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C. E. Utley "Charles Utley" (London, UK)
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Robert Ludlum's The Geneva Strategy
Robert Ludlum's The Geneva Strategy
Price: £6.41

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Wonderfully far-fetched, 28 Mar. 2015
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This was really rather good fun, if not what one could describe as "literature". The plot is gloriously far-fetched. Our heroes dash around the world as they try to discover who is kidnapping people involved in the American drone programme and what dastardly plans the kidnappers may have. Fortunately, the goodies seem to be blessed with extraordinary good luck. All very gripping.


The Farm
The Farm
Price: £3.32

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Desperately Boring Book, 24 Mar. 2015
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This review is from: The Farm (Kindle Edition)
I feel rather guilty. I just can't persevere with this novel. I have only got half way through. But it is horribly boring. The sad thing is that the author writes very well. But he doesn't understand the importance of plot. We have endless pages in which nothing of any interest happens. We are meant to be fascinated about whether our hero's mother is mad or whether his father is a criminal of the worst sort, but no sane reader really cares. Mr Smith is a competent writer, but this book is awful.

Charles


Under Cover (Agent 21 Book 5)
Under Cover (Agent 21 Book 5)
Price: £3.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Slight Setback in a Brilliant Series - but there Must be Good Stuff to Come, 20 Mar. 2015
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This is the fifth novel in the Agent 21 series, though, as the reader soon discovers, it is really about Agent 22. The hero of the first four books was Zak Darke, a 14 or 15ish boy who has been recruited by a terribly secret government organisation as a spy. Zak is a wonderful character whom Ryan's readers have grown to adore. But, I suppose we could see this coming, as the books are published annually he may be thought to be getting a little on the old side. Many authors faced with that problem have, perhaps sensibly, simply ignored it. Just think of the Famous Five. Their adventures went on for a great many years without any of the main characters getting a day older than they were at the beginning. But, especially with such exciting stuff as Ryan writes, one suspects that the possibility of film rights rears its ugly head. Two or three films about Zak could probably be made but, after those, there would be a problem: the child actor would have to be replaced and the market might not cope with that. Sensibly, therefore, Ryan has created a new hero for us.

Ricky is a fourteen-year-old petty thief who pays his rent from the proceeds of pickpocketing. He is, of course, not a bad boy at all. He is a victim of circumstances. His parents died in a car crash. His sister committed suicide because her foster parents were so nasty to her. Ricky despaired and fled from his own foster parents to London. He found a rather sordid room for which he has to pay rent to a horrid landlord whose only advantage is that he won't tell the social services about the boy who has become his tenant. That is the boy who is found by "Felix", a former soldier with a false leg, who is in need of a boy secret agent.

Ricky is, of course, a reluctant recruit to the secret service. But he is sensible enough to see that the luxurious flat with which he is to be provided (and the £100 a week pocket money on top of the endless supply of food and clothes) makes it worth giving it a try. His training starts. As the weeks pass he demonstrates a natural ability which clearly impresses Felix. Then, he is given an assignment. The daughter of a prominent MP (who has the ear of the Prime Minister) has run away from home. Ricky is given the job of finding her and returning her home. But though we, the readers, know that the girl's father is a traitor who is engaged in selling codes to Russia which enable those who have them to know where our nuclear submarines are (it is wonderful that Putin has enabled Russians to be villains again), Ricky is not told any of that. He assumes he is just being asked to return an MP's daughter to her home. When he discovers that the vile MP frequently assaults his daughter, he is not inclined to play ball. But, of course, he then discovers what it is all really about. Should he put the interests of his country or of the poor girl first? You must read the story to find the answer.

This is rather a low key story compared with the first four in the series. But it is almost as good. It is plainly intended to be an introduction to our new hero, Ricky. My guess is that he will be back soon and will be given more dramatic assignments. Perhaps we will grow to love him as much as we love Zak.

Ryan is almost certainly doing vastly more for literacy amongst boys than any English teacher could ever hope to achieve. Let us hope he continues his good work.

Charles
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 8, 2015 11:38 PM BST


The Crooked House
The Crooked House
Price: £7.49

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Gripping but Gloomy, 20 Mar. 2015
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This review is from: The Crooked House (Kindle Edition)
This is a gripping story about a young woman, now aged 27, returning, thirteen years later, to the Essex village in which her mother and siblings were murdered and her father suffered devastating injuries which left him, as our heroine herself puts it, a vegetable. She, our heroine, escaped. For a while, even though she was only a child, the police questioned her closely, as a suspect. But, eventually, all were agreed that her father killed his wife and children and then failed to kill himself. The survivor, Esme (now known as Alison) moved to her aunt's house in Cornwall and eventually got a job in London. She has done all in her power to put the dreadful events of thirteen years ago out of her mind. But then, to her initial horror, her new boyfriend is asked to be best man at a wedding in the Essex village where those events happened. She has told no one, certainly not her boyfriend, about her past. Should she agree to go to the wedding or should she get out of it? Inevitably, she decides to go. Not just that, her boyfriend decides they should go several days in advance of the wedding.

As I say, the story is gripping. The reader is desperate to find out what really happened thirteen years ago. The novel is very well written. But it does have a failing, one which is all too common these days. Despite there being obvious openings for humour, the book is relentlessly gloomy. The bride and her parents, for instance, could easily be wonderfully comic characters without losing their essential nastiness. But the fashion does now seem to be for gloom and nothing but gloom. Maybe the modern reader can't cope with humour. But I don't think that is the problem. My guess is that many modern authors are frightened of trying to be funny and are, anyway, convinced that publishers will object to humour in something called a "psychological" thriller.

Whatever the reason, this novel, like most in its genre written these days, has no light moments. That is sad, but it shouldn't lead you not to read the book. Like me, you will probably have a pretty good idea quite early on about what really happened thirteen years ago. But that won't detract from the story. At the very least you will want your theory confirmed.

I recommend this novel.


Defiant Unto Death (Master of War Book 2)
Defiant Unto Death (Master of War Book 2)
Price: £1.79

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Glorious 14th Century Yarn, 10 Mar. 2015
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Gilman's splendid hero, Thomas Blackstone (now "Sir" Thomas) grows on me with every page. This is the second of the author's hundred years war novels. We join Thomas, happily married to Christiana and with two children, ten years after we left him in the first novel. He is now the adored ruler of several small Norman towns and, at last, treated as an equal by the superior Norman Lords who are his neighbours.

But life is never straight forward in 14th century France. Thomas finds himself, reluctantly, being drawn in to Norman conspiracies to depose King John of France. And accounts of his extraordinary achievements as a fighter and leader of men quickly spread throughout the land. They spread as far as Paris, to the court of the King himself. Eventually, the King is prepared to stop at nothing to ensure the death of the English knight. And it soon becomes plain that one of the Norman Lords, thought to be an ally of Thomas, is a traitor, happy to assist the King in his efforts to arrange the death of Blackstone.

I must say no more about the first part of the book. But I can fast forward to Poitiers (because we all know what happened there). Blackstone, in this account, is the messenger who brings the news to the Prince of Wales that neither his father nor the Duke of Lancaster can come to his aid. And it is Blackstone who chooses the battleground for one of the greatest English victories of the war. The description of the battle, as with Crecy in the first book, is masterful.

The love story also proceeds apace, though there is some rocky ground.

I am very much looking forward to the next instalment, due next year.

Charles

P.S. It is tiresome of Head of Zeus not to provide page numbers on Kindle editions.


Master Of War
Master Of War
Price: £5.79

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Gripping Historical Novel, 10 Mar. 2015
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This review is from: Master Of War (Kindle Edition)
The English archers were, of course, the secret of success at the battle of Crecy (as they were at Agincourt). Gilman has given us a worthy hero in Thomas Blackstone, a young (only 16 at the beginning of this novel) stonemason, who, together with his younger deaf mute brother, Richard, finds himself wielding his bow on behalf of King Edward III in France.

The action, and there is a lot of it, is vividly described. The reader almost imagines himself at Crecy in the first part of the book, willing on Thomas to greater and greater glory. And, as the battle is finally won by the English (not a spoiler to anyone who ever had history lessons at school). Thomas is fully acknowledged as the hero he is.

But this is not just a story about one of the greatest battles of the hundred years war. It is the story of a common, coarse Englishman who, through valour, hard work and sheer bloody-mindedness, becomes a knight feared and admired throughout France. And it is also a moving love story as Thomas strives to win the heart of the beautiful Norman girl, Christiana.

Master of War is a gripping story, just as gripping as any great thriller set in the 21st century. It is sad that many admirers of modern thrillers will never bother to read this book, because they will know that it won't have all those wonderful up-to-date guns and gadgets. The loss is all theirs.

Highly recommended.

Charles


Widows & Orphans
Widows & Orphans
Price: £7.19

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Wonderful Novel, 5 Mar. 2015
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This review is from: Widows & Orphans (Kindle Edition)
Francombe, a seaside resort on the south coast of England, is in decline. As if to reinforce the point, the pier goes up in flames at the beginning of this glorious novel. For many years that great champion of Francombe, the editor and proprietor of the Mercury, the local newspaper, (Duncan Neville) has battled to persuade the council to bring the pier back to its former glory. But money is short, and the Weedons, local property developers of the worst sort (one of whom is now married to Duncan's former wife), have been allowed to buy it. They do not seem distressed at the fire. Indeed, their plans for turning the site into an adult entertainment complex with a sex museum at its heart may even be assisted by the disaster.

And the Mercury itself, founded by Duncan's great-great-grandfather, is clearly on its last legs as the digital revolution reigns supreme. But Duncan's widowed mother, a wonderful character, is quite unable to accept that the great days of the past are now over.

And what about Duncan's own personal life? His wife, Linda, has left him for a Weedon. His thirteen-year-old son, Jamie (who lives with Linda), is deeply embarrassed by his father and infatuated by his step-brother, the awful sixteen-year-old Craig. Then on to the scene comes Ellen, a speech and language therapist who has moved to Francombe after her previously highly successful husband has been imprisoned for five years for fraud. Ellen's daughter, Sue, who quickly becomes Craig's girlfriend, and Ellen's son, Neil, who is Jamie's age, have also come to Francombe. Ellen and Duncan are immediately attracted to each other, but can anything come of it while all these frightful teenagers are ruling the roost? And Ellen's mother, Barbara, an elderly hippy, is hardly making things easy.

There are other beautifully drawn characters. Chris, Duncan's mother's gay cook, and Henry, the tortured anglican vicar (who is also gay) immediately come to mind.

Not a great deal happens. Don't read this novel if you yearn for murders and endless sex. But, if you enjoy well-written prose, humour and magnificently realistic characters this is the book for you.

Charles


Emma
Emma
Price: £9.79

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Rather Good Fun, 27 Feb. 2015
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This review is from: Emma (Kindle Edition)
I gather, from other reviews, that this is a part of a series of modern takes on Jane Austen's novels. I fear I haven't read the others. But I decided to read this one because I am an admirer of McCall Smith. I thought I wouldn't review it until I had re-read the original. That was a delight. I am in my 60s and had not read Emma since I was about 14. Reading it again was an enormous pleasure.

On the whole, I think McCall Smith has done rather well. I was amused to read another review which was very critical of McCall Smith's effort on the grounds that it was not faithful to the original. But, of course, it would be impossible to be faithful to the original without being ludicrous. Young men and women in their twenties in the 21st century would not think it the end of the world if they were spotted walking together without others being present. The assumption that a young woman of good breeding (a concept which is itself alien to the modern world) must either marry or, if she is poor, become a governess doesn't really work in 2015. Regrettable though it is, many young people these days even live together before marrying.

McCall Smith decided to start the story much earlier than Jane Austen did. We begin with the arrival in the Woodhouse household of Miss Taylor (in the original, of course, Miss Taylor has already become Mrs Weston). She is to be a sort of companion and governess to Isabella and Emma, Mr Woodhouse's very young daughters. We follow Miss Taylor's excellent work over many years. We see the two girls developing in different ways. They go to the same school, but Isabella, as she becomes a late teenager, is desperate to get away from Norfolk (another change since the original is set in Surrey) to enjoy the delights of London. Her father decides she had better be married off. His plan is to get her photographed. The picture should appear in Country Life. That will lead to the right man coming forward. He remembers that his neighbour, Mr Knightley, has a younger brother, John, who is a photographer in London. John agrees to photograph Isabella. And then, lo and behold, John and Isabella become an item. They get married and settle in London.

Meanwhile, a romance is blossoming between Miss Taylor and Mr Weston. Miss Taylor moves out to cohabit with Mr Weston. He has a son who has been brought up by his sister-in-law and her husband (Mr and Mrs Churchill). They live in Australia. The son, Frank, is due to pay a visit to his father. At about the same time, Jane Fairfax, an extraordinarily talented girl of Emma's age, has come to stay with her aunt and grandmother (Miss and Mrs Bates). They live in greatly reduced circumstances since their fortunes were lost following a disaster in the insurance market (both were names at Lloyds). Emma becomes friends with Harriet Smith. a girl who is working at a school for teaching English as a foreign language based on a disused airfield and run by Mrs Goddard. Harriet is rather keen on a young man who works at his parents' hotel (or B & B as Emma insists on describing it). Emma thinks Harriet can do better. She reckons the non-stipendiary Vicar, Mr Elton, would be a better catch, if only for a year or two. Mr Knightley disagrees.

I think you can guess the rest (though perhaps not the part Mrs Goddard plays at the end). The book is amusing and entirely readable even though the reader, obviously, knows what is going to happen.

Charles


Mightier than the Sword (Clifton Chronicles Book 5)
Mightier than the Sword (Clifton Chronicles Book 5)
Price: £7.19

21 of 26 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Another Gripping, though Preposterous, Story from Archer., 27 Feb. 2015
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This is the fifth novel in a series which was originally meant to be a trilogy. But don't think the story of the Clifton and Barrington families is now over. Number six is due to be published next year. My guess is, since we have only reached 1970 so far, that there will be several more after the sixth.

Let me say at the outset that, in true Archer style, this is a thoroughly gripping yarn (as you can tell from the fact that I started reading it yesterday on the bus to work and finished it this morning on the same journey). The story is, as we have come to expect from this series, mostly absolutely preposterous. But that doesn't stop the reader desperately turning the pages to see what happens next. I trust that nothing I now say will put off readers in search of true escapism. They, like me, will find it impossible to stop reading until the last page is reached.

But, as always with Archer, one comes away from the book thinking how much better it could have been done. His writing style has not improved over the years. The prose remains wooden. The characters, and this has been true throughout the series, are all either saints or demons. No one recognisable as a real human being is to be found here. And there are the usual tiresome snippets of historical or literary information thrown in for no apparent reason other than to demonstrate the author's wide knowledge and culture.

Then there are the glaring errors. Let us take the libel trial. As some of you may know, Archer himself is no stranger to the libel courts in England. It is therefore unforgivable that he should make so many extraordinary blunders when describing a libel trial in Court 14 of the Royal Courts of Justice. The client is certainly not permitted to sit in the row reserved for QCs next to her advocate. The judge would never wear a full bottomed wig for a trial (they are reserved for occasions such as the state opening of Parliament). The witnesses would not, when taking the oath, conclude by saying (as I believe Americans may do) "so help me God". QCs specialising in the law of defamation would never get so muddled between the defences of justification and fair comment. Archer should have known all that, but so should his editor. Each error could easily have been corrected before publication. It was sloppy that that was not done.

But, as I said at the outset, the story, despite all the faults, despite its wholly incredible nature, continues to grip the reader. And, once again, we end with a cliff hanger (actually more than one). Another year will pass before we know what happens. And maybe we will have to wait even longer, for numbers seven, eight or nine, before all the loose ends are satisfactorily tied up.

Charles

P.S. I should apologise for one of my criticisms (in an earlier review) of part 4 of this series. I pointed out that Archer had referred to the Queen Mother as "HRH", rather than "HM". A year later, in this the fifth book, we discover the error was deliberate.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 27, 2015 7:11 PM GMT


My History: A Memoir of Growing Up
My History: A Memoir of Growing Up
Price: £9.98

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Could Have Been Much Better, 8 Feb. 2015
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It seems awfully rude to say so, but this is a slightly disappointing book. I kept thinking, as I read it, that there was a lot which could have been said, but wasn't. It must be very difficult to write an autobiography of this sort without losing the readers' attention. Lady Antonia has taken the easy way out: she has written an account of her early life which gives the impression (obviously false) that, apart from the regulation inspirational teacher, she never met anyone who was not famous. And she is far too keen on telling us how enormously clever she has always been. We are even assured that she was the cleverest four-year-old who ever lived (because that was when she started reading history).

But there are some gems in this book. I loved the anecdote about her parents, just after they got married. They had very little money (an annual income of £1,000 - worth only £50,000 in modern money). They set up home in a cottage on their own. Elizabeth, the future Lady Longford, asked her husband how they would wake up in the morning. Frank, the future Lord Longford, said that, surely, "they" would bring them a cup of tea. Elizabeth had to explain to him that there was no "they". There were no servants. And then there was the story about Longford walking with the Duke of Norfolk (premier Catholic layman) down a corridor in the House of Lords. The Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster approached them. Longford, who had recently become a Catholic, fell to his knees and attempted to kiss the Cardinal's ring. The Duke of Norfolk looked down at him and said "bloody converts".

But it is stories like those which lead me to wish Lady Antonia had tried a bit harder with this account of her early life. And it really would have been quite nice of her to acknowledge, as must have been the case, that she was sometimes influenced by people who were not famous.

Never mind, this is an amusing read. I don't want to put you off buying it.

Charles


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