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  1. Pansies by Alexis Hall. My rating: 5 out of 5 stars Why bother with a predictable or exotic location for your queer romance when South Shields in the NE of England works perfectly well? I love the way Alexis Hall sees beyond the surface drabness of a run-down coastal town to find so many points of character, fascination, and natural beauty. And surely it's important some queer tales take place in forgotten geographic corners. Not everyone lives in London, Manchester, or Brighton. This story showcases Hall's ability to write humour, pathos, sexiness, and descriptive flights of fancy. Both lead characters are believable, ranging far beyond those who populate many queer romances. And they're both lovable, in their very different ways. Fen works in a florist's shop. Alfie has moved away from his roots to work a high-powered job in the City. They meet by accident when Alfie returns for a friend's wedding. Fen's confidence in who he is baffles Alfie. Alfie's acquired metropolitan disdain for this bleakly beautiful part of world irritates Fen. Their journey is long but also engaging on many levels. One to re-read. The narrator does an excellent job, Geordie accents and all.
  2. Charles is the apple of his mother’s eye, born in Cornwall just after the end of the First World War. He becomes the focus of his mother’s life after his father dies from TB. But Charles does not want to be a “mother’s boy” and when war breaks out, he leaves his claustrophobic life in Teignmouth, enlisting in the navy as a coder. The title of this novel has a double meaning and Patrick Gale uses both of them with skill and breadth. Charles is a boy raised as his mother’s sole outlet, the sole reason for her life, though Charles, as an adolescent, becomes aware that he is attracted to other boys, but he knows some of those boys could betray him and so much of his attraction is illegal. This novel is set in the time between the First and Second World Wars and Gale captures the repression and social order of that time. Charles, an intelligent boy, can only stay in education until his time at grammar school ends because his mother cannot afford for him to stay any longer. Charles is also aware that his attractions are illegal, he displays a distaste for a friend who embraces his attractions, though that distaste is more driven by fear. Joining the navy is an eye-opening experience, both professionally and emotionally. So many of his experiences affect him deeply, but he also meets other serving men who are far more comfortable with their desires and their openness pulls him along with them. Gale captures the repression of the inter-war years but he also shows how the Second World War, with its mixing of people from all different backgrounds, brushed away so much of that repression and so many people’s lives benefited from that. His descriptions of wartime life are some of the most memorable parts of this novel. This is Gale at the highest of his skills. He sympathetically and insightfully writes about his characters here, drawing characters that are all too recognisable, but he does not forget that he is writing about a very different time than today. It was so refreshing to read a novel set in the 1930s and 1940s where modern-day attitudes do not bleed into the narrative and characters. This reaches right through to the novel’s ending. Here is a novel well worth the time it took to read, not a moment wasted. Find it here on Amazon
  3. This play opens with a startling image. In a sitting room, at night, a man lies dead in his wheelchair while standing over him is his wife holding the gun that killed him. Onto this scene stumbles a man, a stranger to this household. But instead of calling for the police, or even calling for help, the man, the unexpected guest of the play's title, starts to coach the woman in how to get away with the murder of her husband. Agatha Christie had an equally successful career as a playwright as well as a novelist. She is Britain’s most successful woman playwright, her play The Mousetrap is the world's longest running play. But we often forget about this. The Unexpected Guest is a fine example of her murder mystery plays. This one opens with a corpse stage left, but she doesn't treat her plot like a typical detective story. Here the plot comes out of the characters' actions, their reactions to the murder. There is a police inspector and his sidekick sergeant, but these two are much more plot devices so we, the audience, can be told the physical facts of this murder and have the backstory of the dead man explained to us, and this corpse was asking for someone to shoot him. But the real crime solving comes from the interactions of the characters themselves. There are some of her stock characters here. The elderly woman who knows her son too well, the servant who wants to supplement their low wages with a bit of blackmail, and an abused wife who is far from a victim. She does handle these characters well, making the plot flow from them. She makes an interesting comment with the reactions of two of her characters. When a woman thinks a man committed murder for her, she becomes protective over him, standing by him and trying to defend him. When a man thinks a woman has killed for him, he wants to distance himself from her as quickly as possible, leaving her to her fate on her own. However, her treatment of the disabled characters is very of its time and creeks uncomfortably. The victim is a wheelchair-bound man who is so bitter and angry that he could drive anyone to kill him. There's a young man with learning difficulties who is overly excitable and easily manipulated. What is so enjoyable here is the twisting plot. At first we are given a thriller where the question is will this woman get away with murder; then the first twist turns it into a mystery were we don't know who the killer is. After that the plot delivers several twists ending with the last twist where one character is left alone on the stage as the final curtain falls. A play script, even the best play script ever written, is only the third of a great play, the other two-thirds being the acting, direction and staging. As good a read as this play script is, I would still much prefer to see a well-acted and staged production of this play. But plays are written to be acted and not just read. Find it here on Amazon
  4. It is wartime England and in a south coast village an old man watches a boy, with a brightly coloured parrot, walk along a train line. The boy is silent, a Jewish refugee from the horrors in Europe, while the parrot cannot keep quiet, happily speaking long sentences in German. The old man, who remains unnamed throughout the novel, is a famous “Consulting Detective” who has retired to the countryside to keep bees. This encounter with Linus Steinmen, the mute boy, draws the old man into his life and occupants of the home, the local vicarage, were the boy lives. And then another member of the vicarage’s household is murdered. Here Chabon has tried to write a “new” Sherlock Holmes story but as an old man no longer interested in crime. The Second World War setting is interesting but not enough on its own to carry this book, neither is the character and situation of the old man. The character just feels old, there isn’t any regret, loss or even introspection of an old man looking back on his life. The plot did not have enough mystery to hold my attention; the mystery here did not feel important enough to push the plot forward and there wasn’t enough plot, without it, to hold my attention. Unfortunately, the other characters are not strong enough either. So many of the occupants of the vicarage were interchangeable because they were so poorly drawn. The only character who stood out was the vicar’s wife, but that was mainly because she was the only female character there. The book felt like a clever writing exercise, to reimagine Sherlock Holmes in the twilight of his life, but its execution was far too clever, without the feeling for the characters. There was too much extraneous information, as if Chabon was showing off the research he did for this book, but there was so little feeling that these characters were actually living during a war. These people just did not come alive for me. I did not find here the characterisation I have enjoyed in other of Chabon’s books. Sometimes writing exercises should just stay that, sometimes they do not make good books. Find it here on Amazon
  5. The plot of this novel is riddled with cliches. A novelist, Caz, who is staying in a country cottage to write her next book. She meets a young fan, nine-year-old Theo. Through Theo she meets his mother Ann and finds out that Theo's father Alan was murdered three years ago in strange circumstances and the killer was never caught. Then Theo confesses to Caz that he killed his father. Caz and her boyfriend Will set about finding out who really killed Alan. They do and everyone lives happily ever after, except the murderer of course. After finishing this novel all I felt was that I was waist deep in clichés. Atkins doesn't seem to have any understanding of the nature of human emotions. Her characters only acted within the narrow limits of her very thin plot. I found no insights, no character development or emotional depth in this novel. All I found was a very predictable plot and propaganda for family values. The novel ends with both female characters walking off into marriage and the murderer turns out to be an archetypical threat to family values: he is "mentally retarded" (Sic), a petty thief, envious of a family man, probably a paedophile and is dying from Aids. At best Atkins' characterisation is one-dimensional. A writer who thinks of herself as a free spirit yet happily walks off into marriage. A child genius who talks and acts a like a small adult, not a real child. Without any explanation, halfway through the novel one character is revealed as a wife-beater. The characters just move within Atkins’ plot without any real human emotions. The minor characters were so badly written as to be patronising. A feminist who is dismissed by a man's "winning smile". A caretaker who meekly actually tipped his hat to a "lady". An Anglican priest who’s unmarried, opposed to women’s ordination and can’t even boil water. If there hadn't been a mention of Caz's laptop, I would have believed this novel was set in some idyllic, middle-class 1950s fantasy. A village straight off a chocolate box, the village shop is still open, friendly yokels everywhere and no problems with commuters moving in. Who allowed such a badly over-written novel into print? It is littered with flowery and overblown passages that serve no purpose. The dialogue is stilted and flat, the description clichéd and the characters only there to serve the plot, a very unoriginal one at that. I haven't read such a bad novel in a very long time, but I don't intend doing so again so whatever Atkins' next novel is I won't be reading it. My advice, avoid this novel at all cost. There are so many better writers out there to spend time with. POSTSCRIPT: I originally wrote this review back in 1997 and it was the first review of mine that was ever published
  6. Adam, an aspiring actor, makes the trip from New York to LA in search of fame and fortune. What he finds is a trip into the underside of fame in LA. Here is a modern-day Rake’s Progress; Adam (the narrator) arrives in LA with such high hopes, he has the looks and talent to be a star, but he finds an unfriendly city where he can’t get his foot on the bottom rung of the showbusiness ladder. This novel could have been a pro-faced, and even homophobic, grime tale, warning about the “evils” of Hollywood. Instead, Zeffer’s insightful but equally humorous prose lifts this novel into a far more enjoyable read. Adam’s self-deprecating humour is refreshing and helps make this such a readable book; even as his career spirals down, he still has his eyes set on being a star, imagining himself (when he finally becomes that star) confessing to his sordid past on yet another chat show. Adam’s spiral downwards, until he ends up working in gay porn because he is so broke, is handled well and is all too believable. What is also so believable is his big break, as the personal assistant/closeted boyfriend to a TV star, and the scandal he gets caught up in. This novel provides fascinating insights into the different levels of showbusiness in Hollywood. How the real stars treat those people below them, but those people’s work keeps them a star. How everyone in LA seems to be part of showbusiness, one way or another. How the only time he is treated with any dignity is when he works in gay porn. Zeffer gives this novel a downbeat but all too real ending, unlike the Hollywood ending of the film based on this novel, leaving the impression that this was a time of madness in the narrator’s life before he returned to the real world when he left LA. This novel is very much based on fact, on Zeffer’s own experiences as a would-be actor in Hollywood; he and the narrator share the same surname, but he does not present us with a novel-as-act-of-revenge, neither is this a cautionary tale. Instead, Zeffer presents this novel as a story that happened without any more judgment. This is a novel for all of us who never believed those rags-to-riches Hollywood stories. Find it here on Amazon
  7. Satire is a difficult form to get right. If it is too humorous then it might not be biting enough; if the satire hits home then it can be dry and even dull, and then it can be humourless and miss its target. These two short stories take a satirical aim at religious persecution and antisemitism in particular. Holocaust Tips for Kids is a young teenage American boy’s view of the Nazi Holocaust. It reads like that teenage boy’s scrapbook, facts and reportage sit all beside the boy’s own writing on how he would survive a modern holocaust. This takes broad swipes at Hollywood action-adventure films, using their logic to fight a holocaust. Smite the Heathens, Charlie Brown is written in the form of the classic American Charlie Brown story, using almost all the many characters from that world. Here there is a war, in the Charlie Brown world, between the believers in Schulz, the creature of them all, and the Giant Pumpkin God. The characters quickly fall into the different factions, seeing the others as heathens and therefore justifying their own actions. Shalom Auslander has captured both these separate worlds extremely well. In the first story, he captures both the voice and logic of a teenage boy. In the second story, he unnervingly captures the tone and sound of the Charlie Brown stories. Unfortunately, Auslander’s satire is nothing new and fires at targets that other writers hit bull’s-eyes on long before him. The skill of his writing impressed me, tonally these two stories are so different and yet each of them perfectly captures the voice they are written in. But the satire here is nothing new, we have heard it all before by other writers. I wish Auslander had taken aim at different, new targets here or had found something new to say. Find it here on Amazon
  8. Gay marriage has been making the headlines recently and there are a lot of arguments for and against it. At the heart of a lot of these arguments is whether homosexuality is “natural” or “unnatural”. Simon LeVay is a neuroscientist and takes an evidence-based approach to his subject. He doesn’t just look at the theories behind human sexuality; he looks at the evidence for those theories, or lack of it. This is what lifts this book head and shoulders above previous books looking at the origins of human sexuality. LeVay doesn’t have one theory that he is pushing; instead he takes a critical look at all of them. He concludes that our sexualities are a product of our genes, sex hormones and brain systems (nature not nurture), but it is how he reaches this conclusion that is fascinating. He analyses the data with a refreshing evidence-based approach. This book is also written in clear and easy to read prose, not in an academic style, full of jargon and language that is difficult to understand. LeVay uses clear English; his explanations draw the reader in, not putting you off. The subject matter might not be of interest to everyone, but this book can benefit all nurses. We’re called to give unbiased care to all; this book helps us see sexuality as a natural part of life. (This review was originally written as a commission by the Nursing Standard magazine and published there in April 2013) Find it here on Amazon
  9. Before reading this collection of stories, put out of your mind any memory of the Tom Cruise/Stephen Spielberg film of the same name. The Cruise/Spielberg film was very loosely based on Philip K Dick’s story, taking only a few elements out of the story. The original story is far superior to the brightly coloured adventure film that bears the same name. In his best fiction, and this collection certainly contains some of that, Philip K Dick was a visionary—a dark visionary with a downbeat but all too real take on the future. The title story, Minority Report, is set in the Bureau of Pre-Crime where three pre-cogs (people so brain damaged that they live in permanent comas and constantly mutter their predictions) predict murders not yet committed, but this is where the similarity with the Cruise/Spielberg film ends. This is a post nuclear war world, where vast swathes of the country are a burnt wasteland. The central character is a middle-aged, overweight man with a much younger wife who finds himself at the centre of a political assassination plot. This is a twisting political thriller set in a world mutated by radiation, where every piece of new information causes another change of direction. Within this story Dick asks the question, if we know what the future holds does that automatically change the future to an unknown one? A lot of these stories are set in post nuclear war worlds, a theme very popular in Philip K Dick’s fiction, but they are not the same world rehashed for different stories. Whatever worlds he sets his stories in they are dark and unforgiving worlds. His future is not bright, clean and hopeful. In this collection there are stories about robots used for assassination; automatic factories that rule the world and don’t want to give that up power; the search for a war criminal who is more or less than he seems; a government sanctioned machine that controls your thoughts; an America where the first lady is the most important person and even if the presidents come and go she remains the same; a future where they look to 1960s sci-fi to solve their technological problems; a time-travelling business woman; and much, much more. A problem that can be levelled at Phillip K Dick’s novels is that, though often with an original plot premise, he did not know how to end them. This does not apply to these stories, even the longer ones. With these stories Dick ends them perfectly, whether it is an ending to a story or a question left up in the air. Most of these stories were previously published in American sci-fi magazines of the 1950s and 1960s; whether this is the reason for their solid structures I don’t know, but these are very satisfying stories to read and have not aged the way a lot of sci-fi from that period has. Forgot the bright, clean and upbeat sci-fi of Stephen Spielberg, George Lucas and Star Trek; try the dark and all too real sci-fi of Philip K Dick. Some of the peripheral details of his stories may have aged but their central themes are still fresh and still relevant today. Find it here on Amazon
  10. His Dark Materials was a groundbreaking trilogy of fantasy novels. They were breathtaking in their scope and originality; the concept of a person having the personification of their soul in the form of an animal called their daemon was both simple and a stroke of genius. It was also a wonderful writing device; characters could literally talk to themselves. For a long time, Pullman hinted that he was writing a second trilogy, The Book of Dust, following on from His Dark Materials. Finally, in 2017, the first part of that trilogy was published, La Belle Sauvage. This book, unlike the other two books in this new trilogy, is a prequel to His Dark Materials, but unlike so many other prequels, this isn’t an origins story. This is an intense adventure in its own right. Malcolm Polstead, the main character here, is a plain and non-heroic boy, not the usual adventurous type of boy found at the heart of a fantasy story, and this book is all the better for that. Malcolm’s ordinariness draws the reader into this story of cloak-and-dagger spying and sinister danger against the backdrop of the all-powerful Magisterium. Malcolm lives in an inn, on the bank of an Oxford river, run by his parents. On the opposite bank is a convent of nuns, several of the elderly nuns Malcolm has befriended. Three characters from His Dark Materials trilogy make an appearance here. Lord Asriel has a small but important part to play in the plot, Mrs Coulter makes a sinister cameo appearance, but it is Lyra who is an important part of the story, even though she is just a newborn baby here. The story begins with her left in the care of the nuns. What lifts this novel up from a well written, sinister spy adventure is the horrible event at the centre of this story. A terrible storm hits the country and overnight the whole of Southern England is flooded. What were once cities and towns and green countryside are suddenly turned into a desolate, dark sea of dank water. Suddenly the only land is at the top of hills or tall buildings. Into this dangerous world Malcolm and Lyra, accompanied by Alice, the inn’s young serving maid, must race across this now alien land in Malcolm’s small boat in an attempt to keep Lyra safe. Pullman’s writing is always of a high quality, he doesn’t turn in lazy or shallow characterisation because this is a “children’s novel”. The first part of this novel crackles with the sinister and dark tones of a spy thriller, but it is the second part of the novel where his writing shines. He paints the flooded landscape as an alien and dangerous world, the familiar gone as it is drowned under an unforgiving sea of water, in which the three characters have to survive. This book was certainly worth the wait. Pullman has lost none of his skill as a storyteller but neither has he run out of ideas and stories to tell in his unique universe. So often with sequels, especially after such original stories as His Dark Materials trilogy, there can be the law of diminishing returns, the author having used up all their ideas in the first book/books, not so here. The quality of La Belle Sauvage bodes well for the rest of the trilogy, and I am so glad to report that. Find it here on Amazon
  11. There have been many different theories about the spread of AIDS, some of them bizarre, but here James Chin returns to a very old one; AIDS is not a threat to the heterosexual population. Chin is an epidemiologist and bases all his arguments on a narrow reading of the HIV/AIDS statistics. He seems to want to turn back the clock to when we talked only of “risk groups”. There are no political, cultural, social or psychological elements in Chin’s arguments, which leaves this book very one-sided. Between 1987 and 1992 Chin worked for the World Health Organisation (WHO) on HIV/AIDS surveillance until he abruptly resigned over what appears to have been a personality clash. This book seems to be an attempt at settling his old scores with WHO. Throughout it there is a relentless attack on WHO’s HIV/AIDS programs, the main argument being that WHO is wrong in saying that AIDS will affect the general population because, Chin claims, they have overestimated the figures. This book is written in the first person; while appropriate for a biography it does not enhance an academic work. It only shows the one-sided nature of Chin’s arguments and highlights the lack of depth to them. There is little analysing here, only Chin’s singular views. This book does show the dangers of using only one discipline to tackle a complex problem and the narrow findings this can give. All this book offers the reader is number crunching and the rehashing of a very old argument, HIV/AIDS prevention needs to be far more than just that. (This review was originally written as a commission by the Nursing Standard magazine) Find it on Amazon here
  12. “A murder is announced and will take place on Friday October 29th, at Little Paddocks at 6.30 p.m.” So reads the announcement in the Chipping Cleghorn Gazette that morning. That evening, the local neighbours all dutifully turn up at Little Paddocks, all with their different excuses for being there. At 6.30 p.m., without warning, all the lights go out and… This is the beginning of one of Agatha Christie’s most intriguing novels that is firmly rooted in post-war Britain. She chose to set it in the classic, golden age of crime setting of an English country village. But this is a place very changed by the Second World War. No longer is it a place where everyone knows everyone else. This is a place of strangers. The war caused such upheaval; many people left the village, many never to return, and newcomers have moved in, people whom everyone else has to accept are who they claim to be without “knowing their people”. Christie uses this as a strong thread to her plot, are these people even who they say they are? Her intriguing plot is served well by the tone Christie creates in this novel. At first it is light-hearted and almost comic, the surprise and speculation in the characters’ reactions to the announcement of a murder, none of them believing it is anything sinister. Even after the first murder, she maintains this light tone; the victim is a stranger and certainly not a “good type” of person. But slowly the novel darkens; the second murder is too close to home and casts a dark shadow over the story. Christie handles this well; the grief of some of the characters is uncomfortable to read. This novel uses several plots trails that will be familiar to Christie readers, but here she certainly plays around with them. The village setting but with a cast of characters very different from her pre-war novels, her use of sexism to aid her plot and having the detective gather all the suspects together in one place to announce who the murderer is. Christie created this convention with her first novel, though she used it sparingly in her subsequent works nowhere near as much as the film adaptions of her works would lead us to believe. Here, though, it is the police inspector who gathers together the suspects, not Miss Marple, and it is not to unmask the killer but to lay a trap for them. This novel also benefits from having Miss Marple as its detective, rather than Poirot. Poirot was always the star of the novels featuring him, while Miss Marple was so often one of the supporting characters, watching the events from the sidelines. Here Christie uses her to her best, aiding the plot but also giving the other characters chance to breathe by not being in every scene. In the centre of all this is a portrait of a lesbian couple, whom all the other characters except without question. Only at the end, after tragedy has struck, do we see the depth of their love. Agatha Christie might not have been the greatest of literary writers, but what she did do she did so well. She knew how to plot her novels; she created twists that never left the reader feeling cheated. She laid just enough clues so that once the twist occurs you can feel, “Oh that makes sense now.” She also knew the characters she wrote about, the upper middle-class English, though her novels also chronicle the changes in English society. She might not have been the finest descriptive writer but she knew how to create characters with dialog and used that effectively. This certainly is a classic Christie, plot, characters and setting all come together to make a fascinating read. I challenge you to work out who the murderer is, until they are revealed and then it all makes horrible sense. Happy reading Find it here on Amazon
  13. Philip K Dick’s name gained notoriety with a string of Hollywood films, but none of them have done justice to the dark and paranoid worlds created in his books. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (filmed as Blade Runner in 1982) is Dick at his best, combining so many of his favourite themes—post-nuclear war, religion, identity, technology and dis-utopia. It is set in the near future, on an Earth that has suffered a nuclear war but at a high cost. This Earth is dying, everywhere is surrounded by “kibble” (rotting bomb debris), all the animals have died from radiation, people wear lead-lined underwear and anyone successful has emigrated to Mars or beyond. In this world is Dekker, a bounty hunter who is hunting down “replicants” (more artificial copies of humans then robots) who have illegally returned to Earth. Using the structure of a Private Investigator thriller, Dick asks an unsettling question: how do you cope in a world where you can’t tell the real humans from the copies? Many of Dick’s novels have good premises but the plot often doesn’t follow it through, leaving the reader disappointed. With Do Androids… there is no disappointment, the plot lives up to all of the promise of its premise. It has a dark, twisting plot with a truly unsettling ending. The characters here are dark too; the people are worn down by their dying world, they are not the bright and glamorous people of so many science fiction films. When reading this novel, don’t think of the film Blade Runner, they have so little in common. If you’ve never read any of Philip K Dick’s novels then this is an excellent entry into his dark and dis-utopian world; if you’ve encountered him before then this novel is where so many of his most unsettling themes come together.
  14. The premise of this book appears simple; it chronicles the 29 hangings that took place within Kirkdale Prison, Liverpool, until it was closed. But inside that premise lies a fascinating social history. In 1868, an act of parliament stopped all public executions; after that, all capital punishments took place within a prison’s walls, away from the excited crowds of onlookers, and Steven Horton uses this as the starting point of his book, ending when Kirkdale Prison was closed in 1892. He researched the 29 people who were hanged for murder during this time. In each section, in chronological order, Horton outlines the murders, the trials and the executions. At first glance, this book appears to be just another True Crime book, listing the injustices committed by one person against another, but Horton’s research lifts it out of that category. This book provides a fascinating and uncomfortable history of the Victorian working class, looking at so many of the harsh realities of their lives. This isn’t the warm chocolate box portrayal of Victorian society we have been presented with in films, television dramas and badly written novels. Horton highlights the hardships faced by the Victorian working class. Through his descriptions of these murders and trials come some uncomfortable themes, the results of heavy drinking and domestic violence being the two that jumped out. But also the effects of poverty, prostitution and racism are highlighted here. None of these murders are “exciting” or “complicated”, the type that populate True Crime books; they are grubby and sordid, the murderers often being quickly caught. But that is such an important factor here, so often these crimes come from poverty and disappear. Horton illustrates broader Victorian social themes as well. The place of religion in Victorian society. The speed of Victorian justice, sometimes indecently fast. The nature of Victorian street violence and the gangs who attacked casual passers-by. The often self-righteous and moral panic-making nature of the press, especially when they weren’t allowed to witness a hanging inside the prison, which uncomfortably echoed our present-day media. And then there was the incompetent executioner who tied the hangman’s rope too short so that the prisoner didn’t die instantaneously from a broken neck but choked to death, and then in the next execution he tied the rope so long that the prisoner was decapitated. I cannot say this was an enjoyable read, the stories here of human desperation and failings were too sad for that, but this a fascinating read. It gave me so many insights into Victorian society, things I was never taught in my history lessons. This was also another book that ended too soon, Horton’s style of writing and storytelling is easy to read and yet made me want to read more and more from this book. Fortunately, Steven Horton has written five other books, all of which I intend to read. Find Liverpool Murders here on Amazon
  15. For so many of us, Armistead Maupin is known for the Tales of the City series of books. Though set in San Francisco, these books chronicled so many of the changing events of the seventies and eighties in such a personal way. Logical Family is Maupin’s memoir, starting with his birth in very conservative 1940s/1950s North Carolina up to 1970s San Francisco when he first started publishing Tales of the City as a serial in a newspaper. This is an amazing and complicated journey that Maupin tells in an engaging and insightful way. The son of a traditional Southern lawyer, Maupin was born into a very conservative and privileged family, in a home that included a portrait of a Confederate ancestor. He grew up to be the perfect white and conservative son, but his journey away from that world is the fascinating part of this story, and it’s his queerness that started that move, long before he told anyone. His description of his childhood is very evocative, but it is his time in the Navy, posted to Vietnam, that stands out. There are tenderly erotic descriptions of the intimate rituals of Navy life, there are comic moments were Maupin struggles but succeeds in being the last American naval officer to leave Vietnam, and there are the tragic tales as Maupin grapples with his sexuality in the face of the very homophobic atmosphere of 1960s and 1970s America. The greatest and most compelling strand of his story is how his struggles and eventual acceptance of his sexuality changed him as a person, forcing him to reject his conservative upbringing and all its values. This is the best thing that Maupin has written since the last Tales of the City novel. Maupin’s non Tales of the City novels always felt lacklustre, lacking the fun, insight and page-turning enjoyment of those books, as if he was trying to prove himself as a “serious novelist” but not quite succeeding. Logical Family is a breath of fresh air; it is Maupin as the natural storyteller, but one with an important story to tell, and Maupin at his page-turning best again. The worst part of this book was that it ended too early, with Maupin beginning to publish Tales of the City as newspaper serial. I wanted to know what happened to him in the 1970s, the 1980s, and the 1990s as the world around him changed so much. What could he tell us about those times? Please Mr Maupin, can you write a sequel?
  16. Alien invasion is a staple of science fiction and has featured far too many novels and films, but in The Midwich Cuckoos, John Wyndham turns that classic theme into a frighteningly original story that is still disturbing now. The Midwich Cuckoos begins with Richard Gayford (the novel’s narrator) and his wife Janet returning from an evening in London, celebrating his birthday, to the English village of Midwich, where they have recently moved. Midwich is the stereotype of the quiet, sleepy 1950s English country village where nothing unusual ever happens. Except this day Richard and Janet find they cannot enter Midwich, all roads are blocked. So they set off, on foot, across the fields, only for both of them to collapse, unconscious, in their tracks. The army, who are trying to keep everyone out because Midwich is incommunicado, rescues them. Everyone in the village is unconscious, as if they collapsed were they stood, the same happening to anyone trying to enter the village. An invisible force is surrounding the village. This lasts for twenty-two hours and then everyone wakes up as if nothing has happened. Soon it becomes apparent that every woman able to bear children is pregnant—some without the benefit of sexual intercourse. Also, together, the women give birth to beautiful but strange babies, all with blonde hair and golden eyes… There are no bug-eyed aliens or reptilian creatures fighting humans here, instead there are strange children who look and behave like humans but are not. As they grow up, the children begin to show nonhuman-like behaviour, slowly stretching their power over the villagers. As an alien invasion this is an original and disturbing approach, to have humans as hosts for the aliens and trick them into raising and protecting these “cuckoos” in their midst. Also, this is an implied alien invasion; no one names it as such. Wyndham’s novel is a slow burn, slowly and piece by piece giving the reader information, slowly revealing the nature of the children. Yet the characters here are all too real, displaying that all too human trait when faced with the extraordinary of simply accepting it as ordinary. He also taps into one of our fundamental fears, that our children are not our own but have been substituted by changelings. I first read this novel as a teenager and it frightened me; coming back to it as an adult I find it just as disturbing but for different reasons. This invasion almost mimics the way a virus attacks a body. It is such a simple but very original premise. The Midwich Cuckoos is set in 1950s England, when it was written, and so reflects the attitudes and prejudices of the time, children born out of wedlock are a source of shame and class rules everyone’s relationships. This only adds to the atmosphere and feel of this novel, the setting so real that it makes the extraordinary events that slowly unfold seem real as well—only adding to the horror. John Wyndham should be held up there as one of the greats of science fiction, though he seems to have slipped down in people’s memory. If you are new to Wyndham’s works this is an excellent entry into his dark universe. If you read this novel many years ago, give it a new look—it has lost none of its impact and is also now strangely relevant.
  17. Its 1964 and the beginning of summer in the English market town of Kingsmarkham. Margaret Parsons, a shrewish and quiet housewife, disappears from her home. Days later, her murdered body is found in a copse of trees outside of the town. Chief Inspector Wexford leads the enquiry into her death, criss-crossing the almost quintessential Home Counties town to do so. From Doon with Death is not only the first Wexford novel by Ruth Rendell, it is very much a novel of its time. It isn’t just that the characters pay for everything in pounds, shillings and pence, but it is also a world of sexism and social inequality. The murdered woman and her husband live a sparse life with no mod cons, while two rich couples still have servants in their homes, and few women here have jobs other than “housewife”. Rendell herself, in her afterword, says this novel should now be viewed as a historical novel; our world has changed so much since 1964. Unfortunately, this novel also reads very much like a first novel, by a writer still obviously learning their craft. There isn’t the character insight that was such a pleasure of her later novels. The only characterisation here that stood out was that of the murdered woman’s husband as he slowly drowned in grief. The plot also felt slow, with an almost join-the-dots feel to it, and the revelation of the secret passion at the heart of this story might have been daring and shocking in 1964 but I spotted it long before it was revealed. This didn’t have the character-driven twists that made her later novels. What I am grateful for is that this novel was published because it introduced us to the great writer Ruth Rendell would become. She certainly learnt from this novel, the things I found disappointing here are absent from her later novels. I do not know if this is a good place to start reading Rendell’s Wexford novels, maybe Shake Hands Forever, A Sleeping Life or Put On By Cunning would be better places to start. These novels have all the traits that made her a great crime writer and a great writer.
  18. It was no secret that Ruth Rendell also wrote as Barbara Vine. Writing under this pseudonym, she created many gripping psychological thrillers. They are not so much who-did-it as how-they-did-it or why-they-did-it. The House of Stairs is the best example of this. The book opens with a chance meeting between the narrator and Bell, a woman she hasn't seen in over twenty years because Bell has been in prison for murder. The story slips back and forth in time between the 1980s, as the women begin to reforge their relationship, and the 1960s when the events that lead to Bell becoming a killer unfold. The setting is London and Vine/Rendell paints such a vivid picture of 1960s Notting Hill that you can almost taste the counterculture and see people dropping out. The title comes from the Notting Hill house, owned by the flamboyant and eccentric widow Cosette, around which the 1960s section revolves. It’s a tall, narrow house where it seems every room has someone different in it. The house appears as just as strong a character as any of the people who pass through it. The suspense here does not come from wondering who the killer is; we are told almost from the beginning that it is Bell. But rather from the question, “Who is she going to kill?” This also gives the novel a sense of doom as we wait for the inevitable death but don’t know when it is coming or who it will be. The suspense builds as the twists and turns of the complicated relationships between the characters unfold. The characters, with all their faults, failings, and needs, are all too human. They are not mere devices to keep the plot flowing; it is the reverse; the plot comes from them, with their human foibles and shortcomings driving it forward. The main Vine/Rendell take on human relationships is present here; all are equally dysfunctional. From the friendship between the two central women that turns into a secret lesbian affair, to the siblings who appear strangely too close, to the older woman and younger man who may or may not have found true love together. The tale is dark, sinister, repressed, and doom-laden, but also page-turning. The House of Stairs is one of the best Vine/Rendell creations, and, like the best of her work, it is not only a thriller; it is also a contained novel. It paints a picture of 1960s Notting Hill that feels all too real, especially to someone too young to remember it. At the heart of it is a repressed and secret lesbian affair that drives along so many of the events, but that is also one of the most important relationships in at least one of the women's lives. Some people say Rendell’s view of gay and lesbian relationships was homophobic, but I find that she treated all relationships the same and had a cynical view of all of them. For me, I wanted this novel to never end, so involved was I with the characters and their spiralling downward journey, but I also desired to know what was going to happen next, and that pushed me onwards. This is truly a page-turning novel.
  19. Urban legends are fascinating; they say so much about our society and the stories that it runs on. Scott Wood certainly loves urban legends. Scott ran the Southeast London Folklore Society, and it shows in this absorbing book. He doesn’t only write about those common urban legends that have been circulating for years—though they have their space here—but he has also dug deep and found some obscure items, including those that were a flash-in-the-pan in years ago. But what lifts this book above all those other volumes that merely list urban legends is that Scott Wood investigates and analyses each one himself, in person. He looks at the history and origins of each legend and how, many times, they were printed as the truth in newspapers. He also questions the sexism of some of the stories and why it is always a woman in peril in them. This book also works as an alternative history of London because so many of these legends are rooted in the history of the city. They are intensely wrapped up in the urban life of London, and many of them are unique to London life. Scott Wood’s writing style is very readable; for example, it was perfect reading for my daily commute to and from work on the London Tube. He does not talk down to the reader or try to be over-friendly. His aim is to inform us and discuss the urban legends with his audience. The only downside of this book, for me, was that it ended too soon. Scott Wood knows his subject and took a refreshingly cynical look at these urban legends. I can always hope for a sequel.
  20. Arkansas is a collection of three novellas that show David Leavitt at his best, exploring the lives and emotions of his characters. The first story is The Term Paper Artist, which is the closest he has come to writing a sex comedy. The narrator is a disgraced novelist who is hiding at the home of his professor father. He soon becomes involved in accepting sexual favours from jock-students in return for writing English literary essays for them. Soon, word spreads, and he has several jocks and essays on the go at the same time. This being a David Leavitt story, it isn't a fun, rushed tale of sexed-up jocks and Eng. Lit. essays; rather the story is about a writer with writer's block and the strange course of events that releases it. Next is The Wooden Anniversary. Here, David Leavitt revisits two characters, Celia and Nathan, who have been featured in his previous short story collections. Celia is now living in Italy and running an Italian Cookery School for Americans. Nathan is visiting her with an old friend, Lizzy, a narrator who is always the last person to know anything. The reunion is not a happy one. Celia is married, but her husband prefers to spend most of his time with his mistress, and Nathan is still desperately searching for a lover, which he has been doing his entire adult life. The friends go sightseeing in the local area, there's a little holiday romance, and then the fireworks erupt. In typical David Leavitt style, this is a slow-burn story that only explodes at the end. This next Celia and Nathan story can feel like one is revisiting old friends or perhaps witnessing an unwelcome soap opera, depending on how one warms to them. Personally, I find them fascinating as they illustrate David Leavitt's take on the disasters of human relationships. You don’t have to had read any of the other stories featuring these characters to enjoy this one. The last novella is Saturn Street. Out of all the novellas, this one is the strongest, carrying its narrator on a greater emotional journey than the previous two. Jerry Roth, a writer lost in Hollywood, narrates Saturn Street. He has come to Hollywood to work on his screenplay, but instead, he sits around his apartment watching Dr Delia (a TV psychotherapist he never calls) and formalist gay porn videos (which he doesn’t find erotic). To break the monotony, he volunteers with Angels, a charity that supplies daily meals to people with Aids in LA. His regular round takes in a mixed bag of people, including a man who only wears orange sneakers and an IV. One of the characters he visits is Phil, a handsome ex-carpenter. Soon, Jerry falls in quiet, unrequited love with Phil. This isn’t the world of grand passions; Jerry and Phil don’t end up rolling across the carpet in hot sex, nor do they end together as a couple. Instead, Jerry quietly and secretly loves Phil as Phil’s health deteriorates. This is the territory where David Leavitt excels, with the small passions of everyday life. He carefully and empathetically charts Jerry’s unrequited love and how this moves him on in his life, but more sensitively, he describes the physical downward spiral of Phil’s health. This story shows David Leavitt’s great strength, charting modern-day gay life, and though this story has no great plot, the emotional journey of it more than carried me along. Arkansas shows David Leavitt’s power in mapping the emotional life of urban gay men and all the highs and lows that come with that. Though no grand passions, the emotions here have that sharp taste of reality. Don’t be put off by this book being made up of three novellas; David Leavitt packs much more into each one than lesser writers do into whole novels.
  21. It’s the mid-1970s, Northwest London, and an old town house has been divided up into bedsits and small flats. In one of the flats lives Arthur Johnson, a dull middle-aged bookkeeper. A repressed and socially awkward man, who never learnt how to talk to women, he hides a darker and violent side, but he keeps it in check by strangling the “woman” hidden in the house’s cellar. Then Anthony Johnson, a doctoral psychology student in his early twenties, who accidentally shares the same surname, moves into one of the house’s bedsits. These two men’s lives collide as Anthony literally unearths Arthur’s secrets. This novel is Ruth Rendell at her best. The plot is seen from the point of view of Arthur Johnson and Anthony Johnson, but the other characters who populate the lodging house are just as lonely and dysfunctional as Arthur Johnson, yet their lives are desperate in different ways. But it is Anthony Johnson, in his innocent and almost naive way, who changes the equilibrium of Arthur Johnson’s life, causing things to spiral out of control and leading to violence and murder, in a dark plot that Rendell handles all too well. Here she captures the dark and grubby life of mid-1970s London; a world of corner shops, self-service laundrettes, overflowing dust bins and lack of amenities. What Rendell captures even more is the inner workings of a psychopath. Not just why this man wants to and feels he needs to kill, but also the childhood sadism that led to the development of his psychopath personality. She seems to know this far too well. This novel has a theme that Rendell would return to in many different ways in other novels, an innocent person accidentally and unwittingly setting off a chain of events that will lead to tragedy, but it is still a shockingly original novel with an unnerving portrayal of a psychopath. A novel to be read at least with the doors locked, if not the lights left on too. Find it here on Amazon
  22. A Catholic priest is murdered on his way home, after hearing the confession of a dying woman. Mark Easterbrook witnesses a cat-fight between two young women in a Chelsea coffee bar, one woman pulling the other woman’s hair out by the roots. Later, he finds out that woman has died. Later still, he learns that his godmother’s name is on a list of dead people found on the murdered priest’s body, but she died from natural causes. Mark Easterbrook gets drawn into a world of spells, curses and murder for hire, where three witches live in a house that was once a pub called The Pale Horse. This novel is much more of an adventure mystery, rather than her usual murder mystery novels, the style of novel Christie developed at the beginning of her career and returned to periodically throughout it. Here the adventure centres around black magic and the supernatural, which was popular at the time in other novels, and a murder-for-hire scheme for people to “dispose” of unwanted relatives. This should be a great Christie novel, the murder-for-hire scheme is truly ingenious and her use of poison shows her old knowledge and skill for getting her details right where poison is concerned. Christie also captures the changing world of the early 1960s, it was published in 1961. She effectively captures the atmosphere of the beginnings of swinging London, especially in the description of a late-night coffee shop in Chelsea. She captures the changing nature of country life too. Unfortunately, the sum of this novel’s parts does not make up for its structural faults. The biggest problem is at the heart of this novel. Mark Easterbrook, the narrator for most of it, is too dull a character. He reacts to events around him, rather than initiating the action. He is supposed to be investigating a series of murders and yet so many of his leads come to him by accident or coincidence. The plot itself relies too much on coincidence, things coming together by accident. Easterbrook discovers The Pale Horse house, and the three witches who inhabit it, completely by accident. There are also detours away from the novel’s plot that seem to add nothing to it. A prime example of this is where Easterbrook and Mrs Dane Calthrop (a vicar’s wife who first appeared in the Christie novel The Moving Finger) discuss the nature of evil. This may have been fascinating for Christie to write but added so little to the actual story. Christie is to be applauded for trying something different this late in her career. She could have just churned out more Poirot and Marple novels, but she chose to write a different style of mystery story. The premise is certainly ingenious, it is just a shame that the plot isn’t tighter and the narrator more engaging. Find it here on Amazon
  23. Betty Forbes has a handsome and well-dressed new husband, Graham. The problem is that Graham would rather watch Footballers with Their Shirts Off, on late-night television, than go to bed with his new wife. Graham does not want anyone finding out that he “isn’t the marrying kind,” especially his wife or his mother. This all generates a plot of sex, lies and blackmail in West Yorkshire. This short story is Alan Bennett’s take on a sex comedy; unfortunately, it is low on sex and the comedy often misses the mark. Bennett has always been best when he is writing about people he knows, people he has grown up with and/or lived around. Here he is writing about the new middle class, the people whose parents prospered under Thatcher and have now moved into the middle class, living in their new out-of-town housing developments (just don’t call them estates), and he just doesn’t know these people well enough to get under their skin and make his characters live. The characters here feel flat and the plot does not have the real feeling I am used to with Bennett’s writing. The characters feel as if they are there to serve the plot, rather than the plot coming out of their actions, and the plot just took one too many unrealistic turns. This story just failed to score a bullseye, though it doesn’t fully miss its target. Anything by Alan Bennett is worth reading, he isn’t the waste of time and effect I can feel trying to read lesser writers, but sadly this isn’t one of his top-level stories. It is a fun read but doesn’t provide the insight and depth that stories like The Uncommon Reader and The Lady in the Van did. Find it here on Amazon
  24. In post-war New York, seventeen-year-old Grady McNeil is left alone in her parents’ expensive Fifth Avenue penthouse for the summer, while her parents holiday in Paris, before Grady’s season as a debutant. Once her parents are on their ocean liner to Europe, Grady ignores her older sister Apple and begins to run around New York as a free spirit. She has been carrying on a secret relationship with Clyde, a working-class young man from Brooklyn. Now her parents are gone she is able to turn up the heat on this relationship, ignoring the rich young man from her own social class who is also romantically interested in her. This is Truman Capote’s lost first novel, which might not have been finished, which could explain its very strange ending, and it was only discovered and published after his death. This is a very slight novel, both in number of pages and insight into its characters. Grady comes across as an overly privileged and spoilt young woman who seems to have little concern for those around her. Her relationship with Clyde feels more of a distraction than anything serious. Her behaviour, though not commented as such by Capote, feels selfish and self-centred, a distraction from her bored and privileged life. This book has nothing new or original to offer on this subject. There have been many other books about the gilded rich New York socialites, before and after this one, and several of them have offered much more insight than this one and have certainly painted deeper portraits of their characters. Is the problem here that Capote was writing about a world he wanted to belong to rather than one he knew about? Sometimes novels are unfinished or lost for a reason and it is best that they stay that way. I’m afraid this was the case here. At least Capote would go on to write much better books and they’re the ones we should read. Find it here on Amazon
  25. Nick Nowak is back in three mysteries that follow directly on from the first book. It is the second half of 1981 and Nowak has three new cases to solve. Firstly, he is hired by a defence attorney whose client is refusing to help in his own defence. Next, he is hired to find the killer of a porn star. The last story sees Nowak searching for the only survivor of that most American of crimes, a serial killer. These are tight and involving mysteries and on their own would be interesting reads, but again the joy here is Nick Nowak’s life, which also fills these stories. He is now in a relationship with Detective Bert Harker and dealing with having a lover in the profession that has excluded Nowak. But he also has to deal with the return of his ex, Daniel Laverty, the first man he loved. Nowak handles this all poorly, doing the wrong thing as he realises he’s doing it. This makes the character all too real. He’s not a hero, he’s a real character and very flawed; he still carries a chip on his shoulder for the deeply homophobic treatment he received when he was thrown out of the Chicago police force. He also has a bad habit of sleeping with clients, witnesses and the wrong people. He is also the narrator of these stories and his voice is refreshingly original. These stories are firmly set in a time and place. Chicago is so prominent here that it’s almost an extra character. It is also set in 1981; Nowak and Harper discuss the emergence of AIDS in America via obscure newspaper stories about gay men coming down with strange cancers. Marshall Thornton has hit on a great detective story series with Nick Nowak, interesting mysteries, character development and a story arc for a personable narrator, with all his flaws. Fortunately, there are a lot more books in this series. Find it here on Amazon
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