All 2011 reviews - Shastrix Books

2011

All reviews

Hercule Poirot's Christmas

Hercule Poirot's Christmas

23rd December 2011

Poirot sets out to solve a gory locked-room murder where all the victim's family are suspects, in this novel which completely misled me with the vast number of red herrings.

The set up is typical - big house, family, servants, murder - but somehow feels refreshed. Poirot is brought in slightly late and his presence fees natural. The family are fairly typical of Christie's round-up of suspects but they are certainly an aid in confounding the reader's attempts to solve the crime! I managed to work out a couple of the side plots, but sadly not the most important one.

A good book, read at the appropriate time of year, though the presence of Christmas in the novel is purely a plot device to gather the suspects together. It's renewed my appreciation for Christie's work a little and once again I'm looking forward to the next book.

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Ship of Destiny

Ship of Destiny

17th December 2011

Robin Hobb's second trilogy set in the Realm of the Elderlings has focused on the Liveship Traders of Bingtown and their many and varied battles. This third book rounds off the story extremely well, wrapping up almost all of the threads, even some that I'd forgotten about, and brings the tale to a really satisfying close.

I read the final third of the book - around 300 pages - in one sitting as the tension and drama reached the highest levels. There is action aplenty and it's amazing how well all the seemingly disparate threads of narrative weave back together to bring the ending into place. All the characters change and grow and even those who started off as irritating become loveable in some respects. Well, almost all.

I love the tantalising hints of a story that spans the trilogies, that grow almost to the point of being explicit but not quite reaching it, and I'm really looking forward to reading the Tawny Man trilogy which follows.

My only criticisms of this book would be the length, though not in a bad way - just that it is so absorbing to read and there's so little time in which to snatch a chunk of text, and keeping track of time in the narrative. I found it hard to work out whether the different threads of story were meant to be progressing at the same pace, and particularly when travelling I wasn't clear on how long the journeys had taken.

Despite this, it has to be one of the best books I've read this year, and I'm very glad that the next trilogy is already written and I don't have to wait for more to be penned.

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Goldfinger

Goldfinger

8th December 2011

I was surprised to find Goldfinger to be one of the weakest James Bond novels. After a chance encounter with the eponymous villain, Bond is sent after him by the Bank of England, only to find himself involved in planning a massive crime.

Character seems surprisingly lacking in this story. Compared to previous enemies, Goldfinger is fairly ill defined, and the 'Bond girls' all seem quite run of the mill. Bond himself comes across as an opinionated woman magnet rather than the genius super spy he appears as in earlier stories.

The plot itself is outlandish and stretches credibility even more than in Dr No, and takes an awfully long time to set up, with the resolution over quite quickly. Bond seems to be a passive participant in events, just letting himself be carried along with the flow rather than taking an active role.

Finally, the passages which today just come across as racism and homophobia really serve to date the novel - much like Live and Let Die - and honestly drag down the enjoyment for a modern reader. The use of long dashes to replace the strongest swear words remains cute however, but does rather break the flow of the narrative.

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The Broker

The Broker

4th December 2011

In this novel, John Grisham really seems to show through as passionate about what he's writing, something which has seemed lacking in the last few of his books that I've read. Joel Backman, in prison for 20 years, suddenly receives a Presidential pardon and is shipped off to Italy with a new identity to hide from those who would rather his knowledge was not available.

Okay, so the plot seems rather tenuous and a bit of a construct to set up the trip to Italy, but then without it there would be no excuse to write about there. The beginning seems weak, as does the ending, but the middle of this book I really enjoyed. As soon as Backman, under his new pseudonym, arrives in Italy Grisham really starts to get going. It reminds me a lot of Playing for Pizza, the first of John Grisham's books that I read, obviously because of the setting, but also because the author really seems to want to engage with what's happening.

I think it also helps that he's writing for an american audience about a foreign place - whereas in some of his novels set in the US there seems to be a level of assumed knowledge that isn't quite right for a British reader. This means he really works hard to paint a scene and depict the feeling of the settings for someone who hasn't been there. It's Grisham's first attempt at an espionage novel - it's almost not even a legal thriller at all - and I thought he did very well. The pace is good and both sides develop in step, but I got the feeling that some of it was unnecessary and was there just as an attempt to ratchet up the tension where it wasn't needed.

Overall, I loved the portions set in Italy - alone those would get five stars, but with the slightly shaky plot surrounding it I'm afraid it drops down to a four, though despite this, to me it's one of Grisham's best.

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Pigeon Post

Pigeon Post

30th November 2011

Pigeon Post is probably the best episode in Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons series. It contains all the usual hardships of an adventure as the eight children spend their summer holidays hunting for gold in the lake district.

The plot is amazingly detailed and full of the slightly educational aspects that Ransome so brilliantly slips in. Twists and turns come at a good rate and his writing so effortlessly captures the reader's imagination. He even manages to include in-jokes using Dot, the writer amongst the group.

The characters are treated well, and the focus is shifted down onto the younger four now that John, Susan and the Amazons have aged two years since the first book, in order to keep the narrative on a level with the planned audience. All four are treated well and have very different personalities that leap off the page.

For all this, it is truly deserving of five stars and all the other accolades it has received. One of the best children's novels I've ever had the pleasure to read.

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The Race

The Race

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26th November 2011

Clive Cussler's early 20th Century detective Isaac Bell returns in what has to be one of the better of his adventures. After flying ace Josephine Josephs is the victim of an attempted murder, by her husband, Isaac Bell and the Van Dorn detective agency are recruited to protect her as she attempts a cross-America air race.

The plot actually works quite well, although there are a few twists along the way that make the story so far seem a little redundant. The use of early aircraft neatly fits into the sequence of Bell stories that have already covered trains, cars and boats, and the 1900s setting sets it apart from the other series of books released under the Cussler 'brand'.

Sadly it's not all great and parts of the novel seem rough. There are mistakes in the use of the title of a British baronet which perhaps wouldn't be noticed by a US audience but really throw me out of the flow every time they crop up, and the repeated meme of having characters called Josephine Josephs and Steve Stevens feels lazy. I'm also bugged by how little growth there is for the main characters - in the first book of the series Bell changes, but since then he's been a static player and his relationships haven't moved on.

Overall though this is certainly the best of Cussler's current output and put the modern day spin-offs of his Dirk Pitt series to shame. The adversary in this story is realistic and pitted at a perfect level to provide a nemesis for the investigator. A slow start to the narrative maybe, but once it got flowing the twists did keep me interested. I had almost decided to drop future Cusslers from my reading list but this has convinced me that the old genius might be starting to peek though again.

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To Brave the Storm

To Brave the Storm

20th November 2011

I have to admit that this book wasn't quite what I was expecting, but nonetheless earns its place in the Star Trek continuity. It's the second part of a duology about the war between Earth and Romulus that has been established in Trek lore for some decades as happening prior to the foundation of the Federation, and something that the Enterprise series was long thought to be planned to be about.

Previous reading is required for this - the other Enterprise continuation novels are vital if you're going to understand where the characters are, and this novel wraps all of these up. The plot in this 'episode' starts a bit slowly. It's quite a disjointed storyline, focussing on several key parts of the war rather than being a single narrative within the war, and as such manages to cover a lot more than I was expecting.

Once the first few parts are out of the way though the speed and the action pick up to an exciting pace, and this continues through to the end. It becomes an enjoyable read and I almost wish that there was some more of this to come. The focus is very much on Archer, Trip and T'Pol, with some of the others getting barely more than a brief mention, which is where the TV series evolved to, and I was a little disappointed to not get a bit more on the others.

I still feel that Martin's output has suffered since he stopped writing with Andy Mangels, and the narrative feels a little rougher and less friendly than some of the earlier stories in the series.

This feels like a good place for Enterprise's story to come to an end. I don't think that there's going to be any more novels that continue Star Trek's 2150s storyline, and this novel certainly serves as a much better close than the final episode of the TV series did six years ago.

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The Alloy of Law

The Alloy of Law

11th November 2011

Brandon Sanderson has fast become one of my favourite authors - he has yet to disappoint. The Alloy of Law is a follow-up to his Mistborn trilogy, set some three centuries later and based around an entirely new set of characters. Waxillium Ladrian returns to his home city of Elendel to serve as head of his house, but might things be more dangerous here than out in the Roughs?

I was dubious about a stand-alone novel set in this world, but Sanderson brilliantly pulls it off. There's an excellent balance of references to the events of the original trilogy (which have passed into legend) and new developments in terms of fantasy, society and technology. The biggest change is the introduction of guns, which Sanderson himself has said he always thought of as bad for a fantasy novel, but it's tied in so well with the key elements of his world that they feel like a natural progression.

Although only short compared to the previous novels, there's a lot of detail packed into this story and it is almost creating a new fantasy world with only loose ties to the old one. It could certainly be read before the others, but if the reader has then there are plenty of references to be picked up upon.

The characters are just as captivating - if not more so - and I particularly liked the relationship between Wax and Wayne (get it?). They cast the world into a different light to how we saw it before and make for an entirely enjoyable read.

This is only a filler between the main courses, and I'm really looking forward to when Sanderson is able to continue writing in this world - there are apparently two more trilogies to follow. There's probably loads of hidden foreshadowing in this book that I look forward to picking up on later. Overall - brilliant.

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The Song of the Quarkbeast

The Song of the Quarkbeast

7th November 2011

The sequel to The Last Dragonslayer just lives up to the promise of its predecessor. Jennifer Strange, acting manager of Kazaam - a magic company - is getting ready to rebuild Hereford's history bridge, but iMagic, their closest competitor, have something different planned.

The book had, I felt, a relatively weak opening. Fforde's recent works, particularly Shades of Grey and The Last Dragonslayer, have been masterpieces, and to be honest this felt like a bit of a let down after those. However once some of the set up had been passed, the pace picked up and Fforde's unique surrealism began to show itself again and for the second half the novel was easily the equal of its predecessor.

The nature of the story though does make it feel more of a children's novel, though perhaps that is by design. The first book in this series appealed to me as an adult reader, in that it dealt with some weightier themes which this book barely brushes against.

Overall though certainly another good book from Fforde and I will continue to look forward to his works with a sense of glee. His mastery of the English language has to be up there with the greats of surreal and humorous writing.

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Bad Luck and Trouble

Bad Luck and Trouble

2nd November 2011

The eleventh Jack Reacher novel is probably the weakest of the bunch that I've read. Reacher is contacted by one of his former colleagues as another member of their old army team has been found dead. The plot then turns into a complicated need of running around as they try to find some baddies to slaughter.

I'm afraid that none of the characters have more than one basic trait and so other than the investment I've already made in Reacher I found it hard to like them. That they are engaging in fairly senseless violence with morality a lot more dubious than shown in the earlier books in the series also went a long way to putting me off this book.

The plot started well, and it does seem similar to other Reacher stories, but I soon grew bored. I'm not sure if it was just the lack of emotional engagement that made me feel that way, but I found myself uninspired to keep reading and it has taken me probably the longest of any of Lee Child's novels to finish reading.

Overall, I can't really call it bad, just not quite up there with his usual output. For the first time I'm not immediately looking forward to the next story in the series, but I'm hoping with a few weeks passed this will fade and I can look forward to diving into 'Nothing to Lose'.

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The Tiger That Isn't

The Tiger That Isn't

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23rd October 2011

An excellent exploration of how badly statistics can be misinterpreted and misreported, both by those with their own agenda and those who are tasked with communicating the truth to the public - much like the authors, two BBC journalists. The book splits the problems faced in reporting numbers into one issue per chapter and demonstrates with plenty of examples how badly results can be reported.

It's a really good book that I would certainly recommend to anyone who has to use statistics, whether reporting them to the public or just internally within an organisation, and especially managers and politicians who need to base their decisions on these reports. Even in my own recent experience at work there have been people I've wanted to hit over the head with this book.

One thing that must be noted is that the book needs to be read in small chunks - a chapter at a time. It's not something to read in one or two sittings, and it's a book that probably needs to be returned to a few times for the messages to sink in. I'll be keeping it handy at work for when I'm faced with numbers, and plan to offer it around my colleagues too.

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Snuff

Snuff

21st October 2011

Discworld novel thirty-nine is surprisingly similar to a couple of the recent books in its focus, reminding me strongly of the themes from Thud! and Unseen Academicals. The story focusses on Commander Vimes, who is dragged away on holiday by his wife. Vimes' opinion though is that a policeman is never on holiday, and it isn't long before a crime comes to find him.

I find it hard to be objective when reviewing Terry Pratchett's novels, possibly because of how much I respect the author and his continued endeavours to write despite whatever life throws at him, however I do feel this is something of an average Discworld tale. It has all the classic hallmarks - imaginative characters, real world message, genre parody, comic lines - but doesn't feel like it has a unique identity or purpose running through.

The subject matter, although framed around a police investigation, is racism - as I've mentioned above, a theme that runs through quite a number of Pratchett's stories - and I wonder whether this suggests a lack of new places for the Disc's adventures to explore. However as always the subject is more complicated than one word can make it, and there are a number of philosophical questions that poke through the text.

I have enjoyed this new adventure and I hope there will be many more, but I am worried that this tale begins to feel like it might be moving the world toward a place where its story might end. I think our world will be much deprived without it.

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Appointment with Death

Appointment with Death

17th October 2011

Poirot is on holiday in Egypt (again/still) and once again murder catches him up. Travelling with him are an American family led by a domineering old woman who keeps the rest of the group under her thumbs, and when she's murdered, suspicion falls on almost everyone.

Once again Christie has produced an amusing and human tale - one that really makes you sympathise with all the suspects, spending a lot of time setting the situation up and developing the group more than in many of her novels. Poirot himself only has a couple of cameos in the first half, and is brought in later to investigate.

The investigation however falls back into what has become Poirot's typical style - interviewing each of the suspects and witnesses in turn and then plucking the solution seemingly out of thin air. I didn't find this as interesting as the first half, and perhaps that's why I completely failed to spot the right clues and had no idea who was going to turn out guilty.

Overall, another good quick read - the set-up is one of the best of the series that I've read, but the payoff weakened it.

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The Hero of Ages

The Hero of Ages

13th October 2011

The third book in Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn series, and the end of the first of three planned trilogies is another brilliant read. Having accidentally released 'Ruin', a destroyer god, Vin and Elend must wage war against the falling ash, killing mists and an even more uncontrollable force of nature.

I really enjoyed the first two books in this series and the third has certainly continued the trend. This episode really goes a long way to explain a lot about the world the characters live in and the reader learns a lot more about its past. This is all presented in a well-paced manner, and the style of having a short piece of first person narration at the beginning of each chapter really helps to keep the reader informed, engaged and also mystified.

I feel that in this book the character focus has shifted slightly away from Vin, and although she remains the main character we see a lot more action aligned with Sazed and TenSoon - providing a lot of the exposition - and Spook - providing a lot of action. I quite enjoyed this as it helped to flesh the world out a little better and made the book feel much more rounded.

My only criticism of Sanderson's writing style would be that he is constantly reminding the reader of things they already know - I can understand having a bit of a refresher towards the opening, as it may be some time since the reader consumed the previous novel, but it's all the way through which feels a little redundant. My favourite thing though was the volume of exposition that he manages to seamlessly wedge in, which really served to pull the whole series together - lots of elements from the first two books can now be seen in a completely new light and make a lot of sense.

Overall, this is a fantasy series I certainly would recommend (and have done) and I'm really looking forward to reading more of Sanderson's writing, and particularly the continuation of this world.

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The Struggle Within

The Struggle Within

4th October 2011

This is the first Star Trek ebook that I have read, and while it was a novel experience I don't think I'm yet ready to give up the dead tree variety. The Enterprise is dispatched to Talar to seek an alliance, while two members of the crew head off on a separate adventure.

The story is excellent and fully deserved to be fleshed out to a full length novel. At only seven chapters long I felt it lacked depth in places and the writing style came across a little casual. The plot however seemed surprisingly relevant to real world events of the past year and I think the possibility of a much quicker publishing process for electronic output made it feel more so. For a Trek novel this is great as one of the TV series original aims was to mirror the real world.

I thought the dual plotline approach was constructed very well, separating the familiar Picard story from that focussing on the book-only characters, which for once I found to be the more engaging. The two stories play around a similar theme and so although separate they fit together well, and develop at a good pace.

Although it took me only an hour to read, this is an excellent addition to the Typhon Pact storyline and I look forward to more of Bennett's output in the future.

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Dr. No

Dr. No

30th September 2011

The sixth James Bond novels shows the beginning of the larger-than-life super-villains that the series has come to be known for, in the character of Doctor No. When two MI6 agents go missing in Jamaica, Bond is dispatched for what is expected to be a light mission to find out where they have gone, only to find something altogether more sinister.

Fleming seems a little more relaxed with his novel - its predecessor, From Russia With Love, seemed far more conservative and thought out, whereas this novel shows a freer style that seems happy to extend from the unlikely to the edge of the ridiculous. The plot is far less believable than in the previous novels, though Fleming's attention to detail and beautiful imagery can almost fool the reader into thinking it could actually happen.

The character of Bond has changed - he's nicer. He's more compassionate and comes across as more feeling. This is particularly evidenced in his two main relationships in the novel - with Quarrel and Honey. There are some aspects where the book has aged - particularly with regard to the choice of language, a lot of which wouldn't be acceptable nowadays - however it's almost cute to see how the four-letter swearwords are neatly censored out when in a modern thriller they would be left liberally in.

I've found in my re-reading of the James Bond novels that in general I've appreciated the Europe-based novels over those set in the Americas, but Doctor No breaks this trend. It paints a picture that I can easily envision and that's better than the descriptions in Live and Let Die and Diamonds are Forever. Overall, despite how outdated some of it feels, I've enjoyed reading this again as an adult, and would recommend it as one of the highlights of the series so far.

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The Last Juror

The Last Juror

23rd September 2011

The Last Juror is a return to form for John Grisham, and tells the story of a young journalist in the 1970s who buys up a small local paper in rural Mississippi. It's an engaging, believable and even emotional story ruined only by one thing.

The characters are surprisingly deep, and as the story is written in the first person it draws the reader in. I was surprised to find that the quality of the writing had led me to feel disappointed by by a decision that I would normally have considered the only moral option, although this may have been because I as the reader had 'witnessed' scenes that the characters had not and that in real life I would not have.

The problem with the book is actually the cover - the back cover to be precise, which carries a blurb which gives away almost the entire plot. Usually a blurb gives the reader a quick introduction to the plot, but in this case the events described in the blurb had not finished until only a few chapters before the end of the novel. As such, any sense of suspense or surprise was demolished until those few unspoilt chapters, which as a result were the most exciting of the bunch.

Overall though I've really enjoyed this novel, and am happy to recommend reading all of it bar the back cover. I'm starting to look forward to the rest of Grisham's works again.

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Coot Club

Coot Club

19th September 2011

Coot Club, the fifth book in Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons series, is the first book to feature neither the Amazons nor the Swallows. Instead it follows Dick and Dorothea, the siblings introduced in Winter Holiday, as they visit the Norfolk broads at Easter, and learn to sail with locals Tom, Port & Starboard, and the Death and Glories.

The book feels a slightly different style to Ransome's earlier novels, focussing much more on the setting than the characters to some extent. While Dick and Dot are returning, they seem less rounded than in the previous novel, and much less of the narrative is aligned with Dot than before. Tom is probably the main character, with Port and Starboard seeming almost like clones of Nancy and Peggy from the earlier books.

For me this means the book is less engaging - there is little by way of adventure until quite near the end of the story, and before then it is much about visiting places up and down the rivers that mean very little to me. I'm afraid to say that until the last few chapters I wasn't gripped and while reading my mind kept drifting away from the narrative and I found I had to skip back to work out where I was. I wonder if I may have felt the same when reading this as a child because I'm fairly sure this was not one of the books I read multiple times (along with its direct sequel The Big Six).

Overall, it's worth it if you want the full tales, but probably has little bearing on the series overall apart from bridging the gap between Winter Holiday and Pigeon Post, although if you know the area it may appeal more - perhaps I enjoy the lakes stories best because I know the locations and thus can more easily picture them.

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The Hard Way

The Hard Way

16th September 2011

The Hard Way sees Reacher hired to investigate the kidnap of a rich businessman's wife - a fairly straightforward sounding story that quickly becomes far more complex. I've enjoyed reading it - by this stage in going through the series, I'd be surprised if I didn't - though there were a few niggles.

The writing is Child's usual fast-paced to the point of abrupt style, and the plot develops constantly as we join Reacher in his investigation. It suffers a little from some of the characters being quite thinly defined though and the feeling I got was that there want as much depth as in some previous novels.

Part of the story takes place in England, and I felt the writing style altered here and it read as if written for an American audience rather than the universal approach taken in the US-based scenes. This may of course just be my familiarity with the places depicted meaning that I find the descriptions unnecessarily detailed - almost to the point of being patronising.

I also found myself quite a way ahead of Reacher at one point, which was disappointing as usually Reacher works things out much quicker than the reader. This made a section of the book somewhat frustrating as I waited for the narrative to catch up.

Overall though it's another enjoyable romp with one of fiction's best investigators and I really feel that Child's novels are some of the most approachable writing around.

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Murder in the Mews

Murder in the Mews

5th September 2011

Murder in the Mews is a collection of four novellas, each depicting one of Hercule Poirot's minor cases. There are two cases of suspect suicide, a theft and an accidental murder.

The first three cases each have a good amount of meat on them, though number three has a few too many characters to keep track of in such a brief tale. I'm afraid I didn't find any of them particularly strong, particularly in some places where vital clues were withheld from the reader - something Christie is usually very good at avoiding. This having been said, even in the stories which did keep everything in the open I was unable to successfully pinpoint the culprit before the big reveal.

I don't think the the novella formats lends itself well to Poirot's adventures, and story three (which was my favourite) looked as if it could have been extended into a full novel. However the short story format of the final tale felt even more of a let down after the more detailed episodes that it followed.

Overall, I'm afraid to say that this collection is probably best one for the purists rather than the casual reader, and hitting the full length novels would better serve anyone seeking a whodunit to tax their brains.

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Dead Simple

Dead Simple

2nd September 2011

This is the first of Peter James' books that I've read, and I must admit that I was a little aprehensive at first as I'm a little bit off straight crime at the moment having been recently reading humorous crime novels. Detective Superintendent Roy Grace investigates the disappearance of a man on his stag night, during which the other four attendees died.

The book began quite badly in my opinion. It set up the character of Grace well along with quite a large supporting cast, some of whom seem to vanish themselves quite quickly. There's a little too much background detail, which in places breaks the flow of the narrative, and there were a number of elements that put me off the writing style. One was the short chapters. It almost feels more like a script, with the events split into 60 short scenes with cuts between them, and until I got used to them these tended to break the flow a little too.

As the book moved into the middle section though I warmed to it. There were a couple of big twists that I didn't see coming, and I'm not sure if I like that or not - to some extent it made the plot more convoluted and felt as if they were there just to throw the book in a new direction and drag things out a bit longer. The character of Grace (which I found a silly name for a male detective) proved to be quite compelling and not the usual 'broken and bitter' police officer that the early chapters had led me to expect.

My one main problem with this book was the ending, which after a thrilling build-up proved to be anti-climatic. The final chapter in particular annoyed me as it seemed such a cop-out and really out of place in this sort of novel. I could say more but I don't want to give anything away.

Overall, borderline 3 to 4 stars, but probably just good enough that I'll consider having a go at the second book in the series.

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The Mad Ship

The Mad Ship

31st August 2011

Book two of the Liveship Traders trilogy is my favourite book I've read so far this year. The continuing adventures of the Vestrit family see Althea planning to rescue their ship from pirates, amongst a range of other complex plot-lines.

I find it impossible to find fault with this book. I know many people claim that this second trilogy is not as good as the 'Assassin' books that preceded it, but I disagree. In this one, Robin Hobb manages to build and maintain an entire web of complex lives rather than just one, and the richness of the detail is breathtaking. It's clearly a step up, although it is different and I can see how readers expecting something closer to the first trilogy would be disappointed.

The characters all grow in this story and my feelings about almost all of them have been shifted around. In my review of 'Ship of Magic' I singled out Malta as a particular favourite and I think she is again the strongest of the characters in this book.

The plot has developed in interesting ways. Some of the things that were hinted at in the first book have come through, and surprising new elements and twists are added. There's plenty of foreshadowing and one hint in particular that I can't wait to find out more about in the final instalment in this series.

A wonderful book that I've really enjoyed reading, and I'm very much looking forward to picking up the third book in a couple of weeks.

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The Men Who Sold the World

The Men Who Sold the World

24th August 2011

Book three of the Miracle Day prequels is certainly the weakest of the bunch. It focusses on the character of CIA agent Rex Matheson, and features none of the original Torchwood group except in passing. A CIA team have gone rogue with some alien technology and Rex takes it upon himself to track them down.

This is much more a return to some of the older Torchwood dross novels than the recent set. It is very much a stand alone novel and seems too generic, as if it could have happened to anyone, rather than needing to be set in this established universe. As such, it comes across more as "let's tell a story about Rex" rather than "there's a story about Rex that needs to be told".

Generally, the characters are flat, and pretty identical. Even Rex doesn't come across as having any depth, which leaves him a pretty un-engaging main character. The plot itself is just a rehash of any number of 'soldiers go rogue' storylines, and the route Rex takes to find them seems far too easy. Speaking of Rex, his willingness and apparent ability to go off on his own little mission without any approval was unbelievable.

Overall, I have to say that I was not impressed by this book. Although there was an interesting twist at the end, it seemed a bit of a cop out and I can't help feeling that Rex's past could have been explored in a better way. Only really of interest to real Torchwood fans seeking completeness.

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From Russia With Love

From Russia With Love

19th August 2011

'Russia' is generally accepted to be Ian Fleming's best James Bond novel and I find it hard to disagree. SMERSH, the Soviet anti-spying agency decides to give the west a massive blow, in the form of Bond's assassination, and send forth two baits that he can't possibly resist.

Surprisingly, the story is very plot driven and there is actually relatively little in the way of action sequences - especially compared to modern thriller writers. Bond himself is not introduced until over a third of the way through, but the narrative and characters in the opening section - set in Russia - are so compelling that you hardly notice.

Fleming's ability to paint pictures with words shines through again as it did in Casino Royale. The settings come alive with his rich description, and I don't feel with this one that the memory of the film have influenced my visualisations. The characters too all seem very rounded and believable, although Rosa Klebb perhaps pushes the boat a little too far.

It's certainly the best of the first five Bond stories, and I wouldn't be surprised if it is unsurpassed. One of my favourite books - continuing the theme of my preference for odd-numbered James Bond adventures.

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A Snow Ball in Hell

A Snow Ball in Hell

18th August 2011

A Snow Ball in Hell features the return of petite Scots police officer Angelique de Xavia and her previous nemeses Simon Darcourt and Zal Innez. Darcourt has returned from the dead and hatched a macabre plot to kill off celebrities in animaginative and very public manner.

Brookmyre's work is always addictive reading, and this is no exception. The narrative is less Scottish than the author's previous works, making it easier for the uninitiated to follow, and the gruesomeness seems a tad played down, possibly to atop it becoming more of a focal point than the plot. While it is 'black comedy', the humour is not overt and mostly comes from the outlandish nature of Darcourt's plot which you so want to believe could happen.

The text weaves between first and third person narrative in a very natural way, and the twists and turns keep coming. There was one plot twist I saw coming but far more took me by complete surprise. In places the plot is complex and hard to follow, but these intricacies only help to make it so appealing.

This feels like an ending to de Xavia's storyline, which is somewhat disappointing, as I've come to like her character and the others who populate her stories. The characters are all geniuses and working several steps ahead, and it's one of the few stories where I've actually found myself wanting the baddie to win.

This is an example of Brookmyre at his peak, and if you aren't easily offended and don't like reality TV much, I'd recommend it.

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Bleachers

Bleachers

10th August 2011

This is probably the best book that John Grisham has ever written. It's the story of Neely Crenshaw - a former american football star - who returns home for the first time in fifteen years as his old high school football coach is dying. It's the most emotional thing I've read from Grisham's pen, and the deepest.

There isn't really a plot to this one - it's very unlike Grisham's other books (with the possible exception of Playing for Pizza, which is also football themed), rather it's a character piece about Neely, telling his life story in few words and strong feelings, and yet still taking him on a journey. In this sense it's almost a coming-of-age tale, and is actually one of the best written pieces I think I've ever read.

I have to lay some criticism at its door though - and that's about the american football. I have no clue whatsoever, and so a part in the middle of the book had me completely lost as it described a particular match. Like any sport, if you're not familiar with it, you won't understand the terminology and so won't have a clue what's happening from the description. I think though that Grisham learnt from this though, because the football in his later novel Playing for Pizza is much more accessible to the uninitiated.

If you're looking for a legal thriller in the author's usual line, then skip this, but if you've wondered whether he has it in him to write something a little more powerful, something that connects emotionally, then this is for you.

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Long Time Dead

Long Time Dead

9th August 2011

The second book in the latest Torchwood trilogy, set shortly after the end of series three, is not as good as the first. This story is set in Cardiff, where local police and a mysterious military team from 'the Department' are working to clear the remains of the Torchwood Hub. What they've not banked on is a particular corpse in the morgue being not quite as dead as it used to be.

This is an interesting entry in the series in that none of the regulars play more than a cameo role, the focus instead being on a number of guest characters from both the TV series and earlier novels, though they aren't necessarily prerequisite to reading and understanding this one. The one real disappointment is that there isn't a little more focus on PC Andy, a character that I've always thought under-developed, but maybe he'll get his own story someday.

I read this book in about half a day, but can't say it particularly gripped me. Part of this was the aforementioned lack of the regulars, as the characters didn't really seem to have as much depth to them as they could have. The story does flow at a good pace and uses flashbacks well to fill in some of the backstory, but I just didn't quite find it as engaging as the previous book in this set, First Born.

Overall, I'm not sure I can recommend this to anyone but the big Torchwood fans - to the casual viewer/reader it might not make much sense (if you've forgotten the first series) and it genuinely doesn't seem like it ties in anywhere with the new television series 'Miracle Day'.

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Winter Holiday

Winter Holiday

9th August 2011

Winter Holiday, book four in the Swallows and Amazons series, introduces the D's - Dick and Dorothea - to the group and the majority of the narrative is aligned with them. They are the intellectuals of the group, whether to broaden the appeal of the group (I don't recall feeling that they helped me to connect any better than the other characters and Dick is probably the closest to my own personality) or just to shake things up.

The D's are staying by the lake for a week after Christmas, and meet up with the Swallows and Amazons, who are planning a trek to the north pole. This book has much more of a solid focus than the previous lake books, though some elements of Nancy's plight are reminiscent of the great-aunt from Swallowdale. The earlier stories were more episodic in their nature, whereas this feels like one story developing throughout.

The new characters are very useful for introducing a new reader to the series, and also their lack of understanding of sailing makes the book feel more accessible to the uninitiated. The plot itself makes for a good adventure, nothing unbelievable, though the incident of mumps is hard to relate to for a modern day reader who has never experienced it thanks to vaccination.

Overall another enjoyable read from Ransome. It adds a good new dimension to the characters and locations and I'm looking forward to continuing my reminiscences of childhood and the adventure of the D's in Coot Club.

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One Shot

One Shot

7th August 2011

This is a really enjoyable read, though the Reacher stories may be starting to get a little formulaic. When a sniper guns down five random people in an Indiana city, there are so many clues that the police take mere hours to track down and arrest the perpetrator. But all he does is ask for Jack Reacher.

Once again, a good solid action novel - Child is certainly at the top of the genre and manages to make the action and events believable. He tells the story in his own style, with short and to the point sentences and no flowery unnecessary language to get in the way. However I can imagine this annoying some readers, who may view it as not literary enough, but personally I find it quite a refreshing style.

The characters in this book are very flat though. Some seem barely to have a second-dimension, and the focus is very much on Reacher himself as usual. The bad-guys get the best treatment, but even then seem fairly bland compared to the star of the show. In fact the bad-guys are my one real criticism of the novel, as I felt there was too much told from their point-of-view, somewhat removing any sense of suspense as we knew what they were up to. I prefer a slightly more whodunnit approach with a bit of mystery to it, and although this novel has a touch it didn't feel quite enough.

A good read, which I sped through in a couple of days. I'd certainly recommend it, along with the rest of the series, but can't quite see how they're going to make it into a film (which I understand is under production).

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Death on the Nile

Death on the Nile

4th August 2011

Christie states in the introduction to my copy of Death on the Nile that she considers it the best of Poirot's overseas adventures, and so I started reading prepared to hold her to this claim. I was not disappointed.

There are a lot of characters to get your head round, which paints a large and realistic picture of the Nile holiday. This story contains one of the biggest build-ups I think I've read in a crime novel - the first half of the text being background and set-up, but it pays off.

My one criticism of this otherwise excellent book is that I worked it out straight away, although I must confess I did miss one detail which formed part of the final explanation. As much as Christie's later narrative tried to throw me off the scent, I found it a little disappointing that I wasn't challenged more. Given that this is the first time this has happened though, it might just be a fluke!

Certainly one of Christie's best novels and one I would recommend to anyone wanting a sample of her work (rather than wanting to read the entire canon like me!).

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Paranormality

Paranormality

4th August 2011

In Paranormality, Prof Richard Wiseman explores the paranormal, from ghosts to automatic writing, and offers the scientific explanation of how each type of supernatural experience is just a product of our own psychology.

Some people will hate this book simply because it aims to debunk. I quite enjoyed it, but to be honest there is little that I haven't already read about elsewhere, and that makes things a tiny bit tedious.

This is counteracted by Wiseman inserting a lot of fun elements - there are a number of practical examples that you can try out, either by yourself or on friends (though not particularly easy if, like me, you tend to read on the train). There are also video and audio extras littered throughout, accessible via QR codes or web addresses, and these are fantastic aids to remembering what you've read and illustrating particular points.

Overall I would recommend this book to those with a casual interest in psychology or doubts about the paranormal that they'd like laid to rest. It's very accessible, good fun, and not too deep.

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First Born

First Born

30th July 2011

This novel, the first of three set between series three and four of the Torchwood television programme, is probably the best Torchwood novel I've read. Following the events of 'Children of Earth', Gwen Cooper and husband Rhys Williams, and their baby daughter Anwen, are on the run from mysterious forces. They find themselves staying in a caravan park near a little village on the Welsh coast, but as always, there's something strange going on.

The story is written in the first person, alternating chapter by chapter between predominantly Gwen and Rhys, but also featuring the viewpoints of several new characters when appropriate. I'm not always a fan of this perspective, but found that it really suits the Torchwood style. The voices of both main characters are absolutely spot on, and this has to be the top selling point.

The story takes a little while to get going - there's quite a lot of set-up before we actually get into the adventure, but it doesn't feel wrong - it's just that there's quite a bit of stuff to get through first establishing the situation of the characters. It's a good tale, though it is very definitely the sort of story that I've come to expect in Torchwood novels - fairly simple, nothing too deep of sciencey and very little real explanation at the end.

The book is packed with humour, much of it around Rhys and Gwen coping with a small child, although also with some film references, and this really helps to make this an entertaining read, even to someone who has no experience of such things in real life. I had my doubts about another set of Torchwood books (and was a little disappointed by the absence of matching covers to the previous 15) but if they are all three like this one I will be very satisfied.

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Children of the Storm

Children of the Storm

29th July 2011

I really enjoyed the last two Voyager novels - both also by Kirsten Beyer - and have been looking forward to this one for a while. I was a tad disappointed though. Voyager is now part of a small fleet which has returned to the Delta Quadrant on a mission of exploration and diplomacy. Three starships have gone missing while attempting to make contact with a hostile alien species - the Children of the Storm - and Chakotay and his crew must try to find them.

The first thing to note is that the previous two books are prerequisite. You'll need them to know a lot of the characters and to understand the situation. I read the last one when it was released and had trouble remembering where things were, so I'd recommend refreshing your memory if you read it a while ago too.

I found the beginning of this book to be quite weak - possibly because of my poor memory of where things stood - and quite a lot of the book focusses on inter-personal relationships among the crew. There are a number of new relationships, and quite a lot of focus on Miral, the toddler of the Paris family. It seems this has been inspired by the author's own recent parenthood, and in some places it's really cute, but occasionally goes a little over the top. One particular sentence had to be the soppiest and corniest thing I've read for a long time.

Once the plot got going though it switched back to the brilliance I've come to expect from this author, and I was very pleased with her descriptions of the aliens and the crews' interactions with them. Overall the range of new characters work really well and it's a good extension to the Voyager series without feeling forced. Once again I find myself looking forward to more.

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Ship of Magic

Ship of Magic

26th July 2011

I was warned before I started reading this first book in the Liveship Traders trilogy, a follow-up to the Farseer trilogy, that it was very different to the series which preceded it. The tale focusses on the Vestrit family, owners of a soon-to-quicken liveship, and the perils that befall them in the changing society of Bingtown.

I must confess that I didn't think it much different to its predecessors. While there is a switch from the first- to third-person perspective, and the plot and characters are totally new, the writing style is very similar and the nature of the story is too. Like the Farseer books, this deals with a group of characters who, in various ways, aren't in situations they feel natural in, and each and every one is learning to live differently.

This book contains one of the cleverest relationships I think I have ever read - that between Malta, a teenage girl, and her mother and grandmother. Although superficially Malta seems to be something of a brat, I found it easier and easier to identify with her, while still being sympathetic with her family members. I really enjoyed how Hobb wrote this part of the storyline so that no character seems detestable to the reader, and it contrasts nicely with what happens between Malta's brother and father.

My only criticism of the style would be the way that each chapter starts without establishing itself, waiting a few paragraphs before naming the characters and locations in question. Every now and then this can be an interesting technique but it felt overused and a bit of a cliché. In terms of the plot, there was one element that was obviously coming a long way off, but I think that this was clear by design and so didn't spoil the experience.

Overall, I can't understand this book's critics - it is just as good as the Farseer trilogy and very similar in style. I look forward to reading on.

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Rip Tide

Rip Tide

22nd July 2011

Liz Carlyle returns in Stella Rimington's sixth novel. When a British Muslim is captured by the French navy on a Somali pirate ship, Liz is called in to investigate.

I've been looking forward to this book for a while - until now Rimington has released a new novel every 12 months but this one is 9 months later than that. I'm not, however, convinced that it was worth the wait.

There's little I can find to criticise though - the book just failed to grip. I didn't feel motivated at the end of each chapter to continue to the next, and the action was sparser even than in the previous books in the series. For the most part though the writing was good and everything (apart from some aspects of Birmingham) was utterly believable - as would be expected from an author with such first-hand experience.

The main problem with the plot I think is that it doesn't flow very well. It's very episodic and takes a while to build up to anything, and it really isn't until right at the end that things come together into a coherent adventure. It does leave plenty of scope for a sequel though, so I'm hoping there are plans for more.

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Jennings as Usual

Jennings as Usual

19th July 2011

This is another of the Jennings books that were not available in the 90s when I was young, and I think I can understand why. While it is an amusing story, it mostly focusses on the relationship between Jennings and Mr Wilkins - there's nothing in particular that marks it out as special.

The book is, for once, entirely set within Linbury Court school and doesn't feature any notable guest characters. The usual comedic misunderstandings have dried up a bit though, and much of the plot consists of Mr Wilkins being baffled by his pupils' behaviour.

There's a problem with the printing of my copy (the red and white paperback published by House of Stratus). They've left out the illustrations from the original, but kept the captions for them, which just sit in the middle of the narrative. It was really distracting the first few times until I worked it out. I e-mailed the publishers to point this out but have yet to receive a reply (after 12 days).

Overall I found this to be possibly the weakest and least inspiring of the series. The next few are also ones I've not read yet and I hope they are an improvement as I've been quite looking forward to reading some 'new' adventures.

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Diamonds Are Forever

Diamonds Are Forever

13th July 2011

Diamonds are Forever is probably the weakest of the four James Bond novels I have recently re-read. Bond is roped in to track the pipeline that delivers stolen diamonds from African mines to American consumers - once again something fairly outside his given remit as a double-oh agent.

The plot is fast-paced and exciting, but the characters don't seem to have the richness or texture of those in the previous novels (with the exception of Tiffany Case of course, who could be said to be the real focus of this book). The enemies are fairly loosely defined around single characteristics and there are so many that come and go that it's hard to get a good fix on them.

Perhaps I just find it difficult to relate to this novel as, like Live and Let Die, it is set in the US, and my experiences make me more receptive to the European stories, but apart from the racetrack sequence this novel seems to be missing the level of detail and picture-forming description that made Casino Royale such an enjoyable read.

I can't condemn this as a bad book though. Despite my misgivings it is well written, has a beautifully, if simply, structured plot and features a lot of the classic Bond elements. The only thing missing is that little spark that should set Fleming's masterpieces above the rest of the thriller genre.

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The Gemini Agent

The Gemini Agent

7th July 2011

The third novella focussing on the characters in the alternate timeline set up in JJ Abrams' 2009 film sees the cadets reaching the end of their first year at the Academy. If the stress of exams wasn't enough, Kirk is having black-outs, and some pretty strong allegations aimed at him.

This is certainly the best of the books in the Academy series so far. The characters come across as more mature and the setting much more closely resembles a real university, with the campus full of love and drinking rather than fighting and tradition. That said, there are some silly things like the concept of 'dead week' - a week dedicated to pranking - which felt like a bit of unnecessary padding.

The strength of this book is in the relationships between the characters - the plot seeming to take second place and ultimately being a bit on the bland side. Kirk and Bones' friendship is shown to be developing well, and each of them gain a love interest - a subject which is given a slightly more realistic approach than in the previous books. The book also introduces Pavel Chekov, and gives him much more attention than he got in the film, which I really enjoyed.

Overall I think this could have made it as a full length novel rather than this format - expand the plot and the detail a little and it would have had much more appeal. As it is the style and presentation of this is just a little on the childish side to be appropriate for the teenage market it is apparently aimed at. Still, the best in the series so far.

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Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks

Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks

7th July 2011

This has to be the best of Christopher Brookmyre's novels that I have read. In his surprise new post as Rector of Kelvin University, Jack Parlebane becomes involves in an experiment into psychic abilities, something he doesn't believe in... until things start to get weird.

I raced through this book in a couple of days. The plot was gripping and surprisingly believable given the subject matter. It is an unusual presentation from Brookmyre, and I must admit it kept me guessing for some time. There was one plot point that I saw coming, but my feeling is that the whole book had been leading me towards it and that the author's intention was for me to pick it up when I did rather than when the big reveal came along later.

It differs from previous Jack Parlebane novels in a number of ways, the most obvious being a lack of swearing, gore, and strong Scots dialect, all of which gives it a more authoritative and less comedic tone. It is told in the first-person, but from three main viewpoints, which at times appears deliberately confusing as you don't know at the start of each chapter which of the characters you are on board with. The new characters are all strong and well-rounded and I especially liked the many slightly geeky references.

Overall I found it to be a really enjoyable and even educational book and would certainly recommend it, although there will be those readers who won't be satisfied by how it all turns out at the end.

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The King of Torts

The King of Torts

5th July 2011

I'm afraid to say I wasn't particularly impressed by this Grisham. Clay Carter is a run-of-the-mill public defender in Washington when he's offered an unbelievable opportunity, to take a mass tort case worth millions. Sadly, Clay comes across as a bit of a gullible money-grabbing idiot, and there's little there for the reader to identify with.

The set-up is a good one, and the book starts really well, introducing the characters and their relationships and kicking off the plot in good time. However it's all a bit downhill from there - it skips through a lot very quickly, and in fact the whole book covers 18 months while it feels like only a week or two should have passed.

The plot is not really at all as billed. The first few chapters cover this but it's only the set-up for what's to come, and particularly the second half of the book becomes quite depressing, and although you feel that the right thing is happening in a moral sense, it's disappointing after the effort that the first half went to build Carter up.

Overall, I feel this is one of the weakest Grisham books. I was unsure of the situation from the start, and found it failed to engage. His plots seem to have gone downhill quite a bit since the days of 'A Time To Kill' and 'The Firm', and I hope they pick up again.

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Peter Duck

Peter Duck

1st July 2011

Peter Duck is the second written but third published of the Swallows and Amazons novels, and is quite different in setting from the other two. The children are visiting Captain Flint on his schooner to go sailing in the channel, and are joined by old sailor Peter Duck. Their holiday becomes and adventure though when Mr Duck tells them of long-lost treasure, and Black Jake the pirate chases them across the seas.

Although written to be a story the children made up over the winter between their first two adventures, in its final form the tale is presented no differently than the others and I'm convinced that when I first read this book as a child the only clue I had that it wasn't meant to be a real adventure was the presence of Peter Duck, who Swallowdale had established as an imaginary person.

It's an exciting tale that moves at a good pace, though there's perhaps more focus on the action in this one than on the characters, with only Roger really standing out of the regulars, and new characters Bill and Peter Duck getting most of the attention. There are several parts where it is starting to date, not least in terms of the language, some of which would today be considered politically incorrect, however this doesn't really detract from the story - just might need adjusting for children who might repeat words without understanding (unless modern editions have been altered, which I doubt as my copy is from 1993).

Overall another impressive novel which I'm glad I took the time to read again as an adult. Probably not as much of a favourite as the stories set in the lakes, but certainly a good part of the series. Well worth a read for the modern child, though some better diagrams to explain the different sails might be a good idea.

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Dumb Witness

Dumb Witness

29th June 2011

Another fantastic whodunit from Agatha Christie. When Poirot receives a letter from a woman who died months earlier, he sets out to prove she was murdered, and identify who did it.

This is one of my favourite of the Poirot novels I've read. The characters are the typical bunch, but they are all believable and as usual any of them could have done it. The action flows at a good speed and the reader is filled in on every clue as Poirot and Hastings uncover them - exactly as it should be.

I'm pleased to say that I worked it out around the same time as the characters, which was perfect, and feel that this is one of Christie's best. I look forward to more of this calibre of mystery.

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Watching the Clock

Watching the Clock

26th June 2011

This is the best Star Trek novel I have read for a long time, certainly post-destiny and possibly post-TNG relaunch. Set mainly in the 'Typhon Pact' era, it focuses on Lucsley and Dulmur, and their colleagues at the Department of Temporal Investigations as a new front opens in the temporal cold war.

Bennett packs in a lot of action and adventure, as well as world building, rich detail and characters, and an awful lot of time-travel related physics that is put across amazingly well for what could be a terribly confusing subject.

What's best about this book though is the sheer volume of Star Trek lore that it ties together. Through flashback, the DTI's point-of-view is shown of almost every time-travel incident in TV/film Trek history and a significant number of literary ones too. It really grounds what are fundamentally new characters and new adventures in the familiar and makes the book all the more enjoyable to the fan, and shows off the considerable effort the author has put into researching his subject.

Bennett's certainly making a name for himself in my book as one of the top Trek authors of the current crop and I'm looking forward to his future offerings.

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The Kingdom

The Kingdom

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22nd June 2011

The third book of Blackwood and Cussler's 'Fargo Adventures' is the best yet, although that in itself is not much of a compliment. After a friend goes missing in Nepal, the Fargos are hired to find him, but they soon fall into a deadly treasure hunt, as usual.

Overall, this book seems toned down from its predecessors. The characters are less cartoony, the adventures less implausible, and the background less fantastic - all good changes. There are still the odd moments where the characters have silly 'comic' exchanges, and elements of the background that are slightly unbelievable, but mostly the book is based on a good scientific set-up, and Sam, Remi, and their enemies are realistic characters with believable relationships.

The novel is not perfect though. I'm still not entirely convinced by the concept of two rich treasure hunters, but that aside, the plot moves along at a good quick pace taking in plenty of action. It doesn't, however, flow quite right, particularly where it is broken up between chapters, skipping over several days. In places this may make things more believable with a more realistic portrayal of time passing, but in some places we leave the couple in peril only to turn the page and find them back at the hotel, only to be filled in on their escape in the form of a brief flashback.

Overall, certainly an improvement for this series, and I hope a sign of better things to come, but not quite back up to Cussler's old standard yet. I had been thinking this might be the point where I gave up on the Fargos, but this book has convinced me otherwise for now.

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Nemesis

Nemesis

17th June 2011

Jo Nesbo's Nemesis is a strange book, possibly stranger even that his previous work. After a meticulously planned bank robbery ends with the death of a cashier, Inspector Harry Hole is called in to investigate, but it's not his only case. An old flame has turned up dead and Harry can't remember where he was at the time of death - only that he met her earlier in the evening.

The plot is surprisingly bitty and doesn't seem to have much of a flow to it. Every time that it seems the investigation is moving forward it's twisted round on itself, to the point where I lost track of which elements were true and which had been red herrings. There were also some very puzzling mixed metaphors that really broke into the narrative.

The book does have its plus points though - Harry Hole is still a likeable detective despite his odd habits, and the sub-plot that continues from the earlier novel serves to keep the novel moving and maintain the reader's interest, even though it adds a further level of confusion.

My reading has confirmed that Jo Nesbo is not the next Stieg Larsson, regardless of what it says on the cover, and his tendency, particularly in the early chapters, to mislead the reader in a scene is quite frustrating. At the halfway point I thought I had tired of Hole, and would be happy to abandon him after this book, but as before the second half pulled me back in and now I feel compelled to continue, if only to find out how the continuing storyline pans out.

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The Well of Ascension

The Well of Ascension

12th June 2011

The second book in Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn trilogy equals the first in its ability to entertain the reader. I found it a gripping novel that added some welcome twists the standard fantasy novel formula.

The Lord Ruler has been defeated and Elend Venture has set up as a good king, implementing an elected assembly to rule on behalf of the people, and improving the lives of the skaa. However it seems defeating the evil tyrant wasn't the end, as soon armies begin to appear on their doorstep, and the Deepness starts to return.

Sanderson really shows off with this novel his skills in world- and character-building. Despite the shift in plot focus, this book remains very faithful to the first and feels much more of an extension that a sequel. It's always nice to read a book that deals with the fall-out from the climax of another rather than dipping straight into another adventure, and that's what happens here. It's set a year later, however much of the first half of this novel deals with the immediate repercussions of the last book.

It's only really towards the second half that the fantasy aspects really kick off again - although there have been threads running through earlier. The range of characters is nicely complimented by some additions, and they help to explore aspects of the world that were left untouched previously.

My main criticism would be that some things were left too late to really kick in. The 'main' plot I suppose is actually focussed on rebuilding (fitting the stereotype of a middle book in a trilogy), and this seemed to detract a little from Vin's storyline which I felt could have been a little more prominent. Like the first book though, this one does manage a successful self-contained storyline and leave plenty over for book three - I wish some other authors were able to do this just as well.

Overall, a really enjoyable read and a book that's hard to put down (despite it being a bit chunky!). I'm very much looking forward to getting my hands on book three soon.

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The Enemy

The Enemy

5th June 2011

This novel is set in 1990, when Jack Reacher was still in the Army, and this sets it apart from the previous books as his approach to the events is ultimately driven by his profession rather than his conscience. When a general is found dead, without his briefcase, Reacher is ordered not to investigate, but he can't let orders get in the way of justice.

Told in the first-person, the Reacher in this book is slightly more raw than the one I've come to know from Child's earlier novels. His attitude is pretty much the same, but he seems less cautious and even slightly more naive. Setting it in the past is a good move for Child, as it lets him explore more of Reacher's personality by showing aspects of it forming, and shows him in a very different environment.

Child takes the opportunity to play a little as well. Knowing the future, he drops in references which predict future events, and this helps boost some characters who seem incredibly insightful, and acts as a little comic relief in what is actually quite a dark storyline of death and deception.

As a mystery story, it works quite well. Through Reacher, and his assistant Lt. Summer, we're fed all the evidence and clues as the narrative progresses, and are able to piece things together as it goes - although I have to confess to missing some of the twists. I've really enjoyed this book and devoured it in three sittings - certainly one of if not the best in the series so far.

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The Psychopath Test

The Psychopath Test

4th June 2011

The Psychopath Test is the tale of a journey that author/journalist went on after being asked to investigate some unusual books that were delivered to academics around the world. He sets out to find out what makes some people's brains work oddly, but soon focusses on psychopathy, how it can be diagnosed, and what effects it has.

The book is presented as a series of anecdotes as the reader is taken on the journey with Ronson, although sometimes out of chronological order. This gives it a warm and approachable feel, although I suspect some readers might not appreciate this style as it does not carry a particularly scientific feel.

It's quite a scary book in places, claiming up to 1% of the world's population could be made up of psychopaths and focussing on those who end up incarcerated. It does however explore them in a sympathetic manner (well, some of them) and doesn't try to use the shock tactics favoured by television documentaries. Like the author, I'm now finding myself identifying people I know as possible psychopaths, and even characters I read about in novels - hopefully this effect will fade with time!

I found this to be an interesting but quick read, and written in a non-technical manner that doesn't put the reader off. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone prone to paranoia - you could end up spotting psychopaths everywhere - and although it's not the type of subject matter I would usually go for, I'm a little tempted to sample some of Ronson's other work.

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Cards on the Table

Cards on the Table

2nd June 2011

'Cards on the Table' is the second book I've read recently based around the game of bridge, and as a modern-day reader I found it useful to read up on the game to understand what was going on. When Poirot is invited to a dinner party, the host is murdered during after-dinner cards, and only four people could have done it. But all of them are murderers.

It's a good little adventure with a novel setting and a nice range of interesting characters. It introduces Ariadne Oliver, a writer of detective fiction, who serves as a comic element, poking fun at Christie herself and her contemporaries.

The plot moves at a good pace and is filled with twists and turns - the reader kept constantly guessing and updating their theories about whodunit. A wonderful short read that keeps the Poirot tradition going strong.

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Carte Blanche

Carte Blanche

30th May 2011

James Bond returns, rebooted, in this new novel set in the modern day, where he works for the ODG, a secret agency of the British government whose task is the 'protect the realm'. When a text message is intercepted mentioning an attack and potentially thousands of deaths, 007 is called in and given carte blanche (the modern equivalent of his old licence to kill) to save the day.

The novel is presented as an interesting blend of author Jeffrey Deaver, and Bond-creator Ian Fleming's writing styles. For the most part, Deaver's language and plot structure comes through, but there are a few passages that are distinctly Fleming, some to the extent that I felt they could have been lifted straight from the original Bond books.

The characters, while slightly updated for the contemporary setting, are exactly those that Fleming gave us, especially Bond himself (fortunately not Daniel Craig) and M (back to the original male version), and a number of other familiar names crop up. This does become something of a cliché though in the first half of the book, where I found myself wondering which classic character would show up next rather than focussing on the plot.

I was very impressed by Deaver's plot, which departed somewhat from what I had been led to expect from some of the early publicity around the book (a little distracting as it meant I was constantly expecting something that never came). It moves at the perfect pace to hook the reader while remaining true to the attention to detail of Fleming's prose.

Twists and turns fly rapidly off the pages, however this is actually where I think the book is let down. There are several instances of what I consider to be Jeffery Deaver's trademark suspense technique - resolving a cliffhanger by utilising something that happened earlier but his narrative didn't tell us about. I find this really frustrating and it comes across as extremely lazy writing - especially when it affects a major part of the novel. In other places however, plot points are resolved without resorting to this method and I just can't see why Deaver does it.

Overall though I must confess to being impressed - my feeling from reader a couple of other Deaver novels recently was one of trepidation, but this book has managed to impress. The die-hard 007 fan may not appreciate the effort Deaver has gone to in order to update the settings, but I found it tastefully done, and look forward to finding out who the publishers will select when James Bond returns.

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Quirkology

Quirkology

28th May 2011

An interesting journey through Richard Wiseman's professional career to-date, investigating quirky science around the world, from how fast people walk in different countries to how your date of birth actually can affect your personality.

It's an interesting quick read full of anecdotes about his own and other scientists' work, but it avoids going into more detail than necessary and, given that its focus is on nothing too technical, is approachable and pitched at a level appropriate for any reader, regardless of their experience in science or psychology.

My main criticism would be that it doesn't quite have enough depth for the reader to get their teeth into. It jumps on fairly quickly from topic to topic and I would have liked a little more information in places. I was also a little disappointed by some of the 'quirky' facts which seemed a little too bland and common knowledge to justify their inclusion.

Overall, an interesting read but nothing special - probably best aimed at a younger audience who may not have heard some of the stories before.

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Blind Man's Bluff

Blind Man's Bluff

24th May 2011

The latest entry in the New Frontier series is another disappointment. It makes for a very quick read that hardly justifies the trade paperback format and accompanying inflated price tag. My experience with it wasn't helped by the complete lack of memorability of 'Treason', the previous book in the series.

In 'Blind Man's Bluff', the aliens from 'Treason' are out for revenge, attacking Captain Calhoun on his home planet of Xenex, while he is also under assault from forces closer to home, including Morgan, the self-aware computer aboard the starship Excalibur.

As much as I used to love New Frontier, I've either grown out of it or it has lost its way. The plot is extravagant and unbelievable, and totally disconnected from the continuing storylines that other Star Trek authors are writing. The characters, once a rich, varied group, have been replaced with bland two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs, none of whom seem to have any existence except to be the butt of jokes from the superhero Calhoun has become.

Despite all this the book does have a few good points. There are some amusing moments (Doctor Who references) and for the most part the narrative is well written, it's really just the plot that lets it down. I imagine that for old time's sake I'll continue to read New Frontier when it comes along again, but I'm not going to find myself annoyed by the inevitable protracted delays to the publication date.

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A Tale Etched in Blood and Hard Black Pencil

A Tale Etched in Blood and Hard Black Pencil

22nd May 2011

This book is a stylistic departure from Brookmyre, and I can't say I found it as enjoyable as his previous novel. When two bodies are found it's up to Detective Superintendent Karen Gillespie to investigate, but everyone the case throws up seems to be one of her former schoolmates.

I've noted previously that one of Brookmyre's strengths is building up the backstories of his characters, sometimes to the extent of almost the entire first half of a novel being backstory, but in this novel the backstory is almost the whole thing. The odd scene set in the present are set around chapters and chapters following the school-life of the characters, and it is indeed this that forms the truly interesting element of the plot - the crime serving as little more than framing.

It's a different tactic, and though Brookmyre pulls it off well it feels a little cheapened by what purports to being the main plot actually being quite thin. The characters themselves are varied and interesting, though hard to follow sometimes as their nicknames change, and the setting requires a little more suspension of disbelief than usual - for some reason I find the adventures of an adult Jack Parlabane in his other novels more believable than the mundane but overly-violent day-to-day life of a group of school children.

Overall only a middling book - an interesting and well executed concept, but not one that gripped me nor, this being labelled a comedy novel, made me laugh very much.

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Moonraker

Moonraker

17th May 2011

Ian Fleming's third James Bond novel goes back to the brilliance of Casino after what I found a rather duller second book. Hugo Drax has created the Moonraker - a new missile capable of striking any capital in Europe, but he also cheats at cards, and M is suspicious, so sets 007 on the case.

Ian Fleming's writing amazes me. I find it so easy to visualise his descriptions, which is something I rarely am able to do when reading, and I find the slightly formal tone of his writing very compelling. There are a few aspects that seem a little old-fashioned, but despite the fifty-five years that have passed since publication it has dated remarkably little.

Like in Casino Royale, a large chunk of the text of this novel is taken up by a game of cards, in this case bridge. Despite having no knowledge of the game, I found the chapters incredibly engaging and was easily able to follow the events - in fact I thought this was probably the best part of the book.

The plot then proceeds in what has become the traditional and almost clichéd manner of a James Bond story, but given that this is most probably the archetypal version of these events, it can obviously be forgiven. Overall, an intensely enjoyable read and I'm really glad I decided to re-read the series again.

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Take Jennings for Instance

Take Jennings for Instance

13th May 2011

Take Jennings for Instance is a fairly run of the mill entry in the series. It's not laugh-out-loud funny, but it's equally not overly predictable and refuses to rely on the frequent set-up of an out-of-the-box misunderstanding to set up the plot.

The third-formers at Linbury Court have set up a Natural History club, and Jennings is keen to build up a collection of tadpoles. This serves as a backbone for the book, tying together several distinct adventures.

It's a good story, which led me to wonder why it's one that I don't really remember from when I read the Jennings novels as a child, however this was quite nice as I wasn't aware of what was coming up.

As with most of the Jennings books, there's nothing really to date them, and I really do wonder why they seem to be out of favour at the moment with booksellers/readers. I enjoyed them as a child and am enjoying them again now.

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The Blade Itself

The Blade Itself

12th May 2011

While this book certainly is not bad, I didn't find it to be anything special and it's not imparted any urge in me to go out and read the rest of the trilogy. The story follows three main characters, Jezal, a self-obsessed soldier training for a fencing contest, Glokta, a torturer working for the government, and Logen, a warrior on the run.

I found the opening of the novel hard going, and throughout the entire first half often considered giving up. Partly this was through the way the text is presented - in certain sections the narration is in language that attempts to emulate the speech form of the characters, which could be a really nice stylistic technique, but for me falls flat on its face. The particular problem is where adverbs and adjectives are confused, which would work fine in speech but in narration was really jarring and breaks the flow of the text.

The characters were also rather uninspiring. Of the three I mention above, I only felt any sympathy for one and found the other two slightly repulsive. The characterizations of Jezal and Glokta are very good, although they can be a little repetitive, but Logen seems to be painted initially as one thing but then is suddenly very different later on.

Plotwise, this book seems to exist only as a start to something longer - there is no self-contained story to this episode, which is another of the problems I have with it. The only character with a real arc is Jezel, and even that seems just a means to an end. The climax of the book has an artificial tension to it that feels out of place and has no motivation to it other than to give an exciting end to a book that lacks adventure.

Overall I found this book somewhat uninspiring, and I'm not encouraged to go out and get the second book in the series. I might still read it, but I didn't like the characters enough to worry about what might happen to them next.

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The Summons

The Summons

6th May 2011

This Grisham can't really be described as a legal thriller - rather it's a novel whose characters just happen to be lawyers, and it's really a failed sort of mystery. When Ray's father dies, his son finds a suspicious surprise hidden in the old family home, but one that someone else wants.

While it is as engaging and well written as Grisham's other novels, it feels far too samey. I know the old adage is to write what you know, but it sometimes seems that he is rehashing similar characters and plots over again.

Ultimately though what lets this novel down most is the conclusion. I find Grisham's endings to generally be weak and this fails to buck the trend. As a mystery story it just doesn't work. A good mystery is one the reader should be able to solve along the way, with the protagonist, but when vital details are kept from you until the end, and even then only come to light through coincidence and deus ex machina, this becomes impossible.

Despite this, I did enjoy reading the rest of the book, but I'm certainly hoping that Grisham's writing picks up again as I start to catch up with his more recent works.

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Swallowdale

Swallowdale

3rd May 2011

The follow-up to Ransome's most famous work sees the return of the Walker family to the lake district, where they plan to continue their adventures from the year before. Unfortunately the presence of the Amazon's great-aunt and the accidental shipwreck of the Swallows throws the children's summer into disarray.

I'm actually quite impressed by how good a sequel this is, managing to retain the same sense of fun and freedom as in Swallows and Amazons while presenting a group of characters who have developed over the intervening year, and all new adventures that don't feel in the least like a rehashing of the original.

I can see an element of confusion may be caused by the continued references by Titty to the events of the following book, Peter Duck, which in the story occurs prior to Swallowdale, but in general it is presented well enough that a child should be able to follow.

I've enjoyed re-reading this and can see how such a timeless adventure story can survive so well into the 21st century. The characterisations are very strong, and with the focus shifting slightly towards the younger characters it maintains the flow of time in the story while keeping it aimed at the right age of reader.

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The Complaints

The Complaints

29th April 2011

This stand alone novel is the first of Ian Rankin's that I have read, and I've quite enjoyed it. Detective Inspector Malcolm Fox works for 'The Complaints' - a unit of the Edinburgh police which investigates the conduct of other police officers. He's given the name of a colleague to investigate, but it turns out the colleague is also investigating Fox - on suspicion of murder.

While the concept of the novel is good, the characters are a little stereotyped - a single, ex-alcoholic police officer is a bit of a cliche - and his colleagues also seem to fit into frequently used generic moulds. The writing style is a little awkward, with some rather abrupt chapter endings that seemed to me to break the flow of the novel.

The plot is complex - almost too much so - and for a while baffled me, until it just became frustrating that there was no way I could work out who had done it because vital information was not given to me until after the climax. Personally I prefer a crime book where I can make educated guesses as to what's going on, and with this book that couldn't happen.

Overall, despite enjoying the read, I don't really think the book was that gripping and I didn't really find the characters that likeable. It's certainly not convinced me to pick up more of Rankin's books, but not led me to rule the idea out either.

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The Final Empire

The Final Empire

27th April 2011

After reading Brandon Sanderson's contributions to the end of the Wheel of Time series, and really enjoying them, I decided to have a go at some of his other work, and was not disappointed.

The Final Empire has been ruled over by an evil overlord for a thousand years, oppressing the 'skaa' slave class and ruthlessly manipulating the nobility. But now someone new has arrived, one who survived what no one has before, and he plans revolution.

Although a number of plot elements follow what I like to think of as the standard fantasy template (good vs. evil, mentor/mentee relationship, chosen one), the detail of the world Sanderson creates is rich, and slowly revealed to the reader in satisfying chunks through Vin, the main character. The system of magic is well thought through, and although I initially thought it would be hard for him to continue to describe without becoming repetitive, it actually makes for some pretty tense action sequences.

Towards the beginning of the book it feels a little rough at the edges, and there are a few turns of phrase that seem a little out of place (probably just Americanisms that a US reader wouldn't spot), but overall it's an exciting and satisfying tale.

The plot is nicely rounded - you feel like you've got a full story at the end - while still leaving enough threads to entice you into reading the second Mistborn book, as I plan to soon. I'm glad I picked this up and expanded my reading of fantasy.

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Persuader

Persuader

15th April 2011

This book returns to a more classic Jack Reacher set-up of a lone man against evil. Following a chance meeting with a man he had killed ten years earlier, Reacher teams up with the DEA to set things right.

I'd like to start by pointing out how awful the blurb is on this book. It's as if it were written by someone who had only bothered to read the first chapter, which means it bares no relation to the rest of the story. The contents of the book however are as excellent as I've come to expect. We get a graphic and action-packed tale that explores some of Reacher's back-story and builds his character.

The cast of characters are well constructed, each with their own memorable traits, and they fit well the developing mystery. My only concern would be that one of the developments was too obvious and Reacher took too long to work it out - made more frustrating with the narrative being in the first-person such that Reacher had all the same information as the reader.

I found this to be an entertaining read that kept me turning pages. I'd probably go as far to say it's the best in the series that I've read so far, and I'm looking forward to reading more.

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Indistinguishable from Magic

Indistinguishable from Magic

12th April 2011

McIntee's book feels a little out-of-place in the next generation continuation, making very little reference to the ongoing storyline from the recent Typhon Pact mini-series. It focusses on Geordi La Forge, possibly the most under-used TNG character, as he joins a host of other familiar characters to investigate when a missing 200-year-old starship is discovered.

While the plot is action-packed, it almost seems like there is too much going on - it's not that it's difficult to follow, but the feeling I got from reading the novel is that it is more a series of very closely related episodes rather than what I'd describe as a single story.

It's good to have a Geordi story, and to see characters such as Scotty, Nog, Reg Barclay and Guinan thrown together, however in places that makes it seem almost fan-fic-ish in its casting - it seems implausible that these characters would be allowed to serve together. One of the themes explored in the novel is romance, however it feels very awkward and on the most part it seems to be skirted around rather than being addressed properly, something which disappointed me.

There are quite a few niggles in the book that irked me, including continuity errors, and around the three quarters mark some copy-editing problems (half of some sentences were missing), but overall I found it an enjoyable read. Probably not a favourite but a happy diversion from the more serious novels that have been out recently.

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Murder in Mesopotamia

Murder in Mesopotamia

6th April 2011

This is a really refreshing different setting for a Hercule Poirot novel, set as it is at an archaeological dig, where the wife of the dig leader is found murdered. The book is narrated by one of the characters close to the events, the victim's nurse, and tells the story of her time at the dig and helping Poirot in his investigations.

It's certainly one of the most engaging of the series that I've read recently, and I think it's just the new setting that makes this difference. The cast of characters is as usual quite large and all of them are potential suspects - I must confess that I fell for some of the blatant red herrings and didn't see the solution coming.

Poirot is left a bit of a mystery himself in this - the narrator is not familiar with him or his ways and so his appearance is quite limited to selected scenes, and it seems a little coincidental that he is there at all. I feel that it would have worked without his inclusion with one of the other characters taking the lead investigative role. Generally my feeling is that a book in a series should justify itself as being a story that could not be told if it were not, and this novel fails that test.

However I did enjoy it, and feel that at this point in the Christie canon things seem to be picking up after a bit of a dry patch. Looking forward to reading more.

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The Redbreast

The Redbreast

4th April 2011

Far from being 'the next Steig Larsson', Jo Nesbo's first Harry Hole novel is set in Norway and other than being in the crime genre and translated into English has nothing in common with the author he is so frequently compared to. I've also found out after reading that this is meant to be the third book in the series (the first two not being available in English), which explains the lack of introduction to the characters.

Hole's suspicions are aroused following reports of a rare firearm being smuggled into the country, however his investigation is constantly blocked by his bosses. The first half of the book is painfully slow, and the set-up described in the blurb does not even finish until over halfway through the book. During the early portions, half the story takes place in 1999, and the other half in the 1940s during the second world war. The narrative flicks between the two time periods with nothing to connect the two and is quite confusing until you get used to it.

Once a defining event hits just after the halfway point, and some new characters dropped in, the story picks up, and becomes readable - before this I only found myself able to read a chapter at a time as the plot was moving so slowly. It took me a week to read the first half compared with a day for the second. The story finally begun to make sense but there was little to suggest the reader had been meant to work any of it out as they went - the whole mystery had to be spelt out by the characters at the end to make clear what had happened.

The ending itself was abrupt and sudden, with very little follow-up to the climax, and leaves some annoying unresolved plot lines that I can only assume will be picked up in the sequel. I was defiantly going to give up on Nesbo during the first half (and almost considered giving up on this book), but given how it picked up I think I may have a go at the next novel before deciding whether to continue with the series.

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Skipping Christmas

Skipping Christmas

25th March 2011

I was a little dubious starting this given its striking difference in genre to John Grisham's usual writing, and so bought it second hand so that it wouldn't be too much of a waste if I didn't get on with it. As it was, I was right.

The plot focusses on the calamities that befall Luther and Nora Krank when they decide to forgo Christmas one year and go on a cruise instead. As is obvious from the text adorning the cover, it's been made into a film, and reading it certainly gave the impression that it would perhaps be better off in that medium.

The characters are bland and forgettable, and a large number of the supporting cast seem unrealistic (though this is not an uncommon feeling I have toward John Grisham's novels so it may be the culture difference). There's no real depth though to even the main characters, and much of the narration focusses on events rather than developing the characters or exploring their lives - they weren't really likable and are quite honestly forgettable.

The presentation of this edition even irritated me - the line spacing is wide and the chapters begin with fancy curly letters, which combine to give the impression that the book has been stretched out to make it appear bigger than it is.

Overall it was a tedious descent into a mostly depressing conclusion and I'll admit to being glad it's over. John Grisham's previous experiments into other genres have been fine, but this time I think he's gone a bit too far, and I look forward to getting back to his legal thrillers. My advice - skip this book.

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All Fun and Games Until Somebody Loses an Eye

All Fun and Games Until Somebody Loses an Eye

24th March 2011

An absolutely genius novel and possibly Brookmyre's best that I've read. The novel is action packed and full of laughs, and less gruesome/disgusting than some of his earlier stories. When Ross Fleming goes missing, his employer brings in a crack team to track him down before their enemies - and who better for them to recruit than Ross's own mother.

The characters in the book are all well developed and even those who initially appear rather two-dimensional are fleshed out in unexpected ways. Jane herself proves to be an excellent protagonist, and her repeated comparisons to James Bond movies add another amusing element. There is a point where it seems it's fallen into the recent Brookmyre cliché of amateur versus crack professional team, but the twists of the plot take it into new directions.

If I were going to choose a Brookmyre novel to make into a film, this is the one that it would have to be. The plot moves at a good speed and the writing manages to successfully mislead the reader over and over again (the openings of the first few chapters being particularly good examples).

Overall though its best selling point is that it's the funniest book I've read for ages. I really would recommend this to readers who like humorous action and it's only strengthened my resolve to keep reading this author's novels.

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Live and Let Die

Live and Let Die

21st March 2011

Ian Fleming's second James Bond novel is sadly nothing like as impressive as the first. In Live and Let Die, Bond is dispatched to the US to investigate the sudden appearance of a horde of Captain Morgan's treasure, and criminal mastermind Mr Big, whose deeds the gold is financing.

While the book is a believable portrayal of 1950s Harlem, Florida and Jamaica, and the plot stays firmly set in reality, the book is let down by the writing style, which has little of the richness of detail and emotion that was present in Casino Royale. Bond has become grittier, and although brief patches of the character shine through, much of the narrative here is action based and fast moving.

It's worth touching on the obvious racial overtones that are present, but my interpretation is not that the book is racist - indeed it shows a number of viewpoints that struck me as being more progressive than I had expected, particularly M's comments early on and the character of Quarrel later, who although acting as something of a servant to Bond is still depicted as respected and an expert in his field. If anything, I found the book treats matters of race with much more delicacy than the Roger Moore film based upon it.

This book is certainly not up to the level of its predecessor, and, perhaps because of the settings, doesn't survive the test of time so well. While still a fairly enjoyable read, I've felt it detracted slightly from my opinion of the series I last read as a teenager.

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Thanks to Jennings

Thanks to Jennings

17th March 2011

Thanks to Jennings is one of the funnier books in this series about the antics and misunderstandings of a group of boarders at Linbury Court school.

From the photography club field trip to the missing guinea pig the chaos of Jennings life is laugh-out-loud funny and while predictable the events are far from clichéd and some of the most believable in the series.

Definitely one of my favourites so far in my adult re-reading of these books which kept me entertained for days as a child.

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Assassin's Quest

Assassin's Quest

16th March 2011

The third book in Robin Hobb's Farseer trilogy is, while still an excellent read, a little bit of a let down after the brilliance of its two predecessors. Fitz must recover from the events at the end of 'Royal Assassin' and set out to kill his evil uncle and restore his good uncle to the throne, while saving the kingdom from its enemies.

The book starts well, continuing the style of the earlier books as Fitz recovers, but then from about a third of the way in it descends into a typical fantasy quest, which seems to drag on forever. The chapters at this point seemed to stretch out longer and longer and I lost part of my motivation to keep reading.

Similarly, the end, once it arrives, seems squashed into such a small page count that by the time it arrived I had given up on this novel actually concluding the storyline. Much is kept from the reader, and indeed the characters, at this point that things become confusing, and at least in one place it seems the author deliberately misleads the audience, which I found slightly annoying.

Overall, this book is much more about the relationships between the characters than before. Not only Fitz's with the others but between them as well, and this is what supports the book through the quest and deliberate withholding of information.

The ending does not live up to some of the hype it is given through the novel though, and so I feel I shall have to read on through the trilogies that serve as sequels to this one, despite a little trepidation.

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The Jungle

The Jungle

&

7th March 2011

I'm very much in two minds about this book. Cut off by the US government following the events of 'The Silent Sea', the Corporation are reliant on work from private customers to pay their way, such as rescuing a kidnapped child and hunting for missing persons. It's difficult to say much more about the plot without giving anything away, so I won't.

It starts badly, with a number of blatant scientific and historical inaccuracies, but then as it gets going the action moves quickly and it feels much more like the early Oregon Files books. The middle section of this book is definitely the best writing that's been put out under Cussler's name for some time. But then the ending just seems to throw all that away and goes back to the realm of the ridiculous - Cussler's novels have dabbled in fantasy since 'Trojan Odessey' but this is probably one of the most extreme.

I've been reading Clive Cussler's novels for about ten years now and I'm afraid to say that the half of the canon that's been published in that time are nothing like the standard of those published before. It's really disappointing because there are glimmers of the old Cussler that shine through the gaps, only to be snatched away by the unbelievable twists that feel so unnecessary.

The Oregon Files are probably my favourites of the spin-off series and this one does introduce some good new characters and fresh storylines, but the plot continues to drag it down. I can only hope that improvements will come, but as long as people (like me) keep buying then the novels will probably continue in this vein.

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Without Fail

Without Fail

2nd March 2011

In this novel, Jack Reacher takes on his biggest challenge yet when he is called in to protect the Vice President elect from a mysterious death threat.

I started this book wondering whether Child had jumped the shark - why do authors feel they can only get readers by giving their characters figures of national importance to interact with? Clancy did it with his Ryan novels and now Child is too - the previous book was just as good focussing on a small family in the south.

As it is however this book moved beyond that feeling once things got going. Reacher's character becomes more three dimensional than ever before and a lot of the narrative is more about him and his relationships than it ever is about the politician. The story moves at a good pace, and there was only one moment where there was a clue so obvious it broke the fourth wall.

I thought at the start that I was starting to drift away from Reacher's adventures but Child has proved that he's growing as an author and able to develop his character into something more than a moral killer. I'm looking forward to more.

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One of Our Thursdays is Missing

One of Our Thursdays is Missing

26th February 2011

The sixth book in Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series is the best yet and proves once again that he has one of the top imaginations and sharpest minds of the current generation of authors. This time, Thursday is missing, and the novel is told from the perspective of her literary counterpart in the bookworld, the written Thursday Next - it might be worth having read the first five books to fully understand.

This makes for a fantastic change, as although she is the same character she's also very different and suffers from a number of flaws that she's all too aware of, including being far too nice to take the place of the real Thursday. It also allows for an influx of new bookworld characters to assist her, including a robotic butler with an emotional eyebrow, and Mrs Malaprop, whose words I found initially got in the way of the narrative's flow but soon became one of the top pieces of comedy.

The best thing about a Fforde book is that it makes you think. So many things in novels are so absurd that we never notice, and he uses this meta-fictional point of view to point out some of these and come up with surprisingly rational explanations. It's a really detailed and surprising world that he's invented and the remaining in this book makes it even better for the character to explore.

The story is really a mystery, and being in the bookworld everything is a clue no matter how obscure it seems. Definitely one that will require a re-read to pick up more about what's going on. Another smashing read from an author who is one of my favourites.

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Swallows and Amazons

Swallows and Amazons

23rd February 2011

Swallows and Amazons is a classic children's novel set in the Lake District, where it tells the story of the holidaying Walker family, who sail the lake and set up camp on its island, where they meet the local Amazon pirates. It's been about fifteen years since I last read this and it has lost none of it's charm.

Ransome's style is casual and approachable, ideally suited for children but not to the extreme of many of today's books which become unintelligible to the adult reader. There are a couple of instances where he breaks the fourth wall which breaks the flow a touch but this can be forgiven. The chapters are a consistent length, splitting the narrative into bite size chunks which would make the book an ideal bedtime story. My only qualm is the amount of unexplained technical language around the sailing which I certainly didn't understand as a child and remain unsure over now - if reading to a child it may be worth looking up some of this in advance so that an explanation can be offered.

It amazes me actually how closely the film (which I must have seen dozens of times when I was younger) follows the narrative of the book, to the extent that even now I could picture the actors and on-screen depictions throughout. Slightly annoyingly the theme music also returned to me as I read and has been playing around on loop in my head for several days!

Although now over 80 years old, this book has survived the test of time and despite the lack of what we would think of as technology, it could easily be set today (though I suppose lake traffic would be busier - ironically due to tourism being boosted by this very book) and is approachable for the modern reader. I've really enjoyed this re-read and look forward to doing the same with the rest of the series.

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The ABC Murders

The ABC Murders

19th February 2011

This Poirot novel, narrated by Captain Hastings, differs somewhat from the norm. The killer has written to Poirot to announce his act in advance, and so the famous detective joins the hunt.

This is an interesting book, as Hastings chooses to narrate some of the action in the third person - something he's not done before - which I initially found quite an odd move on Christie's part, as it distracted from the flow, and by telling the reader about the murderer removed us from the mystery of who done.

This has to be one of the best Poirot books in the set. The action moves at a good pace and there is a wide range of characters who avoid the usual stereotypes. Christie even drops in a few in jokes about detective fiction. The plot is surprisingly complex and lulls the reader into a false sense of security - and though my thinking towards the end was close to the concussion, I failed to work things out before the big reveal.

A good entry in the series, and something nice to quickly read and get me back into a reading mood after some disappointments.

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The Coming of the Terraphiles

The Coming of the Terraphiles

17th February 2011

I have read a few of the tenth doctor novels before this one, but gave up as they seemed too childish for an adult audience (maybe this is obvious?), however this eleventh doctor novel's release in a larger hardback format led me to believe it might be something different.

The Doctor and Amy Pond join the 'Terraphiles' - a group of lovers of old Earth from the distant future - to compete in a sport which is cobbled together from vaguely remembered and misinterpreted parts of modern day sports. Along the way, they have to save the universe.

I found this book to be really hard to read. The style is quite simple, with the text describing the action but lacking any real connection with the characters - there was no real attempt to align the narrative with Amy's (or anyone else's) point of view for more than a few paragraphs at a time, and this made it hard to empathise with them. The plot is insanely complicated and given that I had trouble I would expect young children to be completely lost. Characters appeared and disappeared throughout and although a small core were memorable most seemed to be there for no real reason.

Moorcock manages to make this a cross-over with the worlds of his own novel series, which seems a surprising move for BBC Books to allow into the brand, and this combined with the awful narrative leads me to suspect that there was very little proof-reading and they were desperate to have a novel with some sort of 'name' attached.

Overall I'm afraid that I can't recommend this book - even the characterisations of the Doctor and Amy seem completely out and I couldn't picture them in most of the scenes or speaking the lines.

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A Painted House

A Painted House

12th February 2011

This is very different from John Grisham's earlier novels. Following his brief foray away from the legal thriller in The Testament, this book is a coming of age novel focussing on seven-year-old Luke, living on a cotton farm in 1950s Arkansas.

The novel tells the story of one harvest season, introducing Luke and his family and the various challenges that face their farm, including finding labour, crime and bad weather.

I found it surprisingly addictive reading given that this is not a genre I would usually chose. Grisham's writing style is as absorbing as always and the first person narrative from the perspective of a young child is remarkably identifiable, although I think my life is so far removed from that described that it's a little unbelievable that it's only set 60 years ago. But then that's how I often feel when reading Grisham novels.

Overall, I found it an enjoyable read, but I lacked the ability to emotionally connect with the story and its characters, so probably didn't get the most out of it.

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Paths of Disharmony

Paths of Disharmony

10th February 2011

The fourth and final book in the Typhon Pact mini-series is the Next Gen focussed novel and departs from the practice of the first three books by dealing predominantly with a Federation member species, the Andorians. Their planet ravaged by the Borg and species threatened with extinction by reproductive difficulties, Andor plays host to a conference of scientists and politicians trying to find an acceptable solution.

To me, this is the adventure where the series of continuation novels has come of age for the next gen. The writers have the freedom now not to worry about putting the toys back in the box, and so events have lasting repercussions, granting the reader much more emotional involvement with the plot.

While some elements are clearly moving to set things into motion to fit back into the 24th century parts of the recent Star Trek film and it's accompanying literature, the characters are written in such a way that it feels a natural progression of their character arc. In this way, this book is far superior to it's predecessor, in which DS9 characters develop beyond recognition.

Although the story follows on from many of the events of the DS9 relaunch novels, and ties in with the TOS-era Vanguard series, there's no requirement to have read either to understand this action packed semi-political thriller. It's the best of the Typhon Pact novels and leaves plenty of room for Trek to continue for a long time. I look forward to finding out what happens next.

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The Sleeping Doll

The Sleeping Doll

4th February 2011

I am ambivalent about this first book in the Kathryn Dance series, similar to how I felt about its sequel. In this she is on the trail of escaped prisoner Daniel Pell, a murderer who seems able to brainwash people into helping him.

While the concepts of the two main characters are really interesting, Dance as the kinetics (body-language) expert and Pell as the mind-controlling evil-doer, the plot and the writing style just fail to bear the weight.

Unlike a traditional mystery story, there's no opening for the reader to work things out - every twist comes completely out of the blue, and I found that to be really frustrating. Deaver also has a habit of ending chapters on suggestive cliff-hangers, only to change direction immediately after the break, completely ruining the suspense he has built up.

The narration is opinionated, which seems very strange presentation. If it was aligned with a character, as many other authors do, then this style would make sense but presented as the opinion of a faceless third person narrative it is jarring and rips focus away from the story.

Finally it is too complicated - there's more going on than is needed to tell the story, and particularly at the end where Deaver throws in some unexpected and ultimately unnecessary twists that just cause it to feel dragged out. I'm all for tying up loose ends but these ends weren't even there up to this point.

Overall I probably shouldn't have bothered after my experience reading the sequel. I can only hope that Deaver's attempt at a James Bond novel later this year turns out more satisfactorily.

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Confessions of a Conjuror

Confessions of a Conjuror

1st February 2011

Derren Brown presents an interesting take on the idea of an autobiography - rather than the story of his life it is the story of his personality. The book is presented as a stream of consciousness, structured around a card trick performed at a restaurant in his early days as a magician.

It's a fascinating read, and there are many places where I can identify with what he describes, however if the reader were interested in the facts and figures of Brown's life, his friends, family and so on then they will be disappointed. Instead, what he puts across is how his mind works, its quirks and nuances - the sort of things that everyone will recognise and experience but that are very rarely written of. This insight into myself is what really makes Derren's observations interesting to me.

The story of the magic trick is a good trick in itself, forming a structure around which he can branch off in random directions to cover the stories and observations that he wishes to tell, and it is the thing that kept me going as a reader. The randomness of the content could have lost me in places, but the desire to learn more about the trick is what pulled me along to the next chapter.

That said, I really enjoyed reading it. The footnotes did seem endless and in places were pages longer than the text they are intended to enhance. I love footnotes. It seems a really honest account of the person inside Derren's head, and that's the problem - I'm not entirely convinced that it's not just another mind game and he's having me on.

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Be My Enemy

Be My Enemy

30th January 2011

Brookmyre returns to his original protagonist, journalist Jack Parlabane for this novel, although a lot of the other characters get a chance to shine. A seemingly random group of individuals are invited to a trial run of an outward-bound team-building weekend, which is fine, until people go missing, and bodies turn up.

Although it takes a lot of set up time before the action gets going, it's certainly worth it. The gore is as full on, if not more so, than usual so the squeamish would definitely want to avoid. In fact this is the first one that I've actually found went beyond my comfort zone (but only once).

The characters are rich and varied, and even those who seem to be stereotypes at first turn out to be deeper, and as we see more of them under pressure they become more likeable, in a strange sort of way. The plot however is a bit of a rehash. In my mind, it's too similar to the events of 'One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night', particularly earlier on, though later it diverges significantly.

It's not going to go down as my favourite of Brookmyre's novels, but I can't fault its humour and grossness at all. An enjoyable read.

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Nerd Do Well

Nerd Do Well

25th January 2011

In this autobiography, Simon Pegg, star and writer of Spaced, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, and of course the new Scotty in Star Trek, tells the story of his life so far, and another, more random and probably fictitious, story in which he is a superhero with a robot butler.

This is very much a book of Pegg's life rather than a memoir of his career. The focus is very much on Pegg's influences and how he came to be then man he is, and there is very little in the way of anecdotes about his work. The two most obvious obsessions are Star Wars and zombies, both of which he talks about a lot. The book could almost be the story of how 'Shaun' came to be - that is the element of Pegg's work that receives the most page time, and readers who are only interested in his Trek connection will be disappointed by his bare mention of it.

The tone is surprisingly candid, with Pegg exploring much of his childhood and early relationships, as well as that which he had with the screen. While there is a lot of name dropping, it's not done in an egotistical 'look who I had dinner with' way, but more of a geeky 'omg I met... Wow!'.

I've enjoyed the time I've spent reading this, and I think anyone who is a fan of Pegg's comedy work will feel the same. Especially zombies.

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Rough Beasts of Empire

Rough Beasts of Empire

22nd January 2011

I was surprised by my disappointment with this novel. I am a big fan of DS9 and its novel continuation, and really enjoyed both the preceding Typhon Pact novels and the Destiny trilogy before that. I also enjoyed George's earlier DS9 book in the Mission Gamma arc.

This novel, set earlier than the other two Typhon Pact novels, though it doesn't tell the reader that, focusses on the Romulans, and that is it's redeeming feature. The political machinations are the most interesting part of the story.

The thing that annoys me most is the glossing over of the continuing DS9 storyline. At the end of 'The Soul Key' the storyline was building up towards something good, but the publishers abandoned that plotline, leaving it on a cliffhanger, and jumped the story several years into the future. George makes vague references to events in this period, but the lack of detail and the extreme consequences of these unseen occurrences make aspects of this book unbelievable. The changes to the characters of Sisko and Kira are wild and warrant explanation, while very little is forthcoming.

That moan out of the way, this book is quite chaotically put together, with gaps of months between chapters which break the flow of the narrative and on the odd occasion it jumps the other way, and has unannounced flashbacks, which have the same effect.

Overall this book feels like a filler. While it does deal with the Romulans to a similar depth as the previous novels did with other Typhon Pact members, it doesn't really add anything new that we didnt know from earlier stories. The coverage of the Tzenkethi is vague and feels like padding. While the conclusion of the book feels necessary to the story arc as a whole, the ends fail to justify the means in this case, and like I said, it disappointed me.

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Royal Assassin

Royal Assassin

14th January 2011

The second book in Robin Hobb's Farseer trilogy sees Fitz return home to Buckkeep where his agony grandfather, the King, has Bren struck down with a mystery illness. Although following on directly from the first novel, Fitz seems older now, becoming something of the surly teenager.

The story is slow going and the plot quite vague for much of the book, as it tells the story of Fitz's life without much focus on a particular strand or event. However this may just be my erroneous expectation of something to come - I had misread the blurb, and so was expecting a plot turn that never arrived. In the second half, the main thread emerges, and it is well written, so although elements are clear for a while, things don't all come together until the end. The speed picks up as well and the books becomes 'unputdownable'.

It's quite a violent book, and some of the scenes are quite graphic, to the extent that I was surprised by them. The characters are well continued from the first book, and each are believable and distinct.

Overall this is an excellent sequel, entertaining and advancing the plot well, taking forward from what could have been a stand alone and continuing the treads along their natural course. There's no doubt I will be continuing to book three.

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The Edge

The Edge

9th January 2011

'The Edge' is the second book published in the new Starfleet Academy series featuring Kirk, Spock, Bones & Uhura as we met them in the 2009 film. Despite the release order, this appears to have been meant to be the first book, and serves as more of an introduction to academy life - explicitly stating that some of the events occur within the first week.

Like 'The Delta Anomaly', the writing style seems aged a little on the young side of 'young adult', while the content of the story is probably about the right level, however one is more readable for a 'grown up'. The plot is loosely based around a medical mystery, however the main focus is on the cadets' life at the academy. To me, this comes across as a little implausible. While I would expect a military academy to be focussed more on physical than academic achievement, my idea of Starfleet Academy was that it was closer to a modern university facility than how it is portrayed here.

The characters are well written, Kirk coming across particularly as less of a jerk than elsewhere. Spock is rather awkwardly shoe-horned into the storyline but the book deals well with the beginnings of his relationship with Uhura, and drops in a few references that will make long-term fans smile.

Overall it's certainly an improvement over the first book in the series despite the chronological oddities (this book was originally announced to be the pilot novel). Although a simplistic quick read the plot worked and the characters fit in well. I'm now looking forward to more from this series.

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Lost Empire

Lost Empire

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7th January 2011

Cussler and Blackwood's second adventure in the Fargo series is roughly on a par with the first - a blight on the Cussler name, and if he keeps putting his name on these mediocre efforts they will seriously damage his reputation as 'grandmaster of adventure'.

This story sees married adventurers Sam and Remi investigate a submerged bell, which leads them on a preposterous Aztec treasure hunt trailed by agents of the Mexican government. The plot, while bearing resemblance to Cussler's frequent alternative history theme, is poorly executed and relies on pilot coincidence upon coincidence to solve the puzzle.

The narrative moves slowly at first, spending much of the first half in a strange diversion that almost seems like it has been added just to pad out the length. From halfway though the pace picks up rapidly and accelerates to a point near the end where what should be a tension filled 24 hours is reduced to a couple of pages.

Stylistically too, the direction switches suddenly halfway, from purely narrative to one punctuated by hard to see illustrations of documents relevant to the story.

The main characters are still weak. Their rapport, while probably designed to make them feel more like a couple, seems fake and cheesy, and their background and wealth is just unbelievably fantastic to the point where it interferes with the suspension of disbelief. The minor characters and indeed the bad guys are barely fleshed out at all, with the exception of Selma, who is nevertheless still a stereotype.

Overall, there is still a good concept behind the novel - I'm just disappointed with the execution and feel that this story could have made a much better story if the Cussler of old had written it to star Dirk Pitt.

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