All 2021 reviews - Shastrix Books

2021

All reviews

The Stone Idol

The Stone Idol

Franklin W Dixon

31st July 2021

This early 1980s Hardy Boys novel sees the brothers hired to investigate the theft of a small state originating from Easter Island.

In many ways, it fits the mould of the series, with the boys going off on exotic travels, helping out their father, and adopting offensive amounts of disguise as natives from other cultures.

But in others it doesn't - there are elements here which feel quite unique and like the author has put in some effort to deliberately avoid hat have become liches of the series.

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Sooley

Sooley

John Grisham

31st July 2021

John Grisham turns back to sports in this novel about a South Sudanese basketball player who is spotted by a coach looking to take a team to the US for exhibition matches.

I was expecting something a little more light-hearted from a novel about sports, but it turns out that's not what Grisham has in mind as we dive straight in early on to the horrors of a moden-day civil war.

The narrative remains in Grisham's usual quite dispassionate tone - which is quite disturbing in places where it feels like more emotion is justified to almost tone down the pure horror of the events he depicts. Similarly, the tone makes parsing the descriptions of endless basketball matches into a chore, and the cliche "Nothing but net" makes frustratingly frequent appearances.

I think the best wording to use is 'mostly satisfying' - I'm not sure I'd recommend it though as an enjoyable or entertaining read.

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The Bleeding Heart

The Bleeding Heart

Christopher Fowler

31st July 2021

Book I-Don't-Know-I've-Lost-Count in the Bryant and May series brings a slight lightening of tone - with the plot focus a bit more mysterious and slightly less brutal, and the increasingly rich world take a turn for the mildly amusing and less perilous.

I enjoyed playing along he whodunnit game, and seeing particularly this time into Bryant's psyche as the plot starts to explore elements from his distant past.

Another good entry in the series, but one that having completed is now going to force me out to the bookshops to find the next book.

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The Hungry and the Fat

The Hungry and the Fat

Timur Vermes

31st July 2021

After reading Look Who's Back som eyears ago I had been waiting for another onvel from Timur Vermes, and ere it is. This time it's an alternate future (or maybe a possible future) in which a refugee crisis has led to policies of isolationism across Europe.

We follow a range of characters - from politicans to journalists to reality show celebrities - as they exist in this world and in their own ways to deal constructively with their reality.

The satire feels different in this novel - it's a lot harder, and less funny really because the subject matter is so much more real. So while it's detectable, its not really entertaining.

So quite a difficult novel to read really, because it does feel very plausible, and perhaps would serve as a warning, but I can't see enough of the right people reading it and taking in its message.

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Guardian Angel

Guardian Angel

Robert Muchamore

4th July 2021

The second book in the Aramov series (the second spin-off series from Muchamore’s CHERUB series) sees Ryan and Ning take part in a complex series of missions to obtain further information from Ethan, the grandson of the leader of the Aramov Clan of smugglers and general global baddies based in Kyrgyzstan.

As always with these novels, Muchamore does not pull punches in depicting a detailedly realistic world, with violence being an everyday occurrence, and events and decisions having repercussions which other children’s novels would choose to avoid or brush over. To me this makes it a far more compelling read, but some parents of younger readers might choose to believe this is inappropriate.

I enjoyed this story, and raced through it in just two days.

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Rhythm of War

Rhythm of War

Brandon Sanderson

4th July 2021

I don’t remember how many weeks, months probably, it has taken me to make my way through Rhythm of War, the fourth book in Brandon Sanderson’s epic fantasy series The Starlight Archive. As with the previous book, Oathbringer, I took advantage of the five-part structure to take breaks and read other, shorter, novels to help ensure my motivation didn’t falter.

It is of course, another fantastic story - following characters we’ve loved for several books already and new ones, some characters whose positions have changed, and about whom our feelings have changed, as they make their way through life against adversity on a number of fronts. Sanderson weaves the plot lines together deftly, mixing in this time a number of flashbacks to give more backstory for some of the characters that we’ve picked up along the way.

What really stood out about this novel was the prevalence of the themes of mental health - which we got to see affecting quite the number of characters in different ways. I don’t know whether this is more prominent, deliberately or otherwise, or whether my awareness of such topics has increased to allow me to notice it more, but I certainly appreciated seeing these aspects of the characters shown with honesty and realism.

The fifth and final part of the book felt like it massively upped the pace and drama, and had me utterly hooked throughout, leading me to stay up until 1am so as not to have to stop reading as everything became very exciting. I’m solidly looking forward to book five, and seeing where Sanderson takes us to for the mid-point of The Starlight Archive.

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The Mystery of Smugglers Cove

The Mystery of Smugglers Cove

Franklin W Dixon

4th July 2021

In a 1980s story with a title reminiscent of much earlier books in the Hardy Boys series, the brothers get to travel to Florida, investigating the theft of a valuable painting.

Unlike many of the books, this one focusses almost exclusively on the plot, with minimal mention of the characters’ lives outside that, to the extent of being one of the only books in which Chet doesn’t have a wild new hobby. This also has the side effect of making the narrative less problematic to a modern reader.

The plot however feels a bit messy - there seem to be three different things going on and they are all mashed together into one, similar to the two-plot situation in the previous novel, The Mummy Case, so maybe that will become a trend through the 80s novels to come.

That said, it was also more readable than some of the previous novels, and I had no problems digesting five chapters at a time, and the whole book over the course of a couple of days.

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Monstrous Regiment

Monstrous Regiment

Terry Pratchett

4th July 2021

Needing a break from heavier tomes, I returned to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, and re-read Monstrous Regiment. Mostly a stand-alone tale from the Disc, although a couple of the Watch characters do appear, this is the tale of the classic rag-tag group who sign up for the army near the end of the war, when hope is wavering, to escape a variety of elements of their lives.

As expected, it was an enjoyable return to the Disc. There’s so much going on in the story and with the characters, that reading these stories again is never disappointing. My memory of the story was limited to just the very broadest strokes, so while I wasn’t surprised by the main plot line, this gave me the ability to focus on and notice more of the little moments between the characters.

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The Marlow Murder Club

The Marlow Murder Club

Robert Thorogood

4th July 2021

I picked this up based on recommendations that it’s similar to other mysteries I’ve recently read - and it definite feels at first glance just from the title that it’s deliberately trying to market off the back of Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club.

This is the tale of an elderly crossword setter who is unwillingly drawn into investigating a crime she overhears while skinny dipping, which the police seem to show no interest in solving. Like any other mystery story, the plot only becomes more complicated from there.

The book is well put together, but felt for the most part a bit bland - the characters weren’t quite as rich as they could have been, and the plot felt quite slow until fairly close to the end.

I felt that there was almost overuse of red herrings - there were multiple places where the novel was clearly heading in the direction of an obvious misleading secret, and it just became frustrating that they kept going, rather than entertaining when the reveals arrived.

I don’t feel like I’ll be motivated to pick up another book in this series when one comes along.

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Written in Dead Wax

Written in Dead Wax

Andrew Cartmel

4th July 2021

On reading the second book in the series and writing a review, I discovered that I’d somehow missed reviewing this first book when I read it last October. So, based on what’s now a distant memory, here are my thoughts.

I really enjoyed this opening novel, which tells the story of a record collector and seller who is hired to find the rarest of rare records, a project which leads to a bizarre set of circumstances and relationships.

It’s a surprisingly believable, but incredibly fun, detective story with a wide variety of well defined and entertaining characters and locations.

I’m very much planning to now read the whole series.

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Wonderlands

Wonderlands

Una McCormack

26th June 2021

Una McCormack’s second Star Trek Discovery novel, and the eighth overall, aims to fill the gap in Michael Burnham’s story between the first two episodes of season three. I’d say this book is spoilery up to and including episode two though, so probably best to watch the third season before reading.

The book follows Michael as she settles in and begins to explore, with her new friends, while she waits for Discovery to find her. It does a lot of world building, particularly of the life and work of the couriers, and explores a lot of themes that feel reflective of real-world life, including isolation at both the individual and societal level.

I found the narrative to be fairly slow going - the book has surprisingly long chapters, and I think this made me feel like I had to really commit to reading each session, rather than just dipping in and out. I was a good halfway through before it suddenly occurred to me that this was mirroring the structure of a season of Star Trek: Discovery - a relatively small number of episodes, each telling a story, but adding up to one big overall arc.

I did have to take a break in the middle to read something a bit faster paced, just to get myself back into the swing of reading, but then when I returned I felt much more comfortable and able to flow through the final chapters with ease.

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The Run Out Groove

The Run Out Groove

Andrew Cartmel

26th June 2021

The second book in the Vinyl Detective series has satisfactorily shifted me out of a bit of a reading rut and back into the groove. In this sequel we’re reunited with the familiar characters and cats from the first novel, as they are drawn into investigating a complex missing persons/records case.

I was slightly dubious that a sequel wouldn’t work - how much more could be got out of this concept, and with the shifts in characters after the events of the first novel - but I needn’t have worried, Cartmel has put together another great plot which all his players fit really nicely into.

As a mystery story, it’s got all the classic elements, but in an entirely new and modern setting which keeps humour flowing alongside plot. I had a few theories as to what was going to be the outcome, but of course Cartmel is far too clever and was tricking me with all the little red herrings or obvious tricks.

I am strongly tempted just to buy the rest of the series now, to have them on my shelf as motivation to keep reading until I feel there’s been a sufficient gap after this book to dive straight in.

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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

J K Rowling

31st May 2021

Somehow it turns out that I must have only read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows twice before - on original publication in 2007 and again pretty soon after in 2008, before I started logging all my reading. I found this really surprising when I realised, and so decided I needed to dive back in again.

It’s a really good adventure. All the things I thought I wouldn’t like turned out to be fine, and possibly just a misremembering based on the film version. The pacing is good, and thematically fits with the characters and the events taking place.

There are so many little moments that I’d totally forgotten about. Little references, or jokes, just things that help to lighten the mood of what is in places quite a dark tale. And some of the classic Rowling foreshadowing. The aspects of Dumbledore which weren’t made explicit until later actually come across really obviously now, and I can’t believe I didn’t see them the first time.

I’m really glad I paid another visit to this novel, and I look forward to my next re-read, probably sooner than another 13 years away.

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Just One Damned Thing After Another

Just One Damned Thing After Another

Jodi Taylor

31st May 2021

I was tempted into starting this series after reading someone describe it as something that fans of Terry Pratchett would like. It’s certainly not similar in content, but the statement turns out to be accurate for me, as I really enjoyed reading this.

It’s the tale of a youngish historian, who in seeking a new job finds herself at an interesting and slightly odd institute. There’s an element of Harry Potter training, but that’s over with quickly and we’re onto adventure after adventure after adventure.

For one book, it does pack a lot in. I read that it was originally released online before finding a publisher - and the book does actually have the feel of a classical serialised story, almost Dickensian in that regard, being constructed in a very episodic manner. I’m intrigued to find out if this structure continues in the rest of the series, as it’s also quite a breathtaking pace to move, and a lot of ideas for one author to come up with to keep packing so much in.

It’s probably worth a content note, as there are some unsavoury surprises - moments of assault that come out of nowhere - so readers might want to be aware of this going in.

Overall, it’s a great concept - my only criticism is that I wanted to spend more time on some parts of the story, but given I already own the next nine books in the series I feel like that need will easily be satisfied in the future.

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The Mummy Case

The Mummy Case

Franklin W Dixon

31st May 2021

In their most international case yet, the Hardy brothers are hired by a New York museum to investigate some thefts and accompany a mummy across the Atlantic back to Egypt.

It’s an unusual Hardy Boys story not only because of the setup, but also in its structure and the number of different threads. It almost feels like the authors/publishers had two plot ideas, but neither had enough material, so they whacked them together into one book.

The usual dated elements persist, there’s content that would certainly be badged racist today, and the attitude toward’s Chet’s body continues to be a bit overplayed.

My copy has a number of illustrations which look like they’ve been through a photocopier multiple times before getting to me, as it’s a struggle to tell what’s happening in them. Not that I’ve ever really though that the occasional illustration has ever added anything to this series.

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Tales from the Folly

Tales from the Folly

Ben Aaronovitch

30th May 2021

The first tale is short and is a tie-in for the 2012 Olympics. It doesn’t seem a huge contribution to the series but is a welcome refresher of the style and a nice trip into the world.

The second tale is a fantastical twist on everyday policing, comfortable and reassuring in its telling.

Story number three is a jolly tale about a bookshop, although I suspect I was a bit too tired for reading it properly. I’m not a huge fan of the ebook format and having to read on my screen so possibly that had an effect too.

Number four is the tale of a chance encounter at a motorway services. It’s an amusing little investigation that was a fun diversion to read.

Entry the fifth is a story to tie-in with the underground Mail Rail, and fits neatly in to several of the overarching themes of the series.

The sixth story is set in the British Library, and is a fun little exploratory adventure.

After this we move on to stories from the points of view of other characters, and the first of these is a delightful little horror story of a drug dealer who has an encounter near a river.

Then we get a tale from Abigail’s point of view. This is my favourite yet - it’s Christmas focussed, exposits more about the character, and contains a perfect amount of mystery and intrigue.

The next story is about Vanessa Sommer, from the Germany-set spin-off novella, heading home for Christmas. It’s a great little “what if” tale that explores how someone might react to learning about magic in adulthood.

The final of the short stories proper revisits some guest characters I barely remember from earlier in the series, and continues their adventures in this world.

The rest of the book is made up of ‘moments’, pretty much just individual stand-alone scenes of character background, that help to paint the world that little bit richer.

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Good Work, Secret Seven

Good Work, Secret Seven

Enid Blyton

2nd May 2021

I found it really interesting to return to this story in the Secret Seven series. As the children prepare for Bonfire Night, Peter and Janet are shocked as they witness a car theft, and set out to find the culprits.

As a child, I only had this as an audiobook, and even now some thirty-odd years later it still felt in places like I could hear the narrator’s voice floating somewhere in my memory.

However the narrative does seem to have changed since I was a child. My memory is of fireworks playing a more prominent role, however they seem to have been edited out of that to just an aside - presumably so as not to encourage younger readers of the 21st Century to do anything dangerous. Yet the cover image hasn’t been similarly edited, and so doesn’t depict any scene that’s in the story.

I’m not really sure what to think as a result. Probably one of the weaker stories that I’ve read in the series again so far.

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The Cut

The Cut

Christopher Brookmyre

2nd May 2021

The latest Chris Brookmyre crime novel is another genius blend of cultural references, commentary on society, mystery, history, and comedy.

The plot considers the life of a former horror-movie make-up artist, released after a 25-year prison sentence for a crime she denies committing, and that of an 18-year-old film student. Both make for intriguing reading, and help explore both our world and the fiction that Brookmyre weaves on top of it.

The classic Brookmyre style is there, with a mix of storytelling in the present day and in flashback, which combine to reveal information at exactly the right pace. This gives quite a few of the classic gasp out loud moments as the plot meanders, though not quite to the throw down the book in delighted surprise level of one of his previous works.

I was particularly pleased when I identified an early and obscure reference, as my exposure to the horror film genre is limited just to the most mainstream - so there is something for everyone regardless of your own viewing habits.

A really good, enjoyable and engrossing novel.

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The Apeman's Secret

The Apeman's Secret

Franklin W Dixon

2nd May 2021

This is possibly the first Hardy Boys story that I read as a child, though I don’t have any specific memory of that first encounter, just if this volume being an early one I came into possession of.

It’s also the first story of the 1980s, and as with the start of the 70s feels like a significant shift - with television and comic books playing a part in the story for the first time.

It’s a classic plot, with a decent mystery to investigate. But the narrative suffers from many of the dated aspects that repeat through the series and really stand out forty years later. There’s a range of body-shaming, sexism, classism, and ableism, together with the ‘if you’ve nothing to hide’ fallacy.

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The Book of the Year 2018

The Book of the Year 2018

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

17th April 2021

The sequel to the Book of the Year 2017, this is a collection of fairly random things from the news in 2018, presented by four of the QI Elves, who are also the hosts of my favourite podcast, No Such Thing As A Fish.

I enjoyed dipping in to this once or twice a day for some random entertainment, and flash backs to a world before the pandemic, when crazy things going on in the world were just a distraction and not our everyday.

However I did feel like this book flew by much faster than its predecessor - lasting less long, and necessitating me ordering the 2019 book sooner than I’d expected.

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Go Ahead, Secret Seven

Go Ahead, Secret Seven

Enid Blyton

17th April 2021

Book five, and we’re a third of the way into Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven series. This time out the seven are split up after one of their number is caught practicing tailing a suspect.

The stories are all still quite cute, but this does continue the sexism that feels very dated to a modern reader, with the three female members of the team being left out of most of the adventure.

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What Abigail Did That Summer

What Abigail Did That Summer

Ben Aaronovitch

17th April 2021

This Rivers of London novella is set a good few years ago, and it was a bit of a mental leap for me to place it correctly in the timeline of the stories, as well as the timeline of the real world. Abigail is the cousin of usual main character Peter Grant, and for this story we join her and her friends as she investigates mysterious goings on around Hampstead Heath.

It’s a great short novel, mixing a lot of character work and social commentary on top of a somewhat creepy plot.

I’m a big fan of the way that Aaronovitch writes his characters and their narration. Although I’m probably not the best judge, his writing feels to me as if it has an authenticity that exceeds that of many other authors. I’m also grateful and amused by the footnotes that attempt to explain the slang. It seems clear that the author has put a lot of effort into researching everything.

An enjoyable aside, as are all the shorter tales in this universe, which just makes me want a new full-length novel even more.

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The Pentagon Spy

The Pentagon Spy

Franklin W Dixon

17th April 2021

The third of the Hardy Boys Digests sees the brothers get caught up in a complex and serious case that their father is working on. In some respects, probably the most serious and high profile case of their career.

Simultaneously however they also have another case, the case of the stolen weathervanes, and I can’t believe they didn’t go with that as the title.

Joking apart, it actually feels like one of the most robust plots of the series so far, and I quite enjoyed the blend of history and the modern day.

However the book also has the usual problems, a bunch of body shaming, some bad politics, and the standard set of tropes that might be expected from the Hardy Boys.

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The Mystery of the Samurai Sword

The Mystery of the Samurai Sword

Franklin W Dixon

28th March 2021

The second novel from the digests era of the Hardy Boys sees the brothers working with their father to protect a visiting Japanese dignitary, when everything goes awry.

The plot is quite interesting - bringing in more elements of the classic mystery story than are in a lot, allowing me the reader to come up with a variety of ideas of how it might have been done before reaching the big reveal.

However there's also still a lot to date the text - including terminology used repeatedly which to a modern reader stands out as racist, sexist, or body-shaming.

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A Time for Mercy

A Time for Mercy

John Grisham

28th March 2021

This late-2020 John Grisham novel is another sequel to his early tale of racist Mississippi, A Time to Kill. A sequel in the sense that the same characters re-appear, and similar themes in a similar setting, but not really in terms of the actual plot.

It feels like a fitting story for a year in which the actions of police officers around the world have come under scrutiny - re with a police officer serving the role of victim, but with sufficient levels of ambiguity to make it an interesting question to think about what the definition of innocent and guilty are.

I think this might be one of Grisham's best novels - getting a good balance of the emotion and the characters with an insight into the legal process. I'd actually go as far to say that it might be the most emotional of his novels, stepping away from his classic event-based narrative to give us more character engagement.

A good balance of insightful, thought-proking, and frustrating. Although there was one area that it felt like Grisham put in the subject but backed off from actually having a debate about, which seemed a missed opportunity.

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Night of the Werewolf

Night of the Werewolf

Franklin W Dixon

28th March 2021

The first of the Hardy Boys digests doesn’t seem to depart much from the adventures that came before. This time the brothers travel north to help investigate for a family who believes one of them may be a werewolf, which is one of the more outlandish suggestions they have faced but seems to be something that’s considered reasonably plausible.

Many of the standard elements are present, including a solid dose of dated racism, and a lot of weight shaming. The number of times that new characters recognise the boys’ names has now reached the level where the author has to be parodying the series and the publisher just hasn’t noticed.

The plot is a bit weak, quite confusing, and at one point made me crack up at how absurd a plot point was in not having been mentioned earlier.

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The Ickabog

The Ickabog

J K Rowling

28th March 2021

J K Rowling's long talked-about political fairytale is exactly what it promises to be. This is the tale of a King, his unscrupulous advisors, and an array of good and bad people from around the kingdom - and of course the local monster.

The story and the characters are endearing, and I enjoyed following their advantures. The moral of the story is pretty in your face, but that's not a bad thing for a story aimed at younger children.

What gave me pause more was the structure. It's quite a long book made up of a lot of short chapters. As a book for reading to young listeners, or for readers in training, the short chapters make sense - but I worry that for these the overall picture has time to be forgotten as the tale progresses. As an adult reader, I found that the structure almost forced me into reading slowly, because after about three chapters I would feel like I'd read enough for a sitting, and I felt like I needed to stop otherwise I would forget what happened earlier in that session.

Overall though a perfectly acceptable, cute, moral tale for younger audiences.

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The Hardy Boys Detective Handbook

The Hardy Boys Detective Handbook

Franklin W Dixon

14th February 2021

I had no idea what this was going to be, but having read to the point in the listings of Hardy Boys novels where it tends to get listed, I thought it time to find out. My copy is the revised edition from the early 1970s.

It is a book of two halves - the first is a collection of short stories about the Hardy Boys, their father, and their friend Chet, solving mysteries using specific elements of the crime-solving skill set, including fingerprinting and surveillance.

The focus on the skills is very detailed, and mostly presented as a lesson from one character to another. What in a usual Hardy Boys novel might be summed up in the sentence “Frank dusted for prints” has become an entire story of its own, and that makes for quite a different experience, and one that is at least historically interesting.

The narrative style however differs from what I’m used to from reading the novels. The text is a bit more formal, and feels a little bit patronising to poor Chet. Fenton Hardy is present a lot more than usual, but in general the characterisation feels missing - there’s not really anything to distinguish Frank and Joe. We also get our first part of a narrative (I think) with neither brother present.

The nature of the crimes also feels different from usual - we see our first murder of the entire series, and it’s a particularly brutal and close to home attack which felt entirely unnecessary to the explanation of ballistics, as well as being totally unaddressed from a point of view of emotional impact. There is also a rather dogmatic attempt to denounce drugs which feels heavy handed and not in the least written for real youngsters.

The second part of the book removes the narrative, and just seems to become a set of lists. As a child I imagine I might have found interest in this, but as an adult reading 50 years after publication it feels a bit like filler material.

More interesting I think from an academic perspective than anything else, and probably not necessary for anyone trying to be a completionism on the storytelling like I am.

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The Art of Dying

The Art of Dying

Ambrose Parry

14th February 2021

The second book about Sarah Fisher and Will Raven, medical professionals of mid-nineteenth century Edinburgh, joins Will as he returns from a year away in Europe to take his place as a qualified doctor.

As with the first novel, there are some fairly graphical medical moments that might be uncomfortable reading for some. There are some sad and traumatic events, so might be best read with awareness of this going in.

The style is reminiscent of the author’s usual approach of telling half the story in retrospect - this time with one character’s memories of their past interwoven with events experienced alongside the other characters. This allows for quite a grim but realistic exploration of the historical context of the novel in an era quite different from today.

It is another good story, with characters that I found very engaging and world building that does a huge amount to paint the picture of the time. I’m enjoying reading this series and look forward to finding out where the characters will go next.

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The Sting of the Scorpion

The Sting of the Scorpion

Franklin W Dixon

14th February 2021

The final novel in the original publisher’s run of Hardy Boys novels is unusual in a couple of respects - the plot is more outlandish than I’ve become used to, and it makes several references back to earlier stories, something the series to date seems to generally avoid.

Unlike the preceding books, this one takes place mostly near home, though the Hardy’s continue to be supported by their crew of dedicated friends. The mysteries on this occasion are a cross between airships and a Safari park, two concepts which feel slightly alien from a modern point of view.

The adventure feels very relaxed, causal in its storytelling, and this gives makes it a more engaging experience that some of the earlier novels.

I’m not entirely convinced that I followed the plot though - there seemed to be a lot going on and the same time, but ultimately I don’t think that matters this time.

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The Dark Veil

The Dark Veil

James Swallow

14th February 2021

The second tie-in novel for Star Trek Picard is again a prequel story set some years before the events depicted in the television series (though after the events seen in The Next Generation series and movies). This time the action takes place on the USS Titan, featuring William Riker and Deanna Troi, and tells the story of an encounter with a new species, and some Romulans.

It is worth noting that although this story occurs before the TV series, it would best be read after watching season one, as there are elements which could be considered spoilers.

It’s a great book, along the lines of a classic Trek novel, mixing ongoing galactic politics with an adventure of the week, filled with familiar and new characters. I’m really pleased with how Swallow has blended the new canon of the Star Trek Picard TV series with the alternative world of the USS Titan that has been presented in the novel series, so that it feels comfortable for those readers who are fans of both.

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The Firebird Rocket

The Firebird Rocket

Franklin W Dixon & Vincent Buranelli

23rd January 2021

It’s the end of the 1970s for the Hardy Boys and the fifty year old teenagers are now solidly in a technology age as their case this time visits Australia and involves space rockets and nuclear reactors.

However the classic elements are still there - Chet and his hobbies, the two parallel cases, the involvement of the boys’ father, and constantly getting beaten up by the baddies.

There was only the briefest moment of racism, which feels like the writers and editors might almost have got their head into a more modern mindset by this point, and I hope as we head forward in the re-read to the 80s and a change of publisher that this will disappear entirely.

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The Sentinel

The Sentinel

Lee Child & Andrew Child

23rd January 2021

The latest Jack Reacher novel begins the transition of authorship from Lee Child to his fifteen-year younger brother Andrew. We meet Reacher as usual in a small town where something mysterious is clearly going down, and the character once again can’t resist getting involved.

In many ways this is classic Reacher - the setting, the drive of the character, the way he relates to others, the action, and the dialogue all feel familiar.

But there are ways that this does feel renewed - there’s a clear focus on modern technology and modern crimes, and Reacher adds to his mental repertoire an ability to play back music in his head, which I don’t recall noticing previously.

I think this was a good entry for the series and I feel that the new authorship has brought something positive - new stories to tell and a revitalised and re-energised feel to the tale.

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Ready Player Two

Ready Player Two

Ernest Cline

23rd January 2021

In this sequel, Ernest Cline revisits the world that he created, in which a group of youngsters own the world’s dominant corporation and find that capitalism messes with their ideals.

I found it quite hard to get my head into the world at the start of the novel - since reading the first one I have seen the film adaptation twice, and so that version was more prominent in my mind, rather than the events of the book, which is what this is the sequel to.

In general, I think it’s a good setup for a sequel, it expands the world and grows the characters. There’s a message to take away from it.

But in the specifics, it feels rushed and a bit repetitive. In the first book, the challenges presented to the characters felt like they took a lot of effort and time to solve (unlike the film) but here they seem easy and fast. While that might be a plot point, it felt a bit artificial and almost like one element had been added just to mitigate how easy it seemed.

That said, I was once again hooked and loved reading the book. I can’t immediately see scope for another entry in the series but will almost certainly read Cline’s next book, whatever it is.

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To Lose The Earth

To Lose The Earth

Kirsten Beyer

16th January 2021

Kirsten Beyer’s final Star Trek: Voyager novel wraps up what has been an epic literary adventure over the past twelve years, as the crew take a more intentional second trip to explore the Delta Quadrant.

This feels very much like part two of a single story with a large gap, with all the events following on from things that happened in the previous novel. Given I read the last novel over two and a half years ago (due to the author’s “distraction” working on some TV series), I struggled to remember some of the details.

Like many of Beyer’s novels, there is a strong theme of family, and in particular here one of communication, that’s reflected in many of the plot threads for different characters and at different scales. Beyer hits the right Star Trek notes in producing an episode that tells an entertaining story while also providing a moral lesson.

In terms of the plot, while there are many aspects, the most prominent of the TV characters is Harry Kim, and he’s the star of about 45% of this novel, with another 45% given to one of the novel-series-original characters, and the remainder spread amongst both the old and the new. For a finale, I felt that there was perhaps too little for some of the older familiar characters, but that might be me reading it in the context of a long separation rather than considering the whole ten-book drama.

The end felt a little abrupt, but that might be because my reading speed increased - though there are details that have already faded from my memory after only a couple of days. But it definitely felt like a decent and optimistic endpoint, leaving the door ajar for more maybe one day - once the author stops adding to canon in potentially contradictory ways with her increasingly prominent TV writing career.

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The Jungle Pyramid

The Jungle Pyramid

Franklin W Dixon & Vincent Buranelli

9th January 2021

After their father calls them in to help investigate a gold theft, the Hardys once again set off on international travels to solve their fifty-sixth mystery.

The format follows the now familiar pattern of the 70s novels, with exotic locales and exploration playing a large role in the storytelling and much investigation taking a back seat.

As they go, not a bad story, but not a particularly remarkable one either.

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The Witchmaster's Key

The Witchmaster's Key

Franklin W Dixon

3rd January 2021

This fifty-fifth book in the series is possibly the most absurd so far. The Hardys travel to the British Isles for an adventure that despite being set in the 1970s seems to depict a society from the 1770s.

I had just been saying in a review from a previous book in the series how amazingly informative it seemed about the countries they were visiting, and I really have to reconsider now that I’ve seen their attempt to depict a location I actually know something about.

The plot is implausibly silly, and really doesn’t hold up at all. The cover art on my copy is also ridiculous, with the least realistic illustration of Stonehenge I think I’ve ever seen - it’s like someone has been given a vague description and not bothered to look at a photograph.

Probably the worst plot in the entire series that I’ve read so far.

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The Mysterious Caravan

The Mysterious Caravan

Franklin W Dixon

2nd January 2021

A remarkable entry in the Hardy Boys series, as with book 54 arrives the first black character who joins the brothers as a friend and assistant throughout. It also features the first female character to also accompany them for part of the story, rather than just being someone to provide them with food.

The plot however follows the trend in previous novels of becoming rather convoluted, and feels like it’s just become a backdrop to the international travel that the characters now get to do.

In this way it reminds me a bit of James Bond films, which are clearly constructed around the locations around the world that they think will make good settings. But the storytelling doesn’t bring itself to the same level.

The travel aspects however do feel impressive and fairly thoroughly researched (although I have no specific knowledge to back this up), which does well to present the places visited in a way that feels authentic and only a tiny bit racist in places.

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