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FictionFan (Kirkintilloch, Scotland)

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Purina ONE Neutered Cat Sterilcat Rich in Chicken and Wheat 800 g (Pack of
Purina ONE Neutered Cat Sterilcat Rich in Chicken and Wheat 800 g (Pack of
Offered by 118store-com
Price: £13.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Gets Tommy and Tuppence's seal of approval..., 29 Mar. 2016
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Both my cats have 'sensitive' tummies, so several months back I changed them over to the Purina One specifically designed for sensitive stomachs. It worked an absolute treat and is the one they are given most often, along with wet food which doesn't seem to upset them in the same way as some dry foods do. However, they do like a bit of variety, so I've gradually been trying other items in the Purina One range as an occasional alternative for them.

So what I'm looking for is 1) do the cats enjoy it and 2) does it upset those tummies. They seem to like this one, Purina One Neutered Cat Sterilcat Rich in Chicken and Wheat, very much and, after giving them a small amount every day for about three weeks, the good news is their stomachs appear to be coping perfectly. I can't make any comment regarding any of the other health claims for this specific variety. But I did notice a definite difference in both their coats and their general contentment level when I first changed them over to Purina One Sensitive. Of course, that may simply have been because they were clearly finding it easier to digest than the food they had been on previously, so I'm not in a position to suggest that other cats would necessarily see the same benefits. But my cats are happy Purina customers and wouldn't consider changing.

Sealy Response Clusterfill Pillow
Sealy Response Clusterfill Pillow
Price: £16.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Struggling to find any positives..., 29 Mar. 2016
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
First off, it took several days of airing for the chemical smell to disappear - I'd nearly given up. Secondly, the thick plastic of the cover it comes in is environmentally poor - surely there must be better ways to protect the product in transit.

Once I finally got to use it, I'm afraid I found it really uncomfortable. I'd call it hard rather than firm. There's very little give in it at all and it doesn't plump up. Result - stiff neck. I only stuck it out for three nights. However, pillow preferences are so subjective - anyone who likes a hard pillow might get on with it better than I did. But if this is 'medium firm' then I can only assume the firm pillows must be made out of concrete.

But as to cooling properties - nope! If anything I found this hotter than my usual pillows.

So I'm rating it at a generous 2½ stars, rounded up, but in truth I can find nothing about it that makes it worth the high price - £36.99 at time of writing.

An Advancement of Learning (Dalziel & Pascoe, Book 2)
An Advancement of Learning (Dalziel & Pascoe, Book 2)
Price: £1.49

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Politics and orgies... the academic life..., 24 Mar. 2016
The staff and students of Holm Coultram College gather together to watch a statue of a giant bronze nude be lifted from its present site on the college lawn to make way for a new building. Feelings are running high in some quarters, since the statue is a singularly inappropriate memorial to the late lamented head of the college, Alison Girling, killed some years ago in a freak avalanche while on holiday in Austria. But things are about to take a dark turn. As the plinth is raised into the air and the earth falls away from beneath it, bones appear, first a shin-bone, then some ribs, and finally a skull complete with a shock of vivid red hair still attached...

This is the second outing for Andy Dalziel and Pete Pascoe, published in 1971. While there's still some way to go before either of the characters become the fully rounded ones of the middle and late series, both have developed quite a bit from their first appearance in A Clubbable Woman. This time it's Dalziel who's out of his comfort zone, relying on Pascoe for insights into how the world of academia operates. Both characters are shown as more intelligent perhaps than in the first book, certainly more shrewd. Dalziel is showing his trademark technique of riding roughshod over anyone who makes the incorrect assumption that just because he's a blunt Yorkshireman (though Scottish by birth, let's not forget) then he must be thick. Pascoe is considerably more thoughtful in this one, less rough around the edges, beginning to show that softer more intellectual side which develops as the series progresses. Yes, it's still the early '70s, so there is still a little too much emphasis on women being judged primarily by the size of their breasts, but on the whole I felt the females were considerably more nuanced in this one – not all voracious man-hunters, or at least, not solely!

The blurb of my copy of the book, an early printing, suggests that Pascoe is the focus of the series, which I found interesting since I would always say that Dalziel is the dominant character, though it's always a duo rather than a one-man-band. It's true that most of the books are mainly written from Pascoe's viewpoint, but Dalziel is such a huge character that he's always right there casting his shadow over whatever Pete might be looking at. In these early books, Dalziel and Pascoe are the only two central characters – the expanded team of the later books, with Sergeant Wield, PC Novella et al, haven't yet been introduced. But in this one, we meet two characters who will reappear: Ellie Soper and Franny Roote. Ellie is an old girlfriend of Pete's and it looks like the embers of their relationship might still be glowing. Ellie is already strong and feisty, but in terms of development, she has even further to travel than either Dalziel or Pascoe before becoming the excellent lead female character of later books.

Franny is one of Hill's more intriguing characters, whom he will return to occasionally throughout the series. The head of the Student Union in this book, Franny is already showing the moral ambiguity that will become more pronounced each time he appears. Knowing more about him from the later books added a lot of interest to my re-read of this one – it becomes clear that Hill too found him intriguing in the writing of him, and felt that there was plenty more to explore. In fact, though all the characters continue to develop and change, Franny is perhaps the one who remains most consistent over the years. His story develops as time goes by, but the fundamental ambivalence surrounding his character is here already in this first appearance.

The plotting is complex and interesting, involving everything from departmental and student politics to orgies on the beach, though the final resoultion veers dangerously close to the old credibility line. But as always it's the writing and characterisation that lifts this series so far above the average. Both Dalziel and Pascoe are great characters individually and the contrasts between them allow for some great humour, particularly in their dialogue. Hill is a master of allowing his characters to reveal themselves to the reader as they gradually learn to respect each other more.

A fine second book that's left me even keener to get on with re-reading the rest. 4 ½ stars for me, so rounded up.

Price: £0.49

5.0 out of 5 stars All the living and the dead..., 22 Mar. 2016
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This review is from: Dubliners (Kindle Edition)
Joyce's collection of 15 stories takes the reader through the various strata of Dublin society of the early years of the twentieth century. The prose is of a uniformly high standard, though some of the pieces are too fragmentary and unresolved to be fully satisfying. When Joyce does tell a story, though, he tells it excellently, making me rather regret that he didn't use standard prose and story-telling techniques more often.

The sum of the collection is greater than its individual parts, however, so that even the shorter character sketches add something to the reader's understanding of Dublin and its citizens. Despite the wide range of class and circumstance Joyce addresses, each one has a sense of total authenticity, of a deep understanding of how this society intermixes. There is a common theme running throughout, of people trapped, either by circumstance or because of decisions they have made, and many of the stories focus on a moment in the central characters' lives when they become aware of their trap. Drunkenness, violence and the stifling stranglehold of the Catholic church all play their part in showing a society where aspiration is a rare commodity, usually thwarted. I understand some of the stories were considered shocking at the time for their language and sexual content. Given the relative mildness of them to modern eyes, this fact in itself casts another light on how socially restricted the society was at the time of writing.

The prose is somewhat understated, with Joyce relying more on the penetrating examination of character rather than any flamboyancy of language or stylistic quirks, and that works well for me. He achieves a depth of characterisation with few words, acknowledging his reader's ability to interpret and understand without the need to have everything spelled out. Just occasionally, this left me floundering a little in the couple of stories where he is addressing contemporary Irish politics or mores, but I accept that's my weakness rather than his. In the stories where he is addressing more fundamental aspects of human nature, I appreciated his rather sparing style greatly.

Overall, I found the fully developed stories excellent, while the ones that are primarily character sketches are interesting if not wholly satisfying. However, as a collection, I thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing, the weaker parts being more than compensated for by the stronger.

In the Woods: Dublin Murder Squad:  1 (Dublin Murder Squad series)
In the Woods: Dublin Murder Squad: 1 (Dublin Murder Squad series)
Price: £0.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A good debut..., 16 Mar. 2016
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In 1984, three children went into the woods in Knocknaree. Only one returned, with blood – not his own – in his shoes, so traumatised he is never able to remember what happened. The other two children have never been found. That traumatised child is now a detective on the Murder Squad, Rob Ryan. And when another child is found murdered in Knocknaree, he and his partner Cassie are given the case.

I've heard so many people rave about Tana French that my expectations were very high going into this, and to some degree they were met. I freely admit that I might have given up within a few pages though, if I had heard nothing about the book. The prologue is one of the most overblown, over-written pieces of pure purple I've come across in crime writing, and I barely made it through. Happily, however, having got that out of her system, her writing settles down for the most part to a consistently high standard, only occasionally reverting to purple.

The plot is complex, with several possible motives for why Katy Devlin was murdered. Something about the family seems a bit off, leading the detectives to wonder if there are hidden secrets there. Katy's father is leading a protest movement against a new road and has been threatened by unknown people if he continues, so it looks like there may be a thread of political corruption there. Katy seems to have left her house in the middle of the night, so there's a question of whether she knew her murderer and if so how. Or is it possible that the crime is somehow linked back to the earlier tragedy in the woods? Rob knows he should make his boss aware of his links to the earlier crime and step down from the investigation, but he is desperate to be involved, hoping that somehow his memories will return and he will finally know the truth about what happened back then.

The characterisation is excellent on the whole, not just of the main players, but of the team around Rob and Cassie, and of the various people they come across during the investigation. The one exception, and it's an important one, is the character of Rob himself. Unfortunately, his voice sounded irredeemably feminine to me, not just in his constant focus on emotions and poetic descriptions of his partner Cassie's many perfections, but in actual use of words. (The thought of a straight male Dublin police officer describing one of his straight male colleagues as looking 'adorable' actually made me laugh out loud.) However, the quality of the writing and plotting was high enough to mostly carry me over this weakness.

A more serious weakness is the sheer length of the book in relation to its content. At over 600 pages (according to Amazon – I had the unnumbered Kindle version myself), the book is seriously overpadded. I reckon it could have lost 200-300 pages and been the better for it. While the story of Rob's attempts to regain his lost memories is intriguing, it becomes repetitive after a while, with great swathes of the book devoted to discussing the same event again and again with very little, if anything, being added each time. No matter how well written these digressions may be, they merely serve to make the thing go at a snail's pace – an elderly snail, at that. Even when the main solution is revealed, the book goes on for a further nearly hundred pages tying everything up, or not, as the case may be. And, as many reviewers have pointed out with varying degrees of dissatisfaction, the resolution is partial, with a bit of spooky woo-woo not really providing a satisfactory reward for 600 pages worth of reader perseverance.

However, the strengths – quality of writing, plotting, characterisation - undoubtedly outweigh the weaknesses – excessive padding, occasional drifts into purple prose, failure to resolve a major plot line. As a debut it is good, and I look forward to reading more of her work to see how her style develops as she progresses. 3½ stars for me, so rounded up.

Green for Danger (Pan Classic Crime)
Green for Danger (Pan Classic Crime)
by Christianna Brand
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars 24-carat..., 16 Mar. 2016
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World War 2 is underway and a military hospital has been set up at Heron's Park in Kent. As the book begins, the local postman is taking a bundle of letters to the hospital from seven people confirming acceptance of positions they've been offered there. There's Gervase Eden, doctor to the hypochondriacal rich and fatally attractive to women, feeling he must do his bit for the war effort. Jane Woods has always been a bit of a party girl but in a fit of conscience has signed up for nursing duty and is now wondering if she's done the right thing. Esther Sanson sees nursing as an opportunity to escape from being a permanent companion to her needy mother. Mr Moon, an elderly surgeon, is glad of the chance to get away from his home, empty since the deaths of his wife and young son. Dr Barnes is the subject of local gossip about a patient who died under his care as an anaesthetist, so is also glad to get away. Frederica Linley just wants to avoid her father's awful new wife. And Sister Bates lives in hope that she might meet some nice officers...

These seven people will become the chief suspects when a patient at the hospital dies unexpectedly on the operating table. At first, it's assumed the death was no more than an unusual reaction to the anaesthetic, but when Inspector Cockrill is called in to confirm this, he learns a couple of things that lead him to suspect the death may have been murder. But before he can find out who did it, he first has to work out how it was done...

This has everything you would hope for from a true Golden Age mystery, and is exceptionally well written to boot. Brand introduces the characters straight away, and sets up the plot so that only these seven people could have had the opportunity to commit the crime. Her initial sketches of them already suggest possible motives even before we know who the victim will be, and she develops them more deeply as the book progresses so that, in a Christie-esque way, we are led to care more about some of them than others, enabling her to build up a lot of tension as they come under suspicion or even into danger. Because of course there's going to be a second murder! And when it comes it's brilliantly written – goose-bump stuff!

The plot is beautifully complex, as is the murder method – both murder methods, in fact. It turns out that almost everyone could have had a motive for doing away with the first victim, Higgins, an air-raid warden who's been hurt in a bombing. The motive for the second victim is clearer – if one decides to reveal to all and sundry that one knows who the murderer is and intends to tell the police, well, frankly, it's almost one's own fault when one is discovered in a deceased condition not long thereafter...

Life in this military hospital during the Blitz feels totally authentic, with that rather stiff upper lip attitude that I believe the Brits genuinely had back then. So despite the war and the constant danger from air-raids, life very much goes on, with people falling in and out of love, making friends and enemies, coping with rationing and shortages and, importantly, keeping a sense of humour, which helps to keep the novel entertaining while not avoiding darker subjects.

Cockrill is also an old-fashioned detective. There's no overbearing boss, departmental politics or whining about paperwork – he concentrates on solving the crime and does so by skilful questioning and clue-gathering. He's can be a bit rude and has no hesitation in playing on the nerves of his suspects to try to frighten the murderer into mistakes. He's also a bit of a sexist piglet, but then that's another Golden Age tradition. But he's dedicated to getting at the truth and, though he might take the odd risk, he's willing to take responsibility for the consequences of his actions.

All the clues are there, meaning the novel is “fair-play”, but for most of it I remained nicely baffled, only getting there towards the end, and even then there were enough red herrings floating around that I still wasn't sure I'd got it right. If I had a complaint, it's that there a bit of a hiatus towards the end, when Cockrill decides to do nothing for a bit to try to allow nerves to work on the murderer. While his plan works, it does mean that the story slows down a lot at this point. But it quickly builds up again towards a nicely dramatic and complex climax, with enough moral ambiguity to make it satisfying. And Brand doesn't forget to clear up all the side plots she has used as distractions along the way, as well as letting us know how things work out for the remaining characters.

Not all Golden Age novels glitter, but this one does – highly recommended.

The Cold Cold Ground (Detective Sean Duffy Book 1)
The Cold Cold Ground (Detective Sean Duffy Book 1)
Price: £1.89

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Unlicensed to kill..., 13 Mar. 2016
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It's May 1981, and Northern Ireland is on the brink of a complete breakdown of law and order, possibly even civil war. IRA prisoners in the Maze are on hunger strike, and when the first one dies the streets erupt in violent riots. In the midst of this mayhem, a man is found dead with his hand cut off. At first the police assume the victim was an informer, punished by one or other of the bunches of murderous nutters who held sway in NI at that time. However, when a second body is found, it appears that these killings may be nothing to do with the unrest – it looks like Northern Ireland might have its first serial killer, targeting gay men. It's up to Detective Sergeant Sean Duffy and his team to catch him before he kills again...

The book starts out well. McKinty has a great writing style and paints an authentic seeming picture of NI at the height of the Troubles. The book is told in the first-person past-tense from Duffy's viewpoint and he gives a good insight into the various divisions and factions that ruled the streets in those days. He also shows how socially conservative this small part of the world still was, even more than mainland Britain. The book touches not only on the victimisation of homosexuals but on the question of unmarried motherhood – shown as a thing so shameful that women would attempt to hide pregnancies, abandon their babies, or even, in some cases, commit suicide.

Duffy and his team are all likeable characters, and the interactions between them provide some humour which prevents the story from becoming too bleak. The Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) was, of course, a major target for the IRA and Catholic officers in particular were seen as traitors, selling out for English gold. McKinty shows Duffy as a Catholic who, like the vast majority, wants peace and in his case is prepared to put himself at risk to be part of achieving it, as many did in real life, too.

So there are many good things about the book. Unfortunately, however, credibility begins to nose-dive early on and eventually crashes into the set of a second-rate Bond pastiche. First off, a Catholic police officer is ridiculously unlikely to have bought a house in a Protestant stronghold at that time, unless he really had a death wish. The idea of him having a police issue sub-machine gun lying about on his hall table for weeks (just so's it'd be handy when the plot required it) is ludicrous. That Willie Whitelaw, then Home Secretary, would ever have phoned a low-ranking police officer on behalf of MI5 is laughable. Et cetera, et cetera. And the ending, which obviously I can't discuss, is like something out of a low-budget Bruce Willis rip-off.

I think part of the problem is that McKinty may be aiming for the American market, and using words like “gasoline” instead of “petrol” reinforced that feeling. The more ridiculous the plot became, the less authentic the rest of the book felt to me. The quality of the research in the earlier part of the book means that I feel it must have been a deliberate choice rather than lack of knowledge for McKinty to veer so far beyond the credibility line as the book progressed – I suspect the words “movie deal” may have been on his to-do list.

A couple of final, brief criticisms. It'd be great if just once he could introduce a female character without immediately assessing her sexual attractiveness and/or willingness. I know that's a noir tradition, but, you know, traditions don't have to be followed slavishly once they become outdated. And, as with so much modern crime, the book is way too long for its content – there's about a hundred pages in the middle that could have been cut with no loss.

Hard to rate – I found the first half very enjoyable, which made my disappointment with the long dip in the middle followed by the implausibility of the rest greater than it would otherwise have been. It works reasonably well as a slow thriller, but doesn't live up to its early promise of giving a realistic picture of the difficulties of policing Northern Ireland in the midst of the Troubles.

Nightblind (Dark Iceland)
Nightblind (Dark Iceland)
Price: £4.29

5.0 out of 5 stars Highly recommended..., 10 Mar. 2016
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It's autumn in tiny Siglufjördur but it feels like winter is on the way. Ari Thór Arason, one of the town's two police officers, is off sick with flu, so his colleague Herjólfur is on his own as he stands in the wind and rain outside an old, abandoned house a little way out of town, watching a light inside that seems to come from a torch. Summoning up his courage, he goes to investigate. It's only when his wife reports him missing the next day that he is found, shot through the chest...

This is a cracking start to what turns into an excellent book. The combination of Jónasson's great descriptive writing and Quentin Bates' flawless translation immediately create an atmospheric sense of the isolation of this small weather-beaten place on Iceland's northern shore. The characters of both Ari Thór and Herjólfur are quickly introduced with enough information for us to feel we know and care about them and, though this is part of a series, it works perfectly well as a standalone.

Although this is apparently the 6th in the Dark Iceland series, it's only the second to be translated into English, so there has been a gap of a few years since we last met Ari Thór in Snowblind. He's now living with Kristín and they have a baby son, though Kristín and he seem to be growing apart – a source of ongoing anxiety to Ari Thór, who loves his little family but isn't always good at communicating how he feels. Ari Thór's old boss, Tómas, has moved on to a promotion in Reykjavik, and Herjólfur has been brought in as the new inspector. Although the two men work together professionally, Ari Thór can't help but be a bit resentful of the man who got the promotion he had also applied for, and this has caused a distance between them, preventing them from becoming friends. When Herjólfur is so seriously injured that he is unlikely to live, Ari Thór feels a sense of guilt that he never made more of an effort to get to know him better. But he's happy to have his old mentor, Tómas, back – seconded to Siglufjördur to run the investigation into Herjólfur's shooting.

There are so many things I like about Jónasson's books – the characters, the sense of place, the way he stays well within the bounds of credibility at all times and, perhaps most of all, the excellent plotting. The books are solid police procedurals that don't, as so much current crime fiction does, suddenly turn into ridiculous shoot-'em-up thrillers in the last few chapters. Instead, Ari Thór gets at the truth the old-fashioned way, by questioning people, sifting through evidence and motives, and using his brain. Jónasson plots beautifully, providing plenty of side tracks and red herrings for the reader to chase after, and using each of them as a way to show another facet of the small community of Siglufjördur. Ari Thór may have lived there for a few years now, but he's still an outsider, still doesn't know all the complicated relationships and old secrets that the locals share.

While Ari Thór's personal life is developed enough to make him an interesting character, it never overshadows the more important detection element. I didn't get close to the solution, but found it logical and satisfying once it was revealed, which makes it my favourite kind of plot. And looking back, I could see that all the clues were there. For me, this is about as good as the police procedural can get, and I sincerely hope they're working hard on translating the rest of the series. If you haven't guessed already, highly recommended!

The Heather Blazing
The Heather Blazing
by Colm Toibin
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Weighed in the balances..., 8 Mar. 2016
This review is from: The Heather Blazing (Paperback)
On the last day of the legal term, High Court judge Eamon Redmond will deliver a judgement and then head off for the summer to Cush on the coast of County Wexford, where he has spent all his summers since childhood. Outwardly he is a successful man, well respected in the country, an advisor to the government, and someone who takes the responsibility of his position seriously. But he is also reserved, his life ruled by order, and somewhat remote even from his closest family. As the summer progresses, he finds events in the present force him to revisit and re-assess his past.

Like so many of Tóibín's books, this is almost entirely a character study with very little in the way of plot. Generally speaking, that doesn't work for me, but Tóibín's deceptively plain prose and in-depth understanding of the people and communities he's writing about exert an almost hypnotic effect on me, drawing me into the lives of the people he offers up for inspection – characters so entirely real and well-drawn that it becomes hard after a time to think of them as in any way fictional. This effect is magnified by his siting of so many of his novels in and around the town of Enniscorthy, where Tóibín himself grew up – a place whose culture and society I have gradually come to feel I understand almost as intimately as my own hometown.

History plays a major role in this book, both personal and political. An only child, Eamon's mother died in childbirth leaving him to be brought up by his father and extended family. His grandfather was involved in the 1916 Easter Rising and his father too played a part, albeit small, in the troubled history of the country. Through them, Eamon is introduced early to the politics of Fianna Fail, and the opportunity in his late teens to make a speech in front of the revered leader of the uprising, Éamon de Valera, gains him the support that sets him on the path to his present position. Yet now decades later, he is a pillar of the Establishment, delivering judgements on Nationalist terrorists.

The same dichotomy exists in his personal life. The judgement he is about to give is on a schoolgirl, an unmarried mother, who wishes to go back to school. The Catholic school has expelled her on the grounds that her return would send a dangerous moral message to their other pupils. His musings show his doubts over the religious aspects built into the Constitution, and in his own ability to decide right and wrong. He considers using his judgement to redefine the family as it was understood when the Constitution was written, but in the end, through a kind of cowardice, he decides in favour of the school. It is a feature of his remoteness that he gives no consideration to the fact that his own daughter is pregnant and unmarried when reaching his decision – this is a man whose work and family are kept in strictly separate compartments.

Tóibín's prose is always understated, relying on precision and clarity rather than poetic flourishes for its effect. Despite this, there is a deep emotionalism in his work, an utter truthfulness that can be, in its quietness, as devastating as any great overblown work of drama. In a book full of parallels, Eamon's story is headed and tailed by two commonplace tragedies – his father's stroke while Eamon was still at school, and his wife's stroke and subsequent death in the present day. His early life is beautifully observed, with scenes such as the family gathering at Christmas showing all the depth of family and community in small town Ireland. And his courtship of Carmel, his future wife, is no Romeo and Juliet affair – it's a truthful account of two young people coming together who share many of the same views on life and are able to compromise on the rest.

It is in understanding Eamon's childhood and early years that we come to understand the adult man, and in a sense his life and family history mirrors that of Ireland too – the tumultuous century of rebellions and civil strife drawing towards a quieter ending as Tóibín was writing in the early '90s; the past not forgotten, the future not yet certain, the direction in the hands of those in power, many of whom would have to make major shifts in their political stance to achieve a hope of settled peace. Tóibín is never overtly political in his writing, but his deep insight into this society of Enniscorthy, built up layer on layer with each book he sets there, provides a microcosm for us to see the slow process of change taking place, the small shifts in attitude that gradually make the big political adjustments possible.

In truth, Eamon's story didn't resonate with me quite as deeply as Tóibín's women, but I suspect that's to do with my own gender rather than the book. Sometimes my lack of knowledge of Irish history left me feeling I wasn't getting the full nuance of parts of the story. But it is another wonderful character study, moving and insightful, that adds a further dimension to Tóibín's portrayal of this community. Coincidentally, I followed immediately on my reading of this book with Joyce's Dubliners, and began to feel that, although Tóibín is working on small-town life and in full-length novels, in some ways his books have the same effect as Joyce's stories – each one concentrating on a single aspect, but together building to give a complete and profound picture of a complexly intertwined society.

Caves of Steel (The Robot Series Book 1)
Caves of Steel (The Robot Series Book 1)
Price: £4.67

5.0 out of 5 stars Jehoshaphat! It's tremendous...!, 6 Mar. 2016
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In the far distant future, Earth has become vastly overcrowded and the strain on resources has forced humanity into living cheek by jowl in massive closed in cities – the caves of steel of the title. They no longer ever venture into the outside world, having basic robots to do any outside work that's needed. Living accommodation is small – meals are taken in huge communal kitchens and bathing and toileting facilities are all contained in the Personals, again communal and with strict social rules to preserve some semblance of privacy. The Outer Worlds are inhabited by Spacers, the descendants of people from Earth who colonised some of the planets thousands of years earlier. Spacer worlds are the opposite of Earth – underpopulated and disease free. Spacers no longer allow immigration from Earth, guarding the comparative luxury of their lives, along with their health. Naturally, they are resented by the people of Earth.

Spacers have developed much more advanced robots and, with the agreement of the government of Earth, are introducing them into Earth society. The robots are hated since people see them as a threat to their jobs, and loss of a job can mean loss of the few privileges that people can still have – their own washbasin, the right to an occasional meal in their own home. So when a Spacer robotocist is murdered, it seems obvious the culprit will be an Earth person. Elijah Bailey, C-Class Detective is called in to investigate and, to his horror, is partnered with a Spacer robot, R. Daneel Olivaw, so advanced that he can easily pass as human.

This is sci-fi... but it's also a great murder mystery. Proper crime with all different kinds of motivations at work, clues, detection, departmental politics, the works! Asimov wrote it after someone challenged him by saying sci-fi and mystery were incompatible genres. Asimov's own view was that sci-fi can incorporate any literary genre, and this is his proof.

Along with the mystery Asimov creates a fairly chilling view of a possible future if Earth's population continues to increase. It's fairly easy 60 years on to pick holes in some of the things he foresaw, and didn't, and personally, doing that is one of the great pleasures for me. I love that he could create something as sophisticated as the positronic brain – still being used by sci-fi writers as the basis for robots and androids today – but didn't think of the mobile phone, so that poor Lije has to go out to phone boxes in the middle of the night. I love that he claimed that women still stuck to traditional clasps on their purses rather than adopting new-style magnetic catches. (We finally made it, Mr Asimov! We advanced that far!) I love that he came up with a kind of method for information retrieval that sounds not unlike the old punch-card system, but couldn't take the extra leap that would have led him to computers. I love that people happily use all kinds of nuclear devices, cheerfully spraying radiation around as they go. He almost comes up with an e-reader... but not quite...

But the basic idea of an over-populated world where every human activity is carefully regimented and controlled to make best use of dwindling resources is very well done, and the resentment of humans over machines taking over their jobs has proved to be pretty prophetic. The Medievalists who look nostalgically back to a time not unlike the 1950s have more than a little in common with our more fundamentalist back-to-the-earth green groups of today.

One of the other things I love about the Elijah Bailey books is that, although the world is thousands of years older, all the people are stuck in a '50s time-warp. Gee, gosh, the language is simply tremendous! Lije's favourite exclamation is “Jehoshaphat!” - I always find myself using it for weeks after I've read one of the books. The women stay at home, try to look pretty for their husbands and bring up the children, which is all their limited brains and talents are really fit for, while the men go off and do manly things, like science and running about the streets with blasters and such like. So you not only get a look at how Asimov saw the possible future, but you get a real picture of '50s American life thrown in for free.

The plot is great and totally fair-play. Lije's detection methods are a bit on the slapdash side, I admit – basically, he decides whodunit, accuses them, is proved wrong, and then decides it was actually someone else... and so on. But each accusation adds something, both to his future guesswork, and to the reader's understanding of the society he's operating in. And Jehoshaphat! When the solution finally comes, it's a good one!

Golly gee, I hope you read this book. It may be a bit dated, but it's still loads of fun and with plenty of interest to either sci-fi or mystery fans. Jeepers, you'll be sorry if you don't...

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