All 2021 reviews - Shastrix Books

2021

All reviews

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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