movie like the plague, but, by all means, read the novel - things have changed, but not by much.


British Baking
British Baking
by Oliver Peyton
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £20.00

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great cakes, but not for beginners who trust recipes!, 24 Jan. 2013
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: British Baking (Hardcover)
I find it hard to believe that people have tried recipes from this book without any problems - they must have been lucky! I've been baking for decades and none of recipes I've tried worked perfectly. I know it's not just me because other reviewers have had similar experiences. I've already discussed the failings of the Apple and Blackberry crumble in a comment, so, as a test, I tried the simplest cake I know - Victoria sponge - I've never had a failure with that yet. The oven timings and/or temperature simply were way out. I know ovens vary a lot, and mine is a trashy bit of Italian junk I wouldn't wish on anybody. Nevertheless, I have been baking successfully with it for nearly five years (I'll soon be able to convince myself that it's reached the end of it's useful life!). With the best baking books, I find it works well in ventilation mode if I bake at 10 deg. lower than the recommended temperature and for a few minutes less than the recommended time. My Victoria sponge using these criteria was liquid in the middle and nicely light brown on top! I upped the temperature by 10 deg., baked for another 20 minutes and my cake is now nicely cooked through and a healthy brown, but not burnt, on top. I finished it traditionally with homemade raspberry jam and no cream - weight watching! In spite of the above criticism, my wife said it was the best cake I'd ever made!

Next, I did the lemon drizzle cake, again delicious using the oven temperature in the book and the time stated. So, that's the secret! The temperatures in the book are about 10 deg C too low for my oven, and the timings are right. BTW, the lemon drizzle cake uses a 900 g loaf tin - in mine, this gives too big a surface area so the cake is too thin to rise properly (yes, I know about mixing technique etc., but you need a certain minimum thickness for rising to work well). Next time, I'll up the quantities by 50% and bake for longer. It's a great cake so you can't have too much!

Given the experiences of other reviewers with wrong/missing ingredients etc., I would advise those cooks wanting an easy life to avoid this book until Oliver finds the time to put out a revised edition with all the recipes independently checked on average equipment.


The Guns of Navarone
The Guns of Navarone
by Alistair MacLean
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

5.0 out of 5 stars So good, it became a collection of cliches for the war novel., 22 Jan. 2013
This review is from: The Guns of Navarone (Paperback)
This novel, and the movie it spawned, became blueprints for the successful war story in the late '50s and '60s. Germans have been trying to live down the cliches ever since. Inspired by real naval guns erected by the Italians on a Greek Island, later taken over by the Germans, this yarn adds a race against time commando assault, a clever twist or two, and reads at a furious pace. The Hollywood adaptation acknowledged the presence of women on the planet - a fact steadfastly denied by MacLean in many of his books. He seemed to think that women slowed the action!

A very good read - not up to the inspiring, if dreadful, reality of HMS Ulysses - but not far off it; this novel always seems to please - unlike the movie which becomes stale after a couple of viewings. As is often the way with very successful, groundbreaking novels, perhaps the numerous copies and sequels dull the original somewhat unfairly.


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