All 2012 reviews - Shastrix Books

2012

All reviews

Strip Jack

Strip Jack

31st December 2012

Ian Rankin's style continues to improve in the fourth Rebus novel. Returning to Edinburgh, Rebus is tasked with minor police jobs - hunting for stolen books, raiding brothels, etc. when he stumbles upon what appears to be a much more complex, and interesting, mystery.

The plot has an element of the crime classic, with the large group of suspects seeming almost like a roster from an Agatha Christie novel, all of whom could have motive or opportunity, however the similarities don't last long, and the mystery unfolds at a good pace.

The 'soap' elements of Rebus life fit in very nicely, with parallels to the story that make it clear they aren't there just to make the character seem more rounded. I have to express some doubts about the realism of life in the police, where Rebus is allowed to wander off on his own investigation without, it seems, oversight or interest from his superiors.

Certainly the best in the series so far, it gripped me and I really enjoyed reading this one. It's clear why Ian Rankin has become such a popular author.

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Big Money

Big Money

31st December 2012

A typical Wodehouse novel - several engaged couples are in love, but not always with each other, and a game of musical chairs ensues. As always, it's light and easy on the eyes, but I also found that this one seemed to drag.

The plot is slow and, having read half-a-dozen similar stories, pretty predictable, and the humour and language seem slightly tamer than in other of his books. It starts well, but then the latter half becomes a shambles of people moving back and forth between city and suburb with not a lot going on.

I've observed before that his novels are often best consumed in small chunks, but with this one I found the chunks I could read in one sitting were getting smaller and smaller and sometimes I could not even complete a chapter in one go.

I'm afraid to say this is the first Wodehouse novel I've read that hasn't charmed me completely, and I'm a little disappointed to find that this was possible. I can only hope this is a one off and that when I return to his works in the future they will be back to what I was expecting.

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The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy

The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy

30th December 2012

The third investigation by the Three Investigators sees them called in by another friend of Alfred Hitchcock to investigate a talking artefact. It's the first time they actually do some investigating properly and introduces more of the features that become recurring elements throughout the series.

The plot is good, and the several attempts that the team make at solutions flow well and demonstrate good deduction and reasoning. The guest characters are plausible, though some of the dialogue is unnatural in a way that feels deliberately obfuscating.

Another good adventure - better than the previous story - but slightly dated now.

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Role of Honour

Role of Honour

24th December 2012

John Gardner's fourth James Bond novel sees a slight change of direction for the author. It's a much more Fleming-esque novel with an epic-scale plot but a perfectly believable enemy, and a number of touches that follow the style of Bond's original creator.

That said, there are a number of aspects that don't work - Gardner borrows Fleming's technique of describing his characters playing a game - however Bond facing his enemy head to head over a game of (essentially) Warhammer doesn't quite have the gravitas that Fleming managed to put into a round of golf or a game of cards. Gardner's descriptions aren't as gripping either - whereas Fleming could write the most entertaining hand of cards ever played.

The book is tied very much to eighties technology, and suffers for a modern reader because of this, much more so than the original series, much of which maintains a timeless quality. Bond spends a considerable period learning about computers, and it seems implausible that he could become an expert so quickly, and though the tech seems particularly accurate it is hard to relate to now.

However the action is good, the storyline moves along at a good pace and explores areas that suit the character well. There is a lack of exotic locales, but this almost helps to ground things a little more in reality than in some of Gardner's earlier episodes. The character of Bond is explored a touch more deeply, though he still doesn't seem as detailed as under Fleming's penmanship - his feelings aren't focussed on, and his emotions come across a little strangely.

Overall though, probably the best of Gardner's first four, and I hope that this bodes well for the rest of his contribution to the series as I continue reading.

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Back Spin

Back Spin

21st December 2012

Sports Agent/Investigator Myron Bolitar takes on his fourth case when a pair of professional golfers take him on to track down something that's been taken from them.

While the style maintains the flippant attitude of the first three books, it feels like things have been toned down a little and some more serious elements introduced. Some of the more grating features of the series are left out and what remains is a good crime novel with a likeable cast.

This is probably the best of the series so far, and has rejuvenated my interest in Coben's writing. I look forward to continuing with the series.

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Eagle Strike

Eagle Strike

21st December 2012

The fourth book in the Alex Rider series is quite different from the previous three. The formula of Alex being given a mission by MI6 is abandoned, and this time it's an adventure he has got himself into, when a holiday with a friend's family goes horribly wrong.

This makes it probably the best of the series so far, with a bad guy who seems realistic and others who have a surprising amount of depth. The action is fast paced and well written and I'm actually amazed at how well the format of a teenager in the style of James Bond works here.

A good quick read and an indicator that the series night continue to pick up from here on, as elements of a continuing story are introduced.

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The Labours of Hercules

The Labours of Hercules

15th December 2012

Set briefly before Poirot's 'retirement', The Labours of Hercules is a series of twelve short stories based loosely around the structure of the Greek legend of the same name. Poirot sets himself the challenge of solving a dozen more mysteries linked to the challenges posed to his mythical namesake, and then the shorts begin.

I've enjoyed reading this collection, although whenever I read Agatha Christie's short stories I find myself thinking of them as rejected plots for full novels. In this case however it doesn't quite seem that way - there is a good structure and the twelve do feel like they were written to be presented together in this way rather than standing alone.

They are varied and entertaining and contain a good deal of humour, but the problem I also have with Poirot in short form is that the reader has no chance beyond guessing to actually solve the mystery. One of the hallmarks of Christie and the classic crime novels is that the audience is presented with all the same clues and given a chance, whereas here there just is not enough space to do this. I did manage to guess some of the correct solutions, but I don't think any better than by chance alone.

Overall, I can't say I would recommend this as a great read, but for what it is it's better than other collections, and perhaps to get a new reader into the world of Christie, it may be more digestible than a full-length novel.

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Silent Weapons

Silent Weapons

10th December 2012

Book two in the Cold Equations trilogy picks up a couple of months after the first book, and although they are branded as a trilogy each stands alone pretty well (though you'll want to read them in the right order). Picard and the Enterprise are performing some slightly dubious science experiments when a distress call pulls them into a complex and very interesting situation.

The story contains all of the best elements of Trek, great characterisation, particularly of some of the guest characters, action, diplomacy and Mack's trademark of events that will rock Trek novel storylines for years to come. It flows off the page even better than the previous novel and I devoured it over the course of a single weekend.

Compared to part one, it felt less epic in scope, despite the subject matter seeming to make more of a difference to the ongoing storyline. It pulls together so many elements that it almost seems like there's too much going on, but everything is tied together surprisingly neatly into a plot that almost feels lessened by the slightly anti-climatic climax.

David Mack is the must-read author for Star Trek fans now and his novels tend to be the highlight of the rather sparse publishing schedule. I can only hope that book three will be just as explosive and that it will perhaps resolve some of the plot points that Mack and the other Trek authors have been setting up for years.

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Poseidon's Arrow

Poseidon's Arrow

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8th December 2012

Dirk Pitt is back for yet another adventure on the high seas. It's amazing how fit the character still is and how much he can get up to despite his increasing age. This story sees the NUMA team called upon by the US government to help raise a small boat with a secret cargo, but they aren't the only ones after it.

The plot is, at heart, surprisingly plausible - the technology, while futuristic, is believable and shows no sign of the sci-fi or fantasy influence that has troubled recent books in the Cussler series. Where it does fall apart though is in the detail of the narrative. The story wades slowly along, pushed by sudden boosts of action that were so unthrilling that I found my mind wandering and ending up on the other side of one with no idea how it got there. At worst, I had to go back several pages before I found something I remembered happening - this is not the sign of a gripping read.

The baddies are surprisingly well constructed, and their motivations and capabilities are perfectly believable, however some of the other guest characters felt underdeveloped and inconsistent. The female lead, an investigator for a government agency and introduced to us as a former US marine, then turns out to be a scaredy cat and no use in a fight. There were a number of points where I found the book to be quite sexist and I was disappointed with the poor showing in this regard.

For me, this was one of the weaker books in the series - but for once because of the writing rather than the plot. I'm afraid I can't say I recommend it.

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The Dragon Keeper

The Dragon Keeper

7th December 2012

The Dragon Keeper is the first book in a new series by Robin Hobb - a sequel of sorts to her three previous trilogies set in 'The Realm of the Elderlings'. It follows the lives of several characters living in and around the Rain Wilds as they attempt to look after a group of newly hatched dragons.

The main characters are new for this series, and are refreshingly different - it has a particular focus on two female characters, both of whom are rejected by their home culture. The plot however is a little weak, and there seems to be a lot of padding. On several occasions the narrative gets caught up in characters' reminiscences in the middle of a scene and this distracts from the ongoing events and feels out of place.

I wasn't as impressed by this book as its predecessors, particularly as it didn't really feel like a whole story. It is the first half of a duology, and feels like some parts were added to get it up to length for two volumes, making the story quite slow.

Overall, a fair follow-up to Hobb's previous novels, but alone it doesn't quite reach their level. I hope the second half is stronger and pulls the whole up to the author's usual brilliance.

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Jaggy Splinters

Jaggy Splinters

23rd November 2012

Jaggy Splinters is a collection of short stories and other pieces by Christopher Brookmyre, one of my favourite authors, whose series of dark comedies has kept me entertained for many hours. This ebook is a bit of a mixed bag though, with some pieces better than others.

The first story, place b., is the best of the bunch, and is similar to Brookmyre's 'Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks', seeing his most frequent character, journalist Jack Parlabane, investigate homeopathy. In place it feels like a bit of a rant, but it's a story that's trying to tell a point and it's one well made, with the author's usual sense of humour and style intact. Parlabane reappears in one of the later stories, which reads like a discarded opening chapter from a novel, but is nonetheless a good stand alone tale.

The final two pieces I've read before on the web - the first is another interesting short story about a character that could easily have retired from one of Brookmyre's novels. The second felt out of place - it's not really a story, just a piece of comic writing, and one that I didn't find that funny. Of the remaining two short stories, one is another good piece of dark comedy, but the other feels abrupt and the joke doesn't really work - there's no real connection to what's happening and the tale has no real point to it.

Overall, I'm torn - most of the content is excellent - pure Brookmyre genius, and worth the price alone for a little piece of his vision of the world - and the others aren't really weak enough to drag it down. A good quick fix of comic storytelling while I wait for Brookmyre's next novel to come out.

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The Mystery of the Secret Room

The Mystery of the Secret Room

23rd November 2012

It's the Christmas holiday, and Enid Blyton's Five Find-Outers are back together again and looking out for another mystery to solve, while continuing to wind up the local policeman.

I must confess to being a little disappointed re-reading these as an adult - as a young child they were some of my favourite stories and my favourite of Blyton's works, but now they seem much more simplistic than I remember and the characters' mystery solving seems much more luck than investigatory skill.

That having been said, this is the book where key elements for the rest of the series finally come into place: Fatty takes charge and introduces a variety of detective skills, including invisible writing, and his impressive disguises. This element alone makes up for the rather tame plot which involves incredibly little detection.

For children, obviously the intended audience, the language is mostly appropriate (although my copy does contain one politically incorrect word), and Blyton drops in the occasional less familiar word to expand the reader's vocabulary. The characters are likeable and the humour stands the test of time.

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The Persistence of Memory

The Persistence of Memory

21st November 2012

David Mack returns to epic Trek novelling with the first book in his Cold Equations trilogy, which sees the Enterprise called to investigate a shocking theft/kidnapping and follows this up with some surprising, heart-warming and intriguing events that once again might just change the Trek universe forever.

Mack's style is strong and easy to read. I wanted to dive in and not stop reading, which is always a bonus, and was particularly frustrated in the middle section at having to stop reading to go to sleep or work. His grip on the characters is perfect and I really enjoyed the first-person parts of the narrative.

This book is particularly focussed on one character, and some of the others seem a little under-represented, but hopefully that will be resolved in the sequels. Mack ties in with a lot of things from the various TV series - one of which I'd been thinking about just a few days before reading which made it a nice reference to come across. He's also relying a lot on events from the novel 'Immortal Coil' which I have to confess not to have read (yet).

The one weak point I thought was the final chapter, which didn't seem to quite fit, and I would have appreciated a little more before it, but I can understand that it was needed to set the scene a little for what will follow. I'm on the edge of my seat waiting for book two - David Mack has certainly reminded me at least that he's one of the top Trek authors of all time.

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Full Dark House

Full Dark House

21st November 2012

The first novel in the Bryant and May series starts with an interesting twist - the death of the one of the principal characters. This event sets the remaining half of the duo off on a trip down memory lane, as he uses his recollections of the pair's first case together to investigate a modern mystery.

It took me a little while to get into the book - the first of Fowler's novels that I've read - but this may have been because I was distracted from reading it as quickly as I usually would. The plot is well told, revealing just enough throughout, and the author's ability to write two separate timelines consecutively, and keep it clear to the reader which they are in without it feeling forced shows this off perfectly.

I'll admit that there were parts of the structure that felt odd, but this might be because I've not read the author's earlier books which establish the characters in supporting roles. There didn't really seem to be a need for the split timeline framing story - the part set in 1940 could have easily stood by itself, and the 2003 storyline felt a little like padding.

Overall though I was pleased to finally read this having been recommended it a while ago by a friend. I was expecting something a little more wild from the 'peculiar crimes unit', but wasn't disappointed by what I found instead. Book two has gone on my wishlist.

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The Confession

The Confession

11th November 2012

Once again, Grisham writes about the death penalty, and while I agree with the point he's trying to make about the irony of capital punishment and the number of miscarriages of justice caused by outdated and corrupted systems, I found this particular work dreary and repetitive.

I appreciate that such a novel was never going to be the most heart-warming, this story of a man falsely convicted of murder and sentenced to death, and an attempt by the guilty party to stop the execution, could at least have tried to be different from what Grisham has written before.

This is predominantly a fictionalised version of Grisham's non-fiction work 'An Innocent Man' - both (and these could be considered spoilers) feature a black man, with a false confession beaten out of him, sentenced by a corrupt and unbelievable court, and sitting on death row. Both cover the following events and appeals, and both are presented in a documentary style, that in this case really doesn't lend itself to making a book I found I wanted to read.

There were aspects that worked to redeem the book slightly though - I found the characters of the various religious leaders surprisingly compelling and their arcs were some of the most interesting. One of them could be considered the protagonist, and the tone softened when the narrative was aligned with him - it became more personal and more approachable.

The first two thirds of the book were long and slow, dragging to what quickly became clear was an inevitable point in the narrative. The final third picked up though, and both pace and action arrived, relieving the bitter taste that the earlier sections of the book left me with.

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Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

11th November 2012

The second book in J K Rowling's much loved epic fantasy series for children has always been one of my least favourite instalments - one that on each re-read of the series I've thought 'Oh no, this one again'. This time however, I didn't see what had put me off it before - it's a neat and well constructed story that sows a lot of seeds for later in the series, but perhaps because it's the first time I've re-read it since Deathly Hallows was published it is only now that I can appreciate that.

It's Harry's second year at Hogwarts, despite the many efforts of Dobby the house elf to put him off, and a mysterious horror has been unleashed in the castle - the monster that lives in the Chamber of Secrets.

The plot is strong, and although on first reading it may seem an aside to the main storyline of the series, it sets up a number of key elements. The character of Ginny actually comes across much more strongly than I had remembered, and the number of clues in the mystery that the students are investigating surprised me.

I've enjoyed re-visiting this episode in the Harry Potter saga, and have re-examined my opinion of it and found it needs to be considered in higher regard. It's a great book and shows off some of the variety that Rowling was able to put into this series. I hope that Prisoner of Azkaban will also feel improved when I read it again.

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Maximum Security

Maximum Security

31st October 2012

Book three of the Cherub series sees James Adams, teenage secret agent, dispatched to an American prison, but actually I thought it the weakest of the series so far.

The first two books felt like trail blazers for a new type of teen fiction, dealing with weighty issues such as becoming an orphan, terrorism, and drugs, and the plot of this book seems fairly tame by comparison.

The writing style has perhaps matured slightly, with less blatant references to the staples of teenage lifestyles than in book one, which felt very forced. I also enjoyed how James' sister gets a bigger role in this story, expanding the cast to appeal to a wider audience.

Overall, still an exciting story, but a bit less interesting than the first two. I'm not planning to stop reading the series though.

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Icebreaker

Icebreaker

31st October 2012

John Gardner's third outing as Bond author brings us a novel that has a slightly more cinematic feel to it, in which Bond is invited to join with counterparts from foreign powers to counter a neo-nazi terrorist group.

While the plot does feel like a Roger Moore movie, there are moments, particularly at the beginning, where Gardner seems to start trying to emulate some of Ian Fleming's writing style. I'm not sure whether this comes across successfully or feels more like a parody.

For the most part the plot is plausible and the sequences in the snowy outdoors feel well written. It seems clear that the author knows here exactly what he's talking about. However there are other aspects, particularly regarding many of the guest characters, which (without spoilers) over-complicate things and make the book feel like it is taking the mickey out of the spy genre.

In many places I found the book hard going, my eyes would glaze over and my mind wander, and I would have to go back a page or two to find out what was going on. I'm afraid I still haven't found Gardner's writing up to the standard that I loved in Fleming's books.

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Alcatraz Versus the Knights of Crystallia

Alcatraz Versus the Knights of Crystallia

31st October 2012

Alcatraz Smedry's third appearance is something of a departure from the repetitive plots of the first two books, while maintaining the irreverent humour of the author's chosen style of narrative.

Alcatraz finally gets to visit the Free Lands - his home, free from librarian control - but arrives just in time to fall straight into another librarian plot. The twist of course is that this time he's the defender not the infiltrator.

The story introduces us to a lot more detail about the world of the stories, and we learn a good deal more about several characters' backgrounds. The difference in plot certainly seems to make up for the now-slightly-grating style (though again I imagine taking a longer break between reading the instalments would probably negate this).

It's a nice adventure and by this point in the ongoing story Sanderson is clearly starting to set things up for the end of the series. A good read for adults and children alike, and better than book two in my opinion. I'm now going to follow my own advice and wait before reading book four.

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The Affair of the Thirty-Nine Cufflinks

The Affair of the Thirty-Nine Cufflinks

31st October 2012

The third and final mystery at Alderley concerns the death of Lord Burford's great-aunt, and the turmoil and murder brought about by it.

It's just as good, if not better than, the two previous novels - very much in the Christesque tradition of country house and assembly of distant family members. The complex interaction of characters with history makes it stand out from the earlier episodes with random house guests and the recurring characters seem settled in their personalities. The chief inspector and the butler are particularly pleasing to read.

The mystery is similar is execution to the earlier stories, but this is all part of the charm. The investigation just as confusing, and the resolution just as satisfying. I easily managed to spot one of the smaller mysteries (though purely by chance rather than using the somewhat obscure clues), but the main solution escaped me all the way to the big reveal.

I've really enjoyed reading this trilogy and am disappointed that Anderson didn't have the opportunity to continue the series. I'm going to have to hunt out some of his other, seemingly out-of-print, works.

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Alcatraz Versus the Scrivener's Bones

Alcatraz Versus the Scrivener's Bones

28th October 2012

The second adventure for Alcatraz Smedry in his was against evil librarians sees the teenager take a trip to the Library of Alexandria, in an attempt to rescue his father and grandfather.

It continues in much the same style as the first book in the series - with Alcatraz narrating in an irreverent manner with large numbers of seemingly random asides and interruptions. As different as this is, I did find it start to become a little annoying this time round, but that might be because I read it so soon after the first book.

It's light, entertaining, and contains a number of clever ideas and twists, but ultimately the plot is too similar to that of the previous book, and it doesn't really add enough that's different. I felt a bit let down.

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Jumper

Jumper

28th October 2012

A literary adventure with one sci-fi element, Jumper surprised me in its depth and emotion, although in places seemed to lack direction. Davy Rice lives with his abusive father until one day he miraculously escapes by discovering a unique ability.

The strongest element of the story is the character of Davy - although forced to be strong he shows a lot of emotion throughout and it's clear that he, through the first person narrative, is putting a brave face on parts of his past while letting other moments show through in their raw nature.

The plot however is weaker and feels rather haphazard. A lot of the early plot is establishing things, and this part goes on possibly too long and involves several implausibilities. Time flows at a flexible rate and there are periods of time unaccounted for in order to line things up for the action, which arrives very late on in the story. Davy's emotional journey is certainly at the centre of things, but the events that tie into this seem off-balance.

It's certainly light on the sci-fi, and although I haven't seen the film, reading a synopsis confirms what I've been told: that it's a completely different story. Overall I found it an engaging read and one that I was surprised to find myself liking as much as I did. There is a sequel out there, and I'm planning to hunt it down.

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The Bat

The Bat

17th October 2012

Jo Nesbo's first Harry Hole mystery is the eighth to be translated into English (and the fourth I've read). It's fairly easy to see why. The story sees Hole, a Norwegian ex-alcoholic police officer, sent to Sydney, Australia to help investigate the murder of a minor Norwegian celebrity, where he becomes over involved and listens to a lot of stories.

As a crime novel it is lacking - clues and suspects are few and far between and the investigation is difficult to follow. The characters are rough and generally stereotypical or almost undescribed, and the settings have little feeling of realism - whether this is an effect of it being set in a country foreign to the author or of the translation into English I don't know.

Although I wouldn't describe it as a great novel, it's okay and gives an insight into the main character's background that informs some of the events of the later novels I've already read.

I agree with the translation order that it's worth this one being delayed until after the series has established itself with some of the later novels. I'm not sure that if I'd read this one first that I would have kept reading.

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Money for Nothing

Money for Nothing

17th October 2012

Money for Nothing is another classic comic romance from one of the twentieth century's greatest authors of light novels. The slightly sterotypical stately home setting is offset by the character of its owner and the genius plot in which he partakes. There are two intertwined stories and it's hard to say which is the main and which the secondary, that while very different counterbalance each other well.

The writing is typically lyrical for Wodehouse, and I found myself constantly amused by the tiniest turns of phrase, particularly where he finds a new way to put across the most cliched phrases. Reading Wodehouse is a wonderful entertainment that always manages to surprise me - I'm glad there are many more to read.

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Brinkmanship

Brinkmanship

7th October 2012

The eighth story in the Typhon Pact arc, set several years past Star Trek Nemesis, focuses on the Tzenkethi, and their relationships with the Federation and its allies, as well as the Venette Convention, a non-aligned peaceful group whose home lies between the major powers'. The plot follows three strands and focusses on diplomacy and exploring the alien cultures in more detail.

My favourite parts of the novel are those set on Ab-Tzenketh itself as we explore their culture in more depth than ever before and it is revealed to be far more fascinating than I had imagined. McCormack really excels at world building and this makes the novel far more than just another run-of-the-mill adventure.

While it's good too see more of the USS Aventine under Ezri Dax, in places these parts of they story did seem a bit tacked on and I had expected that there might be more of a focus on this crew than the novel actually included. Despite the cover image, the Enterprise portion of the plot is told mainly from the point of view of Doctor Crusher, which is a refreshing change as she has had comparatively little page-time recently. Writing this, I've only just noticed that this makes all the main characters of this novel females, which is also an interesting difference to the norm.

Although I sped through reading it in study two days, this is another excellent Trek novel. I'm really enjoying the way they are going at the moment and hope this can continue. I also look forward to reading more from Una McCormack who has fast become one of my favourite Trek authors.

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The Casual Vacancy

The Casual Vacancy

7th October 2012

JK Rowling's first book for adults depicts life in the village of Pagford, where the untimely death of a parish councillor throws the local populace into complete disarray. Rowling proves that she's not a 'one trick pony' as she explores the lives of an ensemble cast of characters who live surprisingly believable lives.

The book opens well, quickly introducing a range of characters between whom the buck of narrative alignment is passed throughout. The author demonstrates a way with descriptions that paint an amazing picture of the setting in the reader's mind - something that I had forgotten about her previous works since the images from the movies had taken their place. Her skills at building an entire world - though this time on a slightly smaller scale, continue to astound.

It's certainly aimed at a more mature audience, with plenty of sex and drugs and choice language throughout - perhaps many of the things that she was unable to mention in her earlier children's novels coming through. The blend of subtle comedy and gritty realism is just right, with the plot light enough not to put the reader off while dealing with a number of serious issues - all of which she manages to depict authentically and compassionately.

Although there were places in the middle of the book where I felt it was dragged out a little and it was unclear whether the plot was going anywhere, overall the complexity of the story and richness of the range of characters is the most captivating element and I was saddened every time I had to put it down.

To me, this proves Rowling's position as one of the great contemporary authors and, although its never going to be as iconic as Harry Potter is an amazing book that is both entertaining and thought-provoking. Although it seems unlikely there will be a sequel, it only encourages me that there may well be more amazing worlds and stories to explore from JK Rowling.

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Exodus Code

Exodus Code

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30th September 2012

Exodus Code is a Torchwood novel by John Barrowman, star of the TV series, and his sister Carole. The story, set following the fourth TV series ('Miracle Day'), sees violent uprisings in the sea bed around the world and groups of women suffering debilitating synaesthesia.

The book is split into four parts - three of them read like a typical thriller - action and outlandish events, unlikely prescience and deus ex machina. The remaining part reads like classic Torchwood, focussed on Gwen and her family in Wales, dealing with the characters' lives and emotions. This was my favourite part of the story. I was also impressed with the depiction of synaesthesia, which while I have no personal experience of, came across in a believable and understandable manner.

I found the plot confusing to follow, and wasn't convinced at the end that the narrative added up properly - it often seemed like things were set in motion for a particular purpose before the characters knew enough to do so, and there was very little explanation of exactly what was happening and how the characters solved the problems they faced.

Torchwood seems to have transformed into a 'save the world every adventure' type of series, rather than the smaller focus it originally had. This feels unrealistic and a bit like jumping the shark. Overall I'm afraid to say I didn't find this book satisfying and did not feel it added much to the Torchwood story.

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Deep Down

Deep Down

26th September 2012

Deep Down is a short Jack Reacher story released in the build-up to the publication of A Wanted Man, much as Second Son was before The Affair. It tells a tale from Reacher's early career in the US army's military police, where he is sent undercover on home turf.

It's an entertaining half hour's read, but doesn't grip the reader's interest in the same way that Second Son's focus on Reacher as a child had, and is twenty percent shorter. In fact I was quite disappointed to find that only 75% of the ebook was the story and the remaining quarter a preview of A Wanted Man.

Worth a read perhaps if you are a big Reacher fan in need of a quick fix, but not really relevant to the character's development or longer term story arc.

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Great Northern?

Great Northern?

26th September 2012

Great Northern?, the last complete story in Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons series, is a much better adventure than I remembered from childhood. The three groups of siblings are sailing the Sea Bear off the Scottish coast with Captain Flint (whether this is meant to be real or another story made up by the children is unclear, but personally I favour the former position) when Dick makes a remarkable discovery - but then must protect it from danger.

This novel focusses heavily on Dick, but with good chunks of the narrative with Roger and several of the other characters. If anything, it is the mates - Peggy and Susan - who receive the least attention, a problem they have suffered from throughout the series. The plot deals with an interesting conflict between two different sides to science and presents quite a lot of educational and philosophical information to its young target audience.

My memory from childhood was that this was one of the weakest of the series, and my recollections of what was going to happen slightly shaded my experience of re-reading. Yet this time I thought it stronger, and once I got past one particularly awkward scene I relaxed and found it to be quite a good adventure. Maybe not the finale that I think the series deserved but certainly better than many other children's books.

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Dodger

Dodger

19th September 2012

Dodger is an amazing stand-alone novel from Terry Pratchett, telling the tale of a young man in early-Victorian London whose life suddenly changes when he rescues a damsel in distress. It's an exciting and incredibly rich story that I have no doubt will appeal to readers of all ages.

The narrative is littered with characters based on real people from the period (Dickens plays a major part) and it imparts a lot of real historical information in a very subtle manner. I actually had to slow down my reading speed because I felt I was missing out on some of the texture, and often found myself jumping back a few paragraphs to read an especially good passage again.

Dodger himself is a great character who suits the setting and through whom the story comes across very well. He reminds me of several of Pratchett's Discworld regulars wrapped into one, and the only problem I had was that my mental image of him wanted to be younger than he was described.

There are a few colourful words in the text and some subtle innuendo that might have older readers tittering while passing over the heads of younger readers, but it's masterfully done and only adds to the book's appeal. One of the best books I've read for a long time.

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The Eternal Tide

The Eternal Tide

15th September 2012

Kirsten Beyer's fourth post-Destiny Voyager novel picks up on a number of threads that have been hanging over the series for some time, most specifically the mystery surrounding fleet commander Afsarah Eden's past.

It's another great novel and one that's very tightly focussed on the characters. I wasn't too impressed by aspects of the previous novel, but the 'mumsyness' has been toned down with this one and although it is heavily emotion-fuelled there is a much better balance with the narrative.

Some readers may find aspects of the plot disappointing, however I thought they were well executed and delivered the intended results without feeling like a deus ex machina. Beyer explores a number of concepts from the TV series in a new light and in places this makes the story feel a little like those in the Typhon Pact arc.

Overall, another excellent novel in this series that Beyer certainly excels at writing. It does feel like a turning point in the ongoing narrative but I hope the publishers keep the author for a few more episodes.

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The Devil's Star

The Devil's Star

11th September 2012

The Devil's Star is the fifth of Jo Nesbo's Harry Hole books (but confusingly the first published in English and the third in the 'Prince' trilogy). It's the third of the series that I've read (after The Redbreast and Nemesis) and certainly the best of the three.

I recommend reading the three books of this 'trilogy' in order, and would guess that it's best to read the earlier two first, even though I haven't, as Redbreast didn't really introduce the characters all that well.

Although it starts out fairly weakly with a rather stereotypical alcholic loner policeman, it soon picks up with both a plot of its own as Hole and his colleages investigate a serial killer in Oslo, and the continuing plot that carries over from the previous two novels.

The writing is a little confusing in places, and particularly in chapter three I noticed a number of strange sentances, however once I was a few chapters in I was absolutely hooked. I was quite surprised actually by how much I found myself enjoying the story having found the other two books I've read slightly disappointing.

One feature of Nesbo's writing that cropped up a number of times in this book was suddenly introducing new characters - there are quite a lot of them who kick-off a new chapter with a massive chunk of their backstory before merging into the plot and in some cases playing just the tiniest part in the story.

It's certainly saved my opinion of both the writer and his detective, and rather than abandoning the series, as I was suspecting I might, I'm not looking forward to picking up another book in the series.

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Tooth and Nail

Tooth and Nail

7th September 2012

The third Inspector Rebus book sees the character called to London as an expert in serial killers to investigate the mysterious 'Wolfman' who has been brutally killing women across the city.

Like the first two, Rankin uses his narrative to well define his character and shows a large number of seemingly random observations which are clearly those he made himself while living in London. These make the character come alive and the whole story seem very realistic. Similarly he uses a number of anecdotes to build up side plots that aren't relevant to the main story but help the character building.

As a mystery it's well set-up with a great number of clues and red-herrings, two of which I fell for in a major way (and one of which I thought I'd been really clever to spot). The conclusion did seem rather abrupt and I'm not convinced that the solution was arrived at in the most satisfactory way. Several of the final scenes also seemed very similar to how I remember the first book.

Overall it was an interesting read, though perhaps a bit too serious a crime story for my tastes which like a little bit of a lighter touch. It's not going to stop me returning to read more of the series.

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A Wanted Man

A Wanted Man

5th September 2012

This is the first Jack Reacher novel I've read at publication, having finally caught up with the series. It's another great tale about the former military policeman as he randomly explores America, and follows on directly from the book before last (Worth Dying For) although the plot is entirely distinct. This time Reacher is hitch-hiking when he's picked up by some suspicious characters.

What I really liked about this novel was the simplicity of the set-up and a significant portion of the narrative. It gives Child another opportunity to explore the depths of his character without missing out any of the tension and action we're used to. I did find the shift in tone towards the end of the book a little disappointing as I was liking what came before so much but can't really fault it.

This book makes a really nice contrast to The Affair - the previous book - and this continues to show that Child is much more than just a run of the mill thriller writer. The character has grown a lot in the 15 years between the settings of the novels and Child easily switches back to third- from first-person to present the story in the most appropriate way.

I've really enjoyed this book and indeed the series so far as a whole, and am only disappointed that I've now got to wait until the next book is published.

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For Special Services

For Special Services

31st August 2012

The second of John Gardner's James Bond continuation novels sees the secret agent dispatched to America to investigate an apparent resurgence in an old enemy. It's a clever move to delay the reintroduction of this element until book two, so that the new series doesn't feel too much like a rehash, however it also felt a little like they returned because it wasn't thought the book would sell well enough with a new enemy.

Despite a number of faults I thought the story was better than its immediate predecessor, and the plot at least felt much more like those Fleming wrote. Chief among the drawbacks however was the characterisation. Bond is bland and almost feels elderly in places (a bit like Roger Moore who was the cinematic Bond at the time), which makes the romances with much younger characters implausible. The other characters however were shallow and even the female lead seemed to have only one trait - falling for Bond.

I had read the book before but had no conscious memory of the plot, so I'm not sure whether one important plot point was obviously coming from a mile off or if I had subliminally remembered it, however I felt that a few more red herrings would not have gone amiss. the biggest problem though was the repeated use of dei ex machina - the sudden production of a tool or additional knowledge or secret events that the reader is introduced to just when it's needed to rescue the plot, and mostly things which could easily have been foreshadowed earlier.

Overall, it's a fairly good adventure, but it would have worked with any agent and any enemy - there was a good use of Bond's backstory and references to a number of Fleming's works, but it all felt like window dressing. Not quite up to the standard I look for in a James Bond novel.

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The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot

The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot

29th August 2012

The second adventure for the Three Investigators sees them take up the hunt for a missing parrot. Some more of the regular elements are introduced and the plot is a classic mystery.

The characters seem surprisingly modern for an old story and Jupiter seems to have been toned down a little since the first book. The guest characters are also memorable and well developed rather than the shallow stereotypes in many children's books.

A great story from a great series that surprises me slightly by its absence from today's bookshelves.

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The Hollow

The Hollow

27th August 2012

Hercule Poirot returns (eventually) for a small part in this murder mystery, set in the classic surrounds of an upper-class country home.

It's a good, complex mystery which I only had the slightest inkling of the solution for by the time of the big reveal, and a great and varied set of characters. The clues are well hidden and the narrative moves at a fair pace, though there were places where the narrative seemed to jump erratically and I wondered whether my copy was missing some paragraphs.

It's interesting to follow the series as Christie's writing progresses. Poirot himself returns to being a minimalist presence in this book much as in some of the earlier adventures (though without Captain Hastings' narration) and much of the story is around the characters he is investigating, who live much more modern lifestyles than some of the previous residents in country houses.

The characters certainly make the novel for me and I hope there is more to come in a similar style as I continue reading through Poirot's adventures.

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Skeleton Key

Skeleton Key

27th August 2012

Book three in the Alex Rider series seems weaker than its predecessors. The plot sees Alex sent to America to help the CIA infiltrate a Caribbean island, but apart from a couple of action sequences feels bland and bitty.

The characters are generally forgettable and Rider hardly feels like a realistic teenager. There are hints that he is growing up in this book but they don't really fit well with the rest of the story, and his romance is portrayed in quite a ridiculous fashion.

I'm afraid this series has lost its way a little after a good start, and I'm not sure how much further I'm going to bother with it.

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The Affair

The Affair

27th August 2012

Lee Child's 16th Jack Reacher novel is set back in 1997, shortly before the events depicted in 'Killing Floor', the first book in the series, and covers Reacher's final days as a military policeman in the US army. It's a really good adventure for the character and reveals a lot about his past that's been secret before now.

Reacher is not quite the character we've come to know from the earlier stories - he's not yet honed his skills, and we see him picking up some of his trademark attributes in this adventure. It's a really interesting look at the character and I found Child's ability to adapt his writing to a different version of his character very fulfilling.

The plot as usual is full of action and the usual levels of violence, but I am slightly ambivalent about the ending. Child makes really good use of the setting he has created and despite the distance between the place I live and the small-town USA that he describes it comes across very realistically.

I've really enjoyed this book and having finally caught up with the series I am looking forward to plenty more to come.

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Fallen Gods

Fallen Gods

23rd August 2012

Nominally the seventh book in the Star Trek: Titan series, this book actually follows on from the 'Typhon Pact'-branded novel Seize the Fire by the same author. It follows the Titan as it investigates an unusual pulsar and deals with some of the repercussions of events in the wider Star Trek novel universe.

The narrative is written in an interesting style, with the narrator seeming to take on the voice of the character it is aligned with despite remaining third person. This is something I haven't noticed from Martin before but in places makes the book hard to read - particularly when he's telling the story from the point of view of the new aliens. I would have liked to have spent more time exploring the character of Pava as well, who seems to be skipped over despite seeming the most interesting character.

The plot is slow to get going - it's a curious mix of two plotlines which seem completely disconnected, which while a little reminiscent of the old A/B-plot episode structure from the TV series feels lacking. It then ends very abruptly, which for one of the stories seems like a chapter of follow-up has fallen out somewhere.

As people have said of Martin's other works, his writing is about telling what happens, but there's little by way of real character development. There are character moments certainly, but they don't change or grow. It's also annoying that despite the big thing about the Titan being its diverse crew, the characters he uses are the same ones and same races we've seen before. The most frustrating thing though was the very obvious elephant-in-the-room that seemed to be built up as some big mystery when it was obvious to the reader exactly what was going on.

However it's not a bad adventure, and once I'd got my head around them the alien species were an interesting, if under-developed concept, and it served to continue the ongoing storyline - so is a must read for anyone following along.

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A Clash of Kings

A Clash of Kings

22nd August 2012

The second book in Martin's epic focusses heavily on the disparate members of the Stark family and their Lannister enemies. It's a very political story which might disappoint those looking for endless battle scenes in their fantasy, though I found this to be a highlight as I love stories with complex plotting.

Martin's characters continue to be the highlight of his writing. Despite their status as enemies, the main characters whose points of view the reader is aligned with are incredibly likeable and I found it made for an excellent reading experience.

The narrative moves forward at a quick enough pace, presented as long chapters, each told from a different point of view to its neighbours. This is a perfect way of presenting such a wide-ranging story without it ever feeling that the reader has left any characters behind. Recapping of what occurred in the first book was covered in a very natural manner and I barely noticed - whether this means a reader who had skipped the first book would follow I cannot say.

I can find nothing bad to say about this book - I was surprised by how disappointed I was when it was over, and am looking forward to picking up book three.

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Theodore Boone

Theodore Boone

13th August 2012

John Grisham's first children's book is the story of the thirteen-year-old son of two lawyers, who is desperate to be one himself, and finds himself mixed up in the biggest court case the town has ever seen.

I found the book to be aimed at a younger audience than I had expected - probably about right for an eight-year-old reader - and the narration felt a little patronising in places, particularly near the beginning. There's a lot of exposition and the tale is fairly dry for a children's novel.

The character of Theo is difficult to sympathise with - he's a genius who everyone loves and who seems to help everyone - he's just too good to be true. As such he comes over as a bit of an annoying swot in places and I'm not sure he's a character many children would identify with.

The story picks up a bit towards the end but ultimately I found it quite weak and think there's a lot better entertainment for young readers to be had elsewhere. I'm intrigued to find out if Grisham's writing is refined in the sequel, but having read many of his adult novels I don't hold out a lot of hope.

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The Affair of the Mutilated Mink

The Affair of the Mutilated Mink

13th August 2012

The second of the Burford Family mysteries sees a visit by the film industry to the Earl's home, scouting for a possible movie, but as before someone isn't going to survive.

As with the first book it's a classic whodunnit reminiscent of agatha Christie but with a more modern style. The setting remains the same but the majority of the character are new and make for an incredibly dubious collection of suspects. There's a mixture of light moments and serious investigation and more red herrings than you could shake a stick at.

It's a light and entertaining mystery that will have your brain spinning as you try to work it out. I really enjoyed it and am disappointed that there's only one more entry in the series for me to look forward to.

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The Mystery of the Disappearing Cat

The Mystery of the Disappearing Cat

11th August 2012

The Five Find-Outers and Dog return for a second mystery when a new neighbour's pedigree cat is stolen. It's still early days for the group and I found the mystery to be lacking in some of the usual Blyton hallmarks.

The setting feels much more tame than the first book and the detection is a lot more about brainwork than investigation, which means it's not a particularly action-packed story. The clues are surprisingly subtle and if I hadn't read the book before then I'd be surprised if I had noticed some of them, though there are some very good red herrings.

The language and setting make the book feel quite dated now, and some of the writing actually feels like it is patronising the reader - I would feel awkward reading some passages aloud to a child because of how old-fashioned they are. The main characters are surprisingly middle-class, and while this is poked fun at a little with their relationships with working-class characters, it's possible modern children will find it hard to relate.

Probably one of the weakest of the series, and I'm looking forward to moving on to the later books where Fatty becomes master of disguise and escapology.

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Class A

Class A

11th August 2012

The second book in Robert Muchamore's Cherub series continues the adventures of 12-year-old secret agent James Adams, who takes on a mission to infiltrate a gang of drug dealers.

It's an improvement on the first book, in which the plot was slightly disjointed, and continues the author's surprising grip on realism in depicting teenage life. Unlike characters in other 'young adult' novels, these people seem like they could be real - using the right sort of language and having the right reference points to appeal to an age-group that is under-served by literature.

The plot features drugs, relationships, burglary and vandalism, and some parents may consider that this makes it unsuitable for younger readers - I'd recommend if they have doubts they should read it first. However the repercussions of taking drugs, having relationships and committing crimes are duly shown (fitted naturally into the plot) and my opinion is that it's a very good way of exploring these issues without it seeming like a lecture.

It's a great book for the teenage market and I wish I'd had something like this to read when I was that age.

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The Small Bachelor

The Small Bachelor

11th August 2012

Another delightful tale from PG Wodehouse in which people fall in love and in doing so get terribly confused. To me this is where Wodehouse is at his best - similar to Piccadilly Jim in theme and entertaining throughout.

The characters are the usual mix of loveable rogue, stern matronly woman, pining middle-aged gentleman, disapproving butler etc. in a combination so twisted it's hard to understand how the author makes everything flow so seamlessly together and allow the reader to follow what's going on despite the characters' confusion.

I can't find anything to criticise about this book - I really enjoyed reading it after being rather bogged down by the last novel I read. Wodehouse's writing continues to be a relaxing entertainment in today's world.

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The Clan of the Cave Bear

The Clan of the Cave Bear

8th August 2012

The Clan of the Cave Bear is an epic tale of Ayla, an orphaned 'Cro-Magnon' girl living 30,000 years ago and brought up by a Neanderthal clan. The level of historical detail is impressive and it's clear the author has done a lot of research into her era, however I found the story to be overly long and had to take a break halfway through to read something else.

The characters are good - the clan is made up of a rounded bunch of individuals who are all compelling and interesting to spend time with. The narrative though flits randomly between alignment with Ayla and other clan members, sometimes within the same paragraph, which makes it difficult to keep track.

There are also plenty of moments where the narration becomes anachronistic and uses metaphors that wouldn't make sense in the setting, and demonstrate amazing foresight, which really jars with the historical setting. Similarly there is a lack of subtlety in the foreshadowing throughout, which left me in no doubt about what was going to happen and willing the plot to move on - for chapter after chapter.

The other big problem I had with the story was the introduction of fantasy elements that seemed unnecessary to the plot, which I felt could have worked without them. This came after quite a good chuck of historical realism so seemed quite out of place.

Overall, I have to give credit to the idea and the characters, but the text itself was overly repetitive and could have been half as long. I was glad to find that the last fifty pages of my copy were actually a preview of the sequel and I could stop reading earlier than expected.

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Licence Renewed

Licence Renewed

6th August 2012

Licence Renewed is the first James Bond novel by John Gardner after he took over as continuation writer for the series in the early 1980s. It's very different from the works of Ian Fleming and previous continuation writer Kingsley Amis who did a passable attempt at replicating Fleming's style.

Gardner begins with an attempt to bring Bond and his world up to date (to the eighties) involving the introduction of new characters, vehicles and explicitly changing some of Bond's characteristics. Then Bond heads to Scotland to investigate a nuclear physicist's suspicious dealings with a known terrorist.

Considering this as part of the wider series, it seems that Gardner has made a conscious decision not to base his writing on Fleming's. There's much less of the character of Bond - one of the highlights of the original novels - and more made of the action and gadgetry, much like the movie version of James Bond. A few aspects are nodded to gently, but they feel out of place. It's not a Bond novel that fits with what's gone before, and could easily have been about a new character rather than continuing the brand.

That aside, the book is a reasonable adventure in its own right. The action is fast paced (once the opening exposition is dealt with) and the plot is well thought through and executed. There are a few too many of the typical James Bond clichés - generally it seems closer to a movie plot.

Overall though Gardner's writing is better than I remembered from reading some of his later Bond novels as a teenager. I'll definitely be including the rest in my re-read of the series.

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The Secret of Terror Castle

The Secret of Terror Castle

29th July 2012

The first adventure of the Three Investigators introduces a number of long-running features of the series and sees the three boys, Jupiter, Pete and Bob, on their first investigation - to find a haunted house for Alfred Hitchcock to use in his next film.

It's been a long time since I first read these books as a child, and I didn't remember how clearly distinct the characters were - Jupiter in particular comes across as something of a pompous know-it-all which in places early on seems a little irritating, though the character mellows throughout the story.

Although it was written in the 1960s there's very little to significantly date the book and it would be easily readable for a young audience today, with a good amount of tension to keep the reader entertained. The mystery is fairly basic and reading as an adult some of the twists seemed obvious (but I have read it before and was surprised by some), but it serves to introduce the characters and set up the series.

All round a nice trip down memory lane with a book that I think is still perfectly good for a youngster interested in mystery stories. I'm looking forward to re-reading the rest of the series, including those I missed out on as a child.

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When the Devil Drives

When the Devil Drives

29th July 2012

Chris Brookmyre's second 'serious' crime novel sees the returns of private investigator Jasmine Sharp, hunting for a missing person, and police detective Catherine McLeod, investigating the death of a leading figure in the arts world.

It's another fun-filled read littered with twists and turns in the plot as each of the investigators works through their clues. Jasmine has grown since her last appearance and as a character steals the show, while Catherine's appearance seems a little weaker and is perhaps slightly more of a supporting act.

There are still a few comic moments that remind of Brookmyre's previous run of thirteen humorous crime novels, but they are fewer than in the previous book and it gives the impression that he is trying to gradually distance his writing from this and transition into more serious storytelling. As a result I didn't find I enjoyed this story quite as much as Where the Bodies are Buried.

Overall though I was won over by the genius of the plot and Brookmyre's talent for misdirection. There was one thing that I thought fairly obvious throughout and was disappointed to find it wasn't a red herring, but plenty more had me baffled. I remain a Brookmyre fan.

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The Picts and the Martyrs

The Picts and the Martyrs

29th July 2012

The eleventh of Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons books is the only one of the series to feature the Amazons without the Swallows, taking place early in the summer holidays. Dick and Dorothea are visiting the Amazon pirates to take delivery of a boat of their own, but an unscheduled visit from the Amazons' great-aunt disrupts their plans.

It's a good new situation for the characters to find themselves in, and the use of the D's as main characters allows Ransome to write about them learning at the same time as his readers - by showing rather than telling, which is what would have to happen if he used his more experienced characters.

Although compared to some of the earlier adventures, the plot seems quite tame, it's still an exciting tale of children left to their own devices that is still approachable for modern children. It's probably one of the best of the later books in the series, and makes a number of references back to earlier adventures.

Another good story that I've enjoyed revisiting. Ransome's tales deserve to remain well-loved children's classics for many years to come.

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The Geneva Trap

The Geneva Trap

24th July 2012

In former MI5 director-general Dame Stella Rimington's seventh Liz Carlyle novel, the counter-espionage officer is called to Geneva when a Russian agent insists on talking only to her. It continues the style of the previous books, focussing heavily on depicting the realism of life in the security service while presenting a compelling tale.

The characterisation moves up a notch in this novel, with a significant sub-plot around elements of Liz's private life, and more of her backstory is revealed. The other characters are used more than in earlier books, with several of them getting significant portions of the narrative.

The plot is compelling and moves at a good pace - the realistic nature of the storyline may put some readers off as it's certainly not 'action packed', but I enjoy the insight into the actual workings of the security services that Rimington's real-life experience brings.

I found this to be one of the best in the series, with a good strong plot and compelling characters. I look forward to more adventures and finding out how the characters' lives will change.

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Fade Away

Fade Away

21st July 2012

MYron Bollitar's third adventure sees the investigator with the unlikely background back on the basketball court as a team brings him in to find a missing player. It's a good romp of a novel that allows the reader to disengage their brain to just the right extent - enough to take things with a pinch of salt but still to try to work things out before the characters.

If anything, I thought this book was a little tamer than those that precede it - less is made of the characters' unusual skills / histories, though they keep their 'witty repartee' and implausible immunity. This makes for a plot that feels more realistic and slightly less of the 'Hardy Boys' style of the previous book.

A great book for someone who wants something to read on the beach or train that's not a vacuous waste nor serious literature, and even adds a bit of real character development into the mix.

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The Assassination Game

The Assassination Game

18th July 2012

The fourth Starfleet Academy book based on the 2009 Star Trek film, The Assassination Game is the best yet. It follows the antics of all six of the main characters based at the academy as an unfriendly alien group visits Earth for a medical conference.

Alan Gratz shows himself off to be well versed in Trek lore, dropping in loads of references to the different television series while making them feel a completely natural part of the plot. As a long time fan this made reading all the more fun.

Although branded as a 'young adult' novel, the book deals with its characters far more as adults, and this makes them and the setting far more realistic. There is nothing in the book to alienate an older reader and I really respect the author's ability to write this way.

There are a couple of plot elements that have been used before, but the way the different strands are weaved together makes this an enjoyable story nonetheless. I've loved reading this entry in the series and look forward to Grazt being given more opportunities to write for Star Trek.

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The Woman Who Died a Lot

The Woman Who Died a Lot

16th July 2012

Book seven in the Thursday Next series once again takes the random-fantasy/crime/met-fiction in a different direction. Thursday has a new job with new responsibilities, and is struggling with her children, one of whom doesn't exist.

As usual with Jasper Fforde's writing it's a fantastic mish-mash of thrilling adventure and literary puns. I don't know whether they've toned down a bit or my own experience has widened, but I felt that the references were more approachable than in some of the earlier novels where I knew I was missing most of them.

There are some excellent passages in this story, particularly the way that Fforde deals with the mindworm. The narration, from Thursday's point of view, is superb and presents an intuitive view of the world that tells the reader everything while managing not to realise things herself. This leads to the one plot hole that stands out, where she narrates things she shouldn't know.

I really love Jasper Fforde's novels and can't get enough of them. Reading 'The Woman Who Died a Lot' has encouraged me to go back and re-read the earlier Thursday novels. A definite must-read series for anyone who loves a bit of slightly-surreal comic fantasy.

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Colonel Sun

Colonel Sun

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13th July 2012

Colonel Sun is the first James Bond novel written by someone other than Ian Fleming, and Kingsley Amis, writing under the pseudonym of Robert Markham, does a good job of it, though it is noticeably different.

The character of Bond is almost spot on. He's highly opinionated, has the right manner and knows the right things, but has taken up quite a lot more introspection.

The plot, which involves Bond's attempts to rescue a kidnapped M, is well constructed, and much more complex than any that Fleming composed. The guest characters are richly described and more realistic and deep than some of Bond's earlier adversaries. The violence is real and just as graphic as Fleming could have described.

This is probably the best of all the 'continuation' Bond novels, and I'm surprised there weren't more written in a similar vein. Once you've read the originals then this is defiantly a must-read.

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Raise the Dawn

Raise the Dawn

13th July 2012

Raise the Dawn is the second half of a duology, and the seventh entry in the Typhon Pact thread of Star Trek fiction. It focusses mostly on characters from Deep Space Nine as they deal with the repercussions of the events of Plagues of Night.

I'm aware that a number of Trek fans don't like David R George III's writing style, which makes this book read more of an epic tale than a close, character development piece, but I enjoy the tales he tells in this pair of books and found there to be plenty of character moments along with the action and politics.

This feels like it's a summation of all the Typhon Pact books so far, but it's far from the end of the thread (there's one more coming later this year at least), but it brings a number of ongoing plot points to a conclusion.

I've very much enjoyed this couple of novels and looks forward to more from George.

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Five Little Pigs

Five Little Pigs

7th July 2012

Hercule Poirot returns to investigate a crime some seventeen years old, in an attempt to clear the name of the woman found guilty. While I thought that Agatha Christie's odd habit of basing her stories around nursery rhymes wouldn't work, in this example it does, and provides a framework for an excellent mystery.

I'll confess that the fact that I managed to work out the correct solution may have biased my opinion of this novel, but even before that I thought it was more interesting than some of the typical 'country house' murders. The structure of the story is quite academic, being split into sections by witness, and with chapters written from each of their perspectives.

A really good Poirot novel, which has re-awakened my love for the character.

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Mockingjay

Mockingjay

5th July 2012

The final book in the Hunger Games trilogy surprised me by being the weakest of the three. I had thought that it would surpass the second book, Catching Fire, at least. Katniss is forced to become the face of a rebellion against the Capitol, and spends an inordinate amount of time acting confused and emotional.

Gone is the strong character of the previous two novels, and in her place is a weak and snivelling character who gets caught up in events rather than setting out with any real intent. The ideas are all there - the set up for the story is great, but the execution leaves much to be desired.

The entire plot feels rushed. Whereas the previous novel dragged out its first half, this one races through big important scenes leaving the reader lost. Four or five times I wondered whether I'd skipped a page of explanation as new concepts appeared, but on double checking I found that the exposition was just absent.

I felt let down by this book. I was looking forward to an epic final battle and got a rushed tale about a dripping girl who was barely recognisable as the strong (albeit reluctant) heroine from earlier in the series. Yes, there should be room for her emotions and character development, but it still needs to make for an entertaining novel.

The first book is the best in the series, and although I'm glad I've read the remainder, I wouldn't criticise anyone for stopping there.

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Ford County Stories

Ford County Stories

1st July 2012

John Grisham's first collection of short stories set in and around his fictional town of Clanton is a mixed bag of generally depressing tales which seem further from life as I know it than if they were set in rural China.

There are seven separate stories which each took me about half an hour to read, however I found it difficult to read them back to back and had to take breaks between every couple to read something else, just to lighten the mood. As I discovered though, the first two stories were the most annoying, and once I'd forced my way through these things picked up.

In order, the stories are appalling, depressing, immoral, mildly amusing, disturbing, morally ambivalent and sad but poignant. Three out of the seven seem like initial ideas for full novels that Grisham rejected for that and wrote a shorts, one is too similar to one of his previous novels, one reads as a put-down of the American justice system, one pointless filler and the final one a very clever take on the parallels between racism and other forms of discrimination.

Overall, I can't really recommend this collection. Ford County is presented as a very strange backward place and it's hard for a Briton to actually believe that anywhere is actually like the place Grisham describes.

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Point Blanc

Point Blanc

30th June 2012

The second Alex Rider book sees the reluctant teenager called back into action as an MI6 spy to infiltrate 'Point Blanc', a suspicious school in the Alps.

While it's very similar to the first story, the absence of an origin tale makes it feel quite a short book which can easily be read in a couple of days, and nothing like the meaty realism of Robert Muchamore's books which share a similar idea.

Horowitz's puns are awful and to me make his character seem less likeable each time one gets uttered, and there are a number of fantastical elements to the plot which I found a little distracting. I think the first book was a little outlandish but this seemed more so, which was particularly odd compared to the level of accuracy the author has gone to with model names for other elements.

Overall, a quick read which I thought could have been stronger, longer and deeper. I'll keep reading because the later books in the series look chunkier and I'm hoping things will pick up - after all, Chamber of Secrets was far from my favourite Harry Potter, so maybe this will be the same.

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The Long Earth

The Long Earth

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29th June 2012

The Long Earth is the first collaboration in a possible series between Pratchett and Baxter for which the idea has been brewing for some time. In the early twenty-first century the design for a 'stepper' is released to the public, enabling almost anyone to 'step' between a possibly infinite number of parallel Earths, and triggering a migration much likened to that of early American settlers.

I'm coming to this book having not read any of Stephen Baxter's previous works, but I have been reading Terry Pratchett for seven years. This is quite different from Pratchett's Discworld series.

The Long Earth is a serious science fiction novel, yet it maintains much of the lightness common to Pratchett's work and none of the sometimes dreary dullness of hard-core SF. The worlds and events are clearly thought through thoroughly and intended to depict a realistic set of consequences to such a discovery. This provides a stark believability to the text which enables the narrative to flow. There are also a number of points where humour does poke its head through.

One issue with the story is the amount of time it takes to get going. While events kick off fairly quickly at the beginning, there are a lot of seemingly disconnected scenes and characters, and it's not until quite late on that we get a distinct sense of plot and where this particular story is taking us.

Overall it makes for an interesting read, and is filled with literary and movie references of which I'm sure I barely noticed a few. I didn't find it as entertaining as Discworld, but I'm sure that if there comes a sequel, I'll be in line to read it.

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Plagues of Night

Plagues of Night

27th June 2012

David R George III continues the post-Nemesis Star Trek saga in this first part of a duology and sixth part in the ongoing Typhon Pact arc. The narrative covers the period around the earlier novels, adding some context to tie them together, then continues the adventures of the Next Gen and Deep Space Nine characters as the Federation opens diplomatic relations with the Typhon Pact.

In common with George's other Trek novels, the focus is quite broad and the book longer than many recent entries in the series, meaning that the text in my paperback copy is smaller than is often the case. Rather than following an individual character, George's narrative flits around taking in the diverse lives of Picard, Kira, Bashir etc, while focusing mainly on Sisko and surprisingly Ro Laren, as well as a number of the new characters introduced in the novels.

Some readers will find the book frustrating in the way the story is told from myriad points of view. I know a number of Star Trek fans are not enamoured of George's style, but I like it - it certainly isn't a character piece, but the breadth of the tale doesn't weaken the storytelling and certainly makes for an epic tale.

I've really enjoyed catching up with the Deep Space Nine characters again and am really looking forward to the continuation of this story in Raise the Dawn.

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Second Son

Second Son

25th June 2012

Second Son is a very short story about Lee Child's character Jack Reacher when he was thirteen years old. The writing style differs little from that of his usual novels though the e-book medium and young protagonist give it the feel of reading a 'Young Adult' novel.

The plot concerns a single incident in Reacher's childhood while living with his family in Japan. As a story, it is likely of little interest to anyone but a fan of the series, and I wonder whether it might have been published to test the water and see if there might be a market for 'Young Reacher' novels.

I enjoyed it, despite it only being a thirty minute read, and would be happy to read more about the character's childhood.

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Northern Lights

Northern Lights

22nd June 2012

Northern Lights and the rest of the 'His Dark Materials' triolgy passed me by at the height of their popularity and only now have I got round to reading this first installment. Lyra is a young girl living in an Oxford college in a universe slightly different to our own, in which each person is constantly accompanied by their own 'daemon'. When children around the country begin to disappear, Lyra is unknowingly drawn into her destiny.

I'm not really sure what to think of the book. While I enjoyed reading it, I did find it hard-going and did not have the usual urge to keep reading at the end of each chapter. The writing style is quite classical, and perhaps it is this, to which I am not used, which is reducing my attention span. The language seems also to be a strange mix of high literature and children's novel that in places steps a little close to patronizing.

The worldbuilding elements were perhaps my favourite parts, with the daemons in particular coming across really well as an element that would obviously be unfamiliar to the reader. The actual story less so - it has a very episodic structure which moves on at quite a fast pace, with what I felt was too little continuity bridging the sections. In contrast perhaps, the overall plot doesn't really stand alone as its own story, with no sense of having completed anything at the end. I assume that this is because the trilogy is meant to stand as a single work, but it leave a disatisfied feeling after reading just one part.

Overall, I think I'm going to have to read the sequels before making a final decision on how I feel about this book.

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Octopussy and The Living Daylights

Octopussy and The Living Daylights

18th June 2012

The final entry in Ian Fleming's 14 books about James Bond is a second collection of short stories. Containing three or four tales about the character (depending on which edition you have), I actually feel it is the better of the two sets.

Of the four stories in my copy, I felt two were very strong - The Living Daylights is a piece focussing on the character of Bond, part of Fleming's writing that I've found the most interesting as I have re-read the series, as he takes on a mission in Berlin which he would rather avoid. The Property of a Lady is, in contrast, a piece about espionage, drawing on Fleming's real-life experiences to describe in thrilling detail the investigation of a mole in MI6.

I can't say I was as enamoured of the other two pieces - Octopussy features Bond as a secondary character, and is focussed entirely on his target as a character. While somewhat interesting, it almost feels like Bond is shoehorned in. 007 In New York, the only piece of Ian Fleming's Bond writing that I've not read before, was quite a disappointment. It is brief and feels forced - Bond is almost acting out of character in order to sell New York as a city.

Overall though, this serves as a good coda to the series, much more so than The Man With the Golden Gun, and I'm pleased that the short stories were collected for modern readers like me. Some of the short stories are the best character pieces about Bond and I've appreciated them much more on this re-read than the first time in my teens.

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The Recruit

The Recruit

15th June 2012

The Recruit is the first book in Robert Muchamore's CHERUB series, about a school for orphans who work as spies for the British government. It sounds like a strange cross between James Bond and Harry Potter, but actually comes out baring little resemblance to either.

The plot is a little slow to get started - I think I was expecting a little less setup before the action begins, but once things got moving I found it hard to put the book down. There are three clear chunks to the narrative, but by the end it does feel that the final section became a little rushed.

I'm not entirely sure what age reader this book is aimed at - the main character is 11, which normally would suggest a target audience of around 8, but I felt that the language and the violence portrayed were more appropriate for a maturer readership. The main character is not always a likeable person, and gets up to things that parents would be reluctant to have their children emulate without much comeuppance or moralising. This might make it more appealing to young readers though.

Personally, I didn't think that The Recruit was as entertaining as Anthony Horowitz's Stormbreaker (first book of the Alex Rider series), but as first books go it was not bad. I will probably follow it up by getting the sequel. Final advice - perhaps read it first to check you think it's suitable for your child.

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The Storm

The Storm

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14th June 2012

The Storm is Graham Brown's second outing as Clive Cussler's co-author since taking over the NUMA Files series from Paul Kemprecos. I enjoyed Brown's previous book and was looking forward to more from him - I was not disappointed.

When a small NUMA science vessel shows up burnt, with no crew, and all the lifeboats still aboard, Kurt Austin and the team are dispatched to investigate. Although it has weak moments, its one of the better recent Cussler-brand stories, with the science actually believable rather than the fantastic events of some earlier books.

Once again Brown's strength is in the characters - Austin is clearly the star of the show, but he's developed much more depth since Brown took over, and I've particularly enjoyed his portrayal of the Trouts - they seem to have a much more 'couple-like' dynamic than we've seen before and this really helps make the setup feel more believable.

The plot moves along at a good pace, although I'm beginning to get fed up with the focus the Cussler-verse has had on middle-eastern terrorists in recent years. Clearly this is an easy supply of plots but it's starting to feel lazy rather than imaginative. There are a couple of plot-holes though and implausibilities, and I even found myself disappointed that some of the regular supporting characters didn't make an appearance.

I certainly think the series has picked up with the new author, and I've pulled back from my feeling of a few years ago that I might give up on Clive Cussler's works. It's not perfect, but it's good enough for a short diversion.

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The World of Poo

The World of Poo

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11th June 2012

In a book that spins off from an extended joke in his previous novel, Snuff, Terry Pratchett and his co-authors present a children's book suitable for the inhabitants of Discworld, whose outlook is somewhat different.

Presented as a meta-fiction (a story within a story), The World of Poo tells the tale of Geoffrey, a young boy on a visit to the big city of Ankh-Morpork, where he decides to start a museum of poo. Accompanying the story are a vast array of real world facts, wrapped up in such a way that the reader can learn without realising.

The book will certainly appeal to young boys and young-at-heart boys (aka fathers) and to girls who have escaped brainwashing by the pink-brigade into thinking anything dirty is wrong. There are a few words that some parents may prefer their little angels not exposed to, but I felt there was nothing that could do a child harm to hear.

An entertaining read of six chapters that I would expect children to laugh out loud to. Excellent bed-time reading.

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Where the Bodies are Buried

Where the Bodies are Buried

11th June 2012

Known for his series of comical crime novels, Chris Brookmyre takes a new direction with Where the Bodies are Buried, his first 'serious' crime book. Josephine Sharp is an out-of-work actress temping as a trainee private investigator for her uncle's company, when Uncle Jim goes missing, leaving her to retrace his movements.

Despite this novel's grittier and more realistic (less larger-than-life) tone the style of Brookmyre's writing remains the same and glimpses of his usual wit remain. An interesting and touching theme of family runs alongside the investigative plot making all the characters much more relatable than the traditional single alcoholic male investigator who usually populates crime novels.

The depth of the characters is almost surprising, all of them are well fleshed-out with fairly detailed back stories and plenty of hints of more secrets to perhaps be revealed in a sequel. Whereas your run-of-the-mill crime novel only pays attention to the main character, Brookmyre's ensemble cast gets his usual equal treatment and it feels as if every single one is deliberately thought through.

While the style is clearly descended from that of his earlier novels, a number of aspects are toned down - the violence, the sex, the Scots dialect. Overall it makes for an absolutely smashing book which I've really enjoyed. Brookmyre remains one of my favourite writers, and his jump to serious crime novels is certainly a success.

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The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage

The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage

7th June 2012

The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage is the first investigation for the Five Find-Outers and Dog, one of Enid Blyton's less-well-known teams of child detectives despite their fifteen adventures. This series was always my favourite in a childhood full of mystery series, and I've certainly enjoyed re-reading this story as an adult.

When Mr Hick's work cottage burns down, a group of local children, and a visiting child and dog, take on the challenge of finding out who did it, despite the protestations of the local police officer.

I found it quite tricky to get back into Blyton's style of writing at first - the language seems old-fashioned and the children speak in a posh dialect that sounds implausible to the modern ear. After a few chapters though I stopped noticing as I once again became gripped by their investigation.

As with many of Blyton's works, the boys get most of the adventure, with the girls relegated to stroking cats and walking dogs, though they do their fair share of clue finding. The plot surprised me with its strength - the quality of clues and suspects matching many adult crime writers and providing just enough for the reader to work things out with the characters - I have no doubt this series is what impressed a love of mystery stories on me as a child.

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Ukridge

Ukridge

7th June 2012

Ukridge is a set of ten short-stories about the eponymous gentleman, told from the perspective of his close friend Corky. The titular character is an enthusiastic entrepreneur and borrower of cash, though his escapades rarely go to plan. Each story stands alone, but several form a loose continuing narrative.

In many ways this book reminded me of Richmal Crompton's Just William, which is similarly about a rascal's adventures in the form of short stories. I found reading this book a little awkward though - each story should ideally be read apart from its fellows, though the format of a novel does not encourage that, and in one sitting, though I found them slightly too long for that.

The stories are light, but I can't say I found them all that engaging - if anything they seemed to encourage me to rush ahead just to get to the end, and I found the episodic nature slightly unfulfilling when presented back-to-back.

Overall, I think this has to be labelled as mediocre. A pleasant pastime to dip into now and then, but insubstantial for those looking for a good read.

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Hide and Seek

Hide and Seek

5th June 2012

Hide and Seek is the second book in Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus series, in which the detective finds himself drawn into the mystery of a body found beneath a pentagram. As the author himself admits in my copy's introduction, there are some rough edges and the central character has a number of traits that seem unusual given his biography.

The plot is surprisingly basic compared to the psychological depth of the first book, Knots & Crosses, although red herrings provide a semblance of complexity. I found the ending surprisingly weak, and though it was believable I thought there was plenty more that could have been explored.

Rebus is the only character that we deal with in great depth, and I found him to have been toned down since the first novel. Similarly the other characters have less development, although with some there is the hint that they are being introduced as regulars to be used again in future. I particularly enjoyed the dynamic between Rebus and his 'sidekick', Brian Holmes, with what looks to be becoming a classic relationship based on not talking to one another.

I have enjoyed this book, which is slightly different in tone to some of the 'lighter' crime fiction I have been reading recently, and am looking forward to seeing how the characters develop over the rest of the series.

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Missee Lee

Missee Lee

3rd June 2012

I said in my review of Secret Water, an earlier book in the Swallows and Amazons series, that it was probably the weakest in the series, but now I'm not so sure. Missee Lee is written as a story that the children have made up about themselves visiting the far east and being captured by pirates. This structure, though only made explicit in a single line introduction, is similar to that of Peter Duck, yet I felt this story was less substantial.

I remember reading this as a child and not finding it the most enjoyable entry in the series, and looking back I can understand why. A large proportion of the middle of the book is spent on learning Latin - far more than seems necessary - which is quite unapproachable for a modern-day reader not schooled in this ancient language. Perhaps to a mid-twentieth century audience, for whom the book was written, these parts may have come across as familiar in-jokes, but today they are just incomprehensible.

There are also a number of words which would be considered politically incorrect today, and the way that all the Chinese characters speak could easily be taken as racism if imitated by children reading the book today.

There is remarkably little sailing for the series in this book, and it stands out to me as a bit of an oddity, not quite fitting in as Peter Duck did. I don't think I'd recommend it to anyone unless they wanted to complete the series.

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Worth Dying For

Worth Dying For

2nd June 2012

For once, Lee Child's Worth Dying For follows straight on from the previous novel in the Jack Reacher series, 61 Hours, although it only really touches upon the events in passing. Reacher is trying to make his way south to Virginia, and finds himself in a Nebraskan motel on the way, where he once again gets caught up in a local dispute.

It's probably one of the most violent of the series, from what I remember of the others, with a lot of fighting - it's not something that's ever far away from Reacher but in this book it seemed more brutal.

The story is framed as a mystery - with Reacher investigating an ancient history and a modern puzzle side-by-side - and I think Child presents it quite well. It's presented in the third person (whereas some of the Reacher stories are first-person), which feels a bit awkward because it means that some of the narrative has to be presented in a rather vague manner to keep secrets from the reader.

I'm a little ambivalent about how highly I rate it relative to the older books in the series - I enjoyed reading it, but felt that the plot was slightly less believable than they have been.

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The Man with the Golden Gun

The Man with the Golden Gun

27th May 2012

Ian Fleming's last James Bond novel seems rather weak when compared to its predecessors. Following on from the events of You Only Live Twice, Bond finally returns to London, only to be greeted with suspicion. M sends him on a deadly impossible mission, expecting him to die in the process.

There is much speculation around whether Fleming wrote, or at least finished, this novel before his death, and although I'm happy to accept the scholars' opinion that it is his work, it does feel as if it hasn't quite had all the editing that the author's previous works went through. This was particularly noticeable in the characterisation of Bond - he seems to have lost some of his depth, and there is little to none of the classic opinionation that the character exhibits in the earlier books.

The set-up and the opening of this book are classic and match up to what could be expected from the previous eleven novels, however the rest seems lacking - the climax makes an effort to come back, but the part in between in particular feels rushed and unpolished.

It's almost disappointing that this is the final entry in the Bond series (by Fleming) because You Only Live Twice was a much more fitting finale. I must say though that I've really enjoyed re-reading the entire series, and would recommend all of them as a must read - I hope they continue to survive as society moves further from the period they reflect.

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Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

27th May 2012

Harry Potter and the Philospher's Stone is the first book in the Harry Potter series by J K Rowling. This must be about the tenth time I've read it, but the first since the conclusion of the series with the Deathly Hallows in 2007. I'm reading it again along with Pottermore - Rowling's new website which contains additional detail about her writing process and the characters and world they inhabit.

Harry Potter is an eleven year old orphan, trapped living with his grumpy aunt and uncle until one day he discovers he is a wizard, and goes off to Hogwarts, a school of magic.

Reading the book again, I was surprised to notice a number of things. The book is actually really short - only 16 chapters - and yet there is so much happening. The story is quite episodic in structure, with each chapter having a mini-adventure of its own while continuing the main plot.

The differences from the film also stand out - particularly the presence of Peeves the Poltergeist, Ron's height, and the descriptions of the centaurs. However there's also a lot more detail and it's really this richness - Rowling's world-building skill - that makes the series stand out. There is so much going on and yet it is presented so straightforwardly that it's hard to imagine anyone finding the book difficult regardless of age.

Overall, it's a book I love, and probably now qualifies as the single book I've read the most in my lifetime. I could pick it up again right now, and am looking forward to re-reading the rest of the series once their 'episodes' become available on Pottermore.

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Evil Under the Sun

Evil Under the Sun

27th May 2012

Another classic mystery in which Poirot, holidaying on an island off the English south coast, stumbles into yet another murder investigation. Filled with Christie's trademark knowing wit, this is an interestingly different take on the locked room.

The setting of the story is ingenious, escaping the traditional manor house murder for a more approachable setting - the seaside - frees the characters up a little and makes them seem more open, as well as making the scenery feel more relatable for the modern reader.

There are possibly a few too many characters to keep track of, which I would like to blame for my complete inability to spot the culprit before the reveal. As it was they were once again a rich bunch with well planned back-stories to allow suspicion to fall everywhere.

Overall I enjoyed this return to Christie's works, and found this one to be more fulfilling than some of those I've recently read, although in my disappointment with not solving the mystery I wonder if some clues weren't left a little too late to reveal.

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Forgotten History

Forgotten History

24th May 2012

Forgotten History is the second book in Christopher L Bennett's Star Trek: Department of Temporal Investigations series, and is very similar to the first.

The plot, framed by scenes set in the post-TNG-era 'present' but mostly occurring during the original series up to the period between the first and second films, sees the appearance of a rift in time and space containing an unusual starship, which sends Lucsley, Dulmer, and the rest of the DTI delving into their organisation's past.

Something I've realised for the first time is that Bennett's writing style is a little unusual. His writing is very much about telling the reader what is happening, whereas most novels I read spend a lot of words on description and fewer directly on events. Personally, I have no problem with this - I don't have a powerful visual imagination and when I read I don't find myself picturing events in my head. However other readers may find this disconcerting if they are used to an author painting a picture for them.

Partly, this goes with the nature of the story, which is framed in parts as if it is being recounted by one character to the others, however this doesn't seem to quite work, as some of the events depicted are ones that the character in question would not have been privy to.

Bennett's chief talent is in the detail. Once again he has managed to pull together elements from a vast range of episodes, predominantly of the original series, and other novels, into a consistent storyline. This makes the story incredibly rewarding for the fan, although for those not so deeply immersed in Trek lore might come as something of a turn-off. I'll admit that some of the references, particularly those to Bennett's own earlier novel 'Ex Machina', will have passed me by as I've not read it.

I enjoyed reading this book, despite its complexity and lack of visuals, but I think it probably is one of those that readers will either love or hate.

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Just Like Jennings

Just Like Jennings

23rd May 2012

Just Like Jennings is one of the entries in Anthony Buckeridge's series that I didn't have as a child. Clearly it was revised and republished sometime in the 00s, and that's the edition I've just read - despite the caption at the front of my copy that claims it's the original text.

It's classic Jennings, perhaps the adventures are slightly tamer compared to some of the books, but that gives it a more charming and believable nature.

One thing that stands out about this book in particular is the amount of time spent away from the school - almost all the books are split into three consecutive adventures, and all three here involve trips into the surrounding countryside or nearby village.

I didn't find it quite as laugh-out-loud funny as some of the earlier books - however this didn't let me down at all as the pleasure of reading new stories about some brilliant characters was enough.

I'm really surprised these books are generally out of print. I loved them as a child and I can't imagine that the modern audience, brought up on boarding school tales of Harry Potter, wouldn't find them just as delightful.

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Catching Fire

Catching Fire

20th May 2012

Book two of the Hunger Games trilogy begins shortly after the end of the first, where Katniss is required to take part in a tour of the 12 districts of Panem. Things don't quite go to the Capitol's plan though, as despite threats to Katniss she can't help but put her foot in it, and the Capitol decide they must do something about her.

Catching Fire certainly has that 'middle book' feel to it - that it's a transitional book, purely to set up what's going to happen in book three, and not too concerned about having a self-contained plot of its own. The story starts quite slowly, recapping some stuff from the previous story, re-establishing the characters and lining things up for later, and it's only towards the second half where speed picks up, and there I felt things were moving too fast.

Maybe I was reading too fast, and I know the events were meant to be passing quickly, but this was the part that I thought was going to be the story for this volume, and I didn't feel it has quite the weight necessary for the book to stand alone.

Katniss continues to be an interesting heroine. She's changed slightly by her experiences in the first book; she's grown older, and feels slightly less naïve. Collins is clearly attempting to show her changing, and draws attention through the narrative to some of these changes in a way which seems a little too obvious. As the narrator she was always going to dominate, but it seems like the other characters have become even more shallow - she sees each of them with only one characteristic - Peeta has love, Haymitch has drunkeness, and so on.

I have to confess though that I found it difficult to put down. I'm not sure whether it will survive the test of time, but like Harry Potter, it is a series that is easy to read despite the subject matter, and that's probably why it's doing so well.

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Bill the Galactic Hero

Bill the Galactic Hero

17th May 2012

According to the front cover of my copy of 'Bill the Galactic Hero', it is the greatest comedy sci-fi of all time. Personally I disagree (I recall Red Dwarf being funnier). It is the story of Bill, a casual farm labourer who is coerced into signing up to the military in a slightly surreal authoritarian future.

The book contains three distinct adventures of Bill's which follow on from one another. It's quick to read but also easy to get lost, and on a number of occasions I found myself having to turn back a page to work out what was happening. In places time passes very quickly, and the changes in Bill's circumstances come often.

The comedy is dark and mostly at the expense of the authoritarian galaxy. It feels old and tired - probably because this is a book written in the 60s - and to a modern reader comes across as overly pessimistic. The writing style, and indeed the printing style, also seemed antiquated, and I was not gripped. It's petty, I know, but the placement of the page numbers in my copy was awkwardly close to the prose that made me keep reading them at the end of each left-hand page.

Overall, it's not a book I can recommend. I was bored by the end, and won't be looking up any of the sequels.

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The Associate

The Associate

17th May 2012

The associate is very much a return by John Grisham to the style and tone of his earlier novels. It features Kyle McAvoy, a lawyer fresh out of Harvard as he takes up a job in a major law firm, while simultaneously being blackmailed into stealing from them. In a number of ways its very similar to Grisham's very successful early novel 'The Firm'.

I quite like Grisham's style of writing. It's very straightforward and lacking in unnecessarily flowery language. The law, a subject capable of endless confusion, is simply explained to the reader. The story progresses at a good pace and what detours there are from the main plot are simple and don't distract.

This said, the characters do still feel quite flat. The emotions of Kyle, the protagonist, seem oddly muted, and the other characters are lucky to even achieve two dimensions. This doesn't make the book harder to read but it also doesn't endear the characters to the reader - I would have had few qualms about anything bad happening to them.

Grisham's previous books have suffered from one major flaw, which I won't repeat for fear of accusations of spoilers, but although it does feature in this story it's certainly not as bad as it has been - nor as bad as a friend, who read this book several years ago, warned me it would be. Overall, a passable read and probably one of Grisham's better recent outings, despite the level of similarity to what has come before.

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The Affair of the Bloodstained Egg Cosy

The Affair of the Bloodstained Egg Cosy

10th May 2012

The first book in this series is a fairly light-hearted and modern take on the style of Agatha Christie. Set in a picturesque stately home filled with a wide variety of suspects, all of whom might have something to hide, everything is going swimmingly until a body shows up.

While the setting is similar to Christie, the style is much more contemporary and many of the characters seem to have a modern attitude. This doesn't distract though, in fact it almost certainly helps as the plot becomes complex to almost ludicrous proportions and threatens to confuse the reader.

Other than being completely baffling, the plot is rather entertaining and the main characters come across as all being fairly likeable. I did have to keep turning back to the list of characters and map of the scene that was at the front of the book in order to refresh my memory of who was whom, but did not think this got in the way of my enjoyment. I had a great time trying to puzzle out who was guilty - more so than with Christie's works I think as there was a little more available to get the teeth into.

Overall, an enjoyable tale that I found relaxing and refreshing to read. I'll definitely be reading the remaining two books in the set and looking up the author's other works.

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Fool's Fate

Fool's Fate

9th May 2012

The final book in the Tawny Man trilogy, and ninth overall in Robin Hobb's epic series, sees Fitz travel to the island of Asjeval, accompanying the prince on his quest. It makes for a fantastic end to the story and wraps things up much more roundly than Fitz's previous concluding episode in Assassin's Quest.

I was surprised by how quickly the story seemed to pass at first, although there was actually more plot to come than I was expecting which rounded it out nicely. I managed to read almost the entire second half over two days in a manic reading session which was quite a rollercoaster of emotion and was perhaps not the best way to take everything in.

Hobb has written an amazing character in Fitz - she makes him incredibly real and the first person perspective of the writing is incredibly easy to align to. The other characters are all well developed and used in sufficient detail to flesh out the entire world. I can't find the words really to describe how deeply I got drawn into the story and enjoyed following Fitz's life.

I can't recommend this series of books enough - I find Robin Hobb's books to be some of the most irresistible on the market and each one captures my attention so dramatically I find it hard to put them down. I'm really looking forward to continuing into 'The Rain Wild Chronicles' which continue the story of this world.

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You Only Live Twice

You Only Live Twice

30th April 2012

You Only Live Twice has the feeling of a grand finale. It's not, of course, but it feels like one. Bond is suffering depression following the events of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and his work is suffering. M decides to set him an impossible mission to snap him out of it, and off Bond flies to Japan.

The book is neatly split into two halves along Fleming's usual lines. The first is about Japan, and Bond's assimilation of a new culture. This is typical Fleming mix of fact and fantasy that nevertheless convinces the reader that he knows the area, and successfully adds that touch of the exotic that Bond stories are known for.

The second half is the action part of the story - more similar to elements of the films (which of course by this point had begun) and rounds things off nicely.

One of my favourite things about this book is Fleming's sense of humour. The opening chapter is almost entirely taking the mickey out of one of the repeated elements of the series - following the classic card games of Casino Royale and Moonraker. Later he makes reference to Hollywood, and even breaks the fourth wall with a little dig at himself.

It's another excellent adventure for Bond. He has far more depth than the screen portrayals suggest and is one of the richest characters in fiction, despite the time that has passed since the stories were written. I've really enjoyed re-reading the series and look forward to a time in fifteen years when my memories have faded and I can enjoy them once again.

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Drop Shot

Drop Shot

26th April 2012

Myron Bolitar is a sports agent, attorney, former FBI agent, basketball player and super sleuth, and this is his second adventure alongside a similarly larger-than-life supporting cast. Myron is at the finals of the US tennis open when a young player is murdered, and decides to investigate.

This is a romp - anyone looking for serious crime writing should go elsewhere. Bolitar and his sidekick Win are like grown up versions of the Hardy Boys - almost super human and with fingers in more pies than believable. As a romp though it does entertain. The writing is funny in a cheesy way and the mystery works despite the implausibility.

My only criticism of the story is that it was too easy. I had enough evidence a third of the way through to know who committed the crime, and the rest of the book was a tiny bit tedious as the characters tried to catch up.

As I say, a light read, perfectly suitable for a flight or other tedious wait, but nothing deeper than a bit of fun. I'll definitely be returning to Coben's works.

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The Adventures of Sally

The Adventures of Sally

24th April 2012

Sally's Adventures, while providing the lightness I was looking for in reading a work of P G Wodehouse, didn't really grip me. Sally has come into an inheritance on her 21st birthday and is looking for how to use it, while a group of suitors compete for her hand.

Sally herself is, as I suspect is common in Wodehouse's novels, a strong female lead who is friendly and generous - her character is probably the most compelling part of the adventure as we follow her ups and downs. The other characters are also well defined and described with the author's typical wit.

The plot is where the book felt weak to me - it seemed quite flighty with little by way of a continuing narrative. It is broken up by long stretches of skipped time. That said, I found the stylistic device of telling the story via the medium of Sally's letters to be great fun, and wished that small part in the middle to be longer to exploit this more.

Overall, the book did satisfy my desire for lightness and as always the author's choice of language is delectable. It's just that, as a story, it didn't quite have sufficient flow.

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A Game of Thrones

A Game of Thrones

18th April 2012

Game of Thrones is the first book in George R R Martin's ongoing Song of Fire and Ice epic. It sees Ned Stark, Lord of Winterfall in the far north, called south to serve his king, and enter into the blistering world of politics that surrounds the throne. This summary barely does the book justice - the plots are multiple and complex and the characters numerous.

I found the book longer than it seemed - at 800 pages that took me 10 days to read. Part of this is in the presentation - each chapter focusses on one character, and with every chapter change there is a shift of viewpoint. This makes the chapters seem much more self contained than in other novels where chapters flow together, and made the end of each seem like an appropriate place to put the book down and reflect on the story so far.

The characters are numerous, but well formed and distinct, so this does not make it hard to keep track. The plots are similarly well separated, although there are places where time seem to jump severely and it's tricky to work out where events in one location line up with those in another. In a way this makes the book feel quite episodic - with little attention paid to minutiae - unlike Robin Hobb or Robert Jordan's books it certainly doesn't feel as if you are living with the characters.

The content is brutal and in some places steps close to shocking. It is a book about war, so plenty of violence is to be expected, but there is also a lot of civilian violence and what in our society would be termed paedophilia. This makes some passages hard reading.

I have enjoyed reading the book, but it's not impressed me in the same way as some other epic authors. I haven't formed an emotional connection with the characters yet, and although I'm impressed by the complicated intertwined storylines, I haven't come out of the book keen to pick up the sequel as soon as possible.

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The Big Six

The Big Six

6th April 2012

The Big Six is Arthur Ransome's foray into writing a crime story for his Swallows and Amazons series, although neither of those groups even gets a name check. Instead this story sees Dick and Dorothea return to the Norfolk Broads - setting of the earlier story Coot Club - to reunite with Tom Dudgeon and the Death and Glories, who find themselves accused of a series of misdemeanours.

As an adult reader, I must admit that I found the story to progress a little slowly in places. The resolution seemed quite transparent (although that may be partly down to my dry sketchy memories from a previous reading some fifteen years ago). To a younger audience less familiar with the typical structure of a crime story though perhaps this might be less so.

The interesting thing about this book, amongst the series, is in its focus on Joe, Bill and Pete, the Death and Glories, who are three working class children - at odds with the middle-class background of the children that usually featured in Ransome's stories. This enables the author to have a play with dialect and accent and inject a little more local flavour. It almost seems that the trio are more approachable from a modern standpoint, as they don't have cooks to provide endless jugs of tea and plates of sandwiches.

So yes, I did enjoy this book again. I think more than I did as a child as I remember feeling that the two stories set in the Broads were weaker than the Lake District tales.

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61 Hours

61 Hours

31st March 2012

The fourteenth book in the Jack Reacher series sees the former military policeman back in the wrong place at the wrong time. He takes on the protection of an elderly lady - the only witness to a minor crime that could lead the police onto bigger baddies.

The plot is patchy and slow - not a great deal happens for a good portion of the book, where Reacher seems to have lost his touch. The reader is given so many clues that I wondered whether it had gone so over the top it must be a red herring, and yet Reacher had yet to spot them.

The plot is set around an ominous count-down - it takes place over the titular 61 hours - which adds an element of suspense, but at first was quite annoying as the hours were continually ticked off.

There are a couple of places where I wondered how characters knew things that they did - it was almost as if they were reading some of the chapters they didn't appear in. However there are some surprising character moments as well - where we find out several key points to Reacher's backstory.

I must admit to feeling slightly ambivalent about this book. Despite all these criticisms, I still enjoyed reading it. The supporting characters were better developed than in some of the previous Reacher stories, and maybe this depth made up for the downsides. I'm still a Reacher fan, and hope there are many more adventures to come.

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On Her Majesty's Secret Service

On Her Majesty's Secret Service

29th March 2012

Ian Fleming was certainly on top of his game when he wrote OHMSS. Following on from Thunderball and The Spy Who Loved Me, Blofeld's trail is going cold when Bond meets his match - the gorgeous and slightly reckless Tracy.

Disguising a love story as a thriller can't be an easy thing, and Fleming does it again in this story, with echoes from Casino Royale subtly arranged throughout the tale. The plot is incredibly believable from the emotional aspect in Bond himself through to Blofeld's secret mountain-top hideaway and dastardly plan.

It's almost fifteen years since I last read the Bond stories and I'm constantly impressed by how much more about the character they are than I remembered, and than in other books which purport to be of similar genre. I think this is why they have survived the intervening years and not been brushed aside like many other books must have been (although the film series probably helped).

The film version of OHMSS is one of the closest to the novel it was based on. George Lazenby's portrayal of Bond seemed to fit well with the character I was reading about and I found my mind's eye visualising him in the role. Overall, one of the best of the series - an absolute classic.

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One, Two, Buckle my Shoe

One, Two, Buckle my Shoe

25th March 2012

A slow case for Hercule Poirot, this nursery rhyme themed story takes place over several weeks, as the Belgian detective investigates the mysterious death of his dentist. The pacing is quite interesting and makes a change from the usual closed room in the manor house style of mystery.

It's possibly one of the most convoluted cases that I've read, and I must admit I found it a little hard to keep track of all the clues that were flying about, and as such had no idea, when it came to the reveal, what was going to be said.

Possibly because of the number of different plot threads twisting on top of one another I wouldn't put this down as one of Christie's best works. Additionally, the links to the nursery rhyme were quite tenuous at best.

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The Trouble with Jennings

The Trouble with Jennings

23rd March 2012

I'm pleased to discover that the Jennings books that I didn't manage to read as a child can manage to make me giggle in adulthood. This is another delightful tale of misunderstandings between schoolboys and their teachers at Linbury Court school.

This is actually one of the best of the series in my opinion, which makes it slightly surprising that it was not one of those chosen for reprinting in the 1980s. The story is framed around Jennings' new year's resolutions, and with the best of intentions the eleven-year-old schoolboy still manages to get into Mr Wilkins bad books.

Buckeridge had a special talent for writing about young boys and the differences in the way their minds work from the typical adult occupants of the world, and he tells a story that will, I think, still appeal to children and adults today.

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Pandaemonium

Pandaemonium

22nd March 2012

Christopher Brookmyre's final comic novel before his switch to more serious crime writing. The plot is a combination of the best bits from some of his previous books, including the computer game metaphors from A Big Boy Did It..., the setting from Be My Enemy, the school-age characters from A Tale Etched... and themes from ... Unsinkable Rubber Ducks. You'd think that such a recycled plot might feel awkward but it really does make something more than the sum of its parts.

A group of Scottish teenagers are taken on retreat after the deaths of two fellow-pupils at their Catholic school - meanwhile, deep underground, the church and the US military have opened a hellmouth and it's only a matter of time before the demons get loose.

There's a surprising richness to the rather large cast of characters that makes it all the more believable - none seem to be particularly focussed on as a protagonist which means that all get the chance to have their personalities explored in depth as they are thrust into some rather unusual circumstances.

Violence and gore are to be expected from Brookmyre, and this novel fails to disappoint, and I was entertained by the impressive amount he manages to squeeze in. There are also a lot of more tender moments where the characters reflect and learn things about themselves.

Brookmyre is clearly on the top of his game with this book and I'm only upset that I have now read all his comic works and have no more to look forward to.

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The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games

18th March 2012

I was a little surprised at how much I enjoyed reading The Hunger Games. I'd been given the impression that it was a kids' story that was a lighter version of 'Battle Royale' (which I haven't read, so can't draw a conclusion on), however it's quite a violent book that is perhaps aimed at an older age group than I had been led to believe - perhaps early teens (the main character is 16, and typically the intended audience is a little younger than the protagonist).

The writing style took a little getting used to - I often find it hard to fall into a first person narrative without having any knowledge of the character in advance, but more distracting was the use of the present tense to tell most of the story. While this makes perfect sense from the view of not giving away later events, it was a little unusual and I was a good few chapters in before I stopped noticing it.

The main character is a strong, if slightly naïve, female selected to participate in the annual Hunger Games - a deadly reality TV series with 24 contestants, of whom only one can survive. The majority of the supporting cast are less well defined, though some make for memorable appearances. For the most part the male characters are surprisingly unlikable (although there are a couple of exceptions), but despite that I didn't think that the book wouldn't appeal to male readers at all.

I'm not sure that the book is deserving of all the hype its been given (particularly in the build up to a film version, which I'm intrigued by as I'm not sure how all the depth of character will come across in a visual medium), but I've bought the second and third books in the series and am looking forward to reading them.

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The Appeal

The Appeal

16th March 2012

I didn't find this book as appealing as some of Grisham's earlier works - the narrative is quite dry and the characters not explored in much depth. A chemical company spent years polluting the town's water supply, killing off the locals, and when the courts hand down a massive fine, they decide the only way to beat it on appeal is to buy themselves a judge.

Ultimately, the book reads like exactly what it is - an argument for change in a system for selecting judges. Although it's framed around a fictional tale, the way it is presented seems surprisingly devoid of real emotion and almost feels like an editorial in a newspaper calling for change. It does a good job at this, but that doesn't make it a good novel.

The plot advances in a sporadic manner - at some points rushing through important scenes and other languishing over things that aren't going anywhere. It's not gripping like some of Grisham's earlier works, and events are described dispassionately - there's very little attempt made to align the reader with any of the characters, and it's hard to sympathise directly with them.

Overall I'm a little disappointed. I was hoping for more of an exciting tale, though I can understand Grisham's desire to write a story highlighting issues with the legal system.

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The Golden Fool

The Golden Fool

12th March 2012

In the second book of the third trilogy of Robin Hobb's continuing epic set in 'The Realm of the Elderlings', she explores what happens to Fitz, posing as servant Tom Badgerlock, on his return to Buckkeep - his childhood home - in the wake of the events of the previous book.

The world that Hobb has created is so rich and detailed that I think you could pick almost any of the characters and follow their story and she would be able to make it a compelling read, regardless of how exciting their life.

As it is, this book is lacking a central plot to it - seeming to serve more as a way to get the characters from where they were after 'Fool's Errand' to where she wants them for 'Fool's Fate' - but there are so many sub-plots going on around Fitz that it's easy not to notice and to just be pulled into the flow of the narrative.

I've really enjoyed reading this, as with all the other books in the series, and am dreading the day when I catch up with the story and find I have to wait months for the next instalment. An excellent epic that I don't doubt I will find time to re-read in the future.

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A Damsel in Distress

A Damsel in Distress

7th March 2012

A Damsel in Distress is what is fast (after only reading three books) becoming standard for my reading of Wodehouse. It's a comic romance in which nobody quite knows who everyone else is, nor who is in love with whom. Maud is in love with an American, but her aristocratic family, who think it's a different American, who in turn happens to love Maud, don't approve.

It's witty, it's light and it's entertaining, and yet I felt that there was something slightly lacking - it didn't quite live up to 'Picadilly Jim', but perhaps it's just unfortunate that the last Wodehouse I read was one of the best? The wit was not quite as sharp, the characters somewhat too familiar, and certain elements of the plot all too quick and convenient.

Despite that, it still has to be praised. Wodehouse's way with words shines through, and he is one of the only authors who manages to get away with breaking the fourth wall so blatantly without also breaking the flow of the narrative, instead making it feel like we're all in on one big joke. The humour survives the 90+ years since it was written incredibly well, and this seems to be because it was written with a tongue in the cheek that correctly translates into the modern era. I felt it was perhaps targeted a little at an American audience of the time, and that perhaps that gave it an attitude toward the England of the time more similar to our own is now.

An enjoyable and easy book to read. I'm glad that Wodehouse's works are so numerous and I have many more to keep me pleasantly entertained in future.

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Stormbreaker

Stormbreaker

4th March 2012

The first entry in Horowitz's Alex Rider series sets up the orphaned character as an unwilling agent of MI6, sent in where adults have failed to discover the secret of a Cornish computer factory.

Of the spate of recent teenage spy series that have cropped up over recent years, this is probably one of the best - the set-up is quickly dealt with and easy to understand and the plot dives into action early on, keeping up quite a frenetic pace throughout. It seems to be aimed at a slightly younger audience than some of the other stories of the genre that I've read (eg Charlie Higson's Young Bond) and the choice of language reflects this.

There are elements though that make it feel like a parody in places - it does borrow a lot from the James Bond tradition of spy novels - the disfigured enemy, the 'tell them the whole plan' speech, the aquarium, the Q scene - which in places almost brushes against being a parody rather than something original.

Some aspects of the plot seem a little dated now, just twelve years later, and I wonder if the books of the modern era can be as timeless as those from before - in these days of fast technological revolution will a word with early computers and few mobile phones be as approachable as the pre-computer-era stories of Enid Blyton, Ian Fleming, PG Wodehouse and so on have remained.

Overall I found it an enjoyable read, although I did get through it rather quickly - and despite that I perhaps read faster than the target audience I remember as a child myself being frustrated when I could get through a new book in one day (some of the later Hardy Boys stories, for example). I'll be interested to get hold of the sequels.

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The Spy Who Loved Me

The Spy Who Loved Me

2nd March 2012

The first thing to know about The Spy Who Loved Me is that it is not a typical James Bond adventure by any stretch. This is the story of Viv Michel, a Canadian working in an American motel when gangsters descend. It's a very personal, almost coming-of-age, tale, told in the first-person.

It feels much more akin to the short stories of For Your Eyes Only than the other full novels in Fleming's Bond series, and is short enough that I read it through in a single day. The style though is very Fleming and Michel is just as opinionated as the Bond character in other stories. It's certainly one of the most believable stories in the set and most of the emotion is put across with a gripping realism.

It's quite a graphic novel, probably due to the nature of the narrative, and includes some of the most graphic sexual scenes of the Bond novels as Michel recounts her short personal history in the first third of the text. I wonder how shocking some of this might have been in the sixties when the book was first published.

Yes, it is very different from the usual Bond story, but it just shows the breadth of Fleming's writing ability was not limited just to thrillers. It's not an adventure, but knowing that before reading it (after all, I have read it before) I think I appreciated it more than the previous few stories in the series.

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The Thief

The Thief

&

2nd March 2012

Isaac Bell returns for another early 20th Century adventure. As the German war machine is building, they attempt to kindap two scientists from a trans-Atlantic liner, but Bell can't fathom why.

This is far from the most exciting of the Isaac Bell novels, with actually surprisingly little by way of action and much more investigation, but as such it feels like a better constructed plot. It does lack the trademark technological focus of some of the earlier stories which focussed on cars, trains, planes, though there is a little of this in the treatment of early film production.

Despite this, I'm continuing to enjoy the Bell stories more than Cussler's other spinoffs. Perhaps it's the historical setting, but I notice less of the plot holes that appear in the modern-day stories and things seem much more believable.

It's also worth noting that there are a number of typos in my copy - I wonder whether the extreme three-month turnaround between books is making the proof-reading process rushed. I find this quite irritating in a novel as it tends to break me out from the flow of the story. I also find the illustrations laughable and filled with spoilers - what's the point of showing me a picture of a pivotal scene that hasn't happened yet?

Overall, a well constructed story that could perhaps do with a tiny bit more excitement. Cussler's output has yet to return to its peak but has definitely picked up from recent lows.

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Knots and Crosses

Knots and Crosses

28th February 2012

The first book in Ian Rankin's 'John Rebus' series, written 27 years ago, features the detective assigned to the case of an Edinburgh child-murderer who leaves suspiciously few clues.

I found the writing style to be slightly pretentious, but I'm left wondering whether my opinion was negatively coloured by the author's introduction, written 20 years later than the book, in which he essentially described his own work as being slightly cringe-worthy.

The plot was remarkably good though, and I'll admit that while the 'truth' had crossed my mind I was distracted by some of the red herrings and was suspecting the wrong person. One criticism would be with the speed of the narrative - which very suddenly increased towards the end and left the conclusion feeling quite rushed.

Overall though I'm not disappointed by Rankin's tale and am glad I began at the start of the series. I look forward to reading more and seeing how the author's style and characters develop.

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The Quantum Universe

The Quantum Universe

&

25th February 2012

Having read this book I feel that I now have at least a basic understanding of Quantum Physics and what it's meant to prove, even if I still can't quite get my head around the details. Cox and Forshaw present a very readable text which effectively takes the reader on a journey through the history of the theory, discovering each part in step with the scientists who did so first.

The opening chapters perform excellently at laying the foundations of the theory and the background knowledge needed - use of the 'clocks' metaphor makes it easy to follow what is happening - though I do wonder if someone with less of a mathematical/scientific background than myself would find it as straightforward to follow.

The later stages too are fascinating and show the myriad ways that quantum physics is vital to our existence and can be used to discover things about the macroscopic world that people generally exist in.

Like many things in science, it is the step in between that's hardest to grasp - the middle chapters took a couple of reads to quite follow the chain of logic and how the diagrams connect to the theory, but just accepting that they are right is sufficient to follow what happens later in the book - so there's no need to give up if it's too bizarre.

Overall, a good, down-to-earth introduction to a rather unintuitive branch of reality that's certainly helped me to understand a bit more about how the universe works.

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Secret Water

Secret Water

21st February 2012

Secret Water is, in my opinion, the weakest of the Swallows and Amazons series. It follows on directly from 'We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea', but the plot is very different. The Swallows are 'marooned' on an island with a blank map, and tasked by their father with exploring the surrounding area and mapping it out.

While the book does have its good points - featuring Bridget for the first time adds a new dynamic to the group - a lot of it just doesn't seem to work, and I think this is probably why it's the least memorable from when I read the series as a child. Some characters seem included without enough for them to do, and of the new characters only one seems to really have much by way of depth. Unlike many of the other books, this one doesn't seem to focus on any particular character, and I think this spreads the plot too thinly.

Some aspects of the plot are new and interesting, but all in all it seems like a pretty dull holiday for the children compared to their previous adventures, and the various elements don't entirely fit together well. The ending in particular feels quite rushed, and it almost seems like Ransome reached his word count and just wrapped things up without any real climax.

Overall then, it's an unusual low point for what is otherwise an excellent series. I didn't connect with it so well as the 'lakes' books in the series, and look forward to re-reading the last of those in the near future.

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Gone Tomorrow

Gone Tomorrow

16th February 2012

2009's Jack Reacher novel sees the character caught up in a plot that stretches my credulity, which begins with him identifying a woman on an underground train as a suicide bomber.

While the book maintains the usual power of captivating, I felt that aspects of the style were getting in the way of my reading. The book is chopped into very short chapters in which a lot happens, and I found that this rather frenetic pace left me wanting to take a break much more frequently than I normally would - despite all the chapters having some form of cliffhanger that made me want to keep going.

The story returns to a first person presentation, which makes sense for the plot to work, but when thought about a little doesn't really make sense. A first person narrative takes away any sense of real threat, and from knowing Reacher from reading his adventures, it doesn't seem like he's the type of person who would ever write things down. I imagine I'm not meant to have put that much thought into it.

The plot is interesting though. Much faster than the previous book in the series, though the supporting characters are still a little ill defined and in some cases the layers of deception still have me confused by the end of the book. So overall a mixed bag of feelings about this read, but I still enjoyed it.

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The Bad Beginning

The Bad Beginning

12th February 2012

The title actually does say it all. When three siblings are orphaned, they are sent to live with an evil distant relative who wants nothing more than to steal their inheritance.

As an adult, this is a very quick read, but for children I can see each chapter being a perfect length for a bedtime story - but only if they are mature enough to cope with the disaster that befalls the characters at every turn.

Snickett has a captivating writing style - informal and entertaining despite the unfortunate nature of the subject matter. He doesn't shy away from introducing new vocabulary and makes learning new words into part of the joke. In a couple of places he breaks the fourth wall, which felt a bit odd to me as it didn't happen early on and broke the flow a little, but otherwise I felt the narrative was very good.

I'm not sure whether I will be bothering to pick up books two to thirteen though. I think it's very much a book for children to enjoy and even as a younger adult it all seemed a little depressing and, dare I say it, silly.

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Thunderball

Thunderball

12th February 2012

Of all the James Bond books, this one feels the most cinematic, though I do wonder whether my knowledge that the novel is based on an idea for a film influences me in feeling this. When two British atomic weapons go missing, M puts everyone on alert, and sends Bond on a mission to the Bahamas to track them down.

Thunderball seems to be different from the earlier books. Bond feels slightly less rough around the edges - he's mellowed perhaps? His over-opinionated ways are much lessened, and he comes across even as slightly vulnerable. The other characters are the opposite. Whereas before there was in depth background about Goldfinger, Rosa Klebb, Dr No and so on, in this book Largo seems to be nothing more than a puppet. Blofeld gets the rich detailed treatment in an early chapter, but is promptly ignored from then on, making Bond's battle with Largo feel rather perfunctory and impersonal.

The detail of the settings is also sparser than before. In earlier books the reader is treated to long descriptions about the different winds, visits to Harlem, casinos, cars and so on, all of which are missing from this book. Instead, the focus seems to be on action and actual investigation - it would be fair to say this is almost the first novel in which Bond has actually had to do some proper spying. It is written as if for the screen and not the page.

I would go as far as to say that the opening is probably my favourite section of the book. This is the part in which Bond is himself and has his usual foibles. It's the part that gives Blofeld such a brilliant background - setting up an ambitious idea on Fleming's part to have an enemy that could feature in several novels.

Overall though I'm afraid I didn't find it to be at the better end of the series, lacking the unique elements that characterise Bond's earlier outings. It's certainly not bad though, just perhaps more in line with a run-of-the-mill thriller.

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Sad Cypress

Sad Cypress

8th February 2012

In 'Sad Cypress' Hercule Poirot is hired on behalf of an accused murderer in an attempt to get her off the charges, despite all the evidence saying that she's guilty.

I found it quite a quick read, and enjoyable, though I'm afraid I didn't spot the solution before it was unveiled for me. The set of characters are the usual, but the country house setting , although present, is at least utilised slightly differently.

The characters are a good, rounded set and it's nice to see a lot of the story from one of their point-of-view rather than coming in with Poirot or Hastings (who is absent from this story). This allowed Christie to blend genres a bit and add a little romance to the story.

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The Innocent Man

The Innocent Man

6th February 2012

John Grisham's first foray into non-fiction has me torn. It is clearly a good book, a lot of work has gone into it, and it makes a very important point about the quality of a judicial system that can allow such miscarriages of justice to occur. However I'm not convinced that it made for a good read.

The book tells the tale of Ron Williamson - every word of which is true - who was arrested after two local police officers decided that he must have committed the murder despite the lack of evidence and without bothering to follow up any real leads.

It is a shocking tale, and does nothing to bolster my current lack of trust in any foreign legal system, particularly one with such an obvious lack of checks and balances. The treatment that Ron gets is awful and it is absolutely right that Grisham has chosen to use his popularity as a fiction author to highlight the problems.

However, it's not always an engaging read. The first two thirds move quite slowly, with a lot of repetition, which partly comes across like a lawyer trying to reiterate a point to a jury. Perhaps that's the point, but to my usual style of fast reading it felt a bit like lazy editing. The style is quite dry and clinical, and I found it hard to gain an emotional connection with the people portrayed.

The nature of the events makes the book hard to read as well. It's not an easy tale to take in, and knowing where it was going made it more difficult. At times I wanted to take out my anger at some of the people portrayed on the book itself. It was hard to motivate myself to keep reading because of this.

However I'm glad I've read it - it even makes some of Grisham's fictional works seem far more believable. Perhaps it is one that everyone should read - after all, anyone could be picked to serve on a jury, and need their eyes opened to the possibility of such travesties.

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Fool's Errand

Fool's Errand

2nd February 2012

The first book in Robin Hobb's third trilogy set in the 'Realm of the Elderlings' returns to the setting of the first trilogy and the first-person narration from Fitz, who is called suddenly out of retirement for a new quest.

Hobb masterfully draws the reader back into her world so that it seems you have hardly been away. The fifteen years that have passed since Assassin's Quest are described to the reader incredibly well in a long piece of exposition that is cleverly framed into part of the story and doesn't feel at all out of place. Similarly the reminders of what's happened so far, and asides for those who haven't read the earlier novels, don't feel at all clunky as they do in some other authors' works.

While the plot is new, it draws upon a number of themes from the earlier books, including some threads that I didn't even realise had been left dangling, and feels a very natural continuation. Similarly, the characters have lost none of their appeal and while older, don't seem much changed.

Hobb's style is very honest and approachable, and I almost feel she could make the most difficult of concepts clear and simple to understand, and enjoyable to read. It's an excellent continuation and also an excellent new start, which I stormed through in three days. I look forward to finding out where the story goes next.

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Empire State

Empire State

29th January 2012

This is the second of Bateman's novels which I have read, and I must confess I feel pretty much the same way as I did about the first. While it's an interesting set-up and the characters occasionally show promise, I just wasn't able to connect with the novel and found I had to force myself to keep going through the second half.

Nathan Jones is a Northern Irish immigrant into the USA, and has a bit of a temper problem. When his girlfriend leaves him, he's left with just his security guard job at the Empire State Building, and a whole range of implausible coincidences that bundle on top of him.

I'm quite surprised by how I feel about the book, because Bateman's work is in many ways similar to that of Christopher Brookmyre, whose novels (Scottish instead of Northern Irish) are also of the slightly black-comic crime genre, but Bateman's plots and characters just don't seem to fit together quite so well.

In this book, the plot didn't seem to connect particularly well - there was too much going on, particularly some which was just complete distraction, and one element in particular cropped up very suddenly with no warning to provide a quick deus ex machina and extend the story by a few extra chapters. The humour was quite faintly sketched in over what is really quite a tragic tale, and the variety of sexual acts surprisingly frequent.

Overall, I'm afraid it's not a book I can recommend, which is a shame because it was recommended to me. I'll stick to Brookmyre in the future and try to resist the allure of some of Bateman's other tempting titles.

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Deal Breaker

Deal Breaker

25th January 2012

Harlan Coben's first Myron Bollitar novel is a mixed bag. When american footballer Christian Steele gets a message from his girlfriend - who disappeared 18 months earlier - he recruits his sports agent to try to track her down. This summary is the basis of my initial scepticism about the book - the character just didn't seem to fit the plot, and that element remains to be satisfactorily explained.

The beginning of the book is weak, which put me off - after each of the first few chapters I was seriously doubting whether I could bring myself to continue reading. The characters were ill-defined, cocky, and the narrative informally, almost colloquially phrased. But it did get better, mostly through the application of the plot, because the above criticisms remained throughout.

The story, although dubious in places, is what drove me to keep reading, and possibly just because I wanted to find out what was going on. Unlike a classic crime novel, there's very little by way of clues - indeed the first half felt more like a treasure hunt, going from one contact to another, picking up the next name, and carrying on, without feeling as if much was being learnt. Eventually though some clues start to come to light, and the reader is just about able to figure things out in time.

The writing style is awkward though - it's too casual, with the narrator making observations that seem better suited to put with a character. There were also places where two pages got stuck together and it was surprising how far I could read on before realising that it was a completely different scene I had jumped into the middle of. The characters are larger-than-life and I found them hard to relate to - particularly the protagonist - and his reactions to situations are unbelievable to an extreme, it's almost like he's a child who doesn't understand what's going on around him.

Finally, there are a number of scenes that appear without much justification except to titillate. I found them unnecessarily intrusive and they didn't contribute to the characters or plot. Overall, I enjoyed the book for the plot, and I imagine I will try to read further into the series, which I've been told has its ups and downs, and hope that they become slightly more bearable.

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Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs

23rd January 2012

I must begin by confessing to being a fan of Steve Jobs and the products that his company has produced - I carry at least one with me everywhere. that is the background to how I am approaching this book. I'm not usually one for reading biographies, particularly one as huge on the shelf as this (though it's actually only around 600 pages), but was given this one as a Christmas present so felt I had to read it.

I really enjoyed it. Isaacson gives just the right amount of detail - there was no point in the book that I felt it needed more, and he manages to put across a lot of his subject's emotion and personality in a book that could only come from the extensive range of interviews he's performed with Jobs and those who knew him throughout his life. The amount of work that has gone into the book really shows through and makes me appreciate the book even more.

Each chapter deals with a different theme from his life, which sometimes means things aren't quite in chronological order, but nothing feels out of place - it's quite a surprise that someone's life can be chopped into chapters so elegantly. It's made very clear that Jobs' demanded that he not have any influence over the text, and there are places where it is tactfully critical of his nature, but in being so it only serves to make the book feel more truthful and a better representation of who Jobs was.

Reading the final third of the book did feel quite emotional, possibly because I can relate to some of the things Jobs was going through, but probably more likely due to the skill of the writer to intertwine the negatives around the many positives that Jobs had in his final decade at Apple. As I've said, I really enjoyed reading this book, and would certainly recommend it as one of the best biographies I've experienced.

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Piccadilly Jim

Piccadilly Jim

18th January 2012

Piccadilly Jim is the first stand-alone novel by PG Wodehouse that I've read, and has impressed me a lot. Despite being set, and written, almost 100 years ago, the plot remains very approachable and the characters believable if a little dated.

When Jimmy Crocker's circumstances force him to have to impersonate himself, things can only get more confusing for him as he attempts to woo a beautiful redhead. Despite the complexity of the plot that rivals Shakespeare for characters pretending to be others, the narrative is easy for the reader to follow, though explaining the humour to someone who hasn't read the book will just tie you up in knots.

The book is set partly in London but mostly in New York, and Wodehouse manages to draw a vivid picture of the charactes who reside in each. It is certainly from the characters rather than the situations that the real humour flows, and Jimmy's suave lines are particularly memorable.

I'm amazed at how well this book has survived the test of time, and am certainly going to read more of Wodehouse's output off the back of it.

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Devil's Gate

Devil's Gate

&

14th January 2012

A new co-author joins Clive Cussler for the ninth book in the NUMA Files series, and seems to breath a little fresh life into the narrative. It's hard to explain the plot without feeling that I'm giving too much away, but when Kurt Austin accidentally discovers an unusual underwater source of magnetism it leads to far more adventure than expected.

The improvements in the book over its recent predecessors come in the characterisation. The team from NUMA, particularly the Trouts, feel much more real than before, and the bad guys and supporting cast all come across as having more depth to them than before.

There remain however a number of problems that seem to increase as the book goes on. The science starts off well but drifts further and further from accuracy as the plot develops. Additionally, minor facts are misportrayed - the length of a football pitch, the existence of a Russian politburo, CRT monitors - that make me doubt some of the things that I don't know about, particularly seafaring and weaponry.

There are also issues with the plot. There is one rather significant element that is never given an explanation. There are places where things are made to explicit - some speech can stand for itself without being re-explained afterwards. One character is talked about with familiarity for several chapters before the exposition that explains who he is, which made me feel I must have missed something. And finally the plot element that was blatantly stolen from a James Bond film.

Despite all this though I'm pleased with the fresh blood in writing these. I'm finding it harder to start Cussler's books and so it's increasingly nice when they turn out better than expected. I look forward to more from Graham Brown in six months.

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For Your Eyes Only

For Your Eyes Only

11th January 2012

The first of two collections of Ian Fleming's short stories about James Bond makes for interesting reading. There are several themes that flow through, from the usual exotic locations and deaths of the Bond novels to more of a focus on the people - in four cases Bond himself.

Despite this it seems that the collection might not appeal to any but the dedicated fan - they certinly don't have quite the entertainment value of the full length novels. 'From a View to a Kill', 'For Your Eyes Only' and 'Risico' certainly follow the thriller model, focusing on several missions given Bond by M. However of these only Risico really felt like it had the potential to develop into something more.

'Quantum of Solace' is quite different, and Bond plays barely any role in the story apart from as an excuse for it to be told. We lean a little more about his character, as in all these stories, but mostly it seems to be a vehicle for a strikingly plausible tale that Fleming wants to tell.

Finally, 'The Hildebrand Rarity' seems to be almost a test-bed for some of the features of 'Thunderball'. It's another look into Bond's personality, but with a twist that sets it apart a little from the others.

I've enjoyed the little collection, though probably not as much as I enjoy the novels, and would only really recommend it for readers who have already absorbed those and needs that tiny bit more insight into the character.

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We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea

We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea

7th January 2012

The only one of Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons novels to feature solely the Swallows, 'We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea' sees the four siblings do just that, as bad weather accidentally washes them out of the harbour.

I've enjoyed reading this one again - other than the basic premise I barely remembered anything about the story from reading it as a child, something which seems to be true of all the later books in the series, perhaps suggesting that I didn't re-read them the first time round. John comes across as the main character of the story, and I find it really interesting how well Ransome manages to spread the stories around the large group of characters he has created, with each focussing on a different individual or group.

The adventure is thrilling and richly described, and next to no knowledge of sailing is required to appreciate the realistic dangers that the children face. That said though, there are things to criticise in this book. It's the first time I've noticed any overt sexism in the series, with the two Walker girls variously being sea-sick, headachy, worrysome and nurses. John and Roger by comparison seem to be confident, headstrong and knowledgeable about sailing and engineering.

Overall though I feel it's a deserving entry in the series and certainly the peak of realism and threat. Even though the story only covers a few days it doesn't feel as if anything is dragged out, and I still think these are some of the greatest children's stories ever written.

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Nothing to Lose

Nothing to Lose

2nd January 2012

The second weak Jack Reacher story in a row, this novel tells of his visit to the towns of Hope and Despair in deepest Colorado. As the name suggests, Hope is lovely, but Despair triggers all Reacher's warning bells, and he sets out to find out what's going on.

I think what disappoints me about this book is that Reacher's motivation is only curiosity and his own petty vendetta, and as such there's no real goal to what he's doing - unlike most of the books in the series where he is motivated by his morals, or to protect someone. In terms of the plot, nothing becomes clear until very near the end, so this just makes the character look like a bit of a prat.

The other characters are fairly depthless again, with one exception, and I am left wondering why this novel is presented in third person and not the first person that some of the books are - as a reader you are tied to Reacher's viewpoint for the entire story - at least in a first-person narrative it would be excusable that the other characters are barely fleshed out.

Overall, I found this book slow going - I just couldn't get into it enough to absorb a large chunk at a time and so it's lasted at least twice as long as expected. I don't think it's Child's best work, and I hope that the most recent novels which follow will be improvements.

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