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C. E. Utley "Charles Utley" (London, UK)
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First Lady: The Life and Wars of Clementine Churchill
First Lady: The Life and Wars of Clementine Churchill
Price: £6.17

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Delightful Study of a Remarkable Woman, 22 Jun. 2015
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I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It is well-written, highly readable and, I suspect, is the product of excellent research.

It is very odd that Clementine Churchill has not been given more literary attention. Although my guess is that Ms Purnell overplays Clemmie's influence on her husband's political opinions (when reading this book one is sometimes left with the impression that she rather Winston was responsible for most of his brilliant oratory), there can be no doubt that she played an enormous part in his work. It is particularly fascinating to see how she was privy to pretty well every state secret during the war. Even cabinet ministers, sometimes war cabinet ministers, were kept in the dark when Clemmie was told all.

Clemmie's childhood and youth were pretty rotten. Her serial breaking off of engagements to eligible young men probably strikes the modern reader as being somewhat strange. But her total commitment to Winston, when she took the plunge, was remarkable. He must have been an exceptionally difficult (though clearly loving) husband. She hardly ever wavered in her determination to support him in everything. For a large part of their married life they had awful money problems. He always assumed everything would be all right in the end. She must have been desperately worried. But she battled on. Winston and his work must always come first.

Of course, like all of us, she had her faults. She does seem to have been quite a hypochondriac (constantly going off to have "cures"). But she also suffered from real illnesses, particularly depression. The strain she must have been under, particularly during the wilderness years and the war, was plainly immense. But she never really gave in.

And I am sure Ms Purnell is right to credit Clemmie with having kept Winston in touch with the views of ordinary people when his own instincts would have been to ignore them. There are also well-documented examples of advice she gave on tactics and strategy which turned out to be absolutely correct. But, if I have one tiny concern about this book, it is its author's desire to portray Clemmie as a sort of modern-day feminist and Socialist. Of course, I accept that she favoured the extension of the franchise to women and that she had enormous concern for the poor. She also, of course, was upset at her husband's treatment by the Conservative Party in the years between the wars. She probably did think that the Liberals were altogether kinder and better people. But the constant hints in the book to the effect that she preferred Labour to the Tories (especially during and after the war) simply do not ring true. Perhaps we will have to wait for more biographies before we can work out the true picture.

For the time being, however, this is a book which I have no hesitation in recommending. It is a triumph.

Charles


The Book of the People: How to Read the Bible
The Book of the People: How to Read the Bible
Price: £3.59

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Short, but Excellent, Book, 1 Jun. 2015
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I won't pretend that there are no irritating things about this book. If L existed, why shouldn't we be told her name? If she didn't exist, why invent her? What on earth is the point of refusing to name the author's wife (or practically anyone else who appears in the book)? And, yes, especially in the early chapters, there are passages which could find their way into pseuds' corner in Private Eye.

But all those sins can be forgiven. It is fascinating to journey with Wilson as he returns to faith. As a young man he trained for ordination, but then gave that up and claimed to be an atheist. For years he was adamant that there was no God, that Christ never existed. But then he changed his mind. I don't know whether there was really an "L" who persuaded him of what he now accepts to be truth. It my well be that she is a fiction. But she is an interesting fiction.

Wilson's theme is simple, and, I accept, not novel. He deplores fundamentalists (creationists" and atheists). Both are guilty, particularly in their reading of the old testament, of taking everything too literally. The creationists are barmy for thinking that the old testament is all literally true. The atheists are barmy for assuming that the old testament can only be read as a true historical account (which it obviously isn't) and must therefore be wholly discounted. The mainstream Christian churches, of course, have accepted for hundreds of years that most of the old testament must be taken with a very large pinch of salt. But what of the new testament?

The new testament is made up of the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, various epistles and Revelation. There are twenty-seven different books in the new testament. All were written between about twenty and eighty years after the death of Christ. There were several authors. They lived miles apart. The idea that they conspired together to produce a fictional account of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ is, as Wilson demonstrates, plainly nonsense. That is not to say, and Wilson does not say it, that every word of the new testament can be treated as being historically true. But the essential message, that Christ lived,that he preached that we should love our neighbours, that he was crucified and rose from the dead, is vastly more likely to be true than false.

Wilson's guide to how we should read the Bible will be a useful tool for many of us (so long as we are not fundamentalist creationists or fundamentalist atheists).

This is an excellent book.

Charles


A Week in Paris
A Week in Paris
Price: £5.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Magnificent Book, 16 May 2015
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This review is from: A Week in Paris (Kindle Edition)
I am feeling rather guilty for having never, until now, read anything by Rachel Hore. Perhaps I was put off by her books being recommended by Good Housekeeping, or by the fact that she teaches creative writing. I don't know why it was but I guessed she might churn out Mills & Boon type slush. How wrong I was.

This is an extraordinarily well-written novel (despite its author's day job). It tells of the search by Fay Knox, a talented young violinist, for the truth of her first five years of life. Her mother, Kitty, an accomplished pianist, has always told her that she spent the war years living in Richmond, London and that her father, a doctor, was killed in an air raid. She has never doubted that account. But then something odd happens on a school trip to Paris in 1957. Fay has never been abroad before, or so she thinks, and yet, while visiting Notre Dame, she has a strange experience. She thinks she has been to Paris before. But how could that be?

Four years later, as a member of a London orchestra, she returns to Paris to play in several concerts. Before she leaves, her mother tells her to look in a trunk in the cottage in Norfolk where she lived from the age of five. She finds a small rucksack. Inside there is a label. On one side the words "Fay Knox, Southampton" were written. On the other was an address: "Couvent Ste-Cecile, Paris". She determines to find out what it means.

I must not say too much about what Fay discovers. Suffice it to say that it is an astounding story of love, courage and hardship in occupied Paris during the war. But have things really changed that much? Fay's week in Paris is marred by scenes of police brutality towards Algerians who are seeking independence for their country. And Adam, a young British journalist, whom she had met back in 1957 on the school trip, when he was also a pupil, is there again. Is he being as courageous as some of those heroes who did so much to help Jews and allied servicemen in the war?

This is a deeply moving and gripping novel. I cannot recommend it too highly.

Charles


The Traitor (The Carnivia Trilogy Book 3)
The Traitor (The Carnivia Trilogy Book 3)
Price: £4.79

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Thriller for the Connoisseur, 12 May 2015
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The final instalment of Jonathan Holt's Venice trilogy (known as the Carnivia Trilogy) is yet another triumph.

A man is being inducted into the third degree of a very secret masonic lodge in Venice. Just at the moment when he thinks the ritual is about to be completed and he will become privy to every secret in the lodge, he feels his heart being pierced. His body is found, washed up on the shore. His tongue is beside his corpse. Kat Tapo, a Captain in the Carabinieri whom we know well from the first two novels, is given command of the investigation.

Second Lieutenant Holly Boland of the U.S. Army, recovering at home in America from all that happened in the second novel (you must read it to find out what that was), is deeply affected by her father's incapacity following a stroke. She comes across a document written by him many years previously, when he was posted to Italy with the U.S. Army. It seems to suggest that the infamous "Gladio", a collection of Italian right wing extremists trained by NATO, continued to operate after it was officially closed down. It dawns on her that her father's stroke may have been deliberately caused by someone who didn't want that news to come out. She decides to return to Italy to investigate.

Daniele Barbo, the extraordinarily talented young Venetian aristocrat who was the victim of a kidnapping plot in childhood, who came away from that with his ears and nose cut off, whom everyone has assumed to be autistic and who created Carnivia, a totally anonymous and, supposedly, hacker-proof website, has decided to hand his site over to its members, to give up his control of it. But then he notices something strange happening to the site. Could it have been hacked?

A young Libyan computer hacker is planning an atrocity on an even greater scale than 9/11. What is it? Why is he doing it? Who are his paymasters?

Is Ian Gilroy, the veteran CIA agent who was a great friend of Holly's father and who is also Daniele's guardian, being entirely honest about the part he may or may not have played in various events in Italy over the years? Has he given up whatever he has been doing?

All these questions need to be answered. And they are. What is more, all seem to be connected.

Holt has definitely not lost his touch. It is quite impossible to turn away from this gripping thriller, to do anything else but read it. It just has to be finished.

But it is not just the plot. Indeed, that, it has to be said, is rather far-fetched (though it will be attractive to conspiracy theorists). No, the joy of this book, as with the others (at least for me) is in the glorious descriptions of Italy (particularly Venice) and Italian life. Above all, I adore the descriptions of the food. And that food, I hasten to say, is not pizza and spaghetti bolognese. The account of Kat's preparation of eel su l'ara left me salivating, longing to eat the wonderful dish. But, I am pleased to report, that is far from being the only magnificent meal eaten in this novel.

I wonder what Holt will turn to next. Whatever it is, I am sure it will be splendid.

Charles


The Fifth Gospel
The Fifth Gospel
Price: £9.49

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Worth Persevering, 3 May 2015
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This review is from: The Fifth Gospel (Kindle Edition)
I confess that I struggled a bit for a while. It is totally irrational, but I, an English reader, found it a little difficult to cope with all those European clergymen speaking constantly in American. But I knew it was my fault, not the author's. The book is written in the English language (or a version of it). The characters are, for the most part, continental Europeans. In real life, of course, they would speak their own languages. There is no reason to believe that, if they chose English, they would not use American rather than real English. Once I got over the shock of reading about Greek, Polish and Italian clergymen using American idiom I began to enjoy the novel.

I understand that some readers have, unfairly it seems to me, compared this novel with the awful da Vinci Code. I suppose that was inevitable. The story turns on the Turin Shroud, whether it is genuine and, if so, what happened to it in the 1,300 years or so before it appeared in France. But there is, in this story, none of the nonsense to be found in Dan Brown's dreadful book. Whenever we fear that the author is about to give in to the temptation to indulge in extreme fantasy we are quickly brought back to earth.

Caldwell has plainly devoted a great deal of time to serious research. Yes, he has produced a work of fiction (and the reader should always bear in mind that that is what he is reading), but it is, largely, credible fiction. There is only one violent death, though there are some other frightening moments. Caldwell, of course, cannot resist the modern author's tendency to believe rather excitable conspiracy theories about the Vatican. But he recognises that they should not be taken to extremes. Unusually, for this type of fiction, he demonstrates a genuine understanding of the Gospels. There are no great theological surprises in the book, but Caldwell does seem to have spent more than a few moments glancing at the Gospels. His reflections on them are not, by any means, copied and pasted from Wikipedia.

I found the first hundred or so pages to be slightly hard work. But I suspect that was more due to my having to acclimatise to all those Europeans chattering away in American than to any problem with the story itself. Once I had got used to the language problem I found myself thoroughly gripped. And the end was magnificent.

I am so pleased I stumbled across this splendid novel.

I do recommend it.

Charles


Robert Ludlum's The Geneva Strategy
Robert Ludlum's The Geneva Strategy
Price: £7.47

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: £4.99

2 of 3 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: £4.74

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 Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 16, 2015 3:40 PM BST


The Crooked House
The Crooked House
Price: £3.29

5 of 6 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: £4.79

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.


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