All 2020 reviews - Shastrix Books

2020

All reviews

Crystal of Storms

Crystal of Storms

Rhianna Pratchett

11th October 2020

This is the first Fighting Fantasy adventure I’ve tried - inspired, as I’m sure many others will be, by the choice of author. Rather than a novel, this is a choose-your-own adventure style game, which I’ve not tried since I was a child.

It’s clear that the format has evolved somewhat, as this has taken elements of role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, and involves combat and skill tests to find out how well I do on my adventure.

Sad to say, on my first attempt I failed totally to complete the mission - but I’m not put off and will try again soon!

A really enjoyable diversion for a few hours, and one that I’ll certainly try out on younger family members in the future.

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Jennings Unlimited

Jennings Unlimited

Anthony Buckeridge

11th October 2020

It’s been a while since my last trip to Linbury in my re-read of the Jennings series, but this was a welcome visit to the sixteenth novel.

This is an absolute classic of the series, in which everything adds up and ties together, with the distinct episodes clearly linked into one overall narrative, possibly in the best way of the series so far.

It’s funny, it’s silly, and it all make such perfect sense from the point of view of the ten-year-old main character.

I really enjoyed this re-read.

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The Mystery of the Chinese Junk

The Mystery of the Chinese Junk

Franklin W Dixon & James D Lawrence

11th October 2020

The Mystery of the Chinese Junk, thirty-ninth in the series, has an interesting setting for a fairly standard story.

The usual ingredients are present, Chet has a new hobby, people break into places, some racism, tons of coincidence, but with the unusual addition of gainful employ for the brothers and a lack of actual detection.

The story follows the usual format that I’m now immune to after so much exposure as I’ve re-read the series up to this point, and while the setting adds something unique and special, nothing else here seems to be.

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Secret Seven on the Trail

Secret Seven on the Trail

Enid Blyton

11th October 2020

The fourth Secret Seven story is a classic of the series.

The seven children’s antagonism with Jack’s sister Susie and her friends is in full evidence, and there are several nice interactions between the groups, and some meta-references which are mildly amusing.

The mystery is straightforward but solid, with a good number of clues and peril for a younger audience. The only letdown is that once again Blyton’s characters demonstrate their now-extremely-obvious sexism, and Peter in particular has started to come across as a bit of a prat.

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Troubled Blood

Troubled Blood

Robert Galbraith

11th October 2020

The fifth book in the Strike/Ellacott series was tainted by negative publicity at release, however I decided it was fair to give it a chance and confirm whether the media was trying to kick up a storm over nothing.

It’s a 900 page epic in which the detectives take on a cold case from forty-five years earlier, and over the course of a year (it feels a lot like a Harry Potter novel in that sense) try to solve the mystery while dealing with their own personal lives.

I found that it was a hugely compelling read, several times continuing to read far too late into the night. The mystery is well crafted and as complex and inter-weaving as the previous novel.

The main characters continue to be interesting, although also frustrating in many ways - a bit like the fifth Harry Potter novel, if only they’d talk to one another more then a lot of their angst would be resolved.

However it does feel like Rowling has made some avoidable choices which, when coupled with knowledge of her previous statements on social media, paint the book in a dark light. Admittedly, from another author the same plot points might go unmentioned - indeed some of them I’ve seen in other crime novels I’ve read this year - but because of the background it feels like Rowling is trying to reiterate her points. She could have taken different routes, or even picked up on the opportunity she gives herself to add balance - but she did not.

So… it’s 95% a good, entertaining story, and 5% problematic.

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More Beautiful Than Death

More Beautiful Than Death

David Mack

11th October 2020

The second ‘adult’ tie-in novel in the Kelvinverse - the timeline established in the JJ Abrams series of Star Trek movies - was written ten years ago but only now published (with tweaks by the author).

We meet Kirk and the crew some time after the first movie, carrying a diplomatic mission to a planet that’s requested aid from the Federation, and of course on arrival things become complicated.

I found however that I struggled to get into it. Each chapter felt like it ended at a convenient point to stop reading - not the level of compulsion to continue that I love. I’m not in general a huge reader of TOS stories, having not got the same relationship with those characters as with those who came later, and here my mental model of the characters has become really mixed - I was picturing Chris Pine’s Kirk, but James Doohan’s Scotty, and Ethan Peck’s Spock - with Bones fluctuating between actors’ faces.

So I’m afraid not one I feel I can recommend. Maybe if it had come out ten years ago I would have felt more connected to it, but at this stage I didn’t, and struggled.

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The Thursday Murder Club

The Thursday Murder Club

Richard Osman

11th October 2020

Richard Osman’s debut novel is a fantastic mystery set in and around a retirement village - hobbyists at investigating cold cases who are drawn into investigating the death of one of the park’s owners.

There’s a rich collection of characters drawn from multiple background, who paint an entertaining picture of life here. They are hilarious in the way they deal with others involved, and the gradual feeding of information about their backgrounds is perfect.

The plot is a great mystery and moves at an excellent pace, following a comfortable pattern of the classics of the mystery genre while still feeling fresh.

A great story with a fantastic cast - I can imagine someone’s already started adapting it for TV - and I’m already desperate to get my hands on the sequel.

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City of Bones

City of Bones

Cassandra Clare

13th September 2020

The first novel in Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series has glared at me from bookshops around the country for some years, almost demanding that I read it, and so eventually I have.

It’s a very average fantasy novel for teenagers. Girl meets mysterious semi-invisible demon-hunters, girl’s mom gets kidnapped by evil villain, etc.

I really tried to like it, but it’s just a bit plain I think. There are hints of it being a bit Harry Potterish at the start, although it does twist off in its’ own direction later. There were also some elements that were surprisingly reminiscent of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files.

Overall though I found it a bit of a slog, and I forced myself through the final hundred pages just to get it over with. I don’t think I’ll be picking up any more of the series.

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The Way of All Flesh

The Way of All Flesh

Ambrose Parry

13th September 2020

I was a bit trepidatious picking up this book. I’m late to the party - having only recently wondered why Chris Brookmyre’s output appeared to have slowed, only to discover from searching online that it’s because he’s been collaborating under the Ambrose Parry name. So having enjoyed his previous works, I was nervous about entering this new world and about whether I would like what I found.

I was in luck - this is an excellent book. Set in Victorian Edinburgh, it follows a young medical apprentice, and the clearly under-utilised genius employed as his mentor’s housemaid. It opens very historically, setting the scene of the time and place, the characters, and their various ‘stations’ and ranks in this society. The structure reminds me a little of fantasy fiction, in doing a decent amount of world building with the opening chapters.

To be honest it could have just been left there - I was hooked by the world and the history and the medicine - the plot almost felt an unnecessary distraction from the rich and thoroughly-researched detail. But arrive the plot did, and it too is a cracker - tying together the era, the characters, and a solid look at key social issues of the time (which while they should be ‘of the time’, and still somehow prescient today).

While some of the medical details were a little more vividly described than I would have appreciated, this realism feels fairly necessary to understanding some of what the book is trying to tell.

Easily one of the best books I’ve read this year, and I can’t wait to pick up the sequel and consume more in a similar vein. I’m glad I found it.

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The Mystery at Devil's Paw

The Mystery at Devil's Paw

Franklin W Dixon, James D Lawrence & Priscilla Baker-Carr

13th September 2020

Book 38 of the original Hardy Boys series - my read through has slowed somewhat since earlier in lockdown as I’ve been distracted by more recent publications, and also because too many Hardy Boys adventures back to back is a little tortuous (not that it stopped me as an 11-year-old).

This time the brothers get caught up in an adventure in Alaska when their friend summons them to help out with his summer job. There are the typical dated stereotypes of native americans, and some extremely uncomfortable archaeological practices - and it fits the pattern of the ‘Hardy Boys go on holiday’ novels from this era.

Generally I was unimpressed by this entry - probably one of the weaker ones.

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Feet of Clay

Feet of Clay

Terry Pratchett

13th September 2020

After reading the Discworld series in order the first time, I’m now enjoying a more serendipitous trip through some of the novels, and have arrived at this, the third Watch novel, in which Vimes is challenged by a secret rebellion, as well as some suspicious deaths in Ankh Morpork.

Like many Pratchett novels, there is a lot going on. This book seems to challenge any number of different issues - sexism, racism, monarchy, reproductive rights. And all that wrapped up in a compelling story and an engaging narrative that one several occasions had me thinking “just until the end of the chapter” at bedtime (before of course remembering that Pratchett does not typically write in chapters).

And of course it almost goes without saying that it’s funny. Pratchett manages to write some of the most amusing sentences, and make the most profound yet laugh-out-loud observations using his characters.

I’m consistently delighted by my return trips to the Discworld, and look forward to finding out which one is going to leap off the shelf and demand to be read next.

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The Invisible Code

The Invisible Code

Christopher Fowler

13th September 2020

Back to a series I really enjoy reading. Surprisingly elderly detectives Bryant and May call themselves in to investigate some not-obviously-suspicious deaths in the City of London, which as usual leads to a complex set of not-quite paranormal clues leading them and their team on a chase around the city.

There are some fantastic standout passages in this novel - I’ve taken to photographing my favourite passages from books I’m reading so that I can go back and read those bits again and again to cheer myself up. Just little sentences or paragraphs that tickle me.

As usual, the plot is thoroughly thought-out, and the research into the quirks of London obvious. I really enjoy reading this series and have had to stop myself from diving back into the next novel too soon.

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Die Standing

Die Standing

John Jackson Miller

13th September 2020

The latest Star Trek: Discovery tie-in novel is set between seasons one and two of the TV series, though probably is best read after season two because it deals with some characters who hadn’t previously appeared in the series. The novel follows Philippa Georgiou as she is drawn into an investigation into an attack on a starship that bears a striking resemblance to other events in her earlier life.

I find the approach that’s been taken with the Discovery novels - to find ways of fitting their stories around the TV series while trying to avoid being contradicted by later stories - to lead to some really interesting ideas. This is one - sat as a snug side story and yet still compelling and focussing really deeply on one character.

The plot didn’t do a lot for me - the beginning felt a bit forgettable, then the rest of the story quite episodic. I think in part the focus on a character that I don’t particularly like didn’t make for the most engaging read, but obviously this is a character that’s been designed to be unlikable, although this was balanced by some classic villainous campery. However the supporting characters - two in particular - were probably what stuck with me the most after reading - both are to varying extents minor characters from the canon, and my head had an unfortunately tendency to stick the wrong face on one.

Overall, I think an average Trek novel, with probably a bit more in common with some of the classic novels than some of the more recent entries, which is not a bad thing.

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Neuromancer

Neuromancer

William Gibson

16th August 2020

This novel is a classic mid-1980s science fiction tale of a man who, slightly down on his luck, is coerced into… something. I say something, because despite having read it I’m still not really clear what it was about or what went down.

I picked this up cheap because it’s well regarded, but it’s much harder science fiction than I was expecting. I think one of the main issues I had is that the approach to world building is just to throw the reader in with no comfortable introduction or explanation, and I don’t find that a comfortable or easy way to understand a world.

The other thing that puts me off classic science fiction like this is that it doesn’t seem to really be about the characters. I think my brain fits much more the model of modern novels which are much more about interesting characters - here though it felt more like it was about the technology and… yeah I still don’t know.

I found the narrative unapproachable. There’s a lot of attention to describing things but it comes across as assuming so much context that I don’t have that my imagination wasn’t able to cope. It reminded me a bit of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One in terms of some of the human-computer interaction, but the way it’s portrayed here felt far less engaging and revelatory. I think probably I need the text to do more of the work of pulling me into the world, whereas this novel expected me to do a lot of the work, and that’s not what I’m looking for in novels.

I really forced myself through the final hundred pages just to get it over and done with. I will not be returning for the sequels.

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A Divided Spy

A Divided Spy

Charles Cumming

16th August 2020

The third Thomas Kell novel is an interesting one. Everything that happens is a follow-up to what’s gone before, so it wouldn’t work as a standalone read, and my memory of the second book was a bit patchy and probably could have done with more of a refresher than this book gave.

Kell is surprised when an opportunity for revenge appears in front of him, and naturally he snaps it up. In keeping with the previous novels, it is really good at being a spy novel - the action moves at a decent pace and it keeps my attention reasonably well.

My struggle with this novel though is that it felt a bit light on plot. There are two plot lines, but it almost feels like one of them is the story that Cummings wants to tell, and the other is just there to add a bit more excitement to it, and so the two don’t feel well balanced or blended.

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White Night

White Night

Jim Butcher

16th August 2020

It’s been two years since I read the previous Dresden Files novel - they taunt me a little from a bookcase, because I’ve got the whole series but don’t feel I enjoy them enough that I constantly want to read them. The release of a new entry however prompted me to pick up this, the ninth novel.

There’s been some suspicious deaths in Chicago, and Harry Dresden is brought in on the quiet to have a look for anything that might be up his street - and surprise surprise that’s exactly what he finds.

Ultimately my struggle I think with this book was that it was about 100 pages longer than I wanted it to be. I’d had enough by three quarters of the way through, and that’s just about where the narrative really started to pick up some pace.

Part of my reluctance may be that I’ve read a number of comments online that Butcher’s characters have a slightly unhealthy attitude towards women - and actually it is quite noticeable once you are aware of it. While there might be an argument that it’s the character’s viewpoints, it seems to be a lot of the characters, particularly those we’re meant to like as readers, and it goes down without being addressed.

I think it’s likely to be a while again before I pick up the next novel, although I don’t doubt that I will eventually.

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Death Under the Dryer

Death Under the Dryer

Simon Brett

16th August 2020

I’ve found the previous novels in this series very relaxing to read, and Death Under The Dryer continues this trend. While set in the modern era, it continues the spirit of the classic mystery novel, with a casual attitude and relaxed mildly comedic turn to the characters and their relationships.

This time out, our two amateur detectives find themselves on the scene when a murder is discovered, and surrounded throughout my new characters who are richly varied and live the complex intertwined lives that are necessary for this sort of plot.

The normalcy of the lives of Brett’s characters make for very chilled reading - which is something I really appreciate in a novel at the moment. Exactly what I was looking for.

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Well Done, Secret Seven

Well Done, Secret Seven

Enid Blyton

24th July 2020

The third Secret Seven novel felt exceptionally weak to me.

It’s clearly aimed at a younger audience than the Five Find-Outers novels that I’ve read more recently, but this story in particular seemed to spend all of its focus on setting, and very little on plot.

The characters barely do any detective work, and almost everything just happens around them, or happens by mechanism of talking to parents. The story doesn’t live up to that in the previous two stories.

It feels slightly less dated though - there’s still some sexism and classism, but the sexism is at least partly challenged.

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The Collapsing Empire

The Collapsing Empire

John Scalzi

24th July 2020

Oh wow. Recently I’ve been a bit slower at reading - the mindless drudgery of lockdown having sapped my enthusiasm and attention span - but this book was very different.

I’ve read Scalzi before, but this was me dipping my toe into what I worried might be a bit harder sci-fi and thus outside my comfort zone. I was wrong though.

This is a novel about people - realistic and believable people - living in a space empire that’s clearly allegorical, and yet living lives that are compelling and which made me, for possibly the first time in the over ten years I’ve been tracking my reading, want to immediately read the next book in the series and find out what’s going to happen to them next.

I loved many things about this novel - the characters, the worldbuilding, the plot, the allegory, the details that are crafted so as to give the reader flexibility in interpretation. Superb.

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The Ghost at Skeleton Rock

The Ghost at Skeleton Rock

Franklin W Dixon, James D Lawrence & Priscilla Baker-Carr

24th July 2020

Deep into the original run of the Hardy Boys novels, Skeleton Rock starts well - with a classic new hobby for Chet, a hometown mystery, and a collection of surprising family-owned vehicles.

But later on it falls down a bit, as the brothers head off someone remote, and get involved with yet another group of indiginous people to represent in a stereotypical and offensive way.

A mediocre entry in the series.

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The Constant Rabbit

The Constant Rabbit

Jasper Fforde

24th July 2020

I am a big fan of Jasper Fforde’s work, and so have been looking forward to this ever since I heard the intriguing title. It’s a coincidentally well timed novel being released in 2020, but clearly inspired by some of the real world events and politics of the past few years.

Anthropomorphic rabbits have, through means comedically unexplained, come to live in the UK alongside the human population. The rabbits seem quite happy about this, but a number of the humans don’t really think they should be in their village.

Fforde uses the vehicle of comedy to tell a story that shines a quite blatant light on some of the absurdities of modern society. There’s not a lot of subtlety going on with the allegory - although the humour has some.

I really enjoyed reading this. The world-building is weaved cleverly in as usual - I think of Fforde’s world’s as just the smallest nudge away from our own, and this one’s nudge clearly starts “What if rabbits…” and ends up putting a big mirror in front of our society. But despite the seriousness of the subject matter, the tone is often light, the humour omnipresent, and the things that go unsaid are also perfect.

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The Girl Who Could Move Shit With Her Mind

The Girl Who Could Move Shit With Her Mind

Jackson Ford

24th July 2020

I’ll admit that a great deal of what attracted me to this book when I saw it for sale was the title. Typically novels can only get away with titles like this if the publisher really believes in the author, and so it felt like a strong bet.

The idea seems straightforward - there’s a woman who has psychokinetic abilities, she works for the US government doing secret missions. But it all becomes more complex as we discover some more of the backstory, and things of course start to go wrong, because otherwise this wouldn’t be a novel.

I found the first half of the story fairly slow going. It’s slightly odd in that the chapters felt cliffhangery in their endings, and yet my instinct at the end of each chapter was to put the book down and do something else. To be fair to this book, it’s not the only one thats had that effect, so it’s possibly more to do with lockdown than the content.

The second half however I raced through, eyes wide in slight horror as I learnt more and more. There are definitely some uncomfortable moments as the plot develops which I felt awkward reading.

Overall, it was okay - good enough that I’ll look out for the sequel when I’m next able to wander around bookshops.

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Oh Dear Silvia

Oh Dear Silvia

Dawn French

27th June 2020

I have no idea why I owned a Dawn French novel, or where or when I got it - but it was on the shelf in amongst the other F authors when I was scanning for what to read next, and so I picked it out with trepidation.

It’s actually genius storytelling - what seems like a rather odd setup, the main character is in a coma and each chapter is from the point of view of one of her hospital visitors, turns into an intriguing developing narrative that’s amusing, captivating, and weirdly heartwarming.

I felt slightly uncomfortable with some of the way the narrative was presented. Two of the characters had their accents rendered into the text, which in one case was used for almost slapstick comic effect and in the other I found hard to read, breaking the flow of the reading experience.

Overall though surprisingly great, and I wouldn’t hesitate to pick up her other novels and read them now too.

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Raven's Gate

Raven's Gate

Anthony Horowitz

27th June 2020

I’ve read most of Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider series, and both his James Bond novels, so when I saw the first book of the Power of Five series on the shelf I thought I’d give it a go, and I was right to. Matt is the classic chosen one - an orphan with suspicions he has powers, living an oppressive home life that he wishes to escape from - and as always adventure ensues.

It’s a great introduction to the series, gradually revealing more about the world and the character and taking the reader to a place where they are keen to find out more from the rest of the series.

The plot moves at a good pace, with nicely proportioned chapters. It’s darker than Horowitz’s previous novels that I’ve read, with a focus on elements of horror that feel a bit like a contemporary Lovecraft, if Lovecraft wrote in a tone that was approachable and readable.

Certainly worth a read if you can cope with the horror elements, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for the rest of the series once I get back to book shops.

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The Secret of Pirates' Hill

The Secret of Pirates' Hill

Franklin W Dixon, John Almquist & Priscilla Baker-Carr

27th June 2020

The Secret of Pirates Hill feels like one of those novels where they kept the title, but in the 1960s rewrite replaced the bulk of the plot - because the hill itself feels far from the primary focus.

It’s a classic mystery for the Hardy Boys in some respects - a puzzle is brought to them by a random, they investigate around town, get roughed up a bit, learn a tiny bit about an entirely random topic, get a bit racist, and save the day.

I’ll admit that I don’t think I followed entirely some of the plot - there seemed to be some leaps in deduction that I missed, and some of the guest characters failed to be sufficiently distinct for me to work out which was which from chapter to chapter.

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The Galaxy Game

The Galaxy Game

Karen Lord

27th June 2020

I picked this book up at a discount outlet purely on the basis of the cover - I’d not heard of it nor the author before, but the blurb sounded fascinating.

Sadly I didn’t manage to get anywhere with the story. The novel opens with no sense of introduction to the universe it’s set in - throwing the reader headlong into told exposition, which felt a bit like a lecture and thus not a way that I’m good at learning things. Each chapter then repeated the same from a different character in a different setting, until the point that I gave up - unable to follow or take an interest.

I felt that I would have appreciated a softer introduction - the typical introduction to the world through a character who is learning about it for the first time, which the great worldbuilding authors do, seems to work really well for me.

So after about fifty pages, I returned the book to my shelf and moved on to find something I could better engage with and would bring me more enjoyment from reading.

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The Invisible Library

The Invisible Library

Genevieve Cogman

27th June 2020

This first novel in the Invisible Library series caught my attention in the book shop, and was on my wish list for a while until it was purchased for me as a birthday present. The book follows an adventuring librarian - a bit like an Indiana Jones of her profession, sent out into parallel worlds to retrieve books of interdimensional interest.

It’s a really fun story, with a strong point of view character, and a range of secondary characters who are intriguing as well as useful.

The plot is exceptionally paced to keep the reader’s attention - almost feeling like a game of Dungeons and Dragons in some respects - I was not surprised to learn that the author also writes adventures for role-playing games, as that’s very much how the world building, and the twists and turns of the plot, develop.

An enjoyable read, and I suspect I will at some point pick up the second book in the series too and see how things develop.

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Secret Seven Adventure

Secret Seven Adventure

Enid Blyton

27th June 2020

The second book in the Secret Seven series - a story I must have read several times as a child. Fairly safe I thought - a homely familiar tale of seven children from the 1950s (who in my head live in my grandparents’ house, despite in the narrative living on a farm).

Nope - dated in new and interesting ways - less sexism than I had expected based on the first novel. Now however into racism, playing at “Red Indians” and describing circus performers as scary when in their everyday clothes.

The datedness continued with visits to an animal-based circus, which while possibly still the norm at the time of writing felt very uncomfortable to read about today. And yet then suddenly my copy had the children using decimal currency - clearly someone has somehow decided that children won’t be able to cope with old money, despite all the other elements that have been now (or at least should be, especially in a children’s story) relegated to history.

I don’t know whether it’s worth commenting on the fact that Blyton, writing in the 1950s, has her characters walking around with badges with ‘SS’ marked on them.

The basic plot isn’t bad - it’s a solid mystery that the children get involved in and solve using their ingenuity, and there are the usual elements of tension between the children around their secret password. So it’s a shame that this is let down by the other elements of the story.

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Camino Winds

Camino Winds

John Grisham

27th June 2020

An unusual sequel from John Grisham sends us back to the world of his somewhat more-literary group of fictional authors and their bookseller patriarch, on Camino Island, Florida, as a hurricane makes its way dramatically towards them.

I was unsure how this was going to work - was there scope for a second story here? And the answer is yes, there is - and it’s sufficiently different not be a rehash of what went before, and to actually develop the characters, as well as drop in references back to the original novel and make it clear those events have not been forgotten and indeed do contribute to this story.

However I did find the book a little hard going - it felt slower paced than I was ready for, and I felt like I was forcing my way through it faster than felt natural, because I was looking forward to finding something more exciting afterward. Ideal perhaps for someone with a shorter attention span who is looking just to dip in for ten minutes every now and then, maybe while on holiday (though perhaps not to a hurricane destination).

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The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

Suzanne Collins

8th June 2020

The fourth novel in the Hunger Games series - a prequel set many decades before the original trilogy - tells the story of a 16 year old Coriolanus Snow, as he experiences the Hunger Games first hand as one of the first Capitol student-mentors, adopting a tribute to support through the brutal contest.

To be honest, it wasn’t the best week to be reading this. The events of the real world weighed quite heavily on my mind, and so a dystopian future in which an extremely privileged, prejudiced, and naive boy whose name is almost literally White comes of age into a world-view that we as readers already know from reading the original trilogy, did not make to comfortable reading.

Don’t get me wrong - it’s actually a fantastic story, and really well written to set up the character in a way that encourages the reader to keep going despite already knowing some significant aspects of the conclusion. Collins is absolutely on top of her game - presenting the world from a new perspective, and covering somewhat familiar ground with a new twist and a lot of worldbuilding background information naturally fitting into the plot.

It’s a really really good book, and might be one of the tales that we really need in our time. But maybe, just maybe, buy it and put it on the shelf for a few months until it will be easier to read - when we’ve started fixing our world first.

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The Clue in the Embers

The Clue in the Embers

Franklin W Dixon, John Almquist & Priscilla Baker-Carr

8th June 2020

This is one of those Hardy Boys stories that I know I had a child, because my copy has my name in the front in shaky youthful handwriting - and yet I didn’t remember it at all.

It seemed to start fairly well - a friend’s interesting inheritance that somebody wanted to buy on the quiet, and a story of potentially valuable medallions. And yet then it descended into some of the most absurd racism of the series so far.

I don’t really want to go into the detail because that’s spoilers, but suffice to say the boys break all sense of realism in their attempts at disguise, which is not only ridiculous but clearly offensive, while also trampling all over indigenous cultures and participating in a particularly notable act of profiling.

It was a bad week for racism when I re-read this novel, but I don’t think that made it stand out any more than it would have. It’s particularly surprising how these editions which are meant to have been rewritten in the 1960s to remove the racism have ended up still being so bad.

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Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

J K Rowling

8th June 2020

A chance conversation led me to realise that it was a very long time since I’d read Half-Blood Prince, the sixth Harry Potter book. Possibly I haven’t even read it since book seven came out, which seems negligent.

So despite the time that’s passed since my re-read of the series so far, I took this off my shelf to join a vast number of other readers re-consuming the Harry Potter novels as a source of comfort during lockdown.

In my head, there’s a sort of line between books five a six - the first five novels are the classic Harry Potter series. The final two seem separate for some reason, as if they aren’t quite the same series. I don’t know whether this is a product of how much I like them, or down to the age, or perhaps pace, at which I read them (though I think I read five in one sitting too).

This time round, I enjoyed Half-Blood Prince, as expected. I enjoyed spotting a few things that I’d either never noticed before or forgotten - small things, little nods to characters in the background, or little hints of things that had yet to be revealed. You can almost feel the various threads coming together in the author’s mind as the series prepares to wrap up.

There’s also the problem of the film - which I probably have seen more times than I’ve read the book. In my mind, a lot of the scenes are as they were in the film - but also some events I could picture from the films but not remember which book they map to, so I was expecting scenes which never emerged.

Overall - it remains a solid story and a good adventure… but it’s still not as good as Order of the Phoenix. Perhaps my impression of the later books is just because Phoenix was to me the best, and so it’s downhill after that.

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A Wizard of Earthsea

A Wizard of Earthsea

Ursula K Le Guin

25th May 2020

As a child I received a book titled The Earths Quartet as part of a Christmas or Birthday present, but never found the time nor inclination to read it. Having no idea what happened to that copy, when as an adult I saw the same tales, now rather more mundanely titled “The First Four Books”, I picked it up and intended to actually read it. Cut to some time later… and in my lockdown-inspired reading order I picked it off the shelf, and began this, the first of the four stories.

In which we meet a young boy who accidentally reveals a talent for magic, and is brought to meet the appropriate authorities to be educated. Only he’s a tad too keen, and does something perhaps he oughtn’t… leading to a plot.

I did not particularly find this tale to be my cup of tea. It reminds me a little of John Grisham’s legal thrillers - in the sense that the narrative is very factual and event based. There’s a lot of descriptive language used about the world, but very little personality and focus on the character. I feel like my reading brain is much more in tune with something presented in the manner of Harry Potter - where I’m placed inside the character’s head and able to follow alone emotionally - than this, which felt much more movie-like and third-person.

The language feels dated and very formal, and I found this off-putting. My mind would very easily drift away, despite my eyes continuing to scan the page, and for a relatively short tale I found myself almost every chapter having to turn back pages to work out where I’d stopped absorbing the meaning of the words I was scanning.

I’m not sure that if I’d attempted reading this as a child I would even have got to the end of the first book without giving up, and as an adult I can’t say I’m particularly minded to continue on to the second adventure. I’m looking for stories to relax me and fill my days, and this was overall too hard going for the job I wanted it to do.

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The Secret Seven

The Secret Seven

Enid Blyton

24th May 2020

Having completed my adult revisitation to Enid Blyton’s Five Find-Outers series, I turned next to the Secret Seven, which had been my second-favourite of the prolific author’s mystery series as a child.

This first book sets up the group, introduces the main characters and sets them off on their first adventure.

I was slightly surprised by how different it feels to the other series - this is clearly aimed at a younger audience, and uses simpler language, is shorter (barely 100 pages) and the plotting and mystery more straightforward (there is so much blatant foreshadowing that I don’t think anyone of any age wouldn’t spot the twist coming).

The gender roles feel very dated right from the start, and this is I suspect going to be a recurring feature as I make my way through the 15 stories, but I can always hope…

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The Unsettling Stars

The Unsettling Stars

Alan Dean Foster

24th May 2020

Eleven years after the 2009 Star Trek film, the first spin-off novel aimed at an adult audience has finally appeared (it was written back then, but then shelved by the publisher for a decade).

I’ll admit, it took me a little while to get into. I’m not usually a big Original Series reader, but thought that I’d have to give this a go given I’ve seen the three contemporary movies. For the most part, it feels like a good fit for the parallel universe characters we saw in their first film outing, although Scotty felt off, and there were some aspects of the inside of Kirk’s head that I wasn’t convinced gelled with the version of him in my head.

I think I struggled on two other related counts. Alan Dean Foster is a noted writer of numerous genres, including Science Fiction - and this felt a little bit too Science Fictiony for me. Almost a bit too old-Trek-novel too, and not quite fitting with the tone I feel I get from most modern Trek novels. He’s also a fan of describing aliens - and this also doesn’t connect with my imagination in the right way - I’m much more connected I feel to thought and emotion than physical, visual description, and I think Foster perhaps is wired the other way.

The plot is fairly solid, although perhaps a bit too simple in places. Perhaps this is by design, hoping to attract a new audience as did the 2009 film - but to me it felt like some events were too obvious coming, and some twists thus fell flat.

I’m interested to see what the second book from the same situation comes out like later in the year - that one is by David Mack, whose Trek novels on the whole I have personally found more targeted at my tastes.

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Research

Research

Philip Kerr

24th May 2020

This is the first novel by Philip Kerr that I’ve read, and I’m not entirely sure I remember where I found it or why, but it’s been staring at me from my bookshelf for multiple months and last week happened to be where I was looking when I wanted a new book to read.

The cover describes it as a thriller, and I suppose I agree - the story follows a former ghost writer, who’s former employer is the chief suspect in the case of the murder of his wife… and the plot is fairly convoluted in several ways.

Novels about writers are often fun, and that’s true of this one - with a lot made of the group of authors that appear and their various foibles. It almost feels a little bit Inceptiony as the characters discuss the plots of their own stories.

The highlight for me is the occasional choice of phrase that Kerr drops in - a random observation or way of describing something that comes totally out of the blue, and is surprisingly delightful - it’s almost Terry Pratchetteque, although here only maybe six times through the novel rather than every second paragraph.

Overall though, I don’t think I was quite impressed enough to add Kerr to my list of authors I seek out - I’m not a massive thriller reader, and I found the developing story slightly frustrating. Don’t get me wrong, it’s far from the levels of frustration I feel when reading Jeffrey Deaver, but it’s a tiny step along the same irritation spectrum.

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The Hooded Hawk Mystery

The Hooded Hawk Mystery

Franklin W Dixon, Charles Strong & Priscilla Baker-Carr

24th May 2020

I’ve been rapidly making my way through the Hardy Boys original series during lockdown, and this one seemed like a solid entry.

The boys are mysteriously gifted a Peregrine Falcon, and of course find a way to make use of it to solve a mystery. It’s interesting that its them that gets a new hobby, as that has traditionally been the role of Chet through the series so far.

It’s much more of the classic vein, and partly that’s probably true in my head because it’s one that I read as a child - but it’s based in Bayport, involves lots of the common elements, and feels slightly educational too.

There are a couple of aspects that are a bit dated and likely wouldn’t be included in a novel aimed at the same target audience today, particularly around animals and hunting. There’s also some dated language that today would be correctly interpreted as racism - if not for the fact that the terms in question have died out and so many readers wouldn’t even understand what they meant.

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Meddling Kids

Meddling Kids

Edgar Cantero

23rd May 2020

I saw this book in the shops and was immediately intrigued by the concept. I was a massive reader of the sort of fiction it is pastiching as a kid - consuming the Hardy Boys, Three Investigators, all the Enid Blyton groups of child mystery-solvers, and more - and have been revisiting some of them as an adult. So how could I resist this, the story of what happens when the child detectives grow up and return to the scene of their childhood investigations.

It makes an excellent start - introducing the reader to a cast of characters who feel instantly familiar, and dropping joking references to Nancy Drew, the Famous Five, and I’m sure many I didn’t pick up on all over the place. There’s some deep reflection on what effect that sort of childhood might have had on them, and this leads into the plot…

Which is not quite what I was expecting, as it moves into something that has much more of a horror movie vibe than I was expecting. Perhaps drawing more on Scooby Doo than some of the tales I was familiar with. And I think that’s where it started to lose my attention, as there became less of a mystery to solve and more of a problem to escape from.

The narrative contains some odd choices of phrase which had me stumped - I can’t tell whether these are expressions of the author’s creation, or weird side-effects of his bilingual authorship and they are commonly known phrases that just don’t exist in my first language.

Overall - not quite what I was expecting all the way though, though still an interesting concept.

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Oathbringer

Oathbringer

Brandon Sanderson

23rd May 2020

The third epic novel in the epic series to end all epic series. I’ve been averaging a book every two to three days this year, sometimes faster during lockdown. This however took me five weeks - it’s 1200 pages long and handily divided into five parts, after each of which I needed a break of three shorter books just to let my arms recover enough to keep holding it up.

Beyond the length and weight, there is nothing I can find to criticise in this. As with many of Sanderson’s works, it features a rich mix of characters, some old, some new, some mysterious, some well known, and a world that keeps peeling back layer after layer to discover more and more of the tapestry he has crafted with words.

The are some vague hints of the Wheel of Time - with the theme of history repeating itself - but only vague, and the story is a constant delight and surprise.

I’m amazed by Sanderson’s mind and how he manages to construct these epics, and looking keenly forward to the fourth volume later this year.

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A Call to Darkness

A Call to Darkness

Michael Jan Friedman

10th May 2020

A Call To Darkness, set in the second season of The Next Generation, sees the crew of the Enterprise seeking a missing Starfleet vessel - and following its trail to a world which read as if I was meant to know more about its history that I do. Four of the senior officers beam down - and immediately are cut off from the ship.

For this era of novels, Michael Jan Friedman has done a remarkable job of getting the characters pretty much spot on - Data perhaps being the only one who felt off, but possibly he does better match the Data of the early seasons than the later ones I am more familiar with. The author's world-building also feels strong, with very few elements that feel out of place in Star Trek.

The secondary plot deals with a new deadly contagion spreading through the crew, which was coincidentally timely as I read the novel while the world was in the midst of the Covid-19 lockdown of 2020. The primary plot meanwhile felt incredibly reminiscent of the Hunger Games (written some eighteen years later) which amused me.

I wouldn't go so far as to call this a great novel - the narrative feels dated now and of its era, possibly just in the choice of phrasing - but compared to other Star Trek novels from the late eighties that I've recently read it's at the top of its class.

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Skulduggery Pleasant

Skulduggery Pleasant

Derek Landy

10th May 2020

For years I've seen this series of books floating around libraries and bookshops, and wondered what it was all about - so this time I picked up a copy fo the first novel - and now I've found out.

Stephanie is an ordinary child until the day she meets a mystery man named Skullduggery Pleasant, who turns out to have been dead for quite some time, but remains rather animated despite this. And thus she is drawn into an amazing undercover fantasy world full of good, evil, and something in between.

To me it felt... average. The tropes felt pretty samey, and the magic system weaker and less well explained than some. The narrative was a little rough, and I found my attention drifting fairly often, to the point where my eyes would pass over multiple paragraphs without taking anything in. One chapter in particular struck me as reminiscent of Benedict Jacka's Alex Verus series, and one monster reminded me strongly of something out of Ransom Riggs' Miss Peregine's Peculiar Home for Children (both of which I appreciate were published after this novel).

While it was a diverting read as a filler between parts of an epic fantasy, I didn't feel hooked, and I don't expect to be continuing with the later books in this series.

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The Yellow Feather Mystery

The Yellow Feather Mystery

Franklin W Dixon, William Dougherty & Priscilla Baker-Carr

3rd May 2020

The Yellow Feature Mystery sticks in my head as one of those classic Hardy Boys titles. I must have read it in the listings hundreds of times as a child - and yet it wasn't one of the books I'd read, or which formed part of my collection. Until now.

The mystery begins when the teenage detectives are approached by a college student and asked to find his grandfather's will - which he believes will leave an entire school to him.

It actually proceeds to become a classic Hardy Boys story - with lots of sleuthing, solar plexus jabs, and suspects and friends all over the place. This all came as a pleasant surprise as preceeding entries in the series had become weaker and repetetive.

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People's Republic

People's Republic

Robert Muchamore

3rd May 2020

Having written 12 novels in the original Cherub series, Robert Muchamore found himself with a main character who had now outgrown his role, and so we return in 'Series Two' with an all new main cast (suplemented by returning supporting characters) as Ryan heads out on his first mission.

I was slightly concerned after finding the original series to be a fantastic set of stories for real worl teenagers, that Muchamore might not be able to catch lightning again - but he does, and his new characters are as rich, compelling, and totally believable.

The author doesn't shy away from telling things as they are - and as the cover clearly indicates these novels aren't intended for younger audiences. The adventures the characters encounter are presented with realistic levels of risk, and not everything is going to be okay for everyone at the end of the day.

In an interesting take, it seems that this set of novels are going to form a multi-book plot arc (as well as continuing the trend of character arcs spanning multiple novels), which hopefully will allow the author to continue to explore deeper situations and provide more thrilling, realistic adventures.

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The Mystery of Banshee Towers

The Mystery of Banshee Towers

Enid Blyton

3rd May 2020

The final story in Enid Blyton's Five Find-Outers (and Dog) series feels different from the earlier fourteen. Home again for the holidays, the group decide to fill their days with excursions, and just happen to head up the hill to Banshee Towsers to see a gallery of paintings - where lo and behold a mystery awaits.

I don't know whether Blyton intended this to be the final adventure, and had assumed from vague memories of reading this as a child that my memories of it being different were probably because I had a different edition of this story to all the others.

But it still feels different reading it now - the tone of the narration is different, subtly more colloquial - almost feeling patronising to the reader in a way that wasn't the case in previous novels. Almost as if Blyton had lost the voice of the series in the three years between stories. There are returning elements - from early books as well as recurring characters.

And it continues to feel like a conclusion - the ending in particular feels like it's not going to lead to more adventures - it's wrapping up. And unlike Blyton's more famous series - The Famous Five and The Secret Seven - there's no follow up by another author.

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Maskerade

Maskerade

Terry Pratchett

3rd May 2020

Having recently watched Phantom of the Opera for the first time (thanks, Lockdown), and with plenty of time (thanks, Lockdown) on my hands, I decided that now would be an ideal time to re-read Maskerade, the Discworld novel based loosely on the musical.

Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, in search of a third witch for their coven, head to the city of Ankh Morpork, where Perdita has enrolled in the chorus at the local Opera house. The plot is essentially similar to the musical - a masked man haunts the opera house, teaching his favourites to sing, demanding a box at the opening night, and killing off people he doesn't get on with. Except there's an extra layer too...

Knowing the source material a little better certainly helped with following the plot and some of the jokes - although I'm not entirely sure I really get all the jokes - either that or there just aren't quite as many little clever moments and lines as there were in Men At Arms, the other Discworld novel that I've recently re-read.

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The Crisscross Shadow

The Crisscross Shadow

Franklin W Dixon

1st May 2020

Continuing with my chronological re-read of the original Hardy Boys series, I came to this. I know it’s one I read as a child, as it’s got my name written in the front in wobbly young handwriting, but I didn’t find myself remembering much of the story, so it can’t have been one of my favourites.

It started well, with the Hardy’s organically drawn into a mystery free of some of the recent coincidence-heavy plotting, but then it moved back onto the going-on-holiday trope that’s been prevalent in too many of the books in this part of the series.

Overall though, pretty average - some dated references, but fairly well balanced I though with the characters expectations being upturned.

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Exit Music

Exit Music

Ian Rankin

1st May 2020

Originally marketed as the final Rebus novel, Exit Music covers the final two weeks of Rebus’ career as he approaches retirement, with a collection of unsolved cases hanging over his conscience, and a fresh murder to investigate.

I’ve been off reading crime novels recently, because they became a bit too violent for my liking, but this was much more what I look for - there’s crime, but its not crime that’s celebrated or glorified or too graphic, and the focus is on the investigation - interviewing witnesses and suspects, hunting for clues, and so on.

I’ve grown quite fond of the varying characters over the years reading this series, and would certainly have been sad reading this at the point of publication, although now of course I’m aware that there are more books to come.

Reading this has certainly reinvigorated me to think more about crime and mystery novels. I think there’s a fine line in finding exactly the right tone to pitch at, and Rankin’s totally found it in this novel.

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The Secret of Wildcat Swamp

The Secret of Wildcat Swamp

Franklin W Dixon, William Dougherty & Priscilla Baker-Carr

25th April 2020

The ‘Hardy Boys Go On Holiday’ part of the series continues with this trip to the countryside to help someone find fossils in a swamp.

I’m again surprised at the prevalence of firearms - this wasn’t a feature of the books I remember from reading in childhood, and yet here Joe in particularly is totally happy wielding a gun. I’m don’t find this comfortable reading any more, although perhaps for the expected audience some fifty years ago that was an entirely normal experience.

I feel like the books have by this point hit upon a formula and they are sticking too closely to it. Every plot now has become the same, and the reliance of the coincidence as the Boys’ case and their father’s come together is breaking my ability to suspend disbelief.

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Men At Arms

Men At Arms

Terry Pratchett

25th April 2020

My first readthrough of the Discworld series was in strict publication order. This time round it’s a bit more chaotic, leaping in wherever the mood takes me, and this time that’s the second Watch book, Men At Arms.

We find Vimes preparing for retirement and marriage, a slew of new recruits being trained up, and a mysterious death to investigate.

It’s classic Discworld - the humour is omnipresent, the tale exploring a number of real world concepts, turning them on their head, and following the standard speculative fiction approach of providing a mirror to our world while continuing to satirise fantasy stories.

The characters are richer than I remembered, the plot more intricate, and the world is possibly the only one in literature where even the smells are colourful. I really loved revisiting this novel and am totally inspired to keep picking more of the series back off my shelf.

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The Wailing Siren Mystery

The Wailing Siren Mystery

Franklin W Dixon, Andrew E Svenson & Priscilla Baker-Carr

18th April 2020

In book 30, the Hardy Boys head off camping again. It’s another of the weak middle era of the original series, where coincidence and cookie-cutter plots involving woods and helicopters lead our heroes round in circles for a bit.

It wasn’t the worst of the books that I’ve read recently, but is far from the best. Overall I think I’d describe it as ‘forgettable’ - I’m fairly sure I’ve read it before but unlike other books had no memory of any element of the plot, and even now just a couple of days after reading it again the events of the narrative are slipping out of my brain.

Not worth it I don’t think unless you are on some sort of completionist binge like me.

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The Yiddish Policeman's Union

The Yiddish Policeman's Union

Michael Chabon

18th April 2020

I picked this up after hearing that Michael Chabon was becoming the show runner of the latest Star Trek series, and thought that I’d get used to some of his work. As it was I didn’t start reading until after the TV show (which is excellent) had begun airing.

It’s the tale of a seemingly disillusioned police officer in an Alaskan town - in a parallel universe in which the new home of the Jewish people in the second half of the 20th Century was in Alaska instead of Israel. There’s nothing really to explain this setting however, and I only worked out that it wasn’t intended to be real after doing some reading up on the actual location on the Internet.

I got 100 pages in before abandoning the book. I didn’t find the characters compelling - the main character just seemed to mope through events - and nor did I find the plot engaging. Essentially nothing had happened to advance the investigation, and perhaps I’d missed the point and it’s too high-brow, with the plot not actually being the story that Chabon is trying to tell - but for whatever reason I don’t feel I ‘got’ it.

I’m disappointed that I didn’t find something as engaging as I found Chabon’s TV writing, and that didn’t seem to feature the sort of world-building that I’ve become used to in speculative fiction. I’m not encouraged to pick up any more of his works.

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The Secret of the Lost Tunnel

The Secret of the Lost Tunnel

Franklin W Dixon

18th April 2020

The 29th Hardy Boys novel feels firmly in the ‘The Hardys go on holiday for a mystery’ era, as I’m naming it. This time it’s off to an archaeological dig to find some treasure from the era of the American civil war.

I’m not surprised really that this book didn’t make much of an appearance during my childhood, as it has some well-dated references and terminology to refer to race, and while not the most racist thing I’ve ever read did feel uncomfortable, particularly in a children’s book.

The story was fairly bland, and felt disjointed and unreal. There was a bit too much violence, coincidence, and unbelievable freedom for two teenagers. It doesn’t really fit with my mental model of what a Hardy Boys adventure should be.

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The Mystery of Holly Lane

The Mystery of Holly Lane

Enid Blyton

18th April 2020

Somehow I got lost in my read through of the Five Find-Outers series and skipped this one - going back it’s one of the best, so I’m glad I realised.

The five are back together for the school holidays, setting themselves random challenges, when Larry comes across an unusual gentleman, who is soon the victim of a crime. Thought the usual classic combination of clues, disguises, and a baffled policeman, the team aim to solve the mystery.

It’s got all the elements that make this my favourite of Blyton’s detective series, and I really enjoyed revisiting it.

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The Sign of the Crooked Arrow

The Sign of the Crooked Arrow

Franklin W Dixon, Andrew E Svenson & Priscilla Baker-Carr

16th April 2020

Book twenty-eight sees the Hardy Boys dragged into one of their father’s cases - again. This time they are looking into some jewellery thefts that turn into something almost comically over complicated.

This is one of the worst plots so far - it relies almost entirely on coincidence to draw the teenage detectives into a plot which just happens to involve their own cousin in New Mexico. Nothing in this story seems to involve much detection - and too much of it relies on paying people and guns.

Frankly I was surprised by the amount of gun, violence, gore, and peril. It was not what I expected from a Hardy Boys novel - possibly the weakest in the series so far.

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The Secret of Skull Mountain

The Secret of Skull Mountain

Franklin W Dixon

16th April 2020

Hardy Boys adventure number twenty-seven feels a bit dated and slightly inappropriate. The teenage detectives pop out to visit the local reservoir construction project which is on a Native American burial mountain, and is being beset by mysterious drainage problems.

The big problem is that they mess around with a lot of skulls in a way that’s totally not respectful. The second problem seems to be that the reservoir to feed the entire town is being built by one engineer and a schoolchild. I mean I know this is a kids novel and a bit of escapism, but even for the 1960s this feels a bit off.

Beyond that, it’s the classic Hardy novel, with all the usual elements (although Chet doesn’t have a new hobby for once). Certainly not the best in the series, but not entirely awful, and I sped through it in just a couple of sittings.

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A Keeper

A Keeper

Graham Norton

16th April 2020

I enjoyed Graham Norton’s first novel, so when I saw this on the bookshelf picked it up. It’s the story of a bereaved daughter who returns to her Irish home to tidy up her mother’s affairs, and in doing so starts to learn more of her own story.

Norton turns out to be an excellent storyteller - painting a picture of the world his characters inhabit, and providing an excellently paced narrative that teases the reader with titbits throughout.

It’s an emotional yet fun journey, and I hope he continues producing novels as I’ll definitely be interested in reading more.

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The Edge of Reason

The Edge of Reason

Melinda Snodgrass

16th April 2020

I knew of Melinda Snodgrass from her work on Star Trek, and have previously read a short story by her in the Dangerous Women anthology which I enjoyed. So when I saw her trilogy on the shelf of the bookshop I picked it up - this is the first novel. It’s the story of good vs evil in the form of an unlikely police officer in suburban america.

I wasn’t massively hooked - the story felt fairly familiar in some respects to other urban fantasies, but I struggled to understand some of the character motivations, and didn’t really engage with how they chose which side to be on in the epic cosmic battle - it felt like there lacked evidence of which side was good and which was bad.

Really I was a bit disappointed - I was anticipating something I’d feel more engaged with, and instead I struggled with reading past some of the diversity issues addressed, and so I don’t feel much like continuing reading the series - I’ll be surprised if I pick up book two before finishing a lot of other books from my reading list.

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The Last Day

The Last Day

Andrew Hunter Murray

22nd March 2020

I’ve been listening to Andrew Hunter Murray on the No Such Thing As A Fish podcast for many years, and so when I heard that he’d published a novel I bought it immediately without pause for thought. It’s probably not what I’d usually buy, but I’m totally happy with my decision in this case.

It’s a post-apocalyptic novel set in a future Britain following an entirely fictional massive environmental disaster, which unlike our own isn’t caused by ourselves. The world is dystopian, and we’re slowly introduced to the horrors by our main character - a scientist who’s been away from Britain studying the seas for a few years.

The story is good, the narrative is good (better than some extremely high profile thrillers I’ve read, and in this case a first-time novelist), and the world building is incredible. I mean it paints a picture of a terrifyingly believable future world - one that I can easily see ours descending into following some sort of natural disaster… which when I read it felt like we were heading towards (although as I write this we’ve been surprised by a totally different one!).

I’m not entirely sure I’m happy with the resolution - it felt a bit like there was more conclusion that I wanted, but it is reminiscent of other classic dystopian tales. There might be room for a sequel, but I don’t think one is necessary - the story that I think the book wants to tell isn’t the plot, but is in the allegory for real life.

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False Value

False Value

Ben Aaronovitch

22nd March 2020

The eight full-length novel in the Peter Grant / Rivers of London series is happily back in the territory of the stand-alone adventure, after the previous novel’s slightly confusing attempt to wrap up some ongoing plot threads. We meet Peter, recently having left the police, as he begins a new job as a security guard for a high tech business in London.

I mean, it’s great. The plot takes some real world elements and adds some magical twists, the character’s lives keep moving along outside this at a realistic pace. The cast of characters is as rich, detailed, and amusing as always, and the interactions between the characters are great fun.

This novel contains a great collection of references and jokes - particularly to Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series - as well as some humour at its own expense, particularly around how the character has come to speak in policese. I’m not sure how well this would work for readers who aren’t familiar with the source material of these references - but then I don’t know whether the Venn diagram of readers will have a large segment of Aaronovitch but not Adams readers.

The one thing that always throws me about this series though continues - a feeling that I’ve missed something. Between each novel it seems that things have been happening to the characters - almost like they have real lives and we are only seeing brief windows in the novels. But this always leaves me feeling slightly confused about some elements and unsure whether they are things I’ve forgotten, or things I’m just meant to infer from the text.

Overall though, another really fantastic novel.

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The Last Best Hope

The Last Best Hope

Una McCormack

20th March 2020

The Last Best Hope is the first tie-in novel for the new Star Trek: Picard TV series, in which we return to the era of the Next Generation to find out what’s been happening some 25 years later. The novel serves as a prequel to the series, and fills in the detail of some of the events 14 years earlier, charting how the effects of events depicted in the 2009 movie affected this, the prime timeline, and led directly to where me meet Picard now.

Although the novel was published after episode 3, I think it’s best read after episode 4 - as it covers a lot of the detail of things that are alluded to in the first four episodes, and could be considered a spoiler if you’ve not seen these already. Arguably, you might want to watch episode 5 first too, but I think it works well after episode 4.

I maintain that Una McCormack is one of the best Star Trek authors out there, and I was incredibly pleased to hear she was writing this. It’s an amazingly well told tale of incredibly difficult times, and she successfully weaves in Star Trek’s classic parallels to today without it seeming in any way forced. The characters leap out of the page in a way that’s almost greater than they do on TV - the background really helps in engaging and empathising with them in the TV series too.

I have to be a little disappointed that the new TV series effectively erases a good chunk of the storyline that I’ve enjoyed reading in the novels over the past decades, and this book sits solidly in the new canon, though there are a few small nods where possible. I’m glad however that the reason the novel continuity has ended is positive - that we have a new TV series which is quite possibly the best written Trek yet.

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The Road to Mars

The Road to Mars

Eric Idle

19th March 2020

I picked this novel up in a charity shop based primarily on knowing who the author is, and was really pleased when I eventually got around to reading it. It’s the tale of two comedians, who having failed in auditioning for a job on a cruise ship, attempt to head to Mars seeking work, only for everything to go wrong.

It’s funny, but it’s also a good story, with real characters who have real lives, and an almost over complex number of layers of things going on at the same time (although not). There are many references back to comedians of the 20th Century - nods and winks as it were - including to the work of Douglas Adams, and indeed a particularly amusing few pages of fourth-wall breaking as one of the characters discusses the work and life of the novel’s actual author.

A good book that accompanied me on some unusual journeys - and more than I might have hoped for.

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Death is Forever

Death is Forever

John Gardner

19th March 2020

The twelfth James Bond novel published by long-standing continuation author John Gardner sees the British secret agent embracing the mores of the early 1990s as he investigates the disappearance of some former agents around Europe.

In some senses, it’s a classic Bond novel - exotic travel on the latest high class trains, female characters with absurdly suggestive names, and over-the-top villains. Yet it’s almost spoilt by Gardner’s attempts to make it work as a contemporary story - these things seem cheesy and forced into the novel, rather than the airy, natural feeling of being in place in the original Fleming stories (not that every line of Fleming’s has survived the test of time!).

I remember reading this novel as a teenager, yet only one line has stuck in my mind and the plot was totally alien. That the line in question was entirely inconsequential and entirely about trying to seem in place in the 1990s only emphasises the feeling I expressed above.

As a novel, it’s okay - but it’s not Gardner’s best entry in the series.

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The Phantom Freighter

The Phantom Freighter

Franklin W Dixon, Amy McFarlane & Priscilla Baker-Carr

16th March 2020

Another classic from the heyday of the original Hardy Boys (albeit the re-written version from the 60s in my case) sees the two detectives and their friends trying to help a random man they meet plan a holiday.

It’s an unusual setup, and there’s a surprising amount of different things going on - but it adds up into a good story that I enjoyed reading. I’m fairly confident this is one that I’ve not read before (although the line is starting to get blurry now as I fill in all the gaps in my collection).

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Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

Ransom Riggs

9th February 2020

I picked up a really nice, surprisingly heavy, hardback edition of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children from a charity shop, and was surprised to find I was reading a story with great similarity to the film based upon it.

It’s the story of a boy who doesn’t believe his grandfather’s stories of monsters and peculiar friends, but when he sees one, he sets of on an adventure to find out more about his ancestor’s youth.

It’s a good fun story, mysterious and fantastical, and punctuated by peculiar photographs (which the author reveals at the end are all authentic vintage pictures which inspired the story).

What I found most startling though was how closely the filmmakers followed the story. This was a bit distracting actually, as it meant the images in my head were of the actors. Until suddenly the stories divided, and the book went somewhere else entirely.

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The Captain's Honour

The Captain's Honour

David Dvorkin & Daniel Dvorkin

9th February 2020

This Next Generation original tie-in novel is set toward the end of season one, and published in the late 1980s. It’s fairly typical of the sort of planet-of-the-week adventures common in novels of the time, but the content feels dated.

The Enterprise is called to help another Starfleet vessel which is defending a new member planet from invasion by an aggressive neighbour, but it soon becomes clear that their colleagues have some differences from Captain Picard and his crew.

There’s a lot of focus on a never-before-seen member of the Enterprise crew, and the text has the feeling of having been written (in the first half) as if this role was intended to be filled by Tasha Yar (who the TV series had already killed off) and then rewritten to work by substituting a random.

There’s also a lot that doesn’t gel with a later understanding of the Star Trek universe. The way that Federation membership works, the way that Starfleet crews work, and the backstory of Captain Picard all feel quite off - in some cases they are more Original Series-esque, which I suppose makes sense given the lack of TNG materiel the authors would have had to work with.

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Agent Running in the Field

Agent Running in the Field

John le Carré

9th February 2020

John le Carré’s latest spy novel shows all the hallmarks of a man who, despite being 88 years old, still has an deep understanding of everything modern, and how the lives of his characters will be both different, and the same, as they were when he started writing.

The story is one of Nat, a spy approaching the end of his career, returning to the UK and finding himself in a surprisingly complex set of circumstances. There are strong hallmarks of themes that run throughout le Carré’s novels, but the book stands alone and has a number of amusing moments as well as feeling deadly serious.

The author does seem to be using the novel to also make some political points. At first I thought this was just good characterisation, and the timing of my reading the novel a coincidence, but it turns out the author was repeating the views of his characters in newspaper editorials. I’m not sure how this will go down with some of his readers.

I’ve very much got back into spy novels over the last few years, and am enjoying them much more than modern crime novels, which just seem to have become gorenographic. The ingenuity and tradecraft depicted is much more attractive to me than brutal thrillers, and le Carré easily remains the top of the game.

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Starsight

Starsight

Brandon Sanderson

9th February 2020

The second novel of Spensa, a woman who has grown up on humanity’s last refuge, and become a pilot to help defend her world. Starlight starts without an obvious direction to go in - the plot of the first novel, while leaving space for the sequel, didn’t make the onward path obvious.

So I was happy to find that Sanderson has found a way to advance the plot, and of course his all-important worldbuilding, without dramatically shifting the tone of the narrative. We’re still aligned with Spensa, exploring an unfamiliar environment, learning so much, and facing an even bigger threat than before.

I didn’t find the novel as captivating as I had expected though. It’s not non-captivating, just not to the level I have come to expect from Sanderson’s novels. There are evident similarities between the style of the narrative here with his previous young adult novels, but it’s clearly grown since Alcatraz into something I can at least engage with without being put off.

What I loved the most about this novel is the worldbuilding - that Sanderson is taking all the little seeds that he planted in the first book and growing them into surprising new directions, that either make you feel a bit dumb for not seeing where it was going, or make you rethink your understanding, or just make you go wow.

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Blue Moon

Blue Moon

Lee Child

9th February 2020

In what it turns out might be one of Lee Child’s last novels about his hero Jack Reacher (not a spoiler - he has announced he’s handing over authorial duties to his brother), we visit a small town run by two rival gangs, between whom a turf war is triggered based on something of a misunderstanding.

It’s a good story, with some interesting guest characters and a lot of action. It’s also something of a tragedy in places, and a comedy in many. However it’s come a long way I think from the early Reacher novels.

Back in the day, the writing style was distinctive in its use of short, punchy sentences. Now the narrative has more of a flow, more like other novels. The character of Reacher seems to have lost some of his old characteristics, or at least toned them down. He’s become friendlier, and he’s clearly becoming older. And yet maybe that feels right - maybe age and experience has changed the character, and the books have changed along to suit that.

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The Sand Men

The Sand Men

Christopher Fowler

9th February 2020

This is the first of Fowler’s books I’ve read outside the Bryant and May series, and I was slightly trepidatious. The cover reminded me of a book I recently read by another author, which was desert-based urban fantasy, and which I didn’t get on with. However I needn’t have worried.

It’s the story of a family - father, mother, and daughter - whose lives change when they move from London to Dubai, as the father obtains a job on a massive construction project. But of course this wouldn’t be a story if everything was as it seems.

There’s a familiar feel to the opening - a slight hint of dark fantasy that in the light of day becomes human agency. A mystery and paranoia, and a sense that you aren’t quite sure who to believe - particularly in this case as the narrative is very focussed on one viewpoint, with just hints that the other characters have quite interesting lives going on in parallel.

I felt the plot became more rushed as it went on, but that may be reflective of my variable reading pace. There was also a large chunk of narrative that confused me, and left me not knowing exactly what I was meant to believe was happening. As a result I’m not sure I felt the conclusion was satisfactory.

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Gregor the Overlander

Gregor the Overlander

Suzanne Collins

2nd February 2020

I had no idea until recently that Suzanne Collins had written a series before The Hunger Games, but when I found out I decided to keep my eyes open, and it wasn’t long before I found a copy of this - the tale of Gregor, a down-on-his-luck teenager from New York who accidentally follows his younger sister into an unusual subterranean world.

It’s a fairly straightforward tale of rescue, with a classic set of main characters, plus a well considered amount of world-building. There’s a feeling that is reminiscent of Hunger Games somehow, but not in a way I can quite put my finger on.

The narrative is clearly written for a younger reader, though this doesn’t spoil the enjoyment for an older one, and it would likely serve as a good adventure for generations to read together. My only real criticism would be that I wasn’t quite able to picture some parts of the world - although to be fair that might be a deficiency of my imagination rather than the author’s descriptive skills.

While I’m not planning to dive into the sequels right away, if I see them around then I think I’d be tempted to pick them up.

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Stardust

Stardust

Neil Gaiman

2nd February 2020

I’ve read a couple of Neil Gaiman’s books before, and not found them easy to engage with, but this time I had seen the film (albeit some years ago) and enjoyed that, so thought that maybe this would be the Gaiman novel for me.

It’s the story of a young man who grows up on the edge of Fairie, and goes on a misguided adventure there as he reaches adulthood, encountering a number of strange things on his journeys.

Sadly, I found a similar problem to previous Gaiman novels - I struggle to get myself excited by the narrative - I’m not sure what it is exactly, perhaps that something in his choice of language means that I can’t absorb the story at the pace I want to, and this puts me off. As a story it seems solid, reminiscent of the Chronicles of Narnia in some respects, but I wasn’t able to get excited about it.

I think in future I will stick to consuming Gaiman’s television and film output, which I find entertaining and engaging - the film version of Stardust, his episode of Doctor Who, and the Good Omens series all being fantastic examples of this.

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The Stabbing in the Stables

The Stabbing in the Stables

Simon Brett

2nd February 2020

Slowly making my way through this series, I find myself at book 7, in which amateur sleuths Carole and Jude accidentally find themselves discovering the body of a stabbed stable owner, and becoming once again drawn into a murder investigation in the surprisingly deadly Sussex countryside.

As usual it’s the classic set-up - many suspects, all of whom seem to have something to hide, and problematic relationships with one another, and the detective work of the starring duo is top class.

The guest characters are richly painted - possibly the best set yet - and make the world of the novel more colourful and fun to read. The ongoing lives of the main characters are also slowly teased out a bit further, piquing the interest of the reader and tempting me to continue on to the next book.

A good, simple adventure that’s modern yet reminiscent of the mysteries of yesteryear - just the sort of crime novel I feel comfortable with.

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Dead Endless

Dead Endless

Dave Galanter

1st February 2020

The sixth novel based on Star Trek: Discovery takes us on an interesting journey following the relationship between Stamens and Culber, focussed on a period that lightly intersects with events depicted in the second season - it’s important I think to have watched season two (as well as season one) before reading.

As with other novels in the series, the author has worked to avoid doing too much that could later be contradicted by the canon, but Galanter has taken an interesting direction with this, which I won’t talk too much about. Suffice it to say that it’s genius.

It’s a clever plot, shows the characters emotional depth, builds up slowly, like a mystery peeling back layers on what’s going on at the perfect pace for the reader to keep just one step ahead, hinting slightly more before finally reaching somewhere unexpectedly delightful.

I’ve been really impressed with the Discovery novels so far, and this has to be one of the best. A great tale well told.

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Arcanum Unbounded

Arcanum Unbounded

Brandon Sanderson

2nd January 2020

This is the second time I’ve read the Emperor’s Soul - my memory of what happened was barely existent from when I first read it nearly six years ago. It’s a really strong opener to this volume, standing alone despite being set in the world of “Elantris” and requiring no prior knowledge of Sanderson’s works. It does the standard Brandon thing of introducing a world and a magic system through a compelling character in an unusual situation, and does it masterfully.

The Hope of Elantris is like a deleted scene from the original novel, and fairly near the end I think, so contains a number of spoilers. It’s been six years since I read the novel, so took me a few pages to get my bearings again and remember the key aspects of the plot. But that done, it’s a great little short story about one character’s moments in this world.

The Eleventh Metal is a little bit of Mistborn backstory. It’s a nice little introduction to the Mistborn world, but didn’t feel like it added a lot to the overall mythos or character. It’s been quite a while since I read the original Mistborn trilogy though, so my memories of Kelsier’s story are patchy.

The third Mistborn short is a fiction within a fiction. It’s the sensational newspaper account of Allomancer Jak - and Indiana Jones style character. It’s very reminiscent of the author’s Alcatraz novels in tone, and feels a bit like it’s trying to be Pratchett-esque (Sanderson has stated that Terry Pratchett is his own favourite author) - but I’ve never quite got this form of Sanderson, feeling like it’s missing a layer of satire or sarcasm and being a bit too in-your-face with silliness.

Mistborn: Secret History - another story I’ve read before, but barely remember, tells a second story of things that were happening alongside the original trilogy. As such it’s massively spoilerific. It’s a long time since I’ve read the trilogy, so I read synopses if each novel from the internet before entering each part, and that felt like it stood me in good stead to understand. I kind of feel like someday I need to read the two intertwined though, to get a real understanding.

White Sand is presented interestingly as both the opening chapters of the graphic novel (which I have read about half of previously), and as the opening chapters of the unpublished prose version upon which it was based. As before, I found the graphic version hard to consume. I don’t think my brain works in the right way to read graphic novels - I just focus on the words, so miss the artwork and the visual elements of the storytelling. However I found the prose version of the story much more engaging and compelling, and found myself wishing this was the version I had available to read in full.

Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell is a shorter story I’ve read before in the Dangerous Women anthology, but which my memory of was patchy. It’s a dark short set in a world that Sanderson will hopefully return to one day, as there’s clearly a lot of potential. It’s a tad reminiscent of Peter V Brett’s Daemon Cycle in terms of the world building, and there’s a slight sense that Star Trek’s Borg might have been a part of the inspiration.

Sixth of the Dust is a new story to me. It’s another great new world to explore, with a fascinating idea for a magic system, and a nice few moral messages to go alongside. One I greatly enjoyed reading.

The final 40,000 words of this collection make up Edgdancer, a Stormlight Archive novella, which I really enjoyed. It’s written in the slightly more casual form reminiscent of Sanderson’s Alcatraz, which is a nice fit for the character of Lift, despite taking me a while to get used to. It almost feels like it’s tying to be Pratchett-esque, but without the satirical element I’m not sure this works. The plot here feels surprisingly important, and I’d be a little concerned that casual Stormlight readers would miss it and just read the main series - although having said that I’m not sure there is such as thing as a ‘casual’ reader of Brandon Sanderson’s works.

Overall, this is a great collection, and I’ve really enjoyed both revisiting the works I’ve read before, and taking in the new ones for the first time.

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The Book of the Year

The Book of the Year

James Harkin, Andrew Hunter Murray, Anna Ptaszynski & Dan Schreiber

2nd January 2020

So it’s taken me a surprisingly long time - two years - to get to the end of this review of 2017, wherein the stars of (possibly) the world’s biggest podcast, No Such Thing As a Fish, have collected all the unusual news stories of the year.

It’s a fun trip around the lighter side of the news, although something about the pages in combination with my bathroom lights seems to interfere with my eyes, making it slightly hard to read.

Good fun, and I might even look out for the 2018 edition now…

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The Norfolk Mystery

The Norfolk Mystery

Ian Sansom

2nd January 2020

This first mystery in the County Guides series spends a lot of time introducing us to the main characters before what is ostensibly the plot kicks off.

While generally inoffensive (although some of the characters are painted in a dated light to reflect the time the story is set), there’s little to say for the story.

The characters aren’t particularly compelling, and the mystery doesn’t seem to follow the classic setup that allows the reader to follow along with the clues.

Ultimately, a bit boring - I’m not really sure what compelled me to pick this up, and I doubt I’ll put much effort into following the rest of the series.

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The Lies of Locke Lamora

The Lies of Locke Lamora

Scott Lynch

2nd January 2020

I don’t remember where I first heard about this book, but when I spotted it on the shelves of the book shop I scooped it up and have been waiting for read it for a few months. It opened with an introduction by Joe Abercrombie, who described this book as better than his. I did not get on with the Abercrombie novel I read a few years ago, so was immediately wary - but it turns out I didn’t need to worry.

The story dives into excellence, beginning as it means to go on. The opening chapters in particular are entertaining and do brilliantly to set up the characters and story. The world is left with broad brush strokes, as a lot isn’t immediately of relevance, and the story focusses on the characters and their activities.

Lynch has crafted a masterful tale with interwoven timelines that reveal just the right information to make the plot work and keep the reader entertained. The pace really picks up as the story unfolds as well, with events coming so rapidly that I was shocked and had to take a break from all the drama!

A really great opening novel in this series, and I can’t wait to pick up the sequels and continue reading.

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The Mystery of the Strange Messages

The Mystery of the Strange Messages

Enid Blyton

2nd January 2020

This is the absolute classic Five Find-Outers mystery. One of the best investigations that Fatty and his friends have had, and possibly one of the best that Enid Blyton ever wrote.

The clues stack up in turn like a grown-up detective story, and allow the reader to slowly piece things together at the same pace as the characters.

Erin’s guest appearance stands out as a returning legend of the series, and the focus on him and Fatty, and what feels like quite revealing points about their relative social status, and indeed a plot that in places seems to be part commentary on social issues, feels quite a diversion from the earlier books in the series which were very focussed on prim and proper behaviour.

Like I say, the best novel of Blyton’s I’ve read.

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The Guardians

The Guardians

John Grisham

2nd January 2020

I was worried when I started reading this Grisham novel that it was just going to be the same again - he’s written the story of a man on death row over and over again - but it managed to retain my interest and tell an interesting story from a slightly different angle.

It does feel though like this is a bit cookie cutter - Grisham can clearly output legal thrillers almost with his eyes shut now, and his other works seem to be the ones that have more interesting characters and plots, exploring other genres. The narrative here is perfunctory and dry - the classic Grisham move of sticking to fact fact fact, and not adding emotion or colour - it does read a bit like it’s being narrated by a neutral lawyer rather than someone passionate.

An enjoyable read, but not particularly anything special - and I am beginning to wonder whether I want to keep investing my time in reading Grisham’s output.

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Collateral Damage

Collateral Damage

David Mack

2nd January 2020

Billed as the final episode in a series of Star Trek follow-on novels that have been published over nearly 20 years, wrapping everything up before the new Star Trek: Picard TV series begins in early 2020 - however that’s not really what it is.

This story does feel like it’s wrapping up some of the threads that have been explored over a lot of books though, with Picard returning to Earth to defend his record, while Worf takes the Enterprise on a complicated mission, which also serves as something of a follow-up to some of the previous events, while doing the traditional Star Trek thing of providing a mirror to our world.

It’s a really good, solid Star Trek novel, that explores a lot of important themes in a way which treats the characters with respect. I did feel in places that it cut between scenes a bit more frequently than I felt necessary - feeling a bit like it was afraid one of the plot lines might be too boring if not mixed up constantly with the other, more action-packed plot.

A happy place if it is the final novel we see from this era of Star Trek - though I hope it’s not, as I’ve got a lot of pleasure over the years from reading these continued adventures - as excited as I am about the new TV series, I hope the novels are able to continue too.

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