Sunday, 30 March 2008

Paul Auster - "Travels in the Scriptorium"

By far the best thing about this book is the cover picture!

An old man awakens, disoriented, in an unfamiliar chamber. With no memory of who he is or how he has arrived there, he pores over the relics on the desk, examining the circumstances of his confinement and searching his own hazy mind for clues. Determining that he is locked in, the man—identified only as Mr. Blank—begins reading a manuscript he finds on the desk, the story of another prisoner, set in an alternate world the man doesn't recognize. Nevertheless, the pages seem to have been left for him, along with a haunting set of photographs. One hundred and twenty pages later we are at the end of the book but really no further forward....
I have generally endeavoured in these reviews to avoid 'spoiling' the plot for anyone who might want to read the work. I'm not sure one could spoil this! If you are ever on a desert island with only half a dozen books read the other five first - with luck you may be rescued before you get to this one...

PAUL AUSTER was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947 to middle class parents. After attending Columbia University he lived in France for four years. Since returning to America in 1974, he has published poems, essays, novels and translations.

Lisa See - "The Flower Net"


A better than average thriller. Not only an excellent plot but a great insight into the last days of the Mao Tse Tung dybasty. The first body was found in ice: the U.S. ambassador's son, entombed in a frozen lake outside Beijing's Forbidden City. Thousands of miles away, in the heat-baked hold of a Chinese smuggling ship, another corpse is uncovered, this one a red Prince, a scion of China's political elite. Suspecting the deaths are linked, the American and Chinese governments pair ambitious attorney David Stark and brilliant detective Liu Hulan to uncover a killer and a conspiracy. From the teeming streets of Beijing to Los Angeles and back, David and Liu are caught in a perilous net of politics, organized crime, family loyalties, and their own passion. As, one by one, those close to the investigation are killed, David and Hulan face a firestorm of evil, while the killer they seek is as close as the secrets they keep from each other.

LISA SEE has been a journalist for many years writing for, among others, the LA Times, the Washington Post and Cosmopolitan, and was, until recently, the West Coast correspondent for Publishers Weekly.

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Alexander McCall Smith - "The Careful Use of Compliments"


Isabel Dalhousie is back in her fourth book, published in 2007, the latest installment of this enchanting, already beloved, best-selling series.

In addition to being the nosiest and most sypathetic philosopher you are likely to meet, Isabel is now a mother. Charlies, her newborn son, presents her with a myriad wonders of a new life, and doting father Jamie presents her with an intriguing proposal: marriage. In the midst of all this, she receives a disturbing letter announcing that she has been ousted as editor of the Review of Applied Ethics by the ambitious Professor Dove.

None of these things, however, in any way diminshes Isabel's curiosity. And when she attends an art auction, she finds an irresistable puzzle: two paintings attributed to a now-deceased artist appear on the market at the same time, and both of them exhibit some unusual characteristics. Are these paintings forgeries? This proves to be sufficient fodder for Isabel's inquisitiveness. So she begins an investigation... and soon finds herself diverging from her philosophical musings about fatherhood onto a path that leads her into the mysteries of the art world and the soul of an artist.

For some earlier Alexander McCall Smith entries see -

A couple of quotes:-

"She looked at the room around her, at her desk, at her books. None of this would belong to her for ever; it would change hands and somebody new would be here, somebody who would not even know who she had been, somebody who would look at her with astonishment if she came back, in some thought experiment, and said: That’s my desk – I want it. Our possessing of our world is a temporary matter: we stamp our ownership upon our surroundings, give familiar names to the land about us, erect statues of ourselves, but all of this is swept away, so quickly, so easily. We think the world is ours for ever, but we are little more than squatters."

"There were two horses in the soul. she thought, as Socrates had said, in the Phaedrus – the one, unruly, governed by passions, pulling in the direction of self-indulgence; the other, restrained, dutiful, governed by a sense of shame.... "

"They stood at the front door; Peter pressed the small white button in the middle of a brass fitting to the right: PLEASE PUSH was written on the porcelain; olds Edinburgh – modern buttons just said PUSH, the simple imperative, not the polite cousin."

Monday, 24 March 2008

Clive Egleton - "The Renegades"


The Renegades is book twelve in the Peter Ashton spy thriller series. A way of amusing oneself and escaping from the world but not the most brilliant of stories I have read.

When an SIS Operative is killed in a London restaurant shootout, police initially suspect no more than a robbery with drug gangster overtones. But it soon becomes apparent that one of the corpses has more than one name, and a previous misdemeanour was covered from within the depths of Britain's Secret Services. As British Council offices in Pakistan and then Russia are attacked by suicide bombers, it soon becomes apparent that there is a link between an apparently ordinary working lunch and world terrorism. The British Secret Services set about sorting the problems out....

CLIVE EGLETON was born in Middlesex in 1927 and educated at Haberdashers Aske's school. He enlisted under age in the Royal Armoured Corps in 1945 to train as a tank driver and was subsequently commissioned into the South Staffordshire Regiment for whom he served in India, Hong Kong, Germany, Egypt, Cyprus, the Persian Gulf and East Africa before retiring in 1975 in the rank of Lt Colonel.

Widely regarded as one of Britain's leading thriller writers, he brings years of experience in the Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence fields to his books and has more than thirty novels to his credit, most recently the highly successful spy series featuring Peter Ashton. His books have been translated into fifteen languages. His fourth novel, Seven Days to a Killing, was made into a film starring Michael Caine and released under the title The Black Windmill.

Clive Egleton died in March 2006.

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Simon Scarrow – “The Eagle in the Sand”


Trouble is brewing in Judaea, on the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire. With the troops in a deplorable state, centurions Macro and Cato are despatched to restore the competence of the cohort. But another challenge faces them as, Bannus, a local tribesman and disciple of refently deceased Jehoshua (aka Jesus), is brewing up trouble and preaching violent opposition to Rome. As the local revolt grows in scale, Macro and Cato must stamp out corruption in the cohort and restore it to fighting fitness to quash Bannus -- before the eastern provinces are lost to the Empire forever! A fun, rip-roaring yarn.

Simon Scarrow concentrates on two things – the rip-roaring yarn and the background area. About life and culture of the times there is little depth but that doesn’t matter the setting is all in this story and Scarrow was invited to the area by the King of Jordan who had admired his previous stories. He has made the most of his visit!

I have read a couple of the earlier ones in thios series but which ones I cannot now recall.
Cato and Macro
1. Under the Eagle (2000)
2. The Eagle's Conquest (2001)
3. When the Eagle Hunts (2002)
4. The Eagle and the Wolves (2003)
5. The Eagle's Prey (2004)
6. The Eagle's Prophecy (2005)
7. The Eagle in the Sand (2006)
8. Centurion (2007)

SIMON SCARROW, (b. UK 1962) teaches at a leading Sixth Form College. He has run a Roman History programme taking parties of students to a number of ruins and museums across Britain.

Saturday, 15 March 2008

George Eliot – “Daniel Deronda”


This is the fourth George Eliot novel I have read in the last twelve months or so and probably the one I enjoyed least. The other three – Middlemarch, Silas Marner and The Mill on the Floss made a real George Eliot fan. Compared to Middlemarch, the quintessential Victorian novel, Daniel Deronda seemd to me a bit pedestrian and rather hard work. Nevertheless it was good enough for me to complete the work which was originally published in seven volumes and which I reckon has 4 million words.
Only in her final novel, in 1876, did George Eliot turn to contemporary English and European life as material for the expression of her own idealism. Daniel Deronda is a psychologically incisive investigation, probing the egoism of a spoiled girl, Gwendolen, and her increasing awareness of conscience through suffering. She comes to regard Daniel as her moral and spiritual mentor. He, meanwhile, is busy rescuing a young Jewess from suicide and getting involved in the Jewish culture - a theme which Eliot explored in depth, demonstrating the depth and quality of her research.

GEORGE ELIOT, the pseudonym of Mary Ann Evans. was born on 22nd November 1819 near Nuneaton, Warwickshire, and died in 1880. She began her literary career as a translator, and later became editor, of the Westminster Review. She lived for many years with George Henry Lewes, a journalist whose marriage had irretrievably broken down but who could not get a divorce. It was through his encouragement that she started writing fiction at the age of 37. In 1857, she published Scenes of Clerical Life, the first of eight novels she would publish under the name of 'George Eliot', Adam Bede, published in 1859, caused her to be described in The Times thus – “It’s author takes rank at once amongst the masters of the art.”
My favourite quotations from Daniel Deronda:-
’...I will wait till after Christmas’.
What should we all do without the calendar, when we want to put off a disagreeable duty? The admirable arrangements of the solar system, by which our time is measured, always supply us with a term before which it is hardly worth while to set about anything we are disinclined to
Extension, we know, is a very imperfect measure of things, and the length of the sun’s journeyings can no more tell us how far life has advanced than the acreage of a field can tell us what growths may be active within it. A man may go south, and, stumbling over a bone, may meditate upon it till he has found a new starting-point for anatomy; or eastward, and discover a new key to language telling a new story of races; or he may head an expedition that opens new continental pathways, get himself maimed in body, and go through a whole heroic poem of resolve and endurance; and at the end of a few months he may come back to find his neighbours grumbling at the same parish grievance as before, or to see the same elderly gentleman treading the pavement in discourse with himself, shaking his head after the same percussive butcher’s boy, and pausing at the same shop-window to look at the same prints.”
(This second quote really sums up how I felt when David died. I could not believe that after having gone through such emotions and revolution in my life in the space of two and a half weeks I could come back to find that work had not changed one iota and the same people were carrying on their lives in the same old way...)

Thursday, 13 March 2008

Oliver Duff – “Shepherd’s Calendar”


Published in 1962, this book was compiled from a regular page in the New Zealand Listener. This diary, written over ten years, shows the countryman’s unromantic life through the eyes of a man who can add a bit of romance. Not my favourite diary by any means but it had occasional flashes of enjoyment.

Thursday, 6 March 2008

Candace Robb – “A Vigil of Spies”


In Bishopthorpe Palace, September 1373 - Archbishop Thoresby lies dying and Owen Archer, his captain of the guard, is determined to ensure his master's last days are peaceful. But much to his dismay Thoresby has agreed to a visit from Princess Joan - she has come to seek the great man's advice about the royal succession before it's too late. Owen grudgingly admits the fair lady's visit might be just the distraction Thoresby needs but within minutes of the royal party's arrival it is clear that the servant who met with an accident and died on the journey has in fact been murdered.. and so it progresses...

The other books in the Owen Archer series are:-
1. The Apothecary Rose (1993)
2. The Lady Chapel (1994)
3. The Nun's Tale (1995)
4. The King's Bishop (1996)
5. The Riddle of St. Leonard's (1997)
6. A Gift of Sanctuary (1998)
7. A Spy for the Redeemer (2002)
8. The Cross-Legged Knight (2002)
9. The Guilt of Innocents (2007)
10. A Vigil of Spies (2008)

I think I have read all except the Cross-legged Knight and A Spy for the Redeemer. Candace Robb’s novels are a cut above many of those of most of the other historical novelists. This one in particular is a clever little work with a hint (intentional and acknowledged) of the Agatha Christie- with whom she shares her birthday - about the way the potential villains are brought together to the one place for the solution to be demonstrated, Poirot-like, at the dying man’s bedside.

CANDACE ROBB (b 15th September 1950) has read and researched medieval history for many years, having studied for a Ph.D. in Medieval and Anglo-Saxon Literature. She divides her time between Seattle and the UK, frequently spending time in Scotland and York to research her books.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

OLD REVIEW – Dr Karl Shuker – “The Lost ark”

Written in 1993 this book was about the new and re-discovered animals of the twentieth century. This is a book which can be read, dipped into or used as a reference work. It is most readable and fascinating account of some of the world’s weirdest and wildest wildlife. Unlike similar works it is not solely devoted to mammals but covers the whole animal kingdom. It is well researched and authoritative. A must read for anyone interested in natural history, conservation, or even detective stories since that is what many of the discoveries and rediscoveries are. The only improvement I could have suggested would have been a summary appendix in date order but you cannot have everything.

Dr. KARL P N SHUKER (born 1959) is a British zoologist living in the West Midlands, England. He is currently working as a full-time freelance zoological consultant, media consultant, and author, specializing in cryptozoology, for which he is internationally renowned. During the course of his continuing researches and writings, he regularly travels worldwide, and also appears frequently on television and radio.

Rebecca Tope “A Cotswold Mystery”


This is the fourth in a series of easy-going murder mysteries set in the Cotswolds as heroine Thea Osborne undertakes house-sitting for people who have gone ion holiday. As always her house-sitting sets off a chain of events which include a murder.

The previous ones are Death in the Cotswolds; A Cotswolds Ordeal; and A Cotswold Killing. I have read one of these earlier ones but cannot recall which one. I suspect they are all pretty much alike - which is part of their charm. You know you are not going to be challenged by books like this; you can just lie back and enjoy the Cotswold atmosphere. This one is set in Blockley which has family history connections somewhere back up the line.

The only horrific thing about “A Cotswold Mystery” is the price. I borrowed it from Pensby Library but if I had bought it I would have had to spend £19.99. Even to a book addict like me that seems a lot!

REBECCA TOPE grew up on a farm and has held a wide variety of jobs, such as a prenatal instructor, marriage counselor, and funeral director, all of which have taught her a great deal about human nature. In 1992, she founded Praxis books, a small British press. She lives on a smallholding in Herefordshire with a full complement of livestock and often manages to weave pig-breeding, milk recording, spinning, lambing and a host of other personal experiences into her books.

Among her dozen or so other murder mysteries is Memory of Water (with Brian Eastman) – a Rosemary and Thyme mystery.

Sunday, 2 March 2008

Susanna Gregory – “A Plague on Both Your Houses”


In the tradition of Ellis Peters, A Plague on Both Your Houses introduces the physician Matthew Bartholomew, whose unorthodox but effective treatment of his patients frequently draws accusations of heresy from his more traditional colleagues. Besides his practice, Bartholomew is teacher of Medicine at Michaelhouse, part of the fledgling University of Cambridge. In 1348, Bartholomew is distracted by the sudden and inexplicable death of the Master of Michaelhouse - a death the University authorities do not want investigated. When three more scholars die in mysterious circumstances, Bartholomew defies the University and begins his own enquiry. And then the Black Death arrives and Bartholomew is dragged deeper and deeper into a quagmire which threatens not only his life, but the continued existence of the University and the future of the town.

SUSANNA GREGORY is the pseudonym of Elizabeth Cruwys, a Cambridge academic who was previously a coroner's officer, born 1958. She writes detective fiction, and is noted for her series of medieval mysteries featuring Matthew Bartholomew, a teacher of medicine and investigator of murders in 14th-century Cambridge. Though the books may have some aspects in common with the Ellis Peters Cadfael series (an amateur and reluctant sleuth sceptical of superstition and somewhat ahead of his time) the tone and subject matter of the Gregory novels is far darker and does not shirk from portraying the harsh realities of life in the Middle Ages.

Saturday, 1 March 2008

Jim Rubery – “The Wirral”


Another in the same series as the last and equally useful though perhaps Mr Rubery, who is not a Merseysider, shows his ‘foreign’ origins by renaming Thingwall Thigwall whenever he comes across it! If that proves to be the only fault in the text I shall be content.

Cliff Hayes – “Liverpool and Merseyside”


One of a number of books in the Francis Frith photographic memories series this contains photos from the 19th and 20th Centuries with a useful little annotation about each one. I have made extensive notes from this and they will come in useful as I gradually Blog my way around Liverpool, resurrecting old transparencies from the 1960s and comparing them with more recent photos I have taken.