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Winning Form Mr Lips (Durban North, Kwazulu-Natal South Africa)

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Making History
Making History
by Stephen Fry
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.71

5.0 out of 5 stars I am delighted to have done so, 4 May 2016
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This review is from: Making History (Paperback)
Being an unashamed fan of alternate history or "what if" novels, I ordered this book as soon as I discovered a reference to it in a customer's review of a different "changed past" novel. I am delighted to have done so. I am a great fan of Stephen Fry as a television host and film actor, but this is the first time I have delved into one of his books.

The premise that the world might be a better place had Hitler never even been born is not exactly new, and nor is the premise that in fact his early death or non-existence might have actually made things worse. A lot worse, even. After all, the conditions which led to the Nazis' rise to power in post-World War 1 Germany would have existed whether Hitler was around or not, and a different Fuhrer might just have guided Germany to the world domination which Hitler himself failed to achieve. Here Stephen Fry creates Rudi Gloder, who becomes Fuhrer of Germany in an alternative history, and much of the world (especially Europe and most especially Russia) suffers greatly for it.

In fact, what would have been needed to stop the Nazi rise to power would have been for World War 1 to never happen, a premise which Ben Elton dealt in his excellent recent novel "Time And Time Again", and in which book the Law of Unintended Consequences also becomes all too apparent as things don't map out at all as its characters intended. If you are going to sterilise anybody by the use of a male contraceptive dropped back in time (as is the premise of Making History), rather make Kaiser Bill's father incapable of siring children, not Hitler Senior. But that is bye the bye. This is obviously all fat-fetched fiction, and, as always when it's in the hands of a writer with a fertile imagination, this alternate history work is a fascinating read.

Yes, I have a few issues with "Making History." It takes a long time to hit its stride, and I fail to see the need for several of its chapters to be written in the style of a screenplay. Furthermore, as another reviewer here has written, I probably would have liked the book even better had the alternate history part been set in Nazi Europe and not in an America which, for reasons not explained, is openly homophobic and, racist, engaged in a cold war with Europe, and overrun with secret police. Yet these American scenes are handled extremely well, as the realization gradually dawns on the reader that the country is a an increasingly far cry from the USA that we know today, and not in good ways. Obviously we will never know just what America or Europe might have been like had there been no Hitler, but Fry's imagining of it is as realistic and valid as any other potential scenario.

Despite a few quibbles, I am content to give "Making History" five stars out of five,. Once I became accustomed to the author's somewhat peculiar and rambling writing style in the early chapters, I simply could not put it down., I finished all 500 plus pages in two sittings, and missed episodes of some of my favourite TV shows while doing so. And ultimately, isn't this desire to be so engrossed in a story that we are happy to skip other pleasurable pursuits one of the principal reasons why we read books in the first place?


Spies of the Balkans
Spies of the Balkans
by Alan Furst
Edition: Paperback

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not Quite His Best, But Still Very Good, 19 May 2013
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This review is from: Spies of the Balkans (Paperback)
Alan Furst's almost unique formula for the World War II spy novel is once again in evidence in this excellent addition to the author's growing list of titles. There is no central plot in the traditional meaning of the word. Instead, we have a central character (Greek policeman Costas Zannis) who finds himself embroiled in a variety of situations, most of them fraught with danger.

Starting just before the Italian invasion of Greece and ending with the German occupation of the same country, the book sees Zannis chasing a German spy in his home city of Saloniki, fighting Italians in the mountains, assisting Jews who have fled Germany reach safety in Turkey, help a downed English airman escape from Paris, and become embroiled in Yugoslavian wartime politics.

All of the above are described in a gripping, bare-bones style which has become typical of Furst's writing. So, too, are Zannis' relationships with his co-workers, his family, his English lover, an English spy living in Greece, and even his beloved dog. In none of these scenarios does the author miss a beat as he creates a hugely evocative picture of Greece waiting for war to come knocking on its door, and an equally gripping portrayal of a Paris already at war.

The only stumbling block, and this is why I give the book one star short of the maximum five, is Zannis' illicit love affair with the stunningly beautiful wife of a Greek shipping tycoon. It simply does not ring true, it adds nothing to the narrative, and might be seen as a way of somehow getting the novel to more than 300 pages. 280 pages without Demetria would really have been better, but that is the only quibble. It's worth tolerating for a story which is otherwise very well written, as well as being an informative historical look at theatres of the European war which don't usually spring to mind first when pondering upon the madness which was WW2.


Potsdam Station
Potsdam Station
by David Downing
Edition: Paperback

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Welcome back, John Russell, 2 Aug. 2010
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This review is from: Potsdam Station (Paperback)
I was delighted to discover the fourth episode of the Station series, which if at all possible must be read in their correct sequence. We last saw John Russell as he fled from Nazi Germany shortly after America's entry into the war, leaving his longtime companion Effi and his son Paul to face an uncertain future.

Now we fast forward to the final weeks of the European war, with German forces on the retreat and the Red Army closing in on Berlin. While one or two coincidences may stretch credibility slightly, Downing does a great job of bring his three main protagonists back into play and the plot devices which he employs fall well within the acceptable definition of poetic licence.

In any case, his riveting description of Berlin in the final days of the Nazi era more than excuse whatever minor shortcomings the storyline may hold. We don't need to be history buffs to know that - for whatever reason - the Nazi hierarchy refused to give in until the very end, but as we read this book we perhaps understand better than ever what an idiotic, criminal and futile show of resistance it amounted to. Downing's decsription of life in the battered capital of a totalitarian regime in its death throes is evocative, touching, and troubling. It is well written, and very hard to put down. One could hope for more to come except that the timing of "Potsdam Station" suggests that the Russell saga may have reached a conclusion.


Stettin Station
Stettin Station
by David Downing
Edition: Paperback

17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superbly Detailed and Engrossing, 28 July 2009
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This review is from: Stettin Station (Paperback)
The third in David Downing's "Station" series featuring John Russell is as every bit as engrossing as its predecessors. It will help readers to read them in the correct sequence, but each is an excellent book in its own right.

POSSIBLE SPOILERS!!
It is now late 1941 and America is on the verge of entering the War. John Russell, American passport holder, journalist and sometime spy-of-sorts, clings onto life in Berlin because of his actress girlfriend and his son. It is an increasingly desperate Berlin which Downing evokes. It is dark, it smells, it is subjected to not-very-effective night time bombing raids from the RAF. We know, of course, that things will get much worse for the German capital, and the fate of those Russell leaves behind when he escapes at the end of the book is something we cannot predict. Perhaps there is more to come in the series, although as an American citizen Russell would be an enemy of Germany's from here on in and it will tax even the imagination of this excellent writer to find a way of returning his chief protagonist to Hitler's Germany.

Once again Downing rights with his usual flashes of wry and often bitter humour as he describes life in Nazi Germany, on the verge of its long and awful slide to annihilation. It is splendidly detailed - the description of human waste emanating from a train carrying Russian prisoners is one example - and it leaves with a clear idea of what everyday life was like in the hellhole of 1941 Berlin.

Russell's dawning realization of what the Nazis have in mind for Europe's Jews horrifies us even though it is nothing we don't already know. The absurdity of the Nazi press conferences, the ludicrous content of the era's German movies, the complete hogwash being published as "news" in German newspapers, all these things are wonderful insights into life under this most oppressive and absurd of regimes.

In summary, the Station books are a fantastic read, and come very highly recommended for lovers of good historical novels.


The Last Gospel
The Last Gospel
by David Gibbins
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Intriguing but slow-moving, 27 Jan. 2009
This review is from: The Last Gospel (Paperback)
I have read all of Gibbins' previous novels and found them enjoyable, in a sort of "I'll have forgotten about this by next week" sort of way. In other words, they are are classic airport novels. Light, entertaining, and soon erased from the memory.

"The Last Gospel" sticks in the mind better than its predecessors, but not for the right reasons. It's an okay read, but it took me almost two weeks to plough throught the sort of book I usually polish off in about three days. It gets bogged down in one long history lesson after another, so much so that the action scenes end up being rather lost in all of it.

The characters are a bit thinly drawn, but I can live with that. Their dialogue, though, is strained. Nobody, but nobody, in real life talks the way these people do. The author tries too hard to paint the historical backdrop to the action, to the extent that he becomes pedantic and, at times, frankly boring.

So, what could have been a light and frothy and even mildly thought-provoking read gets bogged down in a seemingly never-ending mire of lousy dialogue. A dry history lecture I can get out of a reference book, Mr Gibbins.


Skeleton Coast: Oregon Files #4 (The Oregon Files)
Skeleton Coast: Oregon Files #4 (The Oregon Files)
by Clive Cussler
Edition: Paperback

13 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Standard Cussler Fare, 14 Dec. 2006
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*POSSIBLE SPOILERS WITHIN*

Clive Cussler's novels can safely be described as formulaic, quite irrespective of whether the hero of the piece is named Pitt, Cabrillo, or Austin. They are quite completely interchangeable as they charge around the world repeatedly saving the planet from some or other nefarious crook with a seriously big time disaster in the works.

Cussler doesn't do things by half as he churns out page after page of preposterous heroics, but his books have never pretended to be anything more than escapist fun and on this score "Skeleton Coast" is up to standard.

Of course it's tripe. Nobody would confuse this with literature as Juan Cabrillo and his so-called Corporation foil a dastardly plan which involves deliberate massive oil spills, a monster hurricane, illegal arms dealing, you name it. Amid all the mayhem and the obligatory (beautiful, of course) damsel-in-distress we have all the usual fun-of-the-fair as Cabrillo & Co. perform one wholly unbelieavable act of heroism after the other.

The bounds of coincidence are stretched beyond breaking point as in the whole vastness of the Kalahari Desert our hero Cabrillo just happens to come across a friendly armed force on its way to springing a benign Zimbabwean politician from the middle-of-nowhere prison where most of Cabrillo's own men are also jailed. Yeah, right. That's about as likely as stumbling across a wild zebra in France, but who cares?

The scene were Cabrillo comes to the rescue of his team moments before they are due to face a firing squad are just plain loony even by Cussler standards, but if this kind of thing worries you then you have no business reading a Cussler book! You know the good guys are going to win in the end, no matter how bizarre or enormous the obstacles which are placed in their path.

So just enjoy the ride and once again curse the makers of that cinematic sludge called "Raise The Titanic!" It's thanks to them that Clive Cussler books are almost never made into movies, which is pretty sad because they are absolutely tailor-made for the big screen.


Churchill's Triumph
Churchill's Triumph
by Michael Dobbs
Edition: Hardcover

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating look at a crucial piece of history, 17 Aug. 2006
This review is from: Churchill's Triumph (Hardcover)
I have to say that this is the first of Mr Dobbs' books that I have read, having picked it up at an airport bookstore, but it assuredly won't be the last.

The Yalta conference in early 1945 pretty much decided the fate of much of the post WW II world, yet to ordinary readers little is known about it. Perhaps it is just as well. To think that the world as we have known it for the past six decades was effectively shaped by a desperately ill Roosevelt who could no longer argue with a mouse, a Churchill whose influence was on the wane, and a rampant Stalin is all too frightening.

Mr Dobbs has done a splendid job of going behind the scenes of Yalta and giving non-historians possibly their first glimpse of what went on. He does a particularly good job of showing Churchill, not as the superhuman hero, but as an all-too-human person facing the reality that his country is about to be left behind in the Superpower Stakes. We have Roosevelt, a broken man, and we have Stalin, all revealed for what they truly were at the time.

Mr Dobbs does not hero worship Churchill, even calling him a naive old fool at one point. This is historical fiction at about its very best, and the book is highly recommended.


Straight into Darkness
Straight into Darkness
by Faye Kellerman BA in Dentistry UCLA
Edition: Paperback

11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Kellerman's Best, 13 Mar. 2006
This review is from: Straight into Darkness (Paperback)
Germany between the wars has recently provided fertile ground for some outstanding thrillers. Hot on the heels of Jeffrey Deaver's excellent "Garden of Beasts" we have Faye Kellerman's riveting "Straight Into Darkness."
I have read most of her Pete Decker novels, and all of husband Jonathan's Alex Delaware works, and, as good as they are, I can say without hesitation that "Straight Into Darkness" is the best and most memorable work penned by either Kellerman. While Deaver set his work in Berlin at around the time of the 1936 Olympics, Kellerman takes us back to Munich, in 1929.
While the book is a murder mystery on one level, it is a great deal more than that. Here we are taken back to a time when the Nazis are not yet in power, but are beginning to make their presence felt in no uncertain terms. This is the time that Hitler and his cohorts are just beginning to captivate the German nation. It paints a frightening and doubtless realistic picture of a nation about to descend into absolute madness.
As a case study of what took Germany down the ultimately self-destructive path of National Socialism, this book provides as good an overview as any dusty historical tome - and it is a great deal more readable, too. This cannot have been an easy book for a Jewish woman to pen, but Kellerman manages not to get preachy or sentimental about those objects of the Nazis' wrath (Jews, Communists, gypsies, etc.) whose worst nightmare has not even really begun at this time. Nor does she fall into the trap of being a little too clever, because she knows a great many things that the book's characters cannot yet know.
It's a great, memorable, and thought-provoking read. If I could give it a sixth star, I would without hestitation.


The Didymus Contingency
The Didymus Contingency
by Jeremy Robinson
Edition: Paperback

14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A bit short, but a good read, 8 Mar. 2006
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I can only agree with the one criticism of this book that has been voiced by other reviewers: it's a bit short. Considering the breadth and scope of the events which it spans, it could have been fleshed out considerably without becoming repetitive, boring, or preachy.
For all that, it's a rattling good yarn. Man's fascination with time travel is well documented in both book and film, but this novel tackles much weightier issues than is the norm for the genre. The very existence of Christ. It is a credit to the writer (who, dare one say, in some ways displays a maturity beyond the years of a man born in 1974) that he achieves this without sermonising or trying to convert non-believers and skeptics.
Nor does he expend to much effort on explaining how the protagonists are able to bounce back and forth in time between 2005, the time of Jesus, and 1985 Zambia. There would be no point, for it's all fantasy anyway, so let's just accept that these guys have created time travel and get on with the story. And it's a pretty good story, for all that time travel remains an unattainable dream. It tells its tale in a non-controversial manner (unlike, say, the Da Vinci Code) and will leave the reader wanting much more. A cliffhanger in the final author's note indeed hints at more to come, so watch this space.
One star deducted for brevity, but the author could also have gone too far the other way and produced a seemingly endless potboiler that could double as a doorstop in a tornado. That would have been a great deal worse, because the nature of the material would have made it almost impossible to avoid a certain preachiness. Still, it does feel a little rushed and overly compressed, at times, and could have used a bit more meat on it bones.
The verdict, nevertheless, must be: Read it!


Deep Fathom
Deep Fathom
by James Rollins
Edition: Mass Market Paperback

18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Suspend all belief and enjoy!, 2 Mar. 2006
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Escapist nonsense doesn't come much brasher and bolder than this. Suspend all belief and enjoy the rollercoaster ride that is delivered by this tale of natural disasters shaking up the world. This potboiler has the lot: a traumatised hero, his arch enemy, a love interest, nuclear war, lost continents, magical crystals, you name it.
I would deduct one star for the ending, which smacks a touch of the author having painted himself into a corner and using a cheap trick to get out of it. But, who's complaining? It's all tripe, anyway. Hugely readable and enjoyable nonsense, but nonsense nevertheless.
It would make a mighty fine blockbuster movie, for sure.


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